English Channel Nostalgia

In March 1981 we were heading back to Jersey on the car ferry from Weymouth, with quite a warm feeling inside.  I was in the team which had just won the initial Home International Surf Kayaking Championships at Fistral Beach Newquay and as a result we felt that we were up for anything, so in the naivety youth of youth we hatched a plan to paddle from Jersey back to England. A Channel crossing but at the western end of the waterway, as opposed to the narrower and busier Dover Straits.  Over the next couple of months the reality of the paddle began to sink in but we pressed on with the planning.  In the end we decided to split the paddle in Alderney.
So early one Sunday morning in June 1981 five us loaded our sea kayaks on the beach at L’Etacq on the north west of Jersey and headed out, on our way to Alderney 33 nautical miles north, due to the speed of the tidal streams around Alderney our window of opportunity was quite small.  So there was no time to hang about or to pop into Sark, as we passed by.  In addition we were under added pressure as we had to catch a flight home in the afternoon.
6 hours after leaving L’Etacq we beached at Braye Harbour having made good use of the favourable tidal streams.  We quickly stored the kayaks, rushed to the airport and in a matter of 15 minutes retraced our route back to Jersey, although with considerably less effort.
The following Friday night we flew back to Alderney, retrieved the kayaks and rechecked our navigation for the following morning.  We aimed to leave at 06.00 so it was an early phone call to the Jersey Met Office for a current weather forecast.  It couldn’t have been better, virtually no wind, sunshine and the slight risk of a fog patch.  How wrong this turned out to be.
As we paddled out of Braye Harbour we disappeared into the fog and in the belief that it was a small fog bank headed north.  Little did we realize that this fog stretched all the way to the south coast of England, 58 nautical miles away, if we known we might well have turned straight around and headed back to Alderney.
We kept to our bearing but in the pre-GPS days there was no way of confirming our actual position we just had to have confidence in our compasses.  At times the visibility was less than 50 metres, although the fog couldn’t have been that thick vertically, as the sun was shining.
We decided to stop for lunch at 13.00 and as the top of the hour approached our thoughts turned to food.  Suddenly at about 12.58 there was disconcerting rumbling sound to our right.  Almost simultaneously John and myself shouted paddle as we had seen the bow wave.  We were directly in the path of an enormous cargo ship, which was steaming west clearly unaware of our presence.  As we sprinted forward we just cleared the ship.  At this point fear kicked in.
We decided that staying alive was preferable to stopping for food so we carried on north with an extra sense of urgency to our strokes.  Amazingly at about 20.00 we popped out of the fog just underneath the old Borstal on Portland.  I would like to claim credit for some seriously accurate navigation but I think that it was more by luck than judgement that we arrived at our destination with such precision.
We landed on the beach at Weymouth just before 21.00 which gave us an average speed of nearly 4 knots for the previous 15 hours and we just missed the overnight ferry back home to Jersey.  So it was an evening exploring the night life of Weymouth (very limited) before heading south on the British Rail ferry the following morning.
It was an immensely satisfying paddle but whenever anybody asked since for advice I have always recommended that they don’t repeat our journey.  Its not the distance but the risk of being exposed to the shipping something that it is impossible to imagine unless you have sat in the middle of the Channel.  36 years on I can still remember the feeling as if it was yesterday when that bow wave appeared out of the fog!

Although I have taken photographs of sea kayaking since the 1970’s I have none of the Channel crossing, I was just to concerned about the paddling to stop and take any.

Channel Crossing
An aerial shot of Alderney, with the harbour at Braye clearly visible. It was our arrival point from Jersey and departure point for England. The strong tidal streams, which Alderney is well known for, are visible running over the rocks off the tip of the island.