Thursday, 31 August 2017

Calstar: chocolate flavoured hue

From the very start of our couple of weeks away back at the beginning of August, we'd been constrained by my absolute need to be back in Cardiff for the morning of Saturday 12th and home by that evening, ready to head straight out to a gig. All my plans were therefore set around putting us back within easy reach of Cardiff by Friday.

The Lydney Fleet caught up with us in Ilfracombe on Tuesday afternoon; Wednesday and Thursday the weather effectively kept us all pinned in harbour. A gusty, northerly F5 for the most part, if we'd needed to get somewhere it would hardly have stopped us, but Dad wasn't keen on braving it simply to get somewhere for the sake of going, I wasn't especially keen to put Nik through the same for no more reason than that, and our Lydney friends seemed content to stay put for a couple of days and patronise the Ilfracombe Yacht Club bar, so we sociably elected to do the same.

By Wednesday evening the general feeling amongst our friends was to head back via Porlock or perhaps Watchet. I'd considered Swansea, but certainly wasn't adverse to Watchet again. Thursday's forecast looked great, with a late lunchtime low water and a west or southwesterly F4 to carry us back up channel. The outlook for Friday morning was more of the same: beginning southwest 3 or 4 but building to a 5 later into the afternoon or early evening. This seemed fine to me for a Friday afternoon dash back to Cardiff from Watchet, but Dad, using my gig as the reason, along with the attendant, absolute need to be back in Cardiff for Saturday and the (apparent) foolishness of wearing myself out before a gig, decreed that we'd head directly back to Cardiff on Thursday and not take any chances.

Although the gig was cited as the reason, I suspect that at the end of two weeks he was exhausted himself, had quietly had enough of the discomfort of being in a harbour on a mooring buoy and away from the comforts of Calstar's Penarth berth, the shore power hook-up and the Marina facilities, and simply wanted to get back.

The last time we sailed direct from Ilfracombe to Cardiff, we'd made a very inelegant hash of the passage, getting caught out by the tide somewhere between Breaksea and Minehead, and spending about four or five hours reaching back and forth in thick rain, next to no visibility and uncomfortable seas. I wasn't adverse to trying it again, if only to see if we couldn't make a better job of it.

The general advice was to cast off the mooring on the falling tide in the morning, before we lost water in the inner harbour, make our way to just outside Ilfracombe and then drop the hook to wait at anchor until about two hours before low water, expected that afternoon a little after 1400. Two hours before low water, weigh anchor and set off, hugging the Devon coast close, punching the tide up-channel until it turned at low water, hopefully just shy of reaching Lynmouth. Then push off northeast and ride the big, chocolate coloured tidal escalator all the way back to Cardiff. I'd already established on our trip out that my crew didn't do waiting at anchor with any great degree of grace. Dad gets bored and Nik hasn't yet got used to the rocking of the boat when she's not actually underway.

With this in mind, and with lack of hardly any wind, after dropping our harbour mooring at high water around 0900, we set directly off with the engine chugging at a sedate 2000 revs, hugging the rocky cliffs close, never more than a cable's length out from shore. As the tide turned hard against us, staying in so close meant we found back-eddies aplenty to push us up and along our way, but around each headland invariably got thrown around a fair bit by the enthusiastic tidal races that were forming with a spring ebb now in full flow. We kept a sharp lookout for lobster pots, especially as the occasional headland generated a fine back-eddy for us to ride, but would also potentially make for a distinctly unwelcoming lee shore if the engine failed or the prop got tangled in a stray pot line.

But the scenery, especially scale of the cliffs so close in, was breath-taking; well worth the anxiety of the pot-watch and discomfort of the occasional battering we took to enjoy it.

The wind was very light, which undoubtedly helped through the various tidal races. The sun was a sometimes companion, but lovely and warm when it was out from behind the shelter of the cloud-scattered sky to keep us company.

We reached Lee Bay, just west of Lynmouth around 1200, three hours before low water; earlier than expected. Much less hindered by the adverse tide than I'd counted for, we'd covered 10 miles in around three hours. Beyond this point were the shallows and sandbanks off Lynmouth and then the serious tidal races of Foreland Point. I didn't fancy either with the tide still dropping hard. The sun was warm and bright overhead, so we picked a spot close in the bay where low water would still leave us with a couple of meters to float in, and dropped the anchor for lunch.

I mentioned the crew don't do waiting at anchor gracefully or with any great patience. It turns out that if you pick a warm sunny day, the shelter of a picture-postcard-perfect wooded bay and time it for a picnic lunch in the comfort of a sunny cockpit followed by a quiet snooze afterwards to let it digest at leisure, they do it just fine.

At 1415 we retrieved the anchor, hauled up the sails, set a course for the Welsh shore opposite with as deep a reach as we could go without collapsing the headsail and left the tranquillity of Lee Bay behind us. As the tide turned and we left the shelter of the North Devon coast astern, the wind built steadily to an enthusiastic F4, the bullying, quartering sea making hard work for the auto-helm but pushing the little yacht along at close to 5 knots through the water at times. With more south in the wind than expected, even once the tide turned and assisting us we couldn't set a course deep enough to lay any further east than the Nash Passage without sacrificing one or another of the sails. I briefly considered setting the pole and goose-winging them; it would've been the appropriate thing to do and not being able to otherwise sail any closer than about 30 degrees to downwind was frustrating. But by this point, the conditions had become quite lively, so I decided to opt for the quieter life of not frightening Dad by playing about on the foredeck and settled for a course that would see us make our way back up channel in a series of gybes.

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We knew our Lydney friends were out there with us somewhere. We'd sighted sails that I reckoned to be Peter's Achilles 24 "Suomi" and had made radio contact with him and his crew Bill to confirm that they were somewhere a little ahead, having passed us whilst we were still napping in Lee Bay. They advised that Annabel and Tina aboard their 16' Wayfarer dinghy "Windlord" were somewhere a little behind us. A short while later, a little over half way across but still some miles off Aberthaw, as the emerald sea patchily returned to its natural, chocolate flavoured hue I spotted sails astern and slowly closing. The boat's sails were either goosed or she was flying a kite, hard to tell at the initial distance, so I couldn't at first believe it was Windlord. However, as they closed the gap it became obvious that was exactly who it was.

Closing with the northern shore, we gybed, and Windlord crossed our track some way astern, but sailing a much deeper course with their spinnaker aloft. They very soon overhauled us, the girls giving us a cheerful wave as they on sailed by. By the time we got back to Cardiff later that day, we would've clocked close to 50 miles of sailing ourselves over the course of that single passage from Ilfracombe to Cardiff. Windlord would've covered close to the same, albeit a little less with the advantage of their deeper sailing angle; but still a very creditable day's of sailing for two people in a small, open and unbalasted sailing dinghy. By the time they finished their week's cruise, Windlord, with Annabel and Tina living aboard, would have covered over 150 miles in straight-line distances from their home port in Lydney Harbour, down to Ilfracombe and back again.

Although they crept steadily ahead, we kept the little dinghy in sight for the rest of the trip, until they finally rounded Ranie Point and entered the Penarth Roads ahead of us. We gybed a couple more times, zig-zagging our way home, until a final gybe some distance off Barry let us just about lay Ranie point ourselves. The wind had stiffened considerably and the sea between Barry and Lavernock Spit had pushed up into its inevitably boisterous race. With a breaking sea on the stern quater and the wind now pushing up into the top end of a F5, I put an extra couple of rolls away on the headsail and relieved the auto-helm of its duty, taking over the helm myself. As a helmsman, the auto-helm has considerably more nerve than me (or more accurately, a simple, complete lack) but I'm much better at anticipating the swell. Calstar surged along, trying valiantly to surf her orcine form and weight along the front of each overtaking waves, before falling off its back  to get picked up and surged along by the next.

We hit a shade over 6 knots through the water riding one of those waves off Sully Island. Hull speed, the the fastest I think our little boat will go; without, that is, attaching her to the towline of the Barry All Weather Lifeboat, which I'll add I'm in no keen rush to do again.

We finally turned around Ranie Point at 1918, after more than 45 minutes of tearing along on that final reach. Hardening up, we beat up the Penarth Roads, charging along heeled hard over, lee rail digging in, but the water was smooth in the shadow of the sheltering cliffs to windward and the boat felt stable and happy to be alive in my hands.

We caught up with Annabel and Tina in the Barrage, locking in at 1945, checked they had a tow to their intended berth in the Graving Docks from friends aboard "Kittiwake", another Lydney boat that had followed up from Ilfracombe in our wake and had locked in behind us. By 2005 we were comfortably back alongside our own berth in Penarth; Calstar was home.

Some basic raw figures for the day's sailing, mostly for my own interest:

Ilfracombe to Lee Bay (leisurely punching the tide with engine and headsail)
Underway: 03:13 hours
Average: 3.1 knots
Distance: 9.9 nautical miles

Lee Bay to Cardiff
Underway: 06:00 hours
Powered: 00:37 minutes
Average: 6.0 knots
Distance: 36.4 nautical miles

Ilfracombe to Cardiff
Underway: 09:13 hours
Powered: 04:15 hours
Distance: 46.3 nautical miles

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Freefall: posh frocks & smart togs

It's been a busy old year for the band. A good thing, I think.

Despite taking the first two weeks of this month off to play with boats, it's still been a four gig month. This coming Friday we're playing at The Pilot again, just down the road from home. I could walk there and back, except the trailer that carries the band's kit is a bit heavy to drag along without a car.

Last Saturday was a bit further afield; the annual Officers' Mess Ball for the Royal Marines Reserve in Bristol, so posh frocks and smart togs for all.

They had a guy there from Absolute Choice Photography running a novelty "photo booth" for the guests. Digital photography is brilliant stuff, how ever did we manage without it? Once the evening had worn on a little and I guess he had less of a queue for his services, he took a few snaps of the band. I quite liked a couple of them, so I hope he won't mind me sharing them here.

Calstar: overoared in the "Combe"

So to recap, we arrived in Ilfracombe on the Monday afternoon, and spent a very comfortable night on a visitor mooring in the outer harbour, complete with a gorgeous sunset, a chilled bottle of white wine and a fish and chips supper.

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After breakfast ashore Tuesday morning, Nikki and I left Dad to fuss about the hull of the boat and as she dried out again on the beach and spent the morning together exploring the town. Nikki is very new to yachts and cruising; I mean, so am I, but she is so much more so than me, both practically in terms of the hours and miles covered, and emotionally. As I previously mentioned, she's definitely warming to it, and has proven to have an eagle eye when it comes to spotting dolphins and porpoises (less so navigation buoys or lobster pots, it must be said) but truth be told, it's neither unfair nor a disservice to suggest she only does it to spend time with me.

In fact, far from meaning that observation as a disservice, I'm touched, flattered and quietly impressed that she'd tolerate with the inevitable boredom and discomfort that intersperses the underlying majesty and raw beauty of the sea and the English and Welsh coastlines where we sail just to be with me.

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It does mean the character of our cruising has changed. It's less long hauls interspersed with late nights in various harbour bars, and now more short hops interspersed with respectable rest breaks characterised by long shops. I don't really do shopping. A secret to our long and happy marriage is that, over the years, Nik has recognised this, and gets her fix on her own time when I'm not around. To me, one New Look, or Salt Rock, or Primark or whatever little fashion boutique you're likely to find is not only the same as another, they're invariably stocked with much the same as one another. And don't start me on shoe shops or craft shops.

In a way, and I stress I am being tongue-in-cheek here, I guess the price and consequence of Nikki and I getting to spend time together is that she has to tolerate the discomfort of sailing and I have to put up with the boredom of shopping. I'd say that's a fair trade.

The Lydney fleet caught up with us on the Tuesday afternoon tide. We had supper that evening with Eric and Jeanette of "Jander", a Lydney boat that had picked up the mooring alongside us, in a very nice resteraunt called The Quays overlooking the harbour. We retired afterwards to the Yacht Club bar to catch up with the rest of our friends to discover most had moved their boats off the outer visitor moorings to the inner harbour; the wind was expected to increase and veer into the north overnight, which could make the outer harbour a little rolly. With not much water left on the ebbing tide and the light beginning to fade (and nothing to do with the charm and comfort of the Ilfracombe Yacht Club bar) Jander and ourselves decided to stay put in the outer harbour. The forecast really didn't look too horrific, and by the time the Club bar kicked us out we'd be able to walk back to the boat.

When we'd come ashore earlier in the evening, I'd left the tender secured high on the outer harbour wall, above the tide line, the paddles clipped in and strapped down with the bungie clips fitted to the dinghy for that purpose. Despite being well clear of the tide line, the swell pushing into the harbour at high water as the weather had built up had still reached the dinghy quite the beating; both of the paddles were completely gone, snatched from their clips and bungie fixings by the violence of the tide.

It was a peaceful night's sleep with the boat at rest on the sand. I awoke around 0400 as she lifted off, but I think only because I'd expected to, and had gone to sleep anxious that it wouldn't be too rough a lift from the sand with the incomming swell. And it wasn't a particularly rough rise, a couple of thumps, then we were away. The wind and swell soon pushed us onto the neighbouring mooring buoy however, which set up an arythmic thumping on the hull, seemingly inches away from my head, until I crawled above decks and in the pre-dawn gloaming strung a necklace of fenders around the bow to guard it; a trick I'd learned on the first night in Tenby the previous year.

A little before 0700 that morning, we moved onto a visitor's mooring in the inner harbour. The weather was expected to worsen over the next couple of days, so our week's cruising plan devolved through mutual consent to walking, shopping, eating and drinking our way around Ilfracombe for the next couple of days. I think of Calstar's crew, only I really felt the regret of lost opportunities, and even that was mitigated by the fact the the Lydney Fleet were now storm-bound in harbour with us for the duration, so at least we had good company to drink with.

Around 0830 I paddled ashore using the dinghy's seat for propulsion, and set to wandering about town looking for anywhere that might sell me a pair of replacement paddles. The only place that seemed to open before 1000 in the town turned out to be the RNLI charity gift shop, and they didn't sell paddles. They did, however, sell a beach spade, which although a little short, proved to be a more elegant paddling solution than the dinghy's seat, to the amusement of neighbouring boats when I returned to Calstar. As the tide ebbed away, leaving us high and dry, Dad and I toured the width and breadth of the inner and outer harbours, looking for our lost paddles but with little hope and, predictably, to no joy.

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A while later, Nikki and I headed to shore to look for breakfast and, perhaps, an upgrade to my temporary, foreshortened paddle. One of the gift shops sold me a pair of "collapsible" plastic paddles for £7.50. We returned to the tender and standing at the top of the slipway, I screwed them together; a distinctive black and yellow, I observed to Nikki that they were "Batman themed" and a definite improvement on my beach spade, even if they did seem a little bendy. I think she might have deigned to roll her eyes. And then said, "Bill, what's that?"

Resting at the top of the slipway, at about the high water mark, nestled in one of the groves formed between the lateral slaps of concrete, was one of the dingy's original paddles, returned by the tide.

So, from having to paddle ashore first thing in the morning with the dingy's seat, I'd gone from the seat being contingency to my spade, being contingency to my batman paddles, to being contingent to the now returned original.

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I was, if you'll forgive the horrific pun, left amused, bemused and utterly over-oared by the change in circumstance.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Calstar: comfortable beating

Although it's a week since we've been back now, I've still not finished recounting our two weeks away; I hesitate to call it a "cruise" regardless of the holiday's original ambitions. I am quite enjoying looking back on it though, however distant it's now beginning to feel, so bear with me whilst I persist in my self-indulgence.

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After a Sunday night of singing and drinking with the Lydney mob in Pebbles in Watchet, we woke early Monday morning to catch the tide. The Lyndey fleet had described various vestigial plans and intentions for themselves the night before; one or two had a need to head over to Swansea to deliver certain crew members to pre-agreed train rides home before they continued with their week's sailing. Others had vague notions of Lee Bay then Lynmouth, or perhaps Porlock Weir.

I love Porlock and am intrigued by Lynmouth and would quite like to visit sometime, but I couldn't persuade Dad on the charms of either and, whilst I may be the skipper, on our boat the owner gets the casting vote on itinerary, all other considerations being equal.

In any case, Dad wanted at least a day to dry out on the sands in Ilfracombe Harbour. In many respects, this had become the whole point of the holiday for him after we'd missed our chance at Padstow by effectively losing the previous week.

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So we left the Lydney fleet behind in Watchet, still in their bunks recovering from the excesses and indulgences of Pebbles, and early on the Monday morning as the high tide turned to the ebb, cast off and headed west towards Ilfracombe.

It was a good passage.

We motor-sailed initially, until we passed Minehead, the distinctive white peaks of its "Butlins" holiday camp and the RNLI Boathouse where the lifeboats are based that had gotten to us first the week previous. Then, off Hurlstone Point on the edge of Porlock Bay, we silenced the engine as the wind began to build, and set our course on a close-hauled but comfortable beat under full main and headsail to take us out past the race off the headland of Foreland Point.

Despite my trying to sink her on our first day out the previous week, Nikki seems to be taking to the whole sailing thing really well. She appeared to be completely unphased by our experience with the lifeboats, staying quite calm and and good humoured throughout the whole drama.

In contrast to the queasiness that struck her low last year during our long beat out from Swansea to Tenby, the previous day over to Watchet she'd seemed perfectly content perched in the cockpit with the boat heeled past twenty degrees and crashing to windward for hours, and appeared to be just as content on the beat to Ilfracombe the following morning.

Leaving Porlock Bay astern, the chocolate waters began to morph into a distinctly greenish hue. Nikki spotted a pair of porpoises fifty yards astern, their dark fins breaching and diving in tandem a couple of times as they crossed our wake before disappearing into the murky depths again.

We tacked onto starboard well off Foreland Point, putting a roll into the genoa as a rainy squall blew through, reducing visibility to a few hundred yards for twenty minutes. The shower was hard but passed in due course, the wind easing slightly as it did but still stiff enough to keep the little yacht tripping along at a fair pace towards Ilfracombe.

The flow of the ebb increased as the morning wore on and, with the bend of the wind as it hit the cliffs of the North Devon shore, lifted us enough that our second tack eventually let us lay Ilfracombe itself. We arrived at bottom of tide, much too soon to reach the visitor moorings in the outer harbour.

We could've pushed in to the harbour entrance and dropped the anchor to wait, but Blue Anchor Bay the previous day had already demonstrated that the crew don't yet really do bobbing around at anchor waiting for the tide with any great degree of patience grace. Better to keep them occupied, so I elected to bear away from shore and carry on sailing for a while.

However, with low water, the wind dropped, fading away to nothing. So I furled the headsail, cleated the main in tight then started the engine. We motored back towards the shore, turning close to and pottering along gently, close to the cliffs out to Bull Point, admiring the scenery and keeping an eye out for seals sunning themselves on the rocks.

We saw none on the rocks, but did spot one taunting a boat full of mackerel fishing tourists out of Ilfracombe. He'd dive down, pop back up and smuggly throw his head back, tossing a hapless fish up in the air and then catching and devouring it before diving down again for another.

We finally nudged into the shelter of the outer harbour a little after 1500hrs, picking up the mooring buoy without mishap or drama, only a few inches of water under our keels but rising. The sunset was gorgeous. Dad and Nik sent me ashore to secure fish and chips, and I took the opportunity to grab a bottle of white wine at the same time, conveniently cooled in the chiller of a newsagent set in a road just a little back from the harbour.

The food was delicious, the wine a very welcome prelude to finishing the evening with a gin and tonic. Or three.

Sometime around 2200 our keels gently bumped down onto the sand with the falling tide. A short while later, Dad and I climbed down the transom ladder to take a walk around the boat, now settled happily on the hard-packed sand until the next tide.

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Friday, 18 August 2017

Calstar: according to the maxim

Almost a week ago now, but everything fixed and the weather settled back down, last Sunday we cast off from Penarth again and made another bid for Watchet.

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It was a cracking sail across; this time no Coastguards or Lifeboats were disturbed in the making of our passage. Determined not to muck about with tidal gates or silly deadlines like that that might interfere with the pleasure of the sail, we set off from Cardiff at high water and rode the ebb across to Blue Anchor Bay, a few miles west of Watchet Harbour.

There we dropped the hook, and relaxed for the day, waiting on the tide to run all the way out and come back in again to let us into Watchet. About an hour before the gate opened, we saw our friends of the Lydney Fleet arrive off the harbour, drop anchor and wait for the same.

So we saw Sunday night out in good company, tucked up with the Lydney mob in a small, cosy little Watchet pub called "Pebbles", drinking good beer and drunkenly trying to transpose the guitar chords of various songs I knew onto Eric's ukulele. I vaguely remember some singing was also involved.

Nobody seemed to mind.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Calstar: touristing

The weather has calmed down significantly now, though it's still blowing 4's and 5's and the neaps have given way to springs.

We could've put out from Cardiff today, but there were still 5's and 6's in the forecast down-channel, and nerves and confidence are still a little shot, both mine and the crews. So we elected to hold back another day and instead took the Aquabus up river to Cardiff Castle and played at being tourists.

We'll either head for Watchet tomorrow afternoon, or head for Barry in the evening and make a bid for Ilfracombe Sunday morning. The Lydney Fleet are heading out with this evening's tide on their annual cruise, so will start filtering in tomorrow and Sunday. There are friends among them it'd be great to catch up with, so I might sway my plans by what unfolds with them.

The weather should improve as the week wears on, so a little delay doesn't hurt.  I'm itching to sail again, but leaning to caution, as much for the confidence of my crew as my own.

Cardiff Castle was very interesting. We were going to take the boat over to Mermaid Quay this evening and eat there, but all the trekking about (and a beer for lunch, I suspect) has quite worn Dad out, so rather than fussing with the boat, we're probably going to have supper at the Spanish restaurant in The Old Customs House by the marina.

An unrelated aside: I thought I'd lost Sunday's GPS track when the battery went flat in my watch towards the end of our journey, however I discovered this afternoon that the track was still there.

It turns out we covered a shade under 37nm in just over nine hours. I'm not sure it's fair to count it though as about 16 of those miles were covered attached to the tow rope of the Barry Lifeboat.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Calstar: of events leading to the long tow home

Last Sunday’s forecast was typical Bristol Channel, F4 gusting 5, first in the west, then backing southwest. Our original plan had been to start the holiday off with a 42 mile dash from Cardiff to Ilfracombe, but with the wind on our nose, a 5 in the forecast and the reports showing the prospect of heavier weather coming in over the next few days, we tempered our ambitions; an easy hop to Watchet first, then a skip over to Ilfracombe on Monday, where we’d sit out the next few days of rough weather before carrying on towards our main objective Padstow, via a break in Lundy.

Meh. Best laid plans of mice and men and all that.

We cast off from Penarth at 0841. Intentionally about an hour later than I’ve previously left for Watchet, but we’ve always arrived with 2 hours to spare, so still with plenty of time. That said, I had been aiming for the 0830 lock out of the Barrage, but felt happy to settle for the 0900. The winds were light and the sea flat as we left the Wrach Channel and entered the Cardiff and Penarth Roads at 0920, no more than a Force 3 from the west, so we hauled up full sail and stilled the engine; closer-hauled at 3.7 knots over the ground, our course taking us past Ranie Point and laying west of Rudder Rock on distant Steep Holm, everything looked sweet.

The wind built as we pushed out past the headland. I pulled on some more outhaul to flatten the main, and cussed as the outer core around the control line frayed and shredded as it exited the boom through the cleat. Second bit of rope that’s chewed through in as many months. Obviously, a problem with the cleat, nothing to worry about. The core of the line would hold until Watchet.

An hour later, 5 nautical miles now behind us, the first of the squalls hit. Nothing unexpected, nothing too violent, wind building to F5, lots of white caps, but seas no more than a meter or so. Two rolls in the headsail, pulled the main down to the second reef, pulled on some more kicker. Strike two, the kicker broke free where the control lines attach to the mast step, the casting fractured.

Engine on. Furled the jib, dropped the main. Motored for ten minutes whilst I re-attached the kicker to another strong-point at the base of the mast. Re-hauled the main with both reefs, reset the genoa, engine off. The sailing was glorious. Lively seas, F4 south-westerly, gusting the occasional 5, broken sun warming our faces and drying out the occasional squally shower. Boat speed through the water touching 4 knots close-hauled. Around 1143 we let out the second roll of headsail. By 1215 we’d shook the second reef back out of the main.  Our progress towards Watchet was looking a little later on the tide than I usually allowed, but still within margins, and we were still waiting for the tide to turn in our favour.

At 1300 another squall hit, bigger than everything so far, the seas ahead stacking up in foam serried ranks, bang on the nose. An hour and a half to go before we missed the gate, and still six miles to cover, we dropped the sails and started the engine. With the tide in our favour, things were now on the margins but still okay. The seas thumping into our hull slowed us, but the engine, fairly recently serviced, had always been a stalwart friend up till now. I wasn’t unduly concerned, even running her at 3000 revs to push us into the heading seas we were well within its theoretical limits.

By 1344 Watchet was 4nm distant, our ETA 1423. Ten minutes clear of the sill lifting. Not ideal, but worth pushing on. The squall had passed, the wind was back down to a 4 gusting 5, our speed over ground about 6 knots.

About 1400 we noticed the water stopped coming out of the exhaust. We knocked the revs back to idle immediately and Dad went below to investigate, only to find a shade under a foot of water washing about in our bilges and over the floorboards and evidently rising. Assuming it to be something with the cooling system we cut the engine straight away. My immediate, possibly irrational fear was the seacock on the intake had failed. Running the engine so hard, everything was hot, and as Dad lifted the hatch to check the engine, fumes and steam below were eye-stinging.

Not knowing where the water was coming in, not sure if it was still incoming, or if cutting the engine had stopped it, and seeing fumes rising out of the companion way that, although later it was obvious was just steam I couldn’t right then be sure wasn’t smoke, I made the decision to call Mayday.

The response was immediate. Milford Haven Coastguard came straight back to me confirming my position, nature of the emergency, name and description of the vessel and number of people on board. They then asked if we had a pump; I’m embarrassed to admit that until they asked the question, the pump simply hadn’t crossed my mind. I don’t generally panic. I don’t think any of us did that day; but right there at that moment, when you’re trying to assess how bad, what to do and in full knowledge that the lives of my two companions could rest entirely on my call, I can’t pretend my decisions were entirely uninformed by stress and emotion. You train, you practice, you read, you rehearse. But nothing ever clears the adrenaline of that moment as the curtain first lifts and suddenly you’re on.

Hello spotlight.

I forgot the pump. Hell, I even forgot we had buckets and sponges or even tea-cups to bail.

I advised the Coastguard, said I’d set to it and let them know how we got on. I think I possibly even apologised for not thinking of it first, though I’m not sure. The man on the other side of the VHF was a calm, friendly voice. Asked me to set to pumping and to let him know how we got on.

The pump worked. The handle didn’t sit well in the housing and kept slipping out, but it drew and it spewed. Dad took over from me on the pump handle in the cockpit and I went below, throwing everything in the saloon into the forecabin and lifting the floorboards so I could directly access the bilge. I started bailing with a teacup into a bucket. Engine cover off, I couldn’t see any obvious ingress, and the fumes were still eye-stingingly choking, but within a few minutes it was obvious the water level was dropping back.

I advised the Coastguard. Through all this he’d spent his time routing the Minehead and Barry lifeboats out to us. Not wanting to over-talk, it was at times quite difficult to find a gap to call through to him. About this time the Coastguard helicopter made contact with us on the VHF, moments later swooping in over the horizon and then circling our position. He offered to put a winchman down on our decks with a salvage pump, but by now, with less than six inches of water left and it being very clear the levels weren’t rising I broke through the Coastguard and Lifeboat coordinating chatter and politely declined. He asked me to repeat that the winchman wasn’t needed, which I did.

Beneath the veneer of polished professional aviator, I’ll swear he sounded disappointed.

By this point I was merely embarrassed at all the attention. Grateful and relieved. But crushed and embarrassed. It was clear we weren’t going to sink, not straight away, and I was left questioning my failures.

On the heels of the Coastguard chopper, both of the Minehead RNLI RIBs found us; the B Class Inshore reaching us first, followed by their smaller D Class. They each put a guy aboard and attached a line to control our drift.

With water still sloshing around the bilges, Charlie from the B Class came below with me to try and identify the source of the leak. Both guys were friendly, cheerful, exuded confidence and reassurance. I was horrified at having had to call them out, embarrassed, afraid for my boat and crew, holding it all together but feeling pretty distraught. And Charlie remarked, with a big grin, “Don’t worry about it, I was only out shopping”.

A restart of the engine, with Charlie’s torch shining into the engine room, quickly confirmed the engine was pumping the water in to the hull. But neither of us could work out from where. By now the Trent Class All Weather Lifeboat from Barry had joined us as well. Happy no more water was coming in with the engine cut, I was prepared to sail back to Penarth, albeit looking at a ten-hour run back against a foul tide. The Lifeboat boys weren’t happy to let us go however, not being certain exactly where the water was coming in. There is a lot of space beneath the water and fuel tanks you simply can’t see behind the engine. I can’t say I didn’t share their concerns, so we accepted a tow back to Penarth from the Barry Lifeboat. Everything nearby on the south coast had now been closed off to us by the tide.

The Barry Lifeboat put their own man aboard and Charlie and his colleague left us back to their own boats. Mark, the guy from the Barry Lifeboat, made his own assessment of the situation, then attached the Lifeboat’s towline to our bow cleat using a spectra bridle. Mark, just like Charlie and his mate from Minehead, was brilliant. Confident, reassuring, friendly; an enthusiast and a volunteer. And a yachtsman. He and I took turns at Calstar’s helm keeping her behind the Barry boat as she hauled us back across the Bristol Channel to home. 2000hp of diesel engine is, it appears, what it takes to get a Westerly Griffon surfing down waves.

I exaggerate. I don’t think we actually got her surfing. But with a stiff wind over an outgoing, foul tide, the waves swelling in from astern got quite big and enthusiastic at times, and we did, through most of the tow home, clock 8.5 knots through the water, a number I never thought to see on any of poor old Calstar’s dials other than the depth meter.

A little after 1700 the Barry Lifeboat handed us over to the Penarth Lifeboat Station’s RIB and they pulled us in through the Cardiff Barrage, leaving us alongside the pontoon outside Penarth Quays Marina.

That was Sunday. It’s now Wednesday, and we’re repaired and ready to go again, but pinning down in Cardiff by the weather for the next day or two. The problem turned out to be a failed waterlock on the exhaust, unhelpfully sited beneath the water tank behind the engine compartment, completely invisible to inspection and inaccessible to repair. Our immediate worry was we’d have to lift the engine and water tank out to get to it, but Matt, a local engineer who works for Wigmore Wright Marine Services here in Penarth came up with the genius idea of re-routing the exhaust beneath the floor of the starboard rope locker. It took two days, and although we’ve not yet had the bill we’re not fooling ourselves it’s going to be cheap. But at least the entire inflow and outflow of water to and from the engine is now visible and accessible. We’ve ended up in better shape than when we started, albeit still with the shame and embarrassment of having had to call for help.

Three days on, with plenty of time to reflect, I’ve run over the whole situation countless times in my head.

Dad knew the tract of exhaust running under the water tank was old and needed replacing back in the spring and had mentioned it to me. He’d asked the local engineers to quote for the job at the last service but hadn’t chased them. We took the view that it had lasted till now, there were other priorities on our money, like new sails, to say the least, and it would probably be good for another season or two.

We could’ve left earlier on Sunday, given ourselves more time, but tide against us, I’m not sure it would’ve helped. We had plenty of wind, I wanted to sail, I wanted to use the ebb tide to get us there. I was, in hindsight, wrong. I overestimated the benefit of the tide and ability of the boat to make way to windward.

I could’ve realised my mistake and called it earlier. Had we opted to put the engine on an hour before tide turned, we’d not have had to have pushed so hard, and everything would probably have held together. That was a clear failure to reassess the situation on the water as it was developing.

I could’ve called a Pan Pan rather than a Mayday, at least until I’d established whether we could control the water ingress. This is probably the fairest self-critisism I’ve come up with, though I can’t help think it’s just being driven by pride and machismo; I really hate the fact I called for rescue. Or, rather, felt I had to. But there was a foot of water where there hadn’t been ten minutes before; even once the ingress appeared to have been controlled, I couldn’t work out how or where it had got in. And I wasn’t alone on the boat. I’d put Dad and my wife Nikki in this position with me.

Engine on and pushing for the gate at Watchet, I could’ve accepted we were not going to make it and made the call to wait out the tide in Blue Anchor Bay. It would’ve been an unpopular call, but it was my call to make, and we were not pushing the engine past it’s certified limits. Six hours at anchor in a bit of a bumpy sea and not getting into harbour until the pubs shut would’ve been preferable to all the bother we caused by pushing our engine beyond what turned out to be its actual limits. That said, those limits were not what we thought they were, so we might have discovered them much further out to sea and correspondingly further from help, later in the week.

So we pushed it, like we have before and will again, and this time it bit us.

Even as I made the distress call, I was horrified at what I found myself doing, but felt I had no other choice given the situation I’d put myself in and, perhaps more to the point, the people I’d put there with me. The Coastguard were consummate professionals, advising us in the stress of the moment and routing the help needed out to us quickly and efficiently. The Lifeboat crews were an absolute pleasure to deal with. By far most of them (I think with the exception of the cox of the All Weather Lifeboat, who was full time) were volunteers, all rudely interrupted on their Sunday afternoon. But none of them were begrudging, all of them hugely enthusiastic for the work they were doing. If anything, they were enjoying our misery far too much to be decent.

I jest; all of them were sympathetic and understanding of what I can only consider my own stupidity for putting myself in a position to need their help.

It’s perhaps more than I deserve, but I’m grateful.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Calstar: Meeting the horse that throws you

I don't really do "heroes", I suspect it's the fault of my own ego. But there are certain people who's achievements, particular genius, principles or values I admire. Bowie is one, but somewhat irrelevant to this post.

Another, for completely different but more relevant reasons would be Frank Dye. For similar reasons to the latter, I'd need to add Webb Chiles to this list, although I'd hate to make him blush. It's my privilege to count him as a friend, although we've never actually met; such is the wonder of this Internet age. The former sailed a Wayfarer dinghy across tracts of sea nobody would've believed it belonged, the latter sailed a Drascombe Lugger most of the way around the world, reading of which many years later first brought him to my attention. Only to discover he's also done so much more, and is still doing. You can read about his adventures for yourself here: self-portraitinthepresentsea

Anyway, both are types of boats I've sailed myself, and love dearly. But have enough humility to easily accept I could never sail them to anywhere near the extremes these guys did. But I don't have to. They showed me what could be done, and a most fundamental level, showed me what I can aspire to myself.

But I digress. Or perhaps just evade and delay. One of the principles Frank Dye held, I'm sure I remember reading, was that you shouldn't expect anybody to come and rescue you from anything you couldn't rescue yourself from.

I admire that sentiment. I identify with it.

This Sunday just gone, sailing across the Bristol Channel from Cardiff to Watchet, I put myself, my boat and the people sailing with me in a position where I had to call for help. I'm not proud of that. Far from it.

I am very grateful that help came. Between our Coastguard and the RNLI, close to a score of folks put themselves out of their way on a Sunday afternoon to bring myself, Dad, my wife Nikki and our boat home safe to port after we started taking on water less that three miles from our destination.

And we are safe. We and the boat are back in Penarth; two days later with the timely and expedient help of our local marine engineers the problem is fixed and we're ready to go again, except the weather has closed in and we're now storm-bound until at least Friday.

I think Padstow is now definitely off the table. But we still have another week, so shall certainly make Ilfracombe, and hopefully Tenby before it's time to turn back.

Although having screwed it up once now, the idea of going back out there is a little akin to getting back on the horse that's thrown you. But it's got be done.