Zeebrugge-Dunkirk-Zeebrugge by sea

August 15th, 2010

On Monday, I met Rob, Zuzana, Machteld and Filip. We are part of the crew going sailing this week-end and this is the one and only meeting for us to organise the outing.

On Thurs, Rob is enthusiastic about the week end, where we are going and the weather – here is the note that he sent out (the underlines are mine):


As we get closer to leaving, the forecast is looking good for Sunday, but a
little more unsettled on Saturday.  Depending on which weather forecast I
look at, I would summarise the current position as:

Wind force 3-4 SW going W on Sunday
Chance of showers on Saturday, with some maybe harder.  Looks like the
weather will get better during the day as a low front passes away.

Looking further at locations, if we cannot get to Gravelines on Saturday
night, I think that Dunkerque may be a good option.  There are a number of
marinas open to all states of tide, and (at least from the websites) looks
quite pretty.  I will do some more research tonight.

Don’t forget to bring enough dry clothes.  See you all tomorrow evening. “

It turns out that this weather forecast was not far from the truth – the problem will be the direction in which reality will deviate from forecast. But once again I am getting ahead of my story.

We left for Zeebrugge on the Friday evening after work. Rob was driving and I was navigating. We did not have too many problems with traffic until we came close to Gent where we lost about ½ hour because of road works. We arrived at the boat and Machteld and Harry were already there. Zuzana and Filip arrived soon after and so we started organising food, drinks, personal stuff etc. It always takes quite some time to checkout the boat too, and do a full inventory so that we know where everything is.

For this week-end, out home will be Swing, a 37 ft Jeanneau from Channel Sailing. I have sailed on her sister ship, Foxtrot, last year and I know she is a good boat. Annemie arrives later – she was stuck in the office later than anticipated, and so with a full crew, we decided to have dinner at a local restaurant at about 21:00.

When we get back the the boat, there is an annoying alarm and we do not quite understand what it is for. We are able to silence it, and since it is late, we decide to deal with it tomorrow.

By 6:00, most of us are already up and eager to get started. The weather looks great and I decide to wear normal clothes to start: long pants, warm shirt, sweater and a windbreaker vest. It may seem like a lot for the middle of summer, but with the wind and the cold water, it is just right. The wind feels like a good force 5, or somewhere around 20 knotts (about 35 km/h).

Since the alarm is still on, we call Carlos to discuss what to do. He indicates that this is because the second battery is running low on power. We figure that as soon as we turn on the engine, it will recharge and the alarm will clear – nothing to worry about.

We leave our mooring a little after 7:00 and start motoring towards the mouth of the harbour. It is a rather long way in Zeebrugge and after 20 minutes, I call Port Control to get permission to get out – it is granted immediately.

Unfortunately, we discover that Battery 2 is still not charging and therefore we are not able to clear the alarm. This could be a problem as it is already low and all the electronics on board run off that one battery. We decide to go on, thinking that we will figure out a solution later.

Once outside the harbour entrance, we raise full sail and shut down the engine.  The wind continues at about 20 knotts in a Southerly direction. Since we needed to go South West, we were beating as close to the wind as possible, doing a good 5 to 5.5 knotts with a slight tide against us. We take turns at the wheel, changing about every hour or so. Most people have done it before so it goes without problems.  Here is Harry at work, while the rest of the crew relaxes.

Than the GPS started to act up. It seemed to regularly lose contact with the satellites and would start beeping – very annoying. We have a portable GPS and that works fine so we cannot figure out why the boat’s GPS keeps losing the satellites.  They eventually come back, so we can still track our progress.  We eventually figure out how to silence this alarm too, so we plow on.  By 10:00 we are outside Oostende, and we need to be careful crossing the channel leaving the harbour – fortunately no ferries or large ships, so we keep going.  The weather ahead looks more and more threatening so most of us decided to don our waterproofs (tops or bottoms for most people). The temperature is also going down, so an extra layer is welcome.

Harry eventually passes the wheel to Annemie who gives it to Zuzanna.  It is her first time so while she makes sure that the boat goes in a streight line, I help to make sure that we stay close to the wind and make good progress.

However, the weather keeps looking worst and worst, so it is now full waterproofs and “batten down the hatches” for rain and heavy seas.

I am not sure if by design, or luck, Rob takes the wheel again. And that is where the fun begins. The wind increases a little bit, and at the same time starts to veer 90 degrees to a true Westerly. Since the sails are still set for beating, we are now heading Northwest instead of Southwest. We have no time to tack as the wind keeps increasing and Rob asks us to take a reef.

Fortunately, we have scoped out the rigging well enough to know exactly what to do – Harry and I start the manoeuvre: Loosen the main sheet so that the sail is flapping, loosen the main halyard, then pull tight on the first reefing line and winch until it is very tight, lock it up;  raise the halyard by hand until it goes no further, and continue with the winch, lock it up; finally, winch the sheet back so that we have wind in the, now smaller, main sail. Harry and I do all that in less than 2 minutes – it almost looks like we have planned and practised the whole manoeuvre.

As soon as I finish sheeting in the sail, I can feel what is coming up. The wind has continued to increase while we were working and in a almost apologetic voice, Rob asks us for another reef! Same thing again, only faster! We still have a full jib, but the main sail is now about half the size we strated with; the boat still feels very balance. The wind is now close to 30 knotts (about 55 km/hr) but is steady from the West.  We can now tack to get back on course after the wind shift.

That’s when the rain starts. Not your typical winter Belgian rain that falls but does not really get you wet – no, it starts pouring, visibility is reduced to less than a mile and so we need to be careful where we go and who is around us. The rain is so hard that it almost hurt my face. And then, the rain starts to hurt even more, and I notice that the rain appears to be bouncing off my waterproof pants. It’s not rain any more but hail, driven by 30 knott winds! I can barely look out and I feel for Rob who is still steering. It does not last very long and soon enough, the hail stops, the rain decreases and visibility improves enough that we can see that we are now just beyond Nieuwpoort, but getting close to the shore, so we tack again.

I take over the wheel for a while. It is quite a lot of fun to steer the boat trying to stay as close to the wind as possible and at the same time insuring that the speed stays as high as possible. We make good progress, with Filip and later Machteld steering and soon enough arrive in the approaches to Dunkirk where there is a series of sand banks create a narrow passage. We have to tack back and forth through the passage.

Notice – no glasses … they were a victim of the rain and hail,  no, not broken, just so wet and dirty that I could not see through them, so I put them in my pocket.

During all this time, Harry is able to fix the problem with Battery 2 – he found a loose wire at the alternator and a quick check indicates that now the battery charges when the engine is one – one problem solved, but the GPS keeps going off regularly.

We “race” against two other boats as we navigate the narrow approach and we are ahead when we finally enter the harbour of Dunkirk after more than 9 hours at sea.  We struggle a bit to find a suitable place to moor (we were initially given a slot too narrow for our boat) and can relax for the evening in a nice marina.

While we relax on the boat in the evening, we discover that the antenna for the GPS is right at the back of the boat, in a place where I really like to sit while sailing.  A quick test confirms that the GPS looses contact with satellites when some one sits there – we will have to be more careful tomorrow. Problem 2 solved as well.

Sunday is a lot less “exciting” but a great sail nonetheless.  We again leave early and are able to sail on a broad reach all day, most of the time in and around a motor yacht from Germany.  For a while they are going a little faster than us, then we pass them back just off Oostende.  The going is easy and we can relax when we are not steering or navigating.

The sun hat came out, and at times, I was glad to have it.  We are travelling at more than 8 knotts over land, helped by the tide and therefore we are just off Blankenberg around 13:00 just in time for lunch – so we go in.  We have our lunch and rest for about 2 hours than back to sea for the last 1 hour push to Zeebrugge where we arrive a little after 16:30.

Courtesy of Harry, here is the actual track that we followed during the week-end.  The purple track is for Saturday – you can really see the wind shift and how quickly it happened.  The green is Sunday before lunch and Orange is the quick hop after lunch.

We had a great week-end, with a lot of excellent sailing and good company.

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7 Responses to “Zeebrugge-Dunkirk-Zeebrugge by sea”

  1. Rob Whittonon 19 Aug 2010 at 07:45

    Thanks Pierre for the write-up. Nice to look back on a great weekend, especially the photo of the cold front coming.

  2. Harryon 19 Aug 2010 at 11:59

    Howdy Pierreo,

    Very nice story I like the pictures.

    I have the gps tracks from ours trip on a map.
    If you want it I can e-mail it to you.

  3. pierreoon 21 Aug 2010 at 16:57

    Harry did send me the track of our journey – thanks. I have added it to the post for all to see!

  4. […] View original here: pierreo.com – Join me on my journey » Blog Archive » Zeebrugge … […]

  5. Philippe Hardyon 24 Aug 2010 at 07:32

    Beau résumé… Tu devrais faire un concours de “récits de voyage”. Merci!

  6. David Ingon 06 Sep 2010 at 21:20

    #pierreo As compared to the photos that you’ve taken when the sun is bright and you’re dressed in t-shirt and shorts, the grey clouds and full dress makes me wonder if the appeal of sailing is from memories in warmer times.

    I guess it’s all in the mind, anyway!

  7. pierreoon 06 Sep 2010 at 21:43

    I guess everybody is a little bit an adrenaline junkie and this seems to be my fix. I get pleasure out of challenging nature and coming out on top. I do enjoy a quiet, comfortable sail under the sun, but I also get a lot of satisfaction out of a challenging sail with lot’s of difficulties. What was great on this week-end is that every body else seemed to feel the same way!

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