Monday, 14 September 2015

Holms Race

As previously written of here, I've long been fascinated by the idea of sailing around the Holms. So when we decided we were going to replace the Drascombe Lugger with a Westerly and I started poking around on the Internet, researching harbouring and sailing possibilities below the Second Severn Crossing, and I came across Portishead Cruising Club and read about their annual Holms Race, I knew we were going to have to do it this year.

By way of a quick summary for the uninitiated: it's a down-channel race starting off Portishead, rounding the NW Elbow cardinal to port, the islands of Flatholm and then Steepholm also to port, then back to round NW Elbow again but on starboard and, finally, finish off Battery Point back at Portishead. Boats choose their own start time from 1½ hours after high water based on the tidal streams and the wind, with the aim of passing between the Holms at slack water. Results are then worked out from the timings corrected to handicap.

Dad and I went down to the boat Friday evening, the lock booked for 0830 the following morning. We had supper and caught up with a few friends at the PCC Clubhouse and then hit our bunks with me trying not to worry too much about the forecast, which I'd watched growing more and more potentially brutal as the week had progressed. I was up by 0630 Saturday morning, and wandered down to the lock to look out at the conditions in the Channel. They looked predictably benign in the morning light, albeit beneath a troubled looking sky.

The forecast was westerly, 5 to 7, backing south west and easing to 4 or 5 later in the day, with showers expected through the morning. In other words it was going to be on the nose and in our face, set over a fast ebb tide all the way down to Flatholm.

I'd been kidding myself that I'd been having second thoughts all week as the forecast had slowly solidified into certainty. As I ambled back to our berth, the early morning was alive with the quiet bustle and buzz of other the boats preparing themselves. There wasn't really any doubt. If they were going to go, we were going to go. We knew what we were letting ourselves in for, and with the standing rigging and furler so recently replaced, at least there was as good a chance as any the mast would stay up.

We locked out at 0830, previous nerves and misgivings now drowned and forgotten in the routine of preparing to cast off and lock out. Motoring out of the lock into the Hole, we found ourselves amongst a crowd. With another thirty minutes to go before the startline opened, and quite a bit more still before most would be ready to cross, boats were rafted up against the few ladders on the breakwater, or waiting at anchor just beyond the still covered mud-banks sheltering the Hole.

We moored up to the breakwater ourselves to wait, and Dad put the kettle on. It was sheltered and still this side of the wall, but with so much tide still in, I could, standing on our coach roof, see over the breakwater to the maelstrom beyond. Rows and regimented rows of breaking waves stacking up, pale, silt-laden and foamed, marching in towards Portishead against the outgoing rush of the ebb tide.

We hit the startline just before 1000, close-hauled on starboard tack a dozen paces inside of the Firefly buoy marking the pin end of the line. We tacked off quickly, settled onto port, boat crashing through the breaking waves off Battery Point, both reefs in the main and a generous helping of rolls on the genoa, but Calstar still heeling to thirty degrees or more as each gust hit her, spray showering over the coach-house roof. Our first objective was to round Flatholm before low water at 1331.

We tacked down the Bristol Deep, making good time, crossing and recrossing a Westerly Centaur that had started a little before us, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind. The gains seemed always to come on the shore side of the beat. Off Clevedon we tacked onto port to try to lay NW Elbow just over a couple of miles away, and as we left the small seaside town in our wake, the seas seemed to ease. With the tide under us, our speed over ground was touching 6 knots or so.

The Centaur crossed behind us, and as we reached NW Elbow around 1145, we tacked off to head down channel, whilst the Centaur intentionally overstood and continued on further towards the Welsh side. As we rounded the buoy the speed over ground was topping 8 knots.

Then the winds seemed to ease, the heel of our little yacht now hardly more than 10 degrees, the speed through the water occasionally dropping below 2 knots at times. She felt dull and heavy beneath her still heavily reefed sails. I shook a few rolls out of the genoa, but the boat still felt leaden, so I let the rest out. The speed picked up, but the now full genoa was woefully unbalanced against the fully reefed main, so the sun shining and the eased conditions still apparently holding I shook a reef out of the main. Calstar heeled back to the breeze once more and began to trot happily along the beat in the direction of the Holms.

The squall hit. Woefully over-pressed, I could feel her sloughing off to leeward as she was tripped off her feet. The leeward gunwale buried, I eased the sheets as Dad brought a handful of rolls back in on the genoa, then pointing as close to wind as we could on only the headsail, let the mainsheet go whilst I pulled the second reef back in. Within a few minutes we were back on our feet and once more underway, but precious minutes lost. The Centaur, now well to windward of us having overstood towards the Welsh side, pulled away towards Flatholm, leaving us for dust. I was only vaguely aware of the heavy shower of rain now drenching us. We pulled the cockpit hood up, more to protect the screen of the tablet running our chart plotter than for our own comfort. A couple more tacks and we were laying Flatholm, the front-runners of the massed pack behind us now catching us up.

We took Flatholm at 1314 in the company of a couple of other boats, with most of the fleet still behind us, later on the tide. Bearing away to a southerly track on a starboard reach, the rocks on the far side of Flatholm made for an uninviting lee shore, uncomfortably close. Off the wind, I eased a couple of rolls out of the genoa, but found myself fighting her urge to round up every time a gust hit. The seas in the squeeze between the Holms around McKenzie buoy were lumpen, confused, turbulent and angry and I had to fight continually to keep her off the wind and laying Steepholm.

photo: roger gribble
The last time we came down here, the couple of miles between the islands cost us a couple of hours when the wind failed. This time it did not, and we were across in less than thirty minutes, over-standing Steepholm by a little until at 1341 we could gybe onto a reach that would clear the landing beach and rocky spit on the eastern side of the island. The smattering of boats that had caught us at the first island were now ahead, but the bulk of the fleet were still well behind, only their front runners just beginning to clear Flatholm to start the fetch across.

Except for White Spirit. a boat of similar size and age to our own. She came around Steepholm just behind us, and cut in close between us and the shore, pulling ahead as we gave the breaking waves over the eastern spit a respectable berth. We bore away and settled onto the broad reach back to NW Elbow, carried on the front of the now flooding tide.

The wind now with the tide smoothed the worst of the breakers out, but the sea remained rough with big, lumpen swells rolling beneath us, conspiring with the heavier gusts to try and kick the stern out and trip us. We climbed to windward of White Spirit, as the rest of the fleet chased us down from behind in a thick forest of sails the likes of which we never see out here. At some point, the rain had eased and the sun had broken out, but the winds were still high, requiring all my concentration on the tiller to keep her on her feet.

I lost it just the once, with a wave and a gust catching me off guard and spinning us violently up to windward. She's a tough old boat though, and forgiving of a clumsy hand like mine. She lay abeam to the wind for only a wet, spray soaked and buffeted moment before the rudder bit once more and she bore back away to the reach. Others about us fared no better, some tripping more than once, and most spectacularly, a little sports keel-boat, screaming up behind us with their asymmetric set, planning down the face of the waves, broached, all but dipping her mast in the drink, asymmetric twisting in a momentary figure of eight before she popped back up, caught the wind and screeched off once again in a ball of spray and surf.

Dad's comment as they passed: "Huh, well they're an awful lot wetter than us."

I was growing thirsty, and beginning to really need a pee, but didn't trust the auto-helm to keep us straight, especially now we had boats close to windward and leeward of us, and the mark rounding approaching. A few distracted sips out of a bottle of soda water went some way to solving the former problem; the latter would have to wait.

We bore away around NW Elbow, those boats that had them, White Spirit included in their number, now casting aloft their spinnakers and leaving us to admire the graceful set of their sails as they disappeared off into the distance. A surprising number didn't however, and kept us company either goose-winged or, like us, sailing as deep as they could without collapsing their headsails. The clew of Calstar's genoa is quite high cut and doesn't sit very comfortably goosed without a pole.

We heard the MV Balmoral reporting into Bristol VTS on the VHF as she made her way up-channel behind us, commenting on the number of sailing yachts and saying she'd go carefully through. VTS reported the current wind-speed at 24 knots. One day, I'd like a wind-speed indicator aboard Calstar so I could tell such things for myself. On a training run all but dead downwind it felt much less; almost deceptively calm for the first time that day.

 A couple of gybes took us progressively in closer towards the shore so that I could lay the finishing line between Newcombe buoy and Battery Point without collapsing the headsail. Once through the inevitable turbulence off Clevedon and still running downwind the boat was much better mannered. Enough so that I was able to entrust the steering to the auto-helm and Dad to the watch and tend to the now over-stressed needs of my bladder. Duly relieved, I finished the bottle of soda water and began to feel a little more human once more as I returned to the helm.

photo: roger gribble
For the last couple of miles we goose-winged. We were half a mile out from the line, a larger yacht called "Azora" goosed and sat just on our windward quarter, when trying to pay attention to our course and keeping the genoa flying whilst not dipping the mailsail too much by the lee all became a little more complicated as the Balmoral overhauled us, and Dad, like an excited kid overdosed on Christmas candy started to leap around the cockpit with glee, taking pictures of the venerable passenger ship with his camera phone.

photo: roger gribble

photo: roger gribble

photo: roger gribble
We called up a somewhat harassed sounding Race Control on the VHF to identify ourselves and crossed the finish line, six hours, ten minutes and 42.7 nautical miles after we'd left earlier that morning, our race done.

photo: roger gribble
We had a two and a half hours to cool our heels in the Hole, bows nestled into a comfortable mud bank whilst we awaited the call for our turn to lock in. The sun was shining, and the race now run, the winds beginning to ease out in the Channel beyond. I spent the time usefully raiding the galley for sandwiches, muesli bars and a can of coke, ravenously hungry now it was all over. We eventually locked in with eight other boats, three abreast in the lock basin, and put Calstar alongside in her berth without mishap. Anybody would think we were in danger of becoming practised at this.

There were, when I last checked earlier in the week on Wednesday evening, 67 entries for this year's Holms Race. In the face of an unforgiving forecast delivering as promised, sensibly not all of them chose to sail. And of those that did, not all of them managed to finish. Included in the DNF's were a friend's boat dis-masted off of Flatholm, a shredded mainsail and a grounding, and at least one boat that didn't make Flatholm before the tide turned foul on them. I believe all got themselves home without assistance; a commendable calm in the face of adversity and forethought furnishing a handy pair of bolt-cutters to cut away the wreckage saved the day with the dis-masting.

In total, 39 boats finished. Out of which Calstar placed 21st. I'm more than happy with that. For now.

It was a good day.

[edit: corrected references to the "Waverley" to the correct ship's name "Balmoral" - I knew this, but that's what you get when you type things up late at night and don't properly proof-read (thanks Dad!)]


Mark S said...

Great article, Bill..felt like I was there

tatali0n said...

Thank-you Mark :)