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Cathala's Easter trip 2009

Ok, so as always we start of with a good idea of where we are going, how long it will take and when we will return..................

The plan was to sail to Calais via the Prince’s channel with the option of running to Ramsgate if the weather turned nasty. We had headed to Stangate on the Saturday for an overnight stop on the anchor, after a few hours sleep we headed out early to catch the tide which hopefully would take us all the way down to Calais.

We motored out of the river at around 3.00am mindful of there being some ship activity at Sheerness, day break came before we passed the Red Sand Towers to show us quite a gloomy start to the day but with a kindly sea as there was not much wind around. We passed a few ships in the channel not to mention over a dozen small motor boats all fishing roughly the same patch of sea just north of the Margate sands, we found this route quite interesting compared to the overland route which can at times be boring and seems to take forever to reach the Spile buoy.

As we started to turn, off North Foreland, the wind started to die off even more, so we rolled up the genny and turned the engine on and motor sailed towards the outside of the Goodwin Sands, then fog started to creep in ever so slowly which reduced visibility but was not too bad, we decided to continue until we were closer to the TSS and agreed that if it got any worse we would abandon the crossing. We kept an ear on the VHF and listened to the ships reporting their position and visibility distances and it appeared things were improving, and then came the deciding factor!


Another yacht in the distance going the same way, well that was it the crossing was still on, by the time we got to the edge of the TSS visibility had improved to over a mile so we cracked on. A few hours later and we were across the TSS and heading for Calais, all had gone well during the crossing with a few ships passing through but distances between them presented no problems even with the reduced visibility. We had made quite slow progress over the last few miles so decided to up the revs a little to make sure we arrived in good time.

This was our first time to Calais and only our second trip across the channel and for some reason I was extremely nervous about entering Calais Port. About 2 miles from Calais Sharon gave me a fright when she stated that there was white ‘steam like’ smoke coming from the exhaust and that she had shut the engine down, I was pleased that she had acted quickly as I presumed that the engine had got very hot even though the alarm did not sound.

I checked the sea cock and filter and found no problems and a visual inspection of the engine showed nothing untoward and the engine didn’t feel any hotter than it normally would after a few hours motorsaling, despite this I still didn’t want to put the engine on for a while just in case, and in my own mind had decided we would not be going into a busy ferry port with an iffy motor! The next problem was that our original intended heading would take us past the starboard bow of a ship that was anchored, but now we were getting closer and not making much headway, so we got the headsail out and managed to make a few knots in the opposite direction. Options were now limited as the tide would be turning soon so really it was a choice between heading back with the tide to Ramsgate or taking the tide along the French coast to Dunkerque, I preferred the latter as I didn’t fancy crossing the TSS again with possibly a faulty engine, so with agreement from Sharon we changed course and headed for Dunkerque.


With 15 miles left to go we were making around 4 knots due to the light winds so decided to put the engine on as it had been over an hour since we shut it down and thought it would be a good time to test it as we had the tide with us now and wasn’t too worried about getting into Dunkerque as we had been there before and it is an all tide port with quite good access. The engine fired up and I tentatively increased the revs and all sounded well, we motor sailed for the next couple of hours to Dunkerque with no problems and things felt much butter.

Approaching, and then passing through the entrance to Dunkerque.


Once inside the harbour wall you keep to port and follow it down towards the town.


Seeing as though on our first visit to Dunkerque we stayed at Port Du Grand Large which is the first marina on the left, we thought we would try Yacht Club de la Mer du Nord, especially as we were now members of HNYC. We arrived to find nobody on duty so just motored round into the pontoons and picked a free berth. I must say that even though I love the sailing there is no better feeling than just relaxing with a cuppa after a long and at times stressful journey!

Port Du Grand Large is on the port side, before the yacht club appears on the starboard side


We stayed here for 2 nights and although closer to the town centre I do think that Grand Large had better facilities, but would stay at either again if needed. We spent the next day walking around the town and doing a bit of shopping and recovering from the previous day, the fog had rolled in any way so we wouldn’t have gone anywhere anyway.


After a pleasant stay we decided it was time to move on, and try a bit more of the leaning over stuff! Sharon was intent on getting to Calais and was keen to leave the safety of the pontoons in exchange for the open sea, I however as always was still a little concerned about the reliability of the engine and suggested we stop at Gravelines as I liked the sound of it in the Shell Channel Pilot, also if all went well we could continue on to Calais in a day or so.

We left Dunkerque with a favourable forecast and still a little misty but nowhere near as bad as the pea souper that had engulfed the town on the previous day. So off we went and by the time we passed the Harbour Wall the sun had burnt off most of the haze but the wind had died a little as well, now normally I would jump at the chance of winding up the old donker and putting on the kettle, however seeing as though it was a short trip and we had most of the day we decided to leave the sails up and see how we would fair.


After a few hours the chimneys of the power station next to the entrance to the river Aa came into sight and we prepared for the approach, with little wind for most of the day it was typical that when we wanted to enter an approach which is sensitive to N’easterly winds it starts to pick up! With a bit of careful helming we managed to make it in to the calm water without too much of a roller coaster ride.


We arrived around 2 hrs before HW and had no problem with our 5ft draught making our way through the channel towards the town, passing the fishing boat pontoons on the left, and then the disused lifeboat station on the right

The river is almost canal like and is a straight line for almost 2 miles before you reach the end where you have to follow it round to starboard, or end up in a sluice!

Looking out to see from the sluice, and towards the marina.


Once round the bend you have some pontoons on the left which have some visitor moorings but all dry out at LW, then ahead is the ancient bridge and lock gates which house the marina Port de Plaisance.

Gravelines is a lovely old fortified town which managed to survive most of the bombing of the 2nd world war and is definitely worth a visit. Right next to the marina is a lidl supermarket where you can pick up your basics, about a 15 minute walk across the fields will bring you to a large supermarket where you can get everything else.

At the entrance to the marina is an ancient looking swing bridge along with a pair of lock gates that also have seen better days!


We found the marina staff to be very helpful and the price was excellent at 9 euros a night for 30ft, if needed there are lift out facilities and marine workshops which always seemed busy.

There is a new building at the road entrance to the marina which houses the office, bar/restaurant and brand new toilet and shower facilities which were very nice to use. Although most of the pontoons dry to soft ‘Hoo’ type mud if you can get a mooring on the end of the pontoons as we did then you will float all of the time.

Unfortunately after our first day we had 4 days of rain which put a dampener on things but we still managed to get out a bit including taking the bus to Calais, I said earlier the plan was always to get to Calais!


When the rain had passed the opportunity arose for us to make a dash back across the channel to Ramsgate and then on to the Medway, with a forecast of Northerly F3-4 occ’5 we decide to leave and make our way back. We motored out of the river Aa to be greeted by a bit of a lumpy sea, as we got out into deeper water the waves became a bit bigger but were more comfortable as they were further apart. As the sun came out it was clearly going to be a nice day although there was plenty of wind. We crossed the TSS again without incident but had to make a few alterations to our course to ensure we missed a few ships, however this had put us further south than we had wanted to be and now had to point into the wind as it was now N’easterly and had picked up speed.

We rolled up the Genoa and started to motor sail, we were barely making 2 knots as we were now losing the tide and had the wind on the nose, Sharon suggested that we turned around and headed for Dover, I didn’t realise it but this was going to be a defining moment in our sailing experiences! I was adamant that we were going to get back or at least into Ramsgate as we were now motor sailing, for another hour we battled against the increasing tide and wind and barley made a mile north east outside the Goodwin sands.

Now anyone who knows their stuff will tell you that trying to battle strong tides and winds on the wrong side of the Goodwin’s can be a recipe for disaster, this was where my lack of experience and knowledge obviously showed, I was getting more and more frustrated about what was happening, rather than just accepting the fact that we were not going to make it to where I wanted to go.

After some shouting, swearing and wanting a cigarette I decided to do what Sharon had suggested 2 hours previously and turn round and head for Dover, I had also decided that sailing was not for me and that when we were safely tucked up in Dover the boat would be going up for sale!


We arrived at Dover, once safely moored I walked along the road to a petrol garage to purchase my first packet of Marlboro Lights for the first time in three months, Sharon got upset at the thought of me smoking again so we packed up, locked the boat and managed to get number 1 daughter to collect us and take us home, still convinced that I had my fill of sailing and would return to a boat that had a couple of hundred horsepower pushing us along.

After a day or two I rang Barry G and gave him a blow by blow account of what happened, along with my determination to sell the boat. His response was simple but effective; you made a mistake and should have left earlier! He also explained that over the years he too had left boats in marinas up and down the coast because for one reason and another as he and Sue were unable to get somewhere, it was a simple fact of life.

Without hesitation he agreed to sail back to the Medway with me in a few days and assured me I would feel differently. After a week or so Sharon drove myself Barry & Sue down to Dover where we slept on the boat overnight, the next day Barry, Sue and myself set off from Dover (Having given Barry the instruction that he was in charge and that I would be having nothing to do with it!) and sailed up towards North Foreland via the Gull Stream Channel and then along the overland route back to the Medway. We had a great trip back, thanks in part to Sue’s home cooking that she had bought along, and I even got back on the tiller, by the time we got back to Chatham, sure enough I had got the bug again thanks to Barry’s words of encouragement.

Neil Walters 2009

Date Published 22nd Nov 2009