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You are here: Skip Navigation LinksHome > Articles > From the magazines > 2003 > Aztec's Normandy Cruise

Aztec's Normandy Cruise

11/7/2003 - 26/7/2003

Friday 11th July

Mike,(Skipper) collects Neil from Chelmsford by car and travels to Canvey Island. On the way Dave calls on the mobile to say he will be arriving at Benfleet Rail station at 9:45 Mike stops to collect Dave from the station and they all drive to the Island Yacht Club on Canvey Island where Aztec is moored.

Mike had provisioned Aztec the day before having taken the Thursday off work to do the shopping, so all they had to do was get the crews gear aboard, stow it, and go through the safety items then set off.

At 10:50 we leave the mooring and as the wind is NE F3 Aztec motor sails out of the Thames so as to maintain a good speed to cover the distance to Dover as quickly as possible.

The "Overland Route" is the one chosen, through Four Fathoms channel, Gore Channel, and on to round the N Foreland at 16:00. Once round N Foreland with the wind on the quarter the cruising chute is raised and the engine is silenced. This is the life.

Ramsgate disappears behind us along with the Goodwins and we enter Dover harbour by the eastern entrance at 18:40. The marina allocate a berth and just as we are about to turn into it they give us a new berth. We tied up in the Granville dock and Dave announces he is going to prepare a bolognese meal we would all remember and he had to have some fresh peppers and garlic. Dave sets off for the supermarket and Neil and I arrange to meet him in the Royal Cinque Ports YC.

After a couple of rounds Dave turns up staggering with another two bags of provisions. When we were all suitably refreshed we return to Aztec where Dave whizzes around in the galley making the most appetising smells. Dinner was fantastic, and we all retire very contented.

Sat 12th July

The next day we had an easy start at 9:00 the plan was to head for Eastbourne.

After leaving Dover by the Western entrance we set sail and Dave decides to try his hand at fishing.

As we had plenty of time we reduced sail and sailed slowly for about an hour to give the trolling line a chance. "I'm in" came a shout from Dave and we turned round to see him smiling and holding up a line of three mackerel. During the rest of the trip Dave caught another four fish.

As we came round the fairway buoy at the entrance of Sovereign Harbour with a shallow bank on one side and with a fast cross tide the engine suddenly died. My heart skipped a few beats as we had already dropped sail. I tried to start the engine again but it would not start, I was about to shout get ready to drop anchor, when I noticed the engine stop knob was pulled up, I pushed it down and the engine started immediately on the button. This all happened within a few seconds, but it certainly startled me. (Dave had not realised he had caught the stop knob as he had come out of the aft cabin.)

We arrive in Sovereign Harbour at 18:40 and topped up the fuel tank.

Supper was fried, you cannot get a nicer bit of fish than fresh mackerel.

The forecast for the next day was F5 NE and I decided on a change of plan and instead of the very long passage, including a night sail, to make St Vaast the next day and a possible wait in rough seas at St Vaast I decided on an early start and make a Channel crossing to arrive at Fecamp instead.

Sun 13th July

We left Eastbourne at 05:15 and had an uneventful Channel crossing, half a dozen ships passed with ample distance ahead and astern of us. The wind was just right on the port quarter and we sailed fast with speeds sometimes exceeding 6kn. I even managed to have a nap when clear of shipping lanes.

Half way across we had a visit from a Pigeon who came swooping down past the backstay and mainsail and flopped into the cockpit on the seat under Dave's feet. It lay there looking almost dead so Dave gave it a saucer of water, which it sipped at. The poor thing could not stand and with its eyes closed it stayed put with its beak resting on the seat for the next few hours.

As we neared the French coast, which was still nowhere in sight due to the mist, the pigeon perked up a little and decided to flap and hop into the companionway where it flew into the cabin to have a look around. I followed it in and picked it up and placed it back in the cockpit where it proceeded to strut around and poo every where.

Finally the French coast came into sight when we were about 2 miles off and a minor correction to course was made to bring us up to Fecamp.

Entering Fecamp we found all the visitor moorings taken with boats rafted up 5 deep. So we squeezed into a small berth with about half the boat sticking out past the pontoon finger. I told Dave to get rid of the Pigeon in case we were accused of illegally importing it. It flew up and just made it to the top of one of the buildings on the other side of the road. (Enquiries later showed the pigeon was a Dutch bird.)

We checked into the marina office and paid for the night, asking if it would be alright for us to stay in the berth we had taken or would it be needed by any one else, we got an uninterested "oui". I went back to Aztec and within a few minutes a small French motor boat with a family of what seemed like about 8 on board started calling and gesticulating at us. It was plain what they meant but we waved and smiled back trying to desperately to pretend we had no idea what they were going on about. As they would not go away and there was another even smaller berth available on another pontoon, (which would have fitted the French boat beautifully) we moved out pretending not to be put out and squeezed into the other berth.

That night as a celebration of the good crossing and because we decide to eat out we wandered off to look for a place to relax and eat in. We were surprised to see the road blocked from crossing by red and white tape along the pavement, and the streets were very busy with people wandering around. All the cafes were full with people queuing to get in. We eventually found one and the manageress sat us down at a table with easy reach of the bar. During the meal we noticed the crowds outside getting bigger, and Neil suggested something about Bastille Day celebrations. As darkness descended there was a real commotion coming from outside and it was soon obvious there was some kind of motorcycle rally taking place. I went outside. I had never seen so many motorcycles, not even in the Isle of Man during TT week. The procession came down the zig zag road on the cliffs the other side of the harbour, all along the harbour and around the town, back along the harbour on our side and disappeared off into the town again. I don't know where they all came from or where they all went to but the procession kept on coming past our café for about 80 minutes. They were pulling wheelies, burning rubber, revving the guts out of the engines, and generally making as much noise as possible revving their engines and using the kill switch to make the engine backfire repeatedly.

Mon 14th July

The trip the next day to St Vaast was a long one and as it turned out was the longest leg of the fortnight, requiring at least a 12 hour passage. This is where we planned to meet up with the rest of the Seal fleet. I planned to set of early at 8:30 to make best use of the tides. The forecast was E 4 - 6, once outside of the harbour we hoisted sail and set off at what appeared to be a good pace. On checking the GPS I found that instead of the 5 knots on the log we were actually doing 3 knots and it was slowing all the time as the adverse tide increased. Something was wrong with my calculations and I checked them again, the chart I had used to plan the passage (Cherbourg to Fecamp corrected to 2001) showed tides of 2.2 kn. My calculations were correct, but we were by now experiencing nearly 4 kn of adverse tide. I got out some other charts and found the data on the Newhaven to Dover chart confirmed a higher rate of tide (3.5 kn) still not as much as we were experiencing though.

I started the engine and motor sailed at full speed toward St Vaast. Fecamp seemed to never disappear but eventually we passed Cap D Antifer and the tide started easing. (I think my mistake was to go out too far, I noticed that other, possibly local boats, all hugged the coast). Because of the considerable distance we still had to cover I continued to motor sail all the way to St Vaast. Our speed over the ground reached 10kn at one point which easily made up for the time lost at the start of the passage. Three quarters of the way across the Seine Bay as we got nearer to St Vaast the following seas got larger and we were enjoying a roller coaster ride down one wave and up another as they slowly overtook us. The rudder however started to make a creaking and clicking noise as the large waves rolled under the rear of the boat. This stopped when I reduced the engine RPM and the boat speed dropped relying on the strong wind to speed us along. (on investigation it was found the tiller pivot clamp on the square end of the rudder shaft was slightly loose and the rudder shaft was moving in the clamp. This proved to be a worry later)

St Vaast was sighted and we slowed down as we were slightly early for the lock to open. We slowly sailed into the shallower waters of the approaches to St Vaast and as we got nearer noticed the boats waiting there were just starting to weigh anchor. We continued to the lock and had to wait about 10 minutes for some boats to come out before we motored through. We moored up at 21:00 and I went to find the rest of the rally to announce our arrival. We were unfortunately too late for the Oyster Party which was held on board the Commodores boat "Ard Righ". As it was so late and there were not many others around from the SSA, we did not get to introduce ourselves to the rest of the fleet.

The visibility was poor during this passage and apart from a few local boats near Fecamp we did not see another vessel or mark between Cap D Antifer and St Vaast.

After the long trip we all wanted to eat ashore so Neil led us to a restaurant he had been to on previous occasion when visiting by road, only to find it was too late to order. Another café was found and we ordered dinner at about 22:30.

Tue 15th July

The next morning I was amazed to see the most strange looking boat, bus, tractor, I think it was all 3, driving round the marina. It turned out to be the ferry which served the island just off shore "Ile de Tatihue". It drove round the marina and then just ran down the slipway and crossed the water with the aid of two enormous outdrives to the old penal colony.

Dave had to leave us to return to England, he promised to return the following weekend. As my GPS had inexplicably "locked up" temporarily at the entrance to St Vaast harbour he kindly agreed to leave his hand held GPS with us just in case it failed again.

The harbour lock was due to open at 9:30, we left with a crowd of other boats and waved goodbye to Dave as he stood on the harbour wall. It was misty and flat calm. We motored alongside Zest for most of the way. As we drew near to the fairway buoy at the entrance to the Carentan river the wind started to pick up and we had an exhilarating close hauled reach into the entrance of the river. Once inside the river we motored up towards the lock at the entrance of Napoleons Canal. There were small fish leaping out of the water which seemed to be swirling and boiling in places due to the numbers of them. I had no idea what the fish were, except they seemed to be about 6 inches long.

The trip up river was pleasant and reminded me of the creek leading to Faversham in Kent. We arrived at the lock to find Vol au Vent already there and Sue came quickly to our aid to take ropes. We were soon followed by Zest and others. When we locked into the canal I engaged the auto pilot as we motored slowly up to the marina in order to take some photos.

Suddenly Aztec made a violent 110 degree swerve to port and I found us heading directly across the bows of Zest. I knocked the autopilot off and swung the tiller the other way, I was wondering what had happened, when, I realised we had just sailed over a tunnel where the road crossed under the canal. The tunnel must have been made of steel and the result was the worst case of deviation I have ever experienced. I continued steering by hand and we found our berths in the marina at the end of the canal and tied up. We lunched on the mackerel I had caught on the way from St Vaast.

Carentan is a picturesque small town with numerous squares, although we saw no market. The marina is on the edge of the town.

We relaxed on board and in the late afternoon we all went aboard Vol au Vent where Sue and Ken Surplice were entertaining the fleet. Later that evening we went with Ken, Sue and family to a café near to the marina and enjoyed pizza for supper.

Wednesday was a rest day from travelling and it rained for most of the afternoon and into the evening. I went for a walk around the town with Neil, and lunched in a small cake shop, where a school party from England were also eating and practising their GCSE French.

That evening we all went to a pre-booked meal in a posh restaurant, "Auberge Normande" we walked in the rain through the town and I discovered I had a leak in my sailing boots.

Wed 17th July

On Thursday it was planned for the fleet to sail round to Ouistreham although due to strong winds forecast some decided to stay in the sheltered marina at Carentan. We left early and sailed down the river to the sea. Once out of the river and past the fairway buoy we could see the others, behind us, heading down river towards the sea. We turned to starboard and headed towards Ouistreham passing the D Day beaches on the way. We made a quick detour into the Mulbury Harbour at Arromanches but did not stay. The concrete caissons were clearly visible and mostly intact although it seemed that the storms over the years had moved some and others were lying at an angle. I marvelled at the work the men had done to build the harbour as part of the Allied invasion of Europe, and my thoughts were with the brave soldiers, airmen and sailors who fought along the beaches. We turned and headed out of the harbour to find some of the Seal fleet had caught up and was passing the entrance.

The wind had dropped a little by this time and some of the lighter 275's passed us. A little further on I looked out and saw a pot marker on the port bow, it should have passed about 20 feet away from us and I hoped Neil who was on the tiller had seen it. Suddenly the marker buoy made a dive towards us and my stomach sank. The buoy disappeared under us and Aztec rapidly slowed down from 5.5 kn to 3 kn as we dragged the pot along. Neil cheerfully said "oh lobster for tea then" I was a bit more pessimistic. I had never caught a lobster pot before in 15 years of sailing. Now was my turn to try and deal with one. My natural instinct was to reduce speed as much as possible so I rolled in the genoa and the boat slowed to 2 kn. The tiller was very heavy. As I decided to go and start winding up the keel the buoy bobbed up behind us and I had a feeling of great relief when I felt the tiller go light again. I am thankful I always sail with my prop locked by putting the engine in reverse gear to stop it turning, if the prop had been turning the rope would almost certainly have been tangled permanently round the propeller. In retrospect I think the buoy must have been attached with a floating line and as the tide was low it was slack and just under the surface of the water. We arrived at Ouistreham at near to low tide to find fishermen standing up to their chests in the water fishing with rod and line, they must have been standing on the training walls which line the entrance to the harbour. The faster boats of our fleet were tied up at a floating pontoon waiting for the tide and for the lock gate which would open to let us into the canal. Neil cooked supper on board.

The Lock was due to open at about 23:30 and it was dark by the time we left the lock and made our way round into the marina where we rafted up for the night.

Thu 18th July

I awoke at 4:30 and looked through the open companion way to see the most amazing cloud formations and sunrise, I photographed the sky and went back to sleep.

The plan for today was to travel up the canal to Pegasus bridge, where we were going to stop and have lunch and a guided tour of the museum. We left early in Aztec and got to Benouville first.

We moored against a concrete quay close to the floating restaurant, "La Peniche". An angler kindly moved his tackle to clear more quayside for the rest of the boats. Neil and I went for a walk to the café and had a drink.

The café was the first building to be liberated by the allies on June 6 1944 and is now part of a museum. After lunch we went round the official museum of the 6th Airborne division. The English guide at the museum gave a fascinating account of the events of the 6th June backed up with a model of the whole area depicting where various operations of the invasion took place. I found it very moving, particularly some of the letters written home by the soldiers.

On the original bridge which has now been moved to the museum grounds, there is a plaque on the bridge that says: "After crossing Pegasus Bridge under enemy fire on 6 June 1944 Lance Corporal Brian J. Mullen (Sapper), R.E. No.4 Commando, Intelligence Section, a talented artist, was killed while going back to help a wounded Commando comrade."

The roof of the museum building was designed and built to the same size and to represent the wings of the Horsa gliders used by the 6th Airborne division when they landed with such skill, bravery and dedication on that "Longest Day".

After the museum tour we waited for the last opening of the new Pegasus Bridge and we all sailed and motored slowly up the canal to arrive at Caen at about 18:20.

Fri 19th July

This was a rest day at Caen. Neil goes off for a tour around Caen. As it is so very hot I stay on board and attempt to erect a cockpit awning using the winter cover to help shade from the sun. I decided to make it a project to construct a purpose made sun awning at some time in the future. Some others go off on visits around the local tourist sites such as Bayeux. A Pimms party was held on board Tara and Ariel.

We were all amazed by Sue from "Vol au Vent" when she volunteered to go up the masts of a few boats to sort out whatever problems they had.

Sat 20th July

We locked out of Caen marina and motored back to Pegasus Bridge, where Dave is waiting to meet us having just arrived back on the ferry from England.

A Sunday Dinner was pre-booked at "Le Manoir de Hastings" and every one set off for the short walk to the restaurant.

The meal was a lavish affair with about 7 courses, starting with drinks and canapés in the gardens, then on to a long banqueting hall in the Manor house. I am glad not to have chosen the steak as when I looked at someone else's I could see nothing but raw meat. I have found 2 things I dislike about the French restaurants visited during this trip. They do not understand what cooked meat is and the improvement in flavour that is obtained when the blood is no longer oozing out, and the wine has the effect on my pallet like eating alum or sucking on a sloe.

However the French have a reputation for fine food and there are reasons for this, my Bass was beautiful, and on the whole the meal was very enjoyable with numerous courses and small appetisers between them.

After a slow walk back to the canal, most boats returned to Ouistreham marina. Neil and Dave decided to go on a short walk and I follow, this turns out to be a long walk, I found it rather pointless going round the back streets looking at houses. I returned to the Harbour area to have supper with a sore foot due to not having the proper footwear on for walking.

Sun 21st July

The Seal Fleet were planning next to make their way East back toward Cherbourg, stopping at some of the small drying harbours on the way. We considered this but decided to say our farewells to our new friends and headed East to Honfleur.

We left Ouistreham marina at 10:30 and locked out of the canal, we stopped for a short time on the waiting pontoon and then headed back into the sea. The trip to Honfleur was ideal sailing all the way. We motored up the Seine to the entrance to Honfleur harbour. The lock gates were open so we went straight through and round to the entrance of the small marina where we waited for the road bridge to open and let us in. A helpful young lady turned up in a runabout and cheerfully allocated a berth for Aztec.

The view of Honfleur from Aztec's berth was like a picture post card. The harbour was lined with tall Town Houses each one appearing to hold up its neighbour, some up to about 8 stories high all different in colour and design. It had a real ancient look and apart from being crowded with modern yachts I could imagine I had just time-ported back to the 17th Century and arrived back on a sailing ship from the South Seas.

We stepped ashore and strolled the 5 or 6 paces to the nearest café where we had a couple of large 1664's. We had to have a break after these as they seemed to go straight to our heads. Neil and Dave went off for a walk to find somewhere to eat. I didn't fancy walking too much as my foot was still sore and so I stayed behind to have a short siesta.

I went back to the same café near the boat and ordered a meal. The service was uncharacteristically courteous and prompt with the menu in English and French. The meal was very well presented, not fussy, and cooked to my liking and was the most enjoyable meal I had eaten on the trip so far. I can thoroughly recommend Honfleur.

Mon 22nd July

We left Honfleur at 9:30 and after passing through the lock we headed out of the Seine with the tide at nearly 9 kn. We passed Le Havre and headed NE towards Fecamp and then decided to go on to St Valery en Caux.

Along the coast we came across numerous pots, all very poorly marked. They seemed to always be around when we were passing the small coastal villages. Some appeared to even be set in a line which indicated they were probably connected, we went out of our way to stay clear of them.

When we turned towards St Valery to start our approach to the harbour entrance, about half a mile off, Dave who was on lookout shouted and I saw a small pot marker in front of us. I turned to starboard to miss it and then Dave shouted again and pointed to a rope connecting it to another buoy the other side of us. I swung the tiller hard over to turn to port to pass the marker on the other side and thankfully this seemed to be clear any ropes. I decided that this area was definitely not suitable for navigating at night and was glad it was daylight.

We came to the conclusion that a black marker probably indicated a pot and a red marker seemed to indicate a gill net, black and red indicated both.

We entered the harbour mouth and motored round to the entrance to the marina, where we had to wait a short while for the lock and bridge to open.

St Valery was typical of the French towns we had visited so far and had colourful kerbside flower beds. In St Valery we met Terry and Mary on board their catamaran "Cover Girl" from Benfleet. They had also stopped off for emergency repairs to their autopilot whilst on route from Benfleet to the Carribean.

On the way from Honfleur and at other times since St Vaast I had been keeping an eye on the tiller shaft clamp. It had started to move again with the same snapping noise as the rudder shaft turned slightly in the squared clamp.

To cut a long story short, I considering trying various methods to strengthen the clamp. In the end, after smearing a liberal amount of grease around the bottom of the bronze clamp to seal the gap, I poured super glue down the gap in between the square in the bronze clamp and the squared rudder shaft and left it to set. The Super glue set rock hard and made a custom made shim to take up the play in the squared clamp. It still hasn't moved and now at the end of the season it is time to consider a proper repair.

Tue 23rd July

This was supposed to be the day we were going to return back across the Channel to Dover. But because of the repairs to the tiller clamp we missed the morning lock out. I decided to make the short trip to Dieppe which would make the crossing to Dover a little shorter. We left St Valery at 17:30 and motored round to Dieppe arriving at 20:20. Dave caught some mackerel and a garfish on the way and we had them for supper as a starter. The Harbour office wanted a deposit of €40 or my passport as a deposit for the key to the shower block, as I had deliberately used up all my Euros and wasn't prepared to part with my passport I decided the crew would have to forgo the luxury of a shower here.

Wed 24th July

The wind was forecast as SW4-5 possibly 6 the weather was definitely deteriorating. My plan was to make for Dover, a 70 mile trip, and I decide to set off at 6:30.

The journey started with large seas and the wind increased to F5 then F6 and by the time we had reached Cap Gris Nez it was gusting to F7 with what looked to me like 4m waves. I discussed the prospects of continuing with the crossing to England and although Dave and Neil seemed ok with continuing I made the decision to alter course to Calais.

We arrived in Calais at 19:00 and hurriedly moved out of the way of a Ferry which hooted me as he wanted the whole outer harbour to himself, the ferry seemed to be heading for the marina but luckily it changed its mind. We moored to a buoy to wait for the lock to open into the marina. The lock opened and we rafted up 4 abreast to boats already there on the visitors pontoon. It looked like we weren't the only ones who had gone into Calais to shelter. We stayed in Calais the next day as the wind was still blowing hard. The harbour master said we could move to a free pontoon if we could find one, so after checking with the office we moved Aztec and squeezed into a small gap on our own finger pontoon.

We went for a walk around Calais, and all had a go on the dodgem's, and a Fruits de Mer For lunch. I went back to Aztec and Dave and Neil went for another walk. I started feeling unwell and my Moules Mariniere paid a return visit and deposited themselves on the cockpit floor. OH I felt better after that!

That evening saw us in the club bar having a frank discussion over a few pints, and return to eat on board courtesy of Neil.

Fri 26th July

The Journey home. The day started ominously when I fell down a step that I didn't see in the shower block. I fell onto my "good" knee with my full weight and badly hurt it. It was very painful for quite a while but I could stand full weight on it and walk, so after warning the crew that I would be on "light duties" for the sail back we decided to go.

Dave and I changed the Genoa for the no.1 jib, and we cast off from the pontoon and wriggled Aztec out from its narrow berth at 8:50 in time for the lock opening at 9:00. About 50 other boats all did exactly the same and we all milled about in the canal, circling and reversing trying to dodge each other, this needed a bit more skill than the dodgems I practised yesterday. To make matters worse the lock didn't open at 9:00 and the melee continued for 20 minutes when the lock finally opened at 9:21. All the boats suddenly turned from whatever direction they had been circling in and converged on the narrow lock entrance. We jostled our way through the lock and started heading out to the outer "Avent Port". The signals were indicating we could not leave the small inner harbour. So the circling started again, a couple of boats ignored them and headed off to the outer harbour where presumably there was a ferry due and this was why we had been held up. We stayed in this position for a while and I decided to call the port control to find out what was happening. Shortly after the lights changed and we were off, full throttle. To see all the boats converging on the harbour entrance and bursting out in all directions was like a cork popping from a champagne bottle. We raised the mainsail and set our course for England. The engine was turned off and a lovely sail commenced.

The crossing of the busy Dover Straights shipping lane was mostly uneventful. We took regular hand bearings on all the ships we saw and had to take avoiding action by slowing down on one or two occasions.

Once across the lanes and close to the East Goodwin light in the UK Inshore lane we came across two ships one overtaking the other and heading across our track. In theory I had the right of way as a sailing vessel but decided to take avoiding action. I could pass in front of them both so I started the engine and hurried across their path, when almost across their path the over taking ship altered course and cut across the path of the slower ship and was still heading straight at me. There was not time to continue to pass in front of the overtaking ship. I indicated I was taking avoiding action by furling the jib and turned so I headed on a reciprocal course to the ship. They passed and I carried on my original course. It seemed that the overtaking ship had altered course deliberately to cut across both the slower ship and me.

We headed on toward Ramsgate, and beyond, and came to N Foreland, we turned into the Thames and sailed along the coast past Margate, through the Hook spit gap and passed Herne Bay. By this time the sky had completely changed and clouds had closed in, visibility had deteriorated to about 1 mile and it started to drizzle.

We continued in the rain and arrived in the Ray at 21:30. We anchored for a short while and all went below into the cabin to dry out. We started to cook supper and packed our bags, I decided to have a go at getting on the mooring at 22:40 and just made it. Neil helped Dave to get ashore with his bags as he had to leave immediately to get home that night. Neil returned for a relaxing meal and a quiet drink on board.

Summary of the Cruise

I was thankful to be home in my mooring, but I had enjoyed the trip, it being the most adventurous I had undertaken. All things considered everything went well, and the preparation before hand, although not all used, was worth doing for peace of mind.

My crew had been excellent company and I look forward to sailing with them again.

Cruise Statistics

  • 54 hours of motorsailing
  • 92 litres diesel used
  • 110 hours total travelling time
  • 543 miles total distance