Today we sailed to Calais….in December

Oliver, Mattis and I wanted to try a bit of winter sailing, and attempt a 1 stop trip to Calais in winter from London.

Winter Sailing Kit

I thought it would be useful to list what I wore as it kept me pretty warm and definitely recommend the follow:

I could have done with some better boots and another mid layer might have been handy. I also took a bunch of handwarmers, which were rubbish, but I know a friend swears by them, so I’ll have to find out which ones he uses.

 I’m not biased by the way towards Helly Hansen, a lot of people have told me that Helly Hansen are at the bottom end of scale in terms of sailing clothes and Musto are at the top. I so far, have hand no problems with my gear, and as we got a good battering I can lay testament to this. As mentioned the only things that failed were the Musto offshore gloves, which got soaking wet after about 20 minutes. How Musto could claim they were suitable for sailing of any sort is beyond me.

Setting off

Thursday night – Friday Afternoon

We set off from St Katherine Docks at 6.30 on the 1st December on a Rival 32 owned by my friend Oliver and another friend of mine Mattis. The weather for the weekend wasn’t looking great, so we decided to shelve our plans to travel to Oostende, in favour of Calais. There were more outs should the weather turn if we headed to Calais, hugging the coast before heading directly to Calais.

I took a late shift and at one stage got a bit shifty, as a tanker approached us quickly from behind. I started the engine which through Oliver out of bed and into panic mode, wanting to know why I turned the engine on. I explained that the bright lights resembling a tanker were getting too close to comfort. Oliver pointed out from the chart plotter that we were out of the main shipping channel, and that tankers would never veer so far over, given that they needed much more depth than us. He duly went back to sleep, in a much more peaceful state than his awakening. Mattis had been much less bothered about the tanker, but given that I keep tabs on every maritime disaster involving yachts on popular forums, I tend to lean on the side of caution. Anyhow, we sailed through the night uneventfully after that, taking turns to grab a few hours sleep each, always having two people on watch.

Cups of tea and biscuits are essential for such a trip.

I woke up when we were half way across the Channel to see the sunrise, which was beautiful. We arrived in Calais uneventfully. The next 24 hours involved sleeping and drinking. Partying in Calais was actually a lot of fun. We all got separated towards the end of the night, and we all woke to recount our drunken stories, which included Oliver walking in the opposite direction the the marina, and Mattis sleeping in the cockpit until it dawned on Oliver that he was walking the wrong way, and came back to the boat.

Coming home

Saturday night was spent on a swinging mooring just outside the marina. Mattis cooked a superb curry, and we hit the hay afterwards. Our plan was to depart for Queenborough early Sunday morning. When we woke, the wind was howling through the rigging. It’s hard to describe the sound if you haven’t heard it before, but its a terrifying noise for the untrained. Had you heard such a noise at home on a Sunday morning you would undoubtedly roll over, pull the duvet up and go back to sleep, but we unfortunately we didn’t have this option. So we buckled up, and set off.

The sea state was bumpy and fun. Watching the bow lift and slap at irregular intervals is actually quite fun to watch when you know you’ve seen worse. As we made our way across the Channel back to Blighty, we skimmed and made great time. I took some video of the rolling waves along from our broad side, picking us up and dropping us down pretty gently. This was my first experience of reasonably large, undulating waves. We heeled over something chronic, and making lunch whilst the stereo blared out Wish you were here  by Pink Floyd was an experience I’ll never forget, mostly because we were heeling like a mother f***er, but also because I had never heard the track and it sounded so fitting to listen to while we were sailing in December!! On a scale of 1 to awesome, I felt pretty damn manly at this point 😀

The light quickly faded as it often does in December, and we made it across into British waters. Meanwhile Emma and Carlotta were at home, receiving updates whenever I could fire off a text. The wind picked up and we were starting to experience some challenging sailing. At this time, Oliver never reefed (reducing the main sail area), mainly because he had roller reefing which either didn’t work very well, or was more of a hazard than a benefit. The result of not reefing meant a lot of wind was spilled with the main let right out. I went down below to get some rest in preparation for my shift. When its really cold, and you’re getting wet, its important to have fresh crew to take over when you can’t take anymore. Down below the motion was pretty violent, and standing was impossible. Then things got a lot more interesting. All of a sudden Oliver shouted out “GRAB THE WASHBOARDS!!!” I swung from one grab handle to another, half human, half ape. As the washboards were slotted into place, I looked up to see the hatch being closed up on me with Oliver shouting/spitting water “HOLD ON”. I had been shut in, being slung from side to side, when all of a sudden and mighty BOOM sounded as Troskala’s bow slammed down, followed by two of three more terrific BOOMs. The entire boat vibrated from bow to stern as we crashed through the waves. At the same time I decided that I should probably don on my wet weather gear, and more importantly, my life jacket. I told myself everything would be fine….but just in case. Then I remembered Stephs dad Bill saying, “There will be times when you’ll hit a wave, and the whole boat will shudder, and you’ll wonder if the boat can handle it. But don’t worry, it will, they’re designed to take it”. It’s funny how some things stick in your mind, and thinking back to when Bill told me that on a nice summers day in St Kats, I thought to myself, I wouldn’t mind being there right now. Eventually Oliver opened the hatch and with a cheeky grin asked if I was OK. Shaken, but not stirred, I gave a sigh of relief.

Mattis, 6.4ft Danish He-man, came down companionway, a quick hi five or a tap on the back, and it was my turn. No words were spoken, but a slight nod, that could easily have been missed, signified that that was enough fun today for Mr Petersen.

Now if that wasn’t enough for the evening, the next event was definitely a moment that did scare me. The anchor had come loose, more to the point the pin that held it in place had sheered off after our hobby horse gymnastics. I watched Oliver scramble un-harnessed (if I recall correctly) to the bow and sit down. Watching the skipper was utterly terrifying. This is only guy who can realistically get us back to safety, and he was bouncing up and down as the bow lifted into the air, and slammed down into the water. Each time the bow slammed down, Oliver caught some air, and was momentarily weightless, holding on for dear life. He eventually got back to the safety of the cockpit, which was a huge relief. I made a mental note to bring it up after we got home.

Next issue, Oliver spotted water in the cabin. A quick taste test revealed it was not sea water. The force of Troskala slamming the waves had burst the PVC flexi tanks. Annoying and expensive as it sounds, I was relieved it happened on a short weekend trip, than a 15 days into a 25 sail to St Lucia.

We had told Emma and Carlotta that we would be in Queenborough for about 9.30, though a few miscalculations mean’t we didn’t arrive til 11ish, the result was somewhere back in London, two girls were wailing for contact from their two boyfriends. Given the circumstances, getting through those last few hours without anyone getting hurt was on our minds moreso than trying to find a mobile phone down below that could be anywhere. I did eventually get through to Emma and it was necessary to keep the phone at arms length to avoid bursting an eardrum as the ladies burst their waterbanks. Still makes me chuckle a little that Emma called my parents who were totally unconcerned. Boys will be boys and we never call when we say we will, but we do try.

Another hearty meal was chowed down, then we all slumped down pretty exhausted. Tomorrow saw a 5am start so it was bed time, though Mattis sat quietly drinking whisky on his tod for half an hour.

The next morning me and Oliver got up and we got going, again the wind was howling and it was extremely dark. Queenborough is a bit of a soulless place, a good stopping point when heading to and from London. Sitting just off from the mouth of the Thames Estuary, there’s really nothing to look at, so we didn’t miss much. We let Mattis sleep in , afterall he had done a mammoth shift the day before and had endured the worst of the weather. Before I knew it, I was on my own. Oliver went to bed and I agreed to wake him up after 30 minutes. It was a bloody cold dark wet morning, and as I headed into the Thames I hit the short stumpy waves, the fun ones! Troskala would rise up and then quickly dip down, smashing into the short waves, walls of water rose up over the bow, lit red and green by the navigation lights. Walls of water would come straight up and over and straight for me, ducking to avoid a good soaking was pretty awesome. I was dressed for the occasion, thermals, fleeces, balaclavas and a face mask, and I we were in relative safety, at least not far from rescue, but we wouldn’t need it. Fighting the elements in this manner was fantastic fun, and being deemed responsible for the lives of two sleeping babies always makes you feel good. I let Oliver sleep on for a few hours, I knew where we were going so had no need to wake him unduly.

The two docile giants eventually awoke, (well one giant and one porky pie (joke!!)) to a cold but sunny morning, much colder than when we departed a few days previous. The final challenge of the trip was when we discovered we had run out of gas. So not to go hungry, Oliver got out his small gas camping light, he then placed a small frying pan on top to cook up some food, next it was the kettle. Awards wouldn’t have been won for a speedy service, but it worked and when you’re cold and hungry food always tastes twice as good as it does coming out of a microwave at home!

By the time we arrived back, Troskala looked a complete state, inside junk flung from cupboards and doors were everywhere. Outside, we’d managed to break one of guard rails, the anchor was strapped down to the deck, and 3 tired blokes looked like they had just been sailing for the weekend to France, in December.



Author: Tim Butler

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