ENGLISH CHANNEL CROSSING: Rescued at sea

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.

 

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.

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.