Formanda: Cherbourg via Shanklin

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Formanda passing a ship in the middle of the English Channel
I have lost count of the number of times I have taken a boat to Cherbourg over the years. But never has an occasion been more poignant than this one.

After more than three years of hard refit work on our Beecham Searider 45 Formanda, we deemed her ready for a first cross-Channel adventure. Work and other commitments this year meant we weren’t quite as ready as we would like to be; for example our autopilot installation is still incomplete and hence any passage plans we laid would need to be manually steered. But all systems are sound and in a frantic last weekend of activity the engines were serviced and the last of the rebuild materials stashed ashore.

Of course that just left the weather to contend with. While we were changing oil filters and adjusting tappets on our (lovely!) Perkins Sabre M135 diesels the Round the Island competitors were battling 35 knot gusts south of the Isle of Wight. So sitting out the first part of the week while we fine tuned a few things was no chore. But by Wednesday I got inevitable berth blues and started hatching a plan for an escape of sorts.

With the wind somewhere between NW and W and still up close to 20 knots the Channel crossing was out; I wanted easier conditions for our first post refit passage outside the Solent. But I figured we could anchor safely tucked up somewhere around Sandown and Shanklin. Although the forecast didn’t entirely agree I sensed that the wind would be lighter for a spell in the morning so we could wake up at dawn on Thursday and if the conditions had moderated we could leave, having cut around 14 miles off the passage.

So off we went for an easy couple of hours at seven knots to our intended overnight destination.

There were a few moments to note.

First we somehow managed to upset a safety boat patrolling a dinghy race off Sandown because “didn’t we know we were on the course” (actually we were off the course as far as we could see, had not got within a half mile of any sailors, racing had finished and marks were being retrieved – but ho hum).

Then our trusty 1990s era Raytheon GPS went down; no worries, with perfect visibility, our Garmin 256C GPS and TackTick depth sounder working perfectly all was well. I later rigged our spare GPS (Formanda has big lockers) to give us back redundancy.

Strangest of all though was our overnight experience at our chosen anchorage off Shanklin Chine. Tucked out of the worst of the wind and waves we enjoyed seeing the evening set in while the church bells practiced their tolls and children set free from school played and laughed on the beach. As night fell we started to get ready for a few hours sleep, only to hear the sharp crackle of what sounded like a bonfire with damp wood throughout the length of the boat. No smoke, no smell, just an unremitting snapping and clicking.

After much delving through bilges and lockers we convinced ourselves the sound was underneath Formanda’s hull. I even tapped her solid insides, just to convince myself it was Michelle and I cracking up, not the boat.

It was excellent forensic Googling by Michelle on her iPhone browser that provided the answer: pistol shrimp. The little beastie has a claw that projects a 218dB imploding bubble – enough to stun or kill small fish. We had a whole army of them 6m under the keel. This non-native species is thought to have hitched a lift on a ship; it is now populating several parts of British coastline including, apparently, the area where we stopped.

At sun up the following morning all pistols had been discharged and the wind was similarly quiet. Every encouragement then for weighing anchor and heading south. Soon into the passage we were reminded by the GMDSS notices after the weather forecast that this was strike day for the Coastguard and a limited service might be expected but we hoped not to be adding to their workload anyway.

The Channel was a little bit bumpy at first once we got out of the lee of the Isle of Wight, with waves from the west and south, but gradually settled as the latitude dropped towards the 49s. Even the shipping obliged us with nice gaps to pass safely through and hats off to the Normandie Express fast ferry which seemed to make a course alteration to pass us, and a nearby yacht, with well over a mile of sea to dissipate her wash.

Having left at 0510 we entered Cherbourg’s eastern entrance at 1300, despite punching tide for much of the passage.

We hit a couple of glitches for the tech log, primarily the fuel sender sticking on our day tank. Now cured. And our shower pump-out swallowed a bit of stray boat refit debris which it didn’t like. Also cured.

Of course, after three years largely in a boatyard and then harbour bound we’re also finding some things we forgot, like the need to carry a hose overseas. The large Carrefour supermarket sorted that one out, along with the moules for today’s late lunch and the cakes for our tea. If you are passing Q pontoon in Port Chantereyne we have some pastries left over – but you’ll need to be quick.

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