Thursday, 7 May 2015

Bank Holiday Monday: the Holms

Monday morning just gone I arrived at Dad's for 0630 as planned, and after he got back from walking the dog, we drove down to Portishead marina. The lock was booked for 0830, so once we got there we still had a good hour to get everything set.

The day's forecast was a three act play, beginning in the west, backing to the south around lunch time, and then backing again to the south east; a little gusty at the beginning and end, but nothing stronger than a F4 expected.  The morning looked like it was set to at least make a start on delivering as promised, and as an added bonus, the sky was a hazy blue.

The Holms are a pair of islands about 16 miles down-channel from Portishead, sitting roughly in a line between Cardiff on the one shore and Weston-Super-Mare on the other. Called Flat Holm and Steep Holm respectively, the names are descriptive of their shape. Steep Holm is the most visible of the two because of its height. Whenever we've walked the dogs on Brean Sands, it sits there clearly visible a few miles off shore, beguilingly close yet so remote.

It is an isolated spot. Privately owned, you can't land there unless you join the herd for a scheduled trip, but then I'm not sure you'd want to land there yourself. The only access is a small, steep, gravel beach on the east side, a difficult landing with vicious tides and uncertain holding for the anchor. There's a lot of history on the island though; the remains of a 12th century Augustinian priory, and more recently, the Victorians fortified the island with a half dozen gun batteries, apparently still for the most part intact. The defenses were refortified, updated and garrisoned through both the two World Wars, with seachlight batteries being added in the second.

Flat Holm is much lower to the water and much more exposed, but much more accessible than Steep Holm. Also fortified by the Victorians to guard the approaches to the ports of Cardiff and Bristol, it was the site of a sanatorium and isolation hospital for cholera patients, often sailors inbound to the nearby port of Cardiff. As well as a gun battery, the Victorians also built a light house and fog horn on the island because of the number of shipwrecks upon its shore or the surrounding rocks.

I've wanted to sail around these islands for years, for no other reason than the simple fact that they're there. For a long time I'd rather expected I'd eventually do them seperately, aboard our Drascombe Lugger "Ondine". But now we have our little yacht "Calstar". She may not have longer legs than our old Lugger, but she has a much higher degree of comfort with which to eat the miles.

The plan was to leave just after high water and beat down channel about 16 miles to round Flat Holm to port. If we could make that by 1300, then that gave us about an hour and a half to take Steep Holm to port 2.5 miles to the south and then reach back up to Portishead.

By 0828 we were out of the lock and within 20 minutes, having cleared the breakwater, stowed the mooring lines and fenders, had hauled up the sails and silenced the engine. Calstar leant 20 degrees to the wind and beat down channel at a shade under 5 knots through the water, the auto-helm easily managing the bulk of the work for us. The gusts were heeling her to an uncomfortable degree, so within a very short while we put the first reef in the main. The water, ruffled and irritated with the wind over an outgoing tide, was a little choppy but nothing too violent. As we beat down channel, we were overhauled by a large working boat, a dredger called "Welsh Piper", out of Avonmouth and heading out in the direction of Cardiff, but we otherwise had the water to ourselves.

As we passed the starboard lateral "Avon" at 0945 and then "English & Welsh Grounds" by 1028, close hauled on port tack but moving smoothly through the water, it became apparent we were going to reach Flat Holm early.

A tack on to starboard, and then at 1108 a tack back to port on top of the east cardinal "Hope" and we could lay Flat Holm, 3.6 miles away. We were averaging about 4 knots through the water, but the ebb tide was giving us significantly more over the ground. I'd read that the trick to rounding the islands was to aim to cross between Flat Holm and Steep Holm at slack water, and we clearly weren't going to do that today. I wasn't too concerned however, as with this good a wind out of the south west we could happily crab across between the islands on a beam reach, and not loose too much to the tidal race flushing out between them.

What the forecast hadn't told me was the three act play had an interval scheduled between each act.

At 1138 we tacked behind Flat Holm and bore off onto a starboard reach. As we bore away, the heel, a steady 15 to 20 degrees up until now, slackened off with the freer point of sail and the apparent wind decreased in the tidal lee of the island, so we shook the reef out of the main. Focused on halyards and reefing lines and not on the water, I didn't at first notice as the auto-helm lost steerage, but I felt the change in motion and as I looked up to the accompaniment of the slatting genoa, found we were pirouetting listlessly in the tidal eddy behind Flat Holm, the sails completely slack, the wind seemingly gone.

I disengaged the flailing auto-helm and taking the tiller, found what barest whisper of wind we had left had backed around into the south. We were left scratching. The boat speed tickled along occasionally lifting teasingly to a 0.5 or a 0.6 but most often taunting us with 0.0; to keep her moving at even that I was left with the choice of pointing back the way we'd come at Flat Holm to stem the tide as best we could or very wide of the western end of Steep Holm, and so suffer the still enthusiastically ebbing tide flushing us down channel to the west. The GPS showed a speed over ground of up to a knot and a half, but it was invariably in the wrong direction.

We were going backwards and getting around Steep Holm was beginning to look like an ambition for another day.

Then the low battery warning came up on the Sony tablet running the chart plotter. Pretty routine; Dad has a couple of battery packs, so he went below to grab one for me and passed me a cable to plug in. Dad has an iPhone. The mini-USB socket on an Android tablet does not fit the "Lightning" plug on an iPhone USB cable because Apple are special and like to do things differently. And, foolishly, I'd neglected to bring an appropriate USB cable myself, thinking Dad had the back-up power covered. So we said goodnight to the tablet.

Not a huge problem. We had paper charts and the GPS on my watch gave me latitude and longitude. It could even manage waypoints and a route to follow if I bothered to set it up, but with the paper chart to hand and a clear indication of where we were on it, it's always seemed more trouble than it was worth. In any case, Dad has another plotting app, Navionics, on his iPhone. And, of course, Dad could plug the iPhone into the battery pack to keep it charged. Finding your way around the Bristol Channel is for the most part fairly simple pilotage from well marked buoy to well marked buoy, as long as you watch the tides and stay out of the shallows.

It's one thing knowing where you are, but what I've found the tablet does really very well is tell you where you'll be in twelve minutes (or more, but the twelve minutes setting on the true course line is generally perfect for our scale of sailing), and the a distance circle around you makes it ever so easy to see at a glance how close the nearer sand-banks, shoals and rocks are. And there are lots of each out in the Bristol Channel at low tide.

And so we scratched for over an hour, falling back to the west with the ebb and getting no closer to Steepholm. I kept expecting Dad to do his usual and suggest putting the motor on, he doesn't do standing still very well at all, but the suggestion never came. Surprisingly, he remained completely sanguin and relaxed about it, the only comment the occasional reassurance to stick at it and we could still do it, whilst I scratched, fretted and fussed with the sail setting and course and whistled for wind at the helm.

And then, whilst on a starboard tack, there was the barest whisper, the faintest promise at first that then crescendoed swiftly into a terrific lift taking us up towards the "Mackenzie" buoy between the islands before veering back to set firmly in the south. By 1330 we were close hauled, heeled over and trotting along briskly through the water, almost laying Steep Holm and with still an hour in hand before the tide turned.

A short tack to port and then back ensured we cleared Rudder Rock on the western tip of the island and by 1400, with the tide beginning to slacken under us, we were bearing away around the southern shore. Ten minutes later we freed off onto a run to head back up channel. The genoa was slatting about in the shadow of the main, so I goose-winged the sails for a while whilst Dad went below to warm up a tin of meatballs in tomato sauce for celebratory lunch. The genoa took some work to keep winged out opposite to the main, and finer steering to the wind than the auto-helm could manage, so we gybed onto a port reach and headed out a little further into the channel before gybing back on to a reach that filled both sails but would still keep us clear of Sand Point and the shoals of English Grounds beyond.

The auto-helm re-engaged, I settled down to lunch on my meatballs and relaxed for a while, enjoying a gorgeous view of Weston-Super-Mare and Brean Head out to the east whilst the little boat happily looked after herself.

A couple of hours later, the Holms were growing distant and dark clouds were chasing us from the south west. We'd passed "Tail Patch", "Hope" and "North West Elbow" on the way back, clearing the English Grounds to the east of us and were nearing the north cardinal "Clevedon" by 1700, making good time for Portishead. The wind had dropped significantly over the last hour, a second interval between acts, and then backed further into the east before lethargically starting to pick back up.

The working boat that had passed us on the way out in the morning, "Welsh Piper", passed us again on her way home to Avonmouth, and we hardened up to close-hauled in an attempt to stay clear of the shipping channel. We couldn't quite lay the "Avon" buoy marking the southern side of the Kings Road as the wind headed us, but "Welsh Piper" had plenty of room to edge past. The header brought an increase of pressure with it though, and Calstar began to heel happily, her speed through the still relatively smooth waters dancing around about the 4 knots mark once again.

We passed between "Avon" and "Welsh Hook" but could now see a big car transport embarking from Portbury Docks ahead, and another coming up between the Holms behind, so tacked off towards Woodhill Bay to beat in under Portishead Point. The wind became fluky under the headland, and so, all but home now, we started the engine and hauled down sail, our sailing done. Calling ahead to the marina, we were told the next lock would be 1815. We tucked in under the breakwater to wait the fifteen minutes whilst the big car transports passed each other beyond in the Kings Road, Dad tending the helm now we were back under power whilst I readied the fenders and mooring lines.

By 1830 we were moored up in our berth and tidying away. Half an hour later, everything shipshape and Bristol fashion, as we were locking up and grabbing our bags to leave, the sky darkened, the heavens opened and, as if by appointment, the rains came down in a deluge. It had been a fantastic day.

Just over nine and a half hours out, all but half an hour of which was under sail, and just over 43 nautical miles covered. It's the longest we've so far sailed continuously, the furthest distance we've gone with Calstar "unsupervised" and, more to the point, the first time I've set an objective for ourselves that didn't involve following a fleet and we've sailed to the plan and achieved it.

Although it's an insignificant time and distance by the standards of many friends, the feeling of independence and the satisfaction of having done what I told myself we'd do, and done it ourselves for no other reason than it was just there, is, well, pretty damned good.

Spending so much of the time close-hauled, with such favourable winds but relatively calm seas, was exceptionally beneficial. Interestingly, I've realised that if I sit in the cockpit, feet suitably braced against the side deck opposite, 20 degrees of heel is far less of a problem and feels far less intimidating than if I'm sat perched up on the coamings, as if Calstar were a dinghy. You'd think that was obvious, but it's taken me until now to work it out for myself.

The auto-helm also works perfectly fine when she's beating hard into the wind, and is both braver and less twitchy with the tiller than I currently am under the same circumstances.

I'm really looking forward to our next trip out, hopefully this coming weekend. Not sure if we're racing or just pottering. It will depend on the weather, of which we're getting an awful lot of at the moment.

The Navionics track recorded on Dad's iPhone of the trip around the Holms can be viewed online here. I may not be fond of the vector charts that run in Navionics, but I have to confess there are some things it does very well.

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