Pan-pan, pan-pan... The first thing we hear as we set out from Harwich, and many times over the week, is the request for information on the yacht Tuila - alas none was forthcoming. It was sad, and hardly encouraging news as we set out for Holland.
We had struggled our way up the Wallet the previous evening to meet Jon Walmsley at Suffolk Yacht Harbour, arriving at 23.30. As this was PUDMUDDLE's first visit to the Orwell, it had been a small adventure in itself.
The wind, contrary to forecast, was in the East, so we tacked out to the Cork Sand, North around it, then close-hauled to Long Sand Head. With the wind backing, we were forced to tack further South for an hour or so, then NW bringing us back towards our intended course, and the South Galloper buoy. However a further wind shift gave the opportunity of some more Easterly progress, so we cut across to the Falls bank, and the shipping lanes beyond.
Darkness had fallen by the time we entered the southbound lane, and we could see several sets of lights. We soon realised that we must take evading action as our course converged with the nearest ship. Both STRAVAIG and PUDMUDDLE altered course to clear the ship's stern, but we lost sight of each other during the manoeuvre and, worryingly, were out of touch for the rest of the passage. Neither of us could hear VHF with the engine running.
I wasn't counting but it seemed like we encountered 20 ships in the 10 mile wide separation scheme. As I am colour blind, I depended on Justine to describe the changing pattern of each vessel.
We finally left the traffic behind, passing South of the Garden City buoy, and a platform that has appeared nearby. We could see the loom of the West Hinder light, and headed that way. Unable to raise Jon on the VHF, we decided to heave-to in this quiet, dark part of the sea, and wait for dawn before crossing the next set of lanes.
Two hours, some kip, and 6 miles of NE drift later. There was good light now, and the wind had come round to the North. We set off to the South, passing through a vast anchoring ground where a dozen ships lay. To our surprise we only encountered a handful of ships in the lanes beyond, and we were soon heading for the Belgian coast, crossing over banks in the calm seas. We were close inshore by 10.00 but in our eagerness had come closer to Ostende than we had planned. With much lighter wind now, we had a couple of hours motoring up to Blankenburg.
Arriving after a 26-hour passage we were relieved to hear Jon's shout from the pier head. He too was concerned, having arrived over 2 hours before us. We tied up alongside STRAVAIG, registered with the harbourmaster (a quick and informal affair, no papers asked for), and set about a day's relaxation.
Blankenburg is very much a family holiday resort, which tries very hard to be as tacky as Southend, but is just too clean and respectable! We had a good meal out, and explored the town (which consists of a long line of flats along the coast, with the small port and commercial district tucked in behind).
The next afternoon we set off up the coast again, for Breskens. Apart from negotiating the Zeebrugge entrance, and dodging the Vlissingen ferry, this was a relaxing trip with a light northerly wind and a good swift tide. Inside Breskens harbour are visitor's pontoons where you can phone the harbourmaster and find a berth. It's a big marina (pontoons A-P) with good showers etc in a floating building. There's also a small but lively fishing industry, with an excellent little fish market.
The next day was a bit blowy, so we hired bicycles and caught the ferry to Vlissingen (AKA Flushing). After looking round the town, we set off along the towpath to Middleburg, enjoying the typical Dutch scenery along the way. The canal is wide, and there were several yachts making their way north. However it was quicker by bike - there are several locks!
After a pleasant cup of tea in Middleburg, we set off West for the coastal dunes. Along the way we saw literally hundreds of hired bicycles. We made our way along the coast back to Vlissingen, and caught the ferry back (it was only 50P each way with a bicycle).
Thursday was a day of thundery rain, and we were concerned about our weather for the trip back. We discarded the notion of going back to Blankenburg (having missed the best tide for that day) and spent the day shopping, planning, eating out, preparing the boats, cooking a fish dinner, and an early night.
We set off at about 08:00 on Friday, local HW. This gave us a really good tide along the coast, adding a good 3 knots to our speed. The wind, however, was a light northerly, so a bit of iron tops'l was in order for much of the trip. The seas were quite calm, and the only bumpy bit was crossing the end of one of the banks, where the tide made a steep sea even with 10 metres below us.
We were close-hauled crossing the West Hinder separation scheme, but with little traffic to worry about. PUDMUDDLE can't go as close as STRAVAIG, so our ways diverged for a time; we passed south of the Fairy Bank, then tacked NE to meet Jon before crossing the N-S shipping lanes. There were quite a few ships again, but with good visibility and care, they weren't a problem. I guess we were getting our eye in and making more confident judgements!
We now set our course for Long Sand Head, and hours later as the sunset we could see the distant loom of the Sunk. In this region, there are quite a few ships converging, so we needed a careful watch. We reached Long Sand Head buoy shortly after low water (Harwich) which gave us another good run of tide up the Swin and into the Crouch. It was dark by this time, and as the night was clear, it was a very pleasant to steer up channel by the various lights, from the ominous Sunk Head Tower to the welcoming clang of the Whitaker, and the East Coast towns away across the Gunfleet.
There was still a twist to come, as we entered the Whitaker. First, Jon let us know that he had a power supply problem, and was losing his lights; then fog. We soon lost sight of STRAVAIG, and at one point turned back to look for her, thinking that without instruments, navigation could be tricky. In the process, we found ourselves off-track on the Maplin, and spent a while with 0.4 M below us before finding the channel again. Eventually, we found the Crouch buoy and the fog cleared as we came up the river. In Quay Reach we found STRAVAIG anchored and safe! Our passage time from Breskens was 23 hours, as good as we could hope for. Now for a really good kip, and a leisurely sail to Fambridge for the RSA Dinner later in the day - what better end?