The English Channel - Part 1 (Sept. 4-7, 2018)

Tuesday, 4 September 2018 - Dunkirk, France Marina

After arriving early yesterday afternoon, we walked around Dunkirk a little last night, but we were so exhausted it wasn’t much of an exploring expedition. We saw many lovely French restaurants, but opted for a burger joint instead. I was craving the protein of some red meat.

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On board, we make a lot of pasta-based dishes and a lot of potato-based dishes. We have a tiny refrigerator unit, but it’s smaller than most of the beer coolers I see people carry around for an afternoon on the beach in Gulf Shores. We store eggs, cheese, butter, yogurt, milk, and sometimes bacon or luncheon meat. We don’t really have room for bigger items, and we definitely can’t store anything like meat or chicken that must be kept frozen. We try to get local fresh fruit and veggies when we can and have become creative with our pasta meals. We just throw in anything we happen to have and add a little canned sauce. While we are on this journey, I may write a cookbook – 900 Different Ways to Eat Pasta.

We crashed early, and I don’t think any of us moved an inch the entire night. Maik and I both felt the soreness set in as we slowly awakened and began to start the day.

My neck and shoulders are particularly sore. I think this is because I’m not used to wearing the heavy life vest, and also because most of the sailing has been extremely tense. I also think it takes a lot of energy and muscle activity to simply keep your balance on a moving sailboat for four straight days. We had some hours of calm seas, but for the most part, we are working our bodies even when we are relaxing.

When you live on a sailboat, you are never perfectly still. When the boat stops and you are moored, the boat still moves … although certainly not as much. I can feel my arm and leg muscles tightening and getting stronger and leaner. It’s an odd feeling to think you are not exercising or “working out” for days at a time—and I suppose we are not in the traditional sense. But our bodies are definitely working.

Sailing in heavy conditions is physical, I can assure you. When a heavy 15-knot wind gust catches your sail while you are trying to tack, it can take all your strength and might to get it pulled in, controlled, and secured. Even just being on watch is physical. I don’t ever sit down while I’m on watch. I’m standing and moving around the cockpit for the whole shift—always. I want to stay alert and active.

I’m also noticing how much our brains are working. We are mentally exhausted, too. Any relax time is spent sleeping. If we are awake, we are working our brains. We must be aware of the conditions, the traffic, the boat chores and maintenance, navigation, weather, and our regular work activities. Over breakfast this morning, Maik made an observation about how when you are living at sea, your mind is so occupied on the route, the operation, the sailing, the weather, the planning, and the executing that you quit worrying about things like politics and other daily events that would normally occupy your mind. It’s nice. We are experiencing a bit of ignorant bliss right now about what’s going on around the world—something we normally would think about daily.

Maik showered last night, but I was too exhausted. So I went first thing this morning to the marina facilities. At first the water was like ice, and I had to think really hard about how badly I wanted to get clean. But it eventually heated up to a tolerable lukewarm and actually felt great to just wash away the stress and excitement of the past four days.

We spent the day catching up on our day jobs. We are both so far behind with regular work. It’s getting more and more difficult to keep up. We also did a little laundry and some grocery shopping to re-stock fresh fruit and veggies and a few other supplies. We were thinking of taking another straight, non-stop voyage across the English Channel. I am not a fan of this idea, but I’d rather forge on without stops in good weather, than have a single day trip with severe and challenging conditions.  

We got into a rhythm while crossing The North Sea and were able to find a system for sailing 24/7 and still maintain some sense of normal. Well, it’s a sense of the “new normal.” But I think we are both still a bit worn out from the North Sea trek.

Thanks to the favorable North Sea easterly winds, we are very close to being back on track with our original schedule, even though we were almost three weeks delayed with the original departure.

Maik spent about two hours studying the weather and navigation charts. He decided that we would take advantage of the conditions and depart in the morning for the small French coast port, St.-Valéry-en-Caux. It’s a port that Yvi recommended, so we decided to plan a voyage straight there that would require sailing about 100 nautical miles. He calculated that at an average speed of 4.5 knots, it would take us about 24 straight hours. If we depart around 09:00 in the morning, we should get there right at high tide on Thursday morning. This is a port that cannot be entered at low tide.

Maik also learned that an ugly storm front would be coming in on Friday, so we planned to get to St.-Valéry-en-Caux on Thursday morning and then hunker down until the storm passes before continuing through The English Channel.

Wednesday-Thursday, 5-6 September 2018 - Departed Dunkirk 08:50

I didn’t sleep well last night. Hurricane Gordon was heading toward Gulf Shores. Before going to sleep, I saw on Facebook the posts from all my neighbors getting everything secure. I texted with my oldest and dearest friend, Trisha Fowler, who also lives in our condo community. She was taking care of getting our apartment “hurricane ready” for us. Another great friend and neighbor, Lynn Jordan, was ready to move my car to a safe place, if needed.  We have such incredible neighbors!

I dreamed about sailing Protagonist on Bon Secour Bay. This is our little 15-foot, wooden day sailer that is moored at the marina in Gulf Shores. I guess I’m missing her. I think I was also worried about Protagonist being safely secured. I miss my friends and family, too. I was worried about all my friends on the Gulf Coast. Fortunately, the storm was only Category 1 and caused minimal damage.

In the early morning, we did our usual departure rounds to get Seefalke and the Seadogs ready for another journey. We were excited about sailing into The English Channel, but we also knew that with the heavy traffic, traffic separation schemes, and heavy currents that would be against us in the beginning, it would be a tough haul.

Maik carefully planned the watch schedule for another all-nighter. Again, he scheduled me for the open ocean, less traffic opportunities and scheduled himself for the high traffic areas that required more skill and experience. Maik took the first shift.  I cuddled with the pups and went straight to sleep—hoping to catch up on the lost sleep from last night.

I’m learning that when you are sailing on shifts, you really don’t have time to wind down when you are off duty. You may have two to four hours at a time for sleep, and you can’t spend one of them drifting slowly away. We’ve managed to train ourselves to just crash as soon as our heads hit the pillow. It helps if you don’t look at your phone, don’t read, don’t watch anything on the computer, don’t work….just lie down and close your eyes and go to sleep. The rocking motion of Seefalke always helps. It feels like you are rocking like a baby in a cradle. I’ve also learned that my internal clock seems to wake me up long before any alarm I set. I find this interesting. Of course, we can wake each other, if needed, but generally, we wake ourselves just prior to our shifts.

This time, I told Maik I didn’t want to sleep through the point when we actually cross over into the English Channel. Dunkirk is the last stop in The North Sea.  It dumps into The English Channel just before the narrow, difficult-to-maneuver Strait of Dover. After about three hours of restful sleep, my internal clock woke me, and I joined Maik in the cockpit even though it was a good two hours before my shift would begin. The wind was whistling at about 15 to 20-knots. Seefalke was gliding like a downhill skier along the 2-meter waves at an average of 6 to 7 knots. This is fast for our heavy, bright orange, steel ketch.

Within 30 minutes or so, we entered the narrow Strait of Dover, marking the boundary where The North Sea ends and The English Channel begins.

There were huge ships everywhere. It was cloudy and grey and hazy. And it was chilly, but not unbearable. The sun was nowhere in sight. The water was a silvery grey, and the sky was grey and full of billowy grey and black clouds. Just like when we left the Kiel Canal and entered the Elbe River, everything seemed to turn to black and white with many shades of grey but no other colors. It was beautiful in kind of an eerie, magnificent way.

We were on about a 25-degree tilt, which is right at my threshold for feeling comfortable. We made it through the Strait of Dover and could actually feel the difference in speed from Seefalke’s normal 4.5 to 5 knots. We were racing through the water. Seefalke’s bow was slicing through the waves like a hot knife through butter.

We could see Cap Gris Nez near Calais in the distance. Once we passed the cliffs, we would tack to the port side and make our turn to the southern part of the channel toward St.-Valéry-en-Caux. That’s the point where I would take over, and he would rest. It’s also where we would begin to get some favorable currents.

We made the tack with no problems and were now on a southerly course toward our destination. The wind was perfect. The currents were no longer working against us, and we were maintaining the amazing average speed of around 6 to 7 knots.

Maik went down to sleep, and I settled in to my watch. There is not much traffic the further you get from the main TSS in the English Channel. So for me, this was a relatively easy shift. The water was deep, with perfect winds, and a respectable-but-tolerable 20 to 25-degree tilt, at times.

Sometimes, when tilting on a sailboat I get nervous. I have a fear of capsizing. But I’m less afraid of this on Seefalke. Her keel is almost as long as her 43-foot frame, and her 11-ton body provides significant balance.  Seefalke’s cockpit is extremely safe. It is almost 4-feet deep on all four sides so you are completely protected inside this little cocoon in the center of the boat. I’ve seen sailboats that have the cockpit in the stern with an open back and no pocket to stand in. There is nothing to protect the sailors from heavy waves crashing in. And there is nothing to protect the sailors from just flying out backward.

My only problem with the cockpit is that my just under 5-foot-7-inch body is not quite tall enough to see over the top of the front hood. I have to stand on my tippy-toes, which is not always easy when you are also trying to balance yourself. When the boat is rocking in all directions, it helps to spread your legs and bend your knees and let your legs bend and move to cushion the movement. Its like doing lunges and squats at the same time to the rhythm of the waves—kind of like the motion you need to make with the lower part of your body to maintain the twirl of a hula hoop. This is not easy to do on your tippy toes.

My shift was relatively easy and actually enjoyable. I didn’t have much traffic to deal with for almost six hours. The waters calmed significantly about three hours in—enough that I was able to let Cap’n Jack join me in the cockpit. He curled up on the bench next to me and rested his head on the cockpit credenza. Scout was comfortably nestled with Maik in the bunk below.

In the last two hours (from about 18:00 to 20:00) we were completely alone in this world. Literally. I could not see any land or other ships on the entire perimeter around us. Nothing. There was only the sea and the sky and the horizon that connects them in my full 360-degree view.  I’m not sure why I didn’t take a photo or a video of this experience because it was beautifully haunting and magical. Perhaps I just wanted to savor the intimacy of this feeling of being this teeny-tiny little orange dot right in the center of a world that is so amazingly huge. 

I never saw the sun this entire day, but as the day turned to evening, the water began to change from a silvery grey to a seafoamy-turquoise color. It was an interesting shade of green that I couldn’t compare or relate to any other object. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this color before.

Maik was scheduled to take over at 20:00 and like clockwork, he popped up out of bed before I could wake him.  I was still a bit sleepy from the lack of sleep the night before and even though my shift was uneventful, I was ready for some more rest. But first, I wanted to try to cook Maik a hot dinner before going back to bed. I knew his shift would be tough as the night was turning black and the empty horizon would soon begin to glow and sparkle with the lights of fishing ships, bouys, and traffic coming in and out of several ports – a zillion moving lighted objects for him to interpret and maneuver around.

The waves had begun to rock us heavily again, so the pups went below with me. The galley can be a dangerous place in these kinds of conditions. We have a gas stove/oven that you must light with a match. We have a semi cardanic-hinged stove, which means it swings with the motion of the boat keeping the surface even with the horizon.

I decided to make something easy…a bacon-egg-cheese omelet.  I love breakfast food for dinner. As a child, my mom would often make pancakes or eggs for dinner, and I always thought this was such a fun treat! I wish I had a video of myself attempting this task of cooking while on a rocking boat, but I’m usually the one holding the camera and this balancing act requires the use of all your limbs. It was kind of like trying to cook while walking through one of those fun house mazes at the local fair.

I had my legs spread well beyond my body width and unconsciously doing my lunge/squat/hula-hoop motion with the rhythm of the waves.

I had one hand firmly grasped to the counter and the other hand was trying to coordinate the ingredients and utensils. I cut up some bacon slices and began sizzling them in the pan. Then I carefully broke four eggs into a bowl and began to whisk them. I wanted to add salt and pepper. Out of habit, I sat the bowl on the counter to reach for the seasonings. That’s when I realized the counter is not cardanically-hinged and definitely does not swing with the motion of the boat keeping the surface even.  The bowl immediately went sliding across the counter, dumping about half of the whisked eggs all over the galley. As you know, raw eggs are just the worst kind of sticky mess to clean. Ugh!  Anyway, I managed to get the eggs cooked, although we had to settle for scrambled rather than a nice neat omelet.

I cleaned the galley and then cuddled with the pups for some rest before my 01:00 shift the next morning.  I was lying on my back and Cap’n Jack was wedged between my legs with his head resting on my tummy. Scout was curled in the fetal position inside my left armpit with her head resting sweetly on my shoulder. We rocked safely inside Seefalke’s baby cradle and drifted into a deep sleep.

I awoke to an exhausted skipper. While we slept soundly, the empty horizon had become filled with fishing boats. He had a maze of obstacles to dodge, including some low water level areas he needed to maneuver around. He briefed me for my shift. There were a few buoys to be aware of and one fishing boat just in front of us, but at a safe distance. I had a straight shot toward our target marina, and we were on pace to arrive around 04:00, a good five hours before our originally-predicted time of arrival. Maik asked me to wake him when we were five miles from the port.

I had no major issues, but night watches are just stressful for me. I’m getting more comfortable, but the lights through the binoculars still play tricks on my eyes, and I found my whole body tensing for almost the entire three hours. About an hour into the shift I could see the red and yellow glow of our port begin to shine above the black horizon in front of us. As we slowly got closer and closer the city of St.-Valéry-en-Caux began to come into focus. I stared at it for the next two hours and continue to be amazed that in the open ocean you can see something clearly in the distance and yet it can still be miles and miles and miles away from you. It’s another reminder of what a small speck we are compared with the huge world in which we live.

I woke Maik when we were five miles from the port—around 04:00 as predicted. He said that we had to wait for high tide to enter the marina, and this would require another three hours. So close! It seemed a pity to arrive so early and then just have to wait. We had to take long tacks in the waiting area outside the marina for all of those three hours. We had a difficult and narrow pilotage into the harbor, but as the sun began to rise, we could already tell the destination was gorgeous.

The water was that same never-before-seen greenish color, but now it was mixed with deeper and more brilliant shades of green all lined up—light-to-dark—like all the green crayons in a Crayola box. We could see the lighthouse and the white cliffs in front of us and maneuvered our way in, fighting the jetties and groundswells the whole way into the harbor. We couldn’t even ready the boat until we were safely inside the wind shadow of the high marina walls because the force of the waves and the rising tide was so severe.

We secured Seefalke and got settled in. I gave the pups a long, well-deserved walk while Maik checked in with the Harbor Master. Then we both just crashed. Hard.  We didn’t even move an inch for the next 4.5 hours. Our bodies and minds were whipped.

Around 12:30, as I began to slowly come out of my exhaustion coma, the sun was shining brightly through the open hatches above us. A cool, crisp breeze was flooding the cabin with fresh sea air. We forced ourselves out of bed, and I took the pups on another walk and searched for postcards and a few supplies. Maik met us for lunch. This time we treated ourselves to some delicious French cuisine at a sweet little café in the city’s center.

Although we don’t remember seeing many people when we entered the harbor around 07:30, apparently our mooring was quite the spectacle. It’s kind of hard to miss seeing this big, bright orange vessel enter a marina. Seefalke doesn’t look like any other ship. Generally, about 95% of the sailboats we see in the harbors are white. Seefalke never gets lost in the crowd.

Several people, including the owner of the restaurant, approached us asking about Seefalke. The owner asked about our jib boom because he had never seen one before. This is another unique feature of Seefalke. She actually has three booms—one on the jib, the main boom, and the mizzen boom on the stern. The waitress brought Cap’n Jack and Scout some water bowls and said she saw us coming in and remembered seeing the sweet puppies on the big orange sailboat.

After lunch, we unleashed the hounds for a couple hours on the gorgeous beach.  It was interesting to now see the marina entrance at low tide. Where the gorgeous hard-to-identify green-colored water once filled the channel, it was now just the dirt and rocks that make up the ocean’s floor. We now understood why a low-tide entry was not possible.

On the beach, Cap’n Jack and Scout ran and played for about two hours. It was so cool to see what is generally hidden by water as the low-tide shore was dry with only rocks, coral, seaweed and tons of crabs and other crustaceans scampering about. We were wondering what kinds of sea life could survive in these conditions—six hours wet and six hours dry. The pups were literally playing on the bottom of the sea.

Now, we will spend a couple days catching up on work, resting, doing some boat maintenance (and people maintenance) while the storm front passes. We hope to catch another good weather pocket for our final pass along The English Channel and then into the challenging Bay of Biscay.

Friday, 7 September 2018 - 05:56 a.m.

We were sleeping deeply, even after Cap’n Jack had awakened us briefly around 02:00 while throwing up some clam shells he apparently ate while playing on the beach.

I heard a scraping sound that did not sound normal. I asked Maik if it was the sound of the floating piers rising with the tide. We heard some voices outside and more scraping. Maik lept to the cockpit in his underpants and quickly called down to me, “Get up here!”

I threw on the yoga pants sitting next to the bed and joined him. When I got to the cockpit I saw what he saw. We were flanked on the starboard side by the bows of about four other ships.

Two of the ships’ captains were on their respective decks trying to push an 11-ton, drifting, orange steel ship away from their bows. Our mooring lines were no longer secured to the pier, and the incoming tide had pushed us away from our mooring and sideways into the marina.

Maik sprang into action. He turned on the engine and told me to flip on the batteries. We pushed ourselves away from the other ships, and Maik maneuvered us back to our spot alongside the edge of the pier.  The mooring lines on the bow and the stern were floating in the water and completely tangled, I pulled them in, untangled them and got ready to jump off the boat onto the pier to re-secure Seefalke.

Fortunately, the other two ship captains ran over to our pier to help. I tossed them the bowline, and then the stern line. They secured us to the mooring cleats while Maik safely maneuvered Seefalke. We then got the spring lines secure.

Maik was then standing on the pier, still in his underpants, talking to the other captains. They were all three scratching their heads trying to figure out what happened.

There is NO possible way that all four of our securely tied lines had come untied without help.  One of the French captains suggested that some teenagers were possibly playing a joke, not realizing the millions of dollars of damage to property—not to mention injury to people and pups—that a prank like this could cause. The other captain suggested that we could be a target because of our German flag. This is Normandy, after all. While they were trying to figure it out, I was searching the perimeter because I thought that if someone was playing a joke, then perhaps they were nearby watching.  I saw no one—just an empty village with no signs of life outside of the marina.

There was nothing stolen or missing from the boat. All our equipment and electronics and computers were intact. And thankfully, there was no damage to any of the boats and no injury to any of the people or pups.

I reminded Maik that around 02:00 I had taken the crab-shell-mixed-with-puke blankets that Cap’n Jack threw up on onto the deck. At that time, I am absolutely positive that Seefalke was securely moored in her spot. I know this because I looked at the pier and considered tossing the blankets onto the pier rather than onto the deck. We had only drifted about 50 meters so the lines had to have been untied within the last 15 to 30 minutes.

Just in case this was attempted again, Maik decided to drop the anchor. There was no way Seefalke could now move without intention.

We later spoke with the Harbor Master, who had already contacted the local police when the two French captains reported it earlier in the morning. He said it’s possible they have some video surveillance that might answer our questions. He also told us that there was a football match in town last night. He suspects it was some drunk hooligans in search of trouble.

Cap’n Jack and I may be camping out in the cockpit tonight. This beagle has a very loud howl that might just come in handy if the hooligans return.