Thursday 30 October 2014

Scope creep

eBay is dangerous. I usually resist the lure.

However, I've just spent more on a new watch than I'd intended.
Interestingly, £6 more on this particular time piece than I actually
spent on my first boat. In my defense, it was a cheap boat, at least in
monetary terms, never in grace. The Mirror Dinghy "Redwing" was a thing
of exquisite beauty, though very much in the eye of the beholder, I guess.

In terms of blood and labour, it's only about two good gigs worth, maybe
three. Will set my plans for a new PC back by a month or two.

The watch is grossly unnecessary. Very much overkill and far too clever
for the present limits of my sailing. Still, I feel strangely unrepentent.

If I want to remain so, just have to remember not to tell the wife.

Interesting aside, the photo at the top was taken in November 2008 by my
friend Ken. It was the last time I sailed Redwing. I broke the gaff
recovering her from the capsize (easy to see how, looking at it now),
and sold her on a little while later. The capsize itself was a foolish
moment of over-confidence. Gybed unnecessarily before the start-line,
got caught out by a gust and my own clumsy boat handling.

Live and learn.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Clever Google

Subsequent to breaking my last phone, a Sony Xperia Z1, on the flagstone
floor of a Cornish pub, the greatest loss, beyond the fact that it left
me bereft of a book to read in the downtime of the weekend away (most of
my reading these days is via the Android Kindle app on my mobile) was
the loss of the photos I'd taken of our trip out and then back from
Polkeris to Fowey through the afternoon mists.

I'd sent one to this site direct from the phone of Ondine at anchore
whilst sat outside the pub in Polkeris, and another direct from the
phone whilst still out on the water worrying about getting lost or
hitting Cannis Rock in the fog, but the rest were gone.

The phone was full of a year's worth of snaps, some of which I'd copied
onto my PC, some of which I may not have done. They seemed mostly
worthless at the time, but then such photos often do till they're gone.
I had a brief panic when I thought I'd lost the last photo I'd taken of
Mum. It had caught her on the hop, a frown of bemused tolerance on her
face, as she passed comment on Dad and I playing with pitching a tent on
Ondine's decks outside her house. It's not a flattering photo, so I
didn't and won't ever post it anywhere. But it's the last time I saw
her, just before I gave her a last hug, so it's precious to me. Anyway,
I digress. I later found the photo amongst the ones I'd copied to my PC.
But it was a horrific feeling for a few brief moments thinking I'd lost it.

I had originally used Dropbox to sync the images from my phone with the
"cloud" and there down to my PC, but I'd filled the free quota of
Dropbox up, and hadn't subscribed to any more space nor cleared down
what I had to make room for more. Typically bad housekeeping. I'm much
better with ropes.

Replacing the phone was easy. No fuss, next day delivery from the
contract providers. An unknown number of images were gone however.

First thing with the replacement phone was to find an alternative backup

At which point I belatedly discovered that Google+ does something
similar to Dropbox. They'll back up your images at full resolution up to
a certain limit for free, thereafter charge you. However, if you're
happy for the images to be reduced in resolution (still however at a
generous couple of thousand pixels or so, thus more than sufficient for
most personal needs) then they'll backup an infinite number of images
for free.

Of course, they probably use those images to catalogue my brain, sell
them on to third world despots and various corporations of significant
but undocumented size and dubious intent, and then use it all to target
specific, irresistably tuned subliminal advertising back at me and my
progeny till the seventh generation, or something like that.

But hey, nothing's really free in this world, it's just a case of what
you're prepared to pay.

So I finally succumbed to a Google+ account. Actually, turns out I had
one already but didn't realise it, possibly as a result of having an
Android phone, maybe because I have a googlemail account. Or might be
because of this site. Anyway, I only use it for backing up my mobile
photos and intend to use it for nothing else. If I want social media,
I'm pretty much chained body and soul to Facebook these days and have
been since time innumerable, I think.

But Google's quite clever.

Every so often it takes a pile of photos I've taken, sees a pattern,
does something clever with them and sends me a message, saying it's
"Autoawsomed" my photos for me, or something like that. Bit like a puppy
with a new trick, trying to impress, hoping for a little love and
attention in return. But not as fluffy or as cute.

Yesterday, I panned the phone across the office carpark through the
window from the floor upstairs, knowing Google wouldn't be able to
resist. And it stitched the six seperate, hand shot photos together into
the image at the top of this post.

Really very neat. It would have taken me an age to do something like
that myself in Photoshop.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Heads or tails?

Skipped karate last week.

My right elbow has been giving me hell for some time now. Hurts when I
extend my arm, hurts when I bend it. Hurts when I clench a fist. The
general rule I've always applied to karate is turn up and just do what
you can, even if things are sore or aren't working; if you can walk,
there's no excuse not to be there.

However, Hels gave me a real "You've got to rest it, and you've got to
go see somebody about it, and although you're going to ignore me anyway,
you'll only have yourself to blame when you do yourself a permanent
injury and can't sail all winter" lecture a couple of weeks ago.

Got to last Tuesday, and at 5pm took a couple of ibuprofen ahead of the
7pm session, then got home and still in some hurt finally capitulated,
and decided to take the night off just to see if it improved if I rested it.

Obviously still went sailing Sunday. But there have to be some lines
drawn in this life.

Still in some discomfort today. Can't bear much of any weight on the
arm. Need to decide on karate tonight. In some flux of indecision,
knowing what I should do and knowing what I wanted to do, I did my usual
trick and flipped a coin; "heads I go, tails I stay home"

It came up tails. My usual rule with flipping a coin is not to simply
follow the dictates of chance, but to see how strongly I react to
whatever such binary chance decides, and then that tells me how strongly
I feel about something and whether or not to ignore the coin and go do
it anyway.

I was pretty gutted with the tails decision. According to the rules that
meant that I should have gone anyway. But instead, I broke the rules and
flipped the coin again.


Now I'm really stuck with what to do. Moreso because I've broken my system.

The coin is mocking me, or would if it could. However, to borrow and
corrupt the undoubted wisdom of another, I refuse to be mocked by
something that is unable to mock me back. The coin is insentient, and so
is chance.

Therefore I think I only mock myself.

No racing this coming Sunday. Most likely heading over to Swansea with
Dad to look at a Westerly Centaur he's got his eye on. My main task will
be to try and curb his enthusiasm so that he doesn't just buy it
outright. Mind you, that was my primary responsibility when we drove
down to Chichestster some half a decade ago or more to look at a
Drascombe Lugger some bloke was selling.

It's not a weekend totally bereft of sailing however. I've got the
afternoon off work on Friday. There's a guy that is thinking of buying a
Lugger and so Dad's offered to take him out in Ondine, I think the guys
at Churchouse put him onto us because they're hoping he'll commission a
new one off them. All fine by me, any excuse to get out on the water.
Must try not to sell Ondine to him however.

Back in the run-up to our hosting the Olympics in 2012, the Mint put a
number of 50p pieces into circulation with the "tails" side of the coin
stamped with one of a number of selected events, sailing being one of
them. Every sailing one she came across, and they weren't that common,
Nik kept hold of and gave to me.

I thought that was uncommonly sweet of her.

Autumnal blue

Monday 27 October 2014

Just goes to show ....

..... what a difference it makes when you keep the boat pointy side up.

Raced with Patricia again yesterday, as Hels is still a little poorly.

First race was a blustery F4, felt good. Fitted a ratchet block to the
mainsheet, which made a terrific difference to the sail control in the
gusts. It's supposed to be an auto-ratchet, so the locking should only
trigger once the sheet puts a specific loading onto it. That bit works
fine, but somethings gone wrong in the mechanism that stops it from
releasing once the load is removed.

Which was a real pain in light conditions, which is why I removed the
block in the first place, and then just got used to sailing without it.

Now realise that was a mistake. I will, some point soon, replace it with
another once, especially if we get another run of light, drifting
conditions. But it's £30 + P&P or so to replace it. Which is nothing
really, but the miser in me still resists dipping his hand in his pocket
unless it's utterly essential.

But I digress.

The difference is, in that first race, we took 3rd place out of 23
boats. I'm rather pleased with that.

The second race saw the wind fading; a few gusts still rolling through,
but lots of shadows and holes on the lake. And just goes to show what a
difference it makes when I don't concentrate, especially in marginal
conditions. 10th place out of 17 boats, and lots of people beating us
that shouldn't.

Which isn't to detract from their achievement in doing so.

Lousy start. Caught up in the pack rounding windward, and didn't really
break away till about halfway through. And after breaking away, clipped
a topper following an unfortunately timed tack, and the penalty turns
but us back amongst the scrum again.

It was great fun sailing with Patricia however.

I mentioned a while ago that Dad was thinking about trading Ondine up
for a Coaster. He called last night to suggest an alternative would be
to keep the Lugger for playing about on the lake or the occasional
trailaway to Cornwall and the like, and instead find something like a
Westerly Centaur.

The thing is, with the premium the Coaster attracts as a trailer sailor,
you could spend half as much as a 22' Coaster would cost, and pick up an
old 26' Westerly in pretty much prime, restored condition, if you picked
the right boat.

Of course, that would mean finding somewhere to keep her. If we were
somewhere less tidal, then a swinging mooring that we could come and go
from at our leisure would be ideal, but the only options locally are
gated harbours like Sharpness or Lydney. Which is all well and good, but
removes the option of day sailing, as you essentially lock out of the
harbour on one tide, and have to wait for another before you can come
back in.

Because of our other commitments, well, mine at least, the vast majority
of our sailing has to be day sailing. So the risk is that the boat
becomes not much more than an expensive, floating shed.

On the otherhand, a Westerly Centaur is a robost, tough little boat, the
kind of thing you could take anywhere, as long as you did so at the
boat's own pace. I can't say the idea of having one isn't attractive.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Message in a bottle

I've no idea why I'm collecting empty Tabasco bottles, or why I'm lining them up on the shelf in the office kitchen.

I'm vaguely bemused nobody has questioned me about it yet.

I did have to rescue the latest addition from the recycling bin this morning. I'd left it draining on the side after washing it out, and somebody had tidied it away for me.

They left the lid, though. A job half done.

Tuesday 21 October 2014


It's a comfort to be able to see Buffy on the Club's webcam still tied
securely down in her berth as the remains of Hurricane Gonzalo pay us a
visit. This afternoon should see us through the worst of it, according
to the forecast. I love the wild weather, but I'm aware it's a bit of a
guilty pleasure, as there are trees and stuff falling on folks out there.

Such a thing as too many choices?

It was Ben's birthday on Sunday. Boy_v1 is no longer a teenager. Wow,
how did that happen?

However, his mum was working all day, I was racing, and I'm sure he had
other plans with his friends at Uni and his girlfriend who'd flown down
from Glasgow especially to see him (the clever girl is studying vetinary
science up there). So we contented ourselves with a call and a text
message to wish him a fine day with his friends, and promised to drop
down to Bristol to see him Monday evening instead.

After the usual "So what do you want to eat? Where do you want to go?"
conversation where each of all five of us expressed no real opinion on
the subject except to disagree with each others' preference, Ben got the
deciding vote; it seemed only fair as it was both his town and his birthday.

So we had what I can only describe as "posh" burgers at a place called
The Burger Joint.

A small, pretty little downstairs restaurant, quite busy for a Monday
evening. The idea was that the menu was essentially a list of
ingredients, and you filled in a tick-box checklist of what you wanted
in your "customised" burger and they essentially built it for you.

I confess, burgers are not really my thing, unless they come from the
kebab van down the road from the office, and then the main attraction is
the great selection of salad that goes on top and the chilli sauce.
However, I've never been shy of participating in anything as a first
time, and a pick and mix check-box menu was definitely different.

I ended up with a beef burger (as opposed to the lamb, chicken, venison,
wild boor, and goodness knows what else on offer as the mainstay of the
meal), topped with cheddar, onions and grilled chilies, with chilli
sauce and garlic mayo and a side of sweet potato chips.

In truth, it was a panic selection, as everybody else seemed to know
what they were doing, and the end result was a beautifully presented but
incoherent jumble of conflicting tastes. I could've done much better,
and would and will do second time around.

The company was great however. One of the very few times this year we've
had the entire family sat around the same table together for a meal at
the same time. Funny how I used to take that for granted once upon a
time, and funny how I hadn't realised I'd missed it.

There was a brief panic when I went to settle the bill and my card
wouldn't go through. Then to my horror realised that I'd somehow picked
up an old credit card that had expired in 2011 but had somehow continued
to lurk in my wallet, and was unfortunately the same colour as my usual
debit card. The horror was that I'd left the wallet back at home, as I
didn't have my jacket and therefore no convenient pockets. It's
beginning to look a little weather-beaten and worse for wear, and I knew
we'd been eating out.

I had brought another debit card with me, by way of contingency that I
couldn't possibly conceive at the time I'd have had a call for. I like
backup plans though. However, the thing is with contingency, when you're
unexpectedly knocked back to relying on it, there is always a little
nagging doubt at the back of your mind that it won't work.

Of course it did. And there was never any question that it would. But
then there was never any real expectation that I'd have to fall back on
it. Just goes to show.

Monday 20 October 2014


I guess there is such a thing as too much fun.

It did however come as a surprise this morning. Yes, it has been a while
since we've sailed in any kind of wind, but between the dogs, the band
and karate, it's not as if I live an entirely sedentary lifestyle
despite the office job. However, everything aches just a little bit, my
legs ache quite a little bit more and my right elbow is killing me. The
elbow however was pre-existing, and has been playing up for some reason
for months now so doesn't really count. Everything else is a good,
self-satisfied kind of pain.

The results from yesterday were blighted somewhat by the amount of time
we spent in the water. There is no other way of looking at it, a boat on
her side is not a fast boat. An Enterprise on her side is slower than most.

For the first race we took 9th out of about 16 boats on the startline.
The one capsize, a visually dramatic event after I mismanaged a
particularly gusty, nasty gybe, knocked us back from a climbing position
hot on the tail of our friends and rival Enterprise 'Ghost' right to the
back of the fleet. Ghost finished in 4th. That said, we were not the
only Ent to capsize. The third one went in a little before us and then

Strengthening conditions saw only 8 boats dare the startline for the
second race. It became a game of attrition, the other two Enterprises
both retiring after capsize. We went over three times, all at speed on
the downwind legs, the once in a communal pile of boats at the bottom of
the run, which was quite entertaining. I couldn't help myself, and
called "windward" on them, but to be fair, there wasn't much they could
do as we were alll mast down in the churning water. Everybody was
grinning though.

Doesn't matter how practiced you are at it, the bottom line is that it's
slow to capsize an Enterprise. The boat swamps, and you've got to
laboriously sail the water out of the self-bailers and transom flaps.
It's quite a thing to watch, because as she picks up speed and the water
flushes out the back, she re-emerges from the depths like the Nautilus
rising. But it's slow. In a handicap fleet of mixed classes, the
singlehanders like the Lasers and Solos always get the upper hand; they
recover so much faster because they come up dry.

Three capsizes in, and I have to say the thought of retiring hadn't
crossed my mind. I'd like to say it was tenacity, grit and sheer
bloody-minded determination, and true, I think Patricia and I were
silently goading each other on, neither being willing to admit defeat
first. But actually, we were having too much fun. And some of those
planing, screaming reaches were to die for. Sheer spray-flumed,
terrifying exhilaration.

It wasn't a day to forget your wetsuit (I'd grabbed it off the hanger,
but just hadn't packed it, fool that I am) but aside from a few soggy
shivers between races and then later whilst putting the boat away, the
work kept me warm. The hot showers were very welcome after though.

I am going to fit a ratchet block onto the mainsail.

The photo at the top was from the evening before, on stage just as the
second set was about to start. Saturday night was a good gig. Been an
age since I last played in Cardiff. A joint 40th birthday party, a
lovely venue and the band seemed ideally suited for the audience.

Sunday 19 October 2014


Two races. F5 gusting 8, and viciously shifty. Capsized once first race, three times the second race. Hels was poorly, so Patricia stepped in to crew for me. Nimble as a cat and inexhaustible, kept her humour through every tumble. I'm very grateful to her.

A great day's sailing.

Not such a good day to forget your wetsuit though.

Looks benign

But it's blowing F5 out there and gusting to the upper end of 6. Nothing for it but to go and play.

And the sun is shining.

Thursday 16 October 2014

For those moments.....

.....when the wait weight of the afternoon comes crashing down, and you realise there's another whole nine hours till bedtime.

Room with a view

Glorious, brilliant sunshine outside my window at the moment. Trees on
the valleyside are turning, autumn definitely has a good grip on the
countryside now. The weather yesterday was grim. Black, filthy skies and
thick, foggy rain. Drove down to Bristol after work to bring Ben back
for supper over at Dad's. Visibility on the motorway was horrid.

In the gaps, or from the occasional elevation, the sky was amazing.
Always seems that way when I'm driving and should be keeping my eye on
the road, rather than wishing I had my camera to hand. Whatever it was
has blown through now. For the moment. Weekend looks like fun.

Met Office says Saturday is going to be wet. I have a gig in the evening
over in Cardiff, but for the first time in what feels like an age, have
the day free. Have to decide what to do with it. I could just laze, but
that feels wasteful. The dogs will need walking of course, and that
always takes up a chunck of the day. I could run the dogs in the park in
the morning then go to karate. I'll then need to get guitar strings for
the gig, so could take Nik up in to town with me, buy strings, and find
somewhere for lunch.

I quite fancy taking her to town for lunch. Haven't done that in an age.

Sunday looks like it's going to be entertaining. The Met is forcasting
19 knots southwestly, gusting 35. They do tend to be overly pessemistic,
or optimistic; depends on whether you're me or most of the other folks
watching the forcast, as it has to be said we're looking for different
things. But if we even get close to that, it should be enough to make
Buffy fly across the lake.

Haven't had a decent capsize in an absolute age. Last Saturday's near
miss in Ondine doesn't count.

Really hope the weather comes in as promised.

When you find me broken, battered and beaten to exhausted submission
come Sunday evening, you may remind me I said that, and I'll happily eat
my words.

Wednesday 15 October 2014

October 15

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

- Max Ehrmann, "Desiderata", 1927

A copy of these words were printed out and hung on the side of a cupboard in my Mum's kitchen for many years. You'd see them at eye level to the left, just as you walked into the kitchen. I've no idea what moved her to print them out and hang them there, who gave them to her or why.

However full the world could be of trickery, she was never blind to what virtue there was.

Today was her birthday. We miss her.

Tuesday 14 October 2014


For most of the fifteen hours out on the Ring, the snaps I took I caught with my mobile phone. It has the decided advantage of being waterproof, and so stayed tethered to me and therefore available throughout the day.

I did take my Pentax, and nearly drowned it during our unintended encounter with the bank just below the Lower Parting, as the camera bag was lashed down to the aft deck and got a good dunking. The camera bag is a good one though, and the camera survived.

But remained in the bag for the remainder of the day.

The following shots were taken with the Pentax just after we'd launched from Lydney, and give a fair idea of the mood the river was in.

It was a glorious day.

The Gloucester Ring 2014, the return

We sat contentedly on the West Quay of Gloucester Docks, munching our lunch in the balmy, autumnal sunshine outside the toastie shop. We'd had word from Sue and Annabel that they'd reached the lower parting and were on their way and by 13:00, Windlord had locked in and come alongside to join us. We'd had no word of Pete or Matt in their canoe.

Counting Llanthony Bridge in Gloucester and the Low Level Swing Bridge at Sharpness, the canal is a 16 mile journey through 18 bridges of various heights. With her masts down, Ondine would slide beneath most of them without any need for them to swing open, but we couldn't confirm the clearance of the Low Level Swing Bridge at Sharpness in advance. The clue was in the name, and so it wasn't usually a question. Anything wanting to lock out into the estuary beyond was usually of a size where the clearance of the bridge wasn't even a consideration. The Pier Head at Sharpness suggested we arrive, see if we could fit under without assistance and if not, ask them before 6pm to swing the bridge for us.

Before departing Gloucester, Dad and I spent a little bit of time tidying up Ondine, checking her over, and removing the multiple festoons of willow that had stowed away aboard following our earlier encounter with the bank. Mercifully, it looked like nothing had been damaged except our dignity and pride. 

A little before 14:00 we left the dock, cleared Llanthony Bridge and were on our way, Green Bean ahead of us and Windlord, the girls valiantly and stubbornly determined to row for as long as they could, falling behind.

None of the rain promised by the forecast for the afternoon had offered itself yet, but the sky to the south was darkening with ill intent. There was a chill in the headwind that you always get when under power, especially on the canal, which is often elevated above the surrounding land and can feel very exposed. I was warm and snug in my foul weather gear, however.

So late in the year, traffic on the canal was light. Approaching Netheridge Bridge, a large working boat passed us heading up to Gloucester and we squeezed in tight to the bank to avoid her. By 15:00 we were past Sellars Bridge and making good time, but the darkened sky was now lit by lightning, and the first few drops of rain began to fall. Phil had mentioned that he kept his narrow boat on the canal and, approaching Saul Junction, we accepted his gracious invitation to stop and step aboard for a break and a cup of honeyed tea. We radioed ahead to Green Bean to advise them of our intentions and agreed to meet them at Phil's boat.

The cabin of the boat was deliciously warm from the earlier sunshine. We forgot the rain and relaxed with drink in hand for a bit. 

We re-emerged to continue not much more than thirty minutes later, but the threatened rain had passed and the sky was clearing. We passed Saul, Patch and then the Purton Bridges without mishap, Green Bean in sight just ahead, the sky now blue and the lowering sun glorious once again. 

By 17:00 we were on the final stretch to Sharpness, running parallel to the river. The surrounds were tranquil and lazy. In contrast to the turbulent violence of the morning spent on (and in) the waters of the Severn, the river laid out like a picture postcard off to our right, now quiet and deceptively sleepy with the ebbing tide.

We slid gently past the remains of the old Severn Railway Bridge, looming like Tolkeinesque sentinels on either bank of the canal in the low slanting, ambering sunlight. Then we were there, Sharpness Docks laid out before us. We followed Green Bean into the left arm of the docks, passing beneath the first bridge and watching them slide effortlessly beneath the Low Level Swing Bridge. We edged up cautiously towards it, but the clearance proved generous and all my worries groundless. A few minutes later we were moored alongside the dock outside the gates of the lock.

We watched the sun set over Lydney and Dad cooked up a simple supper of bacon rolls on the dockside, deliciously washed down with hot, steaming tea. 

Our friend Allan from LYC contacted me to say that he and Dave had decided they'd launch the Club's safety boat "Braveheart" once the tide was sufficiently in, and come over to escort us back. The escort was unexpected and unasked for, but the additional company of Allan and Dave very welcome. Contact had been made with Pete and Matt and it was confirmed they were safe and well. It transpired that instead of turning right at the Lower Parting to cross Llanthony Weir, they went left, crossed successfully at Maismore Weir and then came back downriver under Westgate Bridge to arrive at Gloucester and pull out there.

Around 18:00, Sue called from Windlord to report that they'd been enjoying the peace and solitude of rowing so much they hadn't yet started the outboard. They'd just reached the halfway point at Saul Junction, so still had another eight miles or so to go. 

Locking out was scheduled for 21:00, the plan being to moor up on the pontoon in the outer tidal basin and wait for the tide and the perfect moment to cross. A little before 20:30 we heard the sound of an outboard. The engine cut out, and then with the shadow and faint lights of Windlord appearing out of the distant gloom, Annabel and Sue rowed up to join us at the dock.

With the three boats ready to go, a little before 21:00 the lock keeper Des opened the sluice gates and water exploded into the lock basin whilst we looked on, just a little bit shocked and awed by the ferocity of the maelstrom below. The locking fee for Sharpness is £25 per boat, but Des cheerfully told us the Docks had agreed a special, one-off "Gloucester Ring" offer of three for one especially for us, and charged only the one fee.

The gates opened, we motored in, and rafted up alongside Windlord against the lock wall. Des let us down gently and waved us off into the night. We entered the outer basin and secured ourselves up against the floating pontoon to wait on the tide. 

We discussed the options for crossing. High water was due at 22:50 and the tide was still in full flood for the moment, a surging torrent driving up river. It was a question of balance; leave too early on the tide and you ran the risk of being washed up a significant distance, past Wellhouse Rocks and out over the Ridge Sands. Leave too late and the risk of getting washed down past the harbour breakwater in the full force of the ebbing tide was equally uncomfortable in the dark.

A little after 22:00 I received a message from Al to say they were launching Braveheart, and a short while later she emerged into the basin from the darkness beyond carrying Allan, Dave and (another) Steve.

As we discussed the options, Dave made the very salient point that even if high water was at 22:50, the flow wouldn't reverse for another fifteen minutes after that.  At 22:30 Braveheart ventured outside the mouth of the basin to have a look, and returned soon thereafter with the not unsurprising news that the flow was still running strong. We began to make preparations to depart.

An almost full moon was riding high in the cloudless heavens when we pushed our way out of the dock and into the flow of the tide at 22:45. The current grabbed us as we tracked across the wide expanse of river. The two red, vertical lights at the end of Lydney Harbour's breakwater gave us our course, but remained stubbornly distant despite the labours of our engine. We could see Windlord and Green Bean behind us off our starbord quarter, and Braveheart shadowing us to port.

As the far bank drew closer, the river's flow began to loose its tyrannical grip. Green Bean, closer in to the shore, started to pull ahead, and we could now make out the dark, shadowy outline of the breakwater gradually creeping closer. On a moonlit, cloudless night, your eyes adjust sweetly to the gloom and you can make out most details around you on the gloaming water. The head lamps and hand torches of others though can then be, however well intentioned, a rotten nuisance, bankrupting your carefully hoarded night vision in a careless instant. 

Trying not to be irritated by the unwelcome, uninvited blindness we laboured on, staring out into the darkness, calling directions back to Dad at the helm. Green Bean made the shore, landing at the top of the flooded slip and being carried up by a host of welcoming, friendly hands as we ghosted in gracefully to her side, our keel-band grinding on gravel as we touched, safe home. Windlord was not far behind, landing next to Ondine as I helped carry Green Bean up on to the grass. Next, we hauled Windlord onto her trolley and pulled her up and out the way, before I backed Ondine's trailer down to the water's edge and we winched her on.

Finally, with her three wards clear of the slip and safely ashore, Braveheart landed, and, some forty-eight miles and fifteen long hours after we'd started that morning, the Gloucester Ring was complete.

Monday 13 October 2014

The Gloucester Ring 2014, outbound

By way of explanation: 

The "Gloucester Ring" is a round trip of about 46 miles, departing Lydney in the early morning with a decent flood tide at or near springs, pushing up through the upper reaches of the Indian country that is the "unnavigable" Severn and using the height to cross Llanthony Weir back into civilisation, 28 miles later. After locking into Gloucester docks, there is then a 16 mile return trip down the historic Gloucester & Sharpness Canal to Sharpness Docks. There, you wait on the dockside at Sharpness for the next tide, lock back out into the estuary and cross the couple of miles of water over in the dark to land home once more back at Lydney.

To give credit where it's due, as far as I know, the route was the inspired idea of our good friend John Christie, chairman of the Drascombe Association, skipper of the Drascombe Lugger "Muckle Flugga" and long, long time member of Lydney Yacht Club. He's made the trip a number of times and we first travelled it with him and others back in 2012. This would be our second time around.

Another friend and fellow LYC member Steve Cullis is the skipper of "Green Bean", a ruggedly handsome, hand-made sailing canoe he built himself. The Land Rover of the canoe world, Steve sails Green Bean just about anywhere and through anything. He knows the river well, sailed the Ring with John and us back in 2012 and has done it once or twice himself since. When, back in the summer, he mentioned the idea of doing it again this autumn, Dad and I jumped at the chance. There were some reservations strongly expressed amongst certain members at the Club; concerns about doing the trip so late in the year, all the attendant risks of inclement weather, the potential cold, the dangers of doing it unsupported by a safety boat, and so on. All very well reasoned and undeniably well intentioned.

I appreciate such advice, and the wisdom of experience much greater than mine; we're grateful for it and don't take it lightly. On consideration however, we felt that we were suitably equipped, were practiced in and knew the limitations of our boat and ourselves well. We were familiar enough with the river by now to have some idea of what we were likely to be facing, were long established in the habit of sailing throughout the year and were self-sufficient and more than capable of self-preservation and self-rescue if it became necessary. It was an adventure, and there can't be any adventure without risk, but we felt on balance that we'd mitigated those risks as best as any could, and so going ahead wasn't therefore foolish or unwise.

At least no more so than usual.


We watched the weather with interest through last week, with a low pushing up from the southwest bringing with it stormy gales. We got lucky, and by Saturday the forecast was promising something of a window, albeit one with almost no wind and thundery showers through the afternoon. It was damp, still and misty when we hooked Ondine onto the back of the car around 6am Saturday morning and set off for Lydney. We arrived at the Club an hour later, just as the sky was beginning to glow with the dawn, to find Steve already up and rigging Green Bean, Annabel and Sue preparing their Wayfarer "Windlord" to accompany us, and a couple of other members, Pete and Matt, setting up their canoe as well.

With no wind forecast, both Windlord and Green Bean elected to not rig their masts. Annabel and Sue had some notion of rowing the entire route, but a friend at the club leant them an outboard so they’d have some contingency if they needed it. We could have followed suit and left the spars and sails behind, but the optimist in me couldn't bear the idea of launching without at least the option of hauling sail to hand, and so we fully rigged Ondine and furled the mainsail against the mast. That decision would come back to bite me hard later.

Steve was sailing with his brother Julian, so Green Bean's usual crew Phil was to sail with us. LYC was hosting a number of visiting yachts for "Oktoberfest" (I'm still not entirely sure what that's about) amongst whom was a Drascombe Dabber sailor, Stefan, whom we'd met the year before. He'd sailed up to Lydney for the weekend from his base at Thornbury Sailing Club, and so asked to come along with us as well, aboard Ondine. As he was suitably kitted, experienced and with a good idea of what to expect, we made him welcome. Having four experienced and able sets of hands aboard later proved to be a lifesaver in the upper reaches, after one of us was washed overboard.

With the boats now rigged, we waited on the tide. 8am, and still the river was empty, as muddily bone dry as it only ever gets around springs. High water was due at Sharpness for 10:31 and would be 59 minutes later 28 miles up river at Gloucester. Flow reversal would be around an hour after that, and from then on in, our brief window of opportunity would rapidly close down. Within fifteen minutes the sands had begun to cover with roaring water, and by half eight we were helping Windlord down the steep incline of the slip and into the muddy, turbulent water. By 08:45 we were all away and soon after that into the churn off Sharpness and through to the skipping, leaping waters of Ridge Sands.

Past the whirlpools marking the pilings of the old bridge the waters smoothed out as usual off Purton. We settled ourselves into the boat, the thick cloud overhead beginning to offer just the first hint of clearing, Dad and Phil taking turns at the helm of Ondine. Once past Purton and Tites Point, we hugged the west shore, avoiding the shallows off Slimbridge on the east side. The general plan was to reach Brimms Pill, then traverse the river over to the east side to pick up the channel around the Noose. Conscious we were much, much earlier on the tide than usual, we kept a good eye out on the water ahead.

Under canvas in this area of the Severn, you can usually hear the shoals before you spot them. With the engine running, that wasn't so. We turned out from the bank as planned at Brimms. We could see Green Bean over on the east side who, with her much shallower draft was in no way as concerned about the shallows off Slimbridge as we were, and that seemed to confirm the veracity of our plan. We could see the shoals ahead off to port now; big breaking walls of tossed, angry, muddy waters stacking and tumbling together, and beyond that, the sandbank in the centre of the Noose, as yet uncovered. It's not really the water that worries me in the shoals around these parts; it's what you might hit beneath them.

We were getting drawn in by the flow, and had left the turn to the east bank a little too late, the turn right a little too shallow. The centreboard grounded, and we quickly drew the foils up as the boat began to get slammed around. Dad took the helm, steering with the outboard, and Phil and Stefan moved forwards towards the hurling, bucking bow whilst I secured the rudder. Ondine was still slamming, and twitchy with no centreboard to steady her as the waves hit her quarter. Being the lighter of the two of us, I took the helm and Dad's weight went forward as well, dampening the slamming somewhat, and biting the bow in to give a little more steerage.

In theory, there is a channel that runs from around Brimms on the west bank over to Middle Point on the east, and there you can pick up the deeper water on the outside of the bend and work around the Noose. But the sands are shifting; as a musician is only as good as his last gig, the charts around these parts are only as good as the last tide, and local knowledge only as good as the last trip. There was no channel, just banks of mud and sand threatening to beach and roll us.

We turned away, timing the helm in the chaotic swell, and nosed tentatively back into the shoals, playing the throttle, and keeping the sand banks on our right, at least as well as we could. Visibility was pretty much limited to the bucking hull and the walls of brown water crashing over the bow. Whooping and yelling with the adrenaline of the ride, we picked our way as best we could through the chaos of the shoaling water, Phil's familiarity with the area from his own canoeing and time spent aboard Green Bean invaluable in divining the right path. Within ten or fifteen minutes we were through, and guided Ondine into the more reliable deep-water channel that runs below Hock Cliff.

By half nine we were leaving the Noose, soggy but very much on time and still in once piece. Green Bean was behind us, as was Windlord, and we'd spotted Pete and Matt aboard their canoe making a fair passage of it, avoiding the vicious stuff by hugging the shallows on the inside of the bend.

Expecting the next bit of interesting water to throw itself at us beneath Gardiner’s Cliff at Westbury, it was a bit of a surprise to see the river boil up again beneath the red cliff at Newnham as we rounded the corner past Bullo Pill. Caught beneath the sandbanks on the inside of the bend off The Old Passage at Arlingham, and the waters churning and cascading around beneath Newnham, there wasn't much room for mistake, but we slid smoothly through the one small slither of clear water between the mud and the boil. Further on, Gardener’s Cliff was surprisingly uneventful, and we followed the channel back across from the outside of the easterly bend to the other side of the river without mishap, gliding past the sandbanks to our left. Less than a boat-length away on our right, an eddy in the river rushed back against the tide, an inexplicable, improbable drop of a foot or two between the level of the water racing back past us and our water carrying us forwards in its rush.

Past Framilode there was a straggle of folks on the bank that had gathered to watch the earlier Bore. They waved; we wave cheerfully back, then hailed one of the onlookers to ask how long it had been since the Bore had passed. The reply gave us pause. Five minutes, if that. And we realised that looking ahead, we could just see it cresting around the bend past Epney.

We slowed, very reluctant to risk catching up with it, and advised Green Bean and Windlord via the VHF of its proximity. The next few miles were spent passing surfers hauling their boards up the banks having enjoyed the wave, a blissfully blue and warm sky now above us. Past Longney Cribb, then the Severn Bore Inn, the ski club and the lonely, solitary salmon fishers' hut, the river calmed and we made good time, the river becoming tranquil, bucolic as it rushed beneath us, carrying us along.

A good part of the charm of this journey is the changing face and character of the river as you climb on into her upper reaches from the wild, wide reaches of the estuary into the narrower stretches of willow-hung banks before Gloucester. We passed a solitary workboat, hull deep under the burden of the JCB digger it was carrying, punching back into the face of the galloping tide, heading back downriver to Bullo or perhaps beyond. It was a contradictory, industrial sight amongst the otherwise arboreal, timeless scene of the river.

photo courtesy of "Green Bean"
There are three low bridges past the parting, in the last reach before Gloucester, too low to pass with our masts up. I passed the helm over to Dad, leaving him to guide Ondine tentatively through the flotsam and jetsam trailed in the wake of the Bore, whilst I took down the gaff and mizzen and made them tidy and stowed the rudder on the cockpit floor. The engine was on little more than tick-over, a necessary precaution against the dangers colliding with any of nature's copious litter in the water that had been washed up or tore down by the violence the tide and that big bore wave still not so very far ahead. Relaxed beneath a warm, blue sky, I poured myself a cup of coffee, mulling over our timings and when best to take the mast down.

An eddy beneath the dark surface water, some unlucky, rogue turbulence, stole steerage from the boat for no more than a second or two. Ondine pirouetted gracefully, for a brief instant feeling like she might come back, and then slid gracelessly, senselessly, inevitably into the grasp of the overhanging trees.

The river bit.

Old Man Willow pushed maliciously at the top of the mast; the Severn plunged mercilessly, relentlessly into the side of the hull. Ondine began to tip. The engine flared in a last bid as Dad gunned the throttle to try and get some grip and steerage, then choked and died as the brown water surged over it and began to cascade over the side of the boat. To the symphony of cracking, splintering branches, I scurried up to the higher gunwale, the brown river now seeming a distant drop beneath me.

I have some small experience with capsize, though never in Ondine as she’s too much of a lady, and you get a feel for the sweet-spot, that pinprick moment of no return. We were so very nearly there. Intending to vault over on to the now emerging centreplate, I knew that if I could at least balance the boat there, I might stop the mast from sinking, the plate from collapsing irretrievably back into the case, and if so, she might pivot away from the bank and yet come back up. We could worry about getting the water back out into its proper place in the river then.

Instinctively knowing where the balance needed to be, Dad, Phil and Stefan followed me up. I looked back down to see Dad loose his footing, fall back and roll sideways out over the side to land facedown in the water.

"Grab him!"

Phil and I dove for the low side, reaching, Stefan threw his weight up at the high side, uncompromising, instinctive, determined. As Dad's weight left the boat, there was cracking in the upper branches as the mast tore free. Phil caught Dad, I was a fraction behind him with my grasp as the side of the boat popped back up out of the water in liberation and release, and Ondine tore free and began to get thrown unconstrained and out of control along the bank by the tide, branches jagged, spiked and mean hurling themselves at us like javelins.

Dad was still face down in the water, not moving. Ignoring the boat I reached out to turn him. He came face up, looking quite relaxed and faintly bemused.

"The new dry-suit works really well" he said, as he grabbed the side of the boat and hung on.

"We need to get the boat under control,” advised Phil or Stefan, I'm not sure who. We couldn't pull Dad in over the side now that about a foot of freeboard had been restored and were getting smashed and battered along the bank. I left Phil holding Dad, and Stefan and I braved the whiplash and javelin hail of willow to grasp at the greenery to try and halt our tumbling. At first, the branches and leaves shredded in our hands, but we grabbed and twisted enough green willow to hold us and just clung on as the whole weight of the river took an elephantine hold of the boat again. The transom sunk dangerously low into what was now an aft bow wave; Stefan, seeing the problem, moved his weight forward and away, and restored the balance of the semi-swamped boat.

photo courtesy of "Green Bean"
Green Bean had seen our peril and had punched back into the tide to stand off mid-channel, watching and waiting.

We manhandled the boat’s stern into the bank, and I returned to the work of trying to help Phil recover Dad back aboard whilst Stefan held us in. Out of immediate danger, everybody continued to remain calm and work unhurriedly, conserving strength and stamina, calculating and evaluating the various ways out of this mess.

Green Bean shouted a warning of inbound debris, and I took a turn holding the boat whilst Stefan grabbed an oar to fend off what turned out to be an on-rushing half a floating tree charging us down with 8 knots of tide behind it.

Eventually, we worked Dad around to the transom, and wedged between the muddy bank and the boat, still out of depth in the river with no footing, we finessed him ingloriously and ignominiously in over the port quarter. In all, he'd probably been in the water for about twenty minutes, but was quite comfortable and relatively unruffled thanks to the protection of his dry-suit and buoyancy aid. The mortal danger now passed and only the puzzle left of how to retrieve ourselves from the entanglement of riverside foliage, I climbed out onto the bank, now desperate for a pee.

We turned our attention to the swamped outboard. Being so early on the tide, we still had time to make the crossing of the weir despite the delay, even if we had to row, but rowing would mean an end to our journey once we reached Gloucester if we couldn't get the engine started again.

I pulled on the start cord. And pulled, and continued until I could smell that I'd flooded the engine. We removed the fuel line, and pulled the engine dry. Phil took over, and his longer arms and fresher strength carried the day. The engine coughed and choked once, like a flat-lining patient jerking and gasping, shocked beneath the surgeon's paddles, and then on the next pull, spluttered and roared valiantly to life once again.

As a rule, I dislike engines; noisy, smelly things. For that one however, I make an exception. She's a four horsepower, noisy, smelly thing of proven stubborn, rugged, utterly reliable beauty. And I love her.

We gathered ourselves. I took the helm. Still endangered by the overhanging trees, still half-swamped by the tide, with full-throttled indelicacy I pushed Ondine back out into the flow. Mid-channel, we eased back, and then began to pump. We fed Dad sweet coffee and chocolate; although to be fair, still beset by the analytical calm that had characterised all of Ondine's crew throughout the entire incident, he probably didn't need it. We insisted, he didn't complain. Much.

courtesy of Green Bean's Dad

The parting now coming up, I kept the helm, whilst Dad directed Phil up on onto the bows to release the forestay, and he and Stefan lowered the mast. Into the right hand channel towards Llanthony weir, the untravelled river became narrow and choked and we pushed our way gently through the crowding willow. We crossed Llanthony Weir around noon, pretty much bang on the perfect time despite the fun and games of the last hour. The weir pool was obvious only by the open space, the weir itself hidden deep beneath the tide, its line marked only by a lost, uprooted tree pushed disconsolately up against the middle of it.

Steve had called ahead to Gloucester lock and told the lock keeper that Green Bean was coming up the river with another boat and would want to lock in.

"It's all down river to me, mate," replied the lock keeper, but assured us he'd have the lock gates open and waiting for when we arrived. We reached the lock gate to find it closed against us. We idled expectantly, but seeing no movement, pulled up to Gloucester Quay to wait patiently. And waited patiently a little more.

In the end, we sent Phil up onto the wall to go and enquire. It transpired that the lock keeper was waiting on a narrow boat or the like called "Green Bean" to come down river, and hadn't clocked that when we'd said "up river" we'd really meant it and hadn't just been confusing ourselves with the unusual change of flow caused by the tide. Apparently people do. On realising his mistake with some good natured amusement, he cheerfully locked us in.

By 12:30 we were moored up on the dockside, awaiting word of Windlord and the guys aboard the canoe. Sat ashore outside a sandwich shop in gloriously warm sunshine, we were drinking hot drinks, and trying to eat fancy toasted cheese sandwiches without scalding our mouths.

An impossible feat, I believe.