Thursday 2 June 2016

Back to where it all began

This weekend Dad and I take Calstar back to where it all began: Swansea.

About 15 months ago, on a cold, calm day, we brought her up from there on a single spring tide with the help of Dave, a very able skipper from Swansea Yacht Club to assist us. That was the last time anybody but me has been in full command and control of my boat.

Because of a lack of wind and the need to cover 60nm within 10 hours, we used the engine all the way up.

We're taking two days to get back down. Not much wind forecast, so I suspect Sunday will be mostly under power, so we'll be going back the same way we came out.

Although it's another spring tide, it's a smaller one, and we'll be running against it's march. Coming up channel the tide chases you, being earlier in the west than it is in the east. In terms of our usual speed over the ground, this cuts about an hour of usable tide off heading down, and adds an hour heading back up.

So we're splitting the journey across two tides.

Getting down to Cardiff is fine. I can, of course, all but to that in my sleep by now. It's the Swansea leg on Sunday that I'm worried about.

My preference would be to make Barry on the first ebb instead of Cardiff, and drop the hook in the harbour there. That gets us beyond the race at Lavenock Spit and puts us in a good position to slide down the tidal escalator that runs along the north side of the Bristol Channel with the outing tide.

Dad has made it very clear his preference is for a pontoon and a pub for Saturday night, so we'll be stopping off at Penarth in Cardiff Bay instead.

I have some sympathy with his point of view, and think we should still manage the second leg, but it will involve punching the tide a couple of hours at one end or possibly both, which will mean doing so under power.

Then again, with a need to average 5kts over the ground to make the tidal gate, there's every chance we'll need to use the engine for most of the way if not all. And if I've got my sums wrong, or missed anything in my plans and estimates, we won't do it in one tide.

I do hope Saturday night's stop-over in Penarth doesn't come around to bite us come Sunday. If it does, it'll be my fault - I have the final say on where we stop Saturday night. Trouble is, you tempt me with the offer of a pontoon and a pub and, well, I guess I am indeed my Father's son. Well, a pub at least, I'm quite ambivalent towards the pontoon.

I do need to get to Swansea in time to make the boat secure and catch the last train home Sunday evening, as I have to work Monday morning.

To me, sailing is supposed to be all about the journey, not the destination. However, in this present time so much of my sailing seems to be racing the clock and the tide.

It won't always be so.


photo: ken elsey
Unfortunately, we didn't race Buffy yesterday evening. My crew Hels is poorly, having caught some kind of fluey type bug that has grated her vocal chords and seriously impeded her ability to call "Starboard!", so rather than hunt around for a substitute crew, I decided spend an evening in with my wife. I'm away for the weekend coming with Dad, so I thought it was the appropriate thing to do.

Nik seemed quite pleased to see me, then she got a call from a friend, wished me a pleasant evening in, and informed me she was off out to play bingo. Not a game I profess to understand, but each to their own and I do understand the priority hobbies take, so I don't really have grounds for complaint. At least it wasn't Valentine's Day.

photos: ken elsey

Hels and I did race last week though. A light, shifty, failing breeze so typical of a Wednesday evening, stirring the waters just enough to serrate the reflections of our sails as we ghosted about the lake. The sky was overcast, a dull slate of flat low clouds, but the evening was warm and alive with clouds of dancing of sand martins and the occasional swallow as they swooped and gorged and feasted over the waters of the lake.

We had a great race. A good start, almost as much by design as by accident, saw us moving on the gun and in clean air, and beating "Ghost", the only other Enterprise on the water, clean to the windward mark. Ahead of the pack, we maintained our advantage, sometimes lengthening our lead, sometimes surrendering lengths of it reluctantly as the lottery of zephyrs fell in our favour or did not as the chance went.

photo: ken elsey
The other two racing fleets, starting four minutes and eight minutes behind us respectively, caused some complications, initially as our downwind leg crossed their first windward as they were all bunching up to jostle around the mark that lay dead on our own course, and then later as the faster boats amongst them began to catch us up and interfere with our wind. But they got in the way of Ghost as much as they did in ours, and so for a change Buffy's crew maintained their focus and concentration, and jealously guarded their lead through to the end.

photo: ken elsey
It's always a pleasure beating Geoff and Sue in Ghost, only because it doesn't happen too often. We do break ahead frequently enough, but Geoff is a canny helmsman, ever so quick to capitalise on the slightest lapse or mistake on our part, so it's unusual for us to win and keep a lead like that throughout a whole race.

Some things you can't beat though, and the RYA handicap system is one of them. If we had a good race, Pete and his Comet had a better one, and thrashed us hands down once times were adjusted for our respective handicaps, leaving us in 2nd place and Ghost in an honourable 3rd.

"Plan B"

We scratched the Lundy trip planned for the weekend before last. Saturday's forecast was just too much and too unstable to risk the little canoes over a 20 mile stretch of open water. After all the planning, preparation and anticipation it was certainly a bit of a let down. But that's how it goes.

I still had Monday booked off work however. The forecast looked decidedly kinder once Saturday was out of the way and, in any case, Calstar rides out a blow with a good deal more comfort than Green Bean might, and so as to not waste the weekend completely, Dad and I took the Westerly over to Cardiff on Sunday instead. In all matters both sailing and English weather, it always pays to have a Plan B to hand.

The forecast wasn't suggesting much wind for the trip down, but it was a respectable spring tide and the wind would be on the nose down to Clevedon at least, so I kept an open mind. Locking out of Portishead an hour after high water at 0930 things were quite calm at first; enough to fill the sails but not enough to put much of a heel on the boat. The sky was overcast, and whilst it wasn't too cold it certainly wasn't the shorts weather of the weekend previous.

Hauled sail, engine cut and in the shelter of Portishead to begin with, Dad unusually kept the helm for the first twenty minutes or so, doing a respectable job of keeping her close to the wind (given that I had to remind him that there was a wind indicator at the head of the mast and explain how it worked) and even taking her through our first tack, before his attention drifted and he headed below to put the kettle on. By then, the wind and chop were both picking up and, with the little boat heeling to twenty degrees and still more in the gusts, I put a couple of rolls into the headsail.

Traditional Westerly sail plan and reefing strategy: put the first reef in the second it looks like you might spill your tea.

We cut tight into the Clevedon shore on a starboard tack before turning to beat back out. Not the most strategic of decisions, but Clevedon is a pretty view from the sea. Our speed over ground dropped considerably as we worked back across the tidal flow towards clear water. As well as the handful of rolls in the headsail I had also, by now, put the first reef into the main.

As we pushed on, the wind and tide lifted us as expected. Astern against the receding Somerset shore we could see the sails of a couple of other yachts out enjoying what was turning into a lovely  morning to be out sailing. The sky began to break up, but with the sun's appearance the wind dropped off so I shook the reefs out from the main and genoa. As Calstar continued to ghost along happily with but the slightest of lean, our course continued to lift with the tide towards Cardiff.

Not enough to clear the shoals of Middle Grounds in a single fetch however. Conscious of the fast falling tide, I put another cautious tack in to take us south on starboard until I could tack back, confident of laying the North Cardiff buoy.

A mile or so out from North Cardiff, clearing the Cardiff Bank to our port side, the sea began to shoal up as we approached the Penarth Roads and the wind stiffened again considerably. Broken sunlight kept us frequent and welcome company, warming the cloud-scudded sky. I put the rolls back into the genoa and the first reef back into the main as the wind stiffened, and loosened off our course, easing the set of the sails to a close reach, now more than sufficient to make the buoy. The sea rolled and boiled with the fast ebbing tide, making the auto-helm earn its keep to hold the course. A short, sharp, occasionally breaking sea frequently slapped cross-wise against our hull, soaking the coach roof with spray and occasionally joining us in the cockpit.

Off Penarth a good handful of yachts milled about waiting to race, more coming out down the narrow Wrach Channel to join them.

Nearing the Wrach, we started the engine and lowered sail. All ran smoothly as I prepared the fenders and warps, except as I tightened a slightly loose jib sheet to tidy it (I don't like them slack when I'm on deck in case I have to grab one in an emergency), the headsail's furling line parted from the Furlex drum, and the genoa began to unroll.

Dad held Calstar into wind as I jumped up on the foredeck. We caught it before more than a handful had unwound, so it was an easy matter to roll it back in by hand and secure it with a tie.

We entered Cardiff Barrage at 1345, after a little over 19 miles of sailing. Leaving the boat alongside the pontoons at Mermaid Quay, Dad and I had lunch at The Docks, and then ambled over to the main docks basin to have a look at the "Stavros S Niarchos". She is a fascinating thing; a 200' brig, she has a modern built hull fitted with an eighteenth century rig and sail-plan, and is run by the Tall Ships Youth Trust.

That afternoon we headed back across the bay to moor for the night in Penarth Marina. In the early evening, after reintroducing the furling line to the Furlex without dropping any of the bits overboard, we walked across to the Penarth sea-front. We raced the incoming tide before it closed off the beach beneath the cliff, occasionally scrambling on all fours across boulders and rocks. From out on the pier we watched a small cargo vessel inbound to Cardiff Docks navigate the Wrach Channel with the aid of an attendant tug, and watched Penarth Yacht Club's Enterprise fleet finish their Sunday evening racing and land back on the beach.

After a relatively early night, my alarm woke me as planned at 0300.

I don't do early mornings with any kind of grace, but we'd agreed to catch the dawn tide back to Portishead so as to not throw the rest of the day away. Setting out in the dark and watching the sun come up from the water also had some appeal. As mentioned here before, I'm taking every chance I can get to practice night sailing aboard Calstar this year; being happy to sail through the dark opens up all sort of opportunities around here that would otherwise be closed to us by the tide.

And sunrises are special. However, to my mind at 0300 that Monday morning, no sunrise could be special enough for getting up that early, so night sailing and not wasting the day were the real deciders. In the event, I was wrong. The sunrise was especially gorgeous.

The pre-dawn gloaming was thick and grey, flattening the contours of the barrage wall as we left Penarth, making it difficult to see the opening lock gate until we'd all but turned into it at 0400. The lights of the lock basin dispelled some of the gloom, but as the lock gates groaned open ten minutes later it was to a spectral world of duns and greys. However, as we edged out of the harbour mouth, between the looming walls, the eastern sky was turning a rosy hue in advance of the coming sun, the glowing tones of the sky reflected in the mudflats that stretched glimmering in the half-light away to our port.

Light enough now to pick out the distant Holms in the murk, finding our way out of the well-buoyed Wrach Channel was simple. A bright full moon hung over Penarth to help us pick our way.

The wind was desperately slight, what little pressure there was coming in listlessly over our port quarter. With five hours of tide still to run we were in no rush, so we optimistically hauled up sail anyway, stilled the engine and drifted with the flood, the sails pulling just enough to give us steerage, but frequently slatting under their own weight, bouncing with the choppy, spring-tide ruffled sea, disturbing the peace of the morning. I rigged a preventer to stop the boom swinging back in, but left the genoa to fend for itself.

The still hidden sun was beginning to bleed into the dark, glowering clouds to the east. To try and get a better angle on what little wind there was, and to avoid getting pushed too far up towards Newport, I bore away on to a dead run, goosing the genoa. The sun broke the horizon, setting the sky on fire, our goose-winged sails catching the reflected, golden light.

Hardening back up, the wind stiffened for a short, lovely while as we skirted northern edge of the Bristol Deep, just shy of the now covered sands of the Middle Grounds. The usual tidal race off Clevedon offered its typical chop, then as we cleared it, passing the East Mid Grounds lateral but still shy of Welsh Hook, the wind dropped back off. A large car transport was making her way down channel out of Portbury, so we held course off the northern edge of the navigation channel, watching the ugly grey brute pass Clevedon, making her way down towards the wider sea. I could see another shape between the Holms, which I took to be another inbound, my presumption confirmed a moment later when she reported into Bristol VTS on channel 12. Typically, it looked like her ETA would clash with our own in the confines of the King Road off Battery Point. We continued to hold to the northern side, out of the shipping lane, just nicking the bottom of the by now well covered Welsh Hook.

The wind was the faintest whisper on our port beam, just enough to hold a course, but all our ground speed was being gifted to us by the spring tide.

The incoming cargo vessel passed inside of us off Black Nore Point. We listened to the skipper discuss his plans to swing and dock with VTS and watched a tug poke out of Portbury to await him, silhouetted against the still low sun. Once she was past us, I bore away to try and get in towards the shore; it would avoid the risk of getting swept past Portishead and having to punch back against the tide, and the surface of the water showed a more promising breeze further in.

In vain though. With Calstar all but pointed back down channel, our course over the ground still clocked close to 5 knots heading back along our original track. Dad remarked that if I kept it up, we'd arrive back at Portishead backsides-first, or words to that effect. We pivoted back around, and passing between the Newcombe buoy and Battery Point, started the engine and dropped sail.

I called up Portishead Marina at 0804 to request the lock to be welcomed back warmly by the harbour master and invited to come straight in. We rounded the breakwater and, red lights switching to green on the quay wall, motored straight into the open, waiting lock and home, after a little over 17 nautical miles of sailing and drifting up with the tide.