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.