The Fab Five’s Channel Challenge - Northwind Channel Sailing 2003


As I am retelling our 9-day September 2003 voyage Ostend2Jersey (and return), events are slowly sinking into distant past, but many joyous memories refuse to fade away in winter dark & cold. However a bit-by-bit reconstruction suffices to make everything yesterday once more. Lips taste salty again, feet are soaking wet, a gull yells up in the windy sky and the eye is locked both on the compass as on the horizon melting into rain & clouds. Below you will find our itinerary plotted in geo-space, thereafter my truthful day-to-day account.

Saturday 6th September 2003

Ostend to Dunkerque

A busy but satisfying working week ended peacefully the evening before when skipper Pete, Jo and me mustered at Tavern “Koekoek” in Ostend centre to swallow down fried chicken on brown with fresh Blanche. Today Danny and Paz joined us on deck to set sail dot-dash-dot the Isle of Jersey, i.e. a tiny leg, followed by a day & night endurance, ending with a quiet sprint. As usual the Mercator lock was chockablock, but at long last we passed our way to open sea. The Belgian sandy coasts unfolded rapidly during this perfect sailing day without a single drop of rain. Heed the sunken walls flanking the shallow Suydcotepass – or so warned Channel Sailing’s owner Carlos – but our centerboard below was still tightly fixed to the hull when we moored in Dunkerque for super-shopping.

Sunday 7th to Monday 8th September 2003

Dunkerque to Cherbourg

Once rounding Cap Griz Nez, it no longer felt like a simple day out. A tad passed the Vergoyer buoys, we were adjusting to a non-stop course of 250 degrees on Cherbourg, but before Boulogne-sur-Mer – chatting about the exact position of the Tricolor – we suddenly caught the wrath of Customs & Excise once more (see story of NCS-2002), this time however they decided to board our vessel in a rather spectacular fashion. Apparently international conventions strictly prohibit prominent display of the skull & bones (said the chief officer seriously) so our days as pirates were numbered. Luckily after the search we were still able to tell which clothes belonged to whom, and we got away after almost 40 minutes by putting our names on the book. Once we started sailing with a modest quartering wind in front of Le Havre, it was time to dig & spread out our spinnaker to gain a couple of knots. At some point we even spotted a submarine, but we were not able to tell whether it was yellow or not. Nights at sea are majestic, so I am not even going to attempt a description, but noteworthy were a pan-pan (distress call) over the radio and flares. After 52 hours we finally approached Cherbourg at 6 BFT. Nothing really to say about this large town in Normandy, except that it has been of great strategic D-day importance, and it is still buzzing with transatlantic cargo ships and passenger ferries crossing to and fro England & Ireland.

Tuesday 9th September 2003

Cherbourg to Saint Helier (Jersey)

Yes !!! Once passed Cap de la Hague we swapped our tricolor for the union jack. Our target was Jersey, the most southerly island of the British Isles, located some 100 miles (160 km) south of mainland Britain, yet only 14 miles from the coast of France. We caught a glimpse of the Corbière lighthouse, the first granite lighthouse constructed in the British Isles (1874). Sumptuous seafood makes Saint Helier an entirely different food-experience compared to England. So after a toast, we headed for the Bastille Tavern to savour – quoting our skipper – oysters as bathtubs.

Wednesday 10th September 2003

Cycling to La Corbière

Following true English breakfast on the quay, it’s off on our Zebra Hired Cycles to the landside of the Corbière (can be reached by causeway during low tide) west of the island. Moving about without wind or motor is obviously not our skipper’s strongest characteristic, but he’s joined at the end of the queue by Paz-in-her-inseparable-Wellingtons. All during the day jets, stunt planes and helicopters continue to chase above our heads for today’s air show. After shopping at Marks & Spencer and downing a lager & bitter at the Cock & Bottle, we eat far-east at Jaipur Tandoori.

Thursday 11th to Friday 12th September 2003

Saint Helier to Dieppe

Leaving Jersey, we head for Guernsey, turning starboard to navigate counter current through Great Russell between Herm & Sark, powered by the spinnaker once more. Meanwhile we Scrabble new languages and look out for the occasional dolphin. That evening we ate steak & kidney pies with oven fries in honour of the Queen, one which spoiled the entire rocking & rolling cabin floor. Same evening I painfully discovered that you can’t expect to catch any sleep under a beating sail, no matter how well you tie yourself down on the open deck, but 3 hours rest early morning in the captain’s suite did the trick. In fact we got so used to our prosperity, that no-one was quite prepared when the battery died late next morning, killing with it all comfort services, our radio, radar, autopilot and – worst of all – our diesel engine. About one hour later hosted on a laptop went bust as well. Navigating without electronic gadgets (during the voyage I had tried to manually plot all routes) proved to be a tough cookie, because we finally arrived before the port of Dieppe a couple of hours later than foreseen. Over VHF 12 of a small hand-held backup radio, we requested free passage to dock wind-powered only. Meanwhile I gotten sick and the 2 high limestone cliffs marking the entrance, in frightful combination with the obstinate waves, made the adrenaline run high. Once sheltered by the elements we were doomed to float aimlessly within the basin, until a certain Monsieur Siméon was so kind to tow us with his Champ Elysées (a motoric nutshell) to an area where we were not supposed to be moored anyway. After dropping Danny at the train station – so he could make it in time to a wedding party – Jo + Paz + Pete conquered worlds on a cardboard game, while I departed for a refreshing walk over the rocky cliffs and the windy stone beach, reminiscent of settlers who embarked from here to Quebec in the XVIIst century.

Saturday 13th September 2003

Dieppe to Dunkerque

Without Danny we sailed further without smooth Latin rhythms, which might explain why we were actually going backwards with the current after luffing half a day. At night we enjoyed a firework display from a distant city and helicopters shuttling deep sea pilots from one mammoth cargo ship to another. At 3 o’clock in the morning we entered the port of Dunkerque, where we found ourselves a cosy place at a remote pontoon. Neighbours next morning looked ready to devour us raw, because in total darkness we accidentally moored in their “private” playground. Hurray we’re getting closer to Belgium again !!!

Sunday 14th September 2003

Dunkerque to Ostend

After briefly joining a regatta going north up to the Belgian border, our blue-white-red flag is lowered with a feeling of completion. To get prepared for E40-traffic ahead, it’s queuing-time at the lock, but to make things bearable, Danny jumps aboard after his weekend of celebration. With regret we must turn over the Diva to Carlos, but an amicable last supper consisting of mussels, fries and beer remind us that there is more to come …

Five Lessons Learned

To end this tale, let’s share our wisdom:


  1. The Wind might blow you forward, but can also blow up the most ingenious plan.
  2. When everything goes better than planned, stuff the plan & go with the flow.
  3. Rely on you skipper, but check regularly where he's going
  4. Apart from obsessively trying to pull all strings, check the map once in a while, you might actually be floating backwards
  5. Last but not least when a heterogeneous group of people succeeds in working together, you can yield fantastic results.
Pete (skipper) Paz Danny Jo Pat