Numerous things must be done in order to take a barge such as Wanderlust across the English Channel. As a requirement of the insurance, a qualified skipper must be in charge. We needed to find and hire a delivery skipper for Wanderlust. Closer to the crossing date, Wanderlust had to be positioned on or near to the Thames Estuary. A few days before crossing, the insurance company has to be notified of the plans and funds must be transferred to cover the costs of the Channel crossing policy rider. And, just before crossing, all loose items on the inside and out must be secured to withstand the waves of the Channel.
Months before we arrived in London, we had arranged for a skipper. Together we planned on a date. When our mooring time was up at Hermitage Community Moorings on the 18th of August we would leave to cross the Channel for Calais France. The date, of course, would be dependent on the weather. If the winds were too strong on the Channel our crossing would be delayed. But we were not too concerned about the Channel winds; over the summer we had watched all of our friends make the crossing as soon as their date windows opened. Maybe, we hoped, we’d be able to cross the Channel with the legendary calm “millpond” conditions. As the 18th approached we contacted our insurance company with the plans, paid for the rider, and commenced our Channel weather watch.
The “usual” weather websites are not very helpful for determining the future wind and wave conditions on the Channel. With some searching we found the three Channel forecast sites listed below. Each of these sites has its advantages and disadvantages, but taking them together gave us a decent view of the coming Channel conditions.
Magic Seaweed can track and forecast the Channel weather at the Sandettie Lightship, the closest monitoring station to our planned route. The Sandettie Lightship is to the north and east of the usual crossing route to Calais. Magic Seaweed records the actual condition, wind and waves, and tracks them against the forecasts. This lets you see how accurate the predictions have been.
My Weather 2’s most relevant forecast is for the Eastern English Channel. The location is south and west of the usual crossing route but My Weather 2 provides particularly good information on the waves.
Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation also shows the weather forecasts for the Sandettie Buoy. During the period we monitored, CSPF more quickly adapted the forecasts to the changing weather. It proved to be the most accurate site for predicting the Channel winds. The downside of CSPF, unless I missed it somewhere, is that CSPF does not provide wave predictions. Unfortunately, waves do not always track exactly with the wind. And in a flat-bottomed barge prone to rocking and rolling, the wave conditions are useful know.
And though very useful for planning purposes, these websites are not the standard for the insurance requirement of winds “not more than Force 4, forecast or actual”, at least as I understand it. For the official word, the Met Office forecast must be consulted. HM Coastguard relays the Met Office’s short-term forecast by VHF radio at 7:10 am and every three hours afterwards.
A week from our planned crossing date, the Channel weather forecasts on the web looked favorable. But as the days progressed, the weather window shrunk and ultimately disappeared. By the 16th it was clear that we would not cross the Channel on the 18th. There was now no clear weather window in the seeable future. We were now on indefinite weather hold.
The delay created a problem. Our time at Hermitage Community Moorings was up. We needed a place to berth Wanderlust while we waited out the Channel winds. The nearest mooring to HCM is St. Katherines Dock. Unfortunately St. Kats had turned us down several times before. Undeterred, we called them once again. And, to our surprise, they said we could come in. As soon as we could, we moved Wanderlust the short distance up the Thames to the quiet waters of St. Katherines Dock.
Though pleasant, mooring at St. Kats introduced a logistical problem. The lock between the marina and the river only opens at defined times as determined by the overlap of high tide and the office schedule. It would not be possible for us to take Wanderlust out of St. Kats in the middle of the night. As a result, we might well have to move Wanderlust out of St. Kats onto the Thames and then wait a half-day so we could go out with the next tide.
A cascade of other issues developed as a result of not making our initial crossing date. Our skipper had other commitments on his calendar. He was not available to take us across the Channel on any given day no matter how good the weather was. For the 18th of August, we had made arrangements for a friend to watch our dog Gigi and keep our leased car while we crossed the Channel. With the delay, the dog sitting arrangements had to be reworked. And not every day would work to drop Gigi off. To add to the complications, we discovered a hydraulic fluid leak from our steering ram. Though leak was small and theoretically should not impact our ability to cross the Channel, it was best and easiest to get this fixed on this English side of the strait.
All told, we needed a predictable weather window a few days in advance in order to knock down all of the logistics. We now watched the weather forecasts religiously. Always, it seemed, the long-range forecast would show a promising window a week or so out. And always, a few days before we thought we might be able cross to France the weather window would shut down into Force 5 and 6 ugliness. On the few days where the weather was marginally suitable for a crossing, some element of the logistics forced us to wait.
And wait we did. St. Katherines Dock is in a prime location in London. It is a nice place to stay. Indeed, if it was by choice, we would have stayed much longer. But without the ability to leave when we wanted to, St. Kats was cage, a gilded cage, but still a cage.
Finally a three-day window of relatively calm winds over the Channel appeared in the forecasts at the beginning of September. As the days got closer, the weather window tightened but held. By now our hydraulic steering problem had been fixed and we sorted out the remainder of the logistical issues. We had a plan. The timing of the weather window meant we would have to lock out of St. Kats the night before and head down to Gravesend, but that should not be a great problem.
Almost a month after we arrived in London, we took Gigi to her foster parents home in preparation for the Channel crossing. We returned to Wanderlust and reflexively checked the weather forecasts. In the past hours the predictions had turned sour. The forecasts were now showing hints of the dreaded Force 5 winds near our crossing time. Did we just lose our weather window?
We phoned our skipper with the weather news. He too pulled up the forecasts on the Internet. After a moment, he declared that there still was a real window in the wind suitable for the crossing. We would go ahead as planned.