Time Travel Alert! Posted in July, referring to early June!
Our stay in Alderney was short and sweet, with the sun coming out and spangling off the water into our eyes and onto our pasty skins in a surprising way. We looked at it, coating our hands and arms, and said hello to it, as if it was an alien life form. I played the uke in our rocking boat and felt like maybe the horrible bits were over. I considered swimming but there was too much bite still in the wind.
We headed for Guernsey. As ever with Joker, when you sail her on a fair wind there’s very little to worry about. We didn’t need the engine, and glided there with amazed grins on our faces.
On arrival, the Englishness was even more apparent, and several decades more up to date than Alderney. I was particularly touched by the huge yellow ‘Boots’ sign looming over the marina, and the branch of M&S across the street that funnelled BakingSmell™ out into the traffic. We ignored these and headed straight for the nearest fish and chips. Best I’ve ever tasted, probably in the sea that morning (sorry, guy) and fried right there in front of us.
On Monday, as Sam worked, I ‘wifed’- lugging a huge bag of laundry through hot streets to the nearest laundrette. The only one I could find was run by a woman called June and her autistic son Aiden who said I was ‘very pretty looking with lovely brown eyes.’ He noticed my ukulele in my rucksack and asked me to play. Flattery will get you everywhere with me, so I whiled away the next 40 minutes chatting to them and playing Van Morrison and Cyndi Lauper classics. First time I’d played in front of anyone but Sam, and I only got a teeny bit nervous. Aiden reckoned he could get me a gig at his local or at the very least I should sit in the street and put a hat out. Too scared, I told him.
Later we went to the Co-op and experienced the familiar sterile disappointment of English supermarket shopping. In contrast to France, all the sensuality of the food seemed to disappear behind plastic. Veg reduced to miniature overpriced portions. Meat limited to smoothly shaped plucked cuts from animals who never had blood, guts or organs. Food that tried desperately to avoid the offence of suggesting it had once been alive.
After a few days in Guernsey we plotted a course for Sark. We were excited about Sark because it’s very small- only about 2 square miles- and no cars or motorbikes are allowed there. The stated objective in the tourist brochures is to become completely self-sufficient. They also have a Dark Skies policy to keep night lighting to a minimum so people can see the stars.
As we readied Joker for the off, the guy from the boat next door came over. Marinas are funny places, sort of like very posh floating campsites. Sailors can be very interesting people, but we’ve found they’re usually several decades older than us, with considerably more money, and not that keen to have lengthy conversations with a pair of ragtag thirty-somethings. We don’t even have red waterproof jackets, which is basic yacht wear for God’s sake! People do hang out together and have long, festive meals on deck, but they’re usually parties of a few boats who’ve come along together.
Most of our interaction with fellow sailors has amounted to silent (but very welcome) help with mooring, followed by abrupt disappearance, brief curiosity about our unusual junk sail rig, and occasional advice. This fellow was offering the latter. He peered at Sam as he worried at the last knot tying us to the pontoon.
“A clove hitch?! No wonder you’re having trouble.”
Sam explained he’d had difficulty making the bowline tight enough, which seemed to confirm the man’s opinion that we needed his help.
“Where are you going? Sark? You’re leaving it very late on the tide.”
We weren’t- we’d checked the tides meticulously. Still, just in case, the tide tables were hauled out again and the point argued and cleared up. Finally we convinced him we’d make it, and cast off. The man shook his head forebodingly as he dwindled astern.
It’s a very short journey to Sark from Guernsey, and people row it on a regular basis- despite the enormous and petrifying seabeasts of Condor Ferries ploughing their frothing maws up and down several times a day. The wind was technically with us, but so light and wafty that we had to use the engine after half an hour of creeping along.
As the day mellowed towards evening, the blank grey cloud began to tatter and mist. The light became golden, tea-stained.
Approaching Sark, we slid past craggy, biscuity chunks of rock, wet black and biting where the waves lapped them and patched with mossy green on top.
Attached to the mainland by a bridge was Brecqhou, a tiny islet topped by a castle straight out of a fairytale. The insanely wealthy Barclay Brothers purchased it in 1993.
With a population of 600 on Sark, the scale of the Barclay’s investment has caused tension over the island’s already fragile and partial democracy. The Barclays and their supporters claim they are the champions of democratic change in an archaic feudal system, while others support the right of the aristocratic Seigneur and his appointees to continue to govern. Appropriately for their location I’d say they’re between a rock and a hard place. With only 600 people they could be well placed to have real direct democracy, if the Channel Islands weren’t ruled in such an archaic way or such a magnet for super-rich tax avoiders.
Past the Barclays’ fortress, we slid into a cove dotted with free mooring buoys. Four other boats were already there, widely spaced. All was calm and beautiful. Above us, a sandy coloured path meandered down the hill to wet stone steps 200 yards away.
“It’s late, it’ll be dark in a couple of hours. Let’s have dinner and go in the morning.”
I cooked a meal and we ate and drank wine in the last of the mellow light. The air was warm, a soft hair-ruffling breeze. After dark I played my uke and sang to the waves, the cliffs, the stars. We fell asleep with the hatch open.
At about 3am we were woken by a series of clunks. Hauling ourselves out of bed, we found the luxurious 40-footer that had been our distant neighbour had swung round on its buoy as the wind and tides shifted.
Sam adjusted our lines to pull us away from them, while I perched on the prow, pointing a torch at Sam’s hands with one arm and fending off the big shiny boat with the other. Our efforts improved things, but we could have done with their help. After ten minutes or so we gave a few friendly shouts and a couple of knocks. Finally we beamed our torches in at their windows. No response- only the ghostly hiss of an 80’s hits compilation floating over the wind-hoot and wave-slop.
We could only speculate that they were either dead, or having very absorbing and acrobatic sex to the 80’s hits and had somehow remained unaware of our repeated collisions. Finally we drifted far enough away from them and crawled back to bed.
The morning was pure mayhem. I woke as Sam rolled hard into me, squashing me against the hull. Two seconds later I smashed him into the central table. Last night’s wine bottle dived to the deck, sputtering purple. Mugs, cutlery and toothbrushes shook loose, fell, slid and rattled. I already felt seasick, and sat up with that helpless feeling of no escape. Sam huddled under the covers, groaning and rolling like angry spuds.
I took the camera out on deck and saw the last of our neighbours leaving, bundled in waterproofs. Not dead then. The idyllic cove of the night before was thrashing steel and gnarly rock lashed by sideways rain. We couldn’t stay. I downed some seasickness pills with water and they came back up two minutes later. The prospect of pumping, assembling and boarding our joke of a dinghy was dimly comical.
I pulled my retching shudders together for long enough to run the engine and steer as Sam loosed the mooring rope. We leapt away from Sark. Halfway back to Guernsey, the forward motion and our better angle to the waves had calmed my stomach.
Arriving back on the pontoon in Guernsey, our neighbour was waiting.
“Back from Sark already? Ha, I bet you are. I am not surprised. Horrible weather for it. You’re not doing a clove hitch again, are you?”
We checked the weather for the next few days, hoping for a window to revisit the intriguing island. It didn’t look good. Anxious to keep moving south, we decided our next trip would skip Sark and take us to Jersey- the last of the Channel Islands.