We cleared Cherbourg inner harbour at a little after six on a fine evening in late summer. The forecast was good and the sky clear though the sun had lost a lot of its sparkle, leaving a rather hazy horizon. The sails were up even before we reached the breakwater and, once outside, visibility was no more than a couple of miles; twilight was not long in falling around us. Ocean Flame III carried a crew of seven on our passage to Lymington with a course of almost due north. By 8.30 darkness had arrived, giving us little visibility. There was enough wind for OF III to hold a comfortable cruising pace but we would not be setting any records tonight. To give the voyage a bit of an edge, the skipper elected on traditional navigation- our satellite positioning system, the GPS, was switched off and the radar turned onto standby. Plotting the course and speed and working out how the tides would affect us would give us an estimated position. There would be few navigational lights for us to work with, even had the visibility been better. So every hour our estimated position was plotted on the chart and through the course of the night it should give us an idea of when and where we could expect to pick up the coast of the Isle of Wight. It would also compound and exaggerate any earlier inaccuracies. I was on the helm with most of the crew down below when there was the sudden and unmistakable sound of a ship’s foghorn close by- too close. It had an electrifying effect on the crew who all leapt up on deck to search the impervious darkness. The radar was set to operational mode though the GPS remained off. Sure enough, the radar showed a large vessel some four miles off our starboard beam and on an apparently converging course. Four miles gave us barely a few minutes to take avoiding action. All eyes turned to starboard to try to pick out the ship’s lights but they remained stubbornly hidden. Visibility is always difficult to judge, especially in the dark, but it is obviously less than four miles. Everyone on deck at night should be wearing a lifejacket and safety harness. But the ‘off-watch’ members of the crew were not kitted-up and remained cautiously hovering at the top of the companionway steps. Even Long-John Bob was there on his one remaining leg. The cockpit was very crowded. Has the ship’s officer on watch seen us on his radar? Will he pick up our small size and realise we are a yacht even if he has? We still cannot see his lights but his foghorn is getting louder- this is no time to play the waiting game, we must put a tack in to get round behind him. Ready About? – Lee Ho. Turn through the wind, power the heads’l round, onto a heading of almost due south. Too far- turn back to windward; can’t see the wind indicator on the instrument panel for people and there is no chance of seeing the windex arrow on the top of the mast. Suddenly the genoa backs and the main swings across- we’ve tacked back again onto our original course but our speed has dropped to almost nothing. Bring the heads’l back across, build up some speed- 1 knot, 2 knots- that’ll do- now tack back once again. This time I give the crew a gentle urging- Get out of the way of the bloody wind indicator!! While at the same time offering a small apology in very much quieter voice for the accidental tack in the middle of all the action. Suddenly we can now make out the lights of our unseen opponent- he is off the port bow and receding- and glad we are too to see his backside disappearing into the night. Tack back onto our course and tranquillity resumes. Later in the night, on short watches- two hours on, two hours off, there has been no change in our heading; it is quite mesmeric trying to keep a sailing boat on course using only the subdued red glow of the compass globe. Visibility is still poor at sea level, but there are a million stars overhead and all the more visible without the loom of urban street lights. I am back on the helm and using one of the stars to steer by. The hindmost star of the handle of the Plough sits conveniently above the pushpit and is as good as any neon-lit signpost, though fading a little now in the first glow of early dawn. For a moment there is no-one else on deck and the words of John Masefield’s Sea Fever come to mind. I started to recite them to myself, quietly at first but growing louder with every line-
I must go down the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.
And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by.
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and a white sail shaking.
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a clear call and a wild call, that may not be denied.
And all I ask is a windy day and the white clouds flying
And the blown spume and the flung spray and seagulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life.
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a wetted knife.
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow rover,
And a quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
All the lure of the sea captured in twelve short lines- what talent the man had. Meanwhile, the pale face of the skipper emerges from the dim glow of the nav station beside the companionway steps. He looks up at his helmsman reciting poetry to an empty sea and turns to some unseen crewman, knowingly tapping the side of his skull with a bent finger. Dawn brought us to the chalk cliffs of the Isle of Wight, lying just about where they should be, albeit the tide had taken us further eastwards than we thought. It was an extension of the evening before, clear skies with plenty of sunshine, although hazy at sea level. We turned west in search of the Needles fairway buoy. After a spirited sail through the Hurst Narrows we dropped our lines onto the pontoon at Lymington, at 10.45am, nearly seventeen hours after leaving Cherbourg. We had not run aground or battled with storms, and neither had we been run down in the darkness, despite the excitement of the unexpected foghorn. No real drama then, and sleep had only been dished out in small helpings. Yet it been a remarkable night, when a stout yacht, faith in your shipmates and the intimacy of the sea had combined to weave a little bit of magic to linger in the memory for a long time to come ….