Thursday, March 18, 2010

'Apple Charlotte', part 8

'Apple Charlotte's' track

Thursday, 6th August

This morning’s forecast was not too encouraging, because the north-easterly force 3 would be against us when sailing to North Foreland. Furthermore, the wind was predicted to increase to force 5, and there was a likelihood of thundery showers with poor visibility - even fog! The wind would also be against us if we tried sailing to Burnham via the Edinburgh Channel. Therefore, we decided the better option was to have a go at rounding North Foreland, from where we would be able to broad-reach along the North Kent Coast to the River Swale.

Getting around North Foreland can always be a bit tricky, because Broadstairs Knolls extend to the east, and strong currents brought about by the flood and ebb tides, tumble over them like rapids in a river. Our tactic was to keep as close to the cliffs as we dare, which necessitated short tacking. By doing so, we would avoid the stronger currents, and we would have less distance to sail. In practice, the latter part of the ebb northwards was helpful to us, but when we rounded North Foreland and headed into the last of the ebb from the River Thames, the waves got steeper. However, from thereon, the northeast wind, instead of hindering us, helped us, because it put us on a reach, enabling ‘Apple Charlotte’ to power over the chaotic waves.

We had left Ramsgate Harbour at 0705 and by 0920 ‘Apple Charlotte’ was north of what remains of Margate Pier. The Pier, sometimes referred to as the ‘Jetty’, was severely damaged in a fierce storm, back in 1978. Attempts at demolishing the remains of the Pier by the use of explosives were not entirely successful. The twisted metal framework and supports were just visible through the sea mist, but as we progressed, visibility gradually improved to reveal a hazy sun. Two ships were anchored in Margate Roads.

The wind veered a little, so that we were able to free the sheets and run before it. Our first important mark to find was the newly-installed East Margate buoy. This formerly, lateral type buoy, had been replaced by a cardinal one, i.e., it had two black cones at the top; the upper one pointing up and the lower one pointing down. The conical buoy itself, was painted in black and yellow, so that the upper and lower parts were black. We would pass to the south of this east cardinal buoy and continue to the South Channel. As it was about an hour before low water, we had to take note of every beacon and buoy to ensure we would not stray into the shallows of Margate Hook Sand.

At 1000 we were north of Birchington and its distinctive Church which we identified by its prominent spire. Just south of the austere Margate Hook Sand Beacon that in my imagination resembled a gibbet, there’s a super anchorage with good holding ground, adjacent to the five metre line. We were almost tempted to wait there, but we could make out the Copperas buoys about two miles ahead. They marked the precise route between Copperas Sand and the tail of Margate Hook Sand.

Strangely, we hadn’t seen any other yachts. We could only assume that the Up River contingent had chosen a route across the Thames Estuary via the Edinburgh Channel, or they had postponed sailing until there was a more favourable forecast. At that point, visibility began to close in when sea mist overtook us from astern. Thankfully it was not fog, as had been forecast, but we began to wonder if we had made the right decision to sail. However, there was about a mile of visibility, and in the gloom ahead, there was a tiny yacht coming our way. She was a red Hunter Sonata with the enigmatic sail number, ‘8364N’. Now, what the ‘N’ stood for we didn’t know. Perhaps she was Norwegian? She was doing remarkably well against the wind and tide. Was she a lifting keel version or a fin keel Hunter? The depth of low water where we were, north of Herne Bay, couldn’t have been more than three metres at most, and further to the east there were patches with less than two. Well, we had made it, so perhaps she would be OK on a rising tide.

By 1210 we were at the north cardinal Whitstable Street Buoy where we handed the log. Our average speed over the ground since heading west from North Foreland had been 5.5 knots. To the southwest we could see the dark outline of a smidgen of land which marked the entrance of the River Swale. There was precious little else we could see, as the land beyond the River was low-lying, and visibility was no more than a mile-and-a-half. We simply had to rely on keeping an accurate course to the Pollard Spit buoys were we would hope to find Shell Ness, which is a bank of sand at the extreme eastern end of the Isle of Sheppey.

Harty Ferry Slip

At that moment, just when we didn’t want it, the wind increased to force 5. Coming from the northeast, it combined with the flood tide, to push ‘Apple Charlotte’ along at an alarming rate into the Swale. In an effort to reduce our speed, we took down the mainsail. As we were engaged in this frenetic activity, a yacht with the name ‘Lady N’ was trying to beat out of the River. Her crew shouted to us, but on account of the wind and the whiplash of the sail, we could not get the gist of what they were saying, neither could we hang around to find out. Meanwhile, there was a thunderstorm brewing to the southwest; therefore we were thankful to pick up a mooring at Harty Ferry. The time was 1310. Twenty minutes later, ‘Lady N’ passed close by, and her skipper told us that his friend’s yacht had broken up on rocks, only two hours before. Her crew had been rescued by Helicopter. Then we understood what the distressed skipper of ‘Lady N’ had been trying to tell us. We still couldn’t work out why he was trying to sail out of the River.

At 1700 it was getting on for high water. Torrential rain battered the cabin top, and a small coaster named ‘Roina’ chugged by. She made her way into the River and disappeared from view beyond a bend. An hour later the rain had cleared to reveal a heavily-reefed junk-rigged yacht approaching the Harty moorings. There her skipper chose a mooring off Lily Banks in the lee of a few old hulks.

Good fortune had smiled on us. It had been a successful and satisfying day, but things could have been so different, had we got it wrong, like the skipper of the wrecked yacht.

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