We're in Portsmouth for a few days, both because it's such a historic, interesting place, and because it seems to be the center of the UK yachting world - a good place to find expert advice and boat parts for - you guessed it - Boat Repairs! But I'm jumping ahead of the story, and we've had a collection of interesting experiences over the last week, so I'll back up a bit.
We left the Suffolk Yacht Harbour about a week ago, crossing the Thames estuary and arriving in Ramsgate in the early evening. A number of people had suggested we ought to go up the Thames River and experience docking in London, but in the end it was a trade-off for more time in warmer climates. We've seen London as tourists - there is of course always more to see, but then there's the whole world to see.
The Thames estuary is a crazy sort of patchwork of deep ship channels going to and from London, alternated with sand bars and shallow stretches where you have to watch the chart very carefully. One fellow suggested that we should use his favorite "local knowledge" route, which would take us over some spots marked as 2 meters deep at low tide. Our draft - the distance the boat's keel sticks down into the water - is 2.1 meters. We would not be transiting the area at low tide, but still danged scary. The other part of his "local knowledge" route is passing across the corner of a wind farm. He says that those turbine blades come down to within 22 meters off the water. Hmmm, let's see; our mast sticks up about 21 meters - yikes. Admittedly you don't have to go very close to each wind turbine, but still... Needless to say we didn't take the "local knowledge" route, and therefore we didn't get there as fast as he might have done...
Ramsgate is almost at the narrowest spot of the English Channel, so the current goes ripping by the entrance to the marina at a good clip. You have to ask permission to enter or leave - both because visibility is somewhat restricted, and also because it used to be a place with a lot of ferry traffic. (The Chunnel - tunnel under the English Channel - has dramatically decreased the ferry traffic.) Ramsgate was also formerly a fishing town; now it's a city with an industry of servicing the wind farms which seem to be everywhere in the North Sea. We saw lots of interesting boats there, including one that had participated in the Dunkirk rescues in 1940, and was being restored.
It was not long after we arrived that we were hailed by Karen and Jean-Luc - the American and French couple we had met last summer on the Danish island of Aerø. They are spending the next few weeks on the south coast of England, so we may well see them again after this. They were headed across to France for a short trip to get some French groceries - they're not liking what they're finding in English markets!
The harbor of Ramsgate is surrounded with 18th and 19th century buildings that seem to tower protectively, but in a somewhat disorganized way. Just behind the harbor there is a section of chalk cliff that is covered in places by buildings, including the "Sailors' Church", the "Ramsgate Home for Smack Boys founded 1891" and a street that diagonals up the cliff supported by beautiful arches. Under each arch is a business, including bars, cafes, antique shops, chandleries, stevedores, and wind farm support services.
Above: Ramsgate marina and historic waterfront.
Above: Ramsgate Home for Smack Boys
We found an excellent Thai restaurant part way up the cliff, and made plans for the next day's excursion - to Canterbury Cathedral. The next morning we took a local bus to Canterbury, wandered around the old part of the city, and eventually found our way to the Cathedral. Sometime in perhaps junior high or high school, I had studied "Murder in the Cathedral" by T.S. Eliot, which was when I first became familiar with the story of a king who said, in 1170, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Four knights who took that as an invitation to seek out and kill archbishop Thomas à Becket as he knelt in prayer in Canterbury Cathedral. I have always been intrigued by the story, and welcomed the opportunity to see the place where it all happened. The Cathedral has excellent volunteer docents who have vast amounts of knowledge about all the details of the building and its people. We heard the story of the murder, step by step, in full gory detail. What I did not know was the later history - that Thomas was canonized within 3 years, a shrine was built in the Cathedral, and pilgrims came from afar - including those written about in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. When Henry VIII (the one with six wives) decided to leave the Catholic Church so he could divorce, he ordered the shrine destroyed. Much more recently, the Cathedral has installed a candle in the place of the shrine - it stands alone on a vast expanse of marble floor.
The next morning we left very early to catch the best possible currents as we headed southwest. We had good northeast wind. We passed Dover, changing course frequently to avoid ferries. We saw the White Cliffs of Dover through the misty air, and dutifully recorded it with a cell-camera snap. In the middle part of the day the tide was against us, but we continued on, reaching our destination, Eastbourne, in the late afternoon. It's a tricky entrance at low tide, with not much room to maneuver, and they only open the locks every half hour. We just made it!
Above: locks at entrance to Eastbourne Marina
Yes, a marina with locks. This will apparently be a frequent occurrence from here on out. There is not enough deep water harbour available to build a marina that will accommodate a boat like ours when the tide is low. So the developers design a landlocked marina with a particular water height, and then boats are brought up at low tide or dropped down at high tide, all by means of a lock system. This was our first encounter with locking into a marina, and it seemed to be fairly low-stress and well operated. Thunderstorms were predicted, and indeed it started to rain fairly early in the evening, followed by a raucous night of thunder, lightning and torrential rain. We were cozy in our boat, glad we were not still out on the ocean.
The Eastbourne Marina is quite something. It consists of a number of mooring basins, connected by canals. All around the main part of the marina, the canals, and the side mooring basins there are high-rise apartment buildings. The boaters are lured in by the secure marina and the relative calm created by the tall buildings, and the tourists (or permanent residents) are lured in by having a front row view of either the sea, or the marina. Somehow the developers forgot about greenery, so it's a development of all bricks, stone and water, and has a somewhat austere feeling about it.
The place was full of tourists, and the one area of restaurants was packed out. We walked out toward the supermarket, but when we asked directions, we were told the supermarket was closed - it was another bank holiday. (That's the third bank holiday during the month of May, as near as we can tell. The Brits seem to get a lot of holidays!)
The morning after our arrival in Eastbourne (after that storm-filled night) we made friends with the five women across the dock. Craig initially approached them for some marina advice, and then he charmed them with his knot-tying skills. They told the story of why there were so many items of clothing hung across their rigging (we assumed they had been out on the ocean in the storm the previous night). It turned out, though, that they had been at one of those restaurants across the marina, late in the evening, and had to walk back through the pouring rain.
The women had chartered their boat in Portsmouth, and were out for the hours of experience necessary to achieve the next level of UK yacht certification. We spent the larger part of the afternoon with them, talking about knots, women who sail, a bit of politics, and a bit about marinas in Portsmouth. (See photo at the top of this blog post). They were a delightful group, and I hope we get to see them again during our travels. They took their boat back out the locks that evening, heading back to Portsmouth at night, racking up some nighttime sailing hours (again for that UK sailing certification).
The next morning we set off early for Portsmouth, in a day of glorious sunshine. We sailed past Beachy Head, ever on the lookout for lobster pots, and then past the Seven Sisters cliffs - considerably more scenic (and more visible) than the white cliffs of Dover had been 2 days before. After a long day with little wind but towering thunderheads, motoring all the way, we reached the approaches to Portsmouth. We had been told that this is the Queen's harbor, and you can't go down the shipping channels without permission from the Queen (I think all this advice was a bit tongue in cheek). All the sailboats did go right down the edge of the channel, and there was certainly a lot of large ship traffic.
Most of the marinas are across the waterway from the City of Portsmouth. Portsmouth has all those fantastic historical ship displays we had seen as tourists a year ago, but it doesn't have much in the way of docking for recreational boaters. We chose Gosport Marina, the one that is the closest to the foot ferry to Portsmouth (although it turned out we only went over to Portsmouth to deal with the perpetual headache of keeping cell phone and data connectivity going). The first slip they assigned us to had, they assured us, plenty of depth for us, even given that it was, at that moment, the lowest tide of the month. Well guess what, of course, we went aground into the soft mud. With some jockeying, a rising tide and help from other boaters, we were able to exit that berth and proceed to a better one. Perhaps a little bit chagrined from the first experience, the harbourmaster put us into a lovely berth with plenty of depth, close to the office and bathrooms, and a front row view across the channel toward the HMS Warrior and the Spinnaker Tower. Here we are surrounded by much larger sailboats, including the training fleet for the Clipper round-the-world race. (That's the one where you can sign up - and pay for - a leg of the race, regardless of whether you have any experience or not.)
We got ourselves docked, walked a block for a great pub dinner, and settled in, watching all the boat traffic go by. Every few hours the immense Brittany Ferry to St. Malo goes by, sounding like a freight train and lit up like a Christmas tree.
The next day we made the aforementioned outing to Plymouth by ferry, and then visited the Submarine Museum. The centerpiece of the museum is a World War II submarine that was completed just before the end of the war and never actually saw action. We (along with many other tourists) had the complete tour, seeing the torpedo tubes, torpedo storage systems, potato sacks and canned goods stuffed in the corners, tight bunks, the radio room, engines, periscopes and miles and miles of copper tubing. A plumber's heaven, Craig says; I'd be inclined to say Steam Punk heaven.
Back at the marina, we had been invited for a happy hour by Karen and Stuart, the owners of Commodore Yachts, which runs a sailing school and charters yachts for local outings. They spend their winters on their boat, a Formosa 51 "Fantasia", in Mexico, and were interested in chatting about our experiences there in 2010-2011. They lead very interesting lives, with their primary residence in France, but their home for most of the summer in the upper floor of the Commodore Yachts office/training center/barge. We hope to stay in touch with them, perhaps finding a way to visit when we are in Brittany in about a month.
That evening as we finished up dinner on the boat, we heard a lot of commotion and loud voices outside. It turned out a 60 foot racing sled had just arrived after passage across the Atlantic from Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. It was a Lithuanian boat with 12 young men, and they were all on the dock talking on their cell phones... They said they had made the passage in 8 days, which would be astonishing. They were exuberant about the experience (or perhaps about their arrival) and described their boat as the "number one boat in Lithuania" and the "Pride of Lithuania". They weren't so enthusiastic about the porridge they'd been eating for days, and they soon headed off to the nearby pub, although not until many group photos had been taken, including several which Craig took at their request.
Yesterday was devoted entirely to boat work. When you are in the boating and boat repair capitol of the UK, it's a good place to do work that may require the acquisition of additional boat parts. We completely upended the interior of the boat to run a new cable under floorboards and behind cabinets. We finally escaped for dinner out, and spent a delightful few minutes chatting with "the Gosford Group" as they wish to be known to us in the future. They'll be following our blog, and one lady declared herself intensely jealous of our future plans. She probably hasn't thought about being down on her hands and knees running wire under the floorboards.
Well, I didn't think I had much to write about over these past few days, but it turns out I did. If you got this far you must be enjoying it as much as we are!
Click to see more of our pictures showing what's described in this blog entry.