Dartmouth to Cherbourg
Having enjoyed a week in Wales, a week in Padstow and almost a week in Newlyn, we decided it was time to crack on. A nice 4-5 day weather window sent us scurrying eastwards, as per Fraser’s blog.
We spent Saturday night in Dartmouth, tied up to a floating pontoon that was covered in seagull poop and empty mussel shells, with no electricity and no access to shore. The River Dart was still busy on that bank holiday weekend with boats and ferries of all shapes and sizes zooming so close to us we could have touched some of them. However, we had an early start scheduled with alarms set for 0330 so we hit the sack at eight and heard nothing as soon as our heads touched our pillows.
I should mention here that this was a bit of a personal pilgrimage for our boat. Barberry spent the first 18 years of her life on the River Dart, and she’s named after the Barberry Stream, a tiny tributary of the main river. Maybe it’s an excess of imagination on my part, but I swear she was glad to be home.
Leaving Dartmouth in the dark, however, was one of the least pleasant experiences on our journey so far. Not quite as bad as arriving at Milford Haven at 0400 in thick fog, but not far behind it. And it rained, of course, making everything that little bit harder and more unpleasant. On our way in the day before, we’d seen dozens of pot buoys scattered throughout the area we would be motoring through, so poor old Fraser made his way up to the bow of the boat with his powerful flashlight and started watching out for the little pests.
Pot buoys come in all shapes, colours, and sizes, and some are very hard to spot even in daylight as the tide sucks them down beneath the surface. Fraser had only just reached the bow and switched on his light when he yelled (into the very sensitive headsets with microphones that we use for communication when entering or leaving port), “Neutral!”
Reeling from the panic in his voice, I slammed the engine into neutral, overshooting into reverse for a moment before I managed to control my racing heartbeat. We drifted forward and Fraser said, his voice brittle with stress, “I think we’re clear.”
If you’re a non-sailor, you’ll be wondering at this point what all the fuss was about. Let me explain! Pot marker buoys are small objects that float at the upper end of a long rope leading down to the seabed where they’re attached to a lobster or crab pot. The buoys themselves aren’t a worry, but if the rope passes under the boat, as this one did, it can get sucked into our rapidly-rotating propellor and wrapped around it, effectively anchoring the boat to the seabed in a potentially dangerous position. Pots are usually laid around rocky shores, which are lethal enemies to boats. Hence our panic.
By putting the engine into neutral, I stopped the propellor from rotating which reduced the risk of it getting caught up. We once picked up a lobster pot this way in a previous boat, many years ago. It damaged our prop shaft and led to a serious leak that could have sunk us, so we now treat marker buoys with serious respect!
After that, the sea became quite bouncy, so Fraser was stuck up in the bow (the bounciest part of the boat), in freezing rain, pitch darkness, and mega stressed. I was really quite worried about him, from my lovely, snug position at the wheel. Thank heavens for the headsets, because I was able to keep talking to him to reassure myself that he was okay. Eventually I persuaded him to come back to the cockpit to thaw out, once we were in deeper water with less risk of pot buoys.
For longer passages, we always try to leave in the dark in order to arrive in daylight because it’s a tad safer that way. In theory, we’ve had a good look at the route in daylight on the way in, and made a note of potential hazards. One of the benefits of this is the wonderful feeling of sailing into a sunrise. As we were heading east, we took great satisfaction from the sky ahead gradually lightening (although it was too rainy and cloudy for a proper sunrise). It always lifts our spirits, and soon the sea was as calm as a millpond.
We passed quite close to the Eddystone Lighthouse, which felt like a landmark point in our journey, and were surprised to see it crowded with small fishing boats, taking advantage of the calm weather (and presumably having more success than Fraser!).
The sail to Portland was fairly uneventful, sailing out of sight of land across Lyme Bay. We picked up a hitchhiker (a tiny little bird that landed a few inches from me and stayed with us for a while to catch her breath before flying off again), and actually arrived ahead of schedule at Portland Bill.
The tides at Portland Bill are notorious, and the name Portland Bill puts fear into the hearts of many sailors. We were lucky, though, and it gave us an easy passage. We had to kill some time in the shelter of the cliffs near Chesil Beach, waiting for the perfect moment to take the ‘inside passage’ past the Bill, then we gunned the engine and shot around, a mere stone’s throw from the rocks where tourists stood and watched the mad Irish, the only boat out there that day, sweep past. If it hadn’t been so windy, we could have had a conversation with them without even shouting, that’s how close we were to the rocks.
This might sound like foolishness, especially after being such drama queens about tiny little pot buoys, but believe it or not, that is the recommended route. Just to seaward of Portland Bill is a huge, ship-killing tidal race that must be avoided at all costs. The options are to sail several miles out to sea to keep away from it, or, if brave/foolish (and only in settled weather) to take the inside passage as we did. It paid off and we motored on around to the impressively huge Portland Harbour and the marina deep inside it.
We’d been allocated a berth when we booked our space at the marina, but when we got closer it was obvious that the space was far too small for our boat (and it’s not as if the boat is big — she’s always one of the smallest boats everywhere we go), so we ducked into a bigger space instead. First priority, once the boat is safe and secure, is always the shower block. There’s nothing like a long shower after a passage to bring you back to life again. After that, our tummies reminded us that we’d only snacked all day and not eaten an actual meal, so we went in search of food.
This was a bank holiday weekend Sunday, but every shop, restaurant and café nearby closed at 4pm, so there was no food to be had.
Back to the boat, Fraser opened a tin of chicken in white sauce, a tin of sweetcorn, and a bag of precooked rice and shoved them all in a pan with some seasoning. Five minutes later, we tucked into a delicious meal that warmed us up from the inside, then we topped it off with a nip of whiskey before another very early night.
The next morning, we had a lie-in, with alarms set for 0550, aiming to set off for a Channel crossing at 0618. We managed to get the boat turned around despite a strong breeze that tried to prevent us leaving the pontoon, then headed out across the huge expanse of Portland Harbour. Once we were outside, we put up the sails (with a slight detour to avoid being sucked into the Portland tidal race) then pointed her bow at France.
This was the best crossing so far of our voyage. Once away from land, we had clear, blue skies, a perfect 15 knot wind from the starboard quarter, and we were on our way. This was the only leg of the journey so far where we didn’t see any dolphins, but that could be because the water in the English Channel (or La Manche, as the French call it) is quite choppy, which makes it hard to pick out those fins scything through the water.
We’d scheduled 12 hours plus for this crossing, but we tied up in Port Chantereyne in Cherbourg in under 11.5 hours. At one stage, with the tide helping us, little Barberry was flying along at 8.5 knots, way faster than we’ve ever managed before. Still only about the pace of a moderately fit jogger, but we were very happy with it.
In many ways, Cherbourg mirrors Portland with its giant outer fortifications, presumably from WWII. The outer harbour is huge, and we had to dodge a Brittany Ferries boat leaving as we entered. We managed to find a space on one of their visitors’ pontoons and got the boat secure before checking in at the marina office.
French pontoons are very different to the ones we’ve grown used to in the UK and Ireland. They’re much shorter, narrower, bouncier, and they don’t have the same big cleats to tie up to. However, we’d done our research and already worked out a strategy to deal with the different challenges, so we didn’t have any trouble. I used to be almost paralytic with fear every time we approached a marina, worrying that I wouldn’t be able to manoeuvre the boat into the narrow space between other (usually much more expensive) boats, but experience has worn away the fear, and I didn’t even stress about this one. Fraser stepped off the boat with a line in each hand and was confident enough to refuse help from a kind German lad who offered to catch lines for us.
We were in a state of euphoria (still are, truth be told). We’d sailed our little floating home all the way from Northern Ireland to France, and were still alive to celebrate. There’s no way to explain the feeling of achievement. After this, we only have one more tidal sea passage to make (Cherbourg to Honfleur), then a race against the tide up the River Seine to Rouen, before we take down our mast and become a river boat for a month or two. It still doesn’t feel real.
The girl on duty at the marina office when we arrived spoke fluent English, but we both try really hard to speak the language of whatever country we’re in at the time, so between our stilted French and her patience, we managed to find out where the showers, toilets, and laundry were. We also asked her about the Frontier Police, who are responsible for checking foreigners in and out of the country. The information we had said that they would visit the marina the following morning, but when the marina receptionist phoned them for us, it turned out that was a myth. Instead, we had to walk a 45-minute round trip to their office (no taxis available), and it had to be done immediately!
We were tired, sweaty, hungry, and stiff, but we gathered together all our ship’s papers, passports, etc and set off along Google Map’s little dotted line. It sounds daft, but the buildings and the streets, cobbled with shiny stones, just felt so French. We were exhausted, but still managed somehow not to be flattened by cars as we forgot to look left first when crossing the roads!
At the police station (which wasn’t where Google said it was), we met an unsmiling officer who spoke no English. We handed over all our forms and our passports. He glared at them. We began to sweat, wondering if we’d inadvertently broken a law somewhere. He disappeared into a back room, and after a few minutes, a cheery little man appeared with our passports in his hand.
“You don’t need to do any of this,” he said, in fluent English. “You have Irish passports!”
It was a relief that all the expense and time we spent applying for Irish passports (thanks to us each having Irish grandparents) had been worthwhile. With a British passport, since Brexit, we would have been limited to a rolling 90 days in 180 in the Schengen Zone (most of Europe), which would have put a crimp in our travel plans. With Irish passports, we now have full freedom of movement throughout Europe, and don’t need to do the ‘Schengen Shuffle’ that many other Non-EU sailors have to manage to avoid fines and being barred from re-entry to Europe.
So we thanked him, and hobbled back the way we’d come. We didn’t make it all the way back to the boat, but were seduced en route (see, I can speak French!) by a restaurant that served the best burger and chips I’ve ever tasted. I’m not a fan of either burger or chips, usually, but these were on a different level. The waitress even asked how we would like our burgers cooked. Fraser asked for bien cuit (well done), and I chose mi-saignant (medium rare). Exquisite.
On our first morning, still euphoric, we headed for the showers. Fraser was finished first and was sitting in the foyer waiting for me when he saw my doppelgänger walk past. Another woman with short hair and windburned skin wearing a striped top almost identical to the one I wear all the time. After a moment of disorientation, he realised she was far slimmer than me and saved himself from embarrassment. This turned out to be Julie, another UK sailor, and later that morning we met up with her and the rest of the crew of Dawn Treader for first coffee and later dinner.
One of the wonderful aspects of travelling like this is that you bump into fellow wandering spirits, and we‘re loving time we spent with Julie, Phil and Matt, just as we’d loved the time spent with Cheryl, Ian and another Matt in Wales. These folks all seem to have the same sense of humour as us, and of course they’re all equally mad, otherwise they wouldn’t be sailors. We enjoyed exchanging sailing horror stories and funny experiences, so there was much laughter and maybe a little alcohol to wash down the wonderful meal last night.
Next stage will be Honfleur, then the entire tone of these blogs might change as we meet new challenges crossing France the slow way, meandering along rivers and canals. We can’t wait!