Much of their success can be attributed to the quality, variety and consistency of their waves which has led to the overall high standard of surfing. This in turn means that Jersey has produced numerous surfers who have competed at national and international levels over the years and a pioneer in the European surf industry with Freedom. But, with all of that said, it is only part of the story…….
Approximately 24 miles Northwest of Jersey sits a little known gem: the small Island of Guernsey. Seemingly happy to take the back seat much of the time and bask in obscurity, they have often kept themselves to themselves, largely due to the costs of travel over the year. This has not always been the case with a thriving club in the 60’s and again in later years from the 1980’s through to early 2000. Periodically Guernsey surfers emerge to rival the Jersey boys or make their mark on a wider stage.
Recent exposure on TV has brought Guernsey, and Sark, much positive publicity, capturing its charm and showing the lives of some of its residents. Guernsey is a beautiful island, measuring a mere 25 square miles with a population of around 66,000-68,000 people. It is the westernmost and second largest of the Channel Islands and the correct name to apply is ‘The Bailiwick of Guernsey’ as it includes the stunning islands of, Alderney, Sark, Herm, Brecqhou and Jethou as part of the domain. These Islands are situated in the Bay of St Malo. Closer to France than England, they are nevertheless the southernmost point of the British Isles, although they were once French and were part of the early Norman territories (1066 and all that!). This French connection is reflected in the laws and legal language, and in the many French family, street and district names. It was only a few decades ago when Guernsey French ‘patois’ was a common sound in the outer parishes as well as on market stalls in town, but this has sadly rapidly declined over recent years, precipitated by the evacuation in WWII.
Guernsey’s geology is mostly igneous rock and the surf spots are largely reef and boulder waves with a few sand bottomed breaks dotted around the coast. With an enormous 10 metre tidal range, a North Western aspect, narrower swell window, small enclosed bays and some blocking outer reefs, conditions are understandably not that consistent. Also, things can change rapidly and local knowledge, plus a nippy car, are essential to make the most of the situation. Despite these drawbacks, the waves are invariably crowded and even mid-week sessions at the best breaks are often busy.
Now, let’s break down a few things that spring to mind when we think about “The Rock” as it’s affectionately known. Firstly, it’s a pretty cool place to live and to grow up. It’s surrounded by natural beauty and the fact that it’s so small means it’s never very far to go for surf as one can easily access coasts that face differing directions to make the most of the conditions. It has a genuine community feel to it as everyone knows everyone else, especially down the beach. The biggest drawback being a surfer here, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, is the surf itself.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom for a Guernsey surfer. There are a couple of good things that we benefit from. The most notable being that when the winds are howling onshore, that’s good news for us whereas Jersey has less options when the wind is high and St Ouen’s is blown out! There can’t be many places in the world that benefit from onshore wind. Our beach breaks are at their best in these conditions. They can get quite powerful and have the shape, which they may lack in an offshore wind. Also, westerly onshore winds can light up the northern breaks such as L’Ancresse/Pembroke beach breaks, and the point at Fort le Marchant. These can all be excellent on their day; well shaped, pokey and off-shore….. even hollow!! Large swells and west to North West winds can see locals heading to the south coast breaks at Petit Port or Petit Bot and equally big swells can even produce good surf in the shelter of Rocquaine Bay or tucked in below the Richmond and Albecq headlands. So, there are a variety of options to chase down!
For many of the high performance surfers, their favourite, and arguably the islands most fun wave, is ‘Centres’ which is cross-offshore in a SW wind (our predominant wind) which is almost the best wind for the spot. This is perfect when we get those strong Autumn/Winter storms together with our characteristic big spring tides.
Finally, there’s also the bonus of knowing that usually when you go on a surf trip, 9 out of 10 times you ARE going to get better waves than you are likely to see at home!
I know what you’re thinking, that whole intro to the world of surfing in Guernsey is a bit negative, but the truth is, like anywhere in the world, when all the elements come together it can get pretty damn good. Plus it is our home and a great place to share with friends. Whilst it may not be world class, as we do lack any kind of regular, consistently hollow barrelling waves, when it all comes together it can be a pretty special place to surf and the different types of waves prepare surfers for a variety of conditions and breaks from beach to reef and even point. If you’re at the right place at the right time you’ll score.
Also, we just look at what surrounds us to appreciate our home. The scenery of the west coast has something to offer everyone; from the eerie offshore jagged rocks and reefs that have plagued sailors for centuries, to the white sandy bays etched into the coastline. The south coast offers unmatched beauty and tranquillity, whilst the entire coastline of Guernsey is dotted with towers and forts, that remind us that this island once was not so peaceful and laid back.
The Rock is home to a decent variety of waves. The best place to start is the hub of Guernsey surfing, which is, without a doubt, Vazon Bay. Vazon is the biggest surfable bay; it’s the most surfed and has a number of different spots within the bay. This is where pretty much every Guernsey surfer learnt and got hooked. We can all still remember the feelings bombarding the senses when learning at Vazon. Surely you too remember the times when standing up and going straight in the wash was the greatest thing in the world!
If we forget the waves just for a second, I think the first thing anyone notices at Vazon is the Fort on the northern headland. Fort Hommet was built in the Victorian times as part of anti-French defences. The Germans later expanded it in the 1940’s during World War II. In the 1980’s it was restored and has unrestricted parts that you can walk around. If you were to go up there during a decent swell, you would have a pretty cool perspective of the bay; seeing the back of swells roll in with a dozens of black dots scrambling around is an unfamiliar viewpoint. Vazon also has a great new beach café Vistas that serves up a wicked full English, much needed after a long early morning session! Vazon Bay itself offers six main surf spots depending on what the swell, wind and tides are doing.
Firstly, is the most surfed spot on the island “The Beach”. In 1968 the Surf Club negotiated with the local government, ‘The States’ to have an area of the beach specifically for surfing. This has proved a fine legacy and has helped with managing the beach for all users over the years and has been fundamental in protecting the development and progress of surfing in Guernsey. This area offers slow crumbling waves that peel, predominantly right, towards the gap in the reef known as ‘The Alcove’ with the occasional left spinning off the side of the reef. This is the favourite spot for a large cross-section of surfers including the local longboard community, beginners, several talented short-boarders like Nathan Browning, Ben Gathercole, Matt Phillips who favour ‘fish’ or similar high volume craft, and is also site of the surf school, which has now been running for five years. This bay is also shared with kite-boarders, windsurfers and, most recently, a group of Kayakers. In the main this works out well with few clashes and a general air of cooperation; an imperative considering the situation. Beginners have been allocated a designated area north of the central steps and this is also the domain of the Guernsey Surf School.
During big swells in stormy winter months the beach can offer some very fun waves albeit a very long paddle out and some of the worst ice cream headaches going!
Next to the beach is the Reef. The Reef is a high tide spot that consists of a short left and right hander. Both have nice steep takeoffs with the odd cover up. The right can have walls to carve whilst both offer long rides into the beach. This is usually where people are initiated into surfing over rocks and was always a baptism of fire in the days prior to the advent of the leash; a lost board meant a dinged board. It was the advent of the leash that also opened up all the reefs at Perelle and The Fort as a lost board at these venues was ‘curtains’.
To the left of the Reef is T’Others (short for The Other Side/T’Otherside but not sure where the Yorkshire element came from- 1960’s kitchen sink dramas!!). It has a rock and sand bottom and offers arguably the longest right hander on the island. On a big swell with a good sand bar in place it can have some fun playful walls. It is generally a slowish, walled up peeling wave with a sucky, fast inside section peeling (collapsing) into the shorebreak. Although a big favourite among the Longboard riders, when a strong swell hits it can morph into a classic performance wave, enjoyed by all surfers. Although this only several times a year it is worth the wait. Just out to sea is a left and a sometime right called ‘Suck Reef’ which is a bit of a Bommie but has a decent left wall with a significant swell and even a powerful, shallow walled up right-hander on occasions.
At the south end of Vazon sits probably the islands best high performance wave called ‘(Inside) Centres’. It needs a spring high tide and a decent swell to start breaking. It is a favourite of the higher performing surfers who revel in the fast, sometimes tubing wave. It offers a nice peaky take off giving you enough speed to lay down big turns or boost airs. It’s got a nice sucky draw to the wave that the rest of the spots in the bay lack. Unfortunately, due to its close proximity to shore, it gets ridiculously crowded and collisions are pretty common when it’s on. This wave is a reform on an inside reef with ‘Outside Centres’ being the initial break and the wave that was originally surfed in the 1960’s. It is still a favourite when it is on and can also produce lefts and rights with a decent wall that can even be surfed through to the inside on certain days. Terry le Pelley surfed ‘Inside Centres’ alone in the mid 60’s first as he was not a confident swimmer whilst the rest were on ‘Outside Centres’. Barney Devenport nicknamed it ‘poop –poo’s Pipeline’ …. a ‘poop-poo’ is a Guernsey term for a bit of a softy so ‘Chicken’s Pipeline’!
‘Richmond Corner’ is at the South end of Vazon and is irregularly surfed as it fires when strong winds blow and a big swell is running. This can be a rare classic but rips are draining and peaks shift despite being over reefs.
Moving north is Portinfer. The larger section of short boarders choose to surf here from mid-tide down as it picks up slightly more swell, has more power and offers the opportunity to perform more manoeuvres on a wave. It does close out a fair bit but when you do get a good one, usually a few each session, you can snag a pretty fun wave.
Portinfer is where the majority of performance surfing now takes place. It’s where all ‘the boys’ have each charged over the years, particularly since the 80’s.These talented surfers, many of whom are listed above, yet many others who are not mentioned, were an inspiration to those succeeding them and to each other.
Moving back south of Vazon is Guernsey’s premier spot, Perelle. Perelle is situated behind a little offshore island called Dom Hue. Here at high tide you can find a decent left with a slab-like take-off and a long walling rid and opposite breaks a fun carvable point break style right which can handle the best of swells. The right can have a challenging take-off which then leads into a long, walling, peeling ride with an inside tubing section in the right conditions.
There is also an excellent right breaking in the middle on neap tides and off course, The Big Peak which can be a really enjoyable wave on a small tide with a decent swell running. It has a big, challenging drop and a large wall to carve when the swell is more from the North. Shall we also mention the sometime hollow right reef that reels off behind the rocky outcrop in the marine reserve ….Nah!!
Even though one can paddle out without getting your hair wet, all these waves are best left to the guys that know what they are doing as they are powerful at times and the inside is very rocky and unforgiving. Novices can get into quite a bit of trouble out here if their paddling isn’t strong and if they don’t have a good duck diving capability, they could well see themselves washed into the jagged outcrops of rocks surrounding the island fronting the breaks.
It is fair to say that surfing is thriving in Guernsey and three surf shops serving surfers needs: Pete Norman’s ‘Freedom’ at L’Islet, Johnny Wallbridge’s and Robin Ozanne’s ‘Yak Wax’ opposite Portinfer and Brian Vohman’s ‘Sail or Surf’ based in St Peter Port, along with some other more boutique style shops selling surf orientated gear. The surf school is popular throughout the summer and is successful sharing the stoke with the newcomers of all ages.
The club has their 50th Anniversary next year which makes it one of the oldest clubs in the world. Maybe we are not such an obscure backwater after all!!
Condor Ferries from Poole & Portsmouth – www.condorferries.co.uk
By air from Gatwick, Bristol, East Midlands, Stansted, Manchester, Southampton – www.aurigny.com
By air from Gatwick, Southampton, Exeter, Birmingham, Norwich, Edinburgh – www.flybe.com
By air with www.BlueIslands.com with links to Europe- Schipol Amsterdam, Paris, Chambery, Geneva and Zurich
Customs and excise are efficient and vigilant in protecting Guernsey and have a zero tolerance towards importation or use of recreational drugs. Infringment of the law leads to imprisonment and heavy fines .
www.visitguernsey.com – details of self catering, guest houses, hotels etc.
www.gsysurf.com – Vazon Bay webcam and surf report
depending upon where and when you surf, a longboard, fun-board or performance shortboard with a bit more volume are all appropriate for Guernsey.
Hire of boards and wetsuits from Guernsey Surf School, Vazon or through Yak Wax Surf shop
Shorty for hot summer days or 3/2mm-2mm spring/summer suits from June/July-Oct.
A 4/3mm is often good from October/ November through to January although a top of the range suit with decent thermal vest etc can maybe get you through all but the coldest winter.
Generally a 5,4,3 steamer for winter, often with boots, gloves and hood as conditions dictate. It all depends on your tolerance!!