Other PicoMicroYacht

Friday, 27 July 2012

PicoMicroYacht’s voyage across the English Channel

Here is the story of PicoMicroYacht's attempt to cross the English Channel.

Because I brought forward PicoMicroYacht’s crossing there was a great rush to get ready and I knew there was a danger I would be under prepared – but fortunately I brought everything I needed.

The night before I plotted my course on a paper chart, set up the GPS, packed the boat up and stayed the night in Folkestone.

The course has to take into account the tides, which sweep you back and forwards in the Dover Straight. I worked out the course and it turned out to be a semicircle, which had a certain surprisingly and unexpected aesthetic aspect.

Above is the course with the vectors and seven waypoints, for each hour. The course crosses the shipping lanes approximately at right angles, for five mile  almost over the top of the Channel Tunnel. At the apex the tide turns and then starts pushing PicoMicroYacht down channel. Note the constant 115 bearing, the tide creating the circular shape. The dotted line indicates the final course deviated from the planned course at the end of the voyage.

I was going to start at 4.30 am, but this plan was changed the night before to 6.30 am, which we found made no big difference to use of the tides.

Because of the last minute planning, I didn’t get to bed until 12.30 am and then had to get up at 5.00 am, not a good start. Nevertheless, I recently heard Steve Redgrave talking on radio 4 about sleep and sport, saying on one occasion he didn’t sleep at all before a world championship race, but did his best row. So this was an encouraging thought.

The shipping forecast, at 00.15 for Thames, Dover and Wight was: North East 3 to 4, occasionally 5 later. Showers later. Visibility good, occasionally poor. In other words, it wouldn’t be a glassy calm sea and we would need to get back in good time as the wind increased.

The start had to be changed from Dungeness to Folkestone and I had not checked out the harbour previously. So when I arrived I used the first place I could find to launch, a small beach to the east of the harbour wall, leaving my trailer there well up the beach.

It felt quite windy, I think caused by the remainder of the night breeze. A small cardboard box was being blown across the promenade making a rattling sound. The sea was calm close to the land but I knew that further out would be a different story. I put up the masts and rigged the sails, the mizzen sail (back end) folded up at the top to make it smaller.

The first part of the course took me along the cliffs towards the coast near Dover. In the early light they glistened with a ‘choppy’ sea in the foreground. After about three miles, my support boat called me up on the radio and checked my position. There were friendly greetings and they took up station behind me. Lots of thumbs up signing at this point and throughout the trip.

Will and his crew from Full Throttle Charters (http://www.fullthrottleboatcharters.com/) approaching me. He called me up on his VHS and joined me when I had given him my position.

To start with my course took me towards the Dover - Calais ferry path. It then would start turning away towards France and then back down to the Cap Gris Nez. As I kept going east I wondered whether Will would think I was keeping going until the North Sea, soI signalled in a circular motion to indicate my navigational strategy.

About two hours out the large ships going up the Channel started to cross my course, densely grouped. I have heard that crossing the Dover Straight is like crossing a motorway. I thought this was exaggerated, but it felt remarkable similar, but in slow motion. Will and his helper would look intensely at their automatic identification system to workout whether a ship would go behind or ahead, having just appeared over the horizon, and we just seemed dodge between them. Will would tell me to slow down or speed up to ensure we were in the right position.When they looked more intense I realised the ships would pass more closely. I was struck by how fast they moved.

I was nearing the middle part and was well up to schedule. After each hour I stopped very briefly to eat and drink a little. Then my mobile phone went off. It was a trainee who wanted some advice about seeing a patient and whether they should use a particular procedure. I gave some advice and then said ‘by the way, I am rowing and am halfway across the Channel.’ She had known I was doing the row, but thought I was leaving later that day. The distraction amused me and put me in a cheerful mood.

It had been easy up to now and I had enjoyed looking at the white cliffs of Dover in the distance. But the visibility started to decrease and the waves were more lumpy. I saw a curious line of breaking water in the distance and realised that standing waves were coming towards me. I readied the boat by facing into it and braced myself. The first wave launched me upwards, the second rolling over the top of PicoMicroYacht. But she was excellent in this situation and the water drained out of the back of the boat immediately. My Cheddars were soaked and my cheese roll was damp and salty.

As I rowed on a little more, to my horror I noticed my rudder blade had broken off at the top and was twisted in the water, falling away and drifting off into the distance. I was rudderless, with the boat slewing around immediately.

I thought I would have to give up. But I had practiced on previous occasions in calm water rowing without a rudder and knew it was possible by careful balancing. I didn’t know whether I could do it in a moderate sea. After some experimentation I found I could keep the boat roughly on course but less smoothly, getting better as I continued. It was clearly slowing me down and sometimes the boat would slew round and judder to a halt. The two small sails steadied the boat without tipping it over significantly.

As you move towards France the ships start coming from the opposite direction, travelling up the Channel. The visibility started to reduce drastically as a haze turned to mist, dropping down to about two miles. I was very glad that the support boat had AIS and radar.

Very large leviathan-like objects would appear out of the mist and then quickly disappear again, with a sense of awe and mystery. I peered into the mist to see the boats emerging, knowing I now had to trust Will and the support boat to do their job. They had to be complete focused and they did brilliantly. At this point we were simply too busy to take photographs.

As the weather conditions deteriorated, I watched them put on more and more clothing until they they were wearing their full foul weather gear, whilst I was pleasantly warm in a shirt and shorts.

We started seeing the slowly moving swimmer support boats. The swimmers must have started very early in the morning. At one point Will told me to go towards one, shadowing it to keep out of the way of an oncoming ship. I didn’t get close enough to actually see the swimmer, but it was easy to imagine them swimming along, submarine like. Feeling fatigued already I felt a new respect for them and incredulity about how it is possible to swim the Channel in such conditions. As I moved ahead they slowly disappeared into the mist.

The low visibility meant I only had the compass as a reference point for direction and the GPS for position. From about six miles out from France the tide was picking up and sweeping me rapidly down the Channel. To counter this I was heading now over 90 degrees away from my actual course. This was planned.

But then the wind picked up and I was being pushed further west than I had anticipated, according to my waypoints. So I was getting worried about being swept past Cap Gris Nez, and I got to the point when I thought I might not make it after all. Nevertheless, I resolved to keep going until I realised it was clearly impossible. Rather than pacing myself, I starting pulling harder with longer strokes, upping the rate - I now had nothing to lose. Will kept a good distance, perhaps knowing I had to fight this bit on my own.

But I had forgotten the additional leeway allowance I had made for this eventuality and when I flipped over to look at the chart on my GPS I realised I was heading straight for the Cap. Three miles out I knew I could just make it if I continued to row flat out, finding some more energy from the thought of finishing. All the training had paid off.

About a mile out the faded green of the cliff appeared, with a prominent lighthouse, and a beach to the left of the cliff. It was gray and hazy and difficult to make out different beach structures. I could see the tooth like stones that line the side of the beach and the building above above. The dull gray sand indicated the tide was halway out and I knew from the chart I was rowing over some nasty rocks, covered by the tide.

Closing in on Cap Gris Nez

With the north-east wind uninterrupted for hundreds of miles across the North Sea and across the Dover Straight, the waves were crashing against the coast, forming a rim of white surf. Will was concerned about this and the potentially dangerous situation of being on a lee shore with little time to deal with equipment failure. He thought I could be flipped by the waves in the surf. So I decided I would go slowly in, close to the shore, and take a look but be sensible. The surf was now more prominent, the waves around me shortening and soon to break, so at this point I decided to call it a day. It was 1.30 pm, almost exactly seven hours after I had set out.

I then had to de-rig PicoMicroYacht. Normally I would de-rig on land, but the safety boat took a line to keep me on station opposite the Cap Gris Nez, although the strong tide meant we drifted a mile along the coast at this point. PicoMicroYacht was wallowing about and I started to feel sick, as I passed my equipment over to the support boat. We then pulled PicoMicroYacht onto the boat and lashed it on the back, tying down all the loose equipment or putting it in lockers. I hastily swallowed a sea sickness pill, with the return trip in mind. PicoMicroYacht had proved amazingly sea worthy for a small beach boat – she did me proud.

The safety boat is one of those ribs that have what looks like a series of motorbike seats lined up in two lines for a number of passengers. The technique is  to stand astride the seat with legs bent to act as a suspension system, whilst bouncing along from wave to wave as if standing in stirrups of a horse. This was a new experience and something that I not been looking forward to, knowing I would rather at this point lie down and go to sleep. As expected this was exactly how I felt, but the sheer fun of the ride and the movement and spray revived me and we were back in Folkestone in 45 minutes. Halfway I briefly glimpsed a dolphin.

Will drove the boat straight into the harbour and we deposited PicoMicroYacht and all the equipment on the harbour slipway. Folkestone harbour had been transformed into a day tripper paradise, with the smell of salt and seafood lit by bright sunshine. The little beach on which I had left my trailer was absolutely packed and I had to clear a way through the bemused beach people as I retrieved it.

Because of I had only decided to go the day before, everybody was at work, but I was glad for a moment of peace as I drove home contemplating the great adventure of crossing the Channel in PicoMicroYacht.

I am so grateful for all the support during the last few weeks, including family, friends and work colleagues and my thanks to those who have donated generously to Epilepsy Research. Finally, many thanks to Will from Full Throttle Boat Charters, who got me there safely and professionally.