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      09/08/10   Blankenberge to Ramsgate
Monday, August 9th - Blankenberge to Ramsgate

Betty at Ramsgate Royal Harbour


It is only normal to start the day of a Channel crossing at Blankenberge very early at 5.30 Belgian time. All three weather forecasts (BBC Coastal Forecast, Koenigliche Weather Forecast of the Netherlands and the German Shipping Weather) basically agreed on slight SW winds of 2 to 3 bf veering to W and to increase slightly. They forecast a clear, sunny day with practically no waves. The tide would not be running in my favour at first unfortunately, but since it would turn while crossing, I did not worry too much about it.
When I open the hatch, I can just make out the next boat for the thick fog which obscures everything more distant than 10 meters. I decide to get ready for a departure at 6.30, hoping the mist will clear sufficiently by then, wash and have breakfast. One hour later I can just make out the blue sky above the mist, but motor very slowly through the canal out of the harbour of Blankenberge. Although there is not a breath of wind stirring, I decide to hoist the main sail still close to the beach and by the time I motor westwards along the coast of Belgium, the fog has cleared completely.
Problems start at about nine o'clock, when a breeze from the SW is picking up, soon becoming a gusty wind of 3 to 4 bf and while blowing against the tide running westwards, it is whipping up a rather short and steep sea. By the time I reach the shipping lanes at midday, Betty sticks her bowsprit deep into every other wave and we make 2 to 3 knots at most. The trouble is, with the wind blowing from the direction it now is, I can no longer use the foresails to lift and stabilize the bow over the waves, which are getting higher the longer it is blowing. My only hope is the change of the tide in the afternoon, but now another problem manifests itself, the ship is making too much water. Only now it becomes clear, that the boat has dried out too much in the almost ten weeks in the shed and during that heat wave to boot. And the time back in the water has certainly not been long enough for the wood to expand completely and stop the gaps. Going through the waves instead of over them lets the water find its way through every seam in the deck and the cockpit and my electric bilge pump is simply overpowered. Now I have to man a pump and bail out the bilge manually every now and then. But apart from the slow speed we make and the discomfort of water sloshing from side to side down below, everything is hunky-dory.

But after crossing the traffic separation zone it gets really serious: Although the tide is now slowly turning in my favour and the wind decides to change to a more SW direction - which should be favourable and makes me hoist the foresails - it slowly picks up in force to a 5, occasionally 6 bf and the waves get higher and higher. I am now motor sailing, but soon the autopilot is overwhelmed and instead of steering the ship some of the time, I now have to man the tiller for good, making it impossible to be at the bilge pump at the same time.
So here I sit hour after hour, steering an over canvassed boat over cresting waves, outmaneuvering every other BIG one, that comes rolling in like a mountain with a crown of white foam, while a couple of bathtubs of salt water are sloshing back and forth inside the boat and I can't do the least thing about it... At about seven o'clock I start to get frightened: the wind seems to get even stronger and I definitely need to get some of the sails down, especially the big jib, which is now just too big for this wind. I still need to keep the staysail up to help the bow over the waves. Then again much later, finally past the huge offshore wind farm, using the autopilot to turn the boat and opening the main all the way as a shadow for the jib, I finally get it down and stowed away in the forepeak. Luckily without accidental gybe I manage to turn the boat around and resume playing hide and seek with the big rollers for a very long time. Until quite exhausted, I reach the shelter of the land, the waves are getting less frightening and after having put up the paraffin navigational lights as it is getting dark fast, I mange to take down the main and enter Ramsgate Harbour at 23.00, sixteen and a half hour after I set out from Blankenberge.

When tied up to the marina pontoon in the Royal Harbour, the wind is still howling in the rigging, but Betty is safe now and I can start taking stock of the damage. Well, luckily it is not as bad as I first thought. After wiping the floors and moving lots of stuff around, I even manage to find a dry bunk for tonight and apart from the mattresses drenched in sea water and most of my clothing soaking wet, there is no damage. So I settle down to have something quick to eat, thinking all the time: Thank God, I made it and the sleeping bag stayed dry!
This crossing, the last of a total of seven (four with Betty in 2003 and 2004, and two before that), turned out to be far too much on the brink for what I would consider safe - 'border lining' in other words. If only the slightest thing had gone wrong on top, I would have been in serious trouble and this is not a good realisation on a trip you are single handing. The most obvious conclusion: I can not have complete trust in any weather forecast - for all the computer power they throw at it today - and what logically follows is, I will not do long distances of open water without crew ever again!


Tuesday, August 10th - Ramsgate

Ramsgate Maritime Museum with Betty in front


After a stroll to buy a prepaid sim card for cheap local phone calls and above all affordable internet access I walk over to the Harbour Office in order to inquire about moving Betty to the inner harbour, because there is less swell, but most of all to save on the mooring fees, in case the weather forces me to stay for a few days. This does not seem to be a problem and at high tide I motor the boat through the lock and into a berth in the far corner of the Inner Harbour, where the Ramsgate Maritime Museum is situated. Regrettably the museum had to close its doors in 2010 due to financial pressures and it is unclear, when and if it will open again. But there are still a number of beautiful boats moored near the museum, Betty smack in the middle of them.
Today's remaining hours are spent between the boat and the marina facilities with its huge commercial washer and drier, getting the sea water out of the clothing in three long settings. By the evening I have everything clean and shipshape again and ready for a departure early tomorrow for the sail around the North Foreland and into the Thames Estuary.


Wednesday, August 11th - Ramsgate to The Swale


This first day of my 2010 Thames Estuary voyage takes me and my cruising smack Betty round the North Foreland to the Swale.
After the dreadful experience of the Channel crossing, I am quite happy about the warm, sunny and almost windless day. Having chosen the inshore route through the Gore Channel, there would be very little to report, had the very strong tide across the entrance to Ramsgate Harbour not taken Betty in her grip while I was busy hauling up the main sail and sort of wound her with the dinghy in tow round the cardinal buoy just outside of the breakwater barrier.
At the very last moment I rush to the tiller and try to steer clear of the obstacle, but the tide is too strong and the boat is put onto the big steely monster with her port topside aft, rubbing along it and just when she is free, hitting the dinghy almost right on the bow. It only takes a split of a second, but the scratches to the paint of Betty's topside and the damage to the dinghy are quite severe. I vow to be more observant in the future but for the moment all I can do, is to lick my wounds.

Thames Barge Repertor from Harwich

Reaching the entrance to the Swale late in the afternoon, just after passing the Whitstable Street to starboard, the most enticing scenery unfolds. Coming down from the main channel along the eastern shore of the Isle of Sheppey, a Thames Barge is sailing into Whitstable Bay with all her brown coloured canvas up and looking like a fine oil painting. Gazing into the afternoon sun behind her, I observe a few seals lying lazily on the uncovered sands in front of the lonely houses of Shell Ness.
The picture happening in front of my eyes is so beautiful and altogether so typical of the Thames Estuary, that I feel as if someone had welcomed me dearly to this proper beginning of my journey. Feeling quite overwhelmed I slow the boat down some and enjoy the moment in company of the barge and a few other yachts as we sail into the East Swale, some heading for Faversham Creek, some for the river, while I decide to anchor at Harty Ferry and call it a day.


Thursday, August 12th - Harty Ferry to Oare Creek


This is the first time I use my little GRP dinghy to row ashore and in order to do so, I get out the oarlocks and sweeps and take care to have all the necessities for a longer walk in a watertight bag - that is: my purse, digital camera, phone, the 'Trib', a sweater and something to drink - to make sure, it stays dry should I capsize.
You see, the boat is truly an ugly little thing - the american idea of the perfect motorized fishing dinghy, that can be rowed in case the outboard won't start - and of very light build, which apart from the fact that I got it for free, is also its greatest advantage: it will nicely follow Betty without the tendency to smash into the counter with a following wave and when it does get at the topside, it will do no damage whatsoever. But the little weight makes it also quite unstable and unless I plant myself more or less in the middle, I will have the choice: to swim back to the boat or ashore.

the dinghy on the hard

Today I am careful and after a pleasant walk along the beach it is time to get the anchor up and head for Faversham Creek, only about two miles away. Not at all certain, where I am going to stay for the night, I decide to turn off into Oare Creek instead of following the main water and right there at the yard near the entrance of the little creek, two men in overalls come out on a wooden landing and motion me to come near and make fast. Without a second thought I hand them my lines and oh how lucky, have found the ideal place for a smack in the vicinity: the Hollowshore Boatyard of shipwright Barry Tester. Barry is the owner of the big smack Alberta CK318 and has repaired and built many smacks to very high standards in his shed, where the spring tides fittingly flood the floor.

Through the rainy evening I walk back to the boat from an excursion to Faversham, the light getting darker by the minute, but reach the yard just in time to find Betty deep down below in the mud beneath the landing. After searching for some time in the dark for something like a ladder just long enough to reach the deck. To celebrate this success I feel the need to have a beer in company and so I climb back up and join the few patrons of the 'Shipwright Arms' pub just behind the sea wall, before turning in.


Friday August 13th - Oare Creek to Whitstable


Whitstable Harbour

In the morning I have made up my mind to sail to Whitstable for the race tomorrow after all. But first I have Barry Tester on board, who is happy to hear, that I will come to the regatta and has a thorough look at Betty. I point out to him the extensive work on the counter and the frames to port, the Dutch yard has carried out in the spring and he affirms the quality of the repairs wholeheartedly.
While we spend a considerable time inspecting difficult to access corners of the ship, torch in hand, more and more crews of the neighbouring smacks turn up and get their ships ready. With his girlfriend in tow Allan comes down to his yacht and is also very pleased to find me ready for Whitstable.


Saturday, August 14th - Whitstable


The day of the Whitstable Barge and Smack Race is here. Because of the tide we are to leave the harbour at 11 o'clock and the race starts at noon. Since it is still early in the day, I decide to go for an extended photo walk along Harbour Street - where the shopkeepers have just opened their doors and early shoppers fill the streets.
Once back I search out Frank for the promised crew member and big surprise, at the skipper meeting he tells me, Vic, a good friend of his wants to come along and then there is Justin, who promised last night to come to sail with us. Before they are to arrive, I clean up down below and prepare a few little goodies, like the fresh oysters I bought earlier at the harbour festival, which happens with stalls, selling second hand and new stuff, foods and the usual maritime fair.

Whitstable Street Regatta

Both crew members arrive in time and after introductions and the fresh oysters as a welcome snack, we throw off the lines and motor with the others out to the committee boat, where we set sail. The race is a lot of fun, but due to a few mishaps with the rig - especially with the topsail, which has not been hoisted after setting the mast in June and some of the lines run afoul - we cross the finish line third before last. In any case, the view of the other boats was stunning, Vic is an experienced and knowledgeable sailor of the local waters, who did most of the steering and everybody seems to have enjoyed themselves.
As if just for the price giving ceremony the sun breaks through the clouds and the ceremony becomes a real summer spectacle on two of the bigger boats - I applaud all the winners, not the least bit disappointed not to have won a prize.

smacks in Whitstable Harbour

When back on board, everything is in the mess I left it in after the race, but there is a small party on the boat lying alongside - people of all ages are sitting on deck and in the cockpit, some with glasses of red wine in their hands. I get offered one myself by the skipper Richard, which I can not refuse and am introduced all around and asked to say a few words about Betty. I try to give my usual spiel about the former oyster smack, lovingly converted to a smack yacht in the 60's, all this while I tend to the loose ropes and sails lying all about. This, of course, is not so successful and only some time later, with a couple of visitors down below, I manage to finish my story, thinking all the time, what a wonderful beginning of my journey to the Thames Estuary this has turned out to be.


Sunday, August 15th - Queenborough


I sleep very little tonight - the wind has turned easterly and is blowing the breakers into Whitstable, which makes lying alongside uncomfortable indeed - ropes moan and then come tight with a bang, everything loose in the cupboards clatters noisily and I roll about on my cot. I wanted to leave on the early morning tide anyway, to not get stuck in Whitstable if the wind freshens and now I get up even earlier. Alan is up also and I wake the crew on Richards ship in order to discuss a way to get Betty out, she is stuck sandwich fashion between them. But with the wind from NE, it seems impossible and Richards crew has never manoeuvred the smack on their own, so I ask them to call Richard, insisting that they get him to Whitstable in a hurry. And indeed, here he is twenty minutes later and after a little while we all make it out of the harbour without a problem and motor together for the Swale on the early tide.

the classic yacht Bonita on The Swale

Finally alone again in the Swale after Alan and Richard have turned off for Faversham Creek, I motor only as far as the green No.1 buoy, where I drop the anchor next to Bonita, a lovely old yacht at her mooring, to wait for enough water in the Swale and in order to catch up on some sleep.
A couple of hours later on the ever turning river with two mouths - the one I entered from the East and the other to the Medway in the West - comes the only railway bridge to the Isle of Sheppey and a rather long wait for it to open. Now it is not far to Queenborough, where I pick up a mooring quite near to the hammerhead pontoon. Here the pull of the tide and the wind is again quite fresh and the boat seems to surf on the fast river waters.
In Whitstable I simply did not have the time to do some shopping. As a result the lockers are almost empty and hunger plus the need to have a fresh shower drive me ashore. I take the dinghy to the hammerhead and hungry start looking for the Queenborough Yacht Club, which is closed. Only the glorious sunset on the way back to Betty in the Dinghy does help my mood a little and after supper from whatever I can find in the lockers I am myself again.


Monday, August 16th - Chatham


A gray, chilly morning: The boat is swerving on her mooring line, the waves are choppy even in these sheltered waters, a NW wind is blowing a cold force 4 to 5. During breakfast I decide to row ashore and take the train to Sheerness on Sea.
Back on the boat by noon, with stocks filled up and everything shipshape, the mooring line is dropped and I set off under engine and staysail alone for the
Medway, planning to motor sail up the river as far as Rochester in order to look for a good berth, convenient for trips ashore and perhaps London town.
There are hundreds of berths already taken up by boats below Chatham, when I slowly wound my way round the many bends of the old river. By now the sky has cleared up with the sun shining warmly from a blue sky onto the many sites along the shores soaked in centuries of naval and military history.

Betty on the Thunderbolt Pier, Chatham

Past Chatham round the last two bends to the old bridge crossing the Medway there are no berths for yachts to be found so I turn around and head back for Chatham Reach, when I suddenly spot a vacant berth on a pontoon, that could just be long enough for Betty. And really, I just about manage to nudge her into this spot and kill the engine, but it sure is a close fit. Perceiving a couple who enjoy the afternoon sun on their yacht, I ask them about the practicalities of a two night stay there and am told, that I need a key to open the heavy gate up on the landing. After calling a friend they manage to get the phone number of the harbour master, who lets me know that this is not a public landing, but after some deliberation, promises to come down later in the evening in order to arrange something and bring me the key. Very satisfied with the way today turned out for the best, I bring order into the ship and cook myself a good sized meal. Later I hear from Tony, the harbour master, that I made fast at the Thunderbolt Pier, which is part of the Historic Dockyard of Chatham and that I can stay till Friday, if I feel inclined to do so. I pay the fees for two nights, get the key and instructions and after admiring the boat Tony leaves me for a good night in what feels like 'Abraham's lap'.


Tuesday, August 17th - Chatham Harbour Day

Medway - view of Rochester


Before last night I decided for a harbour day today - there is Chatham to explore and historical Rochester is close by. Walking along the main road to Rochester, I pass derelict yards and strange little shops run by Lithuanians, everything looks run down and very poor in this part of Chatham. All this changes after crossing the old bridge across the Medway, I saw from the boat yesterday. Now there are groups of young Japanese and French tourists in the streets, coffee houses and second hand bookstores in beautiful old houses (the most famous is Charles Dickens Chalet) - I am in the historic City of Rochester. But I do not stay long: in doubt whether I should take Betty up the River Thames to Gravesend, I catch the bus to this old river port on the spur of a moment and some time later step off in the centre of Gravesend. Here I am interested in the possibilities of a good berth at the Embankment Marina, the only viable port for yachts on this stretch of the Thames. There are a number of nice looking barges moored in the basin, giving the place an almost Dutch appearance, but the access to the marina is somewhat restricted: to enter or exit through the old, manually operated lock is only possible at or near high tide and an ugly modern building block towers over the part of the basin, where a few yachts have their berths.
Having now almost decided to skip Gravesend on this journey, I am nevertheless glad to have made my way here by coach and do some serious sightseeing including the ferry landing to Tilbury (where I almost step on board to cross the river for the famous Tilbury Fort), the Royal Pier and up the broad Hamer Street to the classic victorian Jubilee Clock Tower, erected to commemorate Queen Victoria's golden jubilee in 1887.
I definitely enjoy this attractive little town and decide to come back some time later, but really tired by now, find my way to the railway station and take the next train back to Chatham. There I had planned to shop for groceries, but it being just after six o'clock all the shops are closed I make my way back to the boat and have an early night after hamburgers and hash browns.


Wednesday, August 18th - Stangate Creek



Wednesday 18. August 2010


geographical position
51° 23.5' N 0° 40.7' E
miles covered today:

10,2 nm

prev. day:
512,6 total: 522,8


days events

The research for titles of cruising literature, of the Thames Estuary in particular, is the motto for today. The first place to visit in order to peruse this endeavour is of course Greenwich, which I will visit by train and on foot - having turned in early last night it is an early rise today, leaving Chatham station on a commuter train in the early morning rush hour.

Medway - Fort Darnet Ness

The fast train to Rochester and then a quick walk bring me back to Chatham and the boat, but only after I did my shopping - today with enough time before the stores close at six. After a brief consideration I leave the key and my £20 harbour dues in the letter box, start the engine, cast off the lines and manoeuvre the boat off the pontoon. And then it happens: the tide and a little breeze push Betty upstream and before I have made enough distance to the quay, she is pressed against the yacht behind. I have a number of fenders out and almost manage to push her off, but the boats touch briefly, the paintwork of the yacht gets scratched... an instant later she is off and I am at the helm and manage to reach free water. As often in cases like this, I do not know how to best proceed. I should turn around, make fast again and try to get in touch with the owner. But then again, as the situation is, this manoeuvre can lead to even greater damage and the scratch is probably very small... Today I keep moving on and enjoy the warmth of the late afternoon, motoring down river along the many boats lying peacefully at their moorings on the Medway.
About an hour later, trusting the 'Geonav' navigation and my depth sounder, I take a short cut over the Yantlet Spit and later the Ham Ooze to Sharfleet Creek and then Stangate Creek, which cuts the time by maybe half an hour and is not really necessary in this gorgeous sunset but risk-free fun at now almost high water. Very slowly and carefully I make my way up Twinney Creek with the last rays of the sun and into the eastern twilight, getting dark fast. With a foot of water left under the keel I stop the engine and let go of the anchor, which touches the ground in seconds and pulling back under engine I let the anchor bite, switch it off and now everything is peacefully quiet. I can make out the twinkling lights of a little landing towards the east, but here I am completely alone with my thoughts and the ship.

  skipper:Jan Holthusen  


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