Jean says: The Thames Estuary was always going to involve some serious forward planning. It's about 34 miles as the crow flies from Harwich to North Foreland Point, but the long fingers of sandbanks mean that it's not possible to go straight across. The navigable channels that lead you into the Thames have great names like Black Deep, Knock Deep, King's Channel and Wallet. They are dissected by smaller channels called gats that enable you to work your way across but in a rather circuitous fashion. All the channels are very well marked with buoys, so if the weather is acceptable, and the tides are heading in the right direction, they should pose no problem at all, provided of course, you can see where you're going.
There are many different recommended routes across the Thames Estuary. We chose to go right round the outside of the sandbanks, skirting the most Northerly tips of some of them. We slipped our mooring at 5.30am and sailed East to round a cardinal buoy called Cork Hole and then turned South across the busy waterway and round the Northern tips of the main sandbanked area to catch the flood tide down towards Ramsgate.
I'd peppered the chartplotter and the paper charts with waypoints at all the significant buoys. When we started off, there was quite a light mist that already looked like it was burning off in the early morning sun. Leaving the harbour entrance which we now know virtually by heart, the sun was still glimmering behind the mist, so we foresaw no problems.
The morning sun at Wrabness on the River Stour
We were committed by the time the fog really set in and turning back into a foul tide was not an option, so we got the foghorn out, put the life jackets on, rubbed the sleep from our eyes and pinned back the ear flaps. We had AIS and our radar at the ready, and there's something so unreal about sailing in fog, that it's almost quite pleasant. That's possibly a slightly misguided state of mind, but at least it keeps you relaxed.
The fog isn't on the Tyne, it's in the Thames Estuary all around us!
We could hear a regular fog horn on our port side and once we got ours to work, replied regularly with two blasts until we realised it was a fixed fog beacon and wasn't another boat. I'm in two minds about using a fog horn as they're so deafening, you almost feel disorientated each time you use it. I thought it worked better as a means to persuade Bob to put his life jacket on, I'm thinking of using one at home during domestic negotiations.
Everything seemed to be going well despite the visibility being down to 30 metres,. We couldn't see the Black Deep Red buoy on our starboard side where it should have been, but thought it was that the fog was just too thick. Bob suddenly discovered that despite being male, his intuition kicked in, and he helmed with even more intensity. I'm so glad he got in touch with his inner female, because within seconds, the red buoy appeared right on our nose and we had to turn quickly to avoid it. We discovered later that it had been moved this June to allow for the movement of the sandbank, and we thought by having a 2012 chart, we were bang up to date. So that was our second near miss of the trip (the first one being the mad Danish lady), and also a lesson in sailing anywhere near sandbanks. They move regularly and it's a very good idea to check if there have been any changes the day before you go near them.
Eventually the fog cleared and we consoled ourselves with a sausage sandwich and coffee, and carried on unscathed to Ramsgate. I don't think that the Thames Estuary would be our cruising ground of choice.
Ramsgate Harbour in the evening
We had a long afternoon in Ramsgate. The last time we were here, we'd been refused entry onto the ferry to Ostend on our way to live in Belgium, because we had a hamster called Scrabble in the car and didn't have the relevant papers. We had 2 goldfish as well, but I suppose they don't count as livestock, and in any case, being fish, you could pop them in the sea and tell them to make their own way across and you'd meet them at the other side. I have to say that I'd tried so hard to find out if we needed documents to take a hamster abroad, but it was customs at Dover that said they weren't sure what the procedure was and not to worry and take it anyway. So I did.
Bob was already out there, so It was just me and two very distraught daughters, who didn't want to be parted from their adorable hamster. It's not easy to find an emergency vet on a Sunday in a small seaside town, but we did find one. He has no idea about documents either (wailing sound getting louder), but eventually offered to look after Scrabble in his five star animal menagerie and write to the girls regularly to let them know how he was getting on. They would also be able to visit whenever they wanted. This clever bit of hard sell mollified the girls and we left with me wanting to press hoards of money into the vets hands in gratitude.
We haven't visited Scrabble yet, but may try to visit him later today. He should be about 17 by now.
Ramsgate looks entirely different from seventeen years ago. The streets are perky and bright, and there are people of character on every street. This is Bethnal Green, Bohemia, Trinidad and a refined Georgian seaside resort all in one. The harbour is full of support vessels for the all the under construction wind farms in the area, which is a new and thriving industry here. There are pound shops galore, and we've bought some Union Jack bunting to adorn Bella Rosa on her final leg through the Solent. It was 99p. You could go berserk in a poundshop. I've never been in one before. The street that frames the harbour buzzes with life, restaurants and bars and the tables and chairs spill out of open frontages onto the pavements. In parts, it's almost continental.
Look closely at these two characters on the balcony....
We went to a brilliant fish restaurant in the evening called Eddie Gilbert's. You could choose whether you had your chips fried in lard or vegetable fat. We've never come across that before, but the implication is that some people don't come here just to boost their omega three reserves. It was a tough choice and I was tempted to ask them if they could do mine in organic hemp oil.
Returning to the boat later that evening, it seemed a lot less threatening than it did in the pound shop during the day.