We left St Vaast at round 9am on a morning suffused with hazy yellow sunlight. The light indecisive breeze made a mockery of the onslaught we’d endured in the preceding weeks, and failed to fill Joker’s sails. We motored on, over a pewter sea, as the clouds closed over our heads. The sun was just visible, reflected as scattered molten-silver stars winking in the grey undulations.
Our approach to the harbour was heralded by an island looming out of the mist on the port side, topped by an angular building. Isle St Marcouf, named for the hermit who lived there, was subsequently used as a temporary prison for criminals awaiting deportation to the New World. These days it’s a protected bird colony and property of the French Ministry of Defence. In the UK, too, there are plenty of MoD properties kept relatively wild by all those ‘keep out’ signs. It seems a shame we can’t resist destroying wilderness unless the men with guns put a fence round it, but it’s all I can think of to thank the MoD for in recent years. I only hope they’re not using the peace and quiet to dream up more imperialist resource wars, but what are the chances?
Our plan was to head for Grandcamp Maisy, a smaller and less touristy harbour near the D-Day beaches. Their lock gates closed at 1pm, and though it took longer than we expected to get within sight of it, we were there with an hour to spare. Sam was keen to avoid any risks, and the chart plotter showed shallows between us and the entrance. The tide was still falling and if we ran aground, we’d be stuck there for eight hours, possibly overbalancing in the mud.
I wanted to go for it, but I’m a lowly First Mate. Sam is the Skipper and must be obeyed, if only at sea. So at the edge of the shallows, we swung round to point at Isigny sur Mer. From the chart plotter it appeared that the tidal river running through it never sank below our required depth. We’d moor there for the night and head to Grandcamp in the morning,
It was a dreamy, unsettling journey to Isigny. Our chart showed us where it thought the shallows were, but evidently it was a movable feast. The angels (or municipal seafaring services) who think of these things had provided red and green buoys in a winding path through a wide expanse of water. They were set so that as you passed between them, the next pair were just visible on the horizon. Past the first pair, we crossed a clear line between blue wavelets and brown ripples where the river abandoned itself to the sea.
It was another mile of buoys before we reached the river mouth, and another mile of scrubby grass and a few isolated farmhouses before we saw a mooring place. We tied up triumphantly, and heated some stew to celebrate our first ever uneventful, disaster-free crossing.
As we ate, we mused that there wasn’t much of a tideline visible on the riverbank. We’d thought the tide had been falling for a while, but that now seemed unlikely.
It began to rain as we traipsed along a bouncing, rickety pontoon towards Isigny to find some internet. At the other end of the pontoon was a man with a dark ponytail and moustache, eating a sandwich aboard a dark red wooden yacht. We tried some halting French to do with ‘depth?’. He came to the rescue with his excellent English.
“Yes, the whole river disappears. Sloping mud on both sides. There is no escape.“
I’m a bit tired of relating tales of woe by now. Suffice it to say, our foolishness in miscalculating the tides did not go unnoticed or unbemoaned by us, nor was our three hour stint adjusting ropes and buoys and beaching legs in the rain particularly enjoyable. Nor was it the highlight of our lives attempting to sleep in a cabin tilted at a 45 degree angle. Sam took it rather harder than I did, as a personal affront to his skippering abilities. I quickly entered a zen-like state of acceptance, put the kettle on and practiced the ukulele in our crazily tilted cabin until blisters popped up on my fingertips.
We awoke around 8am, to the second rising tide of our brief and underwhelming stay in Isigny. Neither of us had slept well through the night’s rising and falling tides and the various angles and creakings they entailed. I’d had a particularly weird dream involving Tony Soprano, a small white dog, sacrificing the hair clippings of my childhood best friend to a vengeful river, and anxiously taking acid with my Dad at an extremely hedonistic festival staffed by disillusioned, infighting environmental activists who’d once hoped it would be a sustainable organic farm. I was still unpicking the threads of it as we chugged back along the sparse line of buoys towards Grandcamp Maisy.