I had a look at charts and pilot books and decided that Margate was probably good for a night stop. Ramsgate was a little too far around North Foreland which would make the first leg too tiring. Although the harbour dried at low water, the chart indicated that the bottom was mud and our fin and rudder should sink into the mud. I’d calculated arrival time at Margate to ensure we had enough water before the tide ebbed.
Tidal height was barely enough for us to make it into the harbour and the northerly wind increased causing a short, steep chop.
When it’s nearly dark after a full days sail, a harbour just there is too tempting to resist. Also was the memory that I’d previously subjected my wife to a long night sail. The wind increased as we approached and as Margate was so tiny with many boats, a strong onshore wind left me unable to sail out and therefore fully committed.
I dropped anchor and payed out the line with the wind blowing us towards the beach instead of the harbour. Our little engine just didn’t have the power to fight the wind. The keel touched a hard sandy bottom and bounced in the chop until the tide ebbed and we rolled over on our side. An exterior inspection revealed that the rudder had also hit bottom and the rudder shaft was slightly bent.
There was nothing I could do until the next high water. We walked ashore for a pub meal and spent the night sleeping on cushions against the hull side.
As tide inched toward high water, Aquabat, although now level was still firmly glued to the bottom. Panic. Each successive high water was predicted to be shallower than the last. If she didn’t come off now, it’d be a month before I’d have another chance. Engine was given full revs and the anchor line turned around a sheet winch. The two speed winch needed my full strength in low gear and through gritted teeth, just as I was about to despair, she popped off the sand like a champagne cork. The sudden movement had caught my crew by surprise and she didn’t have time to react before we glanced off a boat in front. We were off and that was all I cared about. I certainly wasn’t going back to check for damage. Once clear of Margate I had a look over the side and saw a slight scrape about a foot long. Got off lightly, thank you Neptune.
The next obstacle was crossing the ship separation zones. As we approached the edge of the Northbound Zone we could see a line of ships disappearing into the distance. The Straits of Dover aren’t called the world’s busiest shipping route for nothing. Cross channel ferries have the speed and radar to slip between a line of ships, poor little Aquabat had 6kts and no radar.
There was a line of 5 ships, 4 close together with a large gap and then the 5th. As they approached I could see that the first was a large Dutch tug displaying signals for a tow.
If I aim close to the stern of the last in tow, I should have plenty of room to cross in front of the 5th ship. I planned my course and as we neared the 4th ship, the crew were waving their arms at us. At that moment I saw a tow cable extending to the 5th ship and tacked about. A very untidy tack with foresail flapping but at least I still had a mast. Why such a huge space between 4th and 5th tow still puzzles me today.
Anyway the rest of the crossing was serene and we entered Calais without having to avoid a ferry on the way out. The bent rudder shaft made a slight performance difference between port and st’bd tacks but she still sailed well. We even made it in plenty of time for the bonded store and stocked the bilge with some excellent French wine. That evening was spent relaxing au restaurant and we had nice level beds on retiring a le bateau.