Tuesday 28 April 2015


Torn canvas aside, I think we've had a pretty steep introduction to some relatively heavy weather sailing since bringing Calstar up from Swansea in February.

I say relatively. I'm continually reminded that worse things happen at sea, but I guess when it hits you out there a) you've got no choice but to weather it and b) you've got lots of sea-room to weather it with. So "heavy weather" is context driven by who you are and what you're doing, and I appreciate we're really still paddling in the shallow end of the pool as far as yachting is concerned.

Probably just as well. And I am enjoying it. Actually, that's an understatement. I'm loving it. But I'm finding myself continually outside of my comfort zone. Which, of course, is part of the charm.

I suspect the wind we had on Sunday would be champaign sailing conditions for most experienced cruising sailors. About 11 knots, gusting to no more than 18 at the extreme. Wind over tide, but it was a neap, so pretty tame compared to how it can get out there. Compared to how it was coming back from Cardiff in March, for example.

But my anxiety levels shoot through the roof as the boat heels. Especially when we're beating up wind.

The thing is, with a dinghy, I quickly work out the limits of the boat, and how its going to behave when I push it beyond those limits. I effectively take the thing out and sail her in a blow. We capsize, we recover, rinse and repeat, and pretty soon we know each other pretty well.

I don't really understand Calstar's limits yet, and obviously can't just take her out in a blow and tip her over to find out.

So when, after unhooking myself from the fisherman, we hauled up sail yesterday and the first gust hit, she heeled through 25 degrees and beyond and there was an immediate up-welling of panic and intimidation, a fear the boat was going to fall over on top of us. We reefed down the genoa (all though in hindsight, I should've put the second reef into the main before reefing the genoa), and as the gusts hit, Dad would feather the helm up into the wind to manage the heel.

Thing is, I think the boat and conditions are currently mastering us, especially whenever we try to sail close hauled in more than a slight breeze. I think that lost us the race the other week. I'm not sure we're sailing her anywhere near as efficiently as we should or she could be, especially when close hauled. I don't think it's a case of an appropriate level of reefing, but rather a lack of experience and confidence. The boat is still handling us, not the other way around.

A good example; when a gust hits on a boat like Calstar, should you spill wind by playing the main, as I would in a dinghy? I don't think I know the answer to that; I bet we probably should, but I suspect we haven't been. We've been a bit overawed by the size and power of that huge great genoa out in front, and the mainsail seems to shrink into insignificance by comparison. So when the gust hits, we try to minimise the heeling by keeping her just on the edge of the no-go zone, even feathering up into it a little if we have to. The mainsail stays cleated in.

Not very efficient, and I suspect it sees us sag horribly to leeward.

But none of this should be read as a complaint or frustration. There are no regrets.

I'm just thinking out loud and reflecting on recent experiences. There was never really any question of whether or not we'd go out last Sunday once the forecast stabilised into a nice, cosy F4, and the real horror of ripping the sail was the fear it would leave us unable to sail next weekend. I love heavy weather and an interesting sea. It scares me, and so it should, but there is a balance between appropriate anxiety and the confidence and calm to manage the conditions.

I've got the calm sorted. Mainly for the benefit of the crew. But I'm a bit like a duck gliding up stream, all poise and grace topsides but paddling like buggery just under the surface.

All this anxiety and trepidation I'm presently experiencing with Calstar, I felt with Ondine in her turn, very much so at first. A different scale, perhaps, but she was another boat I had to "learn" without simply taking her out and tipping her over. So I know this is just a part of the process. So is the questioning and review.

In other news, Dad passed his Day Skipper exam on re-taking it down in Portishead a couple of weeks ago. We've booked on to the Day Skipper Practical course later in the summer; Dad, myself and Ben for five days on a yacht out of Falmouth. With the three of us booked on the course, it's very likely it'll just be us and the instructor. Plenty of sailing between now and then, of couse, but it'll be great fun spending five days with Dad and Ben away on the Cornish coast in a bigger boat.

Of course, we could've spent the money on a new genoa instead.

An unfortunate series of events

It was a perilous weekend.

Great gig Saturday night, but three songs from the end the fire alarm went off and the entire buildings was evacuated to the car-park. Although I was certain it was a false alarm, the DJ had been over enthusiastic with his smoke machine, there was still a degree of trepidation at leaving my guitar in the building. I very nearly took it with me, but the last time a fire alarm went off at a gig, I did just that as we evacuated out the back fire escape, only to find it wasn't a fire, but a small scale riot happening in the pub car-park. Small scale, but enthusiastic, complete with riot vans and irate policemen and a very large number of drunken Foresters, it being Cinderford in the Forest of Dean.

Having our guitars with us was a definite disadvantage, so they were passed back over the heads of the folks crowding out behind us until they were safe back on stage, then the band fought and scrabbled our way back into the building through the squabbling masses. It's never a dull life.

Sunday morning, first in the catalogue of calamity that was to follow was the chart plotting app on my Sony Xperia tablet. It had automatically updated, and in doing so, an apparent "change in privileges" had caused it to eat my charts. I found fix instructions for it on the Internet, but didn't have the time to follow them to their (hopefully, though yet to be determined) happy conclusion before I had to leave to pick up Dad on the way to the Marina if we were to make the tide.

So I activated a trial copy of Navionics, which is a vector based plotting app that Dad favours. It did the job of telling me where I was, but I've decided I'm definitely not a fan of vector charts. I hate that when you zoom out to get a picture of where you are in relation to everything, you loose the detail of what you're potentially running into.

On getting to the Marina, we walked out to the sea wall and looked at the waters beyond. A northerly F4 was blowing, and we could see white caps out in the Kings Road along wiht a couple of large vessels being maneouvored about by tugs out of Portbury as well. We debated whether or not to go out, and concluded we'd survived worse. At 1120 we slipped our berth and entered the lock with a couple of other outbound craft.

A short while later, we were motoring out past the breakwater. I was on the port side pulling in fenders as we passed the end of it when there was a thump of something heavy landing on the deck, something grabbed and jerked me then there was a twang. Too bemused to be startled, I stared in complete incomprehension at a large angler's fishing weight now sat mutely on the coach-house roof. Then followed the tangle of bright yellow fishing line now collected in a birdsnest around the fender in my hand, along the way passing my dispassionate eye over a nasty, inch long, barbed fishing hook that had caught me through the webbing of my life jacket harness.

I looked back, and could see a bemused angler on the end of the breakwater, his own couple of rods seemingly undisturbed. I don't know if he was the angler that had caught me, or if it had been somebody else. I don't know if the back-eddy had driven us unwittingly into an angler's fishing line, or if somebody had misjudged that we'd passed and accidently cast into us. I do know it could've been an awful lot worse. I cut the line, gathered it all up along with the weight, and went below to find some wire cutters to cut the vicious hook out of the webbing of my harness.

A lucky escape, I reckon.

Equilibrium restored, I returned to the deck, finished pulling in the fenders and stowing the mooring lines, then Dad put Calstar head to wind and we hauled up the sails. I left the first reef in the main, but let out the whole genoa to begin with. The little boat heeled hard in the gusts on her beam reach towards Denny Island, so I pulled a few turns of the genoa back in and she seemed to settle well enough, Dad still on the helm so that I could concentrate on the management of the boat.

An hour later we tore through the leach of the headsail.

So it was a perilous weekend. But it had been great fun sailing up until then, regardless.

Monday 27 April 2015

R&J Sails, Clevedon; a stitch in time

Following a suggestion from another Bristol Channel sailor on a forum I follow, I rang R&J Sails this morning, who are just down the road from Portishead in Clevedon. Got through to a chap called Dick Hannaford at R&J, explained the damage and said we really wanted to get back out on the water next weekend, though I confess I wasn't at that point holding out much hope. 

He said that if I could get the sail to him by lunchtime and if it was fixable, he'd fix it whilst I waited.

He did a fantastic job, and at a very fair price. And for added bonus, it was a real pleasure to watch an undeniably skilled and talented craftsman at his work.

It's very evident we're going to need a new sail at some point later this year, the leach of the sail where the UV strip attaches is very ripe, although the rest of the body of the sail is still in reasonable shape for its age. But for now, we're back on the water.

Sunday 26 April 2015

Then suddenly....

....the fun was over.

Didn't see it go. Noticed a 'bulge' in the leech, climbed forward to get a better look and was horrified to find a blown seam.

Sucks. But worse things happen at sea.

Really worried we might not get it fixed by next weekend though. Was really hoping to sail over to Cardiff and back for the day.


Denny Island

He was clearly enjoying himself

A little later

The idea today was for Dad to keep the helm, and for me to mange the sails.

He did good. Think he found it surprisingly physical. I found I had to direct him an awful lot less than I'd expected to.

Dad's a boatman, but he's not a yachtsman. I think we might fix that over the coming year though.

Today was a good start.


Locking out, 1130


She's supposed to be retired, but the electrics on the Taylor are playing up, so she's been pressed back into service for now.

Fire Engine

Saturday night

Outside HMS Heron, fire alarm put us all out, three songs before the end of the gig.

Prime suspect was the DJ's smoke machine.

We got the "all clear" pretty swift, went back in and finished the gig. Was a great night.

End of day Friday

Spring is almost done

The old tree is catching back up. Don't think you can really see it in the photo, but her sap is definitely rising.

Saturday 25 April 2015


RNAS Yeovilton, HMS Heron's ward room; Sherborne & Yeovil Hockey Club Dinner Dance. They're currently eating in the other room. We're on in half an hour or so. Assuming the dinner doesn't run over.

These things always run over.

Love how the Navy name their buildings after their ships.

YouTube: British Moth on a windy Sunday

Footage of a British Moth racing at Hunts SC on a blowy day that a friend has just shared with me.

My first "proper" racing dinghy was a British Moth. Fantastic, fun little boats. A traditional design from the 1930's, the rig and sail-plan have been updated and modernised over the last 80 years or so, but the hull is essentially the same.

They're a really friendly class. My first Nationals was at Hunts in 2008; it was a brilliant week of sailing and camping by the lakeside. On the first day in particular, the conditions were similar to those in the clip above. The photo below was taken on the third day, when the weather had calmed down somewhat.

The Moth is essentially a light wind, small water boat at heart. It's scow bow and high aspect ratio mainsail designed for short tacking in the deep cut of narrow rivers. It shifts on the fainted echoed whisper of a breeze, and tacks on a penny. Many dinghies naturally stabilise as they climb up onto the plane in a gust. The Moth doesn't. She becomes twitchy and tipsy and gives every impression of wanting to kill you if you don't get everything exactly right. Which makes getting it right such a sweet, sweet feeling.

It's exceptionally good fun. And very wet.

Sickle moon

I was leaving the house just a little after 2100 last Tuesday evening to go meet Nikki as she finished work, and was struck by how gorgeous the bright sliver of moon looked over the houses opposite, with a bright star standing satellite to her, as if on guard.

I say "star", I'm guessing it was a planet; Jupiter perhaps? Didn't think to check on Google at the time, and my astronomy is vestigial at best. I recognise a fair few constellations in both hemispheres and the stars that make them up, but can rarely keep track of the planets.

It was a pretty sight though, and after standing there gawping at it for a few minutes, I took a snap on my phone. The first few were predictably over exposed, so I set the in-phone camera to "beach" setting and tried again. On the mobile's screen, the results didn't look at all good, just black, under exposed night sky.

However, just caught a glance of it on my PC screen this morning, and actually, I'm quite pleased with the results. Continually impressed by how well this little phone's camera copes with night-time snaps.

Have a gig a little later on. A relatively long drive down to Yeovil for a dinner dance, so posh frocks and best behaviour all round. Hopefully sailing tomorrow. The forecast has moderated; a gusty F4 from the north in the morning, but fading as the tide turns into the afternoon.

Monday 20 April 2015

A poor spectator

It was Ben's last weekend at home before heading back to Uni, and it's been so long since Hels has been in a boat I was beginning to experience withdrawal symptoms on her behalf. So, with three sailors but only one serviceable dinghy between them, somebody had to take a fall for the team.

It wasn't such a hard deal though. It was a good Enterprise wind; a low end F3 out of the north east, a bit shifty, fine for picking your way through with the Ent but not enough in it to get either the Lasers or the Solos up and planing, setting them up as an easy catch if you sailed well. And Ben and Hels sailed well indeed. I'm a poor spectator, and would always much rather have been out on the water, but their clear enthusiasm and enjoyment of the day was infectious, and as such, some consolation.

I also enjoy taking pictures more than I'd care to admit.

I was going to fix Buffy's boat cover, but left my sailing kit aboard Calstar down in Portishead. I did have my camera though, and whilst it was hardly a thrilling, spray-fumed, boat breaking day, there were enough boats pressed into the small lake to make the view interesting from where I was led flat on the jetty, looking down the beat to the start line at the far end of the lake, through the long lens of my Pentax.

Once the view got repetitive, and my neck couldn't take any more of the angle I was lying at, Matt and I (Matt being Helen's husband) took a walk around the lake with their whippet, Frankie. Interestingly, Frankie who is about the same age as our Jack, is the reason Jack is called Jack, and isn't a Frankie himself. Though it was for no more interesting a cause than we spend a fair bit of time together and the idea of two Frankies seemed to be asking for trouble. So when we took Jack in from the Rescue as a six week old little bundle of fluff, he was swiftly rechristened.

A good thing, really. Jack suits him much better.

Having circumnavigated the lake, we hung around a bit until Ben and Hels relaunched for the second race, then retired to the nearby pub, where we relaxed with a pint of ale, a plate of chips, and a fire crackling in the open fireplace of the Three Horseshoes' small bar-room. It made the hour pass very swiftly, and timing it to a tee, we ambled back contentedly to the lake just in time to help Ben and Hels land and put the boat away snug in her berth.

They didn't do bad. A fourth and second place in the two respective races. They seemed quite pleased with themselves.

I've got my fingers crossed for the weather next week. On the Saturday, I've got a gig with a probable early sound-check, so I won't be able to race with Portishead as I'll need to be on the road by 2pm to make it in time. Sunday, though, the day is open. No racing organised, but it's a neap tide, which means high water just a little after noon in these parts. I think we're going to take Calstar out just for a potter and an explore. Maybe go out around Denny Island, and then up to St Pierre Pill beyond the bridge perhaps?

Or just go out and practice our boat handling off Portishead, with no clear destination in mind. Sailing for the pure and simple sake of sailing. I think I quite like that idea.

Friday 17 April 2015


A few thoughts.

Being on the helm through the race last Saturday was suprisingly restrictive. I thought it would give me a better feel for how she was moving through the water, as it would with a dinghy, but it actually confined my overall tactical perspective of the race and Calstar's performance. Not least, I couldn't see the plotter from the helm's position; a combination of bright sunlight, distance and polarised sunglasses, I think, so I was reduced to a best guess as to the most appropriate line to a mark I couldn't see.

I couldn't get a real feel for the set of the genoa. In part because my position at the helm on the windward side of the cockpit meant that most of the sail was obscured by the main. Likewise, I found it hard to get a feel for the conditions, despite being keenly aware of the wind direction. But it was only in relation to the wind as it met us. In a dinghy, my head would've been out of the boat whenever I wasn't consciously trimming the main, and I'd have been watching the water, judging the swell, anticipating the gusts, looking for the patterns of the wind as it was on its way in. Funny how you overlook the basics when the game scales up.

We need telltails on the genoa and on the leech of the main. Trying to set a sail without telltails feels like a game of blindman's bluff.

We need a better tiller extension. Calstar is not especially heavy on the helm, even when overpressed. But the simple dinghy-sized tiller extension currently installed feels inadequate and uncomfortable. It's a funny thing, but in a dinghy the rest of the boat can be virtually falling apart around me, but if the tiller extension and the mainsheet are good, I'm happy. That said, the mainsheet seems less of an issue with the bigger boat, as it spends most of its time cleated.

Each time I look at the photo of Calstar from astern, locking back into Portishead after the race on Saturday at the end of one of the posts below, it's surprising, but I still don't immediately recognise her as ours. And then when I do, I get an unexpected thrill of delight that paints a silly grin on my face. That's quite at odds to the comfortable sense of familiarity I feel now whenever I step aboard her. The "new boat" honeymoon isn't entirely over it seems.

"Calstar" was originally called "Calastra". The last owner, who admittedly owned her for half her life and whom I've never met but instinctively like for the way he's set her up and looked after her, changed her name when he took ownership, because he wanted something a little less of a mouthful, but seemed uncomfortable changing the name entirely. So "Calstar" is, as far as I can tell, entirely made up. I wonder if we should change her name back?

Not something to rush at. Not least because, in my head for the moment, the two names seem interchangeable when I think of the little boat. The original name has a more feminine feel to it, which I think suits a boat better. But it's just a feel. A bit of digging around on Google suggests its continental, perhaps Latin, but I can't find anything definite.

All that said, a rose by any other name is still a rose. Or, for that matter, a spade a spade.

This weekend we're expecting more wind. Ben's last weekend before he heads back to Uni, so I've told him he can race Buffy at Frampton. Hels is around, so she'll crew for him. If I can find a spare boat, I'll sail, but odds are I'm going to be beached. Which is fine, as I'll take my camera with me, and my sewing kit. Buffy's boat cover is desperately in need of some repairs.

Thursday 16 April 2015

The earning of a Lazy Day; part II

It turned out to be a fantastic night.

We'd been asked to play at the Gloucester Civic Charity Ball, apparently an annual event held by the Mayor and the Sheriff of Gloucester. The party was, this year, intended to raise money for a couple of local children's charities, and with a crowd of about 350 or so attending, it did a good job.

Sound-check went well. Part of the deal when we agreed the gig was that the organisers would arrange for the PA, lights and stage, so we didn't have to do much more than turn up. Whilst it's not unusual for the band to get fed at such events, it's usually backstage and out of the way. However, this time they gave the band and the sound crew a table of our own, tucked just off to the right hand side of the stage, and fed us along with the guests; a rare treat, especially given the ticket price, but very welcome as I'd not had much of a chance to eat since the bacon roll Dad had bought me from the van by the lock-side at the marina in Portishead, much earlier that morning.

The sound engineer turned out to be a friend of our drummer, it being a small world and all that, and he and his crew did a great job of looking after us. The PA was top notch, the lighting atmospheric.

The guests arrived just as we were finishing our sound-check a little after 7pm. As is always the way with these things, despite everybody saying their bit would run to time, it all over-ran and we didn't get on stage until gone 11pm. With a demand set by the venue for the music to be done and the guests gone by 1am, we decided to play straight through rather than taking our usual twenty minute break mid-way.

When Lise, the Sheriff of Gloucester, had first approached us, some time back at a gig in Bristol, and said she'd like us to play for their Civic Ball, I confess I didn't really have much of an idea as to what sort of a crowd to expect.

Aside from our usual "bread and butter" pub gigs, over the years I've played countless wedding receptions, birthday parties, sports and social club dinner dances and any number of corporate functions. A couple of christening parties, I've played at a funeral, and even played an actual wedding, hidden with the band on a balcony throughout the ceremony, interrupting the organist with a cover of the Beatles "All You Need is Love" as he opened with the bridal march to process the bride and groom back out of the church at the end of the service. Requested by the bride and stolen blatantly from the Kiera Knightley scene in the film "Love Actually".

The funeral was perhaps the hardest, and the wedding the most nerve-racking. There are some moments that are signature in peoples' lives; you really don't want a screw up there to be on you.

But a civic ball was a new one. I've played the odd Conservative Club in years past, though not with the full band, and I admit those experiences probably coloured my presumption, so I rather expected the crowd to be of an older bias, and correspondingly reserved, conscious of their dignity.

However, from what we'd seen through-out the evening, it looked like a much broader range of ages and backgrounds than I'd presumed to expect. I'm always sublimely confident in the talent and accomplishment of my band. It's a conceit I allow myself because I don't include my own contribution in that. Compared to the years of dedication needed to play the guitar like Matt, the drums like Bean or the bass like my brother, singing is easy as long as you can find a note in the first place and have the nerve to get it out. Though in my case, it's not so much nerve as need. If I didn't sing, I'd have no other excuse to be up there in front of an audience, and for reasons I can't really fathom, I crave the performance, the gig, like I'd imagine any junkie craves his fix.

So I knew we'd earn our supper, and I knew the band would do a decent job. Nobody was going to have grounds for complaint. But it's not the same as making that connection you make with an audience when it really works. That, right there, is the fix you crave. And a big, diverse crowd in a large room can be a hard one to connect with.

But they were not shy.

We opened with the first song, a Dandy Warhols number. As the opening chords drifted out from Matt's guitar, a speculative, appraising pause held the crowd. Then, as the drums led Jamie's bass and my own guitar in, a line of very pretty ladies in very, very elegant dresses glided onto the dance-floor. More followed, and as the numbers swelled, the guys were not far behind.

They stayed with us through the next ninety minutes, dancing from the start all the way through to the end and screaming for more when we were done.

It was the perfect end to an excellent day. The sound was brilliant, the venue was lovely and the crowd were amazing.

The earning of a Lazy Day; part I

I didn't sail last Sunday. So completely out of character you'd think I'd been ill, but no. Nikki had the day off work, it was blowing a gale or as near as in the morning, and I took one look at the tree dancing outside the bedroom window when I woke up and agreed I'd spend the day with her for a change, that we'd walk the dogs together after a late, lazy breakfast.

Truth be told, I was feeling pretty blown out from the exertions of Saturday, so felt I'd earned a lazy day. Nor does it happen often that I have "time off" at the same time as my wife, so it would have been curmudgeonly to have not taken the opportunity to spend some time with her. Especially as I have at least one more long weekend planned sailing away with Dad before the end of spring. Even so, it is the first time in an age that the wind has blown and I've not felt resentful about not being sailing. In all honesty, I feel like I've been pretty much used and abused by the elements over the course of this year so far, so a rest was not begrudged.

Anyway, Saturday was brilliant.

The forecast promised a westerly F5 off Portishead, and a race to the Shoots and back was scheduled for an 1115 start with the Portishead mob. My son Ben was away, visiting his girlfriend Emma up north, so it was just Dad and me aboard. I picked Dad up from his house at 0830 and we got to the marina for around 0915; Calstar was booked into the lock for 1030. On arriving, I took a quick peek over the dock wall and saw the waters out in the channel doing pretty much as I'd expected them to do and I casually mentioned as much to Dad as we walked down to the boat. He seemed pretty sanguine, though the marina is very sheltered from the prevailing wind, and with the morning sun shining cheerfully, it was hard to credit the picture I'd described.

A little before 1030 we radioed the marina office to let them know we were leaving our berth and got early into the waiting lock. Eight other boats snuggled in behind us, making for a very cosy huddle as the lock went down. The gates opened, and we motored out past the breakwater.

We met a short, sharp breaking sea. Short and sharp, but only about a meter of chop as it was flattened by the flooding tide even as it shoaled up against Portishead. The conditions of similar strength to those we'd sailed back from Cardiff in a few weeks ago. Dad, at the helm whilst I prevaricated over raising the sail, had displaced his previously sanguine air with a look of slight concern tempered with a degree of resignation; he noted he wasn't particularly happy with the situation, but the little boat seemed to be managing the choppy waters with her usual nonchalance and grace. I kept a keen eye on the other boats in the racing fleet, saw them begin to haul up sail, and so did the same, leaving a single reef in the main.

With the sails all up, I took the helm, and the little boat seemed to relax as I stilled the engine and she found her pace and rhythm through the choppy water. A couple of tacks and a gybe as we loitered under starter's orders behind the line went without mishap, although I intentionally kept as clear as possible of the other boats waiting to start with us.

The caution cost me, and we were a minute and a half late crossing the start line, behind the rest of the entire fleet. A two leg race, the first leg was a downwind reach of about four miles up to the Lower Shoots cardinal just below the Severn Crossing, to be taken to starboard, followed by a beat back to finish where we'd started. At least we had clean air despite our slack timing on the line and within the first twenty minutes we'd caught the two back markers, overhauling "Socotra" and gybing around the Lower Shoots just on the tail of "Avalon" who we then slowly edged past on the starboard beat that followed, sailing low and just a little bit loose on the wind until we punched back into clean air beyond her.

Both Socotra and Avalon were pointing much better than poor Calstar however, so that was the high point of the race. As the tide turned and the wind strengthened more and the chop, now set against it, increased. Our little boat began to sag to leeward, and within another half hour both Socotra and Avalon had stolen back their lost places and left us for dust.

We finished last, but we finished, seconds over two hours from when we'd started, pleased to be done.

It was our first race, and I'm happy with how it went. In real terms, although we did place last out of the eight boats racing, we were within ten minutes of third place once the respective boat handicaps were taken into consideration. That's close enough to the pack not to be embarrassing, and ten minutes is time we could easily find with all manner of small improvements easily made, not least our starting and general boat handling.

But the point of Calstar is not to race. I race dinghies, and I can get fiercely competitive with the other boats on the water at times, in a way that I'm not nor ever have been in any other aspect of my life. But the point of my Enterprise "Buffy" is to race. The point of Calstar is to not. The only reason for racing her is to get to know her and the local waters in a way that I understand. Saturday was a good example. If we'd not been racing, we wouldn't have gone out in those conditions. But we were, so we did, and I'm glad, because the experience and the lessons learned were invaluable.

We lost through caution, because I was slow on the start, favouring room over position. We lost because I was lazy with the sail setting. Dad was working the winches whilst I helmed, and because he was finding it hard work I was easy on him, accommodating compromises in the setting that I wouldn't if it were me working the winch. And we lost because I wasn't confident enough to put the second reef in when the tide changed or reduce the genoa by a turn or two. Although I'd guessed what was happening, looking back on the GPS track the damage that shyness did is obvious; you can see exactly when the tide turned by the sudden, definite sag to leeward as the little boat became over-pressed. That's when the two behind caught us up and then left us behind.

Interestingly, I think I'm beginning to get much more of a feel for Calstar's balance and trim now. After I first sailed her, I noted how powerless I felt when she heeled in the wind. With a dinghy, I'd throw my weight out to balance her, and spill air from the sails to bring her back to level. With five tons of boat, it felt then as if she were oblivious to where I put myself. It didn't on Saturday. Where Dad or I placed ourselves, especially as the gusts hit, made a slight but distinct difference to the stiffness of her response, and therefore how well she picked up speed, pointed or instead fell off to leeward, especially during the beat back to the finish line.

A good friend, infinitely more experienced than me, did tell me he was sure I'd start to find that to be the case. I'm very happy to say I believe he was right.

We were afloat just over three hours, and covered 13.3nm, by far the most of that under sail.

I got home a little after 4pm, just time to soak in the shower, fight the urge to fall asleep, and then get changed and head back out to the evening's gig. Sound-check was at 1730, but fortunately the gig was, for a change, very local to home.

Wednesday 8 April 2015

And next

Just booked the lock for 1030 this coming Saturday. Race to the Shoots and back, starts 1115, should be done and back in dock by 1430.

Which is perfect, as I need to be back in Gloucester for a soundcheck by 1730.

Photo was taken last Monday whilst waiting to lock back in at Portishead. Google magic stitched together a series of snaps from my phone into what I think is a very nice panoramic.

Tuesday 7 April 2015

Gloucester and back

Were it not for the sheer brutality of the tides, the ever present threat of hidden rocks, treacherous shoals and the complete lack of second chances if you get any of the above wrong, I think the sailing area between Avonmouth and Sharpness would be the perfect ground to practice pilotage in the dark.

The estuary is exceptionally well marked with lit buoyage and very obvious leading lights, and mostly uncluttered by light pollution from the shore; once you're away from Avonmouth and Royal Portbury, you're out in the sticks, in the middle of the post-industrial, rural South West of England and Wales. And from about Portishead and above, it's relatively quiet. We get a bit of commercial traffic in and out of the above mentioned ports, and the occasional coaster up and down from Sharpness, but it's more the exception than the rule. There's really very little to run you down.

But, it has to be said, the afore mentioned tides, rocks and shoals are each an immovable reality, as is the relative lack of sea room. So it's not really the perfect ground to practice anything.

To date, my whole experience of night sailing has been bringing our Lugger "Ondine" back across from Sharpness to Lydney a couple of times after sailing the Gloucester Ring. A mile of water with a single red light to aim for on Lydney Harbour wall, where the only complication is about 6 knots of tide trying to push you back up river again in the opposite direction to the one you need to go; fun, but it doesn't really count.

I've also raced dinghies a couple of times at night. But a half dozen 12' Gull dinghies blundering their way around the cans on a 50 acre lake doesn't really count either.

So I should probably have been slightly more anxious about finding our way from Portishead to Sharpness yesterday, given that the first two hours of that three hour leg of our trip up to Gloucester was going to be in darkness. I think Dad was definitely anxious enough for both of us. I was a little apprehensive, to not be at all so when dealing with the waters around here at any time of day or night would be stupid, but I was mostly excited. It was something new, and something I've wanted to do for a long, long time.

So when, on joining Portishead Cruising Club earlier this year, they mentioned they were planning to cruise in company up to Gloucester over the Easter weekend, we felt it would have been rude not to have agreed to join in with them.

I know the chart between Avonmouth and Hock Cliff above Sharpness well. We've been sailing up at Lydney and dreaming of coming down-channel for years. The chart in question has been laid out on a table in my office for most of those years. I've read the pilotage notes countless times, and I'd spent hours going over our planned course in the week leading up to this trip. "Prepared" is a very comfortable feeling.

The lock-out at Portishead was booked for 5am Friday morning, so Dad and I headed down to the boat Thursday evening, and after a couple of pints in the pub next to the Marina where we caught up with friends from PCC who were also sailing, turned in, setting the alarm for 0330 the next morning.

Should have set it for 0300. I should have realised that to lock in for 0500 we'd likely be leaving the berth at 0430, and half an hour is not a lot of time for your first cup of tea. Not the end of the world however, and although last in, we were on time and settled into the lock with five other boats from the Club that were heading up with us.

The lock went down, the gates opened and dark lay out beyond the comfort of the amber-lit lock basin like a gloom-wove welcoming mat. With less than 10 kts of wind forecast from the south-west, I was expecting the water to be relatively flat but it was disconcerting to not be able to see it beyond the lights of Portishead breakwater. Dad, on the helm as he always is when we're under power, hung back. He's still allergic to other boats in close proximity, and seems to consider half a mile or more pretty proximate. The five disappeared off into the gloom beyond the breakwater, the shape of their hulls disappearing into the murk until only the will-o'-the-whisp glow of their stern lights could be made out, dancing with the competing glimmer of the lit but distant second bridge.

The Sony tablet with the chart plotting software was heaven sent. Actually, it wasn't. I bought it with hard earned gig-money, so heaven had little to do with it. However, although I found it much easier to orientate myself than I'd feared even without its assistance, it was hugely reassuring to be able to take a quick glance at the screen to confirm that any given light was the actually glow I thought I was looking at, and to see the line stretching out from the little green icon of our boat marking where our course over ground was actually going to take us over the next twelve minutes, all other things being equal.

There was hardly any wind, and what little there was blew from the south west, so was completely absorbed by the flooding tide. We kept the engine running, Dad stayed on the helm, and we motored up.

The bridges were beautifully lit up in the dark, moonless night. The amber glow of the sky over Avonmouth disappeared behind us as the Shoots swept us up under the Second Severn Crossing, and we altered course to pass Chapel Rock to port and slip under the old Severn Bridge. Picking out the various marks in the dark was simple, though I'm not sure if I'd have been as blithely confident without the certainty of the plotter running on my tablet to confirm my various identifications were correct.

Sunrise was less an event and more a lessening of gloom into twilight and then dawn as we turned hard to port past the Hen and Chickens then hard again to starboard to enter the Slime Road. The dawn was grey, dank and dismal, and as it grew light, it began to rain. Nothing heavy, just a cold, insipid, listlessly uninspired drizzle. But I found it hard to really object. I'm sure one day it'll grow old, and I'll grow tired of the damp and discomfort, but not yet; it was an absolute joy to be out there regardless. In another man's words; beauty is truth, truth beauty.

It's always beautiful out there.

Dad passed the helm to me and went below to put the kettle on. With the drizzle and the dawn, a light wind had picked up from behind us, so I set the auto-helm to hold course whilst I hauled out the genoa to motor-sail. At inward rocks, below Lydney Sands, the channel swung to starboard. I dialled the course adjustment into the auto-helm, and hardened up on the genoa, keeping one eye on the plotter and the twelve minute COG line stretching out from our boat's icon. It settled, pointing about 45 degrees off our course, out over the sands to port, so I dialled in an additional course correction, and further trimmed the sail whilst watching the course line on the plotter.

We carried on like this for a few minutes, my tweaking the auto-helm, tweaking the sail, eyeing up the plotter, getting frustrated, when Dad called up from below to ask if I was deliberately running the boat around in circles?

I looked up, and glanced out, and realised we were now pointing back the way we'd come. That little Sony tablet and the chart plotting app is a wonderful tool, but that course over ground line is far, far too seductive when teamed up with the auto-helm. "Keep your head out of the boat!" is a refrain I'm always yelling, pointedly but good-naturedly, at my students when they invariably cast their eyes down to look at the tiller and sheets in their hands when they're first learning to sail.

About time I learned to listen to my own advice.

I'm continually reminded by how easy it is to forget the basics when everything gets scaled up or, as in this case, new toys are thrown into the playpen.

The fleet, fifteen boats in total, converged out of the murk as we reached Sharpness. The outer breakwater of the dock is a latticework that the water runs through. Fine if you're a big coaster, but daunting for little stuff like us. Getting pinned against it would be both a simple misjudgement to make, and potentially disastrous. Dad was back on the helm, and all the practice ferry-gliding on the tide to land at Lydney, just behind us on the other shore, paid off as we slid in through the gates of the dock and into the relative calm of the outer basin.

Calm, in that it was sheltered from the tide, but pandemonium with the crowd of boats as the harbour master and his mates chivvied and corralled us in to the lock itself, rafted up four abreast. Then, secured, the lock gates closed, the waters rose, and we left the estuary behind us.

The trip up the canal was pleasant, picturesque, but mostly uneventful.

We arrived in Gloucester Docks in the early afternoon, some 9 hours and 30 odd nautical miles after we'd left Portishead, and moored up on a finger pontoon outside a pub. We had supper, a goodly amount of beer and an amount of raucous singing with the rest of the fleet at another nearby pub in the docks on Friday night, slept on the boat, and Saturday morning Dad and I walked up into town.

I bought a couple of sets of guitar strings, then we got a taxi home, abandoning Calstar for the day. I had a gig Saturday night, previously booked, and once back from Bristol with the gig done it made as much sense to head home for a few hours sleep and to say hello to Nikk, the kids and the dogs.

Sunday morning we were back at the boat, casting off in time to make the 10am appointment with the big road bridges that let us out of the docks. As with the trip up, the trip back down the canal was pretty, but otherwise just a case of motoring and admiring the scenery.

Dad kept the helm the whole way, as is our usual custom when the sails are furled. We stopped of for a beer in Saul Junction, and landed at Purton later in the day to wander down to the hulks; barges that were beached, filled and abandoned on the banks of the river above Sharpness early in the last century, to slow down erosion of the bank and protect the canal.

I was as fascinated by the bed of the estuary, emptied out by the ebbed tide. It's a stretch of water over Ridge and Frampton Sands just below the Noose that I've sailed on so many times. The old wreck and the ruined bridge footings were all clearly visible, as were the contours of sand banks and rocks that make it such an interesting, challenging place to sail when all that water comes rushing up with the tide.

We finally moored up on the canal bank just outside Sharpness around 5pm Sunday evening. It was a tranquil evening, not at all chill, and the sunset was utterly gorgeous. Dad was exhausted, totally played out, so had gone below for a cat nap that essentially turned into a very early night to bed. I sat in the cockpit of the boat with my guitar, drinking air-temperature white wine and just soaking in the moment.

It was a lovely couple of hours.

As it grew dark, I put the guitar away and, bottle of wine in hand, walked ten feet up the canal bank to pay our neighbours a visit aboard Misty Lady. Tess and Chris were just finishing their supper, entertaining another Chris from "Noss Packet", and made me quite welcome.

Remarkably, between them they'd managed to cook an exceptionally credible Sunday roast. For my part, I'd been snacking on trail mix through the day, and for some reason never seem to get especially hungry when sailing, and Sunday roasts really aren't my style or taste, even when I'm ashore. But even so, I couldn't help but be impressed by the spread they'd laid themselves out for Easter Sunday.

I picked at a couple of roast parsnips and a roast potato, just to show my appreciation.

Derek of "Socotra" and commodore of PCC joined us a little while later and the five of us drank wine and nattered into the night.

The following morning at 0700 I climbed out of my bunk feeling surprisingly bright despite the excesses of the night before. Bright, that is, aside from a string of bruises shamefully collected when I took a tumble whilst trying to disembark from Misty Lady the previous evening. The shame wasn't so much in the tumble, nor in the fact that I'd drunk enough to contribute heavily to the probability of taking it, but rather in that I stumbled on another man's boat.

I came down with enough of a thump for Chris to come up from below to check I was all right. Or check on his boat, as I suspect I would have done. By then I was back on my feet, bruised and embarrassed. I'm pretty sure Misty Lady was fine. She's a lot tougher than me.

The morning was as misty as the namesake I'd stumbled over disembarking on the evening previous, the sun hazed over, but promising to burn off. The view along the canal was peace and serenity, disturbed only faintly by the sight and sounds of yachtsmen coming up from below to prepare themselves for the 8am lock-in. Although not cold, every surface was covered with a fine dew. There was no wind worth the mention.

The harbour master and his lads herded us once more into the lock, closed the gates and let us down. By around 0915 we were into the outer basin and watching those first few brave souls that had ventured out beyond the dock gate, to see how they fared in punching against the still vigorously flooding tide. Slowly, ever so slowly, we watched those first heroic few edge their way down channel and so we followed.

As soon as we were out and clear of the south wall we turned hard to port. Behind us, a steel motor launch that had locked out with us didn't do so well, and got turned by the tide and soundly pinned against the wall. We listened on the VHF to their conversation with the harbour master as they discussed their situation. It was seemed they were truly stuck but otherwise quite snug where they were for the moment. There was nothing we could do to assist, so we continued to punch into the tide as the harbour master called out the SARA lifeboat for them. Once we were definitely clear of the south wall and a similar fate, I guided Dad tight into the bank seeking the slacker water.

It paid dividends, and with just under 2 knots speed over ground showing on the GPS, we slowly caught up with the forerunners of the fleet, bigger boats than us, but further out into the flow. As we came abeam of the mouth to Berkley Pill, I spotted sails emerging from the fog bank on the other side of the wide river. The Lydney fleet were returning home from their own trip away. They were too distant for me to make out any of the individual boats, but I think I recognised from their relative sizes "New Dawn", "Skippy" and "Sea Robin" returning from Cardiff.

The fog cleared as we turned to starboard just above Hill Flats to cross over to Counts and the Slime Road. A bit of wind filled in, but completely on the nose, so the need to make the last lock at Portishead at 1245 stopped me from trying the sails. Three yachts, possibly out of Thornbury Sailing Club, were out and under sail, and whilst they were hardly tearing along, were making a good show of it for the rest of us. I could only look on enviously as we motored down the channel.

A dog-leg to port and then another to starboard took us around the Hen and Chickens off Beachley and under the Severn Bridge. Above the Second Severn Crossing, the now fast ebbing tide had a firm, boisterous grip, and the waters boiled and tumbled around us in thick, swollen turbulence, pulling Calstar which way and that. Under the bridge and into the Shoots, we turned 45 degrees to port to head towards Avonmouth, and deploying the fenders and readying the warps, called in to Marina on the VHF just in time to miss a lock.

But our lead on the rest of the fleet meant we were first in line for the next one, so we loitered in the pool outside the lock gates, under the shelter of the dock wall, basking in the warm spring sunlight.

It was a great weekend. A little odd, to go away to then cruise back to my home town. A little odd to interrupt the cruise with a gig. And too much motoring and not enough sailing for it to really be utterly tailored to my own tastes. Were it not for me however, Dad would probably have a motor launch or a canal boat, so he was entirely within his preferred element. And, actually, I love being on the water, if you haven't already guessed, in any shape or form.

We logged a little over 60 miles in total, all of it under power, and nearly all of it without even a hint of sail aloft. I'm going to have to redress that balance in the months to come.

However, one of the benefits of so much time motoring is that Dad's confidence and competence with the boat under power has increased exponentially. Not least because of the hours he's now put in, in a range of conditions, and often manoeuvring at dead slow and with many other boats in very, very close proximity. Well out of his comfort zone. He's also found his spot. Stood the starboard corner of the cockpit, leant against the backstay and pushpit, just behind the throttle with the tiller in his left hand.

There's just enough room for him to stand there without impeding the starboard swing of the tiller, plenty to hold on to, a good view ahead as long as the spray-hood is down and he can make rough adjustments the throttle with his leg. And if he actually has to grab for it, he can easily lean down to it without needing to turn around, which previously has been something of a problem, because when you turn around and look down with the tiller still in hand, you tend to inadvertently direct the boat into any objects close at hand. Lock gates, other boats, harbour walls, that sort of thing.

So I was right; we always knew these things were not about boat handling, but nor were they doomed to be permanently limited by restrictions in mobility, but could be dealt with through adaptation and efficiency.

I'm so pleased he's cracked it.

In other news, Dad has decided it's time to sell "Ondine". We've had some lovely times in that boat, some great sailing, some fantastic adventures, but we've moved on. I'm always going to have a soft spot for Drascombes, and that little Lugger in particular, but he's right.

It's time to let her go.