Home! Across the North Sea

We had planned to wait on Texel for a weather window to cross to the UK – but as it happened the weather gods were in a good mood and we didn’t have to wait at all.  The day after we arrived, we stocked up on food, filled the water tanks and then headed out on the afternoon tide.

Part One: The Nice Bit

The first hour or so was nice and relaxing, but after avoiding a submarine who was doing confusing manoeuvres in the middle of the channel we hit some stronger wind in the seegat.  The wind was only force 5, but it kicked up some steep chop and we had to put a couple of tacks in to stay in the channel, or at least to avoid the various sandbanks on either side.

It didn’t last long, and soon the surrounding sandbanks were deeper so we were able to sail a course that took us of the channel and out to sea over the banks.  The wind dropped again and we had a nice relaxing sail into the evening, towards several gas platforms, with very little shipping around.

Most of the night was nice sailing, with some spells of motoring, and the AIS allowed us to quickly confirm our analysis of what the various ship lights were up to.  There were gas platforms in sight the whole time.  The only vessel that caused us confusion was (as always) a fishing boat that had all sorts of extra lights on, and no AIS.  They kept changing direction, and we probably altered course by more than we needed to, but eventually we we managed to pass them and get clear.

Crossing the shipping lanes went well despite there being a reasonable amount of traffic, and again it was reassuring to know that (hopefully) the ships could see us on AIS rather than relying on them having someone looking out of the window who was paying enough attention to see our tiny lights.

Part Two: The Next Bit

The second part of the trip was less enjoyable.  As we neared the UK coastline, at around 10am the wind suddenly strengthened and the waves got horrible.  I think we were sailing into the combination of wind-over-tide and a cross-sea from previous strong winds.  The wind had been variable, so when the strong wind hit we just furled up the #1 genoa quite a lot, thinking that the wind would soon drop again.  After we shortened sail Lizzie took it all in her stride and we were still making reasonable progress but the motion was pretty unpleasant.

After the conditions had remained like this for a while, we worked out the distance still to go and realised that we might be in for another 12 hours of this.  We had originally planned to head for Harwich, which gives access to our home port on the river Orwell.  Lowestoft was temptingly 30 miles closer, but unfortunately was upwind, and we knew that the motion would be a lot worse and progress a lot slower if we went that way.  Also, timing the tides to thread our way in between the sandbanks off Lowestoft would be tricky.  The other ports in between, such as the Alde, have complicated entrances where you have to time the tide to perfection.  We gritted our teeth and carried on heading for Harwich.

As Lizzie were still sailing well, we left the heavily-rolled #1 genoa in place rather than swapping down to our new #3.  With hindsight this was probably a mistake, but rolling around with no headsail while working on the foredeck to change sails would have been pretty unpleasant and dangerous.

We made progress all day, taking short watches to steer – there was no way the autohelm was going to cope with these conditions.  As we neared the coast the visibility gradually got worse.  We saw some anchored ships on AIS a long time before they loomed out of the murk a mile or two away.  Luckily it never got properly foggy, and as evening approached the visibility improved again.

Part Three: Harwich Harbour

The wind finally dropped for an hour at sunset, and we unrolled the headsail as we sailed slowly down one of the channels between the sandbanks north of Harwich.  Soon it was completely dark and the wind picked up again as we approached the buoys marking the entrance to Harwich.

There are four lines of buoys here, marking an inner big-ship channel and shallower side channels, and there are various junctions and corners marked by cardinal buoys.  From a distance all this is just a confusing mess of flashing lights, but I made a quick pilotage plan and gradually identified the various key lights that we needed and we successfully wove our way in.

Catherine spotted an outbound ship, so we did a short beat up and down before “crossing the road” to the south side of the channel.  We started the motor and motor-sailed up through the harbour.

By the time we had passed Harwich town, the wind had died and we motored slowly up the river Stour to an anchorage that we have used before, enjoying the amazing peace of flat water and no wind after more than twelve hours of horrible waves.

We wove slowly around some other anchored boats and nosed in towards the side of the river, watching the depth sounder, before lowering our anchor, trying to keep the noise down as it was now around midnight.  We put up the anchor light and collapsed into our bunks.  We were back in the UK!

Part Four: The Next Day

After a great night’s sleep we felt a lot better, and we had a really nice sail round to our old mooring at Woolverstone on the river Orwell.  It was nice to be back in familiar waters.

We discovered that yesterday’s sailing in strong wind with the #1 genoa rolled up had stretched the top of the sail slightly, so it doesn’t set quite as well now.  This was annoying, because we had just bought a new #3 genoa, which is much stronger.  With hindsight, knowing that the strong wind was going to last for 12 hours, we should have changed the headsail.

We also discovered that our outboard motor mount was broken.  I made the mount last year as a temporary solution, and a year of water on cheap plywood had weakened it.  Twelve hours of steep waves had broken the wood, and the motor was still there but was facing down at a bit of an angle.  We were glad that we didn’t know about this the previous night when we were motoring up through the harbour!