One of the few disadvantages of having Calstar on the south coast is that I miss out on the annual Holms Race that Portishead Cruising Club run every September. We've sailed it twice before with Calstar, in 2015 and 2017, and on both occasions the conditions were, well, bracing.
We did well though, both times coming in around 20th; mid-fleet, a not disrespectful result for a short-handed, bilge-keeled cruiser that's almost as old as me.
This year, when PCC announced the date and I mentioned I had no gigs booked for a change, but sadly no boat to sail either, Tom graciously stepped forward and offered me a place aboard his 30' Albin Ballad "Sundance". He keeps her on a mooring on the River Usk at Newport Uskmouth Sailing Club.
Friday 13th September : Newport to Portishead
Before we could race out of Portishead on the Saturday, we had to get Sundance there from Newport.
We met Tom outside the gates of Newport Power Station early on the Friday morning. The sailing club is on the power station grounds; lovely security, but guests have to be signed in. It didn't take long to load our kit aboard and cast off.
Portishead is only eight and a half nautical miles from Newport and the mouth of the Usk. However, the Bristol Channel being what it is, we first had to sail down-channel to Cardiff to wait the turn of the tide before we could then sail back up-channel to Portishead. Eight and a half miles as the crow flies, but an entire day's passage as the tide runs.
The sail down from Newport was a gentle affair, a lively enough breeze, but running with the tide so smoothing the way for us. We goose-winged most of the way, Tom kind enough to give me plenty of time on the helm whilst he did all the hard work of hauling the sails up and down.
Cardiff is not a bad place to waste a little time waiting on a tide. We locked in through the Barrage and put alongside the pontoon at the Graving Dock near to Mermaid Quay.
A couple of hours later we were locking back out again and retracing our path back up-channel with the flood.
At times, close-hauled and beating against the wind, the GPS clocked 8 or 9 knots over the ground. The Ballad is, of course, a much faster boat than a Westerly Griffon, especially with a bit of breeze to play with. But the Bristol Channel is a much faster flowing mass of water than the English Channel. I hadn't forgotten the effect of the big brown magic carpet, but seeing it in numbers again still made me grin like a fool.
Portishead hasn't changed in the couple of years we've been away. The lock remains one of the most impressive I've ever had the pleasure of passing through, the staff remain some of the friendliest, and the marina showers most certainly the worst.
But, fortunately, you don't have to spend too long in the shower of a morning before you're ready to be get underway, and the restaurants about the marina are just as numerous and fine as they ever were, so we had a pleasant evening Friday night after a great day's sail over.
Saturday 14th September : The Holms Race
A little over 40 boats entered the race this year. The forecast was grim. Bright blue sky, chocolate brown sea, and next to no wind.
The lock was crowded as we headed out to wait for the start line. Folks were cheerful despite the conditions; it's hard not to be when the sun's shining.
It really was quite different to what we'd endured in previous years.
Another difference was the start-line. The first time we raced, back in 2015, it was between Battery Point and Newcome Buoy. Nice and easy, impossible to miss. The next time, in 2017, the race officers had moved to the comfort of Portishead Yacht and Sailing Club, and set a start line between their race office and Denny Island.
A nice obvious line, but the trouble was all the boats, ourselves included, started out in the middle, on the starboard side of the channel, miles away from the club, and so it made it very hard for the race committee to time our respective starts.
It didn't help that it was hammering down with rain at the time, and visibility was down to about 100 yards.
This year, the start was set between the club and a racing mark that the committee said they'd set approximately 300 meters north of the clubhouse. In the event, the safety boat set the mark only 100 meters north, presumably because they couldn't get the buoy's anchor to set further out.
This caused a considerable amount of confusion amongst the starting boats, with a few of them drifting too far north, missing the start and having to motor back against the tide to begin again.
The rest of us started, but hugging the Portishead shore.
I could argue that this is where it all went wrong. But I'd just be making excuses for myself.
It began as a downwind start, so we set the spinnaker to give us what little drive we could draw out of the whisper of wind that there was. a couple of boats ahead also set their spinnakers, but far from all.
Then the wind backed as we crossed the line, leaving us on a broad reach, pinching the spinnaker as high as we could hold it to try and stay clear of the shore.
We were moving, which in such a drift is really not something to be discarded lightly. So we kept the sails set as they were and continued the reach, far over to the left of the channel.
About an hour later, and the ETA for Flat Holm was still looking fine on the plotter. A few miles up-channel of Clevedon and leaving the King Road, we dropped the spinnaker at last, and tightened up to try and stay with the tide, avoiding the shallows and heading towards the first mark, North West Elbow, which we had to pass with it on our port side.
The wind backed around on to our nose, and dropped to the barest hint of a whisper.
North West Elbow was approaching fast. We were now trying to get back up across the tide to regain some height on the buoy, and not going well. The rest of the fleet, the big, fast, serious racers that start last, were now bearing down on us from up-channel.
White Spirit, an old Bavaria and wily veteran of the Bristol Channel, crossed ahead of us. We went past their line, watched to make sure they were laying the mark, and then tacked to try and lay it ourselves. We didn't account for how much speed we'd lose through the tack in the appallingly light conditions, or the dirty air of the boats now passing us.
On the new beat, try as we might to point as high as we could, we were below the layline and it quickly became apparent that we were drifting straight into the mark.
These are not inflatable racing marks.
They are big, steel navigation buoys used by the shipping that ply up and down the channel. the cardinal that is North West Elbow is a metal monstrosity almost as big as Sundance and certainly as heavy, firmly anchored to the sea floor and stubbornly immobile, but with a roaring, foaming bow-wave all of her own as the tide rushed out past her at around 7 knots.
We couldn't take the chance, and tacked out to avoid it.
But now, with no wind and a rushing tide, we found ourselves haplessly sailing backwards past our racing mark on the wrong side. After two hours of sailing, we were close enough to reach out and touch it, almost close enough to the other boats passing it on the correct side to reach over and hand them a congratulatory beer.
Their crews, hiking on the leeward gunwales in the drifting conditions, watched us lose our race before we'd hardly began, their faces admirably impassive, not a hint of a smirk to be seen on any of them.
Our race was over. We couldn't get back to pass the mark on the right side, so we were effectively disqualified. Two hours into a six or seven hour day. Yet we couldn't get back to port until the tide turned.
There was nothing left to do but to sail on. It was a lovely day after all.
We hit a traffic jam at Flat Holm.
The wind faded, and continued to face, the chocolate waters taking on a glassy hue, almost turning blue as the sluggish sediment settled into the flow. Most of the boats that had started before us had made the same mistake at North West Elbow, being swept with the tide with no hope of reaching the turning point.
I don't think any of them got as tantalisingly close as we did, and so capitulated early.
The more competitive boats started much later, behind us, and so overhauled us around North West Elbow, some drawing ahead, but most keeping us company for the fetch down to the Holm.
As the wind died, the tide grew sluggish as it began to turn, and we found ourselves all crowded into the rocks on the north western side of the island.
A canny few sailed very wide, and found enough air to get away, the rest of us wallowed in the shallow bay as the tide turned inevitably against us.
We got around, others didn't, but as we rounded onto the south side of Flat Holm, we found ourselves edging slowly through the water, but now pinned by the foul tide, making no way towards Steep Holm and only just able to hold ourselves off the shore.
Tom called it. To be honest, I would have held on longer. Others about us did. But he was the skipper, and in hindsight, he made absolutely the right call. Our race had been long over anyway.
We started the engine, furled the headsail, and turned with the tide to motor up between the islands and start to make our way back to Portishead.
Between the islands, mockingly, the wind suddenly filled back in. For a short, happy spell, Sundance beat along merrily. Steep Holm receded into the haze of the horizon to our stern, along with the remains of the fleet, still trying to make it across from one island to the other.
Eventually the wind failed again, so we started the engine once more. The disappointment of our failure had faded, the sun was still warm and the sky still blue behind the haze. I still maintain that as the sun lowers in the sky, the Bristol Channel creates a skyscape that's rare to find anywhere else.
If you overlook the vicious tides, don't mind the sight of a muddy bank or two and can abide the cocoa hue of sediment laden waters, the Bristol Channel is a beautify place.
We made it back to Portishead just as the lock began working again. Portishead Hole, that muddy shelter behind the breakwater, was crowded, but less so that in previous years as most of the fleet were still down channel trying to finish the race.
Sunday 15th September : Portishead to Newport
Again, only eight and a half miles as the crow flies, but a day's worth of sailing as the tide runs.
We locked out of Portishead mid morning on the ebb. It looked deceptively calm, but a stiff breeze was blowing straight up channel against the outgoing tide. Exactly the sort of weather we could've used the day before.
Tom's eagle eyes spotted a little crab, sheltering on the lock wall.
The sail down to Cardiff was bracing. Waves frequently broke over our bows as Sundance heeled to the wind and ploughed her way through the chop. Tom was kind enough to let me take the helm, which was fun, but left me very little time for taking any photos.
Which was a pity, because it was the most dramatic, wet sailing of the weekend.
Alongside the Graving Dock in Cardiff Bay, Dad and I left Tom pottering with his hatches aboard Sundance and wandered over to Mermaid Quay to find a bite to eat.
Heading back out through the Barrage once the tide had turned, we found ourselves going against the flow of traffic, as hoards of racing yachts were locking back in after a long day of racing.
The wind was behind us and with the tide for the sail back up to Newport. We'd intended to just set the headsail and run up, but the furler on Sundance decided that this was the moment to play up and the sail stubbornly refused to unfurl.
Looking back astern it was a classic Bristol Channel sky, through and through.
Tom eventually unfurled the genoa by hand and got it set. We followed the Welsh shore northwards into the slowly fading evening, the chimney stack of Newport Power Station an easy mark to aim for. The distant sails of another yacht out of Newport also returning from Cardiff was our only company
Entering the river was easy navigation. Tom left me on the helm and, the furler still not playing ball, dropped the headsail, stowing it temporarily on the coachroof. He then took Sundance into the Pill, put her deftly alongside the pontoon to offload Dad and our gear, and then he and I put her back securely on her mooring in the Pill
Of all the boats that entered the Holms Race this year, two officially finished, having completed the course and successfully crossed the finish line.
I can't remember the exact number, and they've not posted the results for this year so far (and I wonder if they will?) but around another eight or so boats managed to complete the course, but, frustratingly, failed to cross the finish line. They either got caught by the tide and failing wind too far out in the channel and couldn't get in close enough to get inside the buoy, or were too late returning, having taken too long to struggle around Steep Holm, by which time the Race Committee had effectively closed the line by removing the buoy; they were apparently concerned not to have to retrieve it in the dark.
Lots of boats, like us, got caught out early by the tide and light winds and failed to make North West Elbow on the way down. Of those that did fail, I don't think any of them got as tantalisingly close as we did.
More boats yet made it to Flat Holm at bottom of tide, but couldn't get across to Steep Holm in the flat calm that beset us before the tide turned and washed them back up channel.
A frustrating race.
But no regrets. Dad and I had a great weekend with Tom and Sundance. It was great to be back out on the old familiar grounds of the Bristol Channel, the sailing area between Portishead, Cardiff and the Holms. And fascinating to explore another little corner of the area I'd never been before. The Usk has a particular charm, and we were both very impressed by the facilities at Newport Uskmouth Sailing Club.
And it was especially good to finally meet Tom in person and sail aboard Sundance. I'm only sorry I screwed the race up, and really have to take sole responsibility for that, regardless of Tom's protests. But once over the ever so brief disappointment of bailing on the race, it really does become a very small part of a fantastic weekend's sailing in hindsight.
Having spent a weekend living aboard and sailing her, I can now completely understand Tom's love affair with Albin Ballads.
And as for the Holms Race, I don't know when and I don't how, but we shall certainly be back.