An Eight Nurofen Trip
It was really my idea. But Erling thought of it before I was born. When he first thought about crossing the Channel in a small craft there were no Sprint 15s and navigation was by sextant and compass. More importantly, he had not met anybody stupid enough to go with him. But I am sure it was my idea.
I joined Shanklin Sailing Club as a novice at the end of the 2009 season. The web site had something about it being a friendly club and I believed it. As with joining the army, new recruits are emotionally crushed and reduced to a homogenised being, onto which the indoctrination and education can be forced. The weak are encouraged so they can be used as cannon fodder. The foolish are spotted and groomed for important missions. Others fall by the wayside and are abandoned.
Slowly, the new recruits were trained up and were allowed to undertake longer voyages. The vitriolic stream of instructions slowly gave way to discussions of tactics. We thought we were being trained to race.
In April, Christine Roman, Paul Grattage and I sailed our boats around the Isle of Wight, clockwise from Shanklin. It was the easiest trip imaginable: force 4 with the tide with us much of the way. We were on the trapeze from The Needles to Cowes with very little effort. In no way did it prepare us for going across the English Channel, but it did whet the appetite for further adventure.
The selection process lasting 50 years was now complete. Erling had found somebody with the following attributes: extreme gullibility, relative imperviousness to cold, ability to program GPS equipment, ownership of a VHF radio and licence and a boat with an equipment failure ratio of less that 20%. I was the chosen apprentice.
Erling and I wanted to make the crossing to Alderney whenever the time was right. The distance is 70 nautical miles from Shanklin so is just over the distance around the Island - and technically easier because it is only one point of sail. We needed to wait until the summer for the water to warm up and the days to lengthen; we also needed a clear window of force 3 - 5 without beating into the wind.
Windguru gave the perfect conditions for Saturday the 28th July with a north-westerly force 4 backing to a south-westerly later in the day. The gadgets were charged, the bed and breakfast was booked and the boats were fettled. I had new 4mm rigging and put plastic hosepipes at the top of the shrouds to stop the rigging chafing itself. We tightened the forestays right up so the mast wouldn't shake itself in the waves. I taped a radar reflector to the top of my mast. Spare clothes were stuffed into dry bags and the cocktail cabinets were filled with Eccles cakes and bananas. For such an important voyage, I raised a small Red Ensign on the shroud.
Several members of the club had come down to the beach to see us off from Shanklin at 8.30 am. With the breeze blocked by the cliffs, the sea was flat as a millpond. This was going to be easy. We eased our way out of the Bay and passed Dunnose Point where the wind picked up to a five and the sea state was choppy. The little boats were flying along and we made excellent progress past Ventnor and out into the big sea. We clocked 18 knots with the tide on the GPS and were looking like getting to Alderney for lunchtime. As the bows dug into the waves, we furled our jibs and settled down to a more sustainable speed.
The Isle of Wight grew smaller and fainter and eventually disappeared, along with Dorset. We were on our own apart from a few white sails on the horizon.
Windguru was inch-perfect in its prediction of the wind dropping to a three mid morning. We were still making good progress but without the effort. We stopped for elevenses somewhere north of the first shipping channel. With less wind, we stayed in formation with the few yachts that were going roughly the same way. The north shipping lane was completely empty and we pushed on, unhindered into the open water.
Once the GPS was showing our required heading as due south, we pointed our boats straight for Alderney, trusting the gadget that it would sort out the navigation for us and offset the eastward tide. The wind had increased to a four and had turned more to its prevailing direction - the forecast had again been spot on. With land still beyond sight we were noticing that Erling's boat was much faster than mine. He was having to slow up and eventually furled his jib to make things even. My boat was taking on water. I was trying to trapeze as our course became a fetch but there was no point as the catamaran was not raising a hull. Erling was leaning out and having to work much harder than me but I was holding him up.
After six hours, Europe appeared over our port bows. A smaller landmass soon began to differentiate itself from the sky; the GPS was pointing straight at it. This was our target.
The southern shipping lane had a bit of traffic but nothing that came near enough to make us alter our course. What was all the fuss about?
My boat was quite low in the water and Alderney took forever to form shape. Slowly it developed features; houses could be differentiated from fields, and Burhou became a different island from Alderney. We were willing the island nearer but the Jagular was not making much progress and Erling was getting colder by the second. The gadgets were set for the mouth of the harbour and we followed them as they led us to a place I had never been and Erling last visited when I was in nappies.
We had to sail close hauled for the last half mile with a couple of knots of tide pushing us to the east but we had judged it perfectly. We overtook a French yacht, dodged the standing waves by the unfinished breakwater and sailed into the most beautiful, sunny bay with aquamarine water and a curving white beach. I tacked twice but Erling was determined to go island-to-island on a starboard tack.
We had made it. A nine and a quarter hour, often boring, journey was concluded with the elation of what we had achieved.
We dragged the boats up the beach with the help of some locals and set off to buy a bilge pump in the island's chandlers. We pumped out the hulls and headed for the pub for some warm food.
I had booked the bed and breakfast at Alderney Angling in the Town but Fiona Harding, who runs the establishment, was surprised that we actually made it having had a cancellation from some fishermen for the Monday because of the weather forecast. The accommodation was perfect for what we needed. They have three rooms above their fishing tackle shop and are used to accommodating people with wet clothes.
With no dog to walk, Erling had to make do with me as a walking companion and we set out for a look around the island. The town's main streets are all cobbled with well looked after private shops and places to eat; like most market towns used to be before supermarkets pasteurised everything. The roads have not been ruined by too many cars and the little French vehicles that everybody seems to have are driven considerately. Our walk led us to back to the harbour and another public house.
The next morning, our hosts, Mark and Fiona, were fascinated to see what boats we had arrived on so they gave us a lift down to the beach. They said the boats were actually smaller than they imagined. They must have thought us either heroes or idiots. They helped us drag the boats down to the water which had retreated in the night and we set off.
The wind was a little stronger than had been forecast when we planned the trip but it was dead behind us all the way. We inched out of the flat water of the harbour and pointed 45 degrees to port to generate some apparent wind. We were off. But shortly afterwards the sea got larger and we chickened out and sought the sanctuary of a dead run.
Alderney grew smaller as slowly as it had grown the day before and it was still behind us hours later as we crossed the first shipping lane. This time the quiet country road had turned into a motorway. Ships were coming at us in sixes and eights; we had to look four miles ahead and try and judge which ship we would go in front of. We also had the attention of La Douane - a grey, naval type ship who followed us at our side for mile after mile. We spotted a car ship on our port side on collision course a few miles away and hardened up and ducked behind his stern and rode through the wash. Still the French customs were beside us - two hundred yards away with binoculars pointing at our boats and probably focusing on the dry bags tied onto the toe-straps. We were expecting a RIB to launch at any minute. I wasn't bothered about the boat being searched but I didn't want to be taken to France without a passport. But perhaps they had worked out the logistics of arresting two cat sailors and having to impound two boats and realised they should let the Ensign-flying Ros- Beefs go on their way.
Somewhere between the shipping lanes I tried the bilge pump on the leaky starboard hull but more water came in the hatch than I could pump out. We abandoned that game and headed for Blighty.
Then Erling's jib halyard snapped. He managed to gather the sail in front of his beam and make a mini spinnaker out of it but got bored with that after a while and furled it up as best he could. The two boats were more or less even with my extra weight being pulled along by more sail area.
As we lost sight of Normandy the waves became larger and larger. Whereas on the outward journey we were sailing through chop, we were now surfing with some decent sized seas. All we could see of each other was the top halves of the sails even though we never went more than a 100 yards from each other. I was sat at the back of the boat holding onto the rudder connecter steering straight up and straight down the waves. Pointing up to get apparent wind and speed would have been fatal (possibly literally). We knew we were on a real voyage now.
The westward shipping channel was as packed as the first with tankers, ferries and car transporters all lined up to keep us even more on our toes. We had to go miles out of our way to find a safe gap and it was made harder by the ships going at different speeds and on diverging courses. I was glad to have a grown-up with me.
My boat was getting slower and slower with the extra weight of a few gallons of water and Erling had his traveller in to slow him to my speed. At one point a wave pushed him into a gybe and he came very close to turning the boat over. This was just about the only real incident of the trip but it could easily have got very complicated if he had not sailed it as he did.
We pushed on and the waves got bigger. I lost sight of Erling's sail numbers as we were at either side of a big wave. This was becoming a bit of a roller-coaster ride but the boats stayed on a pretty straight course. The rest-stop for food on the Saturday was not conceivable on the Sunday, we could just grab the occasional gulp of drink and bite of food to wash down the pain killers. Water was being blasted at us continuously and was gushing through the trampoline.
It was well into the afternoon before the Dorset downs became more than just glimpses and the Isle of Wight emerged out of the distance. As Alderney had done the day before, a grey shape gave way to a pattern of different colours, the reds of Compton Bay, the chalk of Freshwater Bay and the Needles, the wooded downs and the grassy fields below.
As we came past Ventnor we were joined by the Strevens on their Cheetah Marine catamaran which launched itself over the rolling waves and cheered us on our way. This was our safety boat that we were going to summon if it all went pear-shaped but thankfully they were not needed. It was so good to see friendly faces again after crossing the sort of water that the makers of my boat probably did not intend for it when they made it in 1980.
Round the corner into Sandown Bay, the water was flat and the wind was almost turned off. Erling and I were greeted by a Union Jack being waved on the beach and half the sailing club cheering and ready to take our boats up the slope. Nine and a half hours it had taken, beach to beach, 15 minutes longer than the outward journey. We had travelled 150 nautical miles in a weekend.
first published in the Sprint 15 Association magazine