Over the English Channel

I am on my 21st northeastward flight from Florida to my summer grounds in Bavaria. The view from the plane’s window shows a brilliant sunrise against a dark blue sky and dense clouds below. The GPS tracker says the broad Atlantic Ocean is behind us and we are over the English Channel headed for Continental Europe.

My mind clearly sees the Channel a decade ago in a 2005 sailing adventure on a classic 38-foot sloop. With a German friend (now living in Holland), we sailed about 500 miles from Brest on the Brittany coast, to the Channel Islands, along the Normandy coast, through the Straits of Dover, to our final destination on the Ijsselmeer, an artificial lake north of Amsterdam. With the exception of two overnight sails, the trip consisted of pleasant day-sails along the Channel between coastal towns.

For a pair of sailing geezers we did well, managing the challenges of the busy English Channel with its especially strong tidal currents. At one point we raced along at eleven knots over the ground on a favorable tide only to pay it back slogging to windward at one knot on the opposite tide. We sailed about twenty percent of the time. The rest was spent motoring or motorsailing to make ports before nightfall, fighting tides, or dealing with the vagaries of the wind.

Sailing in these parts is very popular despite the hardy conditions. Marinas have hundreds of slips, and are well managed with easily accessible floating piers in tides that range from twelve to twenty feet. Availability is on a first-come-first-serve basis. There are frequent scrambles for space as everyone makes port at roughly the same time. Fortunately, it is a friendly atmosphere and boats are frequently rafted to each other when slip space runs out.

All marinas have good shower facilities sometimes with ten minutes of hot water for 2 euros. Toilets range from two porcelain footpads for squatting to bowls minus toilet seat. The primitive toilets are quickly forgotten and replaced by delicious early morning baguettes and croissants found along the waterfront.

In Dunkirk, I took my usual hot water shower and when I came out there was a woman combing her hair at the sink. We were both surprised and immediately tried to figure out who was in the wrong restroom. It turned out to be my mistake, and laughed, especially when we learned that we were both language-challenged Americans. Her teenage son anxiously knocked on the door to see if everything was OK after hearing his mother talking to a man in the ladies room. We had a good American chuckle over the mix-up.

Guernsey Marina

The most unusual marina was on the Channel Island of Guernsey. It was an abandoned stone quarry. A narrow hole had been blasted at one end to allow sea to enter and flood the quarry. The height of the opening was carefully calculated to retain about 8 feet of water in the quarry when the tide ran out. The return tide covered the opening to allow boats to enter or leave. It was an ingenious and cozy bowl-shaped marina accommodating about fifty boats.

Many marinas have Wi-Fi services (WeeFee in France) or at nearby Internet cafés. In Holland on a quiet Sunday I took a forty-five minute bus ride to Haarlem before finding an Internet fix. It was a cannabis café, known in these parts as a “coffee shop” with flat screens and bongs at each station. For non-smokers they had weed-laced “space cakes.”

Although we managed the challenges, we agreed that our days of open-water sailing are coming to an end. My friend masters all the technical skills and I can still handle foredeck work with unruly, hanked-on sails, but our dexterity, agility, and eyesight are not what they used to be. The question is: will we admit we’re getting too old for this type of sailing? Fortunately we experienced only one night of rough weather. But dropping sails at four in the morning on a bouncing deck while trying to keep track of freighter traffic in and out of busy Rotterdam is best left to younger sailors. For this trip, however, we made a good team with me spotting distant buoys and my friend translating French menus.

On the positive side, our age and experience contributed greatly to mealtime conversations that went on late into the night. We solved many of the world’s problems including what to do with Iraq, Iran, and the European Union―ten years later these problems remain. I came away with a greater appreciation for the difficulties of multiculturalism in the democracies of America and Europe. After a few drinks, our discussions often ended with admissions that democracy is not perfect but better than the alternatives. Then we knew it was time to sleep and reinvigorate for the next day’s sail.

Amerigo Vespucci

The Tall Ship parade was leaving Amsterdam for the English Channel just as we entered. The canal between the ocean lock and the city of Amsterdam was crowded with sightseers, Tall Ships, tugboats, and traditional Dutch working barges. It was fun-filled pandemonium on the water. A shoreside band struck up the Russian anthem as we maneuvered around the Kruzenshtern and the beautifully maintained Amerigo Vespucci from Italy.

The final leg of this adventure was in a comfortable reclining seat on a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Munich. No more worries over tides and wind, just the steady soothing hum of an electric train doing about 250 kilometers an hour with good coffee and pastry service. I looked around at the harried commuters and felt very lucky.

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