Sailing in Guernsey

A rugged arc of dark ochre rocks sinks into crystalline waters under the watchful eye of an old fort at Petit Bot Bay, on Guernsey’s southern coast. As the tide withdraws, revealing a long expanse of sand, it’s easy to see why, in the words of Royal Channel Islands Yacht Club’s vice commodore John Frankland, ‘in Guernsey, a boat is a way of life’.

There simply is no better way to take in the island’s intricate marvel of cliffs and beaches, no surer means to become at one with the landscape and the people than to go sailing or power boating. ‘Seafaring is part of Guernsey’s history. It’s one of the ways that people living on the island appreciate their surroundings,’ says commodore of the Royal Channel Islands Yacht Club, Matthew Henry.

Nature still has the upper hand in Guernsey and commands a boat’s journey along changeable routes shaped by wind and tide. ‘The prevailing winds will dictate where we go, but here there is so much choice,’ says Mr Frankland. ‘I was out last Saturday, and there was a very brisk wind, but the sun was shining in a very blue sky over a very blue sea and we finished up on the island of Herm.’

When the weather wills it, Herm, which is just three miles east of Guernsey, is a popular destination and not just because ‘you can leave work at 5.30pm and have a beer at the Mermaid Tavern at 6pm,’ as Mr Henry puts it.

The island’s beaches are ‘striking’ and, along some stretches of coastline, vigilant puffins with oversized orange beaks survey the cerulean sea. ‘Around Herm and Jethou, there is a couple of puffin colonies and it’s quite magic to see these comical birds in real life,’ says Mr Frankland.

If Herm is a gentle, bird-peppered confection of azure waters and soft white beaches, Sark, a few miles to the south-east, is jagged, manly, wild. ‘Sark is a gem of an island,’ says Mr Frankland. ‘It has a fantastic coastline. It’s very challenging because it’s very rocky, but it has lots of anchorages, no matter which wind is blowing.’ One of his favourite spots is ‘a little place’ called Gorey. ‘There was silver mining there at the end of the 18th century, and the ruins are still there,’ he explains. ‘Looking at them from the sea is amazing.’

And, of course, he adds: ‘On shore on Sark itself is quite a different place—with lots of good restaurants, too.’

That said, boaters gourmand usually head further afield to France. ‘I have a sailing boat, so I tend to stay there overnight, but on a power boat, it’s very convenient to go there for lunch and back again,’ says Mr Frankland. ‘It takes a couple of hours to get a plate of moules frites in Dielette and come back—unless there are strong, westerly winds.’

But perhaps Guernsey’s greatest attraction is the quiet, everyday pleasure of leaving work behind, journeying along the island’s shores and marvelling at a deserted beach, a quirky rock or the way the light dances on the cliffs at sunset. At Petit Bot, magic rock formations crown the landscape that moved Renoir in the late 19th century. ‘There is a little area, a group of rocks called the Pea Stacks, that inspired one of his most famous paintings,’ says Mr Frankland.

On the opposite site of the island, the rocks and sandy beaches around Beaucette marina are perhaps even more jaw-dropping, even though they weren’t made immortal by an Impressionist’s brush. ‘The marina is in itself quite dramatic, with a very narrow entrance,’ says Mr Frankland.

By contrast, Mr Henry likes to escape to many of the little inlets on the south coast that are only accessible by boat. ‘It’s my stress-buster,’ he says.

And this is a side of boating that the high-flyers who move to the island to join the financial industry rapidly discover. ‘They suddenly realise that boating is there and that they can get into it really quickly,’ says Mr Frankland. ‘They soon see it’s a great asset and become boating people.’

‘It’s also a great way to integrate and meet other people,’ adds Mr Henry.

Of course, negotiating the island’s waters requires some considerable skills, as Mr Frankland, the man who is usually in charge of teaching newbies, well knows. But, he says, it’s well worth the effort of learning. ‘As people often say, if one can sail in Guernsey, one can sail anywhere.’

Commodore Henry recommends

* Shell Beach on Herm: a long expanse of shells and golden sand where, at low tide, the water withdraws to reveal rock pools and islets—‘two completely different sceneries six hours away from each other’

* Fisherman’s Beach on Herm: the best place to watch the sun go down over Guernsey

* Fermain Bay on Guernsey: a small cove on the east coast with a lovely restaurant. ‘It’s only 15 minutes off St Peter Port, so you can go there for your evening meal—nothing could be better’

* Petit Bot on Guernsey: a lovely cover with beautiful cliff scenery

* Havre Gosselin on Sark: an anchorage with steep cliffs on all sides and an interesting passage between Sark and Brecqhou. ‘It’s a high climb to Sark, but the watering holes when you get there are well worth it.’