Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Guernsey and Sark

Jaime writes:

Well, hello again. This time I'm writing from a different point of view, as since becoming a mum I'm more of a passenger than a sailor and now have to take orders from the skipper! Painful as this is, he does seem to be doing a good job.

On July 31st we slipped our mooring in Braye Harbour at slack water in order to catch the start of the Southwesterly current down The Swinge. Tidal currents run hard here, in fact there are plans to install a one gigawatt tidal turbine to harness the power. We tacked our way south to Guernsey and down the Little Russell channel in the company of a few other sailing boats, passing a large cruise ship anchored at the entrance to St. Peter Port.

A lovely Dutch sailing boat followed us out of Braye

Huge ship being painted by a man with a surprisingly small brush

Victoria marina was full thanks partly to an influx of motor boats. We saw them racing past us several hours earlier while we were happily making way on the breeze without the need to burn hundreds of litres of diesel! The waiting pontoons outside the marina were filling up fast with sailing boats and we had to find a place quickly. Unfortunately Lewis woke up and made it quite clear that he wanted feeding. Trying to find a berth while avoiding other boats criss-crossing everywhere to the sound of a screaming baby was a little stressful. Eventually we found a place and coincidentally another Sadler 34 from Brighton came and rafted up next to us a few minutes later.


Busy dinghy pontoon, St Peter Port

The next day we set about exploring Guernsey. For the princely sum of 60p we were able to catch a bus around the whole island. On the way we stopped on the Southwest corner and took a stroll up to one of the many German observation towers. These are really quite scary concrete structures that dominate the landscape with a commanding view of the coast. Guernsey, like the other Channel Islands was heavily fortified due to its strategic position, both by the British during the Napoleonic wars and the Germans in WW2. The latter occupied the Channel Islands from 1940 to 1945, the only British soil to be invaded. The islands were to be part of Hitler's "Atlantic Wall". I had never really appreciated how close the Germans got to the UK during the war. Earlier, in Fecamp, just a 10 hour sail south of Brighton, I was struck by just how close we were. Having visited the brilliant occupation museum in Guernsey it would appear that as long as you were born on the island, didn't paint 'V' for victory signs on rocks or release carrier pigeons, you would be treated fairly well by the occupiers. However, a grim fate was promised to non islanders and those who engaged in sabotage who were deported and interned in camps on the mainland. 12,000 troops were stationed on the island and an army of slave workers from across Europe and Russia were brought over to construct the numerous military installations including the underground military hospital. Here we found 75,000 square feet or 1.25 square miles of concreted tunnels excavated from granite. In the end the hospital was only used for about 3 months to treat casualties resulting from the D-day landings in 1944.

Lewis learns to navigate on land

Pezeries Point, SW Guernsey

Rocquaine Bay

Pleinmont Tower SW Guernsey

Coastal Watch Tower SW Guernsey

Despite all the military history, Guernsey is beautiful, with a lush rural landscape and contented looking cows. We took a stroll through country lanes to find the Little Chapel which is very pretty, decorated entirely with shells, pebbles and broken china. On our way we bought lovely tomatoes and beans from one of the honesty stalls which can be found outside many people's houses. Speaking of cows, the milk here is 4.8% fat and is really rather tasty. Likewise the butter is a delicious creamy yellow colour. We have a theory; that this fat content is partly due to the fact that rather than being penned in by a fence, many of the cows are chained by the horns to a spot, and don't appear to walk around very much.

Little Chapel

Little Chapel alter

Well, it was time to leave St. Peter Port. As far as marinas go, it is quite pleasant, but feels a bit like living in a carpark after a while. So after croissants baked at the Victor Hugo Boulangerie we headed over to the Island of Sark. We used the strong tidal currents in the Big Russel channel to whip us past Herm and up to the northern tip of Sark. At one point we were pointing at least 90 degrees south of our destination in order to reach it with the tide pushing us north! We picked up a mooring buoy at La Grêve de la Ville on the Northeastern side of the island. This was only after, rather embarassingly, we had dragged our anchor in the deep water and drifted back towards another anchored yacht with their anchor line caught between our rudder and keel. Ouch. This could have gone horribly (and expensively) wrong, as we were effectively attached to the other boat and pulling it.. Of course at this point Lewis decided he was hungry and thought he would excercise his powerful lungs. We were lucky their anchor didn't drag too. However after some quick thinking by the other boat, they swiftly launched their dinghy which they rammed in between our boats, like a big fender. We then managed to get their taught anchor line under our rudder and prop and we were finally free. Eventually we snapped up a mooring buoy, after a race to it with a power boat. You may have noticed it is much busier down here than what we encountered in Scotland last year.

Sark is a little island with only 600 inhabitants. It is still a self-governed feudal state. Wonderfully, there are no cars; transport is by foot, bike or horse. Although tractors also seem to be allowed. We even saw one towing an ambulance trailor. Funnily enough, tractors and horses are forbidden to use the unsealed roads on Sundays. Order is kept by one constable and his elected deputy. We landed on the beach in the dinghy in the pouring rain and shelterd in a cave until it passed. Meanwhile a couple of middleaged British women thought it would be a fantastic idea to go for a swim. Mad. Lewis seemed to enjoy the attention he got, in fact he seems to get a lot of attention from most of the women, and some men, who see his adorably cute face poking out from the sling we carry him in! We enjoyed the beautiful scenery around Sark and checked out the other anchorages around the island which afford protection from most wind directions. However it is hard to get away from the uncomfortable swell, created by the strong wind and tide, which refracts around the island. We found that in the bay that we were in, the tide frequently positions the boat side-on to the wind and waves and it can get quite rolly, in fact it was very hard to sleep. Lewis didn't seem to mind, and slept, well, like a baby. Two nights was all we could bear and Craig prepared our next passage South to Jersey.

Baby Ayesha ashore at La Grêve de la Ville

La Coupée links Sark with Little Sark

Havre Gosselin anchorage and Brecqhou Island

View from La Grêve de la Ville

Monday, August 04, 2008

We remained in Honfleur a little longer than expected, but we didn't mind exploring the town and all the little shops lining the narrow streets. It's a fairytale town, and very popular with French tourists who love being knee-deep in nostalgia and ice cream. However for us, the wind remained in the Northwest for several days, making passages in that direction slow work. The Vieux Bassin filled up with boats waiting to depart for the west coast of England or over Cherbourg. At one stage we had seven others rafted up to us. This makes it very complicated to leave, as every one must slip lines and drive around the harbour waiting while we get out. In such a small space this can be quite good fun to watch!

Rafted 'in'

Honfleur Vieux Bassin


One of many artist's studios

The old customhouse

We decided to get out into the Avant-Port and tie up to a 24-hour waiting wall near the lock so that we could leave in the early hours without bothering anyone else. It was also nice to be free of the constant stream of people climbing over our foredeck to get ashore. We bought oysters and cooked prawns in the market which were a real treat, and not at all expensive.

Local prawns and oysters

Honfleur from the Avant Port

Our next passage was to be Northwest acoss the Baie de Seine, and around Pointe de Barfleur to Cherbourg. We were waiting for the uncommon Easterly winds that had been forecast for Thursday, July 24th. It was important to keep in mind other ports we could head for if the winds weren't strong enough to get us around the point in time for the west-going tidal stream. It would be pointless trying to sail against the tide if we arrived too late. All the other ports in the Baie de Seine such as Deauville and St Vaast have drying entrances, and are locked, so it's important to note the times when there is enough tide to get in through the lock gates. For this I used Jaime's clever passage planning chart, which allows the skipper to see at a glance, the tides, tidal gates, and tidal streams for all relevant points, hour by hour along the passage. I expected other sailors would laugh at us for going to so much trouble, but one Irishman we met, sailing single-handed, said it was a great idea. Of course, modern computer-assisted navigators don't need such a thing, but for those of us using traditional charts and tidal stream atlases, it is very helpful. The plan was made to depart at 0330 in order to make the start of the ebb tide out of the Chenal Rouen (ie: the mouth of the River Seine). For most of the morning, the passage of around 80 nautical miles took us almost dead downwind, a very uncomfortable way to sail without a spinnaker, so I altered our course by 20 degrees to starboard, which also gave us better speed, and we made it in to Cherbourg almost exactly on time.

Passage Planning

Jaime's Passage Planning Chart

Ships anchored off the Chenal Rouen

Cherbourg marina panorama

Although it has every facility a yachtsman could ever desire, Cherbourg is not so attractive. The Chantereyne marina is a huge commercial venture tucked in between the large Naval port and the ferry and container terminals. The impressive sea walls were built over many years between a number of stone forts to defend the navy against English attacks. A fine statue of Napoleon now stands in front of the Place de la Republique, welcoming British tourists in their droves off ferries and yachts, all looking for discount cases of wine and champagne. We didn't miss the opportunity to stock up on a bottle or two! The fish market in the Carrefour hypermarket again had a mouthwatering display of local seafood. We scoffed more prawns and oysters, and delicious Dorade, not so common at home.

Napoleon now welcomes the British!

Dorade, about to be baked.

On Monday, we made an early start for Alderney, a mere 22 miles which again, needed to be carefully planned due to the incrediblly swift tidal streams which rattle through the Channel Islands. The Alderney race at springs has been seen to fly at over ten knots, although the atlas only lists it at around six. Given the number of outlying islands and rocks, these are not places to get your timings wrong. However, we sailed in to Braye Harbour, on Alderney, without any drama, and took up a visitor mooring buoy before enjoying a late breakfast.

Morning departure from Cherbourg.

Braye, Alderney

The harbour is defined by a huge breakwater, but is open to the northeast, so a daily check on forecasts is essential, and should the wind come from the northern quadrant a heavy swell will set in and all sensible yachtsmen will have already departed! Our intention was to explore the island on foot, but for the first day we hired bikes and taking Lewis in a sling, explored many of the coastal paths. The island is only 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, and the coast varies between sandy beaches, tall rocky cliffs, and small secluded bays. Alderney was occupied by the Germans between 1940 and 1945. We explored many of the wartime defences, which range from concrete bunkers and artillery batteries, anti-tank walls, anti-aircraft installations, and older forts on every outlying headland and tidal island which had been converted and reinforced for various military purposes over the centuries. The island was used as a labour camp, and many foreign workers died here. Outside one bunker we met a man who had written a book on the subject who enthusiastically gave us a short lecture and a tour inside.

Memorial to workers of various nations.

Lighthouse on the island's NE corner

Bunker where we received an impromptu lecture

An old part of a fort emerges from the undergrowth

Jaime celebrates life, on a beach!

Lewis, on a bike

There is also abundant seabird life. The nearby island of Burhou, just across the narrow tidal race known as The Swinge, is a puffin and storm petrel breeding ground, and thousands of gannets inhabit several rocks close to the southwest shore. Apparently, if you are patient, you may even come across black rabbits, or the unique blonde hedgehogs.

Gannet colony

Gannets, closer.

A yacht navigates 'The Swinge'

The Sailing Club at Braye is open for two lovely hours every evening and serves a delicious Guernsey bitter. And the fish and chip shop, located just behind, has a permanent queue out the door at dinner time. It's a lovely spot to visit for a few days. St Anne, the main town at the top of the hill is full of little shops and winding lanes, where we stopped at a small museum. Getting Lewis ashore in the dinghy was much easier than we expected, however we resorted to the water taxi later in the evening, just to be on the safe side.

Next stop... Guernsey!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Brighton to Fécamp and Honfleur

Hello again!

Something most readers will know already, but which I didn't mention last year, was that in Dublin we discovered that we were to have a baby! Lewis was born in May, the same month that I was officially made redundant. So, we now have several exciting new directions to explore which never would have been possible while working a 9 to 5 job. Lady Ayesha was reluctantly put on the market earlier this year but due to the so-called 'credit crunch' we've not had any offers, despite advertising her for less than what I think she is worth. Well, we thought, why waste this great opportunity? Let's go sailing again!

We had sailed briefly in French waters before, but really wanted to see more of the coast, and the Channel Islands. With only a few days before the spring tides necessary to get out of the boatyard there was a lot to get ready. The last jobs were completed including keel maintenance and antifouling, and I got a rigger in at very short notice to replace the standing rigging to comply with the insurer's wishes, despite the old rigging being overspecified, and in perfectly good order.

Restepping the mast at Chichester

I arranged to sail her back to Brighton with a friend. Strong wind warnings had been issued for the South coast, but I suspected these would mostly affect sea areas further west. The sand bar at the entrance to Chichester Harbour can be very rough in onshore winds so we sailed up cautiously at high water to check it was okay before heading out to sea. This was to be a shake-down sail to check everything was working properly after being laid up for winter. The passage to Brighton was uneventful, thankfully, but the strong winds later reached force 7 or 8 while a big low pressure system moved across Ireland heading Northeast. We were stuck in Brighton with waves breaking over the marina wall, and it was another six days before conditions looked favourable for the crossing to France. With a newborn baby onboard, we didn't want to take any chances.

Saturday July 12th arrived and we decided the forecast looked good. Indeed, we experienced perfect sailing conditions, with sunny weather and winds between 10 to 20 knots on the beam all day. We didn't need to tack once, just set the sails and pointed her towards Fécamp. Conveniently, the 64 miles across the channel takes the better part of two tides, so we kept to one compass heading the whole way with the tide taking us first west and then east of our intended course in equal amounts.

Goodbye Brighton

Not much to do but enjoy the sunshine!

We raised the French courtesy flag, mid-channel

Ten hours later, we sailed into Fécamp Avant Port and were directed to a berth by the friendly staff. The visitors pontoon was already crowded with foreign boats from neighbouring countries, gathering for the Bastille Day holiday.

Our new crew member

This was to be a busy weekend in Fécamp, which was hosting a dinghy regatta, a huge motorcycle rally, and the National Day celebrations on July 14th. The streets were filled with the youthful sounds of revving motorcycle engines and the relentless explosions of firecrackers. The city lights were switched off around 11pm and we watched the official firework display light up the sky from the foredeck of the boat. Being an old fishing port there is a good supply of fresh fish available from several markets so we had plenty to choose from. I especially enjoyed the enormous oysters, and plaice filets, and of course a visit to a quayside restaurant would not be complete without a plate of 'Fruits de Mer'. We climbed the hill to look out over the Channel from the chalk cliffs, very similar to the Sussex coast, where there are still wartime gunnery postions, built by the Nazis. We enjoyed being tourists and took a tour of the Benedictine Palace, the home of the famous 'DOM' liqueur, which was hosting a Dali exhibition.

'Fruits de Mer'

Dinghy regatta at Fécamp

The French take their cakes very seriously...

...and their Ice Cream too!

Chalk cliffs above Fécamp

Fécamp from above

We decided our next stop would be the medieval town of Honfleur, a locked port just inside the mouth of the River Seine. The passage would take us across the heavily controlled access channels of Antifer and Le Havre, which receive enormous cargo ships and tankers up to 500,000 tonnes! The charts we had were not detailed enough so I had to buy a French one which indicated the recommended routes for small vessels to pass through the various waiting areas and disengagement zones. Fortunately, there were about a dozen ships waiting to enter, but no traffic in or out as we crossed. A difficult day with regards to tides and timings meant that as we approached the mouth of the Seine we were fighting against the last few hours of the ebb tide, and even with the wind behind us, foresail and motor on, we were barely able to make 3 knots over ground despite the log registering 6 to 7 knots. I was nervous about getting into shallow waters as we were almost at low tide and the almanac recommends a local pilot for those unfamiliar with the shifting sands, but I stayed to the side of the dredged channel and didn't see anything less than 5 metres depth.

The lock leading into Honfleur was interesting, with unusual floating bollards. We weren't very well prepared, and our mooring lines were too short, leading to an embarrassing attempt to tie up, watched by a ferry full of tourists, all documenting our efforts with their cameras. We eventually gave in and tied up to the ferry instead. Once through to the other side and then under a lifting roadbridge we arrived in the Vieux Bassin, a picturesque sheltered harbour, a bit like a town square, overlooked by beautiful old buildings, with restaurants, cafes and galleries all along the cobbled quay. This is probably the least private place we've ever stayed, but great fun. Every time I look out the hatch there is someone taking pictures, but I've enjoyed having coffee and croissants on deck in the morning, watching the waiters setting up the cafe tables and the crowds slowly filling the streets.

Yesterday we climbed to the top of the hill for a view of the town and a visit to the Chapel Notre Dame de Grâce which has little model sailing ships hanging in the air below it's ornately decorated domed ceiling.

Honfleur town centre

Night panorama - click to zoom around!

Today is market day so a bit of shopping for local produce is in order. The weather's a bit damp so we are happy to stay here another day or two. We plan to make perhaps one or two more stops before Cherbourg where we expect to make for Alderney, the closest of the Channel Islands. Lewis seems to be quite content on board. We have strung up a small hammock for him in the cabin, and have a baby car seat which can be lashed down to keep him safe in rough weather. It's so tempting to buy him a little French sailor's outfit, but I've resisted, so far.