Monday, 2 April 2012

It shouldn’t happen to a sailor (2)

Encounter with Vikings

A few years ago, I managed to find a couple of days for a trip to Carteret on the Normandy Coast of France. I was living in Jersey Channel Islands UK at the time and the voyage involved a trip along the south coast of the island and then a run up the east coast moving progressively further from the shore as my route took me across the fourteen miles of open sea to my destination. The whole trip was about 25 miles. I could do it in five hours with a fair wind and even faster with a fair tide.

Channel Island waters produce fast moving tides and 30ft rises and falls are not unusual (40ft on some springs) so, you go with the flow or you don’t go at all. My plan was to leave harbour at 5:30 am to catch the best run of tide east along the south coast and pick up the northward flow as I turned the corner. Winds were forecast to be light but there was a possibility of encountering banks of thick fog. There are plenty of land and seamarks along the first part of the route however, so I planned to set off if the visibility was clear enough to see the Demi-de Pas lighthouse, the first mark from St Helier harbour. From there I would continue if I could see Icho Tower (the second mark) on arrival at the Demi. In this fashion I could pilot the boat from mark to mark, and if visibility deteriorated I could anchor and wait for it to lift or abort the trip by cutting and running to Gorey harbour on the east cost of the Island.

Half way through the trip, all was going well, visibility was better than I had expected and with the assistance of a strong favourable tide, the old sloop was making nine knots at times under sail only.
By this time, I was well beyond the point of no-return, a four knot tide assisting a five knot boat produces nine knots but turn the boat around and your speed over the ground reduces to one knot.
The problem arose when we began to approach the French coast. It was shrouded in thick grey fog. I never actually saw the Cap de Carteret lighthouse towering above the headland on that trip even though on previous visits it was visible a good two hours before landfall.

In the murky gloom I was uncomfortable and anxious. I knew I was in the bay of Carteret, the wave pattern and the depth of water was right. The GPS told me I was on top of the harbour entrance buoy. My own calculations and every instrument aboard told me I had arrived but where was the buoy? Where was the river entrance that gave access to the town harbour?

I hove- to and listened. I could hear surf. I was too close to the shore for comfort. What to do? Get the sails off her, drop anchor and wait? How long before the tide starts to fall? How long can I wait before the water sluices away beneath the keel, grounded at the river entrance, on the beach – or worse? Just at that moment, there was another sound close-by, a regular rhythmic, slapping – getting louder, coming closer?
A moment later a fully rigged Viking long-ship emerged from the gloom, rowed by a fearsome looking bunch of blond-haired warriors in full battledress, iron helmets, leather shirts and armed to the teeth.  What had happened? A faulty GPS would place you in the wrong geographical location but this was different. I’d crossed fourteen miles of open sea and somehow it seemed I travelled through a similar number of centuries.
            ‘Where is the river entrance?’ I called out to them in French
The reply, if you can call it that, came as a series of guttural grunts not French, not English. I tried again in English. At this the Viking in the bows, stood up, unsheathed his sword and pointed back along the long-ship’s track.

I made a quick estimate of the bearing, started the engine and followed the line filled with feelings of disassociation and foreboding. Twenty minutes ago I had been in the 21st Century, five minutes ago, it seemed as if I had been in the first century AD. And now?

Within minutes, I was in the river and the murky outline of hotels and shore-side buildings began to take shape around me – the yacht harbour was close by.

As I came out of the main channel and set a course for the harbour entrance a TV film crew and a few bystanders on the shore began calling out to me
            ‘You’re not a Viking! Get out of the picture. Where is the long-ship?’
I stood up in the cockpit, took the boathook in hand and aimed down-river.
            Your long-ship is there’, I replied.
Minutes later after tying up alongside a pontoon in the yacht harbour, I spoke to one of the staff
            ‘What’s going on?’ I asked
            ‘Carteret is in Normandy’, he replied. ‘Normandy used to be a Viking stronghold – William the Conqueror’s grandfather was a Norseman - hence Normandy – the land of the Northmen, the Vikings.’
            ‘So , you arrived just in time to see the re-enactment of the Viking’s arrival in Carteret. Today is Carteret’s  Fete of the Vikings – pity about the fog.’
            ‘And what about the entrance buoy – how did I miss it?’
            ‘Ah well Capitaine – there were no marker buoys in Viking times so we took it away – didn’t want to spoil the TV shot – it needed re-painting anyway.’

I met the Vikings later that evening in the CafĂ© du Port and got on pretty well with them, they were from Sweden. Communication with them seemed to become less of a problem with each glass of calvados consumed.