We didn’t mean to go to Dielette. Gill and I had eased “Ptarmigan” quietly out of St Peter Port in Guernsey at 0600 to catch the full 6 hours of tide to carry us to Cherbourg. It’s 44 miles on the chart, but with a big tide through the Alderney Race, plus the forecast NW force 4 on the beam, 6 hours would be plenty. Lunch in France!
As we motored out into the Little Russell, it became obvious that this was not a nor’westerly! Indeed, it was almost nor’easterly – right on the nose, and nearer 5 than 4. Suddenly, Cherbourg had become an 8 hour tack – far too long for one tide – and we knew The Race would be like a cauldron, so we quickly reviewed our options. The tide would stop us turning round and going straight back to Guernsey; Braye, in Alderney, is exposed to the NE and notoriously unpleasant in any wind from that direction; but 32 miles away lay Dielette – a pleasant snug harbour on the west Normandy coast with the best moules frites for miles, and we could get there on a decent fetch and arrive before the gate closed over the sill. We put a reef in the main, tacked out of the Little Russell, taking care to avoid all the hazards round Platte Fougere and Grande Amfroque, then bore away for Dielette. Six yachts had left with us and they all held their course – doggedly punching the wind under bare poles, doubtless bent on crossing the Channel next day (Sunday) and then back to work. We did not envy them!
We arrived in Dielette in brilliant sunshine and spent the afternoon on its huge golden beach, planning to make Cherbourg the following day and wait for a good day to come home to The Solent. The wind had already started to back, so all looked well. It was springs, but only a “small” spring.
We left at 0800, as soon as the sill opened, and motored out into the north-running tide. The promised NW force 3/4 had arrived so we beat up the Normandy coast towards Cap de la Hague. We had done this trip before and had found The Race surprisingly benign, so it came as a bit of a shock to look ahead and see large areas white water flecking an increasingly darkening sea, not to mention equally large areas of black sky. The GPS gave us a SOG of 9 knots.
In no time, we were in the midst of it. Huge lumpy and confused seas swirled and boiled all around us; on two occasions we buried the bow roller and the furling drum, and green water surged over the cabin roof and hammered into the sprayhood. As you can imagine, the cockpit remained resolutely dry! At this point Alderney disappeared under a rainstorm and winds suddenly started hovering between 30 and 35 knots. It was too late to reef and, anyway, we were too busy trying to maintain a steady course. We just spilled wind and gritted our teeth. Ahead I could see the YBY of Le Maigre picked out in a beam of morning sunshine against the black sky, and knew we could bear away as soon as we reached it. SOG reached 14.5 knots. It would soon be over.
You need to go four miles north of the Cap de la Hague to miss the adverse tide in the “back eddy”. Having got there, we found the wind was W force 4/5. I punched “Needles” into the GPS and found it was only 54 miles away. Suddenly, Cherbourg – now a three-hour goosewing away – seemed pretty unattractive compared with a romp home on a beam reach to miss the storms which were predicted (correctly, as it turned out) for Wednesday.
Now we come to the real point of this brief account. It was not the frustration of the aborted trip to Cherbourg the previous day; nor the mild terror of The Race an hour before. It is to share with you, Dear Reader, the most brilliant Channel crossing in all our Sadler years. With her Stephen Jones keel, Ptarmigan can easily handle 20 knots of wind over the deck and the beam reach is probably her fastest angle so, as the wind slowly built, it was not long before she picked up her skirts and started to surge through the water, leaving a stream of white foam in her wake. Speed was steadily around 7 knots for several hours. We simply did not notice the time passing – so different from those tedious hours of motoring, keeping a constant watch for orange string. And the speed was so effortless; it was really quite civilised to make tea and visit the heads; we even put the autohelm on for a while and marvelled as this six tons of floating home creamed along, miles clicking down off the Distance To Waypoint.
The wind backed further and built further. By the time we could see the chalk cliffs of Freshwater Bay, we were on a broad reach, but winds stayed at 20 knots over the deck. Quartering seas made helming more difficult, but we maintained speed. As bigger waves started to appear, we started to surf – powering through the water with our bows down, threatening to plough into the wave in front. It was just like sailing a 34 foot Laser.
We reached the Needles Bridge buoy at exactly 1700 BST. We had been sailing for 10 hours and covered 70 miles on the chart. Yes, we had had some help from the tide in The Race, but all the Channel tides are mostly east/west. It just goes to demonstrate what we all know about the Sadlers – they have all the sturdy seaworthiness you want when you are being tossed about in The Alderney Race, plus a turn of speed you would normally associate with much lighter boats.
There was just one problem. We were too early. The Needles Channel still had two hours of spring ebb to throw against our bows, whilst a force 6 was now coming over our stern. The Needles Bridge is a notorious place when the flood tide starts; but what else could I do? The North Channel was one option, but it was a lee shore, and we really didn’t fancy it; so we stayed put. We knew it had to be easier than The Race. And it was. The waves were there all right, and they were big enough to be exciting but not big enough to be frightening. We were making good about 3 knots, so it took us an hour to reach Warden Ledge. Then, slowly, the tide eased and we started to make 4 knots, then 5 knots as we passed Hurst Castle. We considered goosewinging with the new tide, all the way home to Portsmouth, another 18 miles, but as Yarmouth approached, I could see the shower block and smell the steaks in The Wheatsheaf. And the sun was definitely over the yardarm.