Saturday morning found me somewhere that, as a birder, I really like to be: Poole harbour. One of the country’s best birding areas at any time of year, Poole harbour is especially good from mid-autumn into spring, when myriad migrant waterfowl and waders pass through or stop off for the winter, including an impressive 1,000 avocets and usually a dozen or so spoonbills.
But, alas, I was not in Poole harbour expressly and solely to bird. Instead, I was perched nervously on the deck of the ‘Condor Vitesse’, a high speed catamaran ferry of surprisingly (and alarmingly) small size that was due to carry us across the Channel to the island of Jersey. Though Monday’s storm was still at least a day and a half away, the weather had been fairly wild the previous night, wild enough to send a storm petrel fluttering into the harbour. It veered between our anchor and Brownsea Island before the ship had even departed. A pleasing sighting which I should instead have viewed as rather ominous.
Setting off, the captain came over the tannoy. “Weather conditions are not favourable”, he told us, “you may feel a little movement in the boat”. This sounded like classic British understatement, especially since he shared with all captains of any vessel that I’ve ever travelled on – whether ship or plane – a smooth, upper-middle class, public school sort of accent. I considered myself warned, and endeavoured to cram in as much from-the-deck birding as I could whilst still in the relative shelter of the harbour.
Passing Brownsea Island, three spoonbills were visible in the lagoon. Distant white blobs from where I was watching, to be honest, but recognisable by their hunched feeding posture and characteristic side-to side swaying motion as they raked their preposterous appendages through the shallows. A couple of shags headed low over the water in front of the bow, smaller than cormorants and flying with jerky, shallow beats of stubby wings. Passing through the harbour entrance at Sandbanks, past queues of cars waiting for the chain ferry, Studland beach came in to view, and a few dozen Brent geese could be seen, loafing quietly offshore.
Then we turned for the open sea, the Captain opened the throttle, and I, well, felt some movement in the boat. And when I say movement, I mean it felt as though we’d just sailed off the edge of the world, all 5000 tonnes of the vessel, her crew, 700 passengers, and 200 or so cars, all tumbling into oblivion. After what seemed an age, the wave bottomed out and suddenly there the sea was again, solid beneath us and checking our fall with an ear-splitting crash of catering trolleys that must have been poorly stowed somewhere behind the nearby shop.
Pandemonium reigned. The horizon, dimly visible out of the opposite bank of windows, rose and fell with all the regularity of a pendulum, showing now only sea, now only sky, and back again in a dizzying see-saw motion. Water swept up in torrents over the upper deck windows. At least one or two of our fellow passengers began to howl with nervous laughter, lending a surreal air of jollity to the otherwise fraught proceedings. As for me, seasoned coward that I am, there was nothing for it but to screw my eyes tight shut, stick my fingers in my ears, breathe deeply, and try to pretend it wasn’t happening. At a rough estimate, this was around the 40th ferry journey I’ve embarked on, and I’ve never, ever experienced anything like it ever before. Nor do I ever hope to again.
Usually, when at sea, aboard a ship, I like to attempt a bit of sea watching. On this occasion, I was too busy contemplating writing my will. I’ve had a moderately enjoyable 29 years, I thought to myself. If it were all about to end, I suppose I would have accepted it. Although I haven’t even made it to 250 UK birds yet, so I would have taken with me a pretty poor birding reputation to the bottom of the Channel.
Of course, in reality we had experienced nothing worse than a 2.5-metre swell. In other words, waves barely taller than I am. Although that, combined with a strong westerly, was enough to blow us off-course, fortunately into the relative calm of the Alderney race (apparently considered a ‘dangerous’ stretch of water – how reassuring!) where I was able, at last, to look out of the window for a prolonged period again. I saw two gannets, which is always nice. But I can see those from dry land, and I think I would forgo even gannets, spectacular as they are, if I were required to repeat Saturday’s near-death experience in order to see them.
Perhaps this is why marine life, despite its many charms, has always taken a back seat to the terrestrial in my scale of interest. Somewhere in my subconscious, I acknowledge that I’m an unreformable landlubber, and I’d better get used to it. I love being near the sea, looking at the sea, and in the right weather* I even enjoy sailing on it. But given the choice, I’ll do my sea-watching from the adjacent dry land where I belong. I don’t think I’ll be booking that pelagic any time soon.
*Or aboard the right vessel – it turns out that high-speed catamarans are renowned for having a bad ride in rough weather! And that Condor Vitesse is notable for having crashed into the quayside in St. Malo in 2008, and for colliding with a French fishing boat on a foggy day in 2011.