It's a Long Way to Antwerp in a Cockle Boat - by Paul Gilson

Above: Endeavour in the procession up the Scheldt in Antwerp during the liberation celebrations. Photo credit: Oostende Voor Anker

Endeavour set another record when she went to Antwerp in Belgium to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the city's liberation from German occupation by Canadian forces. The voyage amounted to over 400 miles!  

Endeavour and five other little ships also accepted the invitation to join in. The following is based on the Endeavour’s log book entries by her captain, Paul Gilson.

The plan was simple, gather at Ramsgate and cross to Nieuwpoort, Belgium. Well three of us did, Mimosa, Mary Scott and Endeavour. Tom Tit, Elvin and Hilfranor would be catching us up.

Endeavour left Leigh at 12:45 on Thursday, August 29 crewed by Alan Barttram, Andrew Sales and myself. The sea was calm and pleasant for a change, a relaxing passage. We arrived Ramsgate at 5.45pm. On arrival we made contact with Bernie Skipper of Mimosa who was already alongside the pontoons. We studied the weather maps and decided we should take advantage of the fine weather and leave the next morning.

However, after passing the North Goodwin sands it was not the flat calm we had hoped for. The boat screwed all the way across the North Sea. We did not get to Nieuwpoort until late afternoon.

Windy night, moved to correct marina and lowered mast. Had a walk to town we all feel a bit beaten up after yesterday's exploits and needed some R&R. A kingfisher flew past us as we walked to the boat. Mary Scott arrived from Dunkirk later in the day, he did not fancy the longer trip that we had embarked on. Following a very windy night things calmed and Hilfranor, Elvin and Tom Tit left Ramsgate after breakfast and arrived with us at 16:00.

Sept 2nd

We were supposed to enter a lock at 11.30am but a low tide delayed that until 2.15pm. Being resourceful we moored at the fish quay, went ashore and bought a kilo of fresh Brown shrimp, to be eaten with French stick and butter. The Endeavour crew know how to live it up! Once in the lock we learnt that this lock had stopped the advance of the German army in the first world war when the enterprising lock keeper flooded the country side and halted the advance. Once through the lock it was beautiful open countryside.

We finally arrived in Bruges at 20:00. With so many bridges to get through at a busy time of day it was very stop start. Taking a fishing boat around one of the most visited cities in Europe was surreal. Historic towers and fortifications were passed as we circumnavigated this beautiful city. I felt as though we had dropped into a film set.

When however, our marina was pointed out to me my heart missed a beat, on seeing our berth it nearly stopped. I have had the task of getting Endeavour into some very tight spots over time but this had to be the tightest. With the help of an oar, our fellow shipmates and some ropes we turned and backed into our berth. No engine was used just gentle encouragement. Sadly, ten inches to spare was not enough and the flare of our neighbour's bow was scraped by our stay fastening. Gutted but still we got a round of applause. It was late and we were all tired but we managed to find a hostelry to grab a bite.

Tuesday, Sept 3rd

Left Bruges at 13:00, more relaxed to day and made better speed. It rained today and my wheelhouse leaked as it does every time it rains and I learnt that my oilskins leaked too. Arrived Ghent 17:30 and moored in a very basic marina in the centre.

Thursday, Sept 5th

An early start again today, 08:00, traveling through the heart of the city. Very narrow canals and very very low bridges I was clearly out of my comfort zone. People were very friendly, waving enthusiastically as we passed by.

More canal signs with many options Antwerp was well signposted. We again found ourselves held up by the tide and many big barges waiting to enter the sea lock on to the River Scheldt. The lock was huge with river barges of up to 100 metres waited with us for the tide to flow and they left the lock ahead of us.

Arrived 3 o'clock at Antwerp. We were directed to pontoons in the Wellem dock directly in front of the very impressive Maz building it was very clear we had pride of place in the marina complex. When moored we boarded Mimosa where Jen produced a cauldron of home-made fish soup with hot garlic buttered French bread. While we had been enjoying the scenery, she had been cooking for us. It was fantastic.

A check on how far we had travelled from Bell Wharf showed Endeavour had covered 186 miles; a long way for a cockle boat.

On Saturday, September 7th the major ceremonies took place so everyone was up early smartening the boats. Even the fenders were scrubbed. Endeavour would be joining historic ships some of which had served the Royal Navy until being sold on to the Belgian Navy. They were a coastal mine-sweeper and a torpedo recovery vessel.

Once released from the locks and into the parade the Dunkirk boats took station behind the naval craft and proceeded through the city where thousands of people lined the banks. Back in the marina Endeavour and Elvin moored alongside Hydrograaf which was once the Belgian Royal Yacht but is now a hospitality ship. From her deck came words which thirsty sailors cannot resist: “Would you like to come on board?” Even better was: “Would sir like to have a drink on us?”

Of course sir would! On offer, a tray of shots which were delicious. The ships owner took the visitors on a tour from galley to the luxurious lounge which the crews enjoyed. Two launches arrived to transport the ADLS party to a reception in the harbour offices where the deputy mayor of Antwerp described the terrible times the city endured during the liberation as the German forces fought back and many were killed.

Sunday, Sept 8th

Today is open ship day, my favourite part of the trip as you never know who will turn up. At 10:30 the gates were opened and a few people came in. Over the next 6 hours it turned into a flood.

Thank goodness for our friends supplying us with tea. I would like to tell you all the conversations we had, but it was brilliant. I had two couples who were all barge skippers, a lady who had been a barge skipper for forty years and had never left the canals. We had Chinese students, South Koreans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Dutch, Belgians as well as people from the UK, even Norwich and Newcastle.

Monday, Sept 9th

Today it was home time, Tom Tit led and navigated the convoy out along the River Scheldt for nearly two hours. The only hiccup being the Endeavour overheating with a leaf getting in to the water-cooling intake filter and restricting the water flow. We arrived Blankenberg as it got dark.

Tuesday, Sept 10th

A 6am start, was a bit early for me as we would punch tide but the faster boats needed to get to Ramsgate and the time was good for them. As we were moored alongside them we had no choice and we all left together. The Endeavour went straight due west. It's the shortest route but it is a long way at only 5 knots. Our friends made better time and they showed their speed. I was grateful that they had stayed with us at our rather majestic top speed of seven knots over the voyage, when they could have been getting to our destinations so much quicker.

We stopped our engine on our mooring in Leigh at ten o'clock.

Naval ships taking part in the Liberation parade and the distinctive Antwerp skyline.  Photo credit: Oostende Voor Anker

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