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Guernsey to Alderney via The Swinge

5th September 2021

An article from club member Peter Baylis recounting his experiences on a recent trip to The Channel Islands

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It’s not in my nature to brag about my cock-ups, but I want to share this one, as it might help you to avoid a similar unpleasant and potentially disastrous situation. It’s serious and I feel bad about it; so maybe a confession will help me too!

A bit of background. I’m an old bloke in his early eighties - perhaps not as nimble as I used to be, but fit in body and sound of mind. I’ve been messing about in boats for most of my adult life and have been a serious sailor for over 30 years. I have the RYA Yachtmaster Offshore qualification and have owned and sailed a Hallberg Rassy 36 for the last 16 years.

I’m a cautious sailor who is becoming more risk averse with the years. Before I retired I was heavily involved with aircraft safety, which included investigating accidents to determine their cause and the implementation of action to prevent a reoccurrence. Without doubt, some of that safety culture has bled across into my sailing world.

Now, here’s the thing. I’ve recently returned from a trip to the Channel Islands with a friend who is a very experienced and knowledgable sailor. We spent a few pleasant days in Guernsey and Sark and decided to spend our last night in Alderney. It’s the 20 mile trip from Guernsey to Alderney that I want to talk about.

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We set off from St Peter Port at high water minus three hours to take advantage of the north east going stream - a fair tide all the way to Braye Harbour. There’s only a light wind in the Little Russel and it’s from the north east so right on the nose - definitely a motoring job. The engine is a powerful Volvo Penta D2 55 and is quiet as it smoothly propels us along at between 6 and 7 knots. The sun is shining and, as we yarn and eat our pork pies, we’ve not a care in the world. We’re heading for one of the UK’s most dangerous stretches of water, but why should we care - we’ve done it dozens of times before and have never had a problem. “The Swinge? - piece of cake mate” - confidence personified!

We head on north towards the infamous Pierre au Vraic Rock that uncovers at low water leaving it well to starboard. A mile or so north of Pierre au Vraic we start our turn to starboard and into the Swinge. Now, the north west coast of Alderney is about a mile to starboard and the rocky island of Burhou - with its refuge hut at the summit - is half a mile to port.

We’re now in the overfalls and the fair tide is carrying us over the ground at 10 knots. All very exciting - the overfalls are a spectacular sight, but the boat remains steady and under control. It was at this point that we notice that whilst heading north east towards Braye Harbour at 10 knots, which is good, the tide is also taking us to the north towards the rocky shore of Burhou, which is very bad.

We assess the situation for a minute or so and I start clicking plus 10’s on the autohelm to take us away from Burhou and it’s rocky southern coastline. It doesn’t seem to be working - the rocks are now getting rapidly closer. I dash below to check the chart plotter and to my horror we’re now over a green bit on the chart. At this point my mate shouts that the depth is down to 7 metres and he simultaneously initiates a 90 degree turn to starboard and pushes the throttle forward to full chat.

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The horror ends as quickly as it started. Within seconds that 55 horse power of Volvo engineering has slowly but surely clawed us away from danger and into deep water. The next 15 minutes or so to Braye Harbour are uneventful and with little conversation between us - I reckon we’re both thinking about how near we had come to disaster.

How near did we come to disaster? Well, in my opinion we were within seconds of striking rocks, and travelling at 10 knots in overfalls that would not have ended well. The Hallberg Rassy is a sturdy and well-found boat, but, at that speed, I suspect that her bottom would have been ripped out and the boat a total loss. As for us - who knows. Pitched into overfalls with a strong tide - without lifejackets - as an eighty year-old I rate my chances of survival as just about zero.

Lessons learned. If I ever navigate the Swinge again - and at this moment I don’t want to - these are the changes I would make. You can probably think of more.

1. Wear a life jacket - it’s too late to put one on when problems suddenly happen. If you can’t wear one all of the time at least do so when sailing towards any sort of hazard, rough sea or at night.

2. Don’t rely on the autohelm in a tidal race. I love my autohelm and have no wish to steer for hours on end; but, when you require precise and immediate course correction, turn it off and keep your hands on the wheel.

3. Don’t rely on eyeball navigation. Plot safe waypoint on your chart plotter before you set off and keep an on-going monitor to ensure you stay on the line.

4. On this specific trip from Guernsey to Alderney via the Swinge, leave the rock hazard Pierre Vraic to port. Leaving it to starboard as we did took us a couple of unnecessary miles to the west of Alderney and a greater opportunity to be swept to the north and the rocks. I think it better to keep closer to Alderney and the south side of the Swinge where it seems to be calmer, bearing in mind of course its outlying rocks - Corbet Rocks being a good example.

That’s it folks. I feel a bit better getting this sad story of my chest. But my main reason for writing it is to maybe prevent others from a similar experience. Happy and safe sailing to you all.

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