14 February 2020
All original writing
2014, 2015, 2016,
2017, 2018, 2019,
Dr Ian McLauchlin
SAILING TO ALDERNEY
It was August 1992. We’d just sailed to Paluden in Brittany and were on our way home, via Roscoff. Boat was Reveillier, skipper was Tom (it was his boat) and Navigator was me. Tom taught French and knew that 'Reveillier' wasn't a French word but it was too expensive to change it!
We arrived early in Roscoff and had to wait for the tide to turn. The Roscoff Huile was doing it’s worst. While the sea appears calm and smooth, the water moves up and down in long deep waves. So one second we could see the lights of Roscoff, the next we were in a sea valley and could see nothing. We waited, making no progress for hours but eventually we were able to reach the town. After a rest we had a walk round and sampled the local speciality -
The following day we set sail for Alderney on our way north. Braye Harbour on Alderney is a large harbour with moorings and is protected from all but the North East by a huge harbour wall. Ferries from Cherbourg and the UK also dock and cruise ships moor inside the breakwater. Maynbrace, the local chandlers, operate a water taxi service.
The island is only 3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide and so you don't really need transport. It was occupied by the Germans in WW2 and there're many emplacements and other fortifications, now mostly derelict.
It has the only railway in the Channel Islands, built by the British, and originally used to move stone from the eastern end of the island to build the breakwater and Victorian forts. Now it's a passenger train made up of a small diesel engine and carriages that had seen better days on the London Underground.
In the winter of 1911-
The weather was gorgeous and, even though it was a Bank Holiday, there was hardly anybody about. We set off to walk round the island, taking in some coast and some wildflower meadows with a soundtrack of buzzing insects, breaking waves and gulls who'd never seen a bag of chips in their life. It was idyllic. We ended up in St Anne known as 'The Town'. A military regiment had been given the Freedom of The Town and used it, just as we arrived, to march through the streets with their own brass band.
As the band marched on, a little old lady approached.
"Does anyone know how to park a Citroen 2CV?"
It was yellow just like ours and the gear lever arrangement was unusual for someone who hadn't practised. I jumped at the chance and parked it up against the wall in no time.
"Come in for a cup of tea and a biscuit."
That was an order not a suggestion so we meekly submitted. What followed showed that she wasn't as helpless and weak as we thought. We heard the story of her life in Africa.
She and her husband had a farm estate in Kenya at the time of the Kikuyu extremists who were furious at what they saw as the theft of their land by white settlers. They launched a war from the jungle against the colonial authorities.
Mau Mau terrorists were on the rampage and someone rushed in to say that they'd killed her husband and were looking for her. She hid in the rafters with her helper and they were above in the roof space when the Mau Mau entered the house and heard everything they said. Eventually they left. She did too and came to live in Alderney, as you do.
She was a tough old dear, well able to park a car. There were no tears as she told her story, just excitement. She obviously wanted a chat and we were likely suspects!
After a couple of nights in Braye Harbour it was time to set off for home. It was late evening, the weather was good, the stars were out and we left for Poole. As Reveillier skimmed through the water, the plankton were luminescing and all was peace and calm. With only the swish of the water below and enough wind to fill the sails, we sped northwards, following the constellation of Cassiopeia rather than strain our eyes towards the compass binnacle, faintly illuminated in red.
Halfway across the channel, we heard a gale warning for Wight/Portland. Oops. We were heading straight towards it. Could we outrun it? Tom looked worried, I felt slightly sick. We looked at each other and almost in unison shouted "Cherbourg".
So I took the helm, turned around and headed back towards Cherbourg. The wind was in the wrong direction and so we had to tack, first one way and then the other. It would take ages. The gale approached and the seas got higher. I was OK on the helm and it was agreed I should stay there as changing helmsman in those conditions might lead to a broach or knockdown. Everyone else was in their bunk trying to hold onto their stomach and the pots and pans were clattering around down below. I was told that every man who came back from the toilet had a bloody forehead, the boat was banging about so much. I suppose that's why the nautical term for toilet is 'the heads'.
Finally, after many hours, and all totally tired, we saw the Cherbourg forts and west entrance. Huge sigh of relief when we got within the outer harbour and everyone started to relax. Just at that moment I turned round to find a huge cross-
The celebratory tot of whiskey when we finally tied up was one of the better ones.
We stayed in Cherbourg waiting for the weather to improve but it didn't and I had to get back to work. So decided to catch the ferry back to Poole. When we went to buy tickets, we were asked, very politely and circumspectly, whether we were entitled to any concessions. Blank looks. They finally gave up in the face of British stupidity and came straight out with it.
"Are you pensioners?"
We were in our forties but, after the trials of the previous few days, we clearly looked very much the worse for wear!
I found it surprisingly difficult to climb the ferry steps with a large bag of sailing kit and only just made it to the passenger deck. That was one of the first signs of my worsening heart problems. The rest, including several operations, a cunningly crafted bit of stainless steel, and undesirable femoral artery damage and repair, is history.