Monday, 9 May 2016


I woke up aching and stiff this morning. It's been a good weekend.

Saturday 7th : Frampton-on-Severn : Oldland Common

Most of Saturday was spent on the lake at Frampton. A warm day, especially by comparison with the dramatic, unexpected chill of the bank holiday weekend previous, the morning started as a drift, but the wind veered and strengthened as the afternoon crept on.

It was the final day of the adult sail training course that's been running at the Club. The morning was due to start with a written paper on basics and principles; I think it's a daft idea making adults, some of whom won't have sat a written test in forty years or more, sit an exam that doesn't have a fail mark and isn't demanded by the curriculum, but I wasn't running the course so it's not my shout. I had a lie-in instead, and turned up late (albeit not without the agreement of the course leader, Pete) just in time to help them launch for the sailing assessment.

It all went well, everybody passed, as well we knew they would by that point in the course. It sounds trite, but one of the most satisfying things about being involved in the training at Frampton is seeing a bunch of folks, some of whom would have started not knowing one end of a boat from the other, progress to confident, enthusiastic and quite able dinghy sailors.

Saturday night's gig, The Dolphin in Oldland Common just outside of Bristol, was good. Nik, Arya and Sophie, the "Freefall Wives Club" bar one (Bean's wife, Laura, on baby-sitting duties I expect, or working), all came, along with a couple of other friends, and amongst the crowded bar other friendly, familiar faces could be seen enjoying the show. Afterwards, I got home happy but exhausted, but it was nearing 0230 by the time I'd had a night-cap and a quick, necessary bite to eat and my head hit the pillow for a few hours sleep.

The alarm woke me three hours later at 0530.

Sunday 8th : Portishead to Cardiff & back
(36.1 miles, 6 hours 59 minutes underway)

Since earlier in the week, Dad and I had been planning a run over to Cardiff for lunch and back with Calstar for Sunday. In the latter stages of the planning, he told me he'd invited a friend from the club, the incorrigibly named Boo.

Boo is a new member at Frampton, and joined this year not with the hope of learning to sail, but rather the aim of finding a small dinghy for herself and spending some leisure time rowing about the lake. I can understand the attraction and admire the motivation. Boo has a long history of being about boats, as far as I can tell, but is not a sailor. She'd expressed some concerns about sea sickness, and Dad had reassured her the little yacht had a bucket and a self-draining cockpit. Credit where credit be due, that seemed to pretty much settle her anxieties on the matter.

By Saturday night I'd started building some anxieties of my own concerning the forecast. For most of the week it had been promising warm weather, scattered sunshine and a benign southerly for Sunday, but by the end of the gig on Saturday night, the promise had developed into a southerly backing around into the east and predicting an uncompromising F5 gusting 6 by the afternoon. Numbers mean so many different things in the Bristol Channel. A F6 running with the tide is one thing, running against it quite another, and running across? Well, hard to work out; it still keeps me guessing after more than a year of bobbing around out there in all sorts of various conditions.

In the end, I think it was the sunshine that lured us. By the time we pulled into the marina car-park at 0800, the day already had a hint of warmth. There was a bit of a breeze, but not much to suggest anything nasty to come. High water at Portishead was expected for 0902, a big spring tide at 14.5m. The plan was to ride it down to Cardiff, lock into the Barrage and moor alongside Mermaid Quay for lunch, and then come low water Cardiff at around 1522, lock back out and head home to Portishead, aiming to get back in for around 2000 latest.

In the lock as planned for 0900, and it was an interesting inversion, locking up from the marina to head out into the Bristol Channel, when every other time we've locked down, sometimes quite some way down. The lock was busy, with five other boats leaving alongside us, most returning to Cardiff after a weekend spent away in the fleshpots of Portishead I imagine, such as they are. Leaving, we noted the tide had washed over the pier-head as expected, which had the added compensation that there could be no anglers lurking in ambush with their lines across the channel at the end of the pier.

Sails up, and the wind was building as forecast and filling in from directly astern as we turned west to run parallel down-channel alongside the King Road.  The sea was slight but roly with the the gusts, the little yacht yawing, twisting and lunching with each surge of wind and tide, a movement only amplified as the ebb began to run and the waters devolved into the usual roiling chaos of their spring tide turmoil. With the expectation that the wind would build further I left a single reef in the main, and rigged a preventer to the boom. Running deep, a half a fist-full of the main sheeted in so that, for the balance of the equation, it was sailing slightly by the lee, the genoa goose-winged in to windward in clean air, further stabilised with the run-off from the luff of the mainsail.

It was the first time I've used a preventer, and it proved surprisingly successful; being able sail deep with the confidence of not accidental gybing kept the genoa filled to windward and prevented the usual downwind run of slatting, cracking headsail, and the more balanced sail-plan dampened the rolling surge of the wind and sea a little.

A little, but not enough for Boo unfortunately.

Ashen face, she declined the offer of a cup of tea and, victim to the unaccustomed motion, soon retired below to the forecabin to close her eyes and entertain her own struggle with the demon seasickness.

It's not an area I'm any kind of expert in, although I'm told that the forecabin is one of the worst places to be and closing your eyes one of the worst things to do. However, from my little exposure to it so far, I've worked out that the best course for the unaffected observer to sail is one of minimal intervention unless otherwise invited. A bit of sympathy doesn't hurt, although it doesn't seem to do much good, but otherwise leaving them to get on with it and find their own way through to the other side seems to be best for all concerned.

It's a pity, she missed a cracking sail down.

Past Welsh Hook, we gybed the genoa back over to its natural side and de-rigged the preventer, then enjoyed an energetic reach across wind smooth towards Cardiff beneath a warm, cloud-hazed but rapidly clearing sky. At times, we touched 5 knots through the water. The only complication was keeping a good lookout and a near hand ready for the to the tiller to dodge the occasional fallen tree or other sundry flotsam and jetsam being flushed out towards the Irish Sea by the ebbing tide. As with any big spring, the sea was littered with it, especially across the stretch of water where the Newport Deep runs into the Bristol Deep below the Middle Grounds.

We made Cardiff for a little after 1200, Boo briefly emerging from below as we brought the sails down on the final approach, but retreating again until we were safely into the Barrage lock. We made fast alongside the pontoons on Mermaid Quay about half an hour later and went ashore to seek the reward of lunch and a pint in a pub overlooking the bay cunningly called "The Dock". More to the point, it wasn't Wetherspoons, and the food and the beer were fantastic.

My plan to cast off and head back when the tide turned at 1530 was thwarted by a bit of bad planning. Fortunately, the mistake occurred to me before we cast off, so I killed the hour it gave us resting in the nearby pub with a second compensatory pint whilst Dad and Boo wandered around the shops. I've taken to thinking of Cardiff as being accessible on all states of tide and it typically is. On all but the biggest of spring tides. Like this one. A phone call to Barrage Control at 1500 confirmed it. With some amusement, the man in charge advised we didn't have a hope of getting out unless we had a hovercraft, as there was nothing but mud out there at the moment. He advised that, for our draft of 1m, we'd have to wait until the 1700 lock to clear the entrance and make the Wrack Channel. About what I'd belatedly worked out for myself, but it was good to hear somebody that knew what they were doing back up my calculations.

Judging from the VHF channel, he was fielding a number of similar enquiries from folks calling him up to request a lock out. I couldn't help but feel impressed by the man's patience. And humour. Then again, the helpfulness and professionalism of Cardiff Barrage Control impresses us any time we have to deal with them.

By 1730 we were rounding the Outer Wrack mark and leaving the channel, hauling up the sails and stilling the engine. And drifting with the tide on a loose starboard tack up towards Newport, almost but not quite becalmed on a glassy sea. What little wind there was sat very south of east, softened further by the flooding tide. We'd departed Cardiff pessimistically expecting the maelstrom of an easterly F6 on the nose, so this came as something of a surprise. More annoyingly, the impeller of our speed indicator had snagged some random, inconsequentially small debris and had snarled up, so the boat speed read a mocking 0.0. The only indication I had that we were making any way at all, was the faint trail of wake from our rudder as we passed through the water without so much as a gurgle to mark our passage.

Rule of thumb: Calstar will cross the distance between Portishead and Cardiff in three hours with the wind, or four hours against. The sun was due to set at 2045 and wasn't much of a consideration in familiar, home water. The tide was due to turn off Portishead at 2122, and that most certainly was, as I had work first thing Monday morning so it wouldn't do to get washed back into Cardiff for the night.

An hour later we hardened up as the slight wind began to back and we passed North Cardiff to starboard. A little further on we tacked onto port. The wind built as it headed us, backing into the east, and soon enough we were heeled over, close hauled with a reef in the main, but pushing against both tide and wind in an attempt to cross towards the eastern shore. Across the next hour the wind strengthened further and I pulled more rolls into the genoa and the second reef into the main, at times playing the mainsheet to spill wind in the worst of the gusts. The plotter was erratic in its best guess of an ETA: on the favoured starboard tack, with the flooding tide, it optimistically foretold an early arrival of 2000, but back onto the less favoured port tack and pushing against the tide to try and win the distant Clevedon shore, it reassessed, gloomily predicting failure and doom and a post 2200 arrival home.

We stuck with it, enjoying the ride and the company; in the more direct movement of a beating sea, our guest Boo was making much better weather of it, and sat above deck, braced in the cockpit with us, all apparent trace of the previous seasickness that so dogged the trip out seemingly gone.

The sun was a bloody smear lowering in to a hazed, Welsh sky as we won the Clevedon shore and tacked back onto starboard for the final beat up the King Road to home. The wind continued to blow hard, forcing me to play the main and occasionally relieve the auto-helm as it hunted in the worst of the gusts, the little yacht leaning over to 25 degrees or more on occasion, despite the double reefed main and deeply rolled genoa. The sea state was relatively slight, all things considered however, sheltered as we were by a windward Somerset shore. And there was a distinct warmth in the occasional gust of wind, a foretaste of summer perhaps.

We struck sail early, abeam of the furthest outskirts of Portishead town but still another beat shy of Newcombe Buoy, and motored the last mile to ensure we caught the 2100 lock back into the Marina. The breakwater was again submerged by the tide as we rounded it into the Hole, the back eddy of Portishead Pool streaming hard through the upstanding pylons back against the still east running tide. The seafront was quiet, an hour relatively late on a lazy Sunday evening, but as we motored in, a little battered, dog tired but quite content, up on the sea wall a boy and a girl perched with their backs to the engorged, dying sun and took a photo of themselves set against the ruddy backdrop of a gloaming estuary sky on the girl's phone.

And then on skateboards they each slipped away. I saw the lad's face as he slipped past, casting an appreciative glance over our small boat as she slid home into harbour. I caught his eye briefly and nodded a friendly acknowledgement from where I stood, warps in hand, on our foredeck. As he nodded back, his face split into a warm, wide smile. Some days it's good to be alive.

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