Day 38: run, little hedgehog

The southerly wind got us moving nicely yesterday and we kept up a speed of 7-8 knots all evening and into the night, giving us a great push in the right direction at last. I’d spotted a couple of ships during the day but wasn’t at all prepared for what happened around midnight when I’d just finished watching a film and was getting ready for bed. I turned on the radar for its night shift and to my amazement saw the screen filled with blips, all seemingly heading straight for me.

Rushing up on deck I got out my binoculars and sure enough, there were lots of little lights twinkling in the distance. Then it clicked – I was crossing the main shipping route which comes down the English Channel, across the Bay of Biscay, and round Spain towards the Mediterranean and South Atlantic.

Crossing shipping lanes in a yacht has been likened to a hedgehog trying to get across a busy motorway and it certainly feels that way, particularly at night. Imagine a hundred thousand tons of super-tanker moving at 20 knots, with another one a couple of miles behind it, and then another, strung out across the horizon as far as the eye can see. Then just beyond that line there’s the opposite lane going the other way, but it’s not single-file so there might be several ships sailing in the same direction in a little group.

My measly little 15 tons moving at 7 knots feels a bit inadequate amongst these giants, especially as they wouldn’t feel a thing if they hit me. Next stop Davy Jones’ Locker, 4000 metres down, so needless to say I was a little apprehensive last night.

However I still believe in the ocean being a big place with only a small chance of collisions, so stuck to my course which ran straight across the shipping lane. This is the best way to cross, but you have to be sure to time it right of course. Luckily the radar is a great help, especially at night when it’s hard to judge distances, although it’s essential to keep looking out at the real thing to get a good overall picture of the situation in your mind.

The first batch of three ships passed safely ahead of me, but when I went back down I found eleven more coming my way, some from the north and some from the south. Lordy, this is more ships than I’ve seen in the last fortnight, and they’re all coming straight at me! Sticking resolutely to my course I managed somehow to avoid them all. Or maybe they were all avoiding me? Some came close, but no more than half a mile which is fine. I stayed at my post till 4am, when the last glimmer of lights faded away over the horizon.

I’ve no idea how many ships passed altogether, but it was more than I’ve ever seen before at sea in such a short time. It was certainly a relief to be clear of them all, and I finally fell into bed for a bit of sleep, leaving the ever-watchful radar on just in case of any stragglers.

Luckily there were no more, and I haven’t seen any other boats since then. The wind has held up pretty well except for a couple of hours around lunchtime, which was handy as there were a couple of maintenance issues, as usual.

The most important one was the bilge pump, which last night didn’t seem to be working. As I’ve said before, the main purpose of a boat is to keep the water on the outside, but some inevitably gets in, especially if you’ve got a boat as leaky as Odyssey. Hopefully the water will all drain down to the lowest part of the boat, called the bilge, from where you can pump it out. Well, you can if your pumps are working, and both of mine were now dead.

It didn’t take long to strip it down and find that the fault was simply that one of the valves was blocked with rust and sludge, so I cleaned it out and reassembled it. Once refitted it worked better than ever so my bilge is now nice and dry again. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I could eat my dinner off it, but then I’ve never been renowned for the cleanliness of my bilge, as Rupert will confirm. Apparently he’s just about managed to clean Flogg’s bilge out after owning her for nearly a year, which is more than I ever did in eight!

The other problem was that the Monitor steering wheel adapter managed to chew it’s way through the retaining clamps again and dropped off the wheel. Since I’ve already used up all my spares I had to resort to tying it all back together with bits of string and sticky-back plastic in the best Blue Peter tradition, so I hope it holds out till I get to France. If it fails I’ve got some old chewing gum stuck to the bottom of my chart table which might just do the trick…

Finally, one slightly more worrying but non-critical thing is that last night I ran the engine to cool down the fridge and heard it falter ever so slightly for a fraction of a second. Being attuned to it’s reassuring constant drone this immediately got my attention, and after a couple of minutes it did it again, and then a third time. I stopped it straight away as I’ve got a horrible feeling that it may be getting so low on fuel that it’s beginning to struggle to pump out the last dregs from the bottom of the tank.

This may have been due to the fact that we were sailing fast in a fairly lumpy sea, so the boat was heeled over and rolling quite a bit, making the fuel slosh around in the tank. I’m planning not to have to run it again now until we get into the hopefully calm and sheltered approaches to La Rochelle, and have a couple of gallons in a spare tank, so we might just make it. I can just see it dying as I’m about to engage reverse gear coming into the dock which could be a little embarrassing, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Or hit it, more likely.

This afternoon there’s just under 200 miles to go and we’re still heading in the right direction at a good 6 knots, so it looks like I’ve only got another two nights at sea, or possibly even just one if this wind holds out. However we’re not there yet and one thing I’ve learnt from this voyage is that the weather never does what you want or expect, especially not over these last few days, so I’m just taking it as it comes and will get there when I get there. Besides, I’ve still got 3 litres of wine to finish as I’m sure the French won’t appreciate me importing cheap American plonk!

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