This is Part 2 of William's adventure sailing the English Channel from L'Aber Wrach in Brittany to Falmouth in Cornwall: click here to read Part 1.
My alarm rings at 03:30 and I scramble out of bed into the dark cabin. Ian explains the plan over a bowl of cereal and mug of coffee; “we’re going to raise the mainsail while at the jetty as there’s barely any wind and it’ll be one less job to do amongst the rocks of the river”. It’s pitch black outside – the moon is still hours from rising – and Ian sensibly aborts his plan of squeezing through the narrow channel we passed yesterday. It’s far too dangerous in these conditions. It really is absolutely, utterly, completely pitch black outside.
In this darkness the main route to sea is still a challenging navigational exercise; we may as well be sailing with our eyes closed. There are just two lit buoys to mark the passage – one flashing green 2 times in 6 seconds and another flashing green every 2.5 seconds. The two buoys are easily lost amongst the flickering lights of fishing boats and cargo ships on the horizon and I’m thankful we’ve got the Imray Navigator App on my iPhone. It shows our position weaving through the maze of razor-sharp rocks and out into the open waters of the English Channel.
There’s a gentle swell coming in from the Atlantic and waves quietly splash against our port beam [left hand side]. The white-water generally breaks on the hull and bounces away from us, but every so often I see a streak of white-water racing towards the boat then swerving away just before reaching us. It’s bizarre; from my experience waves don’t work like that. It keeps happening and as twilight slowly approaches I start to make out a torpedo shape alongside the white streak. As more light emerges I see flashes of a fin; we must be surrounded by dolphins. Or sharks.
As dawn arrives I spot a dolphin jumping out of the water near the boat, its whole body suspended in mid-air before diving back down into the dark blue water. I’m reminded of the quote on my Grandpa’s gravestone; ‘They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, these see the work of the Lord and his wonders of the deep”. Grandpa was a Commander in the Royal Navy, one of a last generation to learn navigation the traditional way with a sextant. Now the art seems to be dying as people become more and more reliant on GPS – until the battery runs out, or some foreign power hacks into it – or any number of reasons.
We set a course 355 degrees North and Ian goes down into the cabin to write the log. I’m at the helm and Maggi is up on deck enjoying the panorama; whichever way we look, all you can see is a watery horizon. It’s wonderfully liberating but also quite disorientating. I choose a cloud on the horizon and keep the bow facing that, but after a few minutes it’s blown away to the east and I need to find a new cloud to sail towards. Every so often a large wave rocks Nimrod off course and I have to turn the wheel hard to get her back on track, which isn’t immediately obvious without any clear landmarks to refer to.
After an hour I check our position on the Imray Navigator App; we’re bang on track. I imagine Falmouth over the horizon. My body is now used to the angle of wind and the rolling of the swell and I use this to help stay on course, heading for that imaginary point on the horizon. This must be how it feels to be an ancient Polynesian navigator, passing through a world of islands and reefs that show clearly on a map in your mind while all your eyes can see is water and clouds.
Land starts to appear in the mid afternoon. It starts as a haze appearing between the swell, then becomes more defined; cliffs, woods, buildings. As we approach Falmouth I look through my monocular at my favourite van parking spot above Gylly Beach. I’ve spent many hours there, gazing out to sea through the same monocular, watching the crews of yachts and imagining that was me at the wheel, hauling the ropes or reefing the sails. And now it is.
We head into the lee of Pendenis Castle and point Nimrod into the wind, lowering her sails and motoring into the marina. We spend the night beside a huge Royal Navy transport ship, its generator continuously running and pumping out a thick cloud of black smoke. That ship alone must release more CO2 into the atmosphere after a few days than I will in my whole life. And there must be thousands of ships like her in all the navies of the world, polluting the environment and accelerating climate change. Just one simple solution would be to develop an engine that can create the power through renewable energy – it can’t be that difficult, or can it? That’s what I want to find out on our Turning Tides voyage.
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