The English Channel
“Better drowned than duffers if not duffers won’t drown” was the telegram from their naval officer father that gave the children permission to go off sailing in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. We were a good ten years older than the children, and didn’t have to ask our parents when we set off across the English Channel in 1971. I still wonder how we twenty somethings got to France and back, after almost hitting a rocky beach at full speed and near misses with a freighter and an aircraft carrier, all at night.
Offshore sail training was rudimentary, and none of us would have known where to find an instructor even if it had occurred to us to ask. Most of the six crew’s experience was in dinghies, and not everyone had done even that much. Maybe we exaggerated our skills a little. The charter boat owner was taken in.
All I remember of the induction was a stiff talk on the quayside at Lymington about the dangers of going too fast. At speed in rough weather, the 30 foot Iroquois catamaran was said to be at risk of burying the bow of one of its hulls in a wave and somersaulting , we were told. To ram home the point, the owner claimed that the only recorded fatality on an Iroquois, in those days ranked as a performance boat, was when one hit the shore at such speed that it broke up on a road, a story which I rather think was made up to scare caution into the novices.
After the briefing, we loaded stores, started the outboard motor and set off in Vouvray from the Town Quay, making quite a good job of looking as if we knew what we were doing, even when the Isle of Wight ferry came charging down the narrow channel behind us. There was no Lymington marina at the time; in fact a nostalgic leaf through the 1971 edition of the Shell pilot for the English channel shows only two harbours labelled as containing marinas on the entire coast from North Foreland to Lands End: at Newhaven and at Moody’s on the Hamble.
There was a gentle breeze on the passage south to Alderney, which was an opportunity to find out about navigation, which was in those days very basic. The skipper had used a radio direction finder before, when crewing on a friend’s boat, so he explained the techniques to the rest of us. First we had to learn bits of the morse code to recognise the distant radio beacons, which broadcast at fixed intervals, then we had to practice finding the beacons by their loudness, and then, as we approached the Channel Islands in the dark, we practised doing fixes by drawing onto the chart the compass bearing lines from two or preferably three beacons, to form a triangle inside which we should in theory be located. My recollection is that we beginners could not find where we were on the chart to better than a circle of six or seven miles, which is more than the size of the island we were aiming for, Alderney.
The next stage was to learn how to analyse the tide tables and tidal stream atlases, and work out how the currents flow round the Channel Islands, which is not simple. Thankfully, the weather was delightful and summery, and we made Alderney, then a day or two later piloted through the Little Russell Channel and down to St Peter Port, Guernsey, in perfect conditions. After a day in Guernsey, we got up courage to head for the difficult coast of Sark, the small but perfectly formed island that still bans motor cars. Once there, we crept into the tiny harbour on the east side of the island, and allowed the boat to dry out on the sand as the tide fell, a manoeuvre which we novices could manage quite easily with a catamaran.
Relaxed and confident in our new skills, we set off south from Sark for Britanny, leaving late in the day. This time the wind was rising; as we approached the Britanny coast at night we took the owner’s advice to reef early by changing down to a smaller foresail. We managed that, but were still moving very fast as we approached what we thought was the entrance to the River Trieux, leading up to the village of Lezardrieux. The proper approach is down the west side of a long rocky reef and then along the west coast of the Isle de Brehat.
We were bowling along, confident in our newly learned skills of position finding with RDF, lights and hand bearing compass, an old and wobbly instrument that looked more naval surplus than modern yachting. The on-watch crew of two had the wind on their cheeks, the ride was exciting, the boat was surging along.
The first glimmer of light appeared an hour before dawn; it was enough to catch a pale glimpse of white a few hundred yards ahead which, with a very hard stare and keen eyesight, resolved itself into a line of breakers, at which point the sound reached our ears. We had gone seven miles down the wrong side of the reef and were about to hit the rocky beaches on the east side of the Isle de Brehat.
We did the nearest thing to a handbreak turn, stopped the shallow-draft boat almost in the surf, started the engine, and began a long motor back against the wind to get to the other side of the reef.
In fact, if we had done a proper passage plan, which is now a legal requirement, we would have realised that we might have got into the river by a channel on the east side of the Isle de Brehat without going back out again, as long as we avoided low tide; there were also direct passages through the reef for the careful. Chastened and shocked, we took the cautious route out and in again. Thankfully, half the crew were still asleep and had no clue to what had nearly happened, until my co-watchkeeper started calling me Hawkeye, as an indirect compliment for having been first to spot the breakers. I was Hawkeye for the rest of the cruise.
The Britanny coast was quiet in 1971, with no marinas; with a shallow draft catamaran we could visit any harbour, and dried out on beaches a couple of times. We visited four or five places, including St Malo, then headed North, straight for home, with a wild ride through the Alderney Race, which is like a rapid in the sea; we calculated we were doing 20 knots over the ground, with the tide added to our speed through the water.
We headed north across the Channel at high speed, with a moderate wind on the beam and the catamaran moving comfortably and fast. The skipper decided we were now experienced enough to make do with one person in the cockpit to steer, so everybody else retired for a much-needed rest after the excitement of the Race.
It was my turn first. With silence below, and cabin lights off, I was watching a large freighter, apparently passing behind us, which I thought was close but safe enough; we had all worked out by then the basics of navigation lights, and how to spot which way a ship is going. What I had not allowed for was that the ship could not have known we were there.
She changed course suddenly towards us, at first seeming about to run us down; but as the hull loomed up, it passed just a few yards in front, so close that the bow wave caught us, and I needed to strain my neck to look as high as the ship’s bridge, almost vertically above. The near collision happened so fast that our off-duty crew were still struggling on deck as the freighter disappeared down channel. The speed with which it was almost instantly on top of us after it changed course was a splendid demonstration for novices – for me – of how fast large ships move compared with yachts.
Instead of collapsing in a heap, which I should have done, I continued on watch, shaken but determined to learn the lesson. Shortly after, another extremely large ship appeared on the horizon, with its lights indicating that it would pass rather further behind than the freighter. This time, with a companion in the cockpit, we did a better job of focusing on its track; in fact we concentrated rather too hard on the ship, fascinated by its shape because, as it closed with us and passed behind, we could make out very clearly that it was an aircraft carrier.
The trouble was that we were so caught up in the excitement of watching a truly enormous war machine pass by – its lights looming high above the horizon – that we did not see what else was out there; all at once we became conscious of a multiple display of green and red lights lower down on the water, heading fast in our direction, since we could see pairs of port and starboard colours at the same time, which is only possible when a ship is pointing towards you. We counted at least half a dozen smaller ships, spread out in a fan over the water, their lights much closer to the horizon, and with several clearly about to come alarmingly close. It was not just a carrier, but an entire fleet of warships in formation.
Whether they saw us, we shall never know, but the escort vessels sped past on either side. When we got back safely to Lymington, the first newspaper we bought reported that a US fleet had been heading down channel that night. It was newsworthy because one of the escort destroyers had run aground on the Goodwin Sands. We were duffers, but not the only ones in the Channel that night.