I live by the sea, maybe live for the sea, on an island in the tidal River Medway. Just downstream of the historic Chatham Naval Dockyard - where Nelson's Victory was built. For me the sea is about freedom and exploration - both personal and geographical. Stargazer is a 31' sloop; and companion on my journey
Wednesday, 21 December 2011
Surfing with Dolphins. Iles Chausey 5.9.10
Granville by day
I awake to a general creaking and groaning aboard Stargazer. There’s the firm slap of swell breaking under the counter. It’s 04.00 and the alarm has just gone off. I can tell two things from the sounds as I lie in my bunk and prise my eyes open. First: the wind must have come round into the South East overnight. That explains it blowing straight in through the mouth of Granville harbour. The only direction Granville isn’t sheltered from. Second: the tide must have covered the retaining sill. That explains the swell getting in. That’s good news because by the time I’ve had breakfast and rigged up we’ll have enough depth to head out. Today we’re making for the Iles Chausey for a tranquil night or two at anchor communing nature.
With a lively swell under us and the wind gusting to 25 knots our manoeuvring off the berth is not text book! It involves smart casting off of a short mid-ship line, followed by quickly building up the engine revs to minimise prop walk whilst rapidly gaining steerage way. It works and Stargazer and I head out into the darkness between harbour walls that are a sort of hard black against the soft black of the night. I glance down at the chart plotter and set the autopilot on a course to take us just North of La Loup beacon. Once we’re past the rock that it marks we’re in deep water and everything calms down: me and the short nasty chop. We’re at sea! We’re free!
There’s a sickle of moon to light our way and the sky is furry with stars. There’s enough light now that my eyes have adjusted to stow the fenders, tidy the decks and hoist the mainsail. Away from the funnelling harbour mouth the wind is a “Jolie Brise,” a perfect force 4. Full main and full genoa it is then! Stargazer reaches west towards the dawn. She lopes along in her comfortable long legged way. I duck below and brew cocoa to warm me as I watch the orange red orb of the sun hoist itself over the horizon. It’s going to be a beautiful day.
The low morning sun colours the sea a deep ink blue and glints off white of the crests that are forming as the wind rises, giving them a tinge of pink. There’s a bit of spray coming back from the bows now, sparkling as it arcs up. I should really take a reef but I hold onto full sail for another mile until we bear off around Le Videcoq cardinal mark for the Iles Chausey. The wind is driving a steady army of white backed waves before it now. It’s an army that’s marching towards our intended anchorage. We stand off to take a look at the entrance. Through the binoculars I can see a crowd of masts standing up above the rock of the islands. The anchorage looks quite full and the masts seem to be rolling. There’s white water around the entrance by the look of things too. So it looks as if there are three good reasons not to head in. Maybe it’s not going to be such a beautiful day after all. I feel deflated. The whole reason I’d headed east to Granville was to have a couple of nights anchored among the Iles Chausey.
I leave the genoa furled as we bear off onto a run up the west coast of the islands in 25 knots of wind while I think up plan B. Actually coast is a misleading description. The islands seen from seaward are a loose alliance of brown and back dragon fangs of rock, fringed with white surf jutting apparently randomly, through a boiling blue black sea. We’ll return one day, when the wind’s not in the South East, to anchor in their craggy splendour I promise myself. Today we stick to “the white bits” on the chart (deep water!), dodging the pot buoys. The sea flattens off in the lee of the islands and we pick up some favourable tide. Stargazer is under mainsail only but making 9 knots over the ground. I know what Plan B is now too. As soon as we’re far enough north to clear the islands we head back east to duck behind the Minquiers reefs and make for St Helier on Jersey– which seems our best bet for tonight.
I’m enjoying the sail again, helming subconsciously. Stargazer is running downwind with the swell lifting her along. The bows lift as a trough roll under us. Correct the helm. Stern lifts. Accelerate. Hear the crest hiss through. Gently pull the helm towards me. A sigh as the trough passes under us. Push the helm over. Up we climb again. It’s a hypnotic rhythm in time with the sea. I hear a sharp slap and a splash. I look over. There riding on the wave with Stargazer is a line of grey pointed snouts. Dolphins! There are at least twenty, perhaps thirty dolphins.
Jump for Joy!
Close alongside three dorsal fins appear from under the boat. I stare over and three dolphin eyes stare back. I feel connected. Who’s watching who? They dive under the bows. I follow them forward. Stargazer is now carving somewhat erratically across the waves under autopilot. The sea below her forefoot is thick with the pale forms of Dolphins rolled over on their backs two or three deep. Inches away from that ever moving bow; surfing, cavorting ahead around and under Stargazer. Letting us join their game, inviting us into their world. They streak playfully this way and that, playing dare with the keel. We’re surfing along together; the dolphins and Stargazer. “OK anyone can surf” the dolphins seem to think “if you want to join our gang let’s see you do this” and they start to leap. Long writhing, twisting, muscular, joyful leaps - “match that.” We can’t and they tire of us. Stargazer and I sail on elated, privileged to have been a part of the dolphin’s world for an hour. My heart is full of an emotion that isn’t quite joy, it’s more a mixture of awe and love.A beautiful day after all and spent communing with nature too.