We have been rescued at sea by the Royal National Lifeboat Institute from Dover while crossing the Dover Straights, also called the English Channel, and about 5 nautical miles off the British coastline. Read the whole story here.
Preparing to Cross the Channel
We planned this sailing challenge to cross the channel for some time. The boat we were to use was an inflatable catamaran called the MiniCat 420. This catamaran was not designed to sail at full sea as it is a category D boat suited for calm weather up to windforce 4/5 on lakes and calm coastal waters and with a length of just 4,20 meters. I met my sailing mate Ettiene Pretorius during a business conference in Johannesburg. Ettiene was one of the key speakers on the conference. He spotted me when I was on stage talking about my flying journey through Africa in a single engine Piper aircraft.
Ettiene and I started training for this challenge at the catamaran sailing school ‘De Eilander’ on Texel island in the North of Holland. We sailed on a Nacra as well as the MiniCat 420 catamaran.
We did so in strong winds (6-7 bft.) during one of our training days on the North Sea just north of the island and made sure we were able to handle the catamaran in these conditions. Also, sailing with windforce 6-7 at sea helped us to see how the MiniCat 420 was behaving in such weather.
Due to the heavy traffic of container, cargo and fishing vessels moving through the English channel each day, we equipped our MiniCat 420 with an active EchoMax radar reflector, lights and a small electrical outboard engine with a good, solid battery. The EchoMax would ensure we would be seen on radar screens of large ships steaming through the English channel. A small passive radar reflector is of no value if the boat is tilted a few degrees or more. A passive reflector looses its effectivity at that moment while an active radar reflector like the EchoMax remains working well.
We equipped ourselves each with a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) or SPOT satellite-messenger/tracker, a flare, line-cutter, survival suits and a life vest. In case we would fall overboard or get technical problems with our MiniCat, we would each be able to activate our own PLB. The PLB would then send out the S.O.S. alarm signal through the satellite network together with our position. With the water temperatures in October still being around 17 degrees Celsius, our dry-suits and life vests would keep us alive until we would be rescued from the water. The busy traffic in the channel would be something to watch out for in any emergency situation. The ‘traffic hours’ through the channel seemed to be mostly early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Therefore, we planned our trip to depart after ‘rush hour’ at around 11.00 in the morning from Calais, hopefully missing most of the traffic this way.
To prep up my physical condition, I started to walk daily for 1-2 hours. Ettiene is an Iron Man guy, so was generally already in good shape. We went through several possible emergencies such as the man-overboard procedure, capsizing, using the flares and how to cut lines before we sailed out to sea to meet our challenge.
Weather Forecast for Sunday, 19th October 2014
In a way we were extremely lucky with the weather forecast for our day of sailing. The temperatures were forecasted to be high for the time of the year with expected temps at around 18 degrees Celsius, where normally we would expect temperatures to be around 12-13 degrees. We had a strong wind forecasted coming from the South-West turning Westerly later on in the afternoon. A Westerly wind would not be ideal to reach our destination Hythe, just South of Dover.
As you can see from the picture above, we had a solid 4-5 Bft. forecasted wind gusting to 6-7 Bft. with waves not going higher than approximately 1.20 meter, nice temperatures and no frontal weather forecasted for the area.
Fruits de Mer
The evening before our departure we enjoyed temperatures of around 22-24 degrees in Calais. We were able to sit outside enjoying ‘Fruits de Mer’ in Calais discussing the last details of our planned adventure.
The Action is On!
We started early in the morning to build up the MiniCat 420 inflatable catamaran just across the street from our Holiday Inn hotel. The Holiday Inn was situated right at the ‘Bassin de Paradis‘ harbor in Calais.
We left our car in one of the garage boxes of the Holiday Inn for the duration of our sailing trip and would pick up the car again on our way back from the UK when arriving back in Calais.
The above time-lapse video gives you a good impression of how fast and easy you can build up the inflatable MiniCat 420 catamaran.
An electrical 12V pump is used to inflate the two tubes in just a few minutes of time. We used T-wraps to secure 2 electrical cables to the outside of the mast. One cable was going from the top-light and another from the Echomax active radar reflector at the top along the mast to the battery-box below. A solid Yellowtop battery was secured inside a ‘waterproof’ box tied to the trampoline.
Sailing out to Sea
Before we left harbor, we contacted for a third time that morning the Royal Yachtline in the UK by phone to announce our trip. Due to the nationality of Ettiene (South-African) I wanted to make sure we would not run into trouble with customs/immigration authorities on either side of the channel. I had contacted the French authorities in Calais beforehand and called several times to the Royal Yachtline only to find out that each time they could not find our file and did not know anything anymore about our planned sailing trip. Later, we were to find out that they also did not communicate our trip with the British Coastguard. We contacted the Port Authorities of Calais on VHF channel 17 when heading out to sea and informed them of our departure, route and destination. We were supposed to leave the harbor of Calais on our engine. However, once we were out on open seas, we just could not maneuver the catamaran well on the small electrical engine in the rough waters and raise the main sail at the same time while staying out of the shipping lane for the Dover-Calais ferries. So we returned back into the protected harbour area and raised our sails there before heading out to sea again. We did get a question from the Port Authorities on the marine radio. They were wondering if we thought it wise and a good idea to move out of harbor with such a small rubber boat with sail. However, we persisted we were ready to cross over and as such were given ‘green light’ to continue our journey. During the first half of the trip we heard the Port Authorities talking to the ferries on the radio asking them for status updates on our journey and if they still had us in sight.
Once we left the safe harbor of Calais we stayed just North of the Ferry shipping lane on a steady course of approximately 310 degrees Magnetic. The wind was blowing at about 18-25 knots and the waves were at about a meter high. We had about 6 hours of sailing in front of us and were exited about the good start of the challenge ahead: crossing over to the UK in our tiny inflatable catamaran.
We moved along quite well crossing the English Channel towards the British coastline only to meet a few cargo-ships along our way. In one case, we literally passed just behind a large cargo-vessel to continue our way again on a steady course on our compass.
The above sailing video was taken about 1-1,5 hours after leaving Calais in a still rather calm sea. Not all the lines are tightened yet well and I am still communicating on the radio with the Port of Calais authorities. In the last stretch of our journey, the waves reached heights up to 3,5-4 meter with winds blowing at straight 35 knots. Here it is still calm. Too bad our GoPro battery died after a few hours thus not being able to film the rescue.
While we reached the midpoint between Calais and Dover, we noticed that the wind was picking up and that the waves were getting at least twice or 3 times higher as on the previous stretch. Some of the higher waves started to brake over us and we had to literally keep our balance to not get ourselves into trouble. I tried to steer a close-hauled direction towards to British coastline. This way the sails would not get too much wind directly into the sails. It was also necessary for getting as close as possible to our planned destination.
As you can see from the satellite-tracker trail image above, we could not reach our planned destination South of Dover directly without tacking sooner or later and moving our course more South-bound. The SW to Westerly wind made a more direct route impossible. My plan was to tack close to the British shoreline and sail along the coast to our destination Hythe or otherwise to just sail across to the UK and land our catamaran on the beach North of Dover. There we could deflate the inflatable catamaran on the beach, pack it and move it one way or the other to our Bed & Breakfast address in Hythe. That was at least the idea. However, the closer we got to the shoreline, the more we got the rather high cliffs in sight with a beach in front of it. I could not see any way to get from the beach to the top of the cliffs from our distance out. There was also a sandbank in our way, so we had to tack sooner and aim Southbound on the other side of the no-sail zone. Not long after we tacked, the main sail tore where we also lost the boom underneath the main sail at the same time. It was here that we needed help and were rescued by the British lifeboat from Dover coming to our rescue.
Illegal immigrants making their way into the UK!
Within sight of the shoreline, there seemed to be some confusion at the British coastguard station up on the cliffs of Dover and overlooking the Dover Straights. They were not informed by customs/immigration or the Royal Yachtline about us coming. The coastguard saw us through their binoculars and thought we possibly were illegal immigrants sailing from Calais and trying to get into the UK! As they did not have a boat available themselves at the moment, they asked the Dover rescue/lifeboat to sail out and check us out. As soon as the lifeboat of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) arrived, we were asked to change to channel 67 on our radio and to state our intentions. As they found out, we were not the illegal African immigrants trying to cross over from Calais into the UK. They informed the British Coastguard by radio that we were just with the 2 of us, looking rather professional and not like North Africal illegal immigrants.
The sailors on the RNLI lifeboat asked if we needed any help, which was not the case at that moment and then asked if it was ok with us if they stayed around due to the fierce wind and wave conditions at sea at that time. We had stronger winds up to 35 knots at that time with some waves reaching 2,5-3,5 meters. This we gladly accepted. It was not long after that moment that we needed their help after all and were so glad they were already there in our vicinity.
Rescued at Last
Soon after we tacked, the mainsail tore and we lost all tension on the sail and thus lost control of our MiniCat 420. I immediately asked for help on the radio from the nearby lifeboat. They took us on board and towed the MiniCat back into Dover. If you look good, you can see the MiniCat 420 being towed in the first below picture. We did not get any wet feet in the action. However, we lost one bag that drifted off when they secured the boat. The lifeboat crew also had to cut some lines to bring the main sail down.
If you watched the video in one of my earlier blogposts where we announced this trip, you might have noticed that it was on both my and Ettiene’s bucket-list to once be rescued at sea. Of course, we did not plan to be rescued, but were well aware of the challenge to cross the sea in a class D inflatable catamaran. Once help was needed, it was a nice coincidence that we both could tick off this box from our bucket-list.
Wind and Waves
At the moment we asked for help from the RNLI lifeboat, their crew measured a steady 35 knots of wind with waves up to 3-4 meters high. Once we were on the lifeboat and inbound the harbour of Dover, they at one time measured a steady 50 knots of wind. Even some of the crew members of the lifeboat had trouble not getting seasick.
We missed our goal and challenge: sailing across the English channel from Calais to Dover in an inflatable catamaran. At the same time, we were able to secure a rescue at sea which was on both of our bucket-lists. The challenge still remains. However, we will have to wait for next year summer to give it another try.
These are some of the things we learned from this trip:
- We were dressed in dry-suits with only special thermal underwear underneath it. That was not enough as we later found out. We expected warm conditions with an outside air temperature of 18 degrees Celsius and a water temperature of 17 degrees Celsius. We were afraid to dress warmer due to the active sailing activity we had to do for about 6 hours. However, Ettiene got cold in the last hour sailing and was even tested for hypothermia by the South East Coast Ambulance Service once ashore. Next time, we would have to wear more clothing underneath our dry-suits to stay warmer. I had been in the water in June near Texel in my dry-suit and was already aware of the effect of being in the (colder) water.
- The small electrical backup engine was too weak. We would need to select a stronger electrical engine next time.
- The construction of the main sail was not up to the heavy winds in the last part of our sailing trip. We tested our boat on the North Sea with winds up to 6-7 Bft. However, we would definitely need an improved/better main sail next time. There is and was of course no room for a spare sail to bring along on the open catamaran.
- We had a special trampoline in the front of our catamaran for our luggage. The way this trampoline was connected to the catamaran was not good. We had to work on this while sailing on the North Sea to secure our luggage and prevent loosing our waterproof bags along the way.
- Talking about waterproof canoe-bags: 2 of the 3 bags were full with sea-water once we arrived in Dover.
- The mobile VHF marine radio was fully charged when leaving the harbor of Calais. Once we were in communication with the lifeboat, the battery of the VHF radio was almost dead. On paper it was supposed to last longer (the battery-charge) but it did not. I did have my iPhone with me in a waterproof case, but would be more selective in operating the radio next time.
- Next time I would have left earlier in the morning where possible.
- Even though we had a marine plotter (digital maps) with us on our iPad (in a waterproof transparant plastic case) and an iPhone as backup, it was difficult to look on the map while sailing the catamaran in strong winds. Due to water breaking over the boat all the time, the waterproof case was wet and we could not easily select the marine plotter app on the screen as the water droplets on the plastic screen prevented us from being able to select anything on the touch-screen easily. Next time, we would need to be aware of this.
Once we docked in Dover, the harbor authorities separated Ettiene from me and the crew of the lifeboat. They had heard that Ettiene came from Africa and were afraid he would possibly bring Ebola to the UK! Only after making sure he came from South-Africa and had not been in West-Africa recently was he cleared to enter the country.
Paul’s Bed & Breakfast called ‘The Beach’
Paul, owner of ‘The Beach’ at Hythe, picked us up in his convertible BMW from the lifeboat station in Dover and took us over to his ‘The Beach’ for us to recover. His wife washed all our wet clothes and he offered to store the MiniCat in his garage until I would pick it up again later. I cannot express how warm they welcomed us and took care of us. Great people.
The bed and breakfast was right there at the beach. It was also the reason for picking out initially this B&B as it was our initial plan to sail right to the doorsteps of ‘The Beach” B&B. I still remember the e-mail correspondence with Paul where he gave me driving directions to his place and where I responded that I didn’t need driving directions as I would arrive from the sea by catamaran.
At the B&B we met Tobias Harvey. Tobias is a professional photographer working for major magazines such as Wallpaper, New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He spend one of his last films to make a portrait of Ettiene wearing his RNLI overall posing in front of the sea. Here are some pictures I took with my iPhone of the photoshoot.
Dismantling the Boat
On Monday Paul took us back to the lifeboat house in Dover to dismantle the boat. One of the great advantages of an inflatable catamaran is that it is portable and easy to bring along with you. It even fitted in the convertible BMW of Paul. Paul offered us to store the boat in his garage for us to pick it up later this year or early next year. Tuesday morning we took the ferry over as foot passengers from Dover to Calais and the bus to the city center of Calais. We were dropped off in front of the Holiday Inn to pick up our car.
Did I enjoy this trip? Surely! Would I do it again? Yes. Especially now that I have experienced crossing the channel and knowing how I can improve, I am ready to take the challenge again next year. A special thanks goes to Ettiene. In him I found a partner and friend to share adventures with. I would also like to thank his wife Erichia and my own wife Saskia for letting us go.