Ostend at Anchor - Paul Gilson

Sails set in Ostend harbourThere are times in your life when you are surprised at where you go and how you got there let alone what happens when you are there. This has to be one of those trips.

The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships was invited to attend the festival 'Ostend at Anchor' where we were to be their guests of honour. It is a prestigious event for classic boats from all over the world. This year they commemorated the start of the Great War and celebrated the liberation of Ostend by Canadian forces led by Field Marshal Montgomery.

After the commemorative cruise to Chatham we left for Ramsgate on Monday morning. The weather once again turned against us and we had a right bashing with the sea on our beam all the way. Our fellow little ships, totally unused to these conditions, did not cope as well. They were thrown about violently and had difficulty steering a good course and had a thoroughly miserable trip.

We were due to leave for Nieuwpoort in Belgium the next day in convoy but poor visibility and a fresh wind forced us to stay in port. The weather the following morning was better but only a small tug, Touchstone, another ex-fishing boat and fellow little ship Caronia set off for Ostend. The other ADLS boats waited hoping for improving weather.
Jeremy and Finlay braving the elements on route to RamsgateIt is a long way across the channel in a little boat and it made me think about what it must have been like for those that went before; did they hold back because it was a bit choppy? Our journey was uneventful, although we were the slower boat, we arrived at Ostend only just behind the others. We could cut through the sand banks whereas they had to take the longer route around them. It was just after 4pm local time when we arrived and we were quickly directed into the inner harbour and lock. The outer arm of the harbour was almost devoid of people but the lock area certainly wasn't. Several thousand people lined the walls clapping and cheering our arrival. It was a moving and humbling greeting by so many. We left the lock to another welcome from the already moored ships. Square riggers to classic yachts, steam ships to leisure craft, they all rang bells and sounded their horns welcoming Endeavour and Caronia. We were given pride of place in the docks and on the quay side we were surrounded by many tents and stalls. Everyone seemed to want to talk to us and we did not get clear until quite late.
Entering Ostend with classic yachts and square riggers for companyThe next morning, with no wind, we set our sails - she looked absolutely brilliant. She was like the proverbial sprat for the mackerel of people who came and came. We were taken aback by the interest from so many Belgian, Dutch, French, Canadian and American visitors.

Even some from Britain came to talk about Endeavour and what had been achieved at Dunkirk.

Everyone commented on how fantastic Endeavour looked and were amazed that we had crossed the North Sea steering with a piece of wood and no wheel house. Many thought it impossible and checked below for a hidden wheel!

Later that day the other little ships were welcomed but nothing quite like our reception the previous day. We dropped our sails and had a welcome beer (Belgium has a lot of beer) and a walk around the stalls that surrounded us. The next day, now with all the Little Ships, again saw many interested visitors and we took turns to talk to them. We took the time available to walk around stalls studying their merchandise which included; marine art, clothing, cheese, smoked herring, and beer. Everywhere there was music and street artists performed among the crowd delighting but sometimes scaring children.

Whilst talking to visitors two things really struck home. Firstly, although many Belgian children are taught about the Dunkirk evacuation they are captivated that ordinary people volunteered to go to war, without guns, to rescue their countrymen. Secondly and closer to home, a local I spoke to had been evacuated on a fishing boat that, once loaded with fellow Belgians, took them all to England. He remembered shots fired by men on Ostend harbour entrance and the loud explosions that often followed. He found out later that the shots were fired by the few remaining soldiers at the mines in the harbour entrance in an attempt to keep it clear for the fishing boats to leave. Once in England he went to school in Brixham until after the war. This story is especially poignant to me as I recall that after the war my father had a Belgian fisherman as crew for many years. He had also escaped on one of those fishing boats.

We were visited by local television and, yes, I was interviewed! It was shown that evening and we saw it in our hotel.

We estimate that an average of 50 people a day came aboard and we spoke to at least double that number each day telling Leigh's Dunkirk story.

I've always said the Endeavour is a social boat and she gets people to talk, well she proved it in Ostend - big time. Endeavour has a European following now; a Dutchman has sent me photographs, having tracked my email, many Belgian people have offered to buy us beer next time we come and they mean it! The hand of friendship offered is genuine. Undoubtedly Endeavour embraced that hand and hopefully she will never let it go. Next year's event is the weekend following the return to Dunkirk so who knows.

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