On board Pippin sits a very calm little donkey, a symbol of my homeland and good luck charm for this skipper. It is telling though, that since he has been there, I have been nearly sunk, rammed once and rescued twice …. still I wouldn’t swap him for the World, though I do wonder what will happen to me next. I haven’t used my life raft – yet, but I won’t tell him that. His brother resides rather more comfortably aboard a very superior vessel, under the command of Skipper Pete Goss and his first mate Tracey, currently somewhere exotically hot and sunny. But I won’t tell my little chap.
Anyway, I get twitchy waiting for a weather window, even harder to live with. It is not as if I ask much of one – just a soldier’s wind, a sea of fun not challenge, and a destination to look forward to. I don’t even mind rain, or cold. By the time this one came along I sensed my ever so patient first mate was understandably relieved to deposit me on the dockside, festooned as ever with rations and old carrier bags – packing Willis style; it generally works, but where was my phone and charger?
Five telephone boxes I tried; true I haven’t been in one for decades, but not one would take my money each informing me it only ate phone cards. It seemed a little over the top to then call home 2 miles away on the SATCOM, via a satellite probably hovering a zillion miles above the Arctic, but this was a communications emergency. The ever patient first mate didn’t seem to mind, driving back to the dockside with phone, but she’s used to it by now and it did mean I would finally disappear for a few days.
0750 saw Pippin scampering up the Little Russel tail ending a convoy of zippy 40 footers like a small boy in shorts chasing after the big boys in long trousers across the playground, destination Alderney, home of my ancestors. An Ovni forty footer soon slipped ahead bound for Cherbourg up the Race, but that was fine as displacement vessels are subject to the science of hydro dynamics, which when subjected to a mathematical formula involving waterline length produces an absolute – the maximum speed of that vessel, given that it is not being hurtled by a wave in a storm, which of course was unlikely in my weather window.
Condor Liberation off Alderney
Condor Liberation off Alderney
The Condor high speed ferry sped out of the North, passing 1/2 mile off and trailing a disappointingly large cloud of light ochre coloured smoke pollution, as the red and white striped Casquets Lighthouse on its reef stood clear ahead, a feature I always view rather like an old friend, not just because I have passed it so many times; but also because a relative once stood watch there in the 1890s. Sensibly his wife (my great grandmother) eschewed the on site accommodation, preferring the comfort of a house in Braye, unlike her predecessor, married to one Monsieur Houguez a generation before. He clearly was not overtaxed by his Casquets Lighthouse duties for he and his wife created 7 children on that rock, and one daughter was immortalised by the alcoholic and flagellistic poet Swinburn. He describes how she falls in love with an Alderney carpenter, but finds the stress of life ‘in the big smoke’ too much for her sensitive soul and flees back to her Casquets home. Personally, I can’t help but think that the carpenter had a lucky escape!
The dreaded Casquets Reef and its lighthouse
Burhou from the Swinge (above)
By now I had Pippin nicely lined up on the jaws of the Swinge, that moody body of water that can make a mockery of the mathematics of boat speed, easily doubling it. I noticed a larger light weight Frenchie off to starboard and felt Pippin was holding her own nicely, which generated a familiar warm feeling of smugness.
Fort Tourgis from the Swinge (above)
Sometimes art can defeat science – my wife calls it local knowledge, the art of being in the right position, at the right time for the right reason. This was just such an occasion, for as Pippin entered the point at which she would gain maximum effect from the science of the Venturi effect, my rival was having to beat hard in a welter of spray to gain position. Picked up by speeding tide, accelerating through the neck of the Swinge, Pippin shot ahead at 11 knots. The light weight Frenchie now seemed to sense local knowledge,and followed my track into harbour, where Pippin parked at Buoy 12. Too idle to inflate the dinghy, I made use of the water taxi, that runs from May until September, much more convenient and with the added bonus that the driver is often a source of interesting gossip. This time the driver told me he was ‘there for the birds’ (feathered), as an ornithological warden, a job he did for love not the miniscule salary; to make ends meet, he drove the water taxi so I didn’t mind when he over charged me by 50p.
Braye breakwater from the Swinge (above)
Like the Casquets, Alderney also has a special significance for me, it having been home to assorted Willi from 1822 for nigh on a hundred years. To be honest I am grateful we are no longer there for I derive as much pleasure from leaving the rock as arriving on it; nonetheless a quiet moment with the ancestors in St Anne’s churchyard is a must whenever I visit. Today was a pleasant day to greet the ancestors in the quiet deep of St Anne’s churchyard, before a good lunch at the Georgian House (seafood risotto recommended) followed by a museum visit. Expecting little, I came away with gold, a contact who just might be able to answer certain genealogical queries I have. A good excuse for another visit if one be needed.
I am a believer in fate, which lessened my surprise when, back aboard, I opened the latest copy of the Alderney News to see a story of the evacuation of the infirm and elderly ahead of the Germans in 1940 involving a ship, the Courier, which my grandfather part owned. But that’s another story.
Dawn starts seem to be a fixed feature of Willis passage plans, and so it was as I slipped Pippin’s mooring and sailed quietly out of Braye to be met by the full force of sweeping tide. The wind then decided to take a nap and on went the little Yanmar, chortling merrily away for the next 10 hours or so. The shipping lanes were busy, but proved little problem, our closest encounter being with the SSI Magnificent that shot past 1/3 of a nautical mile off. I had taken a number of bearings on her, both with compass and radar, both of which confirmed we would not meet messily. And so it turned out.
My new and inquisitive 4 year old neighbour in Weymouth was intrigued to learn I was a Grandad, as he didn’t have one, only a Grandpa. However, his was infinitely superior being no less than 800 years old. At a mere 64, it was obvious I could not compete – that’s the thing about sailing; you meet so many great people of all ages – and just occasionally, not so great. His dad was an ex soldier, so clearly a good chap.
Big yachts rafted in Weymouth on Bank Holiday weekend (above)
Bank Holiday Weymouth was heaving – and it was quiz night at the Slug and Lettuce; still, it was good to dine with family and catch up with news of nephew and niece. Next day in the harbour for me was the nautical equivalent of musical chairs and with a departure set for 0630 next day, I was not the most popular guy in town as yachts poured in for the weekend, most much bigger than Pippin. Ten years ago, I rarely saw a yacht over 35 feet. Here in Weymouth, three 55 footers were moored astern of Pippin and up by the lifting bridge was a gaggle of 50-60 foot motor and sailing vessels. Unbelievable.
Trawlers came and went, one large one unloading shellfish at the fish key causing quite a stir as hunky East European crew members did their stuff, fully aware of the very appreciative young female audience, whom I joined for a few minutes. I reckon it was the snake hipped pony tailed chap with broad shoulders and, I felt sure, a girl in every port, who attracted most attention. He was clearly wasted on a trawler, but perhaps it was a way of escaping shall we say, ‘complications’.
Quite how the Weymouth Harbour staff kept their cool during this melee I don’t know, but they did, remaining unerringly courteous and helpful until they went off duty late in the evening. Just as things settled down, 4 inshore trawlers tucked themselves in behind Pippin’s raft of yachts for the night, though fortunately they would be away before me.
Fishing boats park close in Weymouth (above)
Sure enough, as dawn approached, I was wakened by the throaty throb of powerful diesels, as the fishing boats set forth for their day’s work and I brewed tea with the smell of diesel smoke strong in my nostrils. I was pleased and honoured to be rafted amongst members of the RAF Sailing Club, for I suspect their code of practice includes courtesy and assistance at all times to all. So much so, that one member took it upon himself to rise at 0600 to see me off – though perhaps he just wanted to make sure my Rocna tipped bowsprit didn’t smash something on the way out.
Heaven is made not just of chocolate and Rioja, but especially a beam reach through sunshine, over peaceful seas for 12 hours or more and God delivered all that and more that day, as Pippin surged past West Shambles Buoy, pushing up against the boundaries of the science that constrains her. Operating my usual rewards based system aboard, I celebrated Heaven with fried Spam, potatoes and eggs, followed by heart stirring espresso in the cockpit. Sipping my brew, I looked back at the Jurassic coast, and looked again for I thought I saw a mirage. No, my binoculars confirmed it was in fact real – an oil installation under tow, crabbing ever so slowly towards the coast, a remarkable ungainly sight.
Oil installation under tow of the Jurassic Coast
So calm and balmy was the day, that little inshore fast fishers bobbed mid Channel, chasing shadows on their Fishfinders; it was galling to think they could cover the ground I had just made in a 6th of the time Pippin and I had!
Fast fisher mid Channel
The steady throb of massive diesels overcame my tinnitus mid Channel suggesting the presence nearby of ocean going monsters long before I saw them. Gradually they began to emerge from the mess of their pollution that stretched across the horizon and the haze of the day, marching in orderly column of route, 3 miles between each. By now Pippin was satisfyingly ahead of schedule, but not so much that our progress might yet be pegged back by surging Channel island tides, if I got the timings wrong.
Sailing nirvana means your cup doesn’t fall over, your lunch stays on the plate and no unwelcome salty guests joins you in the cockpit and so it was as the miles foamed by, until the Casquets loomed up ahead and I started the little Yanmar to restore the batteries that had powered the fridge largely unaided for 3 days, and now the hungry radar, its screen recently alive with the shadows of monsters. The wind eased moving a little towards the SW in the last 10 miles, so I engaged gear and set Hercule the wind vane to work in harmony with Hastings the autopilot , which they did most satisfactorily, rattling and wheezing away.
St. Peter Port was over flowing with waiting boats, so Pippin and I puttered gently round to – appropriately enough – Soldiers’ Bay where I dropped the hook in 5 metres of water to await the tide. I have worked out that sea gulls are afraid of the dark, so waited until sun down to deposit my supper food leftovers over the side, by which time my personal flotilla of feathered scavengers had fled home to the security of their beds.
Since ‘E’ Numbers and deadly but tasty flavourings have been banned in the interests of our health, I find tinned meals to be invariably disappointing though my first mate suggests that it might actually be because my taste buds are shot, so much have I abused them. Whatever, it is not like the days when the tragic Nigel Tetley sailed in the original Golden Globe Race with amazing tins of things like whole roast chicken in red wine, pheasant, sea food and proper manly stews all sourced by his wife. Interestingly, for me at least, his widow Eve spent her later years teaching at the Alderney School, before her death no so long ago.
Inky black night from Pippin’s red lit wheelhouse
No matter how much local knowledge you have, setting sail in moonless inky darkness is not for the fainthearted and though it was but a few hundred metres, I was relieved to enter the brightly lit harbour and cross the marina sill with 0.2 metres beneath the keel. I put Pippin to bed well chuffed with the day.