David Vasey, (left) and the crew of Samphire break for coffee in the old walled town of Boulogne. Left to right: Simon Coates, Owen Vasey and John Repman.

Blind crews shine on foreign cruise

This year’s annual EAST summer cruise for blind and visually impaired sailors in June was a dash between ports before storms hit.

The plan was to spend the Saturday sailing locally to acclimatise sighted and VI crews to the boats and each other. Needless to say the weather gods turned nasty and it rained hard and blew a hoolie, so all we got by way of a shakedown was a two-hour blast in the river. We should have been staying at Titchmarsh Marina in Walton Backwaters, instead we returned to our Levington berths.

Sunday was a much better day and we set off around 0930 to sail via the Black Deep and Fisherman’s Gat to Ramsgate, arriving on a dying breeze around 1700. It always amazes me how much fun the VIs have working the boat. With her extremely limited central vision Sue can in fact steer a pretty good compass course, while Eddie relies on an audio compass. Eddie could steer a pretty accurate course!

I tried it with my eyes closed and frankly scared myself rigid.

Both Eddie and Sue have sailed with EAST for a number of years and are reliable and enthusiastic members of the crew. Eddie has done a Fastnet race and sails regularly on the tall ships. He’ll sail anything anywhere at the drop of a hat.

During the evening the wind got up and a late arrival got blown into us as the very tired crew attempted to get the boat into the slot beside us (we much later found they’d dinged a guard rail post!). The following day was a brisk F6 on the nose for going to Boulogne, our eventual destination, much to the general frustration of our guests. A cream tea and ice cream at nearby Broadstairs proved a good attraction.

Tuesday saw us head into a friendly F3 NNE for points southeast. As conditions were somewhat murky we had to keep a sharp look out for the cross-channel ferries as we motor-sailed across the bows of Dover Harbour. Fortunately Anna Leah is equipped with a radar enhancer and AIS as well as radar and we were able to tell accurately our closest point of contact with all of them.

Once clear of the traffic separation zones, the north and south going corridors the big ships have to stick to, we freed away and enjoyed some real summer sailing down the French coast. Our biggest danger was lobster pots, the markers of the French ones may be huge by comparison with the plastic bottles we use but a blind crew can’t see them all the same!

Trolling gently down towards the outer breakwaters of Boulogne we all more or less came together and as we lowered and stowed the sails in readiness to enter the channel the fog dropped like a stone. Now in the days of yore this would have meant anchoring out in the roads and sounding the fog horn every minute until it dispersed, but thanks to modern electronics we slowly and with firmly clenched buttocks eased our way down the channel with the help of the chart plotter, radar overlaid on it and the trusty AIS.

The latter told us two large fishing trawlers were coming out at full chat, thankfully just as we passed them (on the wrong side, tut tut) the fog lifted and we managed to side-step a small sailing cruiser doggedly following the big boys out; he was too small to show upon the radar (no reflector mounted we noted), but we got a cheery wave instead.
Dank, misty weather can’t dampen the spirits of the EAST crews at their Pirate party in Ramsgate Harbour.

After walking right round the walls of the old town of Boulogne Anna Leah’s crew pause for breath. L to R, skipper Garth Cooper, sighted crew Jules Crapnell, blind guests Eddie Kitchen and Sue Hogge.

Boulogne is an attractive town and well worth two or three days’ exploration. We spent Wednesday enjoying the sights of the old walled town and shopping. In the evening we sampled the delights of a Belgian quay-front restaurant.

We moored up in the river marina rather than lock in to the main town marina immediately behind the ferry terminal. The shoreside facilities were good and the staff helpful and friendly, what we hadn’t allowed for though was the noise from the fish quay opposite with crab boats coming and going all night. The thump of mallets cracking crab and lobster shells was not conducive to a quiet night’s sleep.

Thursday morning saw us leave at a leisurely 0830 and head back to Ramsgate. Once more we were blanketed in fog with visibility down to around 50 metres at times. On the inshore parts of the route it was the lobster pots that were the biggest danger, and fortunately the sea traffic in the separation lanes was unusually light, but even then 900ft plus tankers and container ships barrelling along at 22 knots are not things to take likely; once again thank you who ever developed AIS!

Crossing the tip of the Varne bank half a mile south of the Varne Light Vessel was eerie. Ships were coming down from the north and dividing round the bank depending if they were going across Atlantic of not. Every minute or so the gloom would be punctuated with the mournful boom of a ship’s fog horn with the Varne LV answering back in a high-pitched whistle.

With a light wind and the tide up our tail we eventually hit Ramsgate early in the afternoon. The log showed we’d done 36 miles.

That evening we stunned the French and Dutch visitors in the marina by staging a pirate party with get-ups and water pistols, suitably flavoured language and sea-shanties.

Friday morning, with the prospect of a real hoolie coming through from the southwest, we high tailed it back to the Harwich area. In fact we had one of the best sails of the cruise. Fisherman’s Gat was empty of commercial traffic and is a doddle to navigate, unlike Foulger’s Gat, which is surrounded by wind turbines and cluttered with workboats. While Samphire and Loafing took off in a personal battle to get to Shotley Marina first, Anna Leah proved she’s no slouch by gradually over-hauling Sulis in the Gat.

Whereas Sulis went all the way up the Black Deep and across Sunk Head to the Medusa Channel we used a bit of insider knowledge thanks to Roger Gaspar and his surveys for Crossing The Thames Estuary, and crossed the Sunk just north of Barrow No 2, clipped across the top of the Gunfleet and took about four miles out of the journey.

As we arrived at Shotley so did the wind. And the rain. And it blew old boots all night. The day finished with a communal dinner in the Shipwreck.

All in all then a good week’s cruise in a well-founded and sea-kindly boat, greatly enjoyed by guests and crew alike.

Ian Jewry lead the cruise and he and Barbara had Terry Lawlor from Worcestershire as their guest on their Jeanneau Sunfast 37, with Longham, Norfolk, retired curate Vivian Singh as crew.

David Vasey and his son, RN officer Owen, brought their Hanse 371 Samphire along with Simon Coates from Wimbledon and partially sighted John Repman from Ipswich as guests.

Martin Ward, from Stowmarket skippered his Beneteau 37 with Devon-based charity worker and EAST member Julian Garner as his crew and with Michael Coleman, who had travelled clear across Ireland from the west coast to the east coast of England to go sailing.

Garth Cooper skippered the Najad 380 Anna Leah, with EAST chairman Tim Thomas and Jules Crapnell as sighted crew and Eddie Kitchen and Sue Hogge as VI guests.

Report by Garth Cooper and reprinted with kind permission of Anglia Afloat.