Giants Stood Astride My Crossing: My Solo Navigation Around the UK

Army Sea Forts in the Thames Estuary

Jonathan Footerman continues his journey in his 21-foot-mini-yacht, Elektra, after trading in a cushy office job to become a yachtsman.

(Author’s Note: Taken from the third and fourth chapters of ‘A Different Tack’, my book about the trials of abandoning the office in later life to become a yachtsman. Read Part One, here. And Part Two, here.

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“Iceland is just a little island, but everyone is a banker now,” said Baltasar Kormakur on his recent film The Deep, a tribute to a shipwrecked fisherman and a quality admired by his compatriots: they call themselves ‘people who run towards volcanoes’. Modern lives are filled with standards, procedures and mortgage APRs, but for some of us the flavor and romance are diminished, and we live badly with it. At 55, I dropped my management consulting to learn to be a yachtsman, and embarked on a 2,000 mile solo navigation around the UK anticlockwise, in a 21-foot mini-yacht. I began from Portsmouth Harbour at the end of August 2009 with a near-disastrous 50-mile leg to Brighton, heading for the Dover Straits where the Atlantic tides force their way through a 20-mile-wide funnel into the North Sea, and the sandy water of the Thames estuary.

Perhaps my nerve was shaken by the struggle to make Brighton. I set sail again, but the seas were still high and the wind brisk, and I struggled back in after 25 minutes with a “Phew!” With one more day’s wait, the wind dropped to feather-light, and the sea was inviting in hot sunshine as Elektra inched her way around the spectacular chalk cliffs and lovers’ leaps of Beachy Head. In UK waters, you rarely get the conditions you want for passage-making. Low pressure cyclones spiral in from the Atlantic in September, bringing stormy westerlies that drive a swell up the English Channel, separated by periods of dead calm. Departures must be timed not only on the forecast but on tidal ranges responsible for fast currents and restricted port access. So it is silly to be unhappy with the wind or the rain—you will be unhappy most of the time.

To my chagrin, I messed up the berthing and scratched Elektra’s hull. Refuse help and even if you can do it beautifully, the Fates will happily see to it that you look like a chump.

Fortifications on the historic channel coastal cannot hold back erosion and silting. The Roman landing at Richborough is now several miles inland. The port of Hastings, first call for the Normans, disappeared forever in a 14th century storm. The defensive ‘Cinque Ports’ are ceremonially active after a thousand years, but of the original five, only Dover remains in operation. Examples of many ‘Device Forts’ built by Henry VIII still stand at Walmer, Sanddown and Deal but guard unbroken beaches. I would have entered the old port of Rye except for access channels drying at half-tide. Instead I found myself on a 25 mile hop to Langney, a modern marina in a commercial zone, as exciting as a trip to Walmart.

To my chagrin, I messed up the berthing and scratched Elektra’s hull. Refuse help and even if you can do it beautifully, the Fates will happily see to it that you look like a chump. And you lose the chance for a chat. We enjoy encounters but if we are too self-sufficient, they do not happen. The marina development includes large retail outlets, but small businesses creep into crannies like moss, and an upper-floor sail-maker made me a safety belt for clipping myself to the boat. Neighbours on a smart yacht were shocked that I would ‘trust my life’ to such equipment rather than buy it in a packet. Some encounters are better than others: sometimes, you just don’t know what to say.

♦◊♦

The weather blockaded me for days. I set sail in a high westerly for fear of a long wait for quieter weather, and was soon bounding along on the full mainsail. Another mistake. It takes more control to sail near the limit; it heels the boat like a dinghy and may not go faster than less sail more upright. Suddenly a gust overpowered the autopilot, which went into a sulk. I could not diagnose it at sea, the spare was being serviced, so once again the tiller claimed my exclusive attention. Curses, I left the flask of coffee in the cabin. I was ahead of my age-group at school, but forty years on, brain tone was as slack as the six-pack. I confess that pressing needs moved me to contrive a flexible lashing for the tiller for a few moments off the helm. The correct solution is to ‘heave to’ using the sails in opposition to prevent forward motion. I should already have practised it, but in any case it needs both sails out and balanced. Downwind sailing puts the jib in the wind-shadow of the main so that only one or the other is worth pulling out; good reason to avoid it by sailing about 20° off the line, using two sails to stabilise the boat against the elements. As conditions worsen, the skill is to reduce them in balance, not put them away. Small boats need it even in light seas, and then you can heave to with only a push of the tiller. I was learning!

Nearing Dover, the waves were tossing Elektra about as energetically as at Brighton. I dropped the main early in case of difficulty reaching the mast on a rolling, pitching deck in worsening seas. Wrong again. I ought to have pulled it tight to the centre as a roll damper until I reached shelter. Dover is a commercial port with a lot of cross-channel traffic, and yachts must radio in before entering. I asked to be allowed in promptly. No need, port control had seen me struggling, held up a ferry for a few minutes and sent a launch to escort me in. Very sweet of them! But perhaps I should have been more embarrassed. I suspect they saw me as a risk, and avoided a problem in the approaches with professional courtesy.

Ramsgate is the kick-off point for crossing the Thames estuary, 10 miles from Dover over the Goodwin Sands infamous for currents and sandbanks on which 2,000 ships have foundered. In autumnal weather, it had taken weeks to get there. (I have since crewed on a 33-footer back to Portsmouth in under 24 hours.) When the cyclone had blown through, I motored out of Dover in another dead calm, and looked around for ships before beginning to write up my log. I had my eyes down for less than 5 minutes before a huge horn turned my insides to jelly. I jumped up, rammed over the tiller as the snout of a car ferry greeted me about an inch away, and waved an apology to the bridge. Thank heavens they were looking. Standing in the Corribee cockpit, the horizon is 3 miles off, but visibility at sea is deceptive, and haze on a sunny day makes the practical distance hard to guess. I must have failed to spot the ferry barely two miles off. I still wonder how.

The outboard running gingerly at low revs made 3 knots through the water measured by an impeller in the hull, but covered ground at up to 7 knots per the GPS. There was nothing visual to signal the 4­ knots of current, no wash past a rock or a post, no buoy dragging at an angle–you find out that you are not in control only when you try to steer a preferred course and cannot. I did not fight it: the current favours channels between the sandbanks and Elektra only draws a metre, so although I kept a wary eye on the depth gauge, she crossed without trouble. But another seascape feature that takes experience to interpret is surface disturbance caused by water pushed up from an uneven sea-bottom. There is a dredged channel for heavy shipping at Ramsgate which has a similar effect, extending perhaps 1,000 yards out to sea, and instructions to yachts are to join it half way along and stay to one side. Three large yachts behind me ignored it and angled into port since there was plenty of depth, but I was in purist mode: I would keep going, drop the sail when I reached the buoyed channel and follow it in. By the book and up the spout! I did not realise how much disturbance it caused with several knots of current, and was at the mast when the first heave slammed my ribs against the life-raft. That ache lasted for weeks. I had to hold on as the boat crossed the disturbance, then lower the sail and crawl back to join the other berthed yachties already on their second gin and tonic. So much for purism single-handed. Now I find ways to make it easier, not prettier!

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In the Ramsgate of my memory, big-eyed children watched stocky men in oiled wool sweaters unloading catch or mending smelly nets along the quay, pipes clamped in their jaws, short-peaked felt caps pushed back on their heads. Today it is a marina. Lamentations! You step on to a neat pontoon as effortlessly as a docking corridor from a Boeing, oblivious of the great iron rings rusting weightily against the granite sets of the harbour wall. How happy I would be to tie to a wall five centuries old, scramble up the rungs to a Nelsonian pub, with sixpence for a shower and supper at the Seamen’s Mission. Should I object to the practicality of marinas for romantic inadequacy? The pub’s saloon is now squared to flat-screen football, the Mission long gone, and it is hard to see how the old port could accommodate the number of visiting yachts. So tie up and pay up in our brave new world. Romance is in the past, and in Baltasar’s words, everyone is a banker now.

World War II gun cabins sit on massive angled stilts in the middle of the estuary, eerily lifeless, frozen in mid-attack like Wells’s alien machines in the War of the Worlds.

Like Goodwin, the Thames currents build long sandbanks in the estuary barely covered even at high tide. Narrow gaps turn a crossing into a stepped zigzag and a long day’s sail to haven on the Essex shore. Half a dozen yachts were waiting to cross. I followed them, but at the North Foreland on the cape of south-east England, a notoriously rocky bottom threw up violent seas that bounced the 30-footers ahead of me almost as badly as Elektra. I felt out of control, and even if it eased a bit, another 12 hours was inviting disaster in the little Corribee. I radioed that I was turning back. Next day, true to form, the sea was as tranquil as a pond as I set off to catch the flood up-river to a crossing point and the ebb out again, to berth around midnight. The sandy water was glassy and amber-grey, shimmering beneath a pale ochre sky. Once past tankers at anchor near the Foreland, not another vessel came into sight. Giants stood astride my crossing. World War II gun cabins sit on massive angled stilts in the middle of the estuary, eerily lifeless, frozen in mid-attack like Wells’s alien machines in the War of the Worlds. Too tall to notice Elektra, they are dwarfed beside immense new wind turbines, the swing of the blades clear of the water by more than twenty metres but the scale too different to estimate: it felt as though the mast missed by inches. Picking up the ebb on the other side, the miles slid by in smoky-yellow quiet, the motor running low on a day of beauty and solitude. Alone but for the occasional cormorant, I sat at ease in the cockpit, infused by the still air and sandy colours.

At 8:30 p.m., the tide was almost out when the boat came to a halt, snagged on something in the deep water channel. With nothing but water and clouds for parallax, it was some time before I realised. I tried everything to get free. The outboard was not entangled when I pulled it up, so a wire must have got around the keel or the rudder stock. I poked around with the boathook and turned about to no avail. The current was swift, and with a light easterly rising, Elektra began to thump against the tether, threatening damage. Dispirited, I told myself I should rise to the challenge of the solution: strip off, tie on and dive down to fix it … into cold, opaque water, without mask or wetsuit, beneath a tonne of bouncing hull, with nobody else aboard, or on my side of the horizon, or even aware I was here, as darkness fell. Just do it! No, I decided. I am not brainless, but I soon would be if I messed about under the boat.

There was nothing for it but to call the coastguard on the VHF. The north side of the estuary is mile upon mile of unpopulated mud flat and I was at the range limit of my transmitter. Messages were helpfully relayed by a trawler somewhere out of sight and at 10 p.m., a Lifeboat Association RIB arrived. The tide was rising, and to add to my embarrassment, Elektra floated free 2 minutes before they got there–I was told to wait for them anyway. They checked the hull for leaks, inspected my written log and my track on the plotter, and told me that I had done everything correctly: getting snagged was just bad luck. That spared me a dressing down from the coast guard for yachtsmen who have to be rescued from the consequences of their own foolishness. Best of all, they towed me to my destination, saving hours of night navigation. Great lads, all volunteers. If you sail, subscribe, it is only fair. If not, subscribe anyway, and save a life.

The night was silent in remote Bradwell marina. I was shivering as the RIB glided Elektra expertly through the withies–willow saplings with a dab of red or green paint plunged into the mud as port and starboard markers and easy to move as the channel is re-cut by the water. It is a calm, isolated spot, the wildlife in the reeds behind the sea dyke hunted by rare Harriers gliding in low and unseen over the marshes. In the morning, I walked the dyke to the 7th century chapel of St. Peter-on-the-Wall by the ruins of the Roman fort of Othona, one of a defensive line beginning at Dover known as the ‘Saxon Shore’. A Christian community has colonised the spot and I interrupted a member at her chores, for directions. Her pretty shawl and dress from neck to ankle reminded me of Lancaster County girls selling fragrant sliced breads to visitors, hair twisted up under dainty white bonnets. (Overcome by variety, I had asked if they did a mixed loaf: but no giggle for Mr. Nuisance.)

Elektra had to be lifted out, and there was damage to the rudder stock that needed fibreglass work. It was no surprise. I took the opportunity to check her out much more thoroughly and prepare for the remaining 90% of the journey with the insights of my first adventures. It should go much more smoothly. Ha, ha! Fat chance!

photo of Shivering Sands army sea forts in the Thames Estuary by Tim Hoare / Panoramio 

Read also

Part One: The Rising Tide

Part Two: Electra Rolled Like a Drunkard: Sailing Solo

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About Jonathan Footerman

English, unmarried, born 1953 and classically privately educated, independently minded and "difficult", Jonathan Footerman left home and school at 17. Chartered Accountant and IT specialist with KPMG, he went to France in 1985 with Gillette and fully absorbed language and culture. Latterly a trouble-shooting CFO in French subsidiaries, he gave it up in 2008 (too unhealthy), began to write, learnt to sail, went solo around the UK in a 21 ft boat in 2010, and now needs a publisher for a sailing book, a novel and a collection of short stories from the High Savoy.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] (Taken from the eighth chapter of ‘A Different Tack’, my book about the trials of abandoning the office in later life to become a yachtsman. Read more of Jonathon’s journey in The Rising Tide: Part One, Part Two and Part Three.) [...]

  2. […] Part Three: Giants Stood Aside My Crossing […]

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