Nearby, the boats have names like Lady of the Lake and Skyedancer. Ours is called Defiance. It’s a small, businesslike craft with a bright orange hull, and it’s tethered to a little wooden jetty, dwarfed by the ghostly presence of a floating Chinese restaurant that wallows beside it, shuttered and missing a roof.
When we meet our captain, the name of his boat makes sense: self-contained and wry, there’s a sliver of defiance glinting within him too. “It’s kicking off early today,” he announces, gesturing to his chirping radio before taking us through the safety briefing.
He speaks with that indulgent tone mariners sometimes adopt when talking to their passengers – a pronounced gentleness, as if faced with a species that, while clearly inferior, is not without its charms. “If you decide you want to fall overboard, stay still and we’ll throw you something floaty,” he concludes after a minute or so.
Then we’re off, the engine sending out a single atomiser puff of sweet-smelling smoke.
The Rampion Offshore Wind Farm has been an obsession for my wife for the best part of a year. We’d read about it in the news and on Facebook – prolonged arguments for and against its existence, covering everything from the noise pollution of its construction to the impact on the local seabird population.
But when it started to rise on the horizon, dark shapes suddenly visible in the silvery distance from the bus into work each morning, we both discovered that we were in the “for” camp almost without our choosing. Here was something beautiful and alien on the edge of Brighton: pillars emerging from the sea while huge shadowy hulks – the rigs that would do the actual building work – seemed to hover magically above the water, shifting positions every few days.
We bought binoculars, and soon Sarah was downloading apps that allowed her to track local shipping. The rigs we saw each morning suddenly had names, the Pacific Orca and the MPI Discovery, and they were here out of Amsterdam. In photographs on the internet they appeared vast and weather-beaten, beautiful in a sombre, industrial way.
All photos: Christian Donlan
It was much harder to get a sense of the wind farm itself however: it still just looked like a few spars of metal coming out of the sea. There was no easy way of grasping the ambition and scale, no clear indicator that Rampion, when finished, will occupy an area of 72 square kilometres, or nearly three times the size of Manhattan Island.
Sarah wanted to get closer, which is how we found out about the Defiance, a diving boat for the most part, whose owner had suspected there might be enough interested locals to schedule the odd trip out to the farm. We bought tickets and, for a few weeks, my wife received wonderfully terse text messages from the captain, mainly about the weather, telling us of the fluctuating likelihood of making our journey any time soon.
A Sunday morning in late January turns out to be perfect: clear and cold with no clouds on the horizon. “You’re not going to get a better day than this,” says the captain as we leave the marina behind us. The water’s an oily mineral green, little white peaks bouncing away from the bow.
The construction looks close from the coast road, but it’s an hour’s journey – around eight miles – to the site itself, thick cords of froth tumbling and tangling in our wake as we pick up speed. Sarah’s giddy with happiness.
Forty minutes out and we suddenly realise that for the last few miles we’ve been entirely alone, Brighton disappearing into the yellow bloom of the horizon, leaving buoys as the only nearby landmarks, bobbing frantically as they pull against submerged tethers. It does not take much to leave the world behind, and in its place we grow quiet and introspective.
It’s cold this far out, and a slight breeze is picking up by the time windfarm platforms start to appear around us. They’re beautiful and stark: cylinders painted a bright yellow, topped with gantries and cranes. These platforms are the little stubs we can see from land, the bases for the turbines themselves. Out here, they already tower over us, but they’re still only ten to 15 per cent of their final height.
The scale is surprising, but so is the layout. From the coast it looks like a lone row of columns, placed at regular intervals, like nails sticking out of a piece of wood. Up close, we’re in the middle of a muddle of buildings appearing seemingly at random.
Ahead of us a much larger structure looms, the frame of a barn almost, or a climbing frame painted the same bright yellow as the platforms. “That’s the substation for this section of the farm,” says the captain, noting that a guard ship has been dispatched to follow us. “They must be so bored,” he says as the ship gets closer, its radar turning. “If they’re coming out for us it must be a slow day.” He laughs, and it strikes me briefly that Sarah and I might just be the idiot tourists in the first act of a disaster movie.
For the last few minutes we’ve been able to see a complex grey shadow on the horizon: “It’s the MPI Discovery,” gasps Sarah, starstruck. The Orca must be back in Amsterdam.
The Discovery grows bigger and bigger before us, losing none of its alien nature, its industrial surrealism, as we approach. It looks like a freighter, a mini-tower block at one end attached to a bright red hull – but that hull itself has been lifted out of the water by a series of thick metal legs that descend to the sea floor.
Soon we can see the sun reflecting from windows, thin lines of cabling stretching from cranes and pylons. At the stern is a giant propeller, lifted clear of the water and hanging in the morning air. The Discovery seems both weird and perfect: an improbable tool for the construction of an improbable project. I tend to think of otherworldly things as being insubstantial, ghostly and gossamer, but this vast ship, held out of the water and aloft on the horizon, is the most otherworldly thing I have ever seen.
On the way back home, the captain pulls out sea charts and obligingly answers our idiotic landlubber questions. He explains to me that the little names inked on his charts in a tiny, precise hand, belong to wrecks. Wreck diving is his main business, and there are hundreds of them in the channel, invisible wonders rusting on our doorstep.
We look over the names: The Minion, sunk under tow, an M Class Destroyer on its way to decommissioning. The Duke of Buccleugh, a cargo ship long-since salvaged for its silver, but still filled with boxes of china, just waiting down on the seabed. The Bessel, a favourite of the captain’s, 60 metres down and more: china again and tiny perfume bottles scattered around it. He’s held some of these bottles in his hands. He’s seen dolphins out here, and porpoises.
As the wind farm fades into the distance and Brighton reappears ahead of us, the captain brings tea and biscuits. Sarah blinks back tears, going over what she has seen in her head. We raise mugs to mouths and reflect on the fact that, despite all we’ve witnessed today, it’s not yet noon – and that the captain, this stark, intense, quietly generous man who lives his life in the liminal zone between the land and the watery depths, makes the best tea we have ever tasted.