by Roger Buxton
Why would anyone want to sail across the North Sea and back on 4 sheets of plywood, in other words a Silhouette II (a 30 year old one at that!) There are two reasons, one it was all I had, and two somebody said I couldn't do it.
Once I had made up my mind to tackle the voyage, I decided to try and raise money for charity at the same time. So, I had a plan, now I needed a crew. My brother-in-law, David Snodin, initially volunteered to make the trip with me but due to work commitments he had to cry off. The local newspaper ran an article on my intended trip and I used this to advertise for crew. Those of you who have made a North Sea crossing would realise the problem I faced in getting someone to make the crossing with me in a 17ft boat.
Four people answered the advertisement and Ged was the first to reply. Ged had never sailed before but he had a small fishing boat and had studied navigation at Night School. He was a woodwork teacher and offered to help me to re-fit Lady Marion for the trip. During the winter we stripped the boat to bare wood, converted the cockpit to self-draining and fitted the 'bubble', this was to enable us to keep a look-out should bad weather force us both to go below and play 'corks'. Fortunately we did not need it for this use, which is just as well because the speed at which it got covered with condensation when we were both below would have meant that the look-out would have been short lived. We had set ourselves a date of 8th July to set off, so with any luck, we would be there with the boats which took part in the North Sea Race.
We got the boat ready for sea and then I had to set about teaching Ged how to sail. He had never sailed before, or been out of sight of land, or been at sea at night. Ged as a rule proved to be totally committed and also unflappable. However, he did appear alarmed when we broached while practising with a Sonata spinnaker and managed to give Lady Marion's three keels an airing. He seemed reassured when I said "If it does that again just let go that rope and she'll bob up again". She did it again but Ged in his eagerness, let go every rope. Bite your lip Rodger, I never did profess to being a good teacher!
The big day arrived, Even after the months of preparation, there still seemed so many things left to do. I just wanted to set off now. What we hadn't done or got, we'd do without. We had a visit from the Yorkshire Post wanting to know about the 'nutters' setting off across the sea in a 17ft boat.
We had decided to set off as soon as we could after low water, so the flood would carry us past Flamborough. A large crowd gathered to see us off and with a wave to family and friends we were on our way. Or we would have been had I not forgotten to switch the fuel on to the engine. We just got through the piers and the engine stopped. We got it sorted and under the view of the onlookers, tried to hoist the sails. For the first time in the two years I'd had the boat, the halyards had somehow crossed. After four or five attempts we eventually got the sails hoisted and we were on our way.
We settled down to our first night at sea and Ged got supper under-way. The winds were light and the sea calm. It became apparent that with the chart table down and all the gear stowed we wouldn't be able to sleep below except in an emergency So we slept, when we could , on the lockers in the cockpit. Ged soon got it off to a fine art, (locking his neck muscles the way horses do!) I had told the Coastguard that I would relay our position at least twice a day, if possible, via any passing shipping.
On our second night at sea, I had been awake for almost forty hours,well into the early hours, something very scary occurred. I saw a man climb out of the sea and crouch on the foredeck, grinning at me. I shook my head and looked away but when I looked forward again he still there. The most absurd thing was who he was! (he was that shifty character who advertises 'Mike's Carpets' on YTV. I asked Ged to come and drive for a bit as I'd seen someone climb out of the sea. "Can't he drive for a bit then? said Ged "I've got kettle on, or does he want a brew?"
That morning the winds, which until now had been fairly light and almost south easterly, were blowing from the North West (just what we wanted). The forecast was for 3s and 4s but it seemed more that that. We changed down to working jib but the wind continued to increase. I went below to 'use the bucket' when Ged started shouting that life-jackets might be a good idea. I looked out and saw a wall of water about 12ft high rearing up behind us (this can be quite alarming when you measure your free-board in inches rather than feet) I told him not to look around and the wave broke just astern and cascaded down under Lady Marion's hull. The sea had built in a very short time, aggravated by a wind-over-tide situation. We put a reef in the main and were off, surfing down waves. Alarmed at first at the size of the waves, these feelings turn to exhilaration as we realised Lady Marion could cope.
Midday saw us passing close to a rig, so I called the Guard Ship 'Winkler' and asked him to relay our position. The skipper was very chatty and turned out to be an ex fisherman like myself. He stayed very close to us as we were in danger of infringing the 500m exclusion. He manoeuvred to the outer limit and asked us to pass in front of him .He also said that in 30 years we were the smallest craft he had seen crossing the North Sea. I asked him where 3 - 4 was that was forecast and he said it was force 6 and the worst day they'd had in a month. He made some comment about my sanity and wished us well. He watched us for some time and told us "The Lady Marion is coping admirably".
Around midnight we could see the loom of the lights of Ijmuiden. As dawn broke we could see the chimneys of Ijmuiden and we passed the piers on Saturday 6.00 am. The trip had taken 58 hours. We tied up at the Customs Wharf and were soon greeted by a local with the phrase "how small is your ship?" This was something we were going to have to get used to during our stay. We locked through and moored alongside an old schooner from San Francisco. The skipper, an elderly Americanised German, looked over the rail and said "That's a small boat". "I know" I answered. They gave us a beer, so sorted the cabin and had a dry out and then we headed up the canal to Amsterdam.
We arrived in Six Haven marina at tea time and it was busy. After looking unsuccessfully for a berth, a woman seeing our plight shouted "you can't draw much, come behind here with the ducks". I felt like telling her that Lady Marion was an ocean greyhound but the need to get to the pub made me keep my cool, and we tucked ourselves in with the ducks. Ducks indeed!
Ged cooked a meal, during the eating of which we must have been asked a dozen times, "You never sailed from England in that"! They looked at the boat and looked at the ensign and then me and Ged and just shook their heads.
Now Ged had proved to be an excellent companion. What he lacked in knowledge he more than made up for in commitment. But there was still more. On arriving at the Old Sailor I discovered he could drink like a fish.
We had three days 'rest' in Amsterdam and then set off down the canal homeward bound. Getting Ged across had been easy because the element of surprise was there and he didn't know what to expect. He was wiser, knew what to expect and was not keen. Had we known what was in store on the return trip, including being very nearly rammed by a trawler, sailing through the oil fields in thick fog for half a day, a close encounter with a British Warship and getting lost and sailing into what can only be described at the time as the embodiment of hell on earth, he may have opted for the ferry, but we arrived home safely after 60 hours.
We proved we could do it and raised £2,500 for charity at the same time. Never once did Lady Marion give us cause for concern, though I do admit thinking "If Terry Pickering hadn't taught me to sail, I might not be here" on the odd occasion. Within days of getting ashore the next voyage was planned, but that's another story!