Channel Crossing Weekend 1-4 July - a view from member Jem Nichols on his first channel crossing

The build up to my first cross Channel trip was quite busy: I’d got together with the crew to sail to the Nab Tower as part of Gosport’s Marine Festival a few weeks before. This gave us a chance to get to know each other and see how we could work together. The preparations carried on the week before going to France with Tuesday seeing the arrival and fitting of new sails, courtesy of Jeckells The Sailmakers who are based in Norfolk. You can see their sails on quite a few yachts in our area and we are very pleased with them: they certainly sharpen things up and allow Nemo to sail much closer to the wind. I gave the guy a hand fitting the sails learning yet more new tasks in the process. No sooner had the Jeckells chap left the boat than our Events Officer, Brian Dunton arrived. Brian had very kindly agreed to give me some tuition on how to use the Raymarine chart plotter and radar aboard Nemo (he offers this to all of our members). The use of waypoints and the “Go To Cursor” function was to prove very useful on our Channel crossing, particularly at night in a strange harbour.

Our plan for crossing to France was to set sail on Thursday evening, drop anchor in Sandown Bay and then set off for Cherbourg early on Friday morning. Setting off in SW F4 – 5 on that first night it was soon obvious that the weather had different ideas. I tend to be very cautious as a skipper and a recurring theme for us that weekend was changing the plan when the weather or tides had different ideas to us. On the Thursday night we were having quite a bumpy time sailing under reef 2 on the main and genoa and looking south across the Eastern edge of the Wight we could see that even if we did make it there we were going to get knocked around like mad overnight. I told the crew that I wasn’t happy to continue and that we should seek more sheltered waters for the night. Heading back towards Haslar we found it so much quieter in the lee of Bembridge and soon found a quiet spot to drop the hook. I managed to get text messages to other HYC members and my wife who was staying at home so people knew what we were doing. After checking that we were holding we fired up the oven and cooked up some pizzas and enjoyed a few well-earned beers. I checked our position at regular intervals and once satisfied that all was stable we all turned in for the night. This was my first “first”: my first night at anchor in Nemo.

Waking slightly later than planned I said we should poke our nose around the corner and see what the conditions were like. They were fine so off we went, again under reef 2 and making good progress for most of the journey. My second “first”: first time out of sight of land as a skipper. My overall impression of sailing across the Channel is that it’s a darned sight easier than sailing in the Solent! Yes, we saw plenty of shipping but it was all miles away and never any problem. You have to keep your wits around in the Solent: there’s always something or someone to consider and things are constantly changing.

For the latter part of the journey we were not making enough progress against wind, tide and time so decided to motor sail. My third “first”: first night sail as skipper, helped enormously by a first rate crew who kept a great lookout as I checked the chart and plotted our position on a regular basis. Entering Cherbourg was my next “first” : first time sailing into an unknown harbour at night. Again I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of traffic. I radioed the marina but got no reply so I tried phoning them. Again, no reply but it was getting on for 2 am local time so we just looked for and found a suitable berth (again thanks to the efforts of the crew) and moored up for the night.  Another late night feast of pizzas and a bottle of wine and we were all ready to climb into our bunks.

After a late night we were in no rush to get up early so we enjoyed a lovely breakfast at the marina restaurant. I started working on a passage plan to get us to Alderney which involved sailing NW against the strong W wind until we could tack SW and reach Alderney. Well, that was the plan but again conditions were to have the last word (as ever). The first thing we found was really strong winds – and that was still in the harbour. We’d set reef 2 again but with the wind rising to F5 – 6 I decided to pull down to reef 3, and it was just as well we did. Outside the harbour we had a cracking sail making more than 7 knots under the 3rdreef. This was exciting enough for us! The sun was shining brightly in the strong wind and equally high swell, a very enjoyable sail. We’d heard before we left that 4 yachts had headed out for Alderney but 3 of them had turned back.  Our late start meant that I hadn’t taken enough account of the strong tides but that was OK, we just changed our plan and headed back to Cherbourg that I had already identified as our “port of refuge”. We were not out to do anything foolhardy or even difficult: just a bunch of friends enjoy a weekend sail. Besides, we had a great time in Cherbourg that night with some lovely beer and good steak meals.

The next morning dawned calm and misty and we decided to have a quiet day off exploring the town. Walking through the streets we came to a large square with a huge screen showing Le Tour de France. What we hadn’t realised then was that Le Tour was due to come right the way through Cherbourg that afternoon. We found a nice roadside cafĂ©, enjoyed a few cold beers and sat back to enjoy  the crazy spectacle that is Le Tour. The whole thing was nuts – the advertising floats and cars were racing through at the same speed as the bikes for at least 2 hours prior to the racers themselves. They were advertising anything, toothpaste, solicitors, razors, toilet cleaner, sweets, insurance – anything! Freebies and give-aways were thrown to the crowd who loved it. It was great fun and then the bikes came through so quickly you could easily have missed them. 

After freshening up we headed into town again and this time were met by fellow members David and Caroline Molyneux who had sailed over that afternoon. A very pleasant evening was had in their company.

The following day we set off early and it was fairly obvious that the only wind was a light Southerly. It was clear that we were going to have to motor sail if we were going to get back on Monday and as we all had work to go to on Tuesday that’s what we did. It was pleasant enough but you can’t chat and relax as easily with a diesel engine churning away all the time. Still it was a fine day and we made good progress.

As soon as we turned into the Solent the wind picked up and we could turn the engine off. And keep a sharp eye out for all the busy Solent traffic! It was like the M27 in comparison to the Channel. Great fun and good to be home even if it was hectic. We got back to Haslar and put the boat away and cleaned her up. Nemo had done us proud once more as had the excellent crew of Ash Cutler and Ray Page. Thanks guys, it was a cracking long weekend. 

Jem Nicholls

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