Learn­ing from ex­pe­ri­ence

For­mer RCC Vice-com­modore Paul Heiney picks up an un­wel­come hanger-on mo­tor­ing home from Bel­gium

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents -

Writer and broad­caster Paul Heiney on a North Sea scare

Iwas look­ing for­ward to rekin­dling an old friend­ship with the North Sea. It was here, on the East Coast, at North Fam­bridge on the River Crouch, where I’d taught my­self to sail and from where I set off in my 17-footer on those early brave voy­ages to ex­otic places such as Brightlingsea, and then, in an ad­ven­ture of un­prece­dented pro­por­tions, even to the Wal­ton Back­wa­ters.

I hap­pily sailed the East Coast for three or four years, but my wife Libby fi­nally per­suaded me that it was worth glanc­ing at what the west had to of­fer, and she was right. Af­ter the Maplin Sands, the Buxey and the tidal tor­rent of the Wal­let, ev­ery­thing down west seemed so ma­jes­tic and in­spir­ing, and eas­ier. I missed the sin­is­ter names, though, like the Fish­er­man’s Gat, Swin Spit­way and Black Deep – names over­flow­ing with threat. Worse, you were never cer­tain ex­actly where they were, or how deep they would be when you got there. Tricky places, like so many on the East Coast.

Down west, I dis­cov­ered that rocks stand still and even peer above the wa­ter at you (mostly), and could be ap­proached with some cer­tainty. Mau­rice Grif­fiths (a Royal Cruis­ing Club mem­ber) was right when he wrote of the magic of the swatch­ways, but the tricks they per­form can some­times go hor­ri­bly wrong on you. I wasn’t sorry when my love of the East Coast fiz­zled out. The af­fair was over.

Thirty years later I crossed the Thames Es­tu­ary again, in the dark, to bring Wild Song, my Vic­to­ria 38, into South­wold Har­bour in Suffolk, which is within walk­ing dis­tance of where we live. She was booked in for what I thought would be a ‘wash and brush up’ but it evolved – over a very ex­pen­sive win­ter – into a com­plete re­moval of the keel and re­place­ment of the en­gine, and my wal­let has car­ried con­sid­er­ably less bal­last since. Only by late April was she ready for the off once again, the des­ti­na­tion be­ing the Bel­gium Meet in Os­tend.

Libby was with me, and James Mor­row who is an East Coast sailor, so I had good com­pany. Even so, with a de­cent fore­cast

and a stout and re­vi­talised lit­tle ship, I felt some­what ner­vous.

I re­mem­bered back to my early North Sea days and, while it was true that I’d had some good times here­abouts, I had some hugely lousy ones too. The chop in the North Sea is short, the waves can be al­most square in pro­file, you can bang into each of the them with the force of a run­away train hit­ting the buf­fers. And the wa­ter is de­press­ing; there is no deep, ocean blue which I have be­come used to in re­cent years, and in­stead a thick brown soup which may well be rich in his­tory but is hardly in­spir­ing. And then there’s the hori­zon, un­bro­ken by any nat­u­ral fea­ture. I find some magic in the slow dis­ap­pear­ance of dis­tant hills and moun­tains, and the wel­come they give when they first ap­pear some hours be­fore your ar­rival. On the East Coast, though, there is only the misty out­line of the cranes on Felixs­towe Docks to wave you good­bye, and on the far side the only sight will be the belch of the oil re­finer­ies that string out along the coast of Europe.

Bel­gium bound

We mo­tored for the first few hours in light airs to make the Outer Gab­bard, then dodged round the end of the new Sunk sep­a­ra­tion scheme which is the near­est any wa­ter­way in the world has got to a Spaghetti Junc­tion, and then to the south-east to po­si­tion our­selves for a per­pen­dic­u­lar cross­ing of the North Hin­der ship­ping lane. By now I was re­mem­ber­ing how time-con­sum­ing all these North Sea doglegs can be, and how easy those point and shoot pas­sages from the West Coun­try to France.

With our de­sired course now to the south-east, it was in­evitable that the breeze would get up from that very di­rec­tion, and through the night it strength­ened only re­quir­ing us to take one reef but suf­fi­cient to throw up those nasty lit­tle wind-against-tide chops that seems to be the first weapon of choice in the North Sea. One by one we were soon hunched over the sick bucket, though grate­ful for a small mercy as the wind shifted a point or two to al­low us to fetch the Os­tend har­bour mouth to ar­rive in time for break­fast. It was grat­i­fy­ing to see a de­cent fleet al­ready gath­ered, for al­though it had been my ini­tial idea that we should go to Os­tend to re­mem­ber those mem­bers of the Royal Cruis­ing Club who served and were lost in the first World War, I was far from cer­tain how many mem­bers might feel the same about it as I did. In the end, the idea paid off. This was in no small part due to the or­gan­i­sa­tional skills of Stephen Len­nane who car­ried the con­sid­er­able ad­min­is­tra­tive bur­den. It was a re­lief to see

‘The chop in the North Sea is short, the waves can be al­most square in pro­file’

the ob­vi­ous ten­sion on his face drain away as the week­end pro­gressed.

And then it was time to face the North Sea again. The de­mands of work had forced Libby to re­turn early and so it was left to me and James to make the pas­sage. Twelve hours be­fore de­par­ture I made the mis­take of get­ting out my phone and look­ing at the GRIBs which showed the wind was shift­ing re­lent­lessly into the north-east, our de­sired course. A head­wind one way is an in­con­ve­nience, but to suf­fer one both ways seemed like mal­ice on the part of some­one.

Fel­low yacht Tin­fish left at some ridicu­lously early hour, but this ship prefers a good cup of con­ti­nen­tal cof­fee ashore and a prop­erly baked crois­sant be­fore de­par­ture, so it was mid-morn­ing when the lines were dropped and with one reef we faced the north-east wind, bound for South­wold once again.

Some­where off the West Hin­der the wind went mer­ci­fully round to the east, just a lit­tle, but enough to lift the spir­its and en­able us to make progress. Strangely, it is on short hops like these that I find head­winds most frus­trat­ing. On an ocean you take what you’re given in the safe knowl­edge that within the next 36 hours you’ll have some­thing dif­fer­ent, but when the dis­tances are short you know that this is how things are go­ing to be till you get there, and it can dull the spir­its.

By dusk we were more than half­way across, had crossed the North Hin­der traf­fic lane and were mak­ing our way back up the Outer Gab­bard. By now the wind was fail­ing and the en­gine was on, motor-sail­ing against the foul tide, the progress still good, and it was clear we’d be off South­wold far to early get through the shal­low en­trance. How fool­ish to al­low such a thought to en­ter my head.

Nui­sance net

Sup­per was taken as the costly but steady drone of the brand new en­gine drove us on­wards. And then, round about cof­fee time, it stopped. Dead. It didn’t cough or splut­ter, or of­fer any of those signs that a dy­ing usu­ally en­gine makes, it just stopped. I put it in neu­tral, turned the key, and she burst into life. Good. Then I slid her back into gear again, and she froze once more. Not so good. I looked over the side. We were trail­ing a long length of blue, lu­mi­nous fish­ing net, as long as the boat and in other cir­cum­stances quite a pretty sight as the blue strands wafted in the sun­set. There was clearly no way of re­mov­ing it, de­spite a ver­bal out­burst at the use­less­ness of the rope cut­ter that had just been ex­pen­sively in­stalled.

We bore away to see what kind of a course we could make and thought, with the help of the turn­ing tide, we might make it to Har­wich. Like a trawler now, we dragged this net be­hind us and as the hours passed the course fell away and with a wind farm be­tween us an our des­ti­na­tion we un­der­took yet another frus­trat­ing di­ver­sion. The hours ticked by. We were down to less than 2 knots to­wards our des­ti­na­tion. There was no pos­si­bil­ity of beat­ing against the ebb tide in the River Or­well, where Lev­ing­ton Ma­rina would give us refuge, so by dawn we an­chored off the Pye End buoy and grabbed some sleep while the tide turned.

The Pye End buoy, which marks the start of the chan­nel to the Wal­ton Back­wa­ters, is fa­mously a dif­fi­cult buoy to spot and I re­marked to James, over cof­fee a cou­ple of hours later, that it had done its dis­ap­pear­ing trick again. And it had. We were adrift, an­chor drag­ging as the tide caught hold of the drogue-like mass of net­ting at­tached to the prop. We were head­ing speed­ily for the vast shoal to the south of us. James had the main­sail up faster than a rocket could have lifted it. The yan­kee ex­ploded from the furler and the helm went up to gather way. There was now less than the thick­ness of a fiver be­tween the keel and the hard sand be­neath. I put the helm over and, by great for­tune, she tacked and we were able to sail into deeper wa­ter. That felt good. We even­tu­ally picked up a moor­ing un­der sail and awaited res­cue by the ma­rina launch.

On lift­ing, it be­came clear that what we had been drag­ging was not just any old piece of net but a ma­jor chunk of a trawler­man’s trade. A crowd gath­ered to watch it be­ing cut free. It hung from the pro­pel­ler as long a bride’s train, and the en­tire mass took two bigs blokes to lift it.

I sailed back to South­wold a cou­ple of days later and de­cided that it was time to close the book on the North Sea for good. It was try­ing to tell me some­thing. When I left a cou­ple of weeks later I turned sharp left at the har­bour mouth, bound for Ice­land, in­tent on putting the Thames Es­tu­ary be­hind me for­ever.

‘We were trail­ing a long length of blue, lu­mi­nous fish­ing net’

Os­tend yacht har­bour in Bel­gium – Paul Heiney’s des­ti­na­tion for his North Sea cross­ing

The North Sea can be a chal­leng­ing place for small boats

the misty out­lines of cranes at Felix­towe Docks

the enor­mous net that be­came en­tan­gled to hang from Wild Song’s pro­pel­ler

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