Were it not for the sheer brutality of the tides, the ever present threat of hidden rocks, treacherous shoals and the complete lack of second chances if you get any of the above wrong, I think the sailing area between Avonmouth and Sharpness would be the perfect ground to practice pilotage in the dark.
The estuary is exceptionally well marked with lit buoyage and very obvious leading lights, and mostly uncluttered by light pollution from the shore; once you're away from Avonmouth and Royal Portbury, you're out in the sticks, in the middle of the post-industrial, rural South West of England and Wales. And from about Portishead and above, it's relatively quiet. We get a bit of commercial traffic in and out of the above mentioned ports, and the occasional coaster up and down from Sharpness, but it's more the exception than the rule. There's really very little to run you down.
But, it has to be said, the afore mentioned tides, rocks and shoals are each an immovable reality, as is the relative lack of sea room. So it's not really the perfect ground to practice anything.
To date, my whole experience of night sailing has been bringing our Lugger "Ondine" back across from Sharpness to Lydney a couple of times after sailing the Gloucester Ring. A mile of water with a single red light to aim for on Lydney Harbour wall, where the only complication is about 6 knots of tide trying to push you back up river again in the opposite direction to the one you need to go; fun, but it doesn't really count.
I've also raced dinghies a couple of times at night. But a half dozen 12' Gull dinghies blundering their way around the cans on a 50 acre lake doesn't really count either.
So I should probably have been slightly more anxious about finding our way from Portishead to Sharpness yesterday, given that the first two hours of that three hour leg of our trip up to Gloucester was going to be in darkness. I think Dad was definitely anxious enough for both of us. I was a little apprehensive, to not be at all so when dealing with the waters around here at any time of day or night would be stupid, but I was mostly excited. It was something new, and something I've wanted to do for a long, long time.
So when, on joining Portishead Cruising Club earlier this year, they mentioned they were planning to cruise in company up to Gloucester over the Easter weekend, we felt it would have been rude not to have agreed to join in with them.
I know the chart between Avonmouth and Hock Cliff above Sharpness well. We've been sailing up at Lydney and dreaming of coming down-channel for years. The chart in question has been laid out on a table in my office for most of those years. I've read the pilotage notes countless times, and I'd spent hours going over our planned course in the week leading up to this trip. "Prepared" is a very comfortable feeling.
The lock-out at Portishead was booked for 5am Friday morning, so Dad and I headed down to the boat Thursday evening, and after a couple of pints in the pub next to the Marina where we caught up with friends from PCC who were also sailing, turned in, setting the alarm for 0330 the next morning.
Should have set it for 0300. I should have realised that to lock in for 0500 we'd likely be leaving the berth at 0430, and half an hour is not a lot of time for your first cup of tea. Not the end of the world however, and although last in, we were on time and settled into the lock with five other boats from the Club that were heading up with us.
The lock went down, the gates opened and dark lay out beyond the comfort of the amber-lit lock basin like a gloom-wove welcoming mat. With less than 10 kts of wind forecast from the south-west, I was expecting the water to be relatively flat but it was disconcerting to not be able to see it beyond the lights of Portishead breakwater. Dad, on the helm as he always is when we're under power, hung back. He's still allergic to other boats in close proximity, and seems to consider half a mile or more pretty proximate. The five disappeared off into the gloom beyond the breakwater, the shape of their hulls disappearing into the murk until only the will-o'-the-whisp glow of their stern lights could be made out, dancing with the competing glimmer of the lit but distant second bridge.
The Sony tablet with the chart plotting software was heaven sent. Actually, it wasn't. I bought it with hard earned gig-money, so heaven had little to do with it. However, although I found it much easier to orientate myself than I'd feared even without its assistance, it was hugely reassuring to be able to take a quick glance at the screen to confirm that any given light was the actually glow I thought I was looking at, and to see the line stretching out from the little green icon of our boat marking where our course over ground was actually going to take us over the next twelve minutes, all other things being equal.
There was hardly any wind, and what little there was blew from the south west, so was completely absorbed by the flooding tide. We kept the engine running, Dad stayed on the helm, and we motored up.
The bridges were beautifully lit up in the dark, moonless night. The amber glow of the sky over Avonmouth disappeared behind us as the Shoots swept us up under the Second Severn Crossing, and we altered course to pass Chapel Rock to port and slip under the old Severn Bridge. Picking out the various marks in the dark was simple, though I'm not sure if I'd have been as blithely confident without the certainty of the plotter running on my tablet to confirm my various identifications were correct.
Sunrise was less an event and more a lessening of gloom into twilight and then dawn as we turned hard to port past the Hen and Chickens then hard again to starboard to enter the Slime Road. The dawn was grey, dank and dismal, and as it grew light, it began to rain. Nothing heavy, just a cold, insipid, listlessly uninspired drizzle. But I found it hard to really object. I'm sure one day it'll grow old, and I'll grow tired of the damp and discomfort, but not yet; it was an absolute joy to be out there regardless. In another man's words; beauty is truth, truth beauty.
It's always beautiful out there.
Dad passed the helm to me and went below to put the kettle on. With the drizzle and the dawn, a light wind had picked up from behind us, so I set the auto-helm to hold course whilst I hauled out the genoa to motor-sail. At inward rocks, below Lydney Sands, the channel swung to starboard. I dialled the course adjustment into the auto-helm, and hardened up on the genoa, keeping one eye on the plotter and the twelve minute COG line stretching out from our boat's icon. It settled, pointing about 45 degrees off our course, out over the sands to port, so I dialled in an additional course correction, and further trimmed the sail whilst watching the course line on the plotter.
We carried on like this for a few minutes, my tweaking the auto-helm, tweaking the sail, eyeing up the plotter, getting frustrated, when Dad called up from below to ask if I was deliberately running the boat around in circles?
I looked up, and glanced out, and realised we were now pointing back the way we'd come. That little Sony tablet and the chart plotting app is a wonderful tool, but that course over ground line is far, far too seductive when teamed up with the auto-helm. "Keep your head out of the boat!" is a refrain I'm always yelling, pointedly but good-naturedly, at my students when they invariably cast their eyes down to look at the tiller and sheets in their hands when they're first learning to sail.
About time I learned to listen to my own advice.
I'm continually reminded by how easy it is to forget the basics when everything gets scaled up or, as in this case, new toys are thrown into the playpen.
The fleet, fifteen boats in total, converged out of the murk as we reached Sharpness. The outer breakwater of the dock is a latticework that the water runs through. Fine if you're a big coaster, but daunting for little stuff like us. Getting pinned against it would be both a simple misjudgement to make, and potentially disastrous. Dad was back on the helm, and all the practice ferry-gliding on the tide to land at Lydney, just behind us on the other shore, paid off as we slid in through the gates of the dock and into the relative calm of the outer basin.
Calm, in that it was sheltered from the tide, but pandemonium with the crowd of boats as the harbour master and his mates chivvied and corralled us in to the lock itself, rafted up four abreast. Then, secured, the lock gates closed, the waters rose, and we left the estuary behind us.
The trip up the canal was pleasant, picturesque, but mostly uneventful.
We arrived in Gloucester Docks in the early afternoon, some 9 hours and 30 odd nautical miles after we'd left Portishead, and moored up on a finger pontoon outside a pub. We had supper, a goodly amount of beer and an amount of raucous singing with the rest of the fleet at another nearby pub in the docks on Friday night, slept on the boat, and Saturday morning Dad and I walked up into town.
I bought a couple of sets of guitar strings, then we got a taxi home, abandoning Calstar for the day. I had a gig Saturday night, previously booked, and once back from Bristol with the gig done it made as much sense to head home for a few hours sleep and to say hello to Nikk, the kids and the dogs.
Sunday morning we were back at the boat, casting off in time to make the 10am appointment with the big road bridges that let us out of the docks. As with the trip up, the trip back down the canal was pretty, but otherwise just a case of motoring and admiring the scenery.
Dad kept the helm the whole way, as is our usual custom when the sails are furled. We stopped of for a beer in Saul Junction, and landed at Purton later in the day to wander down to the hulks; barges that were beached, filled and abandoned on the banks of the river above Sharpness early in the last century, to slow down erosion of the bank and protect the canal.
I was as fascinated by the bed of the estuary, emptied out by the ebbed tide. It's a stretch of water over Ridge and Frampton Sands just below the Noose that I've sailed on so many times. The old wreck and the ruined bridge footings were all clearly visible, as were the contours of sand banks and rocks that make it such an interesting, challenging place to sail when all that water comes rushing up with the tide.
We finally moored up on the canal bank just outside Sharpness around 5pm Sunday evening. It was a tranquil evening, not at all chill, and the sunset was utterly gorgeous. Dad was exhausted, totally played out, so had gone below for a cat nap that essentially turned into a very early night to bed. I sat in the cockpit of the boat with my guitar, drinking air-temperature white wine and just soaking in the moment.
It was a lovely couple of hours.
As it grew dark, I put the guitar away and, bottle of wine in hand, walked ten feet up the canal bank to pay our neighbours a visit aboard Misty Lady. Tess and Chris were just finishing their supper, entertaining another Chris from "Noss Packet", and made me quite welcome.
Remarkably, between them they'd managed to cook an exceptionally credible Sunday roast. For my part, I'd been snacking on trail mix through the day, and for some reason never seem to get especially hungry when sailing, and Sunday roasts really aren't my style or taste, even when I'm ashore. But even so, I couldn't help but be impressed by the spread they'd laid themselves out for Easter Sunday.
I picked at a couple of roast parsnips and a roast potato, just to show my appreciation.
Derek of "Socotra" and commodore of PCC joined us a little while later and the five of us drank wine and nattered into the night.
The following morning at 0700 I climbed out of my bunk feeling surprisingly bright despite the excesses of the night before. Bright, that is, aside from a string of bruises shamefully collected when I took a tumble whilst trying to disembark from Misty Lady the previous evening. The shame wasn't so much in the tumble, nor in the fact that I'd drunk enough to contribute heavily to the probability of taking it, but rather in that I stumbled on another man's boat.
I came down with enough of a thump for Chris to come up from below to check I was all right. Or check on his boat, as I suspect I would have done. By then I was back on my feet, bruised and embarrassed. I'm pretty sure Misty Lady was fine. She's a lot tougher than me.
The morning was as misty as the namesake I'd stumbled over disembarking on the evening previous, the sun hazed over, but promising to burn off. The view along the canal was peace and serenity, disturbed only faintly by the sight and sounds of yachtsmen coming up from below to prepare themselves for the 8am lock-in. Although not cold, every surface was covered with a fine dew. There was no wind worth the mention.
The harbour master and his lads herded us once more into the lock, closed the gates and let us down. By around 0915 we were into the outer basin and watching those first few brave souls that had ventured out beyond the dock gate, to see how they fared in punching against the still vigorously flooding tide. Slowly, ever so slowly, we watched those first heroic few edge their way down channel and so we followed.
As soon as we were out and clear of the south wall we turned hard to port. Behind us, a steel motor launch that had locked out with us didn't do so well, and got turned by the tide and soundly pinned against the wall. We listened on the VHF to their conversation with the harbour master as they discussed their situation. It was seemed they were truly stuck but otherwise quite snug where they were for the moment. There was nothing we could do to assist, so we continued to punch into the tide as the harbour master called out the SARA lifeboat for them. Once we were definitely clear of the south wall and a similar fate, I guided Dad tight into the bank seeking the slacker water.
It paid dividends, and with just under 2 knots speed over ground showing on the GPS, we slowly caught up with the forerunners of the fleet, bigger boats than us, but further out into the flow. As we came abeam of the mouth to Berkley Pill, I spotted sails emerging from the fog bank on the other side of the wide river. The Lydney fleet were returning home from their own trip away. They were too distant for me to make out any of the individual boats, but I think I recognised from their relative sizes "New Dawn", "Skippy" and "Sea Robin" returning from Cardiff.
The fog cleared as we turned to starboard just above Hill Flats to cross over to Counts and the Slime Road. A bit of wind filled in, but completely on the nose, so the need to make the last lock at Portishead at 1245 stopped me from trying the sails. Three yachts, possibly out of Thornbury Sailing Club, were out and under sail, and whilst they were hardly tearing along, were making a good show of it for the rest of us. I could only look on enviously as we motored down the channel.
A dog-leg to port and then another to starboard took us around the Hen and Chickens off Beachley and under the Severn Bridge. Above the Second Severn Crossing, the now fast ebbing tide had a firm, boisterous grip, and the waters boiled and tumbled around us in thick, swollen turbulence, pulling Calstar which way and that. Under the bridge and into the Shoots, we turned 45 degrees to port to head towards Avonmouth, and deploying the fenders and readying the warps, called in to Marina on the VHF just in time to miss a lock.
But our lead on the rest of the fleet meant we were first in line for the next one, so we loitered in the pool outside the lock gates, under the shelter of the dock wall, basking in the warm spring sunlight.
It was a great weekend. A little odd, to go away to then cruise back to my home town. A little odd to interrupt the cruise with a gig. And too much motoring and not enough sailing for it to really be utterly tailored to my own tastes. Were it not for me however, Dad would probably have a motor launch or a canal boat, so he was entirely within his preferred element. And, actually, I love being on the water, if you haven't already guessed, in any shape or form.
We logged a little over 60 miles in total, all of it under power, and nearly all of it without even a hint of sail aloft. I'm going to have to redress that balance in the months to come.
However, one of the benefits of so much time motoring is that Dad's confidence and competence with the boat under power has increased exponentially. Not least because of the hours he's now put in, in a range of conditions, and often manoeuvring at dead slow and with many other boats in very, very close proximity. Well out of his comfort zone. He's also found his spot. Stood the starboard corner of the cockpit, leant against the backstay and pushpit, just behind the throttle with the tiller in his left hand.
There's just enough room for him to stand there without impeding the starboard swing of the tiller, plenty to hold on to, a good view ahead as long as the spray-hood is down and he can make rough adjustments the throttle with his leg. And if he actually has to grab for it, he can easily lean down to it without needing to turn around, which previously has been something of a problem, because when you turn around and look down with the tiller still in hand, you tend to inadvertently direct the boat into any objects close at hand. Lock gates, other boats, harbour walls, that sort of thing.
So I was right; we always knew these things were not about boat handling, but nor were they doomed to be permanently limited by restrictions in mobility, but could be dealt with through adaptation and efficiency.
I'm so pleased he's cracked it.
In other news, Dad has decided it's time to sell "Ondine". We've had some lovely times in that boat, some great sailing, some fantastic adventures, but we've moved on. I'm always going to have a soft spot for Drascombes, and that little Lugger in particular, but he's right.
It's time to let her go.