Besides producing Django Reinhardt, you might think that all modern day Belgium has going for it is the chocolate and beer production for which is rightly famous. It however has one other hidden attribute, one that is often missed by the public at large. It is a very good sailing destination.
We tested this supposition to its fullest this weekend, with a long planned 'boys trip' across the foot of the north sea. It delivered on its promise.
Poor diary management saw me in Yorkshire on Thursday afternoon, meaning a long a tedious drive down from 'oop narth' down to Shotley, and by the time I arrived, there was a full house. Mostly in the pub.
It was a sensible evening however, involving a good meal in the Shipwreck and we were back onboard by 22h00, planning on an 06h00 departure the following morning.
It was still dark when the alarm announced its presence, but the first signs of dawn where there for the observant.
What wasn't present, even for the observant, was any wind. In fact, it was distinctly possible to comb your hair in your reflection in the water. This was a boys trip. Naturally, I didn't comb my hair. I didn't see anyone else combing theirs either. Most of us are well the wrong side of 40. Therefore most of us have little hair to comb anyway.
It didn't take long for the boat to be prepped for sea, and we locked out easily onto a glassy sea. Completely and utterly windless.
This set the scene for the rest of the day. We motored and motored and motored and.....
Past West Hinder, the Belgian coast appeared on the horizon, a thankful sight after 10 hours of motoring, and 2 hours later we approached the entrance to Oostende.
Oostende has a traffic light system (OK... an IPTS for the purists), and it was on red. This was clearly because of the large ferry exiting and the large ferry arriving. They tooted merrily at one another, while we tried to decide whether their sound signals meant that they were turning to port in reverse while unclear of their intentions. Or something like that.
Eventually, after they had been gone a while, the lights remained stubbornly on red, so I called up the port control..... a rapid fire response in heavily accented English (OK, OK... I know.... but we did once have an empire you know) left me a little confused... I did pick out the key words though.... after boat... proceed.... and out plodded a small fishing boat... pah!.... so small it wasn't worth the wait after all.... as he cleared the pier heads, we motored into the channel. OK. Here was the ship coming out, that the port control had really meant.....
So I gunned the engine, and dived right over to the side of the channel, hugging a pier. Much to the disgust of the fisherman. The last I heard as I saw his line stretched out across the bow was a long list of Belgian expletives, following by a sort of 'whizzing' noise.... apparently his line coming off the reel at an astronomical pace. This was shortly followed by a loud crack, as it eventually ran out of reel, and reached breaking strain. I'm told by those brave enough to look back that the sight of a Belgian fisherman with a rod bent at 180° is quite something. I will forever more wonder if he did a back flip when the line parted.
There was however one other consequence.... as the line must have grabbed the prop, the engine suddenly stopped..... ah crap... here we are in a narrow channel, 5 feet from a barnacle infested wooden pier, with 2 foot under the keel, and a ship coming the other way, and the bloody engine has stopped. It must however have been the rope cutter doing its stuff with a few hundred turns of 60lb fishing line... as the first desperate stab at the starter button resulted in my breath being released, and the engine firing up immediately.... the ship ghosted by. Very close by.
Somewhat chastened, we turned sharp right into the Montgomery dock and where delighted to be offered a berth right in the corner.
Montogomery dock has a 'med style' mooring arrangement, with a buoy that you grab with one end of the boat, and the other end is tied to the pontoon. We always go in backwards, as getting on and off is then easy with the swim platform. However, the corner mooring is tight, is surrounded by buoys, some stretched out, some pulled in. In short its a pig of a berth to get into. But we did it... and even without too much trouble. Compensation for catching a Belgian fisherman.
One hour later, Alan arrives on Mr Tinkles. So thats a good start. Nobody has sunk on the way over.
So now we have a full complement, Myself and Alan, plus BigNick, jhr and TwisterKen. What an ecclectic bunch.
It was rapidly decided that food was the first priority. So, given the fact that there were five blokes involved, we went to the pub. This proved to be a great choice. The pub in question benefitted from a small family restaurant above, and the food was very very good indeed. Can't pronounce or even spell the name, but it did sound remarkably like "Thomas's Sponge" after a few Belgian beers.
Retiring back to the boat we all settled in for a reasonably early night.... yeah right.
Saturday was lay-in day. Only it wasn't. At 06h00 UK, which rather annoyingly is 07h00 in Belgium, the harbour master Robert (who is larger than life) came knocking. He was off to Niuewpoort racing in no wind, so was collecting mooring fees early. Damn.
So... a breakfast of kings later, we all decided that what we really needed to do was to get on the train and go to Brugge. Which turned out to be a thoroughly good plan. 15 mins either way. We spent 3 or so hours wondering around Brugge looking for a place to get a coffee (yes, really), and eventually after giving in and commiting a crime against all male humanity (buying a map), we managed to talk a bar into letting us sit down for a coffee. They all seemed reluctant to use any seats for anything other people wanting to eat. Which I suppose wasn't to be unexpected, given that it was the end of September, and it was really hot, in fact shorts and tee shirts weather.
This needed to be worked off, so we attached ourselves to the thronging tourists masses, and took the canal boat trip around Brugge. An utterly remarkable tour, including some real highlights like the smallest window in Begium, a statue of a lady who had just exited the shower and was looking for a contact lense on the floor, and finally the most photographed dog in Belgium. I think the dog was dead.
Not long later, we agreed to head back to Oostende mainly as we had 'done' Brugge, managing to pass all the shops without entering a single one. A great performance from a well organised crew.
So, we headed back towards the station. On the way, we managed to get sidetracked. We passed a nice looking bar, sat alongside the water. With space.
So in we went. It was with dissapointment that we saw the barman hand us menus. It however was quickly turned to delight when we discovered that the 6 page menu contained nothing but Belgian beers. Result. It was marvellous to sit in the sun, looking at the water, drinking excellent beer.
A short train hop back to Oostende, and we found another bar, along the sea front to sit and enjoy the view. Only, their was a large concrete mixer in the way. The view was somewhat compensated for by the comely barmaid climbed up on the bar, cleaning the wall sized mirror at the rear.
All this time, Ken had dissapeared, muttering something about curry.
So, back to the boats, and as we finally relaxed, Ken reappeared with a bag full of curry enhancing ingredients.... and what a curry it was.... absolutely top notch... in fact, two curries.. even better.
The evening was rounded off by the creation of a new game, involving a pile of ten cent pieces, a few 'flicking' coins, and excessive quantities of port, starring CPD as the game developer. A real laugh.
Sunday seemed to arrive far too quickly. In fact, too little of Sunday had arrived by the time we departed, so by 06h15 we were motoring out past the pier heads again.
Another completely windless crossing beckoned, but this time with a little added fog thrown in for good measure.... the fog fortunately vanished as the light appeared.
The TSS proved somewhat more challenging than normal, with extensive avoidance looking like it would be required. In the end we had to duck one in the first lane, and slow down for a couple in the other lane. We did however, make full use of the radar, even plotting CPA's and time to CPA.... not 100%, but not too bad.
10hrs later, as we passed Rough Towers, suddenly the wind filled in, and a few mins later we are doing 6kts under sail.... we sailed the whole of the rest of the way back into Harwich, reaching 7.4kts through the water at one point... what a perfect end to a perfect weekend... even topped off by getting to the lock and finding it on free flow.....
Wish all weekends were like this.
Miles logged 158nm
Miles this season 684nm
Miles since this blog started 4,581nm