Our trip back to St Vaast was uneventful, which we flattered ourselves was due to our increasing abilities to a) study the weather and tides, plot a course and b) pay close attention to the actual conditions and respond accordingly, ie sail. We did shudder with superstitious dread as we passed through the all too familiar harbour walls. What if we never escape this place?
After a few days, it was time to head for Cherbourg. The tides are fierce around these parts and more difficult to negotiate going back the other way. We set ourselves deadlines for reaching our waypoints so we could be sure the tide wouldn’t turn against us before we reached our destination. If it did, our engine would struggle to fight against it. Our main error after all this great planning was not really having a plan for what to do if we did miss our deadlines.
The wind was good for the first leg North, belting us along at a great pace. The waves were fierce, deep cobalt blue slaps throwing spray in our faces and slinging us side to side. Fun in that carefree, scary, the-sea-doesn’t-care-if-I-live-or-die type of way.
When we reached the point where we turned West to follow the coast, the wind was at a tougher angle for us and our speed dropped. We sailed in long tacks for a while, then fired up the engine and ‘motorsailed’. The tide was with us, powering down the coast but also dragging us out to sea, so we had to keep steering inland.
We could see Cherbourg. At sea, on a clear day, a harbour can look incredibly close but in reality it’s five or six miles away. We knew it would be hours before we reached it. Nevertheless, we started to feel we’d get there.
The engine suddenly choked and died. It wouldn’t restart.
As Sam hoisted the hatch and checked all the usual things- temperature, seawater chamber, fuel level- I steered as best I could, grateful that the wind had picked up.
Sam figured out that the fuel line was blocked, probably by an air bubble. The few choking splutters we were able to get out of the engine threw a bubbly froth out of the bleed valve, and although the finger pump released even more air, it didn’t solve the problem.
We tried our outboard, which started as reliably as ever but couldn’t get a purchase on the waves. They slopped and scooped around it, one minute drowning it, the next leaving it hacking at thin air.
All this time we were drawing closer and closer to Cherbourg. Although we had passed our first ‘safe’ deadline for the tide and were nearing the ‘late’ deadline, we could see those blue cranes! The same blue cranes that loomed over us all winter. We could almost touch those blue cranes.
“We’re going to make it! We’ll sail in.”
“Yeah, we’ll be like Roger Taylor. Like the sailors of old. They didn’t have motors.”
“Yeah, look, we’re only two miles from harbour, we’re-”
“Sam? We’re going backwards.”
Time and tide wait for no one, however touching their delusions of competence. Our clock had run out, just two miles from Cherbourg. We were being dragged swiftly back the way we came, only just inland a bit because there were some really spiky rocks there.
First order of business was to set sail directly away from the really spiky rocks, which also took us out to sea. Sam tinkered with the engine some more. The sun sank towards the horizon. It was 7pm. My phone rang. We remembered that my parents were visiting us in Cherbourg from the UK the following morning. They would be checking our crossing had gone smoothly. I ignored it. What parent wants to hear their child is in the process of hacking aimlessly through the waves in a seasick daze while sharp rocks wait patiently for the tide to strengthen and deliver her, her husband and their only home to their black teeth? Far nicer to leave that call til everything was sorted out. Then we can talk about what croissants we’ll have in the morning.
But how was that going to happen? We radioed Cherbourg marina, hoping we were close enough to get a tow in. By the time the answer came back we were a mile further away. The answer was ‘no’. We radioed the lifeboat. They said they could come and pick us up but that it would cost 150 euros per hour.
We said yes, please. Come and get us. It was a sharp stab of failure, having just a few minutes before compared ourselves to the sailors of old. Sam’s hero Roger Taylor sails everywhere without an engine, yes- and would never, ever dream of calling for rescue. But he doesn’t do coastal hops, hoping to reach a port in time to meet his parents for croissants. He stays out at sea for months on end, going at the pace of the wind, his only goals the crossing of invisible northerly latitudes and the merciless, refining testing of himself and his boat. Basically, Roger Taylor is a legend and we are plebs.
When we were finally picked up, we’d sailed four miles out from Cherbourg. They asked us to drop our sail as their inflatable RIB approached. Looking at the GPS later, the moment we dropped the sail Joker slewed backwards on the tide a full mile in about 10 minutes.
The lifeboat guys were friendly, dressed in really lush grey and flourescent orange outfits with jackets and stretchy wetsuit trousers and matching boots. They didn’t seem to think badly of us for calling them out when they heard about the engine. Two of them sat in the cockpit with us and asked questions about the junk rig sail, and told us about their dinner which they were missing because of us.
1. We could have gone with the tide back to St Vaast and arrived back there around 1am. If we’d missed the tidal gates we could have tied up outside for a few hours.
2. We could have continued sailing out to sea as the sky darkened, and stayed out there for five hours until the tide turned and brought us back in.
Deciding to do either one of these things would have been much easier if we’d entertained them as possibilities on setting off. We’d also probably have made the decision much earlier on, when the engine failed or when we passed the first deadline. In the event, we made the decision based on discomfort, tiredness, worry, our sense that we’d almost made it and it would be too frustrating to turn away, and my seasickness.
On arrival a guy from the lifeboat shore crew approached us in an agony of embarrassment.
“”Very sorry, would you come with me, I will drive you to a cashpoint”
On the drive, he explained that in France the lifeboat crews are volunteers, but people have to pay for their own rescue.
“None of us do this to get money, but we cannot afford the equipment, the fuel…really I hate to do this part.”
After taking a look at Joker and our bedraggled selves, they’d put their heads together and worked out a discount of about a third. I think our lack of the proper sailing uniforms (red anoraks with flouro hoods, pristine red fleeces, chinos, deck shoes, Breton stripes for the ladies) helped there.
I blithely chirped that in the UK the RNLI are the richest charity in the land, with more money than they know what to do with, practically falling over themselves to rescue people and justify their enormous stack of toys. He writhed with resentment and I felt guilty. Many apologies and words of thanks were exchanged, as was about 200 pounds.
“We’ll see you at lunchtime-ish, we can get some croissants.”