Tuesday, 27 July 2021

conflicted freedoms

 July has been hectic.

The weather, from a non-sailing perspective at least, has been awesome. But I confess I'm one of those odd souls who loves the heat. 30°C+ and I'm as happy as a clam, soaking up the sunshine. My wife hates it though, as do, I think, most of her fellow home-grown and raised Brits.


From a sailing point of view, all this high pressure has, for the most part, starved us of any useful wind. It hasn't stopped us sailing, and there has been the odd great moment or two, and some very good racing, but it has, for the most part, been a bit of a drift. 


Dad has made the most of it though. We've not had Calstar out since our trip to Cardiff a couple of weeks ago, but he's been regularly going down to Portishead whilst I've been stuck at work, washing and cleaning and oiling and polishing and generally pottering. I expect that when I do finally get back down there she'll be absolutely gleaming.


It's his birthday in a couple of days time.

The Monday after we got back from Cardiff I had a call from my daughter Tash to say she'd tested positive for Covid and was feeling rotten and self-isolating. We half expected a call from Track and Trace to tell us to do the same, as we'd been with her at the open mic night at their pub on the Friday night, but we had neither telephone call nor ping on the vaunted pingdemic NHS app. 

I still spent the week working from home, secluded away from everybody anyway, just in case, watching out for symptoms and regularly sticking swabs from a collection of lateral flow test kits down the back of my throat and up my nose to double check everything was definitely still negative.

Having been double vaccinated and, most likely, having already had it, I figured the odds of catching it myself were small. But you can't be too careful. Needless to say, I was and remain just fine.

Actually, I feel like my body is falling apart. My lower back hurts, a lot, and my left shoulder and my elbow are in a lot of pain. But that's just wear and tear. Or, as my wife would put it, self-inflicted.


July 19th was the dawn of the UK's grand experiment billed by some as "freedom day". Whoever coined that term should be put up against a wall and shot. Not that I don't agree that we need to be moving on, so much of our way of life has been put on hold and with the vulnerable half of the nation now fully vaccinated and the other half well on their way, if not now then when?


Which makes me sound like a Tory politician. Which is kinda rich given my own political leanings. And brings more than a little bit of bile to the back of my throat. 

So I find myself very conflicted over the whole thing.

But as of the 19th, it feels like the decision now to wear a mask or not wear a mask has become more a badge of tribal allegiance than simply a courtesy to your fellow human beings; and with judgment harsh, vocal and equally vitriolic on both sides of the divide.


It does also mean that we're free to spar again at karate on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, which essentially means that I'm free to get kicked in the head again by friends who are younger, faster and much quicker than me. I'm not sure what kind of a reflection it is on my character that I actually welcome that.

It might also go some way towards explaining why my back and my joints ache so much. It certainly explains the bruising on the instep of my left foot.


And the band is back. As of the beginning of July, we'd had one live gig. It was great, but in a strange, sat at their tables, dancing in their seats kind of way. Since then, we've had four more gigs, three of them in the last week.


I even took Nikki to see a gig. A guy called Frank Turner was performing in Gloucester on the 18th. Outside in the grounds of Llanthony Priory on the edge of the Docks just outside the city centre. Still tentatively "under restrictions" until midnight, everybody was sat out on the grass in the sunshine in their socially distanced, demarcated "plots" of ground. It was a lovely evening. I get to do it so rarely, but I really do love watching other people, especially those superb at their chosen craft, perform.


We'd originally planned to go with my daughter and her fiancé Dan, but Tasha was still in the final days of her isolation, although beginning to feel a bit better, so as we sat out in the warm Sunday evening sun watching Frank perform on the distant stage, we video-called her on WhatApp to let her know we were thinking of her and to give her a glimpse of what she was missing.


So far as our own gigs have gone, we've played a couple of pubs and a couple of private parties, one on the back of a boat cruising up the Bristol Avon on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, and the other on a Saturday  night in the hall of the Slimbridge British Legion. It's good to be back. I've really missed it. Although it could explain what's wrong with my left elbow. 


And, if I'm brutally honest, I did for the last eighteen months or so, find myself enjoying the novelty of this thing they refer to as "free time" across the evenings and weekends. So much so that I might actually miss it now that it's gone again. 

If I ever find the time to pause long enough to remember what it was like.


Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Calstar: Cardiff, foul tide fun and rain

It was a good weekend. They usually are as I'm not generally one to sit around idle if I have any choice, but this was a fun one.


On Friday evening there was an "Open Mic Night" at my daughter's pub in Cheltenham, so Dad, Nikki and I went along to support that, with the intention of carrying on down to the boat in Portishead when we were done. I volunteered to take my turn as driver; my slot at the open mic wasn't until 2330, so I figured that was my best chance of staying sober enough to still give a credible performance.


Not that I can't give a credible enough performance with a beer or two in me, but I've done that the last couple of times, so felt this time I it was definitely my turn to let the others have a drink, especially as it would make for such a late night.


Weather forecast was very light for Saturday, but livening up, backing to the south and bringing rain for Sunday. Spring tides meant low water was early afternoon, perfect for a weekend trip to Cardiff and back with Nikki and Dad. With an average of about 4 knots forecast for Saturday, I figured the passage down would be mostly under engine, but with the forecast increasing to 14 knots the following day, we anticipated the sail home would be good, regardless of the promised rain.


Saturday 10th July : Portishead to Cardiff
(20.4 miles, 4 hours 54 minutes underway)


Despite the late night Friday evening, we were up bright and fresh Saturday morning. Despite the forecast not mentioning it, the morning was accompanied by a light drizzle as we prepared the boat to cast off.

We had an outbound lock booked for 1000, but we were ready to go not much later than 0900. A little after 0930 I could see three green lights on the lock gate at the far end of the marina. I called the lock up on the radio to ask if that was for us. They explained the 0930 was running very late, but suggested that if we were ready then we were welcome to join that one instead.


So we cast off at 0940, joined the lock, and by 1000 we were out and following the couple of other yachts that had locked out with us down channel, being carried by the ebb tide and cooled by the continuing drizzle. The sea was calm, with just the faintest whisper of apparent wind straight onto our bow.


By 1025, passing Welsh Hook, the wind had increased a little and our course had veered enough to starboard for the wind to now be coming in over our port bow. We speculatively hauled out the sails and killed the engine. With 8 knots of apparent wind, the canvas filled and the little yacht continued to burble gently along close hauled to port, making 7 knots over the ground with the fair tide under her.

The drizzle persisted, but the day was warm so it almost seemed to evaporate almost as quickly as it settled on you.


Over the next hour and a half we continued on our way, the wind F2 to F3 at best, but our course bearing away onto a close reach as we cleared the confines of the Bristol Deep. The drizzle finally gave up and the sky began to carry the meerest tease of blue. 

Twice we had to tack to avoid collision with one of the prolific navigation buoys; on the Bristol Channel these things are usually the size of a small tug and have their own bow wave. On a close reach we could theoretically have born away, but in each case I didn't have enough confidence in the wind to try and pass up-tide of either and didn't relish the thought of one of them tee-boning us.


Around 1300 we were approaching North Cardiff. We cut in close over the shallows of the spoil grounds. The sea was flat, we were early on the tide and it wasn't a big one as far as springs go; even the low water of 1.8m would've been enough to have seen us over the shallows, and that was still an hour off.


Passing astern of one of the Bristol Channel's resident dredgers "Orca", at anchor in the Roads, we dropped our sails and started the engine off the foreshore of Penarth. Picking our way down the Wrack Channel so late on the tide was a little nerve wracking, absolutely no pun intended. For most of the way down the main channel, we were sounding less than 0.5m under our keel. Once we got into the short cut that led off the channel and into the outer harbour, we stopped looking and just picked our way very tentatively down the centre of the channel.

Barrage Control held the lock for us for a few minutes extra, and by 1333 we were alongside lock #2 and lifting into Cardiff Bay with a small powerboat for company. They light heartedly remarked at how "bottom clenchingly" shallow they'd found the low water approach to the lock themselves.


Instead of heading straight into Penarth where we had our berth for the night booked, we made our way over to the visitor pontoons in Mermaid Quay and spent the afternoon there where we found a very nice Italian restaurant called Bellini's and we enjoyed a late lunch / early supper with a couple of beers and a very fine view of the bay.


Dad had the Pollo alla Crema and proclaimed it was the best meal out he'd had in an absolute age. So they obviously got the portion sizes right. Nik had the risoto and I had Spaghetti alla Marinara. And it was delicious. We shall certainly be back.


The trip back across the bay to Penarth was completely uneventful. A mile and a half under engine, beneath a warm sky and the usual warm welcome of Penarth Marina at the end of it.


Sunday 11th July : Penarth to Portishead
(19.3 miles, 6 hours 20 minutes underway)

Cardiff low water wasn't predicted until 1440 Sunday afternoon, high water Portishead 2115, the first lock opening at 1730. The morning was sunny, but heavy rain was predicted for later in the afternoon, wind forecast to be in the south at up to 15 knots.


We had a very acceptable breakfast on the patio of a cafe called The Galley overlooking the marina. I'd normally lock out an hour or two after low water to head back up to Penarth, but with a stiff wind in the south and the promise of a drenching later in the afternoon, we decided to leave early, head out south around the sand banks of Cardiff Grounds and then punch our way back up channel to make what headway we could against the last of the foul tide.

So we cast off at 1200. The prop walk to port on the Westerly can be a bit of a handful sometimes, and having left our berth, our progress astern down the fairway between the pontoons to where Dad had intended to turn the boat in the main channel was suddenly impeded by a gaggle of paddle-boarders.

As the way fell off and the rudder lost authority, there was a brief moment of nerves as we found ourselves being blown onto the boats berthed to leeward, but Dad rescued it, turning the boat around within the confines of the space available with a combination of nudges ahead to starboard and gentle walks astern to port with the prop.


Leaving the marina we called up Barrage Control and were allocated a space in lock #2 again for the 1230 lockout. We had the lock to ourselves and it was a long, long drop down to the outer harbour.


By 1250 we were in the Penarth Roads in a brisk wind, sails up and the engine off. Close hauled with the first reef in the main and a roll and a half in the headsail, we tacked off to starboard once clear of the outer banks of the wrack and beat a course out to the southern tip of the outer sandbanks of Cardiff Grounds.


The sea was short and choppy but no more than a meter and the wind enthusiastic, drawing some grim frowns from my wife as the little boat heeled over to 20° or so and bashed her way through the chop. Dad was uttering words to the effect that I just couldn't help myself and didn't I realised he was trying to tidy up down below, with Nik muttering "It's the racer in him" as if the lively weather and the need to beat south before we could turn north were somehow all my fault.

Although I confess, I was enjoying myself.

By 1326 we turned around the southern end of the Cardiff Grounds sandbank, bearing away towards the Monkstone and straight into the throat of a still very foul tide. Set on a beam reach, our speed fell away to just a little over 3 knots, suggesting we were carrying more than a respectable 5 knots actually through the water. 


On the other side of the channel I could see half a dozen yachts close together beating hard down channel towards the Holms, a small racing fleet from Portishead Cruising Club.

The South Cardiff lateral passed a couple of cables to port. Holding a steady course was quite tricky, as the slightest adjustment of a couple of degrees would put the tide hard onto one side of the bow or the other, pushing our actual course over the ground more than twenty degrees in one direction or another for just a couple of points tweaked on the autohelm. 


By 1405 were passing the east cardinal marker called Hope. Our progress past felt painfully slow. The wind was gusty and the sea choppy and confused, needing a careful eye kept on the course in case an unanticipated shift or eddy sent us ferry gliding into the navigation mark. With all this open sea out here you'd think they'd be easy to miss, but they seem to attract fibreglass in the same way a magnet sucks up iron filings.


1511 and the tide was just beginning to ease. We were west of the shallows of the English Grounds, approaching North Elbow. The sea had calmed as the tide turned with the wind, but the rain had caught us, enfolding us in its murky, sodden embrace as it rolled its course up channel.


1607, and despite the wind easing, we were now making 4.2 knots over the ground as we closed on the Avon buoy, a starboard lateral off the shores of Clevedon that marks the start of the King Road shipping channel that leads up to Avonmouth and Royal Portbury Dock. For the last hour, the rain had come down in an absolute deluge, but now it was beginning to ease a little. 

Out from the slowly brightening gloom astern we could see four or five dark sails slowly catching us up, the racing fleet on their return to Portishead, and potential competition for the first lock when they inevitably beat us back.


By 1639 the wind had lightened considerably, although the light rain persisted. The tide was now running hard in our favour, we were making 7 knots over the ground despite being under-canvassed in the failing air as we made our way along the Portishead shore and past Black Noir Point. I shook the reefs out of the sails.


At 1710, standing into the back eddy off the breakwater outside Portishead, we lowered our sails and started the engine, calling up the marina to request a lock in and being cheerfully invited to await our turn. Four of the racing yachts were clustered together off the end of the breakwater, crowding the gap between it and the muddy spit that was the entrance to the shelter of Portishead Hole. My guess is that one of them had tried to enter, but had grounded in the mud.


As she lifted off and the clutch of them moved away from the entrance, we slipped in. Ahead we could see the lock gates opening. The marina called us up on the VHF to ask our draught; they claimed they had a meter over the cill, and when we confirmed we drew just less than that, they invited us to try out luck and enter if we fancied our chances, and promised to take it very, very gently.


So we headed in. We could feel the soft mud sucking at our keels on the initial approach, but once we out of the Hole and into the throat of the outer lock channel, the mud released us and we tentatively pushed our way past the maw of the gates without mishap. We put alongside the starboard pontoon at the far end, nestled up to the massive, weeping edifice of the inner gate, leaving the deeper port side to the bigger boats, once they were eventually able to join us.


Over the next half an hour as the tide slowly rose, they managed to fit five of the six racers in along with a couple of fishing boats; eight of us in total crammed into the close confines of the lock.

When the sluices opened, the water rushed in as usual in an absolute torrent. One of our fenders threatened to pop up, so I put what weight on it I could to stop it popping out completely and Dad handed me a spare from our offside to push down into the gap in support; however the lock keeper, attentive as ever, saw my struggle and eased the flow briefly to let me push the fender back home. Checked we were alright over the radio, and receiving a thumbs up from me, they re-released the deluge.


At 1820 we put Calstar in uneventfully alongside her home berth, our journey over, and the only thing left to do to was unship our overnight bags into my waiting car, make her tidy and secure, and head home. 

The rain continued, unrelenting.

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Calstar: under the bridge

Saturday 19th June : Portishead, out and back
(16.5nm, 4 hours 20 minutes underway)

The weather seems uninspiring as far as the forecast went, but the boat was now near at hand. Nikki was working both Saturday and Sunday and it seemed a bit cheeky to go away again the weekend after I'd just got back from bringing the boat back from Plymouth. However, her shift started at 1100, and Saturday's high water at Portishead was a neap of only 10.7m expected at 1443, so it seemed a shame for Dad and I not to take the opportunity to take Calstar out for a sail for the day.

So we did just that. 

We cast off at 1140 and made our way around the marina to the lock, Dad putting her alongside to starboard in the bit of space left on the pontoon behind a much larger yacht than us ahead, handling the boat like he'd been manoeuvring Westerly Griffons in and out of locks all his life.

Alongside, and settled in waiting for the gates to close behind us, I was momentarily surprised to hear somebody calling my name. 

It took me a moment to realise who it was before I recognised one of our old friends from Portishead Cruising Club, Ray Chappell, although in my defence he was on a bike and not in his boat and wearing a hoodie and sunglasses.  


Ray is the skipper of the yacht "Lionheart of Clyde", a lovely 40' Hans Christian Christina, that we'd last sailed in the company of on our last trip from Portishead up the Severn to Gloucester and back, via the Sharpness Canal, some few years back, which was when the photo above was taken.

Not long after that trip Ray and Lionheart left to begin his first circumnavigation, crossing the Atlantic and heading west through the Panama Canal. They are about half way around now, the boat unfortunately marooned by the present pandemic in Malaysia, and Ray currently back in the UK awaiting the opportunity to return and continue their journey.

It was good to catch up.


Calstar shared the lock out with three other yachts. We were last in and therefore last out, and the procession out to the end of the breakwater seemed terribly slow. Once past the breakwater however, with a nice breeze blowing in from the eastern bank, we didn't waste any time getting the sails up and the engine off, and were soon on a very comfortable close reach to starboard, being carried up towards the bridge.

I measured our apparent wind at 10.5 knots, which came as a pleasant surprise as the forecast had been for much less. The Windfinder app, as reliable as I've always found it to be, doesn't account for the Severn's tide.

With the wind blowing in over the eastern shore it lacked any kind of fetch so the water was very calm. Dad and I entertained ourselves for a while arguing about where the Bristol Channel became the Severn Estuary and where the Severn Estuary became the mouth of the River Severn. We didn't reach a conclusion, other than neither of us were sure anybody had an answer.


Having now "researched" it on the Internet, Wikipedia does confirm that the Bristol Channel ends on a line running from Hartland Point in Devon to St Govan's Head in Pembrokeshire in Wales. Which is about where we met so many dolphins the other week. The Severn Estuary begins on a line between Sand Point in Somerset (just up-channel from Weston-Super-Mare) and Lavernock Point, immediately south of Penarth on the edge of Cardiff Bay.

So when we sail from Portishead to Cardiff, which I suspect will become a regular trip once again now we're back, we don't actually leave the Severn Estuary.

According to the same Wikipedia entry, the Severn Estuary extends from there all the way up channel "to the limit of its tidal influence near Gloucester" which must, I imagine, mean the weirs at Maisemore and Llanthony respectively. Albeit the tide does, on big springs flood a lot further up river from there, covering both weirs to the extent that we can sail a Drascombe Lugger over them.

The draft of which is no more than we have on our Griffon. But the bridges (and any remaining shreds of sanity we have) would quickly put pay to the idea of taking Calstar up that far. 

So I think we were both right. Our home sailing area is the Severn Estuary, and the Severn Estuary is the mouth of the River Severn.

But I digress.


My original plan was to only sail up as far as the West Cardinal beacon marking the Lower Shoots, round it to starboard and then reach back against the tide until it turned. The area between the two bridges is complicated with rocks and sandbanks, although with 10 meters of tide, only the well marked and very visible Charston and Chapel Rocks should have been any danger.

But I've known more than a couple of friends out of Lydney that have found themselves grounded on either the rocks or sands in this area on a falling tide, and I wasn't keen to join that particularly exclusive club.


But the tide was still flooding hard by the time we reached the Lower Shoots beacon, and Dad was clearly thrilled by the idea of sailing up under the bridge again, so we carried on up.


Passing under the bridge is always a bit of a thrill. I don't know why, but it is. You have the distant rumble of the motorway traffic overhead muted by the roar of the water as it hits and divides around the footings of the bridge. The flow eddies and swirls, the wind heads and backs as the pillars of the long, sweeping bridge interfere with it. From a distance it seems like an improbably small gap to fit between, though you know they get cargo ships through here with little difficulty, and then in the last moments as you quickly close in, the gap opens up and you're swept through.

Through to the other side, you steer to port to avoid the beacon marking Old Man's Head and the surrounding rocky ledge, and then to starboard to steer between Charston Rock and the submerged Dumplings. The water in the channel swirls and lifts and tumbles in eddies and counter eddies, even on the otherwise smooth sea.


Two of the other yachts that had locked out with us had clearly had the same idea and were ahead, and another, possibly out of St Pierre's Pill was already up here, pottering about outside the mouth of the Wye.

By the standards of Plymouth Sound and the seas between there and Falmouth, this number of boats would count as a still empty sea. By local standards it almost felt like traffic congestion.


We carried on up the roiling channel between Charston and Dun Sands, the tide easing but not quite yet reversing its flow. The smaller of the two Portishead yachts ahead reached the mouth of the Wye and turned back, passing us to windward as they headed slowly back towards the bridge. The larger of the two eventually tacked, but set off in the direction of the eastern bank. We turned ourselves a little while after and headed back down channel, the last vestige of the flood tide still punching against us.


It was an uneventful sail back, a nice easy reach, the wind easing off as the tide turned, but never quite failing. We finally dropped our sails and put the engine on somewhere at the top of the King Road between the Firefly and Outer starboard laterals, then crabbed our way back inshore across the ebbing tide to the shelter of the breakwater and the Hole. Calling up for a lock on Channel 80, we were told the 1545 would be ready for us.


Bringing Calstar back in behind the breakwater against the ebb tide, I was struck by just how much alike it was to landing a glider in a crosswind. You come in with the craft slewed quite markedly into wind (or tide) with the rudder to counteract the drift, and then at the last moment, just before you touch (or in the boat's case, you hit the slack water behind the breakwater) you have to "kick the drift off" to land clean and in a straight line.


We loitered in the shelter of the Hole outside the lock for about fifteen minutes before the gates opened and we were able to enter, coming alongside to starboard. A few minutes later the big yacht we'd followed up channel arrived in the lock behind us, going alongside to port assisted by a burst of bow thruster. The gates closed and the sluices opened, and the waters of the narrow lock turned into a boiling maelstrom and swiftly rose.


It was a great day's sailing, and we got home in time for tea, although Nik finished work and went out to bingo with a friend (a "game" I'll never understand the appeal of) so I didn't catch up with her until much later in the evening.


Interestingly, the GPS log recorded 4 hours and 20 minutes from casting off to being back alongside our berth, but Strava only tracked 4 hours and 1 minute of "moving time", suggesting, although I didn't note it in my log, that we spent 19 minutes in total in the lock, both locking out and then back in.


It doesn't, of course, account for the twenty minutes or so we spent outside in the Hole waiting to get back in, as although we were under power, we didn't sit completely still in the shelter of the breakwater. In total, the engine ran for just over an hour. So we had three hours of very pleasurable sailing out of the day in which we covered around 16 miles up and back down again.