Steve Hodges hatches a plan with the RNLI Eastbourne Lifeboat crew, hoping they don’t get a shout and that his girlfriend knows her flags...
After several enjoyable years sailing out of Chatham Maritime Marina, I was doing so for a final time aboard our Beneteau Cyclades 39.3.
It was time for pastures new at Premier Marinas in Eastbourne. The move was motivated by seeking new destinations for family sailing trips but my girlfriend, Sam McClements, and I both teach for Elite Sailing in Chatham part-time so we knew we would be returning often.
Unbeknown to Sam, this was to be a trip with a difference. She was already expecting some fun as it was her birthday weekend and we’d arranged for friends and family members to meet us for a night out following our arrival on Saturday… but there was also a surprise scheduled.
It was mid-March, and that Friday at 1200 I moved the boat from Chatham to Queenborough to take a couple of hours off the trip, ready for Sam and her three children to join me after school.
The night sail was epic, slipping lines at mid-afternoon we mooched out of the Medway and punched our way into the wind, up past the wreck of SS Richard Montgomery and along Red Sands towers.
We passed seals on the sandbanks at Princess Channel, then rounded north foreland where a lively Force 6/7 sent us flying towards Dover. Record time was being made and we were sure to get to Dover with time to wash the boat down and settle in for a couple of drinks before an early night.
The lack of inbound and outbound traffic at Dover was highly unusual. It was the weekend of the P&O redundancies announcement and while we are used to waiting for entry permission, dodging the ferries like an 1980’s game of Frogger, this time we were allowed straight in but had to pass three enormous docked ferries at close quarters to get into the Wick channel and down to the all-tide pontoons.
The usual friendly welcome awaited us at the marina office as we paid for our mooring and, with the kids fast asleep, we had a nightcap before heading off to bed.
The tide the next day dictated an early departure so, not unusually, we were up at 0500 and slipping lines at 0530.
Again the wind was perfect. A good Force 6 to 7, and north-east to east, we literally flew down the coast, largely sailing with just three quarters of the foresail out. The kids were on deck enjoying the surf and sausage sandwiches.
The sail round Dungeness was lovely. The north-east wind brought with it a slight chill but it was bright and breezy and quick. Just the sailing we love.
It was about three miles out for Sovereign that the surprise sequence got under way. As we started to see the harbour entrance Sam noticed a motorboat heading towards us at speed.
We heard a Pan Pan on the radio and she assumed it was Eastbourne Lifeboat on the way to assist someone.
As the boat got closer, a repeat of the Pan Pan made her realise the trouble was in the Solent, Sam looked confused.
Then the call came over the VHF. “Ruby May, Ruby May, this is Eastbourne Lifeboat Eastbourne Lifeboat Over.”
We responded in kind, Sam wondering what on earth was occurring.
“Ruby May, Eastbourne lifeboat, do you have a Samantha on board?”
This was a defining moment. It was brilliant to watch the colour drain out of Sam’s face and a sudden seriousness take over and the kids quieten down as it all became a little formal for a moment.
After a short interaction with the radio operator, coxswain Mark Sawyer took over the communication: “Sam we would like to test your knowledge of signalling flags. Please maintain your course and speed and get your almanac, we have a message you need to decipher.”
The kids were on the edge of their seats, Daisy filming the whole affair on an iPhone, whilst the boys, Max and Hugo, were asking “What do they want mum, are we in trouble?”
The usually unflappable Sam looked slightly flustered as she flicked open the almanac to the flags page, and awaited her message. The incredible Tamar class lifeboat roared up beside us. Engines throbbing and orange paint gleaming.
“Ruby May, Eastboune Lifeboat, Sam we would like you to decipher the flags on our starboard side and respond with your answer.”
I handed Sam two flags. Charlie and November from my salopettes’ pocket.
Down the side of the lifeboat lined the fantastic crew, holding a frame flying the flags, asking: “WILL YOU MARRY ME.”
Mark on top of the lifeboat was grinning. He had pulled an absolute blinder!
Sam got back on the radio. She said: “Eastbourne lifeboat, this is Ruby May, my answer is YES.”
And she held up the Charlie flag in confirmation.
As is traditional, I then got down on one knee and asked her for myself.
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Thankfully she hadn’t changed her mind although she added: “I am going to kill you!”
The lifeboat crew applauded, there were lots of “Oh my gosh, you are getting married” from the kids, as the Tamar sped off towards Sovereign where the crew then waited to escort us into the lock.
What Sam wasn’t aware of, is that I had emailed Mark previously and asked him to help me pop the question. I offered to make a modest donation to the RNLI and get the crew a couple of drinks as a thank you but really wasn’t sure what to expect, if anything.
I had been over the RNLI Eastbourne Lifeboat station some weeks before and dropped off the flags and said hello to Mark. There were the basics of a plan, but I was unsure what would happen on the day as operational requirements could mean that they were too busy, so I didn’t get my hopes up too high.
What the team did that day far exceeded my expectations. There are not enough words to express my gratitude. What they do for us mariners anyway is unbelievable but to join in with my plan and then take it to a new level was extra special. It’s a moment we will talk about forever.
As Sam took us into the lock at Sovereign, the marina staff played “Going to the chapel and we’re gonna get married” over the PA system and Sam’s best friends and some of her family waved us in.
It was perfect. The kids were beaming, the sun was shining and the lifeboat and crew looked resplendent. Sam popped us into our new berth and we opened a bottle of fizz to celebrate.
We are members and supporters of the RNLI, we are RYA cruising instructors and Offshore Yachtmasters, sailing is a massive part of our life so to have the RNLI and the marina team at Sovereign pull out the stops for us was fantastic.
Whether Sam will forgive me for making such a fuss is left to be seen, but it wouldn’t be long until we were back out in the elements aboard Ruby May recalling and laughing about what a that weekend was!
Special thanks to Mark Sawyer, all the crew of Eastbourne lifeboat and the staff at Premier Marina Sovereign Harbour.
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