Weathering the Burns Day Storm: 25-26 January 1990

Burns Day Storm - 25 January 1990

Burns Day Storm – 25 January 1990

Is this really a typical Winter’s day in the UK? I’ve heard bad stories, but this is a bit extreme. It’s been a long day and I’m supposed to be in France by now. I feel the need for a change of scenery, so I take a walk outside – or as far outside as I dare to go. I’ve never experienced winds like this, and lighting poles seem to be swaying so much that I’m expecting to see one snap. This makes a blustery day in Wellington feel like an annoying draft.

The day has started with an uneventful train ride from London to Dover, arriving at 10.30, with plans for an 11.30 ferry to Calais.  I’ve passed through Customs, but the weather has deteriorated noticeably, and boarding has been delayed. I’ve learned from the trip over from Calais a few weeks earlier; this time I’m armed with an NME to pass the time. Although I’ve read most of it already, there are still less interesting articles to cover.

Around midday an announcement is made that the weather has improved sufficiently for boarding to commence. Passengers who have been sitting by their suitcases in front of the exit doors get quickly to their feet, protective of their place in the line. Suitcases are shuffled forward and we are slowly let through the gates to buses for the ferry.  Once on board, there is the usual rush for seats, with a sense of optimism that we will soon be making progress. Unfortunately there is no sensation of the ferry slowly moving forward, and eventually we hear another announcement. The winds have picked up again, and there will be a delay leaving Dover.  We’re to stay on board until conditions are again safe for the crossing.

I’ve managed to find a seat, so at least I’m comfortable. I’m hopeful that at any minute we’ll hear good news. Travelling by myself, I’m reluctant to leave my bags for any reason, so lunch can wait. I’m now getting very familiar with this NME.

After two hours of alternating between reading, not reading, staring out the window, and starting at other people, we get the news that it’s not safe to sail and that we need to return to the Terminal. It’s now 3pm – rather than waiting for a possible crossing later in the day, I decide to head back to London and then Cambridge, where I’ve been staying with a friend from New Zealand school days.

courtesy the Milwaukee Journal – 26 January 90

It isn’t until I try to leave the terminal that I’m told that no local trains are running, and that 33 people have died so far in the UK. My options are now limited to sitting tight in the Dover terminal and waiting. I wish I’d bought more than one music paper.

People are becoming noticeably more friendly now that it’s clear that we’re here for a while. It’s the usual exchange – where are you from, how long have you been away, where have you been, where’s next, and watch out for Italian men – but it makes the hours pass slightly more quickly.  Among my neighbours are an Argentinian couple and an Aussie from Perth called Emma. I suspect Emma has just changed her plans and is heading straight for Italy.

The Times - 26 January 1990

The Times – 26 January 1990

The Times - 26 January 1990

The Times – 26 January 1990

I feel I can leave my bags with my new friends, and I take a look outside. I’m able to stand outside the terminal in a spot that is completely protected by the wind, but I can tell from the noise of the wind, and the way that lighting poles appear to be almost flapping back and forth, that this is as far as I should go.  The security of the terminal isn’t such a bad place to be stuck – it may be a tad dull, but it isn’t going to blow away.

And so we wait … 4pm … 5pm …. At 6pm we get good news. It’s time to get back to the buses again. It seems to take an age to fill the bus, and once full we are all staring at the driver, willing him to shut that door and start the engine. He seems very reluctant to make eye contact, and instead, gets off the bus and starts talking to another driver outside. I wish I had my heavy vehicles driving license – it can’t be that hard.  As we wait with slightly more audible impatience, the chances of moving seem to decrease, and we’re finally told to go back inside. There’s a collective groan, but there’s nothing to be done but follow instructions. I’m sure the staff who are stuck here with us would much rather be with their families.

Dinner - 25 January 1990

Dinner – 25 January 1990

Another couple of hours pass and I have a Mars bar for dinner. It’s now pitch black outside. We seem to have been sitting for days – sitting on the floor in the terminal, sitting on a bus, or sitting on the ferry. I’m getting tired of sitting now. Sitting is exhausting. No-one can really be bothered talking now.

At 8pm we get good news – not for the first time today, but hopefully for the last time. We’re heading out to the buses for another try. Emma has disappeared somewhere, so I grab her bags and join the queue. She catches up with us before we get in, and the four of us are on the bus again. The mood has definitely improved and people are chatting and even laughing. One person is missing – the bus driver. He’s outside again, talking to someone looking very official. Surely not….but yes, we’re asked to get off the bus.  This is another moment where staying calm is hard, but there’s nothing to be gained by taking out frustrations on a bus driver.

And then, without explanation, we’re told to sit down again, and suddenly we’re heading to the ferry. There’s a cheer as the bus leaves, but we’ve been through this before. We board, and I head straight to the restaurant. I’m famished and take an ample helping of everything I can fit on my plate, and a pint of beer. For some reason, I’m the only one eating, but I don’t care.  At one point, I foolishly take my hand off my beer and it slides to the other end of the long table. It comes to a rest on the table railings at the end – fortunately without spillage – and I head off to fetch it.  A waiter approaches my unmanned plate and to my horror I see him reaching to take it away. I let him know without room for misunderstanding that I have not finished, and he backs away. Even if we’re told to get back to the terminal, I’ll have had a good feed.

Calais Dover Boarding Pass - 25 January 1990

Calais Dover Boarding Pass – 25 January 1990

Without being able to see much outside, I haven’t even noticed that we’ve left Dover.  The crossing is rough; it’s like navigating the aisle of a plane in heavy turbulence. Several people take a tumble as they’re thrown into walls, causing a few cuts and bruises, but nothing more serious. The crossing seems to pass very quickly – maybe through the relief of finally leaving, or maybe we’re sailing with the wind. It seems no time at all before an announcement tells us they we’ll soon be met by tugboats to assist with our arrival into Calais. It’s 11pm and we’ve made it.

Customs seems conspicuously absent in Calais. In fact, except for a ferryload of recent weary arrivals, there’s a conspicuous absence of anyone. The terminal is completely empty and has a slightly eerie feel. I see Emma the Aussie and a few others scanning the board of train departures and connections, and it soon becomes clear that the last train to Paris was scheduled to leave several hours ago – if trains had been running at all.

It seems odd to be back on french soil, with a complete lack of french people. Fortunately the folk at P&O haven’t abandoned us and they arrange a bus for Paris. Emma and I register for the bus, and once more we wait. I should be getting better at this by now, and I’m envious of my fellow passengers who can doze on demand. There are a few families with young children here, and I’m not envious of them at all. Today must have been horrendous for them. I decide that I’m in no hurry to travel with kids, but given my terminally single status, there’s no imminent threat of that.

Midnight passes with no sign of a bus. I realise that no-one actually mentioned the location of the bus, so maybe it’s coming from Paris? I try ringing home to New Zealand, as we may have made the news after the rugby scores. There’s no answer – they’re probably enjoying their summer….mmm summer. I remember that.  Looking around, almost everyone is asleep except for me.

At 1am a bus arrives – the end may be in sight! Emma and I drag ourselves on board and watch the bus fill up with other stragglers. All the seats are soon full, and the aisle is quickly crammed tight as well. I find that the passenger lodged to my left is Russian. The Berlin Wall has fallen only a few months earlier, I’ve watched Romania free themselves of Ceausescu live on TV a few weeks ago, and life is changing very quickly for Russians too. I’ve never met a Russian, and seemingly not many of the bus have either. As others hear him talking, he soon becomes a celebrity, or at least the most famous Russian on the bus.

We sit here for almost an hour, while the group of people waiting outside and looking hopefully through the window has steadily grown. I’m not sure where they’ve come from, but this bus is probably already past capacity.  I hope they have another bus coming. But no, after waiting for an hour, we’re told to get off for a larger bus. There’s general reluctance, but when we can see that the larger bus actually exists, and even better, has already arrived, we all start our trudge across the car park.

Just after 2am, we start the drive to Paris. I’m getting tired now, and try various strategies for supporting my head. My elbow keeps sliding off the arm of the chair, so I give up trying.

The next thing I know I’m woken by the feeling of a stationary bus. We’ve stopped in Arras, and for some reason we need to change buses again. I don’t think anyone has the energy to ask why – I know I don’t, and we’re soon underway again. I drift in and out of sleep, noticing the gothic spires of the Cathedral in Amiens at one stage, but not much else.

Amiens Cathedral by night

Amiens Cathedral by night

We finally arrive in Paris at the Gare du Nord. It’s just before 5am, and Paris is stirring. My train to Bordeaux doesn’t leave until 7am, and Emma has another train in a different direction, so we share a hot chocolate at a cafe in the station.  We’ve ended up on the same path only briefly, but together we’ve laughed in the face of boredom. We’ve covered a lot of ground in our chats over the last 24 hours, and shared a few stories, safe in the knowledge that we’re unlikely to meet again.

I make it back to Bordeaux later that day, just in time to see TV coverage of the damage that the storm has caused across Europe and the UK, including footage of our ferry during the afternoon, suspended in Dover. I have a well-needed shower and shave, and a quick kip, before heading straight back to Paris for a night-train to Copenhagen. My Eurail pas is ticking, and I’m going to squeeze out of it every last centime.

I also manage a quick call to New Zealand, where I hear more detail on the damage caused by yesterday’s storm, and I’m stunned to hear that the number of deaths across Europe and the UK has been revised to almost 100 people. Because the storm hit during the day, there have been more fatalities than expected for a storm of this magnitude. It’s been categorized as a Category 1 Hurricane, with gusts reaching 104 miles per hour (170 kilometres per hour). Power has been disrupted to 500,000 homes, severe flooding has been caused, and 3 million trees have been downed. The cost to insurers in the UK alone is £3.37bn, the most expensive storm payout ever for insurers.

Almost 23 years later, I find that this long day has earned its own names: it’s commonly referred to as the “Burns Day Storm”, as it started on the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns, and in insurance circles it’s known as “Winter Storm Daria”. As one of the strongest storms recorded, it’s the subject of a wikipedia page and youtube video, and is still referred to as a benchmark of severity when storm clouds gather. Next time I’ll come in Summer.

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2 Responses to Weathering the Burns Day Storm: 25-26 January 1990

  1. Paul says:

    While you were safe though bored at Dover, I was on a ferry from Calais to Dover.

    I am from Perth, Western Australia and was enjoying my job as an express truck driver. On my way back to England from Zaragosa (Spain) with some Truck axles bound for the Ford factory in Wales; I was about an hour out of Calais when the truck I was driving was blown sideways by the wind. My first thought was “Bloody hell, I won’t be sailing today” so we (Simon a trainee mate of mine also from Perth) straightened up and slowed down to 50km an hour.

    Got to Calais and couldn’t open my door into the wind so got out the passenger side door and went into the ticket office.

    Imagine my surprise when I was told that “this was only Force 9, we sail unless Force 10!”

    “Oh well”, I thought “they would know what they are talking about” so I drove the truck onto the Ferry and we headed to the truck drivers restaurant. We had barely left the dock when the Ferry listed to one side so hard and fast that the food in the buffet literally hit the ceiling.

    We made our way to the top deck where life jackets were being handed out. The Barman told me that they had tried to get back into Port at Calais but it was “eempossiblay”. We had only been sailing for 15 to 20 minutes at this stage.

    I settled at the bar with my mate Simon and we ordered a beer, it was on the house.

    Half an hour in and I am starting to feel Sea Sick. I make my way to the toilets, wondering if I can make it without throwing up. I do make it in to the cubicle and fall to my knees ready to vomit and then I hear the guy in the next cubicle upchucking, “maa, maaaa, maaaaah”, he sounded just like a baby sheep that had lost its mother. Instead of vomiting I started laughing and no longer felt Sea Sick .

    I made my way back to the bar and it is getting a lot worse. The top deck of the ferry is a good 25 metres (80 feet) from one side to the other. Imagine how quickly this turns into the “slide of death” as the ship lists from one side to the other.

    People were holding on for with all their strength to the bottom of tables to avoid being flung to their death.

    One woman had a 4 to 6 week old baby and weak from vomiting she was struggling to hold onto it. Having 21 Nephews and Nieces I didn’t give it a thought and gradually made my way over to her, used her belt to secure her to the table leg and took the baby with me back to the bar.

    The trip normally takes 90 minutes. The Captain made an announcement at about the 90 minute mark, “Ladies and Gentlemen we are in a very difficult situation but please be rest assured that we are the only Ferry on the water today so the authorities know where we are”, not exactly comforting. This trip ended up taking 10 and a half hours.

    At one stage Simon was at near breaking point but to his credit he stayed the emotional distant.

    The wind sounded like a freight train. The swell was at least 20m to 30m high.

    I remember when I was 8 or 9 I saw the Poseidon Adventure about a ship hit with a massive tidal wave and perhaps because of this I always wanted to survive a huge sea like this. My wish was coming true!

    For the whole journey there were only the three of us who could keep our feet and senses. The barman, Simon and I. The Captain and crew were no doubt also fine but they were too busy and I didn’t see them.

    Finally we pull into the Port of Dover, I hand the baby back after 9 hours of cradling him in my arms. I can see the mother is eternally grateful but she is so wrung out, exhausted and ill that she can barely get say the words “thank you”.

    Driving off the Ferry we get to the customs gate and the Customs officer says to me, “Are you the Australian?”,

    “Well I am an Australian” I say.

    The customs officer sheepishly says, “The Captain of the ship mentioned you had handled the trip better than most; sorry mate but can you do us a favour? We have a quota of strip searches we have to do every day and every ferry and as you are the only ferry to come through in the last 10 hours would you mind if it was you”.

    Being so pleased to be alive I just said, “Ok but make it quick we are bloody shattered”

    Imagine the ordeal we have been through and then Simon and I are separated and taken into a couple of freezing cold rooms. There were three blokes in with me.

    “Just take all your clothes of and put them on the table please sir”

    Now I am no John Holmes but any bloke is going to be underwhelming in these circumstances so I joke, “not showing the best of Aussie manhood today”.

    “If you could just show us the soles of your feet please sir” says the embarrassed Customs agent.

    They know I am doing them a favour, I can tell they feel like absolute bastards putting me through this.

    “Now if you could just turn around……..”

    That was it, they let me get dressed and each shook my hand in gratitude and respect for just dealing with it.

    A few minutes later Simon joined me outside the Customs rooms. He literally looked green, later he told me that he was sure they were going to ask him to bend over. He really didn’t like the idea of a digital examination.

    Driving back to London it really hit me. There were 18 wheelers (Semi Trailers as they are know here and Artic’s in Europe) that had been blown into paddocks and yet the fences were intact. The trucks must have been lifted up into the air and thrown over the fences.

    On the news we hear that dozens of people are dead. It turns out that 43 people were dead in England and as many again in Europe.

    For years I would tell this story to people in Australia but had no reference for it, I didn’t know it was called the Burns Day storm so couldn’t reference it.

    Still I cried for the first time in January 2015, when I read the detail and saw the news footage of the time. It was a long time coming but it was nice to let it out.

    • westiedad says:

      Hi Paul – that sounds horrendous. Thanks for going to so much effort with the detail in your reply. Clearly the day had quite an impact on you. I also didn’t know that the storm had a name until I started googling for it. Over 25 years ago, but it’s still pretty vivid to me too. Maybe they could bend the rules for strip searches when it’s Grade 9 or above. Seems pretty harsh!

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