This weekend just gone was to have been our first trip of the year with Calstar, a repeat of the trip to Gloucester and back this time last year. As a friend of mine said at the time, why on Earth would you bring a sailing boat all the way up the canal to Gloucester? The simple answer was then as it is now. Something different. Dad has always liked the Gloucester Sharpness Canal, and were it not for me, would probably have brought a barge rather than a yacht. I'd prefer to be sailing in open water, but there is a definite attraction in the navigational challenges of bringing a boat up through the upper reaches of the estuary to Sharpness. And something nice about bringing our boat home. I am fond of Gloucester Docks, even if only for their nostalgic value.
So that was the plan.
In the event, the weather defeated us. Storm "Katie" decided she'd make her call on Monday, heralded by a vanguard of strong gale force winds from the west and south west on the Saturday and Sunday preceding. Getting to Gloucester would be easy enough on the Friday, but getting back into the teeth of all that, set against a big spring tide on one of the most tidal stretches of estuary in the world (not quite THE most, but the Severn Estuary is close enough in second place) would be no fun, to say the least.
The forecast for Friday looked lovely though, with the wind variable in force and direction but starting in the north west and nothing more than a moderate breeze expected at worst until the late hours of Friday night. Dad, Ben and I headed down to the boat Thursday evening and, over supper in the pub, called the marina office to rebook our previously scheduled 0500 lock-out to a more sociable 0800, aimed to see us leaving Portishead and Cardiff bound just before high water. Friends that had originally intended to sail with us up to Gloucester opted for an even more relaxed 0900 lock, and a promise to follow us down and meet us there for lunch.
High water at Portishead on the Friday morning was expected 0817 at 13.1m. On asking their permission to cast off and head to the lock, the marina office advised us both gates of the lock were open in "free-flow" and that if we were happy to do so, we were welcome to proceed in our own time. That's the first time we've ever departed Portishead without the ritual of locking out. It felt very strange being able to look straight out into open water from within the marina.
The morning sky was a gorgeous, clear blue, but the wind was a little chill so we stayed wrapped up warm up on deck. The auto-helm refused to hold a course; it had been playing up a little on the last trip but I'd managed to coax it into some sense of life. This time it defeated me completely, and after it had pushed us unintentionally up head-to-wind a couple of times, I gave up and took the tiller in hand myself. In fairness to the thing, it's very, very old and has given us good service the last twelve month. If it was going to pack up, this was possibly the best time for it to do so.
A little over an hour out the light wind died completely as we tacked away from Clevedon, and left us unexpectedly becalmed for twenty minutes on the approach to English Welsh Grounds. The tide still carried us towards our destination at a comfortable five knots so we hung with it, ghosting, until a fresh breeze sprung up out of the west and, after being forcibly tacked, we found ourselves heeled over and close-hauled on port, beating along a line that gradually lifted us to lay the North Cardiff buoy as we met the ebbing tide flowing out from Newport.
Despite the stiff breeze, at first the seas remained ever so slight. Unimpeded by any significant swell, at times the little boat topped more than four and a half knots through the water, heeling through to twenty-five degrees or so with the occasional gust; the sort of speeds we ordinarily only get out of her when we're on a reach off the wind. Approaching the Penarth Roads the wind over tide stiffened, rows of short, breaking waves began marching in tight ranks up against the breeze and the occasional sea slapping the hull between the bilge keels began to slow us. Heeling to twenty-five degrees or more wasn't doing the boat-speed any favours; we'd already put a roll into the genoa by that point, and tucking the first reef into the main stiffened her up considerably, costing us very little in way. It was great sailing, spray now breaking occasionally over the bows as Calstar muscled through the developing chop.
On the last stretch into Cardiff, our friends Tess and Chris overhauled us in their new boat "Monterey", a lovely Halberg Rassy 34, looking quite magnificent as she beat hard to the breeze.
Note to self: next time somebody suggests we eat at a Wetherspoons, follow my immediate instincts and walk swiftly away, I don't need that kind of negativity in my life. I ordered a rump steak from the somewhat uninspiring menu. Clearly my second mistake. Once it arrived, it lay cold and turgid on the plate, and once I cut into it, the meat smelled and tasted spoiled.
Wetherspoons: never again.
We left Cardiff, locking out through the Barrage at 1530 with our friend Derek of "Socotra", a Moody 28. The sky was still clear and the seas had smoothed once again with the turn of tide. We set the sails to a light wind on a broad starboard reach, occasionally pushing past four knots through the water, then fading away until there was only just enough pressure to keep steerage. Again, the tide was doing the work for us, devouring the necessary miles to get us back before it turned, so we simply enjoyed the peaceful glide and the quiet of light wind in the sails, watching Socotra gradually fall away behind us.
The sun dipped slowly into the west as we passed Welsh Hook and began to push up the Bristol Deep towards the King Road and Portishead. And then the wind backed, heading us massively. Ben hardened up the sails, re-trimming from the previously broad reach to what was now a close hauled beat, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, a huge gust hit.. The sort of gust that sees everybody tumbling to leeward, frantically grabbing onto any handhold going. I dumped the mainsheet as Ben steadied the tiller, and Calstar bobbed back up onto her feet and began charging gamely down the King Road through the twilight sea, hard to the wind, spray flying.
Behind us, the fast falling sun set the sky afire.
We timed our return to Portishead perfectly, dropping the sails and crossing the King Road in good time to be easily clear of an inbound commercial and the couple of tugs outbound from Portbury to meet her. As we slid past the breakwater and into the Hole, calling up the lock for permission to enter, we were told the lights were green and to come straight in. We locked in alongside Derek and Socotra, who had made up the time they originally lost on us at the beginning of the trip back with their engine. I guess the light wind "ghosting" that characterised the first half of the run back must mostly appeal to dinghy sailor types like myself.
The trip down to Cardiff covered 19.9nm in just a shade over four hours. The return was a slightly more direct 18nm at just over three and a half hours.
And I'm going to treat myself to a new auto-helm for my birthday.