November 2010

Land of a thousand toothless smiles

After arrival in Dover, I started troubleshooting the engine. It turns out the water separator filter was totally stuffed with algae from the tank. I'm inclined to blame the Belgian uniforms again - having had the red diesel pumped out there, I only took a 100 litres of expensive white diesel in, as I was planning to once again fill my tank with red diesel in the UK.

Sounds like a big ironic joke, only it turned out to be one with a nasty side effect: What little fuel there was had been sloshing around in the near-empty tank, and together with the full steam ahead motoring around the traffic separation scheme, I had sucked most of the dirt out of my tank and into my diesel filter. So I started my search around town for alternator belts (can never have enough of those) and "Baldwin" diesel filters; sadly neither was readily available in the chandlery or car parts shops.

I have to say Dover is much prettier coming from the sea; when driving down to the ferry, you just see some ugly dual lane infrastructure going down to the concrete ferry port. Approaching from below, you get to see the white cliffs, the castle and a charming looking town (appearances can deceive observer at safe distance as it turns out).

Walking around this 30 thousand inhabitant village I was quite shocked by the amount of toothless faces, even the kids with kids (teenage mums) seemed to be younger and chubbier than anywhere else I'd seen in my long years of inhabiting the island. I decided that this was also due to sailing across from the continent - the normal transitional scene of an airport or eurostar train station to prepare one for the shock was totally absent.

The next day my co-sailor Ernst informed me that his pain levels were just too high to go on (bad hip). This was rather bad news of course, as I can't really dock monster on my own yet, and I don't fancy single-handing her anyway really. So I started some serious online research for diesel filters and crew, and luckily I was successful on both counts. I also got some data on Dover, apparently its got some of the highest child poverty rates in the UK (and its not just the children!).

The first potential crew member I found on the ybw forums sadly had to cancel only hours later due to a mishap (broken ankle), so the journey was off again. Having by then spent a week in "charmin" Dover, I was actually quite keen to move on to my old stomping ground of Brighton. As in really really keen. Luckily a replacement quickly came forth in the form of Colin - thanks Colin!

I spent the Friday getting the boat from liveaboard mode into sailing mode, and decided to go out for some traditional Friday night ales regardless of market conditions - I was actually more scared than partying around Rio and wasn't sure if I was going to survive. But survive I did, and our envisaged 0800 departure was once again on.

Turns out we got up needlessly early as the petrol station attendant was out ferrying some anglers around. I didn't mind hanging around as I expected us to reach Brighton at night anyhow. Got 200 litres of red diesel and had a good giggle at a neighbouring yachtie, who, having insisted complaining to the petrol station guy about his absence, got referred to as a "snob". He was a bit of a textbook snob actually.

We made it out to sea eventually, and were greeted by some nasty old swell that didn't combine all too well with the traditional Saturday hangover. So we started motoring into a knot or possibly more of oncoming current - the forecast 4 bf had not materialised yet again. I don't want to be at sea when they err by 4 bf into the wrong direction for a change..

My co-sailor Colin turned out to be excellent company. He put on a brave face when we were bopping around in the swell, always kept an alert lookout for lobster pots and landmarks, and did the first watch, allowing me to catch up on my badly needed beauty sleep (and sober up a bit).

I spent a fair amount of the journey at the bow to escape the horrible diesel noise, dreaming of endless trade winds and heat and bikinis and barefoot sailing.. I just hate motoring, I really do. We got pulled over by uniforms at Dungeness again (allegedly we were in the military training zone, but we weren't really). At least they weren't looking for Euros so I didn't mind them too much. Had a giggle at the implausible location of the power station built on sand (shingle actually).

The engine decided to pack up again at some stage, so following a brief adrenaline rush down I went to change the pre-filter again. I wonder how many GBP 10 filters it takes to clean out a 600 litre tank..

We finally made it to Beachy Head at night, which I later heard referred to as the Cape Horn of Brighton; its not just one of the most popular and scenic suicide spots in Britain, and separates the Coast Guard area Dover from the Solent, it also hosts the strongest currents of the entire area. My co-sailor Colin had mentioned something about spring tides, but we had inadvertently omitted the chartlet for beachy head during our careful (ehem) reading of the Reeds.

The long and short of it being, we spent the best part of 2 hours motoring full pelt into 2.5+ knots of current. I was constantly worried about my filter situation of course. Once past Beachy Head the currents lessened and eventually seemed to turn favourable, and we actually ran into some wind strong enough to give us 6-7 kn under sails along the coast towards Brighton. It all turned out nicely again!

When we finally entered Brighton in the dark around 2400, the gearbox decided to pack up, so I had to perform the docking manoeuvre with the two options of full speed ahead and full speed reverse.. Luckily I could still force the engine into the gears, otherwise it would have been yet another tug job, and Marcus the harbour master was there to give us a hand. The docking manoeuvre was followed by the mandatory docking ales in Brighton city centre.

I will be in Brighton for a while attending to my various problems and preparing for the journey to Brittany. Its good to be back home.

[Photos courtesy of my co-sailor Colin - thanks!]

Escape from paradise

In Blankenberge, I first made an express money transfer to the ACAB account in Belgium to pay my red diesel fine, which they then couldn't verify, so I had to sign more declarations and forms saying I swear I had definitely paid it up, bla bla. They say BOAT is an abbreviation for Bring on Another Thousand, and bring on another thousand I did. I was thoroughly entertained when the chief customs uniform gave me their official IBAN, which actually starts on BE666.. Coincidence? In any case, clearly a challenge to my superstition-rejecting atheism.

I then had my forestay done by a Wittevrongel guy called Steve, who reminded me of an old friend and seemed extremely competent. He also changed my anchor light and put a radar reflector on the mizzen mast whilst he was up there. Thanks, Steve!

Later, I had my diesel pumped off by a local boaty company. They were clearly going to use it for heating and charged me for the privilege of giving them 600 litres of fine free diesel for that purpose.. When you're desperate, people can do anything they like with you.

That same night, the uniforms turned up again. They seemed anxious I hadn't actually paid up, but apparently had to give me a receipt for the payment I might not even have issued, and give me my boat engine keys back. I was pleased to get rid of them and wrote a nice long email to their boss about them contaminating my tank with their receptacle, and the navy boat ramming my boat (their moronic driver had actually scraped along monster's stern), and so on, before venturing out on a serious mission to sample the Blankenberge nightlife.

The next day a suitable Belgian-lager-fuelled hangover helped me in my decision to cross the channel and get on with my voyage. Forecast conditions with a NE4 looked ideal for the 75 nm journey from Blankenberge to Dover.

We set out at 0400 and had a long, slow sail in mostly 2 bf winds, which the newly rigged Genoa proved ideal for. Approaching the French boarder we had to pass Nieuwpoort again, and I got some melancholic feelings about what had been my stomping ground for the best part of 2010. My anxiety of getting chased by the uniforms again did make leaving Belgium easier. I was half expecting them to turn up in a submarine and kept a nervous eye on the GPS-charted position.

In the evening, we crossed the traffic separation scheme just off Dunkirk.. Ernst was keeping a visual lookput whilst I was interpreting the charts and AIS plots on the free software chartplotter opencpn as best I could. The AIS proved invaluable; as you can see from the screenshot, it was rather busy and we had to zig-zag on occasion to avoid getting run over by the huge beasts. In the dark, trying to work out where these freighters were headed, I felt like I was on some mission in the classic German film "Das Boot". In the end, I lost my patience and starting motoring full steam ahead to get through it.

We did some more sailing up to Dover, where we had to wait for some ferries before being granted permission to enter - this being necessary as Dover is one of the busiest ports in the world - when the engine failed just inside the outer harbour. Instead of panicking, I just put down the anchor immediately and requested tug assistance. Textbook. The harbour patrol vessel's skipper greeted me with the words "can't stay there mate" and proceeded to bring me right to my berth in Granville dock. There was no fine and no fee, as he declared it "assisted docking", which is apparently free of charge. I was rather pleased with that.

The next day, Dover welcomed us with some nice sunny weather, and I felt quite chuffed to have made it to England on my own keel, before starting work on my various boaty problems.

Nightmares in uniform

"It was all a dream", as my local friend and occasional flatmate on monster Thibeaut pointed out (quoting the title of a Tupac song). And he was right of course. Only sometimes dreams turn into a bit of a nightmare. Especially when pirate vessels with half a ton of illegal diesel collide with the ACAB authorities.

But first things first. Following a rather positive test drive with monster outside the Nieuwpoort harbour (my friend Ernst at the wheel in this pic) and some more fiddling on the interior, we finally set out for Blankenberge at the end of October.

We had a lovely sail down without the Genoa making 6-7 kn in some favourable current, as the forestay was to be fixed in Blankenberge, and I was in a triumphant mood having finally started my hopefully epic journey following 5 months of camping on the hard (boat parking lot) in West-Vlaanderen.

Leaving Nieuwpoort, we had been approached by a military RIB requesting us to stay 2 miles offshore due to exercises, and I did notice we were being shadowed by a destroyer-sized vessel on our journey towards Oostende. Plus there were lots of helicopters around. The Belgian military doesn't seem a whole lot to do and the coastline is very short, plus we were the only ones out there. Why can't they dissolve the whole pathetic show and get people into real jobs?

When I noted yet another RIB approaching from behind, I pretty much expected it to be some form of uniformed harassment. And it was. Only, as I quickly found out, they were having some type of joint exercise, and I actually got a team of customs types on board. Now that didn't please me too much as I had around 600 litres of ancient red diesel in my tank, which is now illegal to use on pleasure boats in Belgium. I was actually aware of this, but sort of hoping I could talk myself out of it since I could prove this to be legacy fuel (as in from before they outlawed it).

So I was a bit anxious and started playing their paperwork game of filling in forms and showing them various bits of paper I had so they could tick all their little boxes (and bugger off please!), when the ugliest one of the uniforms produced a little diesel sampler. I showed him my tank in the vein hope that the 24 screws might put him off, but he just got out a longer tube to stuff down my tank inlet. He produced a small excited noise of joy for his colleagues when he had finally pumped some of my "roode mazout" into his receptacle. He then proceeded to lose his receptable down my tank inlet.

They pointed out that this would entail a EUR 1250 fine, payable in cash and on the spot. I was a bit shocked as it would be difficult to produce this much cash in one day even if there was a cash machine around since my bank cards have been limited to EUR 1K a day since the Brazil days in case of kidnapping etc. The uniforms thus decided to accompany us to Blankenberge and chain me up there.

Since I was to have them on board for two hours I gave them the warmest "welcome on board" I could muster given my atrocious mood, and actually offered them a Belgian waffle. Sadly I had no rat poison or laxative around to spice them up a bit. I spent the rest of the trip at the bow having suitably dark thoughts.

But make it to Blankenberge we did, and I was once again in the old triumphant mood. Boating seems to be a bit of manic depression, or as Goethe put it, "Himmelhoch jauchzend, zu(m) Tode betrübt“ (heavenly joy, deadly sorrow).

Reviving Monster

I spent the summer of 2010 refitting a steel ketch, working title monster, at VVW Nieuwpoort. Poor thing was in quite a desolate state following years of neglect. This did however allow me to purchase the boat for a very reasonable price.

Luckily I quickly made some friends locally to help me with the paintwork - and most importantly party and keep me entertained! In July in particular the BBQ never got cold really.

Of course this also involved encountering the local steel boat owning brethren, who were on the parking maintaining their boats for half the summer as well.. That's steel for you!

That's my neighbour Jean welding up some windows we had cut into the long keel to assess the strength of the steel plates and paint the interior.

Eventually I started doing some welding myself.. The mask presenting endless opportunities for darth vader impressions of course.

We did derusting, steel epoxy paintwork, woodwork, engine fiddling, hydraulic steering overhaul, packing boxes, equipment installation, removed the autopilot twice, took out the engine starter motor and overhauled it, antifouling got covered in oil, diesel, grease, toxic paints and of course rust..

After five months of camping on a Belgian car park, we were finally ready to launch the Republic of Libertalia:

This is actually the second attempt, which took place on my birthday and exactly one year after I had bought monster as a birthday present for myself. (On the first attempt the cooling water pump failed so I had to go back on the hard for a week - bit depressing that).

After launch, I first went up the mast and discovered that the Genoa stay was frayed at the top - more work to be done. So I got an appointment in Blankenberge to have that done by sail and rigging guy Wittevrongel - our first trip.