The Downs

"Flat calm in the Downs.  The Deal boatmen sometimes call it a 'sheet' calm.  At any rate it is as calm as a pond, but not as motionless, for there is ever, and ever present the deep breathing of the sea, and always there sweeps through the Downs the mighty current of the tide - but to use another simile, the surface is like glass." (Treanor)

The Downs are an anchorage of deep water, open to the north and south, protected towards the east by the Goodwin Sands, and towards the west by the mainland.  Rev. Treanor described them thus:

"In westerly winds the Downs are full of shipping outward bound, and waiting for a fair wind.  Then on a dark night the long line of their gleaming riding lights suggests to the spectator some great city in the sea."

"In easterly winds the seaward-going host departs, and there come from the south and west the homeward-bound clippers, some in tow of steam-tugs for London, and others bound to northern ports, furling their sails for anchoring in the Downs till winds from the west and south spring up to bring them to their voyage end.

The larger vessels anchor in the southern part of the Downs, in eight or ten fathoms of water, the bottom being chalk; while the smaller vessels bring up more towards the north, in the Little Downs, in from four to six fathoms of water, in splendid holding-ground of blue clay.  Once an anchor gets into this blue clay, it will hold the vessel unless her chain-cable parts, or till she splits her hawse-pipes."

Rev. Treanor speaks of "500 merchant sailing-vessels far-reaching to the north and south, some homeward, but the great majority of them outward bound to all parts of the world", of which at least half are British and the remainder "foreigners of all the maritime nations."

"Whether British or foreign, this host of 500 vessels contains about 5,00 men.  For days, and sometimes weeks, they ride at anchor in the Downs, wearied by baffling calms or tempests .."

Even today, when storms threaten, many ships head for the Downs to take shelter and ride out the weather until it is safe to proceed to harbour.  The layout of the harbour entrances at Dover make it dangerous to attempt an entry when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, so it is common in rough weather to see several vessels, including cross-channel ferries laden with cars and passengers, riding out the storm off Deal, sometimes for several hours.

".. and at last the sky clears in the north-east, and a golden haze enshrouds the fleet which on the waves lies heaving many a mile."

".. on every ship the windlasses are manned.  You hear the clicks of the palls as the anchors come up, and the creaking of the yards as they are being hoisted, and the singing of the sailors as they walk the capstan bars round, or heave the windlass handles to the strange weird mournful chorus of -

Give a man time
To roll a man down.
Give a man time
To roll a man down."

"And then the sailors nimbly run aloft to loose the sails.  The gaskets are cast off, the bunt lines are let go, the clew lines hauled, and the great foretopsail bellies out before the freshening north-easter.  Each ship spreads her wings, and they 'fly as a cloud and as the doves to their windows', presenting a wondrous spectacle of beauty from Deal Beach".

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