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Sunday, 19 July 2015

Dunkerque - Goes, Newtherlands (19 July 2015)

Sunday morning dawned dull and overcast but we were up sharply and despite being able to get an updated weather forecast we decided to make use of the time before conditions were forecast to deteriorate. So soon after 0730BST we were passing the eastern breakwater where in 1940 troops initially embarked until it was destroyed by German bombing and they then had to use the beaches. The wind was fine, a brisk SW4 mainly around 15-16kn. We also had tide adding 1kn and increasing as time passed. The only hardship was a noticeable swell that rolled Whileaway somewhat but we soon settled into a groove. We were quickly into Belgium territorial waters and the coast dramatically changed with medium and high rise rectangular blocks of flats crowding the skyline with a few breaks for sand dunes. After just under 3 hours we were off Nieuwpoort, the first port in Belgium and which sounded very pleasant. Nieuwpoort is accessible at all states of the tide being a former military port and we motored in between the mile long wooden jetties watched by large numbers of people promenading on this Sunday morning.
There are three marinas in Nieuwpoort and because a fellow sailor from the Cruising Association had recently visited one and was impressed, as well as it being nearer to town, we opted for KYCN (Royal Yacht Club de Nieuwpoort) and came alongside the Havenmeester’s jetty. There we had a friendly and helpful welcome and were advised of our berth.
After lunch we decided to explore the town, the weather having brightened up a little and we firstly noticed some very attractive 17 and 18 century buildings and then discovered that there were crowds in the centre because there was a special event – a medieval festival re-enactment! The town was buzzing with people in a variety of moving scenes and in medieval costumes from nobility to prisoners. There were sardines being grilled on charcoal fires, demonstrations of baking flatbread, blacksmiths, spinning, heavy horses and much more. 
Attractive buildings on medieval day in Nieuwpoort
We enjoyed a couple of hours walking round and also seeing some traditional looking housing in what is an attractive small town. That evening we ate in the Yacht Club and very nice Sole it was too, although we thought the starter of shrimp croquette a little strange. Interestingly this turned up on nearly every menu we saw in Belgium so obviously it is popular! What was immediately noticeable was that restaurant prices were about 50% higher than in France, quite a significant increase. However this just brought them up to UK prices.
On Monday it was again very overcast with rain forecast. So we decided to use the coastal tram which runs between the two borders about every 10 minutes. A day unlimited travel was 5 euros and the trams were very busy. Our first stop was Oostende which was a pleasant enough large town despite what was then heavy rain. So lunch was taken before we went further east on the tram to Blankenburg which we were thinking of visiting. By now the rain was really heavy so after a very brief look at the high rise flats on the seafront and the pier we were back on the tram to Nieuwpoort Beach. More medium and high rise slab blocks!
Unusual seafront with an older building left between the tower blocks!
The weather forecast for Tuesday was for force 4 gusting to 5 but reducing during the morning to 3 gusting to 4. So when the tide was right, at around 1000, we set off for Blankenburg about 20nm up the coast. Once again it was an overcast day but without rain! What we did have though was much more wind, gusting to 28+ kn at times, but as it was W it was very much behind us so we sailed pretty quickly and were off Blankenburg at 1300BST. Into the old harbour on what was now quite a windy and dull day. A walk through the town showed that there were a few areas with traditional buildings of good quality. But slab block flats were more in evidence, a large proportion of which were probably holiday lets. We agreed that Blankenberg was more down market that the much more attractive Nieuwpoort.
We needed to decide whether we were going to stay longer in Belgium as previously intended, or move on to Holland making up for the time that we lost sitting out strong winds in Boulogne. It rained again overnight! So it was an easy decision and, with a favourable weather forecast that said only light rain until around 1000, we cast off around that time and headed E. We still had the SW or W wind F4/5 so with genoa and main sails puffed out and coping with more swell, we moved along the coast carefully skirting Zebrugge and the few ships entering and leaving and 5nm later the coast changed again with the disappearance of flats and the re-emergence of the sand dunes as we crossed the Belgium/Holland border! But by now we were starting to get occasional light drizzle. It was a warm day and with no rain forecast we were not in full wet weather gear. We hastily donned our jackets as we continued along the coast and into the Wielingen estuary. We had to cross this very busy estuary with its many sandbanks and its succession of ships and fast ferries. We were heading for Vlissingen (Flushing) which we achieved without incident. I had decided that we would head for the lock that gave entry to the Dutch canal system and then stay the night at the old marina just past the lock. By the time we were at the other side of the estuary and waiting (with half a dozen other boats) for the lock, we were soaked! So it was a very wet couple that berthed about half an hour later! Not long after the rain relented. We spent a couple of hours looking round the town then enjoyed a very pleasant and reasonably priced meal in the unpretentious club house in the small marina.
The forecast for Wednesday was sun. And (until the evening) that is what we got! Having got into the canal system we now planned to travel just 3nm up the canal to Middleberg. But three miles and five bridges had to open! The first of these, just outside the marina, opened within 10 minutes of our arrival but that was because a convoy of about 10 boats emerged from up the canal. We were held at the next bridge, just 400m further, for about 50 minutes. Eventually we did get through all 5 bridges and arrived at the harbour just after 1200BST. The HM allocated us a “box”. In Holland they use boxes more frequently than pontoons with fingers as is usual in the UK and most European countries. Imagine no finger pontoon jutting out from the main spinal pontoon. Instead, about a boat length (sometimes more sometimes less) from the spinal pontoon are posts. You pass between two posts attaching stern lines as you pass (both sides), then you stop short of the spinal pontoon and secure through rings to it. Surprisingly (although on a day with little wind) our first attempt at this manoeuvre was successful, much to our relief. Now all we had to do was find a way of climbing over the bow to leave the boat!
Part of the harbour (box moorings nearest camera) in Middleberg
Middleburg turned out to be a very impressive town of about 50,000 people. It is the regional capital of Zeeland. Apparently in 1940 the centre was heavily bombed by the Germans. After the war many of the lost buildings were rebuilt to the original style, mostly 18th century. It has lovely cobbled narrow roads and alleyways with impressive buildings.

Alley in Middleberg
The harbour is close to the centre of the town and is run by the Yacht Club. We had a lovely meal in their narrow three story clubhouse on one evening. On Friday we got on our bikes and used the first class cycle paths to ride to Arnemuiden about 6km. It is now on a branch of the canal but was originally “a town of sturdy seafarers”. There were some small replica fishing boats and a shipyard together with a historic centre. But it was very quiet and most of the rest of the small town was more modern. We then cycled on to Veere on the Veerse Meer. This has Scottish connections as a Lord’s son married a Scottish Princess in the 14th century and as a result trade blossomed! Until the construction of the Veerse Dam in the 1960s this was a fishing and seaport but now it is the delightful historic houses and other buildings that attract the tourists. We would be passing nearby the next day but it was a good opportunity to spend some time there.
On Saturday we carefully exited our box around 0830LT and headed north along the canal to the lock at Veere Schutsluis which we were delighted to find open to us with just one other boat inside. As soon as we entered the gate began to shut and the water began to drain, although not very far probably a metre at most. We then entered the Veerse Meer a long winding estuary in which we passed many islands. It also became increasingly busy as we approached (about 90 minutes later) the next lock, Zandkreeksluis and its associated bascule bridges (one each end of the lock). Even as we approached there were around 10 yachts and cabin cruisers tied up to various pontoons or posts awaiting the opening of the lock so we also found a spot and tied up. It was about half an hour before the lock opened to release west bound traffic and by then the number of waiting boats had grown to around 40 or more! I was sure that there wouldn't be enough room for us all but once the green light showed there was a rush towards the lock and by the time the gate was shut behind us there must have been 50 boats inside. Not quite like the K&A!
In Zandkreeksluis lock, there are about another dozen boats in front of us!
From there a shorter distance through tidal waters of about 3nm to the SS Van Goes lock at the entrance to the Havenkanaal to Goes. A lift this time, in a much smaller lock filled with 8 boats) and then a few miles on through another lifting bridge before we reached the outskirts of Goes. It was now just after 1400LT and the HM who was responsible for the bridge was not returning from lunch until 1500. So tie up and lunch for us too. An hour later through the bridge and we choose the WV De Werf club marina (recommended by a Cruising Association colleague) which is like being in a small garden! Very enjoyable.
WV De Werf Marina, Goes
Goes is another very attractive town with lovely historic buildings, busy open air cafes around the Market Square and a considerable traditional shopping centre.
Town Harbour, Goes
On Saturday night and Sunday morning more steady rain. So it was not until later Sunday morning that we passed through the town centre and discovered that there was a gathering of old VW Beetles and Camper Vans. Very colourful!
After lunch we got on our bikes and spent the afternoon cycling on the super cycle paths that the Dutch have. We set off east, firstly passing through a new well designed housing estate on the outskirts of Goes and then across the flat country side to the edge of the Oosterschelde a large tidal estuary. We passed through Kattendijk and then on along the dyke on the coast to Wemeldinge and then Yerseke. The latter is a major fishing port and also supports mussel and oyster beds. We were amazed to see a large fishing fleet (50+ boats). The industry is obviously doing well here as the boats are well maintained.
Some of the fishing boats at Yerseke
All together we covered over 35km on our Bromptons so we returned to Whileaway somewhat tired and saddle sore! But a few interesting days in Zeeland and next we head north back to the Oosterschelde and on to Willemstad.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

St Valery-sur-Somme - Dunkerque (11 July 2015)

After two very sunny and enjoyable days in and around St Valery and a picturesque sunset we regretfully had to leave with the tide at lunch time the next day.
Glorious sunset St Valery-sur-Somme
Sunday began wet and miserable. A great shame as it was the annual celebration of William of Normandy (the Conqueror) with people dressed in the attire of the time and demonstrating appropriate crafts - including that of archery! It was fair to say that they were using a conventional bulls eye target rather than King Harold's face! But sadly for the crowds (and us) we had about an hour of thunderstorms and lightening during the morning so we hurried back to the boat as soon as they eased off. At 1400LT, about 90 minutes before high water, we set off towards the winding channel that would take us to safe water. At first we had to punch the strong incoming tide so we made very slow progress but gradually it slackened and after about 2 hours we reached the safe water buoy and began to head NE. Not only that but we had a brisk F4 (about 14 knots) wind from WNW so we hoisted sails and silenced the engine. We were soon pushing along at 6+kn but in a moderate swell that kept us busy adjusting course. Looking at the coast we were now seeing sand and dunes rather than the high cliffs that were the feature further S. Every 5 or so miles a little holiday town with its high rise concrete blocks of flats would appear (or a power station, or a cement works, or wind turbines)! Not the best unspoilt coast.
The wind gradually increased so that by the time we could see the four wind turbines on the outer breakwater at Boulogne it was F5 gusting to F6 around 25+kn. But we had made good time for the 43nm and around 2130LT Andrea called Boulogne Port to request permission to enter which was duly given. After passing the outer breakwater and a little tussle to get the main sail wound away we called the marina and were allocated a berth. However on approaching what turned out to be a very full marina with boats rafted out it was apparent that we were being squeezed into a tiny berth close to the marina wall. Thankfully we had help from Dutch sailors to manoeuvre Whileaway into a very
tight corner but this took some time.
The next day was warm sunny and so we walked up to the beautifully conserved old walled city and reacquainted ourselves with its attractive architecture and general ambiance.
Boulogne fortified city
On this occasion the ambiance included quite a few groups of boisterous English schoolchildren presumably on school organised day trips. But there was also a film crew preparing to record a programme using the old town as their backdrop and the opportunity to walk the ramparts of the castle. After lunch we walked to and along the sea front, the beach being very busy. Then, in the evening, we enjoyed a lovely dinner at a local restaurant.
Marina, fishing boat quay and city centre high rise
By now we knew that the weather forecast for the coming days was strong winds for the Dover Strait as a depression moved through. As our next leg includes passing the headland of Cap Gris Nez we felt that reasonable weather was required. Also it was not going to be a short leg as we had decided not to call at Calais but press on to Gravelines or Dunquerke. With all the problems of migrants and dockers strikes at Calais there was also a risk of a port blockade and we certainly didn't want to be there if that transpired. With a forecast including gale or very strong winds for Tuesday and Wednesday we decided to stay put and Tuesday became a maintenance day when you do all those odd jobs that need attention. For us this comprised repairing small leaks on joints of two of the fresh water pipes; tackling a small leak on the davits support; cleaning off some scuff marks on the hull; further investigating the AIS failure; rectifying the data supply (position, speed etc) to the VHF; and re-securing some headlining that had come adrift. That evening and night were very bumpy indeed and it was still rough on Wednesday morning but with Thursday looking better. We thoroughly explored Boulogne, especially enjoying revisiting the old fortified city where there were, in the central square, some newly created artistic gardens, each with their own theme.
On Thursday morning at around 0900LT  we finally left Boulogne. After two extra days we had exhausted all the opportunities it could offer!
However heading east we had a very eventful trip as we had to fight the tide for 6 hours and so took 9 hours to do 35nm to get to Gravelines! We had to arrive at Gravelines near HW; for some reason this is only about 2 hours after the tide had turned to go north east whereas I would have thought that we’d have been entitled to the full 6 hours with the tide!
As we were arriving Andrea noticed that the cockpit locker had about 0.3m of water in it. I assumed that a leak on the fresh water system that I had repaired in Boulogne had failed. When we got into Gravelines I found that the engine sump also had about 0.5m of water in it.  On testing I discovered that it was salt water. Also that there was 0,3m of water in the bilges! I began rapidly pumping to return the sea water to the correct (outside) part of boat! After eliminating various causes I discovered a leak on the seawater cooling pipe for the engine which I think I have now repaired.
Gravelines is an interesting place. In the first (only available) pontoon we were on (close to the harbour wall) we ended up sinking into the mud as I think that the sill which is supposed to hold the water in the marina is not as good as it should be; or that the marina has badly silted. Fortunately on Friday morning a couple of other visitors left so we moved to the outer hammerhead and Whileaway then remained afloat again!
Visiting the Capitainerie was interesting in this small harbour. Part of the same building is a bar and restaurant and each time I visited (8 o’clock the first evening then 10’oclock the next morning), the office door was open but no one was there. Each time I found the HM at the bar with a drink in his hand!
We had a less frenetic day on Friday than the previous evening, exploring this nice country town with a market in the town square in the morning. The town also has nice medieval walls and fortifications, a suburb like a 1970’s English new town and a unique railway station from the 1880’s which is demountable so can be removed if no longer needed!
Gravelines demountable railway station.
We also went out to the beach where, at LW, the sea is about half a mile away! On our way there we passed the striking redundant lighthouse with a striped design which stands just behind the beach and acts as a navigation guide upon entering. It is also adjacent to the channel and we noticed a yacht that had run aground at the previous HW and was now definitely looking rather sick, laying on its side, with what appeared to be an anxious skipper on the land waiting for the next HW.

Gravelines lighthouse and stranded yacht
On Saturday we made a prompt departure at 0745BST and went with the tide and a pleasant F4 W wind 15 miles to Dunkerque arriving 3 hours later.
That afternoon we visited the Museum which is a tribute to the evacuation of 300,000+ British and French soldiers in 1940 and which has plenty of film footage and memorabilia. We also looked round the town, some of the architecture is “interesting”, but of course there had to be much rebuilding in the 1950’s. As Andrea remarked both Gravelines and Dunkerque have architecture which is very Flanders or even Belgium rather than the French style that we are used to. But there are some notable historic buildings including the Mairie. Why is it that the French are so much more committed to local democracy and central government is more cautious about interfering than in England?
Mairie Dunkerque
Amongst other buildings is the 15th century bell tower that somehow survived the German onslaught in 1940 and a 1980's tower, the two of these and the Marie acting as valuable landmarks. The carillon
bells in the 15th century tower played wonderfully for about 10 minutes to mark the hour.
Three towers of Dunkerque
The wind got up in the afternoon and worryingly the forecast was for strong winds for about 5 days. So we now engaged in thinking about when and how we can move on to Belgium. As we leave France what have been our favourite places? Well St Vaast-la-Hogue and Honfleur we had previously visited and it was again a pleasure. But of the other places probably the two St Valery's stand out as does Dives, Deauville/Trouville, Le Treport and Gravelines. All smaller places with great character.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Le Havre - St Valery-sur-Somme (5 July 2015)

After a hurried three weeks in England we returned to Le Havre on a slow Portsmouth Ferry. The advantage was that the ferry port was less than 10 minutes walk to Port Vauban where we had left Whileaway. Saturday was taken up with visiting the Capitainerie to pay and arrange our departure, provisioning, readying the boat and attempting again without success to deal with the inoperative AIS.
On the Sunday morning we were ready at 0835 for the road bridge across the entrance to Port Vauban to be lifted and, with two other boats we then headed to the lock that would return us to sea, The lock proved quite testing three weeks before, this time we were better prepared to cope with the metal straps that we had to secure to and in addition it was nearer HW so there was less depth to fall in the lock. After a brief stop in the marina near the harbour entrance (to find a boulangerie, itself quite an unexpected challenge in that part of Le Havre) we set off under sunny skies and light winds broadly NE.
By around 1700LT we had completed 27nm and arrived at the crowded port of Fecamp. Our plan was to stay two nights but on visiting the Capitainerie we discovered, to our surprise, that the next day the Normandie Solo race was due in and so all visitors spaces were needed for that! The biggest disappointment was that we probably couldn't visit the home of Benedictine though we did admire the 'Palace' buildings from outside the gate that evening. In fact we did make good use of the time to walk around what is very much a good sized working and holiday town which was quite busy with traffic. With no choice but to leave the next day we had also drawn the short straw for an early start. Whilst Fecamp is accessible 24 hours many of the settlements on this coast are not as the entrances dry for some distance (3nm in one case). Our next port of call was accessible from roughly 2 hours 30 minutes before HW until 2 hours 30 minutes after (HW+/-2h30m) so, as I was keen not to be entering the harbour on a falling tide on the first visit (ie after HW), an early start was required.
Consequently just after 0630 BST (0730 LT) we were away for the 17nm passage to St Valery-en-Caux. It was another sunny morning with light winds so we had to motor. But just before 1000 LT we passed between two jetties and into the Avant Port with just a few minutes to wait before we could enter the harbour. At this time near HW the lock gate was continually open; but immediately before the lock is a small road bridge which lifts on the hour and half hour. In no time the bridge was lifting As we went through the bridge the HM came out of his office (and bridge control base) and greeted us as we passed with a cheery Bonjour and suggested where we could tie up. Within 10 minutes he was down on the pontoon with town information, codes for showers  etc and saying no hurry to pay just do so when it is convenient before you leave. How refreshing in comparison to south of England marinas where they want your money in advance immediately!

Alongside in the town of St Valery-en-Caux
As we waited in the Avant Port Andrea had noticed that there were stalls selling fish fresh from the boats on the quay side. So off we went for a walk around the town and to acquire dinner. Amongst the variety of fish on the stalls we were particularly taken by Turbot, Whilst not cheap, by no means as expensive as in a supermarket in the UK, and looking very fresh and of good quality so a purchase was made. St Valery is an attractive town despite the fact that many buildings were blown up in WW2. The centre of town was flattened in 1940 when the French Cavalry together with the 51st Highland Division made heroic last stands against Rommel's tanks.Thus we saw memorials to both forces, the immaculate Commonwealth War Cemetery and the Rue de Highland Division. Had an interesting discussion on the pontoon with a Belgian sailor when he talked about his wish to try to visit another St Valery, this time St Valery-sur-Somme. In our planning I had given this a miss as it has major access constraints. But the Belgian was the second person to have mentioned it, a German we met in Deauville on our first leg had also extolled its attractions.
After a good days exploring we were ready to move on the next morning and again headed about 15 nm NE to Dieppe. There are strictly enforced requirements here for all ships to request permission from Dieppe Harbour Control before entering or leaving the port. After a wait for the Newhaven ferry to leave its berth and depart we were given permission to enter and tied up in the main harbour opposite the fishing fleet. We stayed in Dieppe two nights and very much enjoyed a bustling town and beach, the latter being particularly well used as the temperature hit 35 deg C on the second afternoon.
The harbour in the town of Dieppe
Not surprisingly there is a busy fishing fleet here and consequently there are plenty of market stalls. Our choice this time was Dorade (Sea Bream). Whilst in Dieppe we explored including climbing to the top of the cliffs that overlook the town where a seafarers chapel with excellent stained glass remembers those that have lost their lives at sea in the last three centuries.

Seafarers chapel overlooking Dieppe
On a hot sunny day we also cycled up and down the cliffs to the next seaside town of Pourville and back along a "green" route.
This coast has lots of war time incidents. In Dieppe we learnt about Operation Jubilee in 1942. This involved the Canadians accompanied by some British and French commandos attempting an invasion of Dieppe and neighbouring towns. Unfortunately it was a disaster with nearly 1,000 Canadian and Allied men killed and 2,000 captured within a few hours. Just over 2,000 escaped back to England. After the event it was said to have been very important in that the Allies decided that a full scale invasion could not be based on landing at heavily fortified and defended towns and so D Day planning involved the beaches. It was said that the experience of Dieppe meant that many fewer lives were lost later but it all feels a little like post justification for a pointless attack.
After two days in Dieppe it was time for another short hop, this time to Le Treport. This is another busy fishing town with limited access this time through a lock available HW+0330/-0230. again you pass between two jetties into the Avant Port where lights indicated that the lock was closed. On calling on the VHF the lock keeper said that he would be ready in three minutes. This was indeed the case and we entered the lock, the only boat in it. We had a day here in what is a friendly town that developed in the Victorian era. Of particular note was the free funicular which takes you to the top of some of the highest cliffs in Europe. On the other bank is Mers-les-Bains another coastal town from the Victorian era with some "bizarre" but attractive architecture.

Mer-les-Bains sea front
Our next departure was around 1100LT when the Lock Keeper thought that there would be enough water for us. A busy departure time with a full lock. We again headed NE this time looking for a red and white striped safe water buoy (marked "AT-SO) off the mouth of the Baie de Somme. We were attracted to St Valery-sur Somme by the description in the Pilot that also suggested that it was the nicest place in this "navigationally challenged" region. But getting there proved to be the  most testing part of this holiday so far. The Baie de Somme dries to 3nm out. The Pilot recommended being at the AT-SO at 2 hours before HW but because of the traffic in the lock at Le Treport we arrived about 75 minutes before HW. From this buoy you follow a truly meandering channel, The Pilot and the Almanac can not show the Channel as it constantly changes. The buoys are regularly moved. I had downloaded from the St Valery Port web site the latest bouyage as laid in mid-March (, but even this turned out not to be 100% accurate. After you find (from the AT-SO) the first two buoys, S1 (starboard) and S2 (port) you have to tick off each pair of buoys as you cross backwards and forwards between the two coasts which act as the jaws of the bay. The last buoys are in the 40s and it was nearly 90 minutes motoring at above average speed before we closed on St Valery. Then the fun started as the tide was now slack but unbeknown to me the river and the canal discharge into the channel at St Valery so in the last mile or so we were fighting a current of 2kn. Engine revs further increased and on a hot day we suddenly had the engine overheating alarm sounding. Through gritted teeth I pressed on for the couple of hundred metres before we left the channel and entered the marina and slack water!

Looking out from St Valery towards low water- hope that the will tide return!
St Valery is a very attractive town with a medieval quarter that is well maintained as well as later buildings. There are interesting walks (or cycling) along the front that enable you to see the bay as well as along the Canal de la Somme which you can enter here. There is a very pretty narrow gauge train that has been running for 130 years, now by volunteers. We kept hearing the whistle of the steam engines and seeing them so on Saturday we went on an hours journey to Le Crotoy which is on the opposite bank and is an attractive holiday town.

Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme
Unsurprisingly this is another town that claims the 'William the Conqueror was here' tag! But they make much more of it and this weekend they have their annual celebration. It seems that he really did leave from here in 1066 to put the wind up the Saxons following a dispute about inheriting the English crown.

Sunset St Valery
Our last night in St Valery produced a beautiful sunset. On Sunday we leave for Boulogne some 35nm to the north. As we cannot leave (for lack of water) until about 90 minutes before HW we will have to fight the tide most of the way. But first we have to follow all those buoys again to the safe water mark.