All the way to Calais

A. J. Mackin­non at­tempts to cross the English Chan­nel aboard the good dinghy Jack de Crow

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - News -

T was on the 10th day of May that I made the cross­ing, a day in which the el­e­ments so com­bined that all the world could stand up and say, ‘‘ This is the day to cross.’’ I needed a wind strong and steady enough to al­low me to move swiftly through the wa­ter and cover the 35km across the English Chan­nel be­fore night­fall, and yet not so strong that I would be in dan­ger of cap­siz­ing. The day also needed to be warm and clear, to en­able me to stay com­fort­ably in the open and to see where I was go­ing — poor vis­i­bil­ity would spell dis­as­ter — and yet a bliss­ful calm would be equally dis­as­trous, leav­ing me idly adrift in mid-Chan­nel with only my oars to pro­pel me out of the way of the tankers and fer­ries that ply the waves with fe­ro­cious speed. This day was it.

At about 10am I un­tie from the shel­tered pon­toon be­neath the har­bour wall and row to­wards the har­bour mouth. Be­fore I am even half­way, there is a breeze suf­fi­cient to war­rant haul­ing up the sail and I glide smoothly across the gen­tle swell of wa­ter to­wards the en­trance be­tween its con­crete moles. The com­pass dial is set to the ex­act de­gree I must fol­low, 125 de­grees, so all I have to do is steer in such a way that the quiv­er­ing red nee­dle is kept point­ing to the large red N on the dial and I know that Jack will be point­ing its nose at Calais some­where over there be­yond the hori­zon.

The wind is what ev­ery sailor prays for, com­ing straight on the beam from the north­east, bal­anc­ing the boat beau­ti­fully and send­ing it along with the op­ti­mum speed and se­cu­rity. Yes, there is the oc­ca­sional gust that sends a fine ar­row-flight of spray into my eyes and face, to be wiped laugh­ingly away. Yes, there is the odd rogue wave that catches us un­awares and dol­lops into the bilges a lump of sea wa­ter, there to slosh and swish about my shoes un­til I can bail it out again. But th­ese are no more than the spice on the ad­ven­ture, re­as­sur­ing, friendly knocks to re­mind me that this is in­trepid stuff, this is real, this is re­mark­able.

It is dif­fi­cult to keep watch­ing be­hind me for the White Cliffs dwin­dling astern. One minute they are there, faded blue and hazy white. The next time I turn around, they are gone. I am out of sight of all land, ringed by the wide hori­zon, and there is noth­ing to show where Eng­land has van­ished to nor that be­fore me lies the vast Con­ti­nent. I am at the very cen­tre of a huge green-grey plate about 8km wide, and licked clean and empty of ev­ery liv­ing morsel but my­self.

It soon oc­curs to me that the sea re­ally is rather empty, es­pe­cially as this par­tic­u­lar stretch is sup­posed to be the busiest ship­ping lane in the world. Not only should there be all the traf­fic steam­ing up and down the Chan­nel but surely there should also have been a few crossChan­nel craft by now. But no. Far, far off to the south is a tiny dot on the hori­zon that might just be a ship and there is a vaguer smudge ahead that might even be land, but of all else the sea is empty. There is just me, my com­pass and the thrum­ming rig­ging. Ac­tu­ally, this thrum­ming has be­gun to baf­fle me a lit­tle. It has grown dis­tinctly louder in the past few min­utes. I glance around, scan­ning the hori­zon and the skies for any sign of an­other craft that could be re­spon­si­ble, but there is noth­ing.

The snarl has be­gun to crescendo and ev­ery rope and stay seems to be vi­brat­ing like a manic set of harp strings, with the whin­ing roar echo­ing from all about, sea and sky and wooden hull. I am be­gin­ning to won­der if this is what vic­tims of the Ber­muda Tri­an­gle wit­ness be­fore be­ing car­ried to their doom, when a pan­icky glance over my shoul­der re­veals its source. There, just a kilo­me­tre or so from my dinghy, is a Sea Cat. In two min­utes flat it has hur­tled past in a snarling cloud of spray just 100m to the south of me and dis­ap­peared over the hori­zon, leav­ing the sea as empty as it was be­fore but still with that noise re­ver­ber­at­ing from the sky on ev­ery side.

It leaves me in a state of wide-eyed, stiff-backed so­bri­ety, re­al­is­ing for the first time that day just what a pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion I am in. The speed of th­ese Sea Cats is deadly, and had I been di­rectly in its course there would have been no chance of it spot­ting me in time to avoid a col­li­sion. As I re­call, there are an­other four or five such craft due to make the cross­ing to­day, quite apart from the ones re­turn­ing to Dover or leav­ing out of Rams­gate.

There is noth­ing to be done but to keep sail­ing on­ward; the sooner I get to the other side, the bet­ter. Mean­while, that faintest of specks on the south­ern hori­zon has ma­te­ri­alised into a large orange tanker churn­ing its way up­Chan­nel, and I am able to see at first­hand how fast th­ese ships move as well.

Mean­while, the wind is grow­ing brisker and the waves big­ger but it is noth­ing that Jack and I can­not han­dle. An hour ago we passed a large green buoy and I guessed that it might be one of the ones I had seen ear­lier on a chart mark­ing the ship­ping chan­nel. I es­ti­mate that soon we should be pass­ing a buoy mark­ing the fur­ther side of the 5km-wide high­way and then I can start rea­son­ably look­ing for signs of Calais.

An hour later and I am puz­zled by the fail­ure of any buoy to ap­pear. I have just had to dodge yet an­other tanker, a large rusty freighter with Cyril­lic let­ter­ing on its hull, close enough to feel the tem­per of its wash, so am prob­a­bly still in the main chan­nel. I do not know ex­actly how fast Jack de Crow trav­els but I would es­ti­mate about 5km/h to 6km/h in this wind. I have been trav­el­ling for five hours now, and I re­ally am ex­pect­ing to see signs of Europe. It is quite a large place, I be­lieve.

I see a kilo­me­tre or so ahead a large buoy and breathe a sigh of re­lief. I am more than half­way across. Be­yond and to the right of it, I can also see yet an­other large ship mov­ing north­wards. Some­thing strikes me as odd about the ship’s mo­tion: it would al­most ap­pear to be sail­ing back­wards, blunt end first, as it drifts along the far hori­zon past the buoy in the fore­ground. And then, like Tweety Bird in the car­toon, I find my­self ex­claim­ing out loud, ‘‘ It is! It is! It is mov­ing stern first, naughty puddy tat!’’ and won­der at the sheer ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity of th­ese Rus­sian freighters that not only steer out­side the main ship­ping chan­nel but also try clever stunts such as sail­ing back­wards, all tanked up on vodka, no doubt, tut, tut.

It is only when I have left the buoy be­hind me and am ap­proach­ing the back­wards freighter that I dis­cover an­other anom­aly. It has a large an­chor chain slop­ing at an an­gle into the sea. It is, in fact, at rest. As is the buoy, pre­sum­ably. Urr? A few min­utes later I have worked it out. There is in­deed a tide, a cur­rent car­ry­ing me north­ward al­most as fast as I can sail east-south­east­ward. Al­ready the buoy that I have left more than a kilo­me­tre be­hind me is in fact about a kilo­me­tre south of me as well. De­spite all my care with the com­pass and keep­ing an­gled con­sis­tently into the wind and the waves, noth­ing that I have done has com­pen­sated for the strong cur­rent car­ry­ing me all this time up the Chan­nel.

That is why it has taken me so long to cross the main chan­nel, why ships have sailed back­wards against buoys in the fore­ground, and why— mer­ci­fully, I now re­alise — I have not been mown down by ev­ery Sea Cat and cross-Chan­nel ferry out of Dover. They have been ply­ing their di­rect route straight across be­tween Dover and Calais, un­hin­dered by this petty piece of match­wood that has pur­sued its own di­ag­o­nal course out of harm’s way.

For this un­wit­ting mercy, I am grate­ful, and alive to­day, but it still leaves me with the prob­lem of be­ing adrift I know not where in the English Chan­nel and with the hours of day­light short­en­ing. That I have drifted north, I am now sure. But how far? What course must I take to reach Calais? Res­o­lutely I turn south and hope for the best.

Af­ter only half an hour of sail­ing, steer­ing an un­easy course be­tween due south and south­east, I am in luck. There ahead of me and off to the left is a long dark smudge on the hori­zon. It is in­dis­tinct but there seem to be sev­eral tall chim­neys and blocks that could well be fac­to­ries or the sky­scrapers of Calais (does Calais have sky­scrapers?). I steer to­wards the long, low mass with a feel­ing of re­lief. That could have been a dis­as­ter, I tell my­self firmly. It’s only when ‘‘ Calais’’ is near enough for me to see it clearly that it re­veals it­self as not the gate­way to a con­ti­nent but as yet an­other tanker, an­chored in mid-Chan­nel.

It is enor­mous, about the size of Lux­em­bourg in fact, but it is not land. My heart sinks. How far have I come off course to dis­cover this phan­tasm? Where now is Europe? Apart from the vast bulk of the ship, the hori­zon is ut­terly empty. I might as well be in the mid­dle of the At­lantic Ocean.

With grim res­o­lu­tion I turn south­ward once more.

An­other 10 min­utes ush­ers in a new and promis­ing streak of tow­ered grey on the hori­zon, this time off to the east. Half an hour later, this too has re­solved it­self into the shape of a vast tanker and I am be­gin­ning to de­spair. The sun is quite def­i­nitely wes­t­er­ing and I am zig-zag­ging around the open sea in a tiny dinghy like a blowfly on a win­dow­pane. I have by now lost any real sense of where Europe should be and I re­alise that very soon I am go­ing to have to do some­thing ab­surd. I am go­ing to have to approach one of th­ese tankers — there are now two or three an­chored around me— sail my tiny ves­sel up to the beetling iron cliff of its hull (some­how avoid­ing be­ing dashed to pieces by the swell of waves on steel) and knock on the side to try to at­tract the at­ten­tion of some­one aboard.

I will prob­a­bly have to knock quite hard. What I will do once I have their at­ten­tion, I am not quite sure. They will, af­ter all, be about 30m above me and pos­si­bly Rus­sian. Will they un­der­stand me when I call up in a tremu­lous voice: ‘‘ Er . . . ex­cuse me. Sorry to bother you, but could you tell me the way to Calais?’’ This is an edited ex­tract from The Un­like­lyVoy­a­ge­ofJack­deCrow by A. J. Mackin­non (Black Inc, $32.95), which will be launched at the Melbourne Writ­ers Fes­ti­val on Au­gust 31.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.