The stars shine in the night sky above the tricolour as ‘Talisker 1’ glides through the darkness. The windex arrow, lit by the tricolour, points just in front of the beam to port. Under full main and genoa the north easterly 8 to 10 knot wind caresses the sails. She is touching 7 knots through the water. It’s a warm September night and I feel the magic in the air. The ship is powerful again after her scrub. I have my boat back!
At sea level the picture is daunting. The scene surrounding ‘Talisker 1’ could be city lights and one must concentrate. We are 15 nautical miles from Oostende and the lights of the Belgium coast are bright. Off our starboard quarter I can just make out the industrial stacks of Dunkerque belching smoke. Before my first sail to Belgium, many years ago, Graham Bush had told me that you could clearly see the tall buildings in Oostende for hours and hours before you finally arrived. The lights of Nieupoorte and Oostende have been visible for some time already.
Ahead there is a new anchorage to sail through. Lights surround us in every direction and it takes all my concentration to distinguish what they are. It’s not only ships but installations of every kind. The lights on shore confuse matters further when looking towards the land. Oh for an open dark ocean on a clear starlit night with nothing to worry about.
Once through the new anchorage I spot five fishing vessels. AIS confirms their identity. They will alter course often, so to get through those is another challenge.
It’s nearly midnight when five minutes from the Pier Heads I furl the genoa and start the engine. Once through the harbour entrance an inbound Pilot Boat charges past within the mole. The main comes down inside the port and we motor gently into the Royal North Sea YC dock and come alongside … stern first
This was a good moment. I had managed to do a twelve hour stint. I would not have thought that possible six weeks ago.
However far I’ve sailed each year I’ve never missed a southern North Sea crossing except in 2020, the year of Covid. Some years there have been as much as three cruises to the continent, but never less than one.
Earlier in the day I’d awoken in Suffolk Yacht Harbour. The day before she’d been on the scrubbing posts and I’d been home to get my pressure washer.
I went on board on the 17th September. Matt, our wonderful Orford Harbour Master, had delivered me and my gear to ‘Talisker 1’ on her mooring.
It took some time to stow my gear and I decided to leave the river the following day. After all I had given myself a window of two to three weeks for a very late summer cruise.
Doc was on board ‘Tuesday’. James Robinson came out to ‘Talisker 1’ for a chat with us both.
Left to my own devices I made a plan for the following day. We’d sail to the Stour and see how we felt.
A further two weeks of no sailing had taken a further tole on ‘Talisker 1’. Leaving the mooring under power she barely made 3 knots at 2,500 revs and we struggled to leave the river even with a north westerly 4 to 5. Without the winds I doubt we would have got out against the flood.
At sea I called Suffolk Yacht Harbour. The boat was not herself, her bottom obviously badly fouled. The scrubbing posts were going to be free. I arrived just before high water after a tortuous sail down the coast at a snail’s pace.
A boat with a fouled bottom becomes difficult to handle and no joy at all. ‘Talisker 1’ was extremely unhappy, shackled as she was.
I did not see the evidence at low water midnight but the following day all was revealed. The propeller was covered with barnacles and the underneath was very badly fouled.
Soon after low water ‘Talisker 1’ had a smooth bottom, a clean boot top and an immaculate propeller. I was pleased to see that the white grease, made with lithium, was still thick on the cogs of the folding Bruntons propeller.
Peter Buchan arrived late afternoon for a cup of tea.
I was disturbed as we were now bang on neaps. She had not quite floated on the early morning high water.
It was going to be touch and go to get off the posts.
Just before high water it was clear she was still aground. Without Peter’s encouragement I would have stayed. By Peter rocking the ship and encouraging hard astern, she started to move and to my amazement she suddenly slid off the concrete pad and into deep water.
The other immediate reminder was how light and responsive she was to the touch. A tiny bit of helm and throttle and the response was instant. Bliss.
Now this was the way to enjoy the next couple of weeks.
Yesterday I had no plans when I woke in Suffolk Yacht Harbour but a study of Windy.com told me that what I’d expected for the rest of the week had pretty much changed. My plan to sail to Ramsgate and then to Oostende was a non starter. There would be light north westerly winds but they would build and veer later as we neared the Belgian and French coast. If I was not to miss Oostende this year I had to go that day.
Leaving Suffolk Yacht Harbour we were making 6.5 knots at 1,800 revs. The ship was gliding.
It was an uneventful crossing bar one incident. And utterly wonderful for the last two to three hours as we approached our destination.
We crossed the Noord Hinder South TSS SW direction traffic lane. The visibility was perfect.
The actual lanes are each approximately 5 nautical miles wide. The central reservation is 2 nautical miles wide. I could see traffic to starboard on the NE direction traffic lane.
There was a sole ship, ‘BBC Weser’, on the northern side of the lane and 4 bunched on the southern side of the lane. As I entered the lane I was clearly going to pass well ahead of ‘BBC Weser’ on the northern side. With her starboard side showing clearly off my starboard quarter, I concentrated on the 4. The nearest ship was ‘Danica Hav’ and tucked in off her starboard quarter was ‘Giant Ace’. ‘Acti A’ and ‘Danica Sunrise’ were astern and slightly beyond ‘Giant Ace’.
My CPA on ‘Danica Hav’ was 0.0. I must pass astern of them all. I needed to let ‘Danica Hav’ know what I proposed to do.
Calling on 16 I suggested 06 and our exchange began.
“‘Danica Hav’ Sailing vessel ‘Talisker 1’. My intention is to turn to port, run parallel to your course and when you are past me, to pass astern of you … over”.
“Do not turn to port … you can’t pass in front of me … its very dangerous. You must turn to starboard and pass astern of me … over”.
I repeated my intentions but there was no question of any understanding. Against all rules I turned to starboard and ran down the lane between ‘BBC Weser’ and ‘Danica Hav’ and passed astern of the 4 ships. I had contravened a fundamental rule not to travel in a TSS in the wrong direction.
My friend Pieter had not missed this manoeuvre when we met for lunch in Oostende the following day. Pieter’s son Aster joined us and both are merchant seaman although neither work in the industry anymore.
I said I could not understand why the watch officer had not understood my intention. Both agreed that my intention was correct, given the circumstances. But Aster said that perhaps the language barrier had got in the way. The watch officer had heard me say turn to port and that perhaps he had gone on red alert and missed the rest.
My TSS crossings have been countless. In all the years I’ve been sailing this incident was the most uncomfortable that I’ve felt in a TSS. There had been no danger but …
One other thing. By turning towards the bridge of a ship it is possible they will lose sight of a small vessel from the bridge as their bow and cargo block the view of their immediate surroundings. On some ships this blind spot can be a very great distance.
If ‘BBC Weser’ had not been there I would have hove too or done a 180 and headed away from danger until it was clear I could comfortably pass astern of them all.
We arrived on Thursday.
Last night wind gusts were 50 plus from the south west and west. Thankfully it was low water when the wind was at its strongest at 2300.
This years cruise to Oostende has been similar to last years late September sail. Although I’ve crossed the southern North Sea in the heart of winter, very late September is too late in the year. Once the weather has broken the weather becomes very unpredictable.
Finding a weather window to go home has been tricky.
Strong north westerly winds forced our move on the 25th September from the Royal North Sea YC basin to the shelter, behind the lock gates, of Mercator Marina.
We returned to the RNSYC from Mercator on the 28th and the following day we motored to Ramsgate from Oostende only sailing the last third. Visibility was perfect. I found that I was quite tired.
We would not have had another window to leave for at least another five days and I felt it was time to start heading home. It really runs against the grain to motor this ship, but Hurricane Ian is being felt here. Now being within the Thames Estuary is an advantage and I plan to get round the corner to the North coast of Kent quite quickly.
It was very good to catch up with my Flemish sailing friends. And always a pleasure to be in Belgium.
Updated formalities for sailing to Belgium have not changed since last year except there are no longer regulations for Covid.
Leaving the UK:
- Before departure phone the National Yacht Line 0300 123 2012
- Fill in C1331 Part 1 UK Border Force. I printed my form and posted it, registered mail, from Oostende on arrival BUT you can register and do this online. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1034684/C1331_10_21.pdf
- Fly Q flag and Belgian courtesy flag.
- Fill in Belgian Pleasure Craft Declaration Form https://apps.digital.belgium.be/forms/show/police/pcdec?lng=en You will receive an email by return acknowledging receipt.
- Take your passport to be stamped by the Belgian Federal Police. They are extremely helpful and do this quickly. The Police Station is by the Train Station. The Belgian Federal Police, Naval Police Oostende, Natienkaai 5, 8400 Oostende. Telephone: (32) 59 56 15 30. Email: DGA.SPN.KUST.BCPNO@police.belgium.eu Ask permission to take down Q Flag.
- Take passport to be stamped by the Belgian Federal Police. Open 24/7.
- Fill in Belgian Pleasure Craft Declaration Form.
- Fly Q Flag
- Phone the National Yacht Line. At the end of the formalities ask permission to take down Q Flag.
- Fill in C1331 Part 2 Border Force online. Again I printed my form, filled it out, and posted it from Ramsgate.
It was a marvellous feeling to drop anchor in the Swale yesterday evening and not only because it was a glorious still evening. The feeling of independence is almost overwhelming. I’ve had quite enough of being alongside. It’s just not my thing anymore.
I thought the light north westerly winds would get us all the way to the Swale from Ramsgate but after five hours and fifteen tacks the winds died abruptly in Copperas Channel and we had to motor the last two hours to arrive in the Swale at high water.
Winds are going to build from the south west. By tomorrow evening they will strengthen and by Wednesday we will have to seek shelter until Thursday.
I plan to sail to the Colne tomorrow.
We sailed to Bradwell Marina yesterday.
We will hide here from the strong south westerly winds until tomorrow and then head up the Wallet.
The wind was not very strong yesterday morning and we gently took the ebb out of the Swale and then goose winged up West Swin and then inside Middle Deep before rounding Whitaker Spit and sailing on a port tack, through the Wallet Spitway and on in to the Blackwater.
Just after 1230 we were close hauled under reefed main and stay sail as we had a lovely sail in to the Blackwater.
We anchored for a couple of hours off Bradwell Power Station waiting for enough water to get in to the Creek.
Just after 1600 we started the engine and made our way in to Bradwell Marina. It was a relief to berth head to wind. And how lovely to have such a nimble ship that turns on a sixpence. It was blowing quite hard. At 1630, the engine was off and we were safely alongside.
It’s predicted to gust 40 plus today.
We were anchored off Colton Creek overnight and this morning we moved upriver to anchor under the trees in Buttermans Bay.
The wind is going to veer westerly this evening and overnight, so my intention is to move down river and anchor inside Orwell PH Buoy.
Tomorrow I hope to return to the Ore.
It did get very windy the day before yesterday. We were facing south west in a very good berth in Bradwell Marina. A perfect spot!
Yesterday we had an exhilarating sail up the Wallet in predominantly south westerly 5’s. ‘Talisker 1’ is a joy to sail with her clean bottom and she fairly charged, often just under a reefed main. The visibility under a clear sky was incredible.
It was approaching low water in the Orwell and I contrived to run aground on the southern side of the river opposite Suffolk Yacht Harbour.
Eventually the flood lifted us off the putty and we motored up to Colton Creek.
Today we sailed to Orford under a clear sky in predominantly WNW 4’s under full main and stay sail. The visibility was incredible.
It was very cold at 0600 and we were underway at 0700 with a spectacular sunrise over the docks.
It was a perfect sail culminating in a short beat under main only over the bar and into the Ore.
The cruise is over, and I go home tomorrow. I’m pleased that I was able to manage myself. I did not think I would ever be well enough again. ‘Talisker 1’ is wonderful and I feel we are hand in glove. A partnership.
Perhaps I can dream of one more long cruise in to the ocean. That never ending summer daylight to the north is beckoning …
As always, another great read James
Thank you Phil
Sound like a great trip, so happy you got to cross again this season despite adversity. Gotta love a clean bottom, wish there was enough tide here but it’s still wetsuit work!
In these waters it would be difficult to see the bottom! Much love to you three, not forgetting ‘Sentijn’