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