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Leap of faith - 05/09/2011

Read Mark Windsor’s account of his coasteering day trip to Sark.

 

Leaping off rocks into the sea is not something I’ve done much of anywhere except in Guernsey, and that was a long time ago, so I was intrigued when I got the invite from Ant Ford Parker of Outdoor Guernsey to go coasteering in Sark.

 

Leap of faith

 

At around 7.30am on the day we went, a high spring tide lapped over the edges of the St Peter Port seafront before receding to one of the season’s lowest. The sun was shining and all was well with the world by the time a motley group of ten cheerful would-be coasteers met up outside the White Rock café. We were men mostly, aged between 30 and forties, me in my fifties, and then Lauren, who was not in the least perturbed about being the only female, there with her partner, ex GP man Mark Duncan.

 

The plan was to fuel up first with a famous White Rock caf all-English breakfast, but before this we were asked about any medical history/cautions, and then, for those that didn’t have their own gear, sized up for what was needed: climbing helmets, wet suits, buoyancy aids – and specialist boots made from a mix of neoprene uppers and hard rubber soles – ideal for jumping in and climbing out of the water. Outdoor Guernsey is fairly unusual among British companies in currently supplying all this gear – in particular the specialist boots.

 

On the boat over, Ant explained where exactly we’d be going. Although it was a lovely day, the tail end of a strong Southeasterly wind had whipped up a swell. We would be going to Sark’s West coast, close to the Gouliot caves where sea conditions though interesting were in theory a bit more settled. Ant and his son Alfie had reconnoitered the area earlier in the week.

 

‘Sark is special, it’s got such an interesting and beautiful coastline – it has to be up there amongst the best in the British Isles to go exploring, said Ant – and it’s not as if we don’t have a fantastic choice of places also to explore in Guernsey.’ He’s a fun, down to earth bloke with no pretentious airs and graces

 

‘Coasteering he explained after breakfast, is a low carbon foot print activity. Climbing, swimming and jumping in, is only ever going to burn up your own bacon and little else (apart from the boat fuel on the way across). But as a coasteerer said Ant, you have a responsibility of care for the marine environment in which you are operating, and for yourself and your team-mates.’

 

For this reason he emphasized common sense on safety issues and respect for the marine flora and fauna – looking at but not touching what we saw around us – bearing in mind that the ecology of the Goulliot caves that we were later going to explore, was particularly precious.

 

Upon our arrival, the Sarkese made us welcome, Budge Burgess of Sark Estate Manegement kindly provided us an area in which to change into our wet suits. Gear on, we made our way across the island towards the Pilcher Monument and then down the cliff to the moorings at Harvre Gosselin. There, Ant paired us up in a ‘buddy’ system, so that at least one person would always be aware where the other one was, and gave us the low down on signals and safety procedure and on what we were about to do.

 

From a low rock the new ones in the group were given instructions on the art of jumping in – basically feet together, jumping out then holding yourself in the vertical position as you enter the water. When jumping from any height higher than three feet above the water, Ant instructed people to cross their arms and hold them to their chest. Off the higher leaps, holding your arms out is definitely not recommended because the risk of a severe shoulder wrench is a distinct possibility.

 

The next practice leap was from 10 or 12 feet. Ant and Matt made sure that we were all happy and jumping competently. Over the next few hours the rest of us decided fairly intuitively what our limits were, the experienced coasteers generally the more eager to jump off the higher positions. I suspect I didn’t jump off anything higher than 15 feet above the water. But, much fun was had by all and quite a bit of plummeting took place that day.

 

From Havre Gosselin our explorations first of all took us southward, up and over a couple of granite outcrops to jump into a couple of gulleys – the most memorable one led to the entrance to Victor Hugo cave. In the main gulley the swell was periodically quite big and as we progressed through its narrowest part towards the cave, care was needed in the sometimes, churning white water. With protective helmet, wet suit and buoyancy aid it all felt quite manageable, but without them, swimming in such conditions would have been a much riskier thing to do and not one that I’d recommend.

 

Spat out by the sea at the entrance to the cave we scrambled our way over boulders and with a few torches between us explored its darkest recesses. With less light, and being exposed more directly to the full force of the sea, the cave had less in the way of flora than the ones we were to explore later. A fisherman’s bobber was wedged into a recess at its deepest point showing the strong hydraulic forces at work at a different state of the tide – not a place to be trapped on an incoming one. We returned to daylight at the cave entrance. Scrambling over boulders and getting back into the incoming swell required care and the instructors were vigilant here, over-seeing the group’s safety as we ducked under the worst of the surf to swim out through the bottle necked gulley into the open sea. One more gulley and then we clambered up to the highest rock of the day to stop for a drink of water and an energy bar, and take in the views, which were quite spectacular. Ant took the opportunity to recce a high jump, and a safe exit point, and within the next few minutes, five of the group at least, were jumping from a rock platform about 24 feet high, into deep blue green water.

 

Rest break over for the rest of us and we were back on our feet, clambering over rocks that one had to take care with – some of them deceptively slippery. Up and over more granite outcrops, jumping in to and swimming across gulleys, we now headed northward, eventually swimming past the moorings at Harvre Gosselin. We made our way to the Gouliot Caves, la piece de la resistance and the final place to explore on the day’s itinerary. This cave system, which is only fully accessible on a low spring tide, is spectacular and I wished I’d had my own camera.

 

It’s hard to describe the caves and do them justice. On a bright day like this one, they were cathedral-like, with shafts of sunlight piercing the shadows, and the subdued ambient light reflecting off the walls from various other openings, some at sea-level, some above. Lining the walls of some of the caves was some short tufted weed – almost like a carpet of grass, which was still wet after the recently receded tide. Glistening diamonds of light dripped off the weed covered walls into the sea.

 

The caves are famous for the variety of sea anemones, a profusion of the classic deep red ones which, as kids, we called blood suckers, but then a variety of other ones that I don’t recall seeing in Guernsey, green ones with a ring of bright blue at their base, small pink ones in their hundreds and possibly the least spectacular, but absolutely the most rare, white ones, apparently seen nowhere else in the world but here. Then there were bright yellow and orange sponges, and gelatinous grey looking ooze congealing to walls in slimy clumps – massed colonies of creatures we didn’t have a name for – all very precious despite not being quite so attractive.

 

We explored several of the caves, sometimes re-entering the sea to do so. Eventually we all convened in the main cavern from where we made our final exit, climbing up out the entrance, over scree from previous rock-falls and back up to the cliff path. With a boat to catch, it was time to go. We tramped over to the Bel Air, where we changed back into our clothes, feeling tired and satisified after three or four hours of continuous physical activity in one of the most beautiful parts of the Channel Islands.

 

By some strange quirk of fate, there was time for a couple of quick pints and then the bonus of some hot food. Ant had arranged some nosh for us with Kristina the cheerful lady who runs La Petite Poule Bistro. Crusty bread, beer and a fine mess of potage, what more could we ask for? Ten very satisfied customers made their way back to Guernsey. There were no problems sleeping that night.

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