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The Boat

Channel Crossing: Hell on Toast with a Side of Dolphins

Crossing6-23Five hours in as the sun rose, the swell slopped side to side, swinging and dropping Joker with a greasy slosh. The waves reflected the dawn, and as they became visible I found it hard to keep my eyes on the horizon. Hypnotically beautiful ever-blossoming hillsides, huge blue fists of power, glittering with infinite jewelled detail. The longer I watched them, the worse I felt. John and Sam’s cigarette smoke seeped into my nose and somehow blended with the waves in my head. I felt increasingly sleepy and held onto the guardrail with one numb hand. Trying to concentrate. On the horizon.

When the engine first overheated, Sam got out of the cabin and checked the water filter. It was no longer full of water. Must have fallen out like last time. I filled cups of water and passed him the grip tool to open the filter while John steered. It ran again for a while.

We had some wind, but it wasn’t giving us quite enough speed to make our desired landing time. When the alarm went yet again, we let it cool for a while and sailed.


My haziness cleared and crowded in again almost rhythmically. At a moment of clear windy elation when I felt on top of the world, I caught a whiff of smoke and suddenly turned and puked over the side. I felt instantly better. And nobody saw.

We tried the engine again, and it seemed fine. But as the boat heeled over more, Sam kept checking the filter. Sometimes it was pumping just fine, and other times it emptied out and had to be refilled.

Soon it was my turn to helm again. For the first 40 minutes it was the best place for me- looking straight ahead, flicking my gaze back to the GPS. Gradually my arms got tired from the constant hauling and I went off course more often. That meant looking at the onboard instruments more to get the angle right, which sent my inner ear spiralling into queasy wallow.

Crossing6-9We had seasickness tablets and some freaky goggles allegedly recommended by the French Navy. But they were inside. If I tried to rummage through the oscillating cupboards I’d really get ill. The same went for getting the camera equipment out. My mental state focused down to holding onto my guts and the tiller at the same time. The possibility of speaking and moving, even moving my eyeballs too fast, receded like the clashing waves.

Crossing4-12John and Sam would have helped if I’d asked. But they were increasingly busy dealing with the engine’s many issues. The overheating became more frequent. Sam checked the filter, inspected the impeller, refilled and refilled the system with water- only to find it had emptied out ten minutes later. We couldn’t keep running the engine in that condition- it could get seriously damaged.

I was puking more often, shuddering and twitching afterwards. John took over the tiller and recommended that I sit with my eyes closed. It worked- I didn’t mind the motion by itself. But after 20 minutes, every time I opened my eyes I felt worse. I was clutter, and the deck is not that big. I went below and lay on the bed.

Crossing7-6Sometimes it occurred to me that at least I should  turn on a GoPro and record my misery. Or Sam’s, as he tried one thing after another to fix the engine. Or John’s, as he worried over our pace and the chance of missing the tide on our way into Cherbourg without a working engine. I’d grope across the cabin, occasionally finding an audio recorder or GoPro. I’d open my eyes and sit up. Instantly I’d have to drop it and belt for the heads, at one point skidding over and cracking my shoulder. After hours of this, most of the batteries were dead and I was losing my will to open my eyes at all. Every hour or so they would fly open of their own accord and I’d haul myself upright for more racking heaves.

In the early afternoon, we sighted France. Just at the same moment, three tiny dolphins arced through the water next to us- then ahead, underneath, back to the side. John lit up as if they were dear friends he hadn’t seen for years. I felt the same but could only totter to the hatch for a minute.

Crossing6-31The next time we restarted the engine, the key produced a dull click. Sam, at the end of his tether, was convinced the overheating had finally burned something out. John said it was probably the solenoid and started bodging copper wires into the starter. Nothing worked.

After a very tense few minutes, John remembered that our battery was new, and cracked open the cabinet. The rocking had dislodged one of the terminals.

As it got dark, the wind and waves calmed. I was able to stand, drink water, even helm a bit. The engine problems continued, even as the lights of Cherbourg got closer. Seven miles out, our sailing pace was far too slow. Sam finally gave up on the main engine and started the auxiliary outboard, fed from a large petrol tank. Shortly after we picked up speed, it died. The line from the tank wasn’t pumping properly.

CrossingCabin-1John was losing patience. He went below to check the Almanac for rescue services- warning us it would probably cost £500 to get a tow. We were both crushed, but Sam made a final valiant effort. He persuaded John to help him decant petrol from the tank into a 5l bottle, and from there into the engine. They both got covered in it, which at least put paid to the smoking for a bit.

On that engine we motored the 5 miles into Cherbourg- stopping to decant and refill it. As we approached the harbour entrance, Sam was worrying over whether to refill once more.

“We don’t want to be stuck 10 feet from the pontoon”.

In the end, that’s exactly what happened.  At 9.30 pm, 5 1/2 hours after we’d planned, we arrived in the marina. We’d been crossing the Channel for 19 hours. The engine choked and died as I teetered on the prow with a line gathered in my hands. We all stood quietly as Joker drifted, inch by inch, to a very gentle landfall.

Bonsoir, Cherbourg. Et Bonne Nuit.




4 thoughts on “Channel Crossing: Hell on Toast with a Side of Dolphins

  1. Doesn’t sound like fun!

    Posted by Michael Wray | January 8, 2013, 12:07 pm


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