Our long-awaited crossing to France began beautifully. We set off at about 10.30 with our hired skipper John. He was a friendly but quiet and understated RYA teacher and professional skipper, who grew up in Brentford, sailing with his father and uncle. He came recommended by Des Purcell, who was going to do it originally. After going over the boat and the passage plan and eating dinner, we all had an hour’s snooze, then got up and pulled quietly away from the pontoon that had been our home for the past month. We expected not to set foot on England’s shores again for at least a year.
As we came out of Portsmouth harbour the cross currents pushed us from side to side and made inky-blue swirls with deep ripples and eerie smooth patches in the moonlight. The wind was right behind us.
After motoring clear of the harbour we raised Joker’s gleaming white sail and heeled over smoothly. Soon we were sailing with the moon ahead and to port, getting around 6 knots- nearly top speed for Joker. We turned the engine off and flowed with the splashing and sighing all around us and the stars sharp above. I was helming. Standing braced against the side and feeling like the goddess Artemis. It was all silver, black, white and icy, but with all my layers on, not too cold. I hadn’t dared hope the conditions would be so perfect for our crossing.
Then a low battery beep went off inside on our carbon monoxide alarm, and Sam went in and checked it. The battery for the boat electronics was getting low and we were relying on it for our GPS and radio. It was a surprise as we’d had both batteries tested the previous week and they seemed fine.
We started the engine to charge it, at fairly low revs. It overheated within a couple of minutes. It’s been about 4 weeks since we heard that screeching alarm.
John the skipper asked us about it and we told him about the previous overheating problems and how we fixed them. He decided we had to turn back, and Sam agreed. We sailed back into the wind which was much colder and bumpier, and came most of the way to Portsmouth on long slow tacks. Then we had to fight the tide to get in. Faced with the prospect of tacking back and forth in the bitter cold for the next 3 hours until the tide turned, we risked turning the engine on.
It started with no problem and behaved perfectly and got us back to Royal Clarence with ease. Which, though very lucky under the circumstances, almost made it worse.
We arrived back at the same berth at about 5.30am. John left almost immediately. He was pissed off as well. He said if the weather was going to hold he’d stay and try again. But that beautiful calm moonlit window is shut today and for the next few days- the wind is coming up again.
We’re sat in the boat now, essentially still in bed. Sam just went out in the bitter cold to get some DVDs, curry and booze from Gosport. But everything was shut. We are writing off today as a dead loss. Tomorrow we’ll track down Steve the engineer and get him to help us take the exhaust off the engine. That’s the last thing we can do to try and fix this problem before actually getting the whole engine lifted out.
Today is not a good day. We both feel numb from the let-down and physically exhausted. But until the alarm went off, last night was utterly amazing. And even the trip back had its moments.
I’m a novice sailor, and the fact that we hired a skipper to take us across the Channel means we were willing to abide by and respect his decision-making. It was very very cold out there, not somewhere you’d want to be for any longer than necessary- so any of our kit malfunctioning could have been dangerous. The chance that our engine may not have been reliable enough to get us in against the tide at Cherbourg was no doubt not worth taking. But I can’t help reflecting that we’d never have switched it on until we got to France if we weren’t relying on generating electric power for our radio and GPS in the first place. When we get to the Med and things warm up, I’m very keen to practice navigation without electronic gizmos and staying out long enough to catch the tide instead of motoring against it. The feeling of dependence on the engine and GPS was very strong last night. But people have been sailing for millenia without them. In the long term I’m keen to take a leaf out of Roger Taylor‘s book (all of which are well worth a read.)
(These pics- the nice ones- are courtesy of Judith Smyth, my mum- from a sail we took with them the other day. FYI, we did record much of these shenanigans and there will be footage and pics forthcoming a some stage. But today I just cannot be arsed. I hope you understand.)