Tuesday 27 October 2015

The littlest acorn

..... is now and has, admittedly, been for some time, somewhat taller than his dad.

Sam is our youngest, and today is his 17th birthday. That should probably make me feel old, but it doesn't. Teachers and policemen make me feel old.

Trawling through my photos in search of material to embarrass him on social media to a level fitting for the occasion (because what else are loving parents for?) I was bemused by how difficult it was to find one in the multitudinous collection of him where he wasn't actually smiling.

A happy child. I hope he has a lovely day. Looking forward to taking him out to supper when I get home later.

So that's the October birthdays done. One more to go, but we're in the clear now until December.

Monday 26 October 2015


Listening to Ryan Adams' cover of Taylor Swift's album "1989" on Spotify, having found my way to it via an article on the Guardian website. It's quite brilliant.

I've never really paid much attention to Taylor Swift. Pretty blond pop singer-songwriter, two to a penny. And here I confess I'm guilty of gross generalisation. Not sure if it's encroaching middle-age, or the X-Factor, but my expectations of today's music scene are jaded at best these days.

I should probably go and listen to some Taylor Swift.

Totally unrelated, it's my little brother's birthday today. He's off to Indonesia in a couple of days with his wife for a holiday and a visit to her family. Consequently, we've no gigs or rehearsals now with the band until he gets back, late November. I'm quite enjoying the free time in the evenings, but feel a little twitchy at the thought of not playing for a month.

Happy Birthday bro.

Monday 19 October 2015

Tall oaks from little acorns grow

From this:

To this:

And all in a mere twenty-one years. Where did it all go?

But I know where it went, I was there for almost all of it, and it's been a blast. It's my eldest son's 21st birthday today. He's always been a bright, talented, generous and lovely kid, most of of the time. And I'm very proud of the man he's growing in to.

Happy Birthday, Ben.

Saturday 17 October 2015

The Wrong Button

Had a very enjoyable couple of hours out with Dad and Calstar this morning. Overslept, which never happens but apparently did, so didn't get out as early as I'd wanted, which meant we didn't get as far up-channel as I'd planned to go.

However, we eventually managed to lock out at 0900hrs, just over an hour before high water, and got just under three hours of very fine sailing in an enthusiastic breeze, up to the Bridge and back, a total trip of 12.3 nautical miles.

Had some amusement on the way back in at around 1135hrs, after calling up the marina on the VHF and asking for a lock. The marina told us that the next lock would be 1145, but that they'd get it ready for us. As we entered The Hole a few moments later, I could see the lock was down, empty of traffic and the gates were open and waiting, but the three lights weren't green.

Solid red would have been normal, and would've meant do not enter despite the open invitation of the gate. But flashing red was unexpected. I was a bit stumped. After some hesitation due to an understandable reluctance to display my ignorance to everybody, I decided to call them back up:

Calstar: Portishead Quays, Calstar, over.

Marina: Go ahead Calstar.

Calstar: I'm sorry, I'm sure I should know this, but what do three red flashing lights mean? Over.

Marina: Um, it means I've pressed the wrong button, just a moment .....

And then the lights turned green.

Watchet, a belated report

My last "trip away" with Dad and Calstar was almost a month ago now. Other than a single photograph posted whilst we were actually underway between Cardiff and Watchet on the second of our four days of sailing, I've been remiss in making little other mention of it up here.

It's not because there was nothing to write about, or that it was an unenjoyable trip. Quite the contrary, we did loads and had a great time. It's just that I took close to 500 photos, and it's taken me until now to sort through them to work out if any were worth keeping.

We had the duration of the weekend, 19th & 20th September plus the Friday preceding and Monday following to sail. I'd hoped to get to Ilfracombe again, or perhaps back to Swansea, but as I mentioned here before the trip, the forecast as the week prior progressed suggested we couldn't hope for much more than a drift. Even with the race of tide we get in these parts, such distances in so short a span of time available seemed over optimistic.

So we revised our plans.

Friday 18th : Portishead to Cardiff
(18 nautical miles, 3 hours 55 minutes underway)

We set off under blue skies in the late morning, picking up a light, patchy southerly once we were clear of the headland that made for a pleasant beat down-channel with the ebb under full sail towards our first destination, Cardiff. By tacking to keep ourselves in the wind, we kept a reasonable enough boat speed up. The sea was smooth, despite the wind over tide; we were at neaps, so there wasn't much in terms of flow, perhaps 3 knots at worst around Welsh Hook. That said, arguably half the pressure in our sails as we beat close-hauled on a port tack all but laying Cardiff as we passed English Welsh Grounds was apparent wind from what tide there was.

Closing the Welsh coast, we hit scattered showers being blown out from the land. The skies were beautiful, as they so often are out there. We passed close by an uncharted, unexpected obstruction, protruding about a foot from the water, fixed, low and canted in the direction of the flow, mostly visible only because of the disruption to the water despite a yellow cross that had been attached to it. Our only guess was that it was Vega's mast. She was dis-masted off Flatholm during the Holms Race the week previous. I can't remember if I mentioned it when I previously wrote up the race, but Mark, the skipper concerned, had grabbed the bolt-croppers sensibly kept below decks but near at hand, and had cut the wreckage free; calm and quick thinking action that prevented any further harm from being done. Then they'd abandoned the race and headed home to Portishead under their own power.

It was close to low water by the time we reached the Wrach Channel and the entrance to Cardiff Barrage, and most of the channel markers were sitting high on the mud-banks. Once into the Bay, we stayed the night at Penarth Marina, eating a supper of posh fish and chips at the marina-side bar, Pier 67.

The barman noted we'd come in on a boat, and asked where we were heading next.

"Watchet," said Dad.

"Sorry, didn't mean to cause offence!" said the barman.

Seems everyone's a comedian these days.

After supper, Dad retired back to the boat whilst I went for a walk along the shore, around the headland to the Penarth waterfront. It was a gorgeous sunset over Cardiff, mostly hidden from me by the cliff-face of the shore, but a glory mutely reflected in the showery, dappled and dusky sky out over the Bristol Channel's waters towards the distant eastern, English bank. It was a lovely walk across a long, sheltered cobble beach, rewarded by the sight of the MV Balmoral landing at Penarth Pier.

Saturday 19th : Cariff to Watchet
(18.3 nautical miles, 5 hours 10 minutes underway)

The following morning was an early departure, locking out through the Barrage as the sun rose through the fog banks still shrouding the English side of the channel. The air was as still as had been promised. With any long distance legs out of the question, we decided we'd visit Watchet, a historic harbour town on the North Devon coast, having not yet been there ourselves.

Watchet Marina is protected by a sill that rises automatically once the tide falls to 7.0m; which on that day was expected to be at 1304hrs. I briefly cut the engine and tried to sail, suggesting to Dad that if we missed it, we could anchor off and wait  until the Marina opened again later that evening, but he sensibly vetoed the idea, not keen on our picking our way into a strange harbour in the dark. I didn't argue.

So we motor-sailed, in no great rush, engine at little more than tick-over, the GPS giving us a comfortable estimate of our ETA, and made Watchet an hour before the sill came up.

It was a very pretty little town, a lovely, historic harbour within which the marina had been built in more recent years. The welcome was very warm and friendly, with one of the staff who was not the harbour master (and made a point of saying Watchet didn't currently have one) meeting us on the hammer-head of the pontoon to take our lines and settle us in. As we made fast alongside, we heard a throaty, steamy howl from behind the marina, and then saw billows of white cloud rise from the unlikely sight of an old steam train which had just pulled into the station.

With the afternoon to kill, we began by finding a pub where we had a couple of pints of ale and bags of pork scratchings and beef jerky for lunch. We then wandered over to the train station, which turned out to be part of the West Somerset Steam Railway; essentially a working museum. I made some enquiries with the staff on the platform, and was told there was one last train running to Minehead and back that day. With an hour to kill before the train left, we took a brief wander around Watchet Boat Museum, conveniently sited next door.

The train ride was great. Dad, in particular, loved it. I've been on lots of trains, but never a steam train, whereas, of course, steam trains were normal when Dad was a kid, so this was something of a trip down memory lane for him. The noise of the engine pulling us out from the station was lovely, the clouds of steam billowing past the carriage window as the engine laboured to accelerate strangely evocative of a more romantic age of travel.

I say more romantic, but really two things in particular struck me. Soot; lots of little lumps of it blown in through the window, littering the table. And speed, or the lack of it. I'm used to sitting in a train carriage and watching the countryside stream past. This countryside kind of lumbered by at a somewhat more sedate pace.

It was far from unpleasant.

Back at the marina, Dad headed back down to the boat whilst I ambled around the sea front.

For most of this year, Watchet's rising sill has been broken, and so they've kept the water in and the marina just about operational for shallower drafted vessels with a fixed barrier. It might have been this, or it might be a flaw in the design adapting the harbour to a marina, but whatever the cause, Watchet currently has a major silt problem.

By low water, despite the raised sill, most of the marina had dried to thick, deep, soft mud. It's a pity, a slight blight to what's otherwise an absolute gem of a Bristol Channel harbour.

I understand that whilst the sill was broken, dredging operations were suspended, but now that it's been repaired, they have plans for a major dredging operation to restore the marina basin, and then a program of dredging planned to maintain it.

I hope they get it sorted. Whilst it was still perfectly viable with our shallow 1m draft, we sunk into the mud ourselves at low tide even at the furthest end of the pontoon, and had to wait to lift back out. I can quite imagine it would put a lot of deeper keeled visitors off completely.

Sunday 20th : Watchet to Cardiff
(25.6 nautical miles, 8 hours 11 minutes underway)

We cast off as soon as the sill dropped at 0849hrs. A morning of clear blue sky but little wind, and the little there was running with the flooding tide from the south. I'd read that the trick to getting back to Cardiff in good time was to punch across as hard as you could to make it to the final approach by the time the tide turned. We were goosed, making a couple of knots over the ground but little more than a half knot through the water, and not enough pressure in the sails to keep the genoa reliably set. A handful of other yachts departed Watchet behind us, raising sails but clearly motoring as the only way to make the tide.

There is no tidal gate on Cardiff Barrage, except on the most extreme of springs, and it's an approach I'm getting quite familiar with, so I wasn't especially concerned about getting caught out after dark.

We could've motor-sailed. I was honest enough to admit as much to Dad, and then suggested as an alternative we stayed on the Devon shore, followed the tide up to the Holms, and try to punch across once it had turned. Far from objecting, Dad agreed, with some enthusiasm in fact. He pointed out that the longer we were out here, the cheaper my bar bill would be, and the happier my liver would be for it. So we hardened up on to a beam reach and set a course that would bring us south of Steepholm.

On a closer point of sail, our little boat trotted along quite happily beneath the hazy blue skies, sometimes touching 3kts through the water, bow wave burbling.

I could see a line of clouds ahead. All the weather that weekend seemed made in Cardiff. Must've been something to do with the Rugby World Cup, keeping up appearances for visitors perhaps? We came abeam of Hinkley Point, the tide now turned foul against us, preparing to gybe and push out across the channel as the sun dimmed and the sky crowded over with grey. A slight but welcome increase in the breeze came with the marching clouds, and Calstar heeled willingly and picked up her skirts to trot swiftly across the gap between the Holms. A timely thing too, as a big car transporter out of Portishead was coming down between the islands.

We watched as she passed close astern, and then hove up down-channel to lie abeam to the wind as the pilot boat out of Barry Harbour sped out to pick up the pilot and ferry him back to shore.

The tide, although neap, had pushed us further west than I'd hoped, and as we passed Flatholm, we'd fallen away and were laying Sully Island rather than Lavernock Point and the final approach to Cardiff. In itself that wouldn't have been a problem; only a mile downtide from where I wanted to be, it might have added an extra hour to our sailing but nothing more. However, at that point, the wind failed. With the full ebb of the tide now carrying us back towards Barry, our only real option was to start the engine, or to put in closer to shore and drop the anchor to wait either the tide or a return of wind.

The purist in me rebelled, but the pragmatist shouted him down. We started the engine, dropped the sails, and motored the last few miles back to Cardiff through the flat calm.

That night we stayed again at Penarth, but discovering Pier 67 shut at 6pm on a Sunday, ate at an Italian restaurant in the old Customs House down by the Barrage. It was undeniably lovely food, but in Dad's opinion, not enough of it, despite having both a starter, a main and a pudding.

Monday 21st - Cardiff to Portishead
(16.8 nautical miles, 3 hours 46 minutes underway)

The Met Office forecast on the marina office board was grim reading Monday morning. Southwest veering west 5 or 6, then veering northwest 6 or 7 later. Rain then showers, thundery later.

We locked out of the Barrage at 0730. In the lee of Penarth the conditions were calm. Worrying they were deceptively so, I unfurled the genoa and stilled the engine, but left the main down as we set a course to clear the north side of the shallows of Cardiff Grounds, hoping to make the best of the tide and skirt along the southern edge of the Middle Grounds. We'd contemplated leaving our departure later on the tide, but with the weather worsening into the afternoon, decided an early start was the more prudent.

We'd not tried sailing for any great duration under head-sail alone yet with Calstar. I remembered considering it with a following wind and sea on the way back to Cardiff from Ilfracombe earlier in the year but at the time had stopped shy of trying something new when everything else was uncertain, and had carried on with our then fully reefed main. So this time around I quite welcomed the heavier weather as a chance to try it.

I'd honestly expected things to feel an awful lot more unbalanced than they did, but Calstar trotted along under the single sail quite happily, the autohelm not labouring in the slightest, even as she still heeled slightly and tried to round up as the frequent and building gusts caught us.

Low scudding cloud made for soup-like visibility, the Holms in the distant murk obscured and darkly sinister in the gloaming. As we cleared the North Cardiff buoy and put more east into our course, the winds built and the rains came in. The seas were relatively smooth, the wind running with the tide. Under her head-sail alone, Calstar slid along at 4.5 knots through the water, occasionally touching 5. Whilst Dad was below frying bacon for breakfast, I put a roll into the genoa just to smooth out the lurching with some of the heavier gusts. Not strictly necessary, but in any case our speed over ground was threatening to beat the tide back to Portishead and leave us waiting in the Hole for the lock.

It did the job, calming the yawing motion, but hardly dented the speed. I sat on the leeward bench in the cockpit, comfortably leaning back against the pushpit, oblivious to the rain and loving the ride, watching the tell tails and occasionally tweaking the trim of the genoa. The bacon sandwiches tasted like heaven.

I could see the sand banks of Middle Grounds still proud of the water to leeward. The wind had much more southing in it that I'd expected, perhaps an effect of the flooding tide, and I'd at first been concerned about the proximity of those banks and the lee shore they presented, unsure of how easy it would be to claw myself away if I had to under head-sail alone. As we passed the EW Grounds clear water mark some few cables abeam to windward, I hardened up the course to bear on Clevedon, the little boat proving herself more than happy to fetch along on a respectably close reach despite the still furled mainsail.

We entered the Bristol Deep, a big cargo vessel passing ahead of us, just visible in the murk on her way up to Portbury Docks. The sea, smoothed and unassuming until now, took on the usual enthusiastic chop it always seemed to adopt as we approached Welsh Hook. It eased up as we continued to push northwards up the channel however, and although the rain only hardened it was no discomfort as the wind didn't let us down.

A little after 1000hrs the bulky headland of Portishead emerged from the gloaming, and by 1020 we'd started the engine and furled the sail, rounding the pier to shelter in the lee of the breakwater whilst we waited for the marina to lower the lock to let us in.

Cardiff to Portishead in just under three hours. It was a new personal best for us.

Portishead : Cardiff : Watchet : Cardiff : Portishead
(78.7 nautical miles, 21 hours 32 minutes underway, 12 hours 2 minutes under sail)