On the scale of things, a two-week wait for a weather window to cross the English Channel is not much. We’ve heard stories of barges waiting two months for a suitable crossing weather. Even better, we were waiting at St. Katherines Dock, a particularly posh marina. Many barges are forced by the circumstances to stay in far less desirable locations. For us, having to stay longer at St. Kats was hardly a hardship.
Nonetheless, we’d been visualizing the day when we’d have a barge on the waterways of France for nearly two years. We were ready to be in France. Finally, when a slim weather window appeared and there was a real possibility of crossing the Channel to France, we were ready to go.
But it wouldn’t be that easy. There were lots of things that needed to happen.
The logistics were set on our end. In the morning, we took our dog Gigi to a friend’s sister’s house. We had never met our friend’s sister so it was comforting to see that our pooch would be in good hands.
In the afternoon we were back on board. By phone we touched bases with our skipper. Initially he told us he’d meet us at 6 pm in time to lock out of St. Katherines Dock near high tide. But when we called he told us he was running late. He’d now meet us at 8 pm. That was a problem. The lock between the marina at St. Katherines Dock and the River Thames locks closed for the night just after 8 pm. It would not reopen until 6 am the following morning. To be able to make the crossing, we needed to have Wanderlust out of St. Kats on the Thames before our skipper appeared.
Where would we go? We could take Wanderlust out onto the Thames and snag one of St. Kats’ waiting buoys. Normally meeting someone at a waiting buoy midstream would not work; without a dingy or a dock, there’s no way to get from the riverbank to the barge. But our tardy skipper had told us that he planned to arrive by speedboat. He could meet us on the water. That is, he could meet us if we could figure out how attach Wanderlust to a buoy.
At this point we had never actually met our skipper. And aside from a friend’s recommendation, we really didn’t know what to expect. Would he make it before the tides switched? Would he make it at all? How long would we be stuck in the middle of the Thames waiting for our wayward skipper? It seemed best to find a mooring with access to shore.
At the last moment, we called Hermitage Community Mooring to see if we could tie up again for a few hours until our skipper arrived. Fortunately Hermitage had space. Wanderlust could come back and moor there.
Now we had the challenge of moving Wanderlust out of St. Kats and down the Thames the short distance to HCM’s pontoon. Though we’d been untethered on this section of the Thames a few times, maneuvering on the section of the river, just below the Tower Bridge, still brought concerns. Wanderlust, even at 40 t, feels small amongst the numerous boats blasting by on the River. The combination of the large wakes issued by the large fast-moving river traffic and the surprisingly strong tidal current makes otherwise simple navigation challenging. Thus, to make things easier, we waited until just past what we figured was high slack tide. High slack meant that the tidal current, at least, would be minimal.
There is a downside to high tide, though. High tide on this section of the Thames comes with larger than normal waves as the wakes from the fast boats reflect off of the vertical brick walls on the banks. From our time at HCM, we knew how rough this section of the Thames could get near high tide. Still, though it can be a rough ride, navigating the waves on this stretch of the river is usually not that big of a deal. Dozens of small boats do this every day.
Firing up Wanderlust’s main engine, we crept over to the lock between the St. Kats’ marina and the River Thames. Near high tide, the lock was near free-flow; the water levels on the river and marina sides of the gates were almost identical. After a quick lock cycle, we moved Wanderlust out onto the Thames.
As soon as we emerged from the lock, we were reminded of just how rough the water could be. Almost immediately, we were slammed by a large wave. Built for the shallow inlands waterways, Wanderlust has little keel to prevent her from rolling hard with the waves. And roll hard she did. With the roll came a loud crash of the plates and bowls from the galley. A wake from a fast moving Thames Clipper had tossed all 65 feet of Wanderlust about, throwing all of the kitchen drawers open. The crash of the dinnerware was so loud I figured that we pretty much had just lost everything. We’d have to wait until were secured at HCM to check the damage and see what, if anything, remained. It was a bad start.
When we got to Hermitage and tied up, we went below. The drawers were full open but somehow the dinnerware remained unharmed. Apparently the restaurant-grade plates and bowls that we stocked our galley with are built for serious abuse. Nevertheless, the incident reinforced what we knew: Everything loose below deck needed to be secured for the Channel crossing. We had thought we could wait until we were heading downriver to lock everything down but we couldn’t. It needed to be done now. We set about making sure that everything on board was secured for the crossing. (Here’s what we did.)
As we anchored down everything on the inside we could think of, we waited for our skipper. Eight-o-clock came and passed. We called our skipper again. Now his arrival time was 9:30 pm. At ten we were starting to give up hope. Should we try to find another skipper?
At 10:30 pm there was a knock on the outside. We moved up top just in time to see the skipper stepping off a speedboat onto Wanderlust. He came aboard in a rush with a story of being stopped by the water police outside the Houses of Parliament. Apparently the water police view all small fast boats on the Thames as potential terrorist threats.
Introductions were made quickly. After the final preparations we were off down the river. Our destination for the night was Gravesend. Gravesend was two hours away by water, we were told. We’d spend the night there waiting for the tides to turn for the final push out the estuary.
The trip to Gravesend took longer than expected. With the late start, we did not get the full benefit of the tidal push. Further, we discovered that we had a short in our running light. Though our skipper knew exactly where to look for the problem and how to fix it, we had to stop briefly at mooring buoy somewhere along the river near the Docklands for repairs.
On the way once again, the Thames was dead flat calm. At night, near midnight with no traffic, the mirror-smooth water reflected the shiny tall buildings of Canary Wharf, London’s new financial district. It was peaceful. The quiet was broken only by the steady purr of Wanderlust’s main engine.
Somewhere after midnight we reached the Thames Barrier, the futuristic construction that protects London from tidal flooding. With a radio call, we were allowed through. Past the barrier, the estuary gradually widens. It no longer felt like we were on a river.
Around two in the morning we pulled up to mooring buoy at Gravesend. After snagging a buoy, our skipper attached Wanderlust by a forward mooring line. We’d spend the night tethered in the stream by one end of the barge.
From the water, Gravesend looks like an interesting place to visit. But we couldn’t get off the boat. Nor did we have the time. Indeed, we’d have a short night. The next morning, around 6 am, we’d head out with the ebb tide to France.
The new day’s light brought more questions about the weather. Internet weather forecasts continued to be increasingly marginal. There was a serious possibility that the winds would be over the Force 4 limit mandated by our insurance. Ultimately, by the rules of our policy, it was the skipper’s call as to whether we could go on. After a half hour the coffee set in and the skipper decided we could continue. But there was a hedge. We’d make a definitive go/no go decision after we picked up the gold standard Channel weather forecast from HM Coastguard. This forecast is broadcast by VHF radio at 7:10 am in the morning and then every three hours afterwards.
Wanderlust was freed from the buoy and we continued down the estuary. The smooth water of the night was gone replaced by a constant chop. The chop built steadily as we headed down the estuary.
Just before 7:10 we tuned the VHF radio to listen to the Coastguard weather report. Amongst the fast flow of information were mentions of Force 4 and Force 5 winds. I hadn’t followed all of the details but from what I heard the winds sounded marginal at best. A question hung in the air unanswered: Would we be able to cross the Channel?
At this point, there was really no good option other than to continue. If we must abort the crossing we could do it latter. There were places ahead to moor and wait, if need be.
As we headed down the estuary, the waves continued to build. By the time we approached the mouth of the Thames Wanderlust was being pounded hard. Her bow would lift into the air and a second or so later slam back into the water. The waves sent us back down below to check and secure any remaining loose items. Fortunately everything below was holding up well.
To avoid the worst of the wave our skipper changed routes to take us on the lee side of the sandbars. The route was a little longer this way, but being on the down wind side of the sandbank mitigates the waves. Indeed, once we got behind a sand bar, the going was remarkably calm. The big waves and the pounding were gone.
Aside from calmer water, there was another reason to go behind the Thames’ ever shifting sand bars. Near the mouth of estuary, being downwind of the sand routed us nearer to the coast. Being near to the coast meant that the final decision to cross the Channel could be delayed. If we needed to bail on the crossing, we could pull into Ramsgate and stay. If we did this, we might well be at Ramsgate for days waiting for the winds to slacken. Though Ramsgate was a safe haven, it wasn’t a very pleasant option to consider.
Rounding the last sandbank near Ramsgate, the waves and the pounding returned. But it didn’t seem as bad as it had been. Indeed, the winds if anything, seemed lighter. It was now time for the skipper to make the final go/no go call for the crossing. No further deferrals were possible; once we were further out on the Channel, it would make no sense to turn back. After a brief period to consider the options, the final call was made. Wanderlust would head to France.
After all we had been through, the actual crossing of the Channel was relatively uneventful. For the most part, the pounding was milder than it had been at the end of the estuary. And, at least until we reached the shipping lane, there was not much to see or do except to keep on a dead straight course to France.
Nearing the shipping corridor, a line of fast moving large ships appeared in both directions. With so much water it wouldn’t seem like a collision would be possible. Nonetheless we had to pick our spot to cross the line of ship traffic. In fact, as we reached the shipping lane, we paused and circled for a minute or so waiting for gap between the massive ocean going vessels.
Eventually the coast of France, hazy at first, appeared in the distance. Before long, we were inside the ferry route bobbing around waiting for a green light from the Calais port authority. Until the port’s light turned to green, we could not enter Calais’ harbor. Finally, after a radio call to the harbormaster, we were told we could enter as long as we moved as fast as possible. The ferries were preparing to depart; we needed to be clear of the area as quickly as possible.
With a healthy dose of the throttle, Wanderlust moved into the port.
There was another wait, this time in the calm waters at a mooring buoy at the gate to the Port de Plaisance. The port’s seawater moorings are protected against the tides by a large sea gate. Just above the gate is a low bridge busy with the town traffic. At a defined time, traffic lights stopped the cars, the bridge lifted, and the heavy gate to the harbor opened. With a gentle pull on the throttle, we entered the port and moored at the visitor’s pontoon.
Wanderlust was in France, finally.
As we approached Calais our skipper told us that the wind conditions for the crossing were at his limit. If it were blowing any bit harder, we would not have crossed. Some skippers are cowboys. No matter the insurance requirements, they will shuttle a barge across the Channel even if the winds are stronger than expected. Our skipper kept closer to the rules. But even at the “edge” there was never a point where it felt like Wanderlust was struggling to make it across the Channel. Inside, our preparations with some minor adjustments on the way, kept everything in its place. Nothing broke. Though tired from the lack of sleep, Becky and I made it through feeling fine.
Neither Becky nor myself are particularly prone to getting seasick. Nevertheless, if we were going to get seasick, the crossing would be the time. We took Stugeron as per the package label and felt fine, at least as long as we don’t later get drug induced Parkinson’s Disease, that is.
If you look at a map, taking a barge across the Channel seems like relatively straightforward thing: There’s a river estuary and some open water to cross. But it truth, there are lot of navigational details and route choices that need to be attended to. Even in the absence of the insurance requirement, having an experienced pilot on board would be a good idea.
Here’s are route as reported by our skipper:
- From Hermitage Community Moorings to Thames Barrier is approximately 6.5 nautical miles.
- Thames Barrier to Gravesend is 15.6 nm.
- Gravesend to Longnose, the buoy off the North Foreland, is 42 nm.
- From the North Foreland we went along the Kent coast, passing close to the wreck of the Montgomery over the Four Fathoms Channel, the Copperas Channel, the Gore Channel, the South Channel, all of those being inside Margate Sand. At Longnose we headed south staying inside the Goodwin Sands to get some shelter. Longnose to SW Goodwin, the buoy at the bottom of the Goodwin Sands, is 17 nm.
- From SW Goodwin we preceded 16 nm on a heading of 130 degrees, near enough to South East, to the coast of France 3 nm west of Calais.
- In sight of the shore, we traveled 3 nm along the coast inshore of the ferry approach to Calais Entrance.