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Summer 2013 - Belgium

The last boating event of the summer was helping friends Brett and Sandy take their barge 'Rival' from Staines to Belgium. Rival has been moored just in front of us at Tims Boatyard for the last two years, but they are off to mainland Europe for some more adventures.

Sandy went separately with their dogs, leaving Brett, John (owner of the boatyard) Ed (from the Dutch barge Jenner) and myself as crew for the trip. My joke that we were not really crossing the channel but were in fact just going for a lads break to the pub down river had worn somewhat thin with Mary, so I think she was glad to finally see us off at 7:00am on a September Tuesday morning.

With four of us onboard and the river quiet we made good time and cleared Teddington lock just after midday.


 We continued down the tideway and it was all fresh in my mind having just made the trip in Misterton a few weeks before. Ed steered a lot of this section, note the Battersea Barge (venue for our wedding reception...) in the background. I'll not mention it again for a while.

The section between Westminster and Tower Bridge didn't seem so bad having done it once before, and we were soon past the world famous landmark.

And so we carried on, the river got wider and a bit more choppy and the scenery became distinctly more industrial. Past Gravesend we started to loose the light, but the sunset was pretty good.

 Finally at around 8:00pm we dropped anchor at the smalls ships anchorage at Sheerness.  Brett prepared a fantastic meal which we wolfed down and then it was off to bed. During the night ships would pass in the distance, and then about 20 minutes later the wash would set Rival rolling. Despite this we all slept well.

In the morning Ed and I had coffee on deck and looked at the masts of the wreck of the 'Montgomery' about a mile away in the fog. The 1500 tons of unexploded munitions still seemed inert, so we were able to eat our bacon and egg butties in peace.

The tide was right to leave at midday and luckily the fog lifted at this time so we fired up the engine, hauled up the anchor and set off. I had to resist asking 'are we there yet' as after several hours had passed we were still in the Thames estuary.

Rival is equipped with AIS and Brett also had a laptop setup to display our position and that of other ships using the system (which is basically any sizable commercial craft). Some of the car carriers we had seen inbound the day before were the size of a block of flats on its side, so it was good to know where they were. At times all four of us were watching the screen, like a slow speed video game.

John (who is like the Obi-Wan Kenobi of boats) got Ed and I to steer a compass course. This sounds easy, but we boat on the inland waterways where generally there are lots of things less than 70 feet away to try and avoid, but to try and steer when there are no landmarks was quite hard. Again the AIS plotter came to the fore to display the erratic course I was steering, perhaps I'll get better with practice.

Once in the shipping lanes there wasn't much to do apart from eat sweets and check that we weren't about to get run down by anything.  Brett steered a lot of this section, here is a shot of him at the helm, somewhere in the middle of the English channel.

As darkness fell, the lights of France became more visible.  John pointed out various navigation buoy lights and kept a manual plot on his paper charts. I thought one light that flashed brightly was some super-duper French lighthouse, but at the Ferry terminal next day I could see it was in fact a flarestack from some industrial site. Luckily I kept the super-duper lighthouse theory to myself while at sea.

After many more hours, the lights of Nieuwpoort came into view. I was dozing in the wheelhouse when suddenly the engine faltered. John and Ed raced to the engine room and switched to the backup filter - the crossing must have dislodged sediment in the tank, blocking the first one. We all agreed the (expensive) dual filter system was worth the money when you where a mile off the entry to a port in choppy seas. John and Brett have them on their boats, Ed and I have added them to the wishlist.

Brett steered us into the main channel and soon we were in calm, inland waters again. The lockkeepers were waiting for us and let us into the canal at about 2:00am. After a snack and a drink it was time for bed.

I took a picture of Rival the following morning on my phone; not the best shot, but it was a lovely sunny day.

So the trip was over, Sandy arrived with the dogs, and Brett drove us all back to Staines via the Ferry, a much quicker trip.

I really enjoyed it, was a great end to a lovely summer.


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