By midnight, the sheet lines were tangled and I was accidentally hove to. A vast uncharted red light appeared on the East horizon and the ghost of my grandmother was circling the mast head – back from the dead to admonish me for spending my portion of her will on a boat rather than a mortgage. Spooked, cold and frightened, I steered for contingency one: Southwold. My pulse steadied as my Westerly GK-29 Granny Knot glided in on the flood tide. The uncharted red light had been the rising moon – now high over the bullrushes and gleaming on the sleeping masts and wooden stilts. The ghost was a gull – which followed me in like a Doré etching from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
It took a few days to recover my nerve. Except to complete a week’s course in the basics with the RYA, I had never sailed before.
Unable to get crew, passage planning became a form of procrastination. Royal Admiralty typefaces and the swirling colours of the Windy App haunted my dreams until impatience overcame fear and I took Granny Knot out from Lowestoft into the North Sea for twenty minutes on the evening of the Summer solstice. Once the sails were up, though, the silent admission came: my theoretical plan to reach Ramsgate the following day was not theoretical.
Would I ever make it to Gibraltar? A girl I know who races horses for Wales had casual faith that I’d succeed. Her father wasn’t so sure. I knew which I wanted to impress.
Several people recognised Granny Knot at Southwold and knew the previous owners. If I was going to give up, I couldn’t lose face by doing so here. After a few days of pub lunches, I sailed for Harwich, running aground at the confluence of the Stour and the Orwell before heading up the latter and resting on someone’s buoy for a few days, reading and waiting on a fair wind. Heading down the North periphery of the Thames Wind Array and through Fisherman’s Gat, my sense of loneliness at sea was strangely heightened by the constant presence of abandoned gun platforms, radio masts and cardinal buoys giving forlorn honks into the grey miasma. It was unnerving to think that, while out of sight of land, Granny sometimes had barely two metres of water under the keel.
Looking back, it’s a shame to admit that I hadn’t yet worked out how to reef the mainsail, so was relieved when the North coast of Kent came into view as the wind picked up. Flying into the embrace of the Royal Harbour at Ramsgate, damage had already been done. The Sail Loft had their work cut out for the next twenty-four hours. Fortunately, I was now beyond the ‘goodwill and gossip’ zone of Lowestoft Cruising Club – so these mistakes were made with anonymity. Lechery for life coursed, carrying that heady venom of delinquency as I set off for France.
Suppose us fairly now afloat,
Till Boulogne mouth receives our boat,
But, bless us! what a numerous band,
Of cockneys anglicise the strand!
Delinquent bankrupts, leg-bail’d debtors,
Some for news and some for letters –
With hungry look and tarnished dress,
French shrugs and British surliness.S T Coleridge
Boulogne, Dieppe, Le Havre, Grandcamp-Maisy. It has been seventy years since Ian Fleming’s James Bond encountered Vespa Lynd and Soviet villain Le Chiffre in the fictitious Royale-les-Eaux’s casino but, even for my post Cold-War generation, the slightly neglected towns on the coast of Normandy still evoke a glamour of the ‘first foreign holiday’. Memories flooded back of a school trip as a nine-year-old: the oily smell of a croque Monsieur and Madame Clarke ordering a pint of Leffe in the town square as we marvelled at the readily available fire-crackers and flick knives. I remember, too, our first glimpse of a naked woman – supine through the rusting tank traps on Omaha Beach as some teacher droned on and on about which armoured division stormed which ridge during the landings. Depressingly, it was the history and architecture which caught my interest on this occasion, twenty years later. I preferred to go by night to save on port fees and for the fun of marking-off all the lighthouses and cardinal buoys on my RYA charts. My relationship with ports was a work in progress. Incoming fishing boats often sell you something for breakfast if you catch their attention with affected spontaneity and their discarded ice is useful for refrigeration. Little cafés in the heart of Norman towns are great places to bury yourself in almanacs.
No tide can carry a sailor from novice to braggart faster than that round the Cherbourg headland. Aiming for Guernsey, I plunged into that straight known as ‘The Plughole’ and stared at the GPS like a gambler at a fruit machine until, lashed by rain and gale force winds, I altered my trajectory through the purgatorial gloom towards a speck on my chart without a marina: Alderney.
Saint Anne’s, Alderney
Suddenly, the geometric silhouettes of Nazi fortifications loomed in the fog. A vortex of Terns rolled down the misty cliffs as I bowled into the shelter of the colossal Victorian breakwater. The furious channel boomed and sprayed over the dozen yachts which shuddered at their moorings inside.
“Welcome,” said the boatman, handing me my customs form. “I won’t ask. Nobody comes here on purpose.”
While the clifftop fortifications testify to millennia of neurotic isolation, this is probably the most recent settler society in the West. Completely evacuated in WWII, Alderney’s most popular settler myth today seems to be some variation on the theme of ‘Dad got lost while doing the booze run to Cherbourg.’ The island is sometimes referred to as ‘two-thousand alcoholics clinging to a rock.’ Now it was two-thousand-and-one. I stayed for nearly a week.
Armed to the clifftops, the garrison were left to rats until their surrender – several days after the rest of the third Reich – in 1945. Prisoners of their own defences, the Fraktur epitaphs in the war cemetery lament for themselves: ‘Ich lebe und ihr sollt auch leben.’ ‘Unseren toten kamaraden!’ ‘Deutche Kriegsgefangene [prisoners of war] auf Alderney.’
Father Michael, a Franciscan hermit who has taken up residence in one of the Nazi redoubts, discussed the history and future of Christendom as shadows lengthened across his presbytery’s walnut dinner table. The resident classicist, Gregory, drew on Homer and on his own travels around the Agean in the ’60s as we discussed how islands become bastions of idiosyncrasy and individuality in an otherwise homogenising world. Both men understood my quest to reach Constantinople and take it back, by force, from the Saracen – as did Alderney Yacht Club, who sourced me a new whisker pole after I lost mine over the side.
Me with the Madame Commodore of Alderney Yacht Club
Others were less enthusiastic. In the island’s pubs (I visited them all), my plans were greeted with such glass-half-empty remarks as:
“Wear a lifejacket so your family get the body back for closure,” and “really you should have AIS or RADAR or crew” or, in the absence of any other spark of inspired negativity, the stock: “f’kin’ell!“
So I downed my final pint and set sail on a spring tide at daybreak.
I used Roscoff’s low tide to stand Granny on her keel for her pre-Atlantic inspection and proceeded to Brittany’s Western headland to wait for ideal conditions in Biscay.
Entering the Chenal du Four at midnight, the wind dropped. As the Inuit language contains forty words for ‘snow’, you might expect the British to have as many for ‘fog’. But I resort to a term from an old poem by Goethe: Nebelglanz. It was haze so thick that Granny’s own nav-lights dazzled me. Distant foghorns boomed uselessly from every direction. L’Aber-Ildut’s split-beam beacon would be invisible, so I watched the minute decimals of my GPS until, with a start, a dark Granite wall loomed a few feet to port and I realised that I was entering the mouth of the harbour. The air cleared as I sought a pontoon, moonlight cutting shafts through the pine trees.
For the three days, I sat in the pub in Kerzéven going over my charts and calculations again and again as a gale blew through. When the wind started to settle, the dread set in: it was time to go.
I headed into the tail of the storm, returning an ominously grave salute from a boy of about fourteen who stood atop the harbour bastion as his friends dived and swam in the late afternoon light. The autopilot tiller-arm sheared off as I passed Île-Molène just after sunset. But Granny held her close-reached point of sail on exactly the 210 bearing that I needed and the isophase pulse of Ushant lighthouse faded behind me as I continued out, alone, into the dark Atlantic.