Tuesday 26 May 2015

Colnbrook furling gear

Problems with the furling gear caused a jam when we were trying to put the headsail away on the final approach home to Portishead yesterday. The top mechanism was jamming and somehow pulling the genoa halyard around the furling bar.

Back in dock, we brought the headsail down to check it, and released from tension, it all seemed to work perfectly. Tried raising the sail, thinking perhaps I'd somehow lost tension on the genoa halyard which had caused the tangle, and now the mechanism won't run up the furling bar more than a dozen feet.

The halyard seems to pull the sheave out of true alignment (it's quite slack, with a fair bit of movement) at which point it jams.

A very frustrating end to a fantastic four day's sailing. Especially as it threatens next weekend's sailing.

Sunday 24 May 2015


High and dry and waiting on the tide to carry us back to Cardiff

Friday 22 May 2015

Busy doing nothing

Sitting at anchor off Porlock Weir, waiting for enough tide to slip into their little harbour for the night.

Wind has veered a little too far north, so it's gotten quite rolly as the tide's come in. Anchor is holding well, despite the course pebble bottom.

Should be able to attempt the harbour in about 45 minutes.

A long weekend ahead

Boat's back in the water. Work for the week is done, don't have to be back in the office till Tuesday morning. Have a tentative plan for tomorrow's sailing that might be a bit of an overstretch, a bit overambitious. In which case, I have a plan B. But I really don't mean to go there unless I have to.

Bag is packed, electronics are charging. All I really need to do is to go to bed so as to make sure I can get up in the morning. Not that I've ever yet failed. At the latter, at least. Sometimes getting to bed proves problematic.

Lock is booked for 1000. An hour before high water. Will punch the tide till it turns, probably under power, hope to get as far as "Avon". Then we'll raise sail. The aim is to cover 38 miles down-channel, down-tide, but into wind. And then anchor. For the night if we can't then creep into harbour with the tide before it gets too dark.

Contingency is if we haven't made enough ground before the the turn of tide to get where we want to go, we turn tail and head back up to Cardiff. Or Barry.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Remedy for a sore bottom

Just had a call from Dad. The marina put him on to a local guy called Ray Williams, of Ray Williams Marine Services, who has sorted out the damage for us in short order. A case of rubbing it back, drying the area, patching it and re-epoxying. He says the epoxy went off lovely overnight, so today he'll fair it all up and re-apply the anti-foul and then she'll be ready to go back in the water, either some time tomorrow or Friday morning.

High water is around 11am on Friday, so if we're to catch the ebb, that's our deadline.

So it looks like we're back on. Haven't quite worked out where we're going yet, but the forecast looks pretty benevolent. Will look at the options in detail tomorrow. Basically, we can sail any time from Friday lunchtime and need to be back by Monday evening. Otherwise, the world, or at least this small, muddy part of it, is our oyster.

Just told Nikki that Dad and I are sailing this weekend after all. When it looked like our plans had been scuppered by the damage, I had hinted that I'd sort out the drive and front garden, and maybe shift a whole lot of clutter down the tip that's long overdue. Essentially, a promise to pretend to be domesticated and catch up on all the chores I've so far been neglecting this year, or as many as possible, as the list is, if I'm honest, somewhat longer than can be reasonably coped with over even an extended Bank Holiday weekend like the one ahead. Now that I've effectively stood her up, her reaction was fairly benign under the circumstances.

She just laughed. She's a good girl. No idea how she puts up with me.

We're over to Dad's tonight for supper, along with two of the kids and my brother Jamie and his wife Arya. Ben is in the midst of his end of year exams, so I suspect he'll stay down in Bristol.

Tuesday 19 May 2015

Sunday postscript

Reflecting back on Sunday's sailing.

We're getting much more used to trotting along close-hauled with the boat tipped over at what once felt like seemingly silly angles. And much more practised at putting in or shaking out a reef whilst under way with minimal fuss or disruption. Which stands to reason, as it's hardly a tricky procedure with the setup we enjoy with Calstar. I actually found the reaching back to Portishead much harder work and more stressful than the outbound beat. Reefing does seem to slow her by half a knot, despite various folks with Westerly boats assuring me that what speed we lose with sail area we'd gain from the boat being stiffer. However, I guess half a knot when we're looking at average speeds over the ground of 8 knots plus isn't all that much, and what we do save is in not sagging off to leeward so badly when the big gusts hit. I don't know how many Westerly owners actually race. Then again, my principle interest here isn't racing but learning to handle the boat as she deserves.

Mind you, finishing in the top half of the fleet is a bit like catnip to the dinghy racer in me.

A useful tip I did pick up from the friendly folks on the owner's association mailing list was to put the first few rolls into the genoa before putting the first reef in the main, rather than the other way around. I believe this is because we're set up with a masthead rig rather than a fractional one.

I think the handicap system really stung the bigger, faster boats on Sunday. Mainly because of the tide. Because we were so much slower getting to the final windward mark at "Tail Patch", we had much less of an adverse set for the fetch across to "Cardiff Spit" before turning back downwind and into the still ebbing tide. On the final beat to Tail Patch, I was watching the rest of the pack about a mile ahead of us crossing the gap, and they all seemed to get pushed much, much further below the rhumb line than we were. Likewise, once we rounded Cardiff Spit, we only had to punch against the ebb for about an hour before it turned, whereas the rest of the fleet, having pulled that much further in front had both still a stronger out-flowing tide to push against and the need to do it for significantly longer.

I think that probably eliminated most of the speed advantage they gained from either size or sail-plan. They were all, without exception of course, flying spinnakers all the way home and so I suppose they had a much more comfortable ride than us. Never really thought about it till now, but I guess the tide around these parts is worth double your waterline length and a kite.

I don't know if gybing from reach to reach was quicker than just setting a dead run and dealing with the collapsing genoa. There was no way we'd have had the stamina or focus to have kept the sail goosed the whole way back by hand without a pole to help. And I suppose rigging a pole would've meant I'd have had to have gone forwards, which always panics Dad.

I was also deeply concerned about the possibility of an accidental, all-standing gybe with the often contrary and confused following sea we had, especially before the tide actually turned. I've noticed you don't really get slack water of any description around here. At the bottom of tide you get what feels like a bit of a frenzied and ill tempered squabble between the ebb still running out and the new flood now trying to flush back up against it. It can make for a very uncomfortable and choppy crossed sea.

Maybe rigging a preventer on the main would have been the answer, although perhaps that would have been over-kill and something of an unhelpful complication. In any case without the pole we had no way of keeping the genoa reliably goose-winged. I heard Bristol VTS (based at Avonmouth, they control the commercial traffic in these waters) advise an inbound "Welsh Piper" (an Avonmouth based dredger; we crossed paths with her the previous week on our Holms run) that they were clocking wind-speeds of up to 20 knots for the last half of our homeward leg. It generally felt a lot less than that, but of course we were running with it, as was the tide by then.

In conclusion, I did enjoy the down-channel race. I'm glad we explored down that way around the Holms on the spring tide previous, because that gave us a bit of a clue as to what to expect. And I'm glad we did the race yesterday, because aside from the invaluable practice it gives us a bit of a feel for how the Holms Race should go later this year in September. Although there will be a lot more boats involved in that one, which will complicate things somewhat.

When sailing our Ent, a crowded start line is just all part of the fun of the occasion. But everything is bigger and heavier and much more expensive with Calstar, so I can't say I find myself especially keen on crowds any more.

We've had Calstar lifted out and the damage to her bottom checked, following our altercation with the lock gate locking back in on Sunday. As I'd thought, it's fairly superficial, but has grazed through the epoxy and into the glass-fibre matting beneath. She's going to need rubbing back and patching before she can go back in the water. There is a small chance we may get this done before the weekend, but only a very slim glimmer of small. Which means our plans for the coming weekend away are quite possibly scuppered.

Which will be disappointing. We've been looking forward to this weekend for a couple of months now.

A tapestry of echoes

A year ago today, I called in briefly on the way home from work to see Dad, who was putting the last touches to the sleeping arrangements we'd sorted out aboard Ondine in preparation for a planned trip away to Fowey in Cornwall that coming weekend.

I can't remember exactly why I'd dropped in. I think he'd asked me to drop something off, but in any case it was only intended to be a brief visit. As I found him fiddling about with the boat-tent, I paused to take a few photos. At that point, Mum, realising somebody was out front with Dad, came out to see what was going on. The look on her face as she walked into the frame said it all; bemused exasperation at her boys playing about with their silly boat again.

Then a moment later her face broke into a radiant smile and she gave me a hug. I remember thinking how tiny and fragile she felt in my arms. But then she always did. She then asked me if I was coming in for a cup of tea, and I replied no, it was only a flying visit and I needed to get home to the family.

I sorely regret that decision. But life is a tangled net of all the little moments we squander in our haste and inattention.

Although that was, but for those few, final minutes that seemed to stretch eternal late the following evening, the last time I saw her, it doesn't matter. I'm reminded that the tapestry of how our lives intertwine with those we love is defined as much by the time we spend in each other's thoughts as by the time we're actually together.

And that's the length of a lifetime. Life is a beautiful gift.

It's a terrible photo of her. She'd hate me for posting it. And then she'd laugh and forgive me anyway.

At the last breath, my throat was full of song;
The proof, for a short while, is with you still.
Though snapped at sharply by the whip-bird’s call,
It has not stopped. It lingers for your sake:
Almost as if I were not gone for long -
And what you hear will not fade as I fall.

from "Echo Point" by Clive James

Sunday 17 May 2015

Plate Race

Saturday was all about spending time with the dogs and family. Not necessarily in that order. The first Saturday night in many weeks I've not had a gig though, so was a pleasant rest.

Sunday was an early start. Got to Portishead by 0815, and was locking out aboard Calstar by 0930. By the time the lock went down, we just caught the 5 minute gun for the start of the race, and through pure accident found ourselves just crossing the line with our sails up and engine off as the clock ran out on the starting time.

Long beat to windward. And by that, I mean about two and a half hours. F4 on the nose all the way, we started out with no reef in and within the hour, had a few wraps in the genoa and both reefs in the main. And were still heeling 20 degrees and averaging 4 knots, which is about right for our little old boat when she's pushing to windward.

There were moments when the gusts hit where we were heeling to 30 degrees and touching on 5.5 knots. I'm getting used to the idea of trusting the boat to look after us to windward, and to not panic and pinch. She doesn't like pinching, she just slides to leeward in protest. But if you just hold steady, she seems to pay back the trust in full.

Oddly, the auto-helm taught me that. And, upwind, I think it's still the better sailor.

At 1156 we rounded "Tail Patch", bore away briefly, and then the wind headed us just as I dropped the rolls out of the genoa, and we were close hauled again.

We managed to fetch the mark at "Cardiff Spit" and bore away, taking Monkstone to starboard at 1240. We then had to manage the long run home via "EW Grounds" pretty much dead downwind.

We don't have a spinnaker, and the extension lock on the spinnaker pole we do have is currently seized, so that being out of service, we couldn't pole out the genoa on a goose wing without having to tend it continually. The wind was pushing 15 knots plus by now, so I ended up covering most of the ground back home again by gybing from one deep reach to another. With the genoa now completely unfurled and both reefs shaken back out of the main, the speed through the water occasionally touching 6 knots as the wind continued to build.

There were a couple of ropey gybes, especially as the sea built to a couple of meters off Cleavdon and, breaking frequently, turned to take us broadside. The little boat managed much better than my nerves. At one point, having gybed back onto port, I bungled it, and was struggling to get the genoa back in so as to balance the main whilst still keeping the boat on course. I actually ended up asking Dad to come back up from below to help; I'd sent him down a couple of easy gybes previously to make me a much needed cup of tea.

However, this time around, the pressure in the main kept trying to broach us without the balance of the genoa. I was beginning to regret having shaken the reefs out, but couldn't put a reef back in without turning back head to wind, and so loosing precious time.

So my cup of tea was a little delayed whilst Dad helped me get the boat back under control.

Within sight of the headland of Portishead, my craving for tea now sated and Dad back above deck, he took the jib sheet and goosed the Genoa for the last couple of miles, and we turned onto a dead run.

We crossed the finish line just under six hours after having started, with 36 miles covered.

To my surprise, after they adjusted our time for the handicap, of the 10 boats that raced, we took 4th place.

Which would have been a perfect end to a perfect day. Except, on locking back in, Dad slipped whilst going astern to adjust our position, squeezing, on instruction, into the somewhat crowded lock, and knocked us hard astern into one of the struts of the lock gate.

It's a tough old strut, and I doubt it noticed we were there.

Poor Calstar has a nasty gash on her bottom though. It scraped through the antifoul and outer layer of epoxy and has damaged the matting of the hull, about an inch below the waterline. The hull isn't breached, and it's not a huge scar. But it's going to need urgent attention to patch it up.

Which means that if we can't get it done by next weekend, it's going to put a damper on the sailing plans. It certainly put a damper on Dad's day.

Though the news that we came 4th seems to have picked him up again. Why they call this one the "Plate Race" I still do not know. But it was fun, and a great day's sailing.

I appear to have a sunburned nose. Must mean summer is on it's way.

Saturday 16 May 2015

Saturday night

Forecast looks good for the morning.

If all goes to plan, we're locking out at 0930 to make an 0945 start off Portishead, then racing down-channel and back.

The race happens to be fairly incidental. I'm really just looking forward to stretching Calstar's legs out in the direction of the Holms again. Expect the race won't take us that far down, perhaps to Tail Patch or thereabouts. But in any case, should be a fine day's sailing.

Strangest thing. Two cancellations. I have a whole month without a gig. Having not had a Saturday night off in the last six or seven, I can't say that's unwelcome. But a whole month? That's going to feel odd.

Monday 11 May 2015

Postscript to the bump

I should add, last time Hels said "I think I'm going to faint", it was in similar conditions but deep in the depths of winter and the boat was swamped after our fifth or sixth capsize. She'd been coping quite well until then, so I just grinned and set to it once again. We had a race to win.

And then I had to turn her face-up to stop her drowning in the swamped hull, and manage the boat single-handed back to a gusty lee shore, swamped and belligerent, whilst keeping half an eye on her inert form to make sure she didn't invert in the bilge and start drowning all over again.

She's a fantastic sailor. The best crew I've ever sailed with, but sometimes proves a little more delicate than me.

But she's game. Very game. No matter how many times I tip her in or bash her with the boom, dunk her or half drown her, she always comes back for more. And she knows Buffy and her whims as well as me, if not better, from the perspective of the front seat.

It currently feels like taking second best whenever I'm relegated to sailing Buffy at the weekend, at least at the moment. Because it generally means it's too rough to risk taking Calstar out, and I'm currently head over heals in love with a certain Griffon.

But when we do take Calstar out, the thing I then miss is sailing with Hels as crew. Though Dad's a pretty neat replacement, and I wouldn't swap him for the world. Especially out there. He's utterly invaluable and totally bomb proof.

Will have to work on convincing Hels to trade up. We've room for a couple of extra bodies and a whole summer to come. We'll get there.

Though perhaps not next week. Springs. Low tide is around noon. Possibility of revisiting the Holms on Saturday, if I can convince Nik to let me go sailing. And a down-channel race with PCC on Sunday in any case, weather permitting.

Down channel is fun, but long hours. Not a good introduction to sailing out in the Bristol Channel.

Update on the bump

Checked in with Hels this evening.

She made it into work this morning, but they then sent her off to A&E as she was acting a little behind the curve, at least more so than usual, so she says. Diagnosed with "delayed onset concussion", she's been told to stay at home for a couple of days and definitely not to drive whilst it sorts itself out.

I make light of these things, and bumps, bruises and the occasional graze or even a spray of blood are all part and parcel of sailing. Boats are all sharp edges, unexpected tumbles, heavy impacts, shiny surfaces and crispy sails to set off the stains to best advantage. But I prefer it when these things happen to me. Hate it when it happens to somebody under my watch.

Glad she's okay.

A happy reminder of Golant

Last week, Web Chiles posted to his journal at www.inthepresentsea.com a couple of photos along with a description of a pretty little gaff-rigged cutter that had sailed past him where he's currently moored in New Zealand's idyllic Bay of Islands. Somebody later identified it for him as a Golant Gaffer.

The name of that place brought back some happy memories.

The pretty little boat may have been in New Zealand, but Golant, for which I suspect the boat is named as the designer, Roger Dongray, is based just up river from there in Lostwithiel, is a small village on the banks of the River Fowey in Cornwall (despite the spelling, it's pronounced foy).

I adore Fowey, and since I returned to sailing, have been there any number of times over the years.

Back in 2009 we booked a cottage for a week with Mum and Dad in Golant (interestingly, I seem to recall the locals pronounced it g'lant and were exceptionally enthusiastic in correcting the unintended slight of any mispronunciation they encountered). The village is a few miles up river from the actual town and harbour of Fowey and for that first weekend there I was racing with friends at a British Moth event down in the harbour.

Golant is a gorgeous spot, the cottage was right on the water's edge and there was a good pub handy, just a stone's throw of a walk away along the bank. Ideal, in certain respects.

But not for a sail boat. The little bay Golant is set in is cut off and sheltered from the main flow of the river by an industrial railway track serving the china-clay dock further down-river. The track is little used, and so quiet and no real imposition on the village or cottage. In any case, when they do pass, the trains are long, lumbering and slow. They add more character than disturbance. But the track is terribly inconvenient in its placement if you have any kind of a mast on your boat.

There was access to the river via a bridge opposite the cottage except, unfortunately, the bridge had a clearance of about 5' when the tide was in, and not much more when it was out. Admittedly, there was a level crossing over the track and a slipway that we'd spotted on Google Maps when we first booked the cottage, about half a mile downstream where I could rig and launch. But with the tide in, space to rig there was a little tight as there were overhead power lines that we'd not spotted on Google running along the railway track, so you had to rig the boat on the actual slip.

Added to that, it was quite a walk from the cottage, carrying the mast, boom and sail and dragging the dinghy all the way there on its trolley.

Not too bad first thing in the morning when you're full of energy and enthusiasm and raring to go, but having then spent all day racing down in the harbour, it became a quite different prospect on the return. On that first Saturday, once I'd sailed back up river to Golant having finished racing in the harbour, I decided to take a more direct route back to the comforts of the cottage.

The guys that came in aboard the tender just behind me had stood off patiently out in the river whilst I manoeuvred the dinghy under the bridge, watching with barely concealed amusement. As they passed, they commented, "You must be really desperate to get to the pub, mate!"

Although I seem to recall they didn't offer to buy me a drink, the scrubs.

Bumps for the ducking thereof

photo: ken elsey
Had a great day's racing on Sunday with our Enterprise "Buffy" on the lake at Frampton. Winds a little west of south west, gusty, highly variable and generally building through the afternoon; by the second race, they peaked at an average of about 17 knots. A couple of the course marks were deep in the shadow of a large tree on the windward shore, so were plagued by unpredictable shifts of forty-five degrees or more, complete lulls in the wind, or sudden, brutal, boat-flattening gusts.

The racing proved to be a bit of a contact sport, although for a change it was other folks hitting me.

In the first race, in the first beat, we were in the thick of the scrum congesting on the starboard layline with a bit of height to spare but lots and lots of dirty wind from the surrounding sails. We were controlling our speed on the approach so as to not charge over the slower boats that had got there first when a Laser came barrelling in on port, cutting in front of us and then tacking, which was a marginal move but excusable in the excitement, although he really should have ducked. However, he then bore away to the mark on top of us, taking a line straight for it, seemingly oblivious to all the other boats already there, ourselves included.

Fortunately, in all the foul air, boat-speeds were low even if tempers and the language were high. Our bows were pushed into his port stern quarter, his weight shoving us down on to a Topper that I'd otherwise been both obliged and endeavouring to give room to. Our collective weight shoved the poor Topper below the windward mark whilst we slid onto it. We scraped around, making our opinion of the situation very clear to the Laser concerned, along with the demand that he took his due penalty turns.

For once, it didn't do us much harm. The pandemonium of the collision had the rest of the fleet behind piling up on each other and the mark, confused and tangled up together in a noisy, shouty and chaotic furball, giving us a welcome gap and some nice, clean air for a fast reach down to the next mark.

The other bumps came in the second race. We'd rounded the leeward mark Green just a shade ahead of our friends and nemesis in their Enterprise "Ghost", and were beating up to Green-Yellow under the shadow of the afore mentioned tree. We were both close-hauled and fetching the next mark, Ghost comfortably so, but with us needing to pinch somewhat and quietly praying for a lift. Ghost was just to windward of us and slightly abaft, and so eating our dirty air; what we were loosing in boat speed they were loosing twice in height, and having great difficulty pointing to match us.

A few boat lengths out, Ghost just closing to overlap us on the outside and to windward, we were hit by a gust. I hardened up into it, warning Ghost they were windward and to keep clear. Unwilling to tack away and cede us the advantage, they pressed on but couldn't point any higher. They slid into us, and we just cleared the mark to leeward. As we bore away, I lent back and my head and upper body fully in their cockpit observed, conversationally, that I was pretty certain they were still the windward boat.

As we fended off and the boats separated, Ghost conceded and graciously did her penalty turns whilst we reached away towards the next mark.

But talking of bumps......

It was a great day's racing. We took 5th out of 23 boats in the first race. However, we had to retire from the second, despite getting out in front of Ghost; Hels had clouted her head hard with the boom during a clumsy tack a little prior to the start. After the initial stunning had worn off, she'd held out heroically and insisted we pressed on, but the injury took its toll. About 45 minutes in, she was beginning to feel faint, so I dropped the mainsail and we headed back to shore. Behind us, Ghost continued the race, taking a hard earned 4th place in the end.

With the ground firmly under her once more, she rallied once more. Whilst undoubtedly a little concussed, I think, fortunately, no serious harm was done. But it would have been foolish to have continued out on the water. There will be other days, and I was very pleased with how well we'd sailed together in quite taxing conditions.

Saturday 9 May 2015

Soundcheck done

Didn't sail today. Went down to the boat, but decided, reluctantly, that the 20 knots plus out in the channel was an unfair imposition on the poor girl.

So checked over the anchor chain and saw to various other bits and bobs, then headed home.

Almost as much wind due in tomorrow, so going to go play on the lake with Hels and Buffy instead.

Gig first though. And not an early start tomorrow, don't need to be at the Club till noon.

Thursday 7 May 2015

Bank Holiday Monday: the Holms

Monday morning just gone I arrived at Dad's for 0630 as planned, and after he got back from walking the dog, we drove down to Portishead marina. The lock was booked for 0830, so once we got there we still had a good hour to get everything set.

The day's forecast was a three act play, beginning in the west, backing to the south around lunch time, and then backing again to the south east; a little gusty at the beginning and end, but nothing stronger than a F4 expected.  The morning looked like it was set to at least make a start on delivering as promised, and as an added bonus, the sky was a hazy blue.

The Holms are a pair of islands about 16 miles down-channel from Portishead, sitting roughly in a line between Cardiff on the one shore and Weston-Super-Mare on the other. Called Flat Holm and Steep Holm respectively, the names are descriptive of their shape. Steep Holm is the most visible of the two because of its height. Whenever we've walked the dogs on Brean Sands, it sits there clearly visible a few miles off shore, beguilingly close yet so remote.

It is an isolated spot. Privately owned, you can't land there unless you join the herd for a scheduled trip, but then I'm not sure you'd want to land there yourself. The only access is a small, steep, gravel beach on the east side, a difficult landing with vicious tides and uncertain holding for the anchor. There's a lot of history on the island though; the remains of a 12th century Augustinian priory, and more recently, the Victorians fortified the island with a half dozen gun batteries, apparently still for the most part intact. The defenses were refortified, updated and garrisoned through both the two World Wars, with seachlight batteries being added in the second.

Flat Holm is much lower to the water and much more exposed, but much more accessible than Steep Holm. Also fortified by the Victorians to guard the approaches to the ports of Cardiff and Bristol, it was the site of a sanatorium and isolation hospital for cholera patients, often sailors inbound to the nearby port of Cardiff. As well as a gun battery, the Victorians also built a light house and fog horn on the island because of the number of shipwrecks upon its shore or the surrounding rocks.

I've wanted to sail around these islands for years, for no other reason than the simple fact that they're there. For a long time I'd rather expected I'd eventually do them seperately, aboard our Drascombe Lugger "Ondine". But now we have our little yacht "Calstar". She may not have longer legs than our old Lugger, but she has a much higher degree of comfort with which to eat the miles.

The plan was to leave just after high water and beat down channel about 16 miles to round Flat Holm to port. If we could make that by 1300, then that gave us about an hour and a half to take Steep Holm to port 2.5 miles to the south and then reach back up to Portishead.

By 0828 we were out of the lock and within 20 minutes, having cleared the breakwater, stowed the mooring lines and fenders, had hauled up the sails and silenced the engine. Calstar leant 20 degrees to the wind and beat down channel at a shade under 5 knots through the water, the auto-helm easily managing the bulk of the work for us. The gusts were heeling her to an uncomfortable degree, so within a very short while we put the first reef in the main. The water, ruffled and irritated with the wind over an outgoing tide, was a little choppy but nothing too violent. As we beat down channel, we were overhauled by a large working boat, a dredger called "Welsh Piper", out of Avonmouth and heading out in the direction of Cardiff, but we otherwise had the water to ourselves.

As we passed the starboard lateral "Avon" at 0945 and then "English & Welsh Grounds" by 1028, close hauled on port tack but moving smoothly through the water, it became apparent we were going to reach Flat Holm early.

A tack on to starboard, and then at 1108 a tack back to port on top of the east cardinal "Hope" and we could lay Flat Holm, 3.6 miles away. We were averaging about 4 knots through the water, but the ebb tide was giving us significantly more over the ground. I'd read that the trick to rounding the islands was to aim to cross between Flat Holm and Steep Holm at slack water, and we clearly weren't going to do that today. I wasn't too concerned however, as with this good a wind out of the south west we could happily crab across between the islands on a beam reach, and not loose too much to the tidal race flushing out between them.

What the forecast hadn't told me was the three act play had an interval scheduled between each act.

At 1138 we tacked behind Flat Holm and bore off onto a starboard reach. As we bore away, the heel, a steady 15 to 20 degrees up until now, slackened off with the freer point of sail and the apparent wind decreased in the tidal lee of the island, so we shook the reef out of the main. Focused on halyards and reefing lines and not on the water, I didn't at first notice as the auto-helm lost steerage, but I felt the change in motion and as I looked up to the accompaniment of the slatting genoa, found we were pirouetting listlessly in the tidal eddy behind Flat Holm, the sails completely slack, the wind seemingly gone.

I disengaged the flailing auto-helm and taking the tiller, found what barest whisper of wind we had left had backed around into the south. We were left scratching. The boat speed tickled along occasionally lifting teasingly to a 0.5 or a 0.6 but most often taunting us with 0.0; to keep her moving at even that I was left with the choice of pointing back the way we'd come at Flat Holm to stem the tide as best we could or very wide of the western end of Steep Holm, and so suffer the still enthusiastically ebbing tide flushing us down channel to the west. The GPS showed a speed over ground of up to a knot and a half, but it was invariably in the wrong direction.

We were going backwards and getting around Steep Holm was beginning to look like an ambition for another day.

Then the low battery warning came up on the Sony tablet running the chart plotter. Pretty routine; Dad has a couple of battery packs, so he went below to grab one for me and passed me a cable to plug in. Dad has an iPhone. The mini-USB socket on an Android tablet does not fit the "Lightning" plug on an iPhone USB cable because Apple are special and like to do things differently. And, foolishly, I'd neglected to bring an appropriate USB cable myself, thinking Dad had the back-up power covered. So we said goodnight to the tablet.

Not a huge problem. We had paper charts and the GPS on my watch gave me latitude and longitude. It could even manage waypoints and a route to follow if I bothered to set it up, but with the paper chart to hand and a clear indication of where we were on it, it's always seemed more trouble than it was worth. In any case, Dad has another plotting app, Navionics, on his iPhone. And, of course, Dad could plug the iPhone into the battery pack to keep it charged. Finding your way around the Bristol Channel is for the most part fairly simple pilotage from well marked buoy to well marked buoy, as long as you watch the tides and stay out of the shallows.

It's one thing knowing where you are, but what I've found the tablet does really very well is tell you where you'll be in twelve minutes (or more, but the twelve minutes setting on the true course line is generally perfect for our scale of sailing), and the a distance circle around you makes it ever so easy to see at a glance how close the nearer sand-banks, shoals and rocks are. And there are lots of each out in the Bristol Channel at low tide.

And so we scratched for over an hour, falling back to the west with the ebb and getting no closer to Steepholm. I kept expecting Dad to do his usual and suggest putting the motor on, he doesn't do standing still very well at all, but the suggestion never came. Surprisingly, he remained completely sanguin and relaxed about it, the only comment the occasional reassurance to stick at it and we could still do it, whilst I scratched, fretted and fussed with the sail setting and course and whistled for wind at the helm.

And then, whilst on a starboard tack, there was the barest whisper, the faintest promise at first that then crescendoed swiftly into a terrific lift taking us up towards the "Mackenzie" buoy between the islands before veering back to set firmly in the south. By 1330 we were close hauled, heeled over and trotting along briskly through the water, almost laying Steep Holm and with still an hour in hand before the tide turned.

A short tack to port and then back ensured we cleared Rudder Rock on the western tip of the island and by 1400, with the tide beginning to slacken under us, we were bearing away around the southern shore. Ten minutes later we freed off onto a run to head back up channel. The genoa was slatting about in the shadow of the main, so I goose-winged the sails for a while whilst Dad went below to warm up a tin of meatballs in tomato sauce for celebratory lunch. The genoa took some work to keep winged out opposite to the main, and finer steering to the wind than the auto-helm could manage, so we gybed onto a port reach and headed out a little further into the channel before gybing back on to a reach that filled both sails but would still keep us clear of Sand Point and the shoals of English Grounds beyond.

The auto-helm re-engaged, I settled down to lunch on my meatballs and relaxed for a while, enjoying a gorgeous view of Weston-Super-Mare and Brean Head out to the east whilst the little boat happily looked after herself.

A couple of hours later, the Holms were growing distant and dark clouds were chasing us from the south west. We'd passed "Tail Patch", "Hope" and "North West Elbow" on the way back, clearing the English Grounds to the east of us and were nearing the north cardinal "Clevedon" by 1700, making good time for Portishead. The wind had dropped significantly over the last hour, a second interval between acts, and then backed further into the east before lethargically starting to pick back up.

The working boat that had passed us on the way out in the morning, "Welsh Piper", passed us again on her way home to Avonmouth, and we hardened up to close-hauled in an attempt to stay clear of the shipping channel. We couldn't quite lay the "Avon" buoy marking the southern side of the Kings Road as the wind headed us, but "Welsh Piper" had plenty of room to edge past. The header brought an increase of pressure with it though, and Calstar began to heel happily, her speed through the still relatively smooth waters dancing around about the 4 knots mark once again.

We passed between "Avon" and "Welsh Hook" but could now see a big car transport embarking from Portbury Docks ahead, and another coming up between the Holms behind, so tacked off towards Woodhill Bay to beat in under Portishead Point. The wind became fluky under the headland, and so, all but home now, we started the engine and hauled down sail, our sailing done. Calling ahead to the marina, we were told the next lock would be 1815. We tucked in under the breakwater to wait the fifteen minutes whilst the big car transports passed each other beyond in the Kings Road, Dad tending the helm now we were back under power whilst I readied the fenders and mooring lines.

By 1830 we were moored up in our berth and tidying away. Half an hour later, everything shipshape and Bristol fashion, as we were locking up and grabbing our bags to leave, the sky darkened, the heavens opened and, as if by appointment, the rains came down in a deluge. It had been a fantastic day.

Just over nine and a half hours out, all but half an hour of which was under sail, and just over 43 nautical miles covered. It's the longest we've so far sailed continuously, the furthest distance we've gone with Calstar "unsupervised" and, more to the point, the first time I've set an objective for ourselves that didn't involve following a fleet and we've sailed to the plan and achieved it.

Although it's an insignificant time and distance by the standards of many friends, the feeling of independence and the satisfaction of having done what I told myself we'd do, and done it ourselves for no other reason than it was just there, is, well, pretty damned good.

Spending so much of the time close-hauled, with such favourable winds but relatively calm seas, was exceptionally beneficial. Interestingly, I've realised that if I sit in the cockpit, feet suitably braced against the side deck opposite, 20 degrees of heel is far less of a problem and feels far less intimidating than if I'm sat perched up on the coamings, as if Calstar were a dinghy. You'd think that was obvious, but it's taken me until now to work it out for myself.

The auto-helm also works perfectly fine when she's beating hard into the wind, and is both braver and less twitchy with the tiller than I currently am under the same circumstances.

I'm really looking forward to our next trip out, hopefully this coming weekend. Not sure if we're racing or just pottering. It will depend on the weather, of which we're getting an awful lot of at the moment.

The Navionics track recorded on Dad's iPhone of the trip around the Holms can be viewed online here. I may not be fond of the vector charts that run in Navionics, but I have to confess there are some things it does very well.