Thursday, 2 June 2016

"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.

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