August – back to Cowes through the blue channel

For almost all the daylight hours during our 170 mile passage back to Cowes the sea was a mesmerising blue.

After weaving our way overnight through the sandbanks and brilliantly lit windfarms of the Thames Estuary, there was little to do in the calm of the English Channel except watch the autopilot and check the plotter from time to time.

It was enjoyable in a way that had very little to do with sailing. We did three hours on, three hours off and probably got more cumulative sleep than we usually have in 24 hours at home.

There was one concern during the passage, which was that the fine weather had prompted an unusually large number of refugee boats to cross from France.

We kept a watch for them as we went through the Straits, passing Dover as the sun rose, and saw none, though we did come across a channel swimmer making way at 1.7 knots. (We could tell the speed from the escort boat’s AIS broadcast).

The swimmer doing an impressive crawl.

We heard the coastguard talking to a yacht that had come across a refugee boat, one of a couple of dozen that were later reported to have crossed that day. Coastguard regular VHF broadcasts included requests to report the positions of any boats spotted.

There was no sense that danger was imminent in the case we heard, and the coastguard let the yacht continue on passage once it had reported the position. If it had been rough and the refugee boat was in danger of swamping that would have been another matter, because a yacht would need to stand by a potential casualty until help arrived from the RNLI or Border Force boats.

Only a few weeks previously, the shameless Nigel Farage had launched an attack on the RNLI for running what he called a taxi service for illegal migrants. He may have pleased the far right but thankfully he also prompted a huge increase in supportive donations to the RNLI.

After the Straits, we stayed inshore simply for the views, close to the lighthouse and power station at Dungeness and nearer to Beachy Head than we’ve been before.

There was not enough wind to switch off the engine even once until we arrived on our mooring in Cowes. The two nights were as calm as the days, though cool, with most of the light breeze produced by our own speed through the water. We added a knot to our speed by motor sailing into our own wind.

We chose to go because it was an all-too-brief weather window between south-west and westerlies. Long gone are the days when I’d have seen a 170 mile beat to windward as a challenge, and anyway I would not have dreamt of trying that without a crew of at least four, rather than two-handed.

Within hours of arriving in Cowes at 4a.m. the wind had got up from the south-west, there was driving rain and visibility was down to a few hundred meters, making it a miserable day for the racing boats which were there for Cowes Week.

Luckily it wasn’t the last sail of the month. Had a lovely few days going to Weymouth and back in the sunshine with Robbie.

Not much wind going there but a splendid sail hard on the wind in a NNE 4 from around Lulworth Cove to where we dropped anchor in Totland Bay on the Isle of Wight. We waited there for the tide up the Solent.

Moored in Weymouth

Weymouth was in a holiday buzz, helped by the focus on British holidays this year, and we had a very pleasant time there. We bought fish – prawns as a starter and then fried skate with capers – and both were the freshest I’ve tasted for a long time. The fish shop on the quay said they were from the boats moored outside.

How would we help a refugee boat in trouble? The usual advice is not to take people on board. There is an implied threat in that advice – not spelled out – that a skipper could be seen as complicit in illegal entry if a yacht arrives in port with refugees on board. On the other hand, international maritime law obliges ships and boats to try to save any life in danger, regardless of who they are, so quite apart from the instinctive reaction to help there would be a duty to intervene if a boat is swamping and refugees could drown.

It would not be easy to help. We practice man-overboard retrieval from yachts, and in all but calm conditions it takes many minutes to retrieve a practice dummy (usually a lightweight fender), and then there is the even bigger problem of getting a heavy person on board.

The stern ladder is dangerous if there is any sea running and a folding side ladder is difficult and slow for all but the fittest. Our backup method is a crane using the blocks and tackle of an old mainsheet, kept ready in a locker to be hung from the end of the boom, with the rope run to a big winch, a system that we have tested by lifting a 14 stone man.

The most practical way to save lots of people quickly is probably to launch our liferaft and three horseshoe buoys for them, and perhaps some fenders, keeping all the equipment tethered to the boat with lines, while we take the weakest on board as best we can, hoping for the lifeboat to turn up quickly.

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