Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Night Sail

The adventures of the weekend went well.

Got to the boat for a little after 1900 Friday evening, so had plenty of time to find something to eat at our current favourite Portishead restaurant, Bottelinos. It has to be said that one of the reasons it's a favourite is that the portions are generous, the staff friendly, and even if we turn up unannounced and without reservation on the busiest of Friday nights, they'll invariably find us somewhere to sit and feed us anyway.

I like that in a restaurant.

We also learnt something new: paella is a Spanish dish. Mum would've known this, and would also have known it was diplomatically unwise to ask for it in an Italian restaurant. However, risotto is a pretty damned close substitute. I'm not sure full-blooded natives of either country would want us to think the two are equivalent, but for Dad's and my equally unrefined pallets they do serve equitably well.

The Italian waitress took it all in good humour, serving it up with a smile and "Enjoy your paella, sir" when the dish was brought to table.

High water at Lydney on Saturday morning was 0905, and the instructions variously indicated the need to arrive between 15 and 30 minutes before the top of tide. Too early and you'd have a nightmare of a job stemming the flow for the ferry glide across the width of the river, from the navigable east bank to the harbour gate on the west, assuming you didn't come to grief on the sandbanks in between.

In April earlier this year, a first time visitor to Lydney didn't pay close enough attention to the instructions, arrived too early on the tide and after getting caught on Black Rock for a short while (opposite Lydney, off Berkeley Power Station) then grounded his port bilge keel on the sands whilst attempting to cross over to the harbour gate too early. The incoming tide then flipped all 8 tons of the 36' Westerly Galway Ketch over onto her port side where she was left wallowing before the tide fortunately re-floated her, ten minutes later.

Dad woke me just before my alarm at 0355. I could already hear the rain on the cabin roof overhead. Needing to be ready to lock out at 0530, I'd agreed we ought to be up an hour ahead. That somehow translated to an extra thirty-five minutes on top because "it takes that long sometimes to get me out of bed."

I can't fault the logic; I use the same when I get Sam up for college in the morning. However, once he'd shook me awake at 0355 the deed was done and there was no going back, so I struggled out of my sleeping back, into my waterproofs and set about preparing the boat to cast off.

Unsurprisingly, we had the first lock of the tide at 0530 to ourselves. Nav lights reflected in the rain rippled, gloomy waters as we descended to the level of the estuary. The lock gates opened and we motored tentatively out into the gloaming.

I hadn't fully intended to sail. Dad is, not unfairly, still both nervous enough about the dark and cautious of the unforgiving nature of the concrete footings of the Severn Bridge and the small target they present in the teeth of a fast flooding tide. The suggestion of sailing up would just add to the worry. However, accompanying the night's darkness and rain was a lovely, constant south-easterly breeze. Set across the tide, it kicked up no serious chop on the rain-oiled waters.

I hauled up the sails initially with the intention of motor-sailing, on the not unreasonable assertion that the sails would make us more visible in the darkness to anything coming down channel. I left a single reef in the main out of pure caution in the darkness; unnecessary as the pressure of the breeze didn't call for it, but in the dark I didn't have any of the usual visual clues to warn me as to whether it was building or fading, so chose discretion as the better part of valour.

With the sails up, and the wind loose on the starboard bow, less than ten minutes out of port I stilled the engine and we began to sail through the dark.

We were making good time; too good, the GPS was suggesting we'd be in Lydney for 0730 at our present rate, which would only work if we were prepared to get out and drag the boat over the sand. But the electronics can't be faulted for not knowing that. As we entered The Shoots on the final approach to the first bridge, our speed over ground touched 11 knots. A couple of times, Dad asked if I planned to start the engine before we reached it, but we had plenty of pressure in the sails for control, and room to harden up or bear away as needed, so it wasn't necessary.

I found myself completely in love with sailing through the dark.

I've sailed a dinghy at night before, on a lake, but any time I've been at sea we've motored through the darkness, or at best motor-sailed, usually through necessity of timings to keep. Tidal gates are brutally unforgiving around these parts, they take no prisoners.

In the darkness, I could feel the press of the wind on the sails, the heave of the boat as she leaned to it, feel the turning of the world as an unseen eddy in the tidal race headed her up or pushed her bow away. The boat felt alive and connected. Even the discomfort of the rain, still persistently falling from the black sky, faded into trivial insignificance against the sensation of movement, of forging ahead through the dark, a mere enhancement to the atmosphere.

The hardest thing was not fixating on any one thing at a time for too long. The glimmer of the electronics, the set of our sails, the readout of our speed over ground or ETA, the latter irrelevant for the moment, as it was awfully clear we were too early and were going to need to stem the tide at some point. Even just staring out into the rain-spun darkness became hypnotic, feeling the rush of the boat through the water beneath me.

The Lower Shoots beacon loomed out of the darkness, too close and too suddenly for comfort, and then we were through the bridge, the rush of waters growling around us. The beacon on Old Mans Head was the next lesson in keeping a good lookout, coming up much quicker than expected. The wind was now heading us to close hauled as we hardened up around the beacon to try and lay the Old Severn Bridge, lit up with a festoon of lights, apparently in celebration of its 60th anniversary.

Tepid grey light slowly bled into the sky as we approached it, a sorry, damp squib of a dawn. We tacked once onto port, ostensibly to gain height for a comfortable layline beneath the second bridge, but as much to burn time. The instructions had been pretty clear, don't leave the Slime Road before an hour and half before high water. The consequences of not heeding them had been amply demonstrated by the misfortunes of the 8 ton Galway back in April. Crossing under the second bridge a little before 0700 we tacked beneath Whirls End and then bore away to try and hold against the tide awhile. The rain was easing to drizzle as the sky brightened, all things being relative, but with it the wind was becoming lighter and more fickle in direction.

My efforts reduced our speed over ground to a knot or two, but not in the right direction. Nose to tide, wind in the sails, we slowly inched across the Slime Road Sands in reverse, killing the next forty minutes or with an enviable view of the light-festooned bridge and the the turgid brown waters swirling around the submerged menace of the Hen and Chickens rock guarding the Beachley slip just off our starboard bow. Eventually, we were pushed over the sands and into the channel of the Slime Road itself. With the navigation constraints now tighter and somewhat more demanding and these effectively being strange waters, I started the engine and furled the sails.

We followed the channel up and along the northern side of the now well covered reservoir serving Oldbury Power Station, catching up with a small handful of yachts out of Thornbury who were also Lydney bound. Knowing the waters better than me, they had fewer reservations concerning the sandbanks, so we followed their lead cautiously, in doing so surrendering the narrow navigation channel to a solitary, laden cargo vessel outbound from Sharpness.

Crossing over the sands from just above Bull Rock was uneventful. Approaching the outer harbour gates at 0850, the little boat's engine held her easily against the still running flood. Friends waved to us from the harbour wall, guided us in through the tidal outer harbour and then took our lines to secure us snug in the little lock at the head of the outer harbour with five other boats for the night.

It was a great party. There was a goodly amount of beer, excellent food and a fair bit of singing, and I indulged in all three immoderately but not, I think, to too great and excess and, in any case, was matched in my efforts by many others.

The trip home the following day was uneventful. We edged out of the harbour gates a little before 0930. With no wind to tempt even me, we motored down the west bank of the river and then dropped beneath the two bridges, our way lit across the tumbled chocolate waters by a bright, sun-jewelled azure sky.

We made it back into the shelter of the mud-banks of Portishead Hole for about 1130, and there dropped the hook and waited patiently for the last lock of the tide at 1215.

No comments: