Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Over to Dover

Bottled up in the harbour with this going on outside
The beach at Petit Port (at low water)

We've been weather-bound in a lot of places, one time or another, but perhaps seldom so gladly as in Guernsey. It's wonderful if there's no favourable wind blowing, making one feel guilty for passing it by, when you really just want to stay and enjoy the time with great friends in a rare location.

Megalithic man in the Dehus tumulus
St Peter Port, also known as The Town
Reuse and recycle in Guernsey
We savoured many things about Guensey. Its beauty and charm, of course, and also its Britishness. After two years away, what a treat to eat good fish and chips, and wash it down with a pint of proper British beer! To buy our old favourite treats in a familiar supermarket. To chat randomly with anyone at all and not have to think about the language.

Please do feed the cockerel 
Guernsey cow. They must use all their energy for making milk
Friendly islanders, a strong sense of community. 'Hedge-veg' - people with garden produce to spare put it out in front of their house with a price list and an honesty box for the passer by to make their purchase.

Plenty of ferry action in the Little Russel
Le Grand Havre
Old lifeboat
We were berthed right next to our friends, Keith and Colette, met a year before in Bayona, and shared with them many a convivial evening of music and wine, conversation and laughter.

Vale Church 
Cobo Bay
At length, after a stay of 10 days, the wind changed direction, as we knew it eventually must. It blew hard from the northeast for that whole time, which is exceedingly unusual for the time of year, but at last it swung to the southeast. We gave the seas a day to settle down, leaving Beaucette on Monday morning and nipping across to the anchorage at Herm to wait for the optimal time to leave for catching the tide through the Alderney Race. Well, that was the plan.

Over at Herm, outside the southwest-facing harbour, where the wind had blown for 10 straight days from the northeast, we found a crazy swell working its way in from the south, making a stay of even a few hours there distinctly unpalatable. Plan B then, on to Sark, where we fetched up  in the dramatically beautiful Havre Gosselin and grabbed one of the thoughtfully provided free visitors' moorings, where we had lunch and slept a few hours before getting under way for Alderney.

Spectacular anchorage at Havre Gosselin, Sark
The Alderney Race is one of those iconic tidal gate passages, much discussed and even feared by mariners for millennia. It's a product of the outlandish tides that occur in the Bay of St Malo. Jersey and Guernsey, separated by only 20 nautical miles, have a surprising difference in tide heights. If high water at Jersey is 10 metres, it'll be only 8 metres at Guernsey, at the same moment. That makes for quite a slope on the water and generates very strong currents, especially at bottlenecks between bits of land. It also means, unusually, that slack water occurs at half tide, rather than at high and low water.

The Race, therefore, is to be treated with respect and never more so than on a big spring tide, which, of course, is when we hit it. The wind died as we entered the passage, so we motored though as the light faded and the current gathered strength. It was rather eerie. Silent, with strange patterns on the water. For a long time Alderney was ahead, gradually becoming more distinct and then suddenly it was vanishing astern as the current swept us past and on up into the Channel. I really wouldn't want to see it on a bad day, with wind against tide and a big swell running.

Go, go, go in the Alderney Race
The English Channel has the most intense concentration of shipping anywhere in the world, which adds spice to any crossing, especially coupled with its own strong tidal streams. The shipping lanes where we crossed, on a line roughly between Cap de la Hague (French coast, east horn of the Bay of St Malo) and St Catherine's Point (on the Isle of Wight), are more than 20 miles across. The breeze, which returned as we emerged from the Race, was fair and we squeaked through the line of big ships without incident, though in each lane the wind did go slack, just as we passed in front of a ship, forcing the swift addition of engine power to get clear in good time. It's tiring though, attending to all that, especially during a night crossing and we were very happy to reach the inshore traffic zone on the English side, where we could sail on unmolested, save for a bit of action around the Solent.

The Channel was grey and lumpy, as usual. It looked identical to the scene two years ago, which hastened us on our way from Salcombe to the Azores and warmth and sunshine. The sailing was good though. Very good, mostly. Good enough to pass up the temptation to call in at Eastbourne, as Beachy Head finally emerged from the gloom, giving us our first sight of the English coast, but instead to press on for Dover and really knock the Channel on the head.

Thankfully, the second night on passage started off more restful than the first. The 'southerly 4 or 5' wind of the shipping forecast strangely conked out as we crept towards Dungeness Point against the tide but returned once we were on the final stretch with 12 miles to go to Dover and the tide turning in our favour. The pilot book mentions lumpy seas outside the harbour entrance in southerly winds and warns against being swept past by the tide, though I reckon the warning ought to be more emphatic. One also has to radio Port Control for clearance to enter this busy commercial harbour, so with all that and the difficulty of gauging distances in the dark, I suddenly found myself being swept past the entrance on a surprisingly powerful current. When we were still 1/3 of a mile off, a point of equilibrium was reached, where I could either make progress back against the current or closer to the harbour wall, but not both. This with the engine at full throttle and the mainsail drawing in a good 20 knots of wind!

Dover shenanigans
Just as I was starting to suspect we weren't going to make it, Sonja took a look at the plotter and informed me that we'd been stationary for 10 minutes. There was another chance - the eastern entrance. I called up Port Control again and explained that we couldn't make the west entrance, so could we try the east? Affirmative. Round we turned and whipped along the mile to the next entrance, working in very close to the sea wall so there'd be no chance of missing it and having to continue to Ramsgate. Sonja radioed again for final clearance, the green light went on and we shot in. Relief. We made our way to the inner harbour with dawn beginning to brighten the sky behind. 200 nautical miles - a good run. We're getting close to home!

After some delicious snooze, we headed into town and found, to our immense satisfaction, a Wetherspoon's pub, where we celebrated our return with steak and kidney pies and a pint and a half of real ale, all for under a tenner. Looks like there might be a couple of days at least to dodgy weather now, so we'll sit tight in Dover and hope for a fair breeze to carry us to Harwich soon.

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