Dinghy Cruise to the Channel Islands and Carteret

John Perry - 1994

Our 15 foot gunter rigged dinghy was alongside a pontoon at the head of Southpool creek off Salcombe harbour. We were hoping that the  rather miserable weather would improve so that we could sail to the Channel Islands. Lighter winds from the west were forecast but at the moment it was raining and the South wind seemed to be getting stronger, although it was hard to be sure since the creek was so well sheltered.  We decided to pack away the cockpit tent which provides our overnight accommodation and to take a look out of the harbour. If the weather was too bad we could run back in and would only have wasted a morning.

A couple of hours later we were clearing the harbour entrance close hauled with the small mainsail which hoists directly on the mast without using the gunter yard. We were making progress to seaward and spray was smothering the fore deck. It was still spattering with rain and the grey colour of the boat well matched the colour of the sea. The afternoon forecast was again for a westerly wind although at present we were close reaching against a southerly which seemed to be force five. As the afternoon progressed we came to feel that heading back would be somewhat disheartening after the progress we had made and  if the wind was really going to veer it might well be as easy to continue.

As usual we saw a few ships as we crossed the shipping lane but they probably never saw us. From the bridge of a ship this would be just another rather poor summer’s day, but from our small boat the channel at dusk seemed a cold, windswept and lonely place and Josephine must have been wondering whether I had any idea where we were. Whilst there was still some daylight I updated the dead reckoning and marked a cross on the plastic chart. The plastic chart is useful, a paper chart would have been pulp by this stage.  I told Josephine that we might hope to see the Channel light-ship buoy once it was dark and it was a great reassurance to both of us when we did so. It started to rain again and for long hours we plunged on through darkness, flashing a torch to read the compass, then quite quickly the sky cleared and the moon lit our path over the sea ahead.  The wind veered as had been forecast and  we sped away on a reach. The Casquets and Les Hanois lighthouses gave us our position and at dawn we raced round the Northern end of Guernsey and into the Little Russel Channel where we anchored off a stony beach and stumbled ashore. 

The morning was spent recovering, partially at least, from the night before, then we pottered off for a walk followed by a meal in St Peter’s Port.  The following day was sunny and we went to look at Sark. The afternoon was spent walking the length and breadth of Sark, it is only a mile or so across, and stocking up with provisions, then we picked a restaurant for an evening meal before returning to our floating tent in the tiny harbour.

Next day was again lovely weather and we sailed to Les Ecrehous, the group of rocks with huts perched on the top of them which stand between Jersey and the French coast.  Josephine was fascinated by this place, at high tide there are just a few rocks above the water whereas as at low tide there is a mile or more of beach, rock and rock pools. The largest rock has almost a village of huts, with a tiny village square and streets about two feet wide. There is also one rock supporting an incongruous looking three bed detached. The inhabitants are holiday makers who want to get away from modern conveniences, there is no electricity or sanitation and you bring your own fresh water in your boat.

The next morning the weather was breaking and we departed for Carteret on the adjacent French coast. We spent several days at Cateret and hired bicycles to tour inland. During our stay we were very nearly 'neaped' on the drying sand of the estuary.  We were silly enough to let this happen two days in succession  and much heaving and shoving was needed to get the heavy boat back into deeper water.

From Carteret we started for home, reaching Diellet on the first day. The next day we made an early start, sailing across the pleasant Vauville bay towards the heather topped cliffs of Cap de La Hague then passing between Cap de La Hague lighthouse and the mainland. We thought of stopping in the tiny  harbour here but decided to press on to Cherbourg. At Cherbourg we enjoyed the luxury of the large marina, nice for once not to have to think about how the boat might swing on its anchors or whether it will dry out comfortably when the tide goes out. We had considered the possibility of exploring a bit further along the French coast but the weather forecast at Cherbourg was ideal for a Channel crossing and so I succumbed to the temptation to get home quickly while the going was good.

We left Cherbourg after breakfast, broad reaching with an ideal breeze and we rapidly crossed the first shipping lane.  We were right in the middle of the Channel and I was thinking that we might even be ashore for late tea when a shroud snapped with a ‘ping’ and the deck stepped mast and sails gently flopped into the sea. The stainless steel wire had fatigued where it looped around the eyelet at a poorly made Talurit splice. It felt strange bobbing about in mid Channel but we realised that we were not in danger since the weather was fair and the rig was undamaged apart from the shroud. My first thought was that the large ship I could see in the shipping lane behind us might have see us dis-masted and initiate an unnecessary rescue but then I realised that it was too far away to see a small boat. I certainly had not expected a rigging failure but by chance we happened to have a spare shroud on board. We also had wire clamps which could be used for a temporary repair but changing the shroud seemed the easier option. The relatively short mast of the gunter rig was not too difficult to lift back into position.

At dusk the wind was falling light and we were creeping towards Swanage. The tide would soon be setting us west and so we headed east to compensate but despite this we were drawn towards the race off St Alban’s point. As a result we spent hours quite close to Swanage but unable to get there. Eventually we entered Swanage at about 4am, so much for my idea of being ashore in time for tea. We dropped anchor and set up our boat tent and when we awoke, rather late in the morning, the sun was blazing and we found ourselves to be anchored just off a crowded sunbathing beach and surrounded by toy inflatable dinghies and hired out canoes. The last few days of holiday were spent getting back to Salcombe by public transport then taking the boat home on its road trailer.