Quick run through our trip before I forget it all...
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/NE-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 NE 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.