The Crossing

The Crossing

A bit of a saga getting across the North Sea

     I'm off to Belgium to winterize our boat. Littleborough to Diksmuide - 126 miles on the road plus 224 miles by sea (roughly). It turned out to involve 33 hours and a bit of hassle.

     I arrive at St Georges Dock, Hull, at 3.00 PM – three and a half hours before scheduled departure.

     I'm not the first to arrive at the port. There's a Belgian chap in front desperate to get back to continental Europe and behind him a plastic sun-lounger with a towell on it.

     We board the ferry, The Pride of York, at 4.00 P M.

     I dump my bag in my deluxe cabin (don't get carried away, deluxe is the worst, the use of the word merely a devilish marketing tool to make tight gits like me think they are getting a bargain) and go outside to join the smokers on the fag deck to have a pull on my electronic puffer (can I say fag deck?). I get looks of disdain from the real smokers, a number of whom are fifty-year-plus women dressed in T-shirts that announce they are on a hen-do to Brugges. Despite it being only five in the afternoon they are in a state of some intoxication. As they stagger off inside to get out of the sleet an announcement comes over the tannoy. It's the captain. 'There will be a slight delay. There is a problem with the sea lock leading out onto the river. Divers are in the water inspecting and I will keep you informed.'

     I'm told by a bloke in ripped jeans and trainers – an on-board expert who has appeared out of the metalwork - that a boat had rammed the lock gate.

     So we wait.

     Some of us go for dinner while others stay in the bar and get shit-faced. Apologies for the language, I'm on a northern ferry full of northern folks. There are a few naughty words in this little piece and any quotes are repeated verbatim - on this ccasion by one of the hen-partyers.

     On the face of it, £21 for a three-course dinner, is reasonable value – till you actually taste it.

     'My words', said the female half of my neighbours at the next table, 'this is a bit rustic.' (Not of northern extraction my neighbours).

     Last time I crossed the North Sea my destination was Rotterdam (Europort) and the hot buffet was excellent. This time I'm on the way to Zeebrugge and it was some way short of excellent. In fact I left most of my Tomato and Basil soup to be absorbed by the soggy, burnt croutons – which reminded me of cubed clinker. The main course was a choice of various left-overs from an extinct cafe – all in all about as appealing as a trip to the dentist. The only sweet that looked edible wasn't. They were mini choux pastry balls – some chocolate in colour, some coffee, that tasted, according to the male half of my neighbours, like dirty golf balls. Not sure how he knew but I sympathised and went for a second attempt at finding an edible main course. They'd bought out some chicken pieces, which appeared not to have been ruined - without doubt the star of a lacklustre show. But £21 for a couple of chicken thighs is a bit steep.

     My dinner neighbours are on their way to Brugges on a mini-break. They sail overnight, have most of the following day in Brugges and return the same day on the evening ferry. They want to know what to see while there. Never having been into the city itself I advise them to focus on chocolate and beer – and architecture – which I thought solid advice. They tell me they are keen on art galleries. I suggest the tourist office, which they agree, politely, is a splendid idea, almost as if they hadn't thought of it themselves. Nice people.

     The Captain comes on again, 'not good news I'm afraid ladies and gentlemen, the repair to the lock will take a while so it will be nearer eleven o clock when we'll be sailing. I apologize for the delay, which is wholly beyond our control, but I will keep you informed when I have news. In the meantime please relax and enjoy our on-board entertainment.'

     Cue the entertainments officer who announced with a practiced, theatrical lilt - the kind of lilt you'd hear through a duff PA system at Pontins – that there was a cinema (that you had to pay for), Bingo (that you also had to pay for), the two bars (that you definitely had to pay for), a pianist in the posh lounge playing elevator music (who you'd have to pay to shut up) and a duo singing 'hits from across the decades' in the piss-artists lounge where nobody would listen to because they were too busy vomiting.

As a treat I partook of a small beer in the posh lounge where I overheard an expert in boating matters tell his mate, 'the boat is fucked, something up with the lock, whatever that is.'

     I retired to my state room at 10.00 PM.

     At ten forty-five I was awoken from my infant slumber by a blast from the tannoy. It's the Captain again. 'Ladies and Gentlemen, we will be unable to sail this evening due to substantial damage to the lock gate. It will take some hours to repair. We are rescheduled to sail at approximately 8.00 AM tomorrow morning. May I offer once again my......'

     Many of the passengers were on the 'have-it-away' cruise that only lasted 36 hours. If you consider that the crossing takes 12 hours each way and there is a delay of 12 hours, it doesn't leave much time to cavort around Brugges. So the Captain said that arrangements had been made for anyone who so wished, to leave the ship at eleven that evening. Some people had been told, by a very pleasant lady on the reception desk, that in all likelihood a full refund would be offered - so at least these folks could try again at a later date.

     Through my haze of weariness and locked door I heard a stampede for the exits.

     (I'm told the following morning that one of the hen-partyers had caused a right old rumpus. She'd got absolutely legless, collapsed in a coridoor and was demanding to be let off the fucking schip - thish inshtant. Somebody pointed out, 'Madam, you can't even get off the fucking floor.')

     So the ship settled down to a night in Hull docks.

     Before the disaster with the lock I'd ordered coffee to be delivered to my cabin at 6.15 the following morning – in readiness for my arrival in Zeebrugge. A little treat that made me feel important and only cost two quid. A reminder of the heady days when I instructed other people what to do instead of being treated as lowly equals by the people I now work with.

     The following morning, at seven bells, the tannoy burst into life. 'Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the captain speaking. I am pleased to say that we will be leaving at aproximately eight o clock this morning. However anyone wishing to leave the ship before we depart may do so at seven thirty. May I apologi......'

     I go for a mooch round at about seven fifteen. There are hundreds of people milling about – most of them staring with genuine hatred at the coffee bar that is not due to open till seven thirty – just as they are due to stagger down the exit ramps under the twin burdens of overnight suitcases and last nights ale.

     'Would foot passengers please make their way to the rear ramp and car drivers leaving at this point make their way to the car deck.'

     The security grill rises on the coffee bar with a rattly chatter, just as the last of the escapees disappears down the exit ramp..

     Ten minutes later, 'would drivers of all cars please make their way to the car deck.'

     Subtle difference here. Some drivers, like me, were staying on board but our cars were blocking those wanting to leave. This meant that we had to drive off the ferry, do a 'U' turn on the quay and drive back on again. Some drivers were obviously sound sleepers despite numerous calls for them to attend their vehicles. It took forty five minutes to get the cars off that were leaving and the likes of me, who were staying, back on again. I asked how many cars were on today's crossing. Twenty three I was told. It appeared that the on / off operation was performed with less than hyper-efficiency.

     Frankly, the whole thing's turning into a bit of a shambles.

     Finally at about nine in the morning the engines rumble into life and we set off – just as my coffee arrived at the cabin.

     For breakfast I had a tongue sandwich (can I say that?) which had been made by my wife 'for emergencies' - and a couple of gallons of coffee (at about £6 a gallon) from the near-deserted coffee bar. Following breakfast I took a turn round the deck in the company of a chap whose brother is due to meet him in Zebrugge just as we're leaving Hull. 'Won't be best pleased I imagine,' he said, 'having to wait 12 hours.'

     There are now around 120 of the initial 650 people left on board so it's a bit rattly. We are offered complementary lunch and dinner and as I write I have just awoken from a post-lunch nap with seven hours still to run. Lunch looked suspiciously like the stuff that most people had ignored the previous evening, but it was free.

     After my nap I go for another walk round the deck. The wind is getting up, it's ony two degrees and they are forecasting a force 8 later in the trip. I meet a pleasant lady of retirement age from Cumbria shivering in an inadequate blouse, braving the elements having a ciggy. 'Are you staying in Belgium long?' I ask.

     'No,' she replies, 'we're coming straight back on this ferry. We have to get off in Zeebrugge, show our passports and get back on again. That's 24 hours on the boat and we won't have gone anywhere.'

     'Oh.' I say. 'Why didn't you just get off in Hull when you had the chance?'

     'Driver was pissed,' she laughs, 'not fit to drive. Still, at least we've had chance to catch up, have a gossip.'

     I have to say, the ship's crew (P & O) were brilliant in the face of unforeseen timing issues and a number of unhappy campers.

     I'd scheduled my trip to arrive mid morning in order to get our boat systems up and running in daylight. Due to the delay I arrived at eleven at night in the dark and it was pissing down. I finally got to sleep at 2.00 AM having got the heating going.

     As I finish this tale, the following morning, storm Angus is blowing like mad. My satellite dish, mounted on an extended aerial pole, and which has survived many storms over ten years, topples to the deck with an alarming clang, the pole fractured and bent in two. It's clanking against the deck in the fevered wind but the gusts are so viscious I daren't even go out and secure it – it's on the river side and falling in the fast flowing, chocolate brown torrent is not an option. A row of metal fencing panels, protecing a nearby construction site, has blown flat. More alarmingly, not twenty paces away, a skeletal construction crane is swaying in the whistling wind. Should it topple it will probably fall away from the boat, but it's a bit worrying nevertheless.

     I want to go home.