Passing Sark’s lighthouse early one morning; if I remember rightly, we were due to be at the northern tip of this Channel Island at 0746 am exactly, to begin an open crossing.
Passing Sark’s lighthouse early one morning; if I remember rightly, we were due to be at the northern tip of this Channel Island at 0746 am exactly, to begin an open crossing.
Le Hanois rocks are the westernmost point of the Channel Islands. The fine rock lighthouse is reached by following a chain of rocks and reefs out from the south-west tip of the island of Guernsey.
An island too far … we had crossed 26+ miles from Sark to the island of Alderney, negotiating some epic tidal flows en route. Another eight miles out from Alderney were the Casquets Rocks, with their lighthouse guarding the southern approaches to the Dover Strait. Reaching the lighthouse on these rocks would involve crossing some of the strongest and roughest tidal flows in British waters … with nowhere else to run to, if you missed the target! With my usual complete lack of imagination, I was totally up for this trip.
But it was not to be. The forecast changed and we realised that we’d have to use the next available ’wind window’ to leave Alderney and cross to the island of Guernsey, from where we’d be catching our ferry home. And so, we found ourselves launching before 4 am the next morning to cross 25 miles to Guernsey.
The Casquets are still out there. I will return.
The stunningly beautiful Channel Island of Sark is famous for two things; for being an exceedingly dodgy tax haven* and for cars being banned. Whilst the latter situation seemingly implies some kind of ruritanian idyll, the reality is slightly less romantic. As cars aren’t allowed, the residents instead all own big noisy smelly tractors and use them to get around everywhere, instead. Oh well, there’s no such place as paradise. And tractors make great shuttle vehicles for lugging kayakers and their gear around…
*In the late 90s, there were 575 residents and over 23,000 companies registered on Sark.
This cave (of which you only see the entrance) is on the east coast of the Channel Island of Sark. A couple of friends are shown entering the cave in these images, but I actually arrived here about 20 minutes before them and entered it alone.
Far back in the cave, where light began to fade, I heard the sound of waves breaking on rocks. Normally I’d turn back at this point, but something about this cave drew me further in. I made a somewhat crunchy landing and pulled my boat up onto rocks, in the darkness. I then stumbled deeper into the cave, finding myself wading through a series of waist-deep pools, finding my way by feel in total darkness.
Eventually, the cave (which seemed utterly endless, like something out of Alice in Wonderland) turned a slight bend, and suddenly there was light again; a faint glimmer from a long distance ahead. For whatever reason, I lost my nerve and turned around at this point. Looking back, the now-visible cave was a startling sight; the walls were damp, smooth and curved … I found my way back to the boat. Finally paddling out into the daylight, blinking, felt like being re-born.
Paddling around the island of Sark, last year.
A visit to Les Etacs, a gannet colony off the Channel Island of Alderney, in 2010. Thousands of gannets, our largest sea bird, with a two metre wing span. Swirling, diving and roosting. It didn’t smell too good.
Claire and Heather finally closing on the Channel Island of Alderney, towards the end of a long (26+ mile) open crossing from the island of Sark. A big swell and very powerful tides had slowed us and pushed us off course, but we really didn’t care. Perhaps this image will suggest why…
The following article was originally published in Canoe Kayak UK magazine. It describes our splendid Whitsun trip to the Channel Islands. Enjoy…
Exploring the Channel Islands of Guernsey, Harm, Sark and Alderney by sea kayak
Gannets! Thousands of ‘em! The sky is crowded full by our largest seabirds. Tidal rapids drag us inexorably towards to their colony, a series of isolated peaks rising from the sea like miniature Matterhorns. This alpine illusion is further borne out by the gleaming whiteness of the stacks, but the white isn’t snow; every spare inch of the soaring rocks is colonised by squawking gannets. Their two metre wide wingspan gives them a hunting range of hundreds of miles, but on this day all five thousand inhabitants of the colony seem to be roosting at home, or soaring in wide circles overhead. Paddling closer to the colony, one thing that we can’t ignore is the smell; but we are distracted from this stinky stench by the natural wonder commencing before our eyes. High above, a cluster of gannets tighten their circle as they spy a shoal of fish. They flutter their wings rapidly backwards to fix their position and take aim. In close succession, these huge birds roll over, fold their wings behind forming a sleek dart shape, and accelerate into a headlong plunge, terminating in jarring 50 mile an hour impacts. Air sacs in the gannets’ heads allow them to survive this dive-bombing onslaught, but their prey are utterly stunned. And so are we.
Our week of sea kayaking had been thoroughly planned, with one small caveat; we hadn’t actually figured out where we were going. The general idea was to head up to Scotland, because that’s where all the good sea kayaking is, right? However, as the date drew nearer, we kept dwelling upon the looooong drive up from our home in Dorset and wincing. The Eureka! moment came one evening whilst we were camping on our local coast. Watching the lights of passing ships in the English Channel, the penny dropped that there were islands only 65 miles south across the Channel that we’d never visited. I am embarrassed to confess that in fifteen years of living just a two hour ferry crossing away, I’d never seriously considered visiting the Channel Islands, and knew nothing about them. The very next morning we booked our tickets, job done! Other friends also abandoned their Scottish plans and decided to join us; we had ourselves a Convoy (I’ve always wanted to say that).
First impressions were confusing. We drove off the SeaCat ferry onto the left-hand side of the road on a grey and rainy island of Guernsey; very English. We then stopped for brekkie (um, petit dejeuner) at the first place we came to, which happened to be a French-speaking boulangerie. We should probably have read up on this stuff beforehand, but we quickly learned that whilst pledging loyal allegiance to Our Gracious Queen, the Channel Islands/ Îles Anglo-Normandes are not actually part of the UK. In practice, they seem to form an amiable buffer zone between John Bull and Johnny Foreigner. To greater or lesser degrees depending upon which island you’re on (and whether you’re drinking red wine or bitter at the time), you can imagine that you’re in rural south Devon (with French place names). Or on the Atlantic coast of Brittany (with pubs and chippies). Or something.
We drove up to the northern tip of Guernsey, and gazed out to sea. Every now and then, gaps in the weather allowed us to spot the island of Herm, a few miles east across a tidal channel known as the Little Russell. Sometimes we could see past Herm, across the Big Russell to the island of Sark. Just once, the rain briefly cleared enough to reveal the cliffs of Alderney, lurking a daunting twenty miles away to the north. The plan formed itself; islands exert a magnetic draw upon sea kayakers, and we knew that we couldn’t go home without having paddled to these isles. We arranged parking and launching at a friendly marina and worked our way though the general faff involved in loading and getting afloat. One member of our group was a wheelchair user; we were impressed to find that all manner of folk were happy to assist in shipping the chair out to the islands or even to arrange the loan of a chair on the island.
We hadn’t all paddled together up to this point, so it was morbidly interesting to see what would happen as we launched into a grim and grey Force 5-6 for the passage to Herm. Thankfully (but slightly disappointingly) there was no carnage, and all seven paddlers survived the squalls to reach Herm’s harbour pier. Rather obligingly, a group of islanders were waiting to greet us and to carry our gear away from the beach by tractor. We followed the tractor up the lane past quaint cottages, immaculate gardens, smiling locals and ancient standing stones; lovely, but perhaps ever so slightly ‘Summerisle’. Luckily, at the top of the hill we found not a waiting Wicker Man, but a campsite boasting panoramic views of the surrounding seas and reefs. Once the tent was up and dinner finished, my wife and I strolled Herm’s cliffs, and were delighted to spot puffins bumbling around their burrows. We love puffins. Everyone loves puffins. Back at the campsite, I found my tent festooned with streamers and balloons, with champagne and cake waiting. Yes, it was my birthday. My 21st, naturally…
The next day’s pootle across to Sark was conducted in slightly milder weather, but nonetheless involved a fair amount of excitement (for sea kayaking, generally considered to be a bad thing) and the odd nervous paddle slap. The tide flows in these parts never really cease motion, forming numerous tidal rapids and doing bewildering things like flowing fastest at high and low water (the opposite of pretty well everywhere else). Somewhere mid-channel whilst we were preoccupied by the choppy waves, something rather large and dark briefly surfaced among us. My book about these things tells me that it may or may not have been a pilot whale; we shall never know for sure! Arrival on Sark really is something. The island rises abruptly from the sea with impregnable cliffs on all sides. There is no naturally sheltered landing; the harbour walls back dramatically onto the cliffs, with a tunnel drilled through the rock to access the island’s interior plateau. Having arrived late, cold and soggy, we were pretty delighted to discover that Sark’s welcome topped Herm’s. A tractor appeared to carry not just all of our gear but also all seven of us up to the campsite, clinging onto the outside in a non-Health and Safety Executive-approved manner.
For centuries, tiny Sark was burdened by a quaint but ridiculous feudal government that was (in as far as we understand these things) only replaced in 2008 by something approaching democracy. Judging by the various island newsletters we read in the cafe over breakfast, Sark’s 600 locals mainly seem to exercise their newfound rights by publishing nasty libellous things about each other! The islanders are also reeling from an ongoing and bitter dispute with the über-rich Barclay brothers who own the neighbouring island of Brecqhou and have recently sacked all 100 of the ‘Sarkese’ who worked for them. One benefit of visiting beautiful and isolated offshore communities by kayak is that you are able to fully savour the local scenery, culture and welcome…but that you also have a paddle-powered getaway vehicle, ready to be utilised as soon as the apparently inevitable claustrophobia and ‘island-fever’ begin to take hold of you. Don’t misunderstand us, we loved Sark; but we gained the definite impression that staying there too long would mess severely with your head. As further evidence of this, we offer the Karaoke event which we chanced upon in the woods one night; experiencing a burly 6’5” islander murdering ‘Bright Eyes’ was only marginally less painful than being sacrificed in a burning Wicker Man…
Oh yes, this article is supposed to be about kayaking. I guess you’ll want to know that a circumnavigation of Sark is among the finest day paddles in British waters. The tidal rapids at every juncture would be sufficient in themselves to keep you amused, even without the spectacular cliffs and beaches, and the guillemot, razorbill and puffin colonies. Sarkese rock is riddled with caves variously accessible at different stages of the tide, meaning that you really need to do this trip more than once! The Gouliot headland near Brecqhou is frankly incredible. The tide flows swiftly through a latticework of dark tunnels, feeding plankton to the millions of multi-coloured sponges and anemones that completely plaster the walls through the full ten metre tidal range. Trust us; you have never seen anything like this. This unique underworld ecosystem is protected by ‘RAMSAR’ status (no, we also have no idea what this means, but it sounds important), but can be carefully explored by kayak and by swimming.
For no particular rational reason, I had a ‘thing’ about visiting the most northerly Channel Island, Alderney. Purely to satiate my obsession, everyone found themselves sitting bleary-eyed in their boats at the northern tip of Sark at precisely 0746 one morning, on the off-chance that the not-so-great forecast would turn out to be wrong. It was indeed wrong, so we all pointed north-ish and paddled off towards the horizon. Did I mention that Alderney was over twenty miles away? This long crossing was less boring than you might imagine; we dodged very big ships, ohh-ed and aah-ed at jumping dolphins, surged up and down repeatedly on the rather large ocean swell and at the end of all that, completely missed Alderney. That final point is slightly embarrassing, but how was I to know that the tide flows never do as asked in those parts? Instead, we arrived at an enormous solitary rock named Ortac, which was (rather alarmingly) surrounded by shallow surf-pounded reefs and huge rolling tidal rapids. Impressed as we were by Ortac and the population of gannets living upon it, we really weren’t supposed to be there and some frantic course alterations were needed to prevent us from being dragged to our doom. How we laughed.
Kayaking is one of those sports that takes you pretty well everywhere, but you’ve never been anywhere like Alderney. The island feels and looks markedly different from the other Channel Islands, whose residents describe it as, “two and a half thousand drunks clinging to a rock”. Our arrival by kayak was unusual enough to warrant a visit by the local press! Alderney’s isolation is enhanced by the fact that it sits amidst vast areas of tidal races, and by its epic defences; one side of the island is defended by sheer cliffs, and the other side is entirely covered by fortifications. There are forts overlooking forts guarding forts. We built much of this to keep the French at bay (they’re only eight miles away) but the Nazis are also responsible; arriving in 1940, they found Alderney totally evacuated. They set about transforming this sun-kissed backwater into Hitler’s dreamed ‘Festung Alderney’. The absence of local witnesses allowed them to indulge in their worst excesses; nobody knows for sure how many Russian prisoners died building the (pointless) concrete defences, but the toll was at least in the high 100s. Only the overgrown bunkers and tunnels now bear witness to these horrors; putting our tents up behind the dunes in stunning Saye Bay, it was hard to comprehend that this idyllic spot had been the exact location of an SS concentration camp.
We relished our time exploring Alderney by foot and paddle, including a visit to the teeming Les Etacs gannet colony (described at the start of this article). But, no sooner had we concluded that we never wanted to leave Alderney, than it was time to go. We were caught out one evening by a surprise weather forecast suggesting that the best ‘window’ to paddle back would involve getting up at the terrifying time of 2 am the following morning, just a few hours hence! Several folk were sinking beers in the pub when they heard this news, so some frantic sobering up was required. However, all credit to the team; everyone somehow managed to wake up and get packed in time to launch by starlight. Barely conscious, we drifted past sleeping puffins and out into the smooth ocean. By the time the sun rose behind Alderney, we had left the island far behind. We eventually arrived back where we’d first launched from at the Guernsey marina, just as the sailors were finishing their breakfasts! We crawled ashore, put up the tents and instantly flaked out…
Mark Rainsley channel hopped with Eurion Brown, Claire Cailes, Claire Cheong-Leen, Adrian Disney, Chris Evans, Heather Rainsley and 5000 pairs of stinky gannets.
Many more photos here.
The Channel Islands offer a surprisingly wide variety of fantastic sea kayaking experiences and really should be on every sea paddlers’ wish list. Our impression was that ‘island-hopping’ the Channel Islands is best suited to experienced sea kayakers, given the very strong tide flows. There are however many great paddle trips for all abilities along the coasts of Guernsey and Jersey. Guernsey’s south coast is a particular highlight, with its rugged cliffs and the Hanois lighthouse. On this trip we did not visit Jersey and its outlying reefs, but now plan to return and explore them ASAP!
www.condorferries.co.uk – You’ll need these folk, unless you fancy a 65 mile paddle across the English Channel? They will accept kayaks onboard with foot passengers, with prior arrangement.
www.quaysidedirect.com – ‘Quayside Marine’ beside St Sampson harbour on Guernsey sell books, charts and also a good range of kayaking gear.
The Channel Islands by Peter Carnegie – published by Imray, this book is indispensible. Tide flows, mini charts, lovely aerial photos to get you drooling.
Admiralty Leisure Folio SC5604: The Channel Islands - This huge folder of charts covers every rock and frond of seaweed in the archipelago; you should be able to buy it new for around £20 on eBay.
Wildlife of the Channel Islands by Sue Daly – a lovely outline of the local flora and fauna, and where to find it.
www.ukseakayakguidebook.co.uk – useful information and advice.
In the early hours of this morning we returned from a wonderful trip to the Channel Islands. It was all the more excellent because in truth, we had had no idea what to expect and what we found was a real revelation. Below are a few hastily scribbled notes about what we’ve been up to, and more photos are here.
Trip was decided on at short notice, what with Scotland (our originally planned destination) being bloody miles away and us suddenly realising that there were islands only 60-80 miles (a two hour ferry ride) from our house that we’d never visited. After a bit of web research, my personal priority was to visit Alderney…and indeed, in the event, I was not disappointed by the place…
Group was a few female friends, plus some token Welshmen who decided to ditch their planned Scottish trip and join us. Paddling ability and experience was mixed, but everyone coped fine with what proved to be some fairly serious paddling jaunts and some occasionally intimidating conditions.
Friday – everyone turned up at our place in Dorset and went to bed.
Saturday – several hours after going to bed, we all got up again and drove to the ferry terminal at Weymouth for the 6 am sailing. The Seacat whizzed us to St Peter Port on Guernsey, where we disembarked in wind and rain and (the first of many surreal not-quite-England experiences) had breakfast in a French-speaking boulangerie. We spent the morning sorting food and kit and deciding where/ when to launch (there is a good chandlery and kayak shop in Sampson). After a bit of research, we turned up at the Beaucette Marina at the north tip of the island (a flooded quarry with a channel blasted through to the sea) and enquired about parking and launching. Despite the fact that the place was filled with chic superyachts, they invited us to go ahead and use the place as we pleased, free of charge. So…we launched late afternoon to cross to Herm Island. It’s only a short crossing, but it involves strong tides and the wind was blowing a grim Force 5-6. We just about made it to Herm, where island staff met us and tractored our gear up the hill to the campsite. I returned from a walk to find my tent festooned with balloons…it was my 40th birthday, as if I needed reminding.
Sunday – We explored Herm in the morning, especially enjoying the Shell Beach. In the evening, we suited up and launched into a wet and windy sea for the trip to the island of Sark. We met Herm’s puffins, then explored the reefs north of Herm before heading out into the open Sound. Somewhere in the middle of a lumpy tide race, we met something that might just have been a Pilot Whale…either way, we made it through the swell to Sark and landed in the splendid tiny harbour on the east coast. Sark is ringed by cliffs and has no natural shelter; the harbour is accessed through a tunnel in the cliffs. We sorted the kayaks whilst a couple of the group walked up on to the island to find the campsite, returning with a campsite owner and tractor; rather excellently, we and our gear were all lugged up to the campsite by clinging onto said tractor.
Monday – We went walking in the morning and in the evening paddled around Sark, an outstanding trip. There are lots of bird colonies, endless caves and tunnels, great little tidal rapids to play with. I really must go back and do it at high tide, it’d be an entirely new trip again.
Tuesday – The day dawned wet and foggy, yuck. We hid in cafes until the afternoon, when the sun came out again. A few of us then climbed down the cliffs to explore and swim the astonishing Gouliot Caves; these are a network of tunnels where continual rapid tide flows provide constant a plankton supply for an incredibly dense and diverse array of anemones, sponges etc. In the deeper darker tunnels, the walls were entirely covered by multi-coloured life, through the whole ten metre tide range.
Wednesday – The big open crossing to Alderney. We launched early, at 7.30 and headed north into the open sea. It wasn’t exactly a dull crossing, as we experienced jumping dolphins, large ships across our path and a surprisingly large groundswell. When Alderney finally hove onto view, we tried to give the SW cliffs a wide berth on account of the swell and also because of Alderney’s infamous tidal races. Unfortunately, heading a mile north to achieve this led us dangerously into a really strong N/NW-flowing current (not shown in any of our many atlases) that dragged us way off-course to the amazing stack of Ortac (which happened to be surrounded by enormous tidal races and reefs with huge waves breaking over them). We actually didn’t mind too much as it was a fantastic location, populated by thousands of pairs of gannets; more importantly, we were able to steadily make headway against the flow and ferry glide a few miles to Burhou Island, fighting the NW flow all of this distance until we closed on Alderney. An amazing and exhilarating experience, but I suspect that if we’d been there a few days before (spring tides) then we’d have been on a one-way trip to the mid-English Channel. Of course we hit the shores of Alderney rather late, so had to struggle along the coast against the tide which had just turned. Just when we thought it was finally over, waves started surging over the 10 metre high harbour breakwater which we were paddling perilously close to, and refracting back at us. Jaysus! The good news was that our landing spot was a perfectly sheltered sandy beach with the campsite just behind. Our final tally was eight hours on the water and 25 miles covered, Gawd knows how many more miles covered fighting Alderney’s epic tidal flows. Everyone in the group apparently loved the day, clearly they all lack imagination…
Thursday – Unsurprisingly, many of the group wanted a rest! A few of us paddled down to the amazing Les Etacs, a series of serrated stacks at Alderney’s SW; this is another gannet colony and I’ll let the photos do the talking there. The rest of the day was spent walking and exploring Alderney, a remarkable island. Every single inch of the coast is covered by ludicrously overbearing fortifications from down the ages, with the most recent and ubiquitous built by the Germans (or more strictly speaking, by Russian slave workers worked to death by the Nazis – even the campsite was formerly a concentration camp). The town of St Annes looks French and indeed France is usually in view, just eight miles away. I had no idea that there were places like this in the UK, a visit is highly recommended if you are happy with the challenging tides.
Whilst enjoying dinner at the campsite in the evening, we were rather surprised to find that the weather forecast had changed, suggesting that our safest ‘window’ to paddle back to Guernsey would now be at 3.45 am the next morning…yes, just a few hours hence. This was disappointing, as there was much more to see and do around Alderney, and I’d had my eye on a paddle to the remote Casquets Lighthouse the next day. A couple of group members had to return from the pub and sober up quickly!
Friday – The alarm went off at 2 am and as forecast, conditions had become perfect (changing from stiff Force 5 to light breezes) in the few hours we had managed to sleep. We loaded and launched under starlight, and paddled past groups of puffins through Alderney’s tide races, half asleep in the pre-dawn gloom. The sun eventually rose behind Alderney (quite a sight) and we paddled on in dead calm conditions. This crossing was simpler (straight down the tide) and much quicker, we arrived at Beaucette Marina at 9.15 am after 22 miles and 5.5 hours on the water. The yachties and Marina staff whom we met (just out of bed) were impressed by our mornings’ work! We put up tents on the heathland behind the marina and dozed off for much of the day. The marina staff were happy for us to camp on their land overnight, and even let us use their plush showers and toilet facilities.
Saturday – Our last day saw us paddling Guernsey’s southern coast from St Peter Port to Hanois Lighthouse. This was a spectacular section of cliffs and caves, made all the more impressive by the waves humping into them. Yet another fantastic sea paddle in the Channel Islands, and once more very different from everything we’d done before; the variety is phenomenal! Our ferry home was irritatingly delayed (ash cloud?) and we finally made it back to our front door at 2 am Sunday morning, to sleep like the dead.