Sunday 30 October 2016

Distant purr

My bad.

It wasn't the soft purr of traffic in distant Clevedon town, but the approaching purr of the bow wave on the rapidly closing Clevedon buoy. [edit: my double-bad - it was the Welsh Hook cardinal, not Clevedon - you'd think I'd know these things by now!]

All peaceful again now it's receding astern.

The cat's whiskers

Only she is certainly not a cat, and only has one whisker.

It's working beautifully though. Ghosting downwind, sails goosed, hardly a whisper of apparent wind. Tide is giving us 5kts, sails adding another for 6 over the ground.

Very pleased with the new pole. Without it the jib would be collapsing, the main slatting, the boat skewing with the tide and Dad nagging to put the engine on.

Nowhere in particular to go, peace disturbed only by the distant purr of traffic around Clevedon and the faint trickle of a very slight bow wave.

Perfect Sunday.

Saturday 29 October 2016

Saturday night

And the gig is done.

All I have to do now is pack up and head home. Then get down to the boat on the morning on time for the last lock out; an easy one at 1030.

Idea is to follow the ebb down channel then come back up with the turn of tide. Should be back for about 1630.

No particular plan or reasons, just sailing for the simple sake of sailing.

Clocks shift back an hour tonight, so although it's very nearly midnight, in an hour's time it'll very nearly be midnight again.

The tide doesn't care though, so it makes no real difference to when I get up until Monday. Then I shall enjoy the extra hour in bed.

I shaltn't enjoy finishing work in the dark however. If I had my way, I'd stick with BST all year through.

Monday 17 October 2016

Wet Weekend

We spent Saturday capsizing dinghies at Frampton and helping coach trainee Safety Boat crews through their recovery procedures. Given the amount of time I spend capsizing dinghies on Frampton Lake I have a vested interest in making sure the Safety Boat knows what it's doing when it's supposed to be looking after me. It was an enjoyable day, even if I did inadvertently go in a couple of times. First time I've really put the new drysuit to work since I bought it for the aborted (postponed) bid on Lundy with Green Bean, back in May.

The water was much colder than I remember it being previously for this time of year. Or maybe I'm just getting older, and not so practised to being fully immersed in it these days? At least the sun was shining.

After the fun and games at the lake, Dad and I headed down to the boat, dropping his car in the marina car-park in Portishead and getting a taxi over to Underfall Yard in Bristol. The hoped for work had only been partway completed: the deck floodlights hung beneath the spreaders had been replaced with new LED lamps, and the masthead tricolour and the bow nav lights had likewise been replaced with LED's. The steaming light and anchor light remain as traditional tungsten bulbs however; Jay couldn't find suitable LED replacements. And the forward reefing pennants in the single-line reefing still hadn't been replaced, nor the two halyards.

The latter was a "just because you're there anyway" as they're not exactly beyond even my own ability to replace, however I would really liked to have seen the anchor light swapped for an LED.

Jay had kept Dad well informed of progress through the week so none of the above was a surprise. He's going to come down to Portishead to replace the reefing pennants in situ as soon as it's mutually convenient. I couldn't help feeling it was a lot of fuss to have been through to have brought the boat all the way up to Bristol to essentially get a few bulbs replaced. Dad, on the other hand, was absolutely delighted with his new deck floodlights. I'm not sure I rate them as anything more than night-vision killers, but I guess they'll be handy if we ever decide to throw a party on deck. Or something like that.

Supper was a very nice mixed grill from a small cafe-grill in town, down a side street a short walk from the Bristol Hippodrome. To my shame, I can't remember the name of the place, but the food was very good. Then it was a relatively early night ahead of the promised early start the next day. As we turned in for the night, the sky was clear and the water of the docks illuminated by the bright ivory light of a full moon overhead, dulling the stars.

0500 I woke shortly ahead of the alarm and rolled out of my bunk, optimistically noting there was no patter of rain on the cabin roof overhead, at least not as yet. It's perhaps a little unsavoury, but when it's just Dad and me on the boat and we're faced with an early tide, I've taken to going to bed in the clothes I plan to get up in, it makes the oh so painful act of crawling out of my bunk and into the cold and dark just a little bit easier.

The rains began just as I installed the auto-helm onto the tiller and then lowered the sprayhood in preparation for casting off.

By the time we were underway, departing the dock at 0550, it was bucketing down. Shortly before we slipped our lines, the Dad's deck floodlights blew out. Their fuse had gone.

Other than that fuse and the early rain, which had been forecast to hold off until later in the morning, everything else went exactly to plan. We entered the junction in front of the first bridge at 0610 and threw a warp around one of the bollards to hang on the quay wall whilst we sat and waited for the bridge. The man turned up at 0615 as promised, and swung the bridge for us. We entered Cumberland Basin with another yacht following astern, the 60' Hummingbird, an expedition yacht and training vessel, veteran of three circumnavigations. I believe she'd spent the summer up in Scandinavian waters and was now bound for the warmer southerly climes of Spain and Portugal, but for now her numerous crew crowding her deck as she entered the lock behind us were as cold and wet as we were.

We gave them a cheery wave, and had the same returned. Cheery, you'll understand, is a relative term.

We left the lock and entered the Avon at 0645, punching the still very lively, flooding tide, leaving Hummingbird behind to wait for more water and less flow in the river. Our speed over the ground was, at first, little more than a knot as we inched our way through the darkness beneath the brightly illuminated Clevedon Bridge and then out past Black Rock. With only a meter draught and almost ten meters of water in the river, we hugged the insides of the various bends with unabashed impunity, making the most of the slacker water there. Gradually the flood began to ease, our ground-speed picked up and light began to weep into the sky.

Even the rain had begun to east by the time we passed the village of Pill and the clubhouse of Portishead Cruising Club and slipped down river under the motorway bridge.

Calling up VTS as we passed Nelson Point a shade before high water at 0800, a friendly voice advised us he had three tugs in the King Road and a car carrier inbound to Portbury and currently abeam of Portishead Point. We simplified matters by offering to loiter in the mouth of the river until everybody was done playing around. There was arguably plenty of time for us to slip down past the Royal Portbury gates and home to Portishead before the ship reached us, but the rain had now stopped and I really quite enjoy watching and listening on the VHF to them handling the big vessels in and out of the docks.

By the time they were done the tide had fully turned, so it was less than a ten minute hop from the mouth of the river, past the stern of the car carrier and her attendants now inching into the mouth of the dock and then home to Portishead. The wind was still light, no more than 10 knots southerly, coming off the shore, so the sea smooth for the duration of the transit, even with the tide turned and now picking up to a hard ebb. The marina office had the lock gates swinging open as we crabbed in on a ferry glide across the current to the shelter of the Hole, and by 0845 we were safe along side our berth in the marina once again, the morning's work done.

As we made fast the dock lines, the sun came out, the scudding clouds being blown clear by the now building breeze.

Friday 14 October 2016


Weather is looking a little marginal for Sunday.

High water Portishead is 0750 at 14.1m; up in Bristol it'll be a little later, but not much. With a tide that big the harbour master has to close the stop gates to keep the water out of the harbour (apparently, it's known as the "floating harbour" because the level of the harbour remains constant regardless of the tide) so they'll need us to lock out before the gates are closed.

So the plan is to be in the junction outside Cumberland Basin for 0615. The bridge-man will keep an eye out for us and let us through if he sees us waiting. Apparently the VHF set in the bridge control room is currently out of service. We then enter the lock at 0630 and lock down, expecting to depart Bristol City Docks around 0640.

An hour to get down river, maybe an hour and a half as we'll be punching tide, should see us at the mouth of the Avon at just about high water. We then make a twenty minute hop across to Portishead, lock in and we're home. Maybe even before the rain hits.

I wouldn't normally leave harbour voluntarily with a 6 anywhere in the forecast (I don't necessarily count needing to race as "leaving voluntarily"), especially not on a spring tide. However, the river should be pretty sheltered, the wind is across the tide off Portishead rather than against. Likewise the short hop is across the wind also, not into it, and Royal Portbury and Portishead make for a weather shore so we should enjoy some shelter in their lee.

On balance, it should all be fine.

Wednesday 12 October 2016


Saturday's gig fell through.

Which makes life a little easier. A shame though, a new venue is always a welcome thing.

It's getting complicated

The original plan was to take Calstar up to Underfall Yard last Sunday, but that first clashed with the Enterprise Open Meeting at Frampton, and then clashed with my in-laws' 50th wedding anniversary dinner, which none of the family had told me about until a couple of days before.

Obviously, the anniversary dinner won. I'm bold, but not stupid.

Regretted missing the Ent Open, but delivering Calstar was an easy fix: tides were just as good on the Saturday as they would've been on the Sunday. Unfortunately, it meant standing up the Sailing Club as Dad and I were both supposed to be instructing on an RYA Safety Boat course running that weekend. It was the reason I'd originally planned for a Sunday delivery. A quick email fixed that however; Patricia, our chief powerboat instructor, was very understanding, and assured us she had the Saturday covered.

All well and good.

Work is progressing well in Underfall Yard, so she'll be ready for us to move her back this coming weekend.

Original plan was to do it Saturday morning. An 0545 lockout meant we'd have to navigate the river in the dark, but it's well marked with navigation lights and we'd have plenty of water so that wasn't too intimidating. It would've meant going down to the boat Friday evening after work. A Friday night in Bristol city centre followed by a short passage downriver beneath Saturday morning's sunrise, seemed quite the pleasant adventure.

But it seems I'd overlooked the fact that having gotten out of week one of the Safety Boat coarse, Dad and I would definitely be needed for week two, this coming Saturday.

No problem. The tide will be an hour later on Sunday morning, better light. Unfortunate that Dad had already made arrangements with Underfall for our departure and booked the lock out of Bristol, but that can be easily fixed with a phone call. The new plan was to instruct on the lake at Frampton through Saturday, then once done head down to Portishead to abandon the car in the marina carpark and get a taxi to Underfall Yard in Bristol. Kip on the boat Saturday night, depart first thing Sunday morning for a short sunrise cruise downriver.

We've just been offered a short-notice gig Saturday night. It's hard to turn down work for the band in any circumstances, but this is a new venue that could become a regular booking through next year if it goes well. And anyway, I like new venues.

It is in Bristol, which is handy.

So the plan for this weekend is now:

  1. Assist with the instruction for the powerboat training at Frampton through Saturday daytime
  2. Dad drives down to Portishead Saturday evening, leaves the car at the marina, gets a taxi to Underfall Yard.
  3. Jamie (brother and bass play in the band) drives me and the kit down to the Bristol gig
  4. Play the gig Saturday night
  5. Jamie takes the kit home (this is a complication - I normally transport the band's trailer myself)
  6. I find my way across Bristol by whatever means from wherever the venue is to Underfall Yard to join Dad on the boat
  7. Depart Bristol for a dawn lockout first thing Sunday morning and deliver boat to Portishead

That can work, I think.

Figured it was worth writing down here so I'd have notes to refer to if I got stuck with regards to when I was supposed to be where doing what at any point!

The things you forget you already know

Apparently we have a masthead tricolour light.

I knew we had a switch for one on the fuse-board, but when I originally checked it one night before one of those early pre-dawn departures in the days when Calstar was still new to us, had noted that nothing came on up there when I threw the switch so assumed the switch led to nothing.

All our night time passages have been with the deck level nav lights running; the single port and and starboard light on the pulpit at the bow, and a separate stern light on the pushpit astern. Uses a bit more battery than a single masthead, but that's not really been a concern for us. The domestic batteries are new and seemingly very robust, and we use them sparingly when they're not under charge. In any case, most of our boat movements after dark have been either under engine alone or motor-sailing.

So when Dad told me that Jay, currently working on the boat in Underfall Yard in Bristol, had informed him there was already a light up there I honestly thought they were having me on, although why I could not tell you. So I dug out the extensive collection of photos I took of the masthead through a telephoto lens that day we first pulled her out of the water in Swansea for her survey, before making our offer back in November 14.

And, surprise of surprises, there is a masthead tricolour. It's been there all along, sans working bulb.

Tuesday 11 October 2016

The River Run

Dad won't abide the thought of me climbing our mast.

I've climbed taller trees, much taller. And rock faces. And buildings. I was playing with ropes and carabiners and improvising climbing harnesses long before I really got interested in sailing. Even now, some thirty years on from heyday of most of my simian antics, a 10m mast doesn't present too much of an obstacle. It already has safety lines rigged, in effect. And I'd love to get a photo from the top of it.

But nope, he's not happy with the idea at all. I could push the issue, but I can see how uncomfortable it makes him.

"If you managed to climb all the way up, you'd never work out how to change the bulb" was the last reason for putting me off. For the record, I can change a bulb.

Anyway. Dad wants to change the deck-lights that shine down from our spreaders for LED's. Whilst we're up there ("we" as in a general collective, as opposed to "we" including "me" for reasons just explained) we might as well also change the steaming light and anchor light for LED's. The nav lights are on the pulpit and pushpit, so within easy reach. Dad has already changed the stern light.

In addition to that, we had the main running lines replaced on the single-line reefing whilst the boat was in Swansea, but the man that did the job didn't renewal the forward running pennants, and they really need doing.

The upshot is that Dad made arrangements with Jamie of Traditional Rigging to take care of all of the above. He's based at Underfall Yard in Bristol's Floating Harbour, so we had to deliver the boat to him last Saturday. Which led me to suspect that this work, all of it nice to have but for the moment, none of it essential, was in large part just an excuse for Dad to take the boat up the Avon, through the sea lock and into Bristol.

It was a nice run. The river usually is.

We had the first lock of Saturday morning's tide booked out of Portishead for 0800. High water was about noon in Bristol, and they were expecting us for a 1000 lock in. It rained for the duration of the drive down to Portishead, but it eased and then stopped completely as we made ready to cast off. The rest of the morning remained grey and overcast but otherwise dry.

We shared the lock out with five other vessels; cod season in all but upon us now, and they were all bristling with rods and hooks and enthusiastically eager anglers keen for the morning's chase. There was a slight chop pushing as the lock gates opened to let us out, 10 knots of north-easterly made Portishead a lee shore and dampened any notion I might have had of hauling up the sails for the mile's run up to the mouth of the Avon.

Depends what you read and who you talk to, but boats are nominally supposed to report in on the VHF to Bristol VTS if they're entering the river. I did so as we were passing the gates of Royal Portbury, and was somewhat testily informed by the operator that if I was now approaching the mouth of the river, I was obviously clear of the shipping in King Road, the obvious subtext being what was I therefore bothering him for? It's a fair point. His only interest in folk like me is that we stay clear of his shipping, and it's very clear to me, barring darkness or fog, what's going on in the King Road without bothering VTS to find out.

The fifty minute run up the river was picturesque as always. The engine was quiet, barely more than ticking over just enough to give us steerage whilst the flooding tide did the bulk of the work. High, muddy banks gave way to rocky cliff faces, wreathed with overhanging, arboreal woodland, the atmosphere at times primeval, disturbed only by the calling of birds and the occasional rolling of fish on the surface of the heavily silted water.

We called up City Docks Radio on the VHF to announce our arrival as we turned into the final straight running under the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge at about 0938, having made very good time on the tide. We were greeted warmly by the harbour master, and invited to make our way up and stem the tide off the knuckle of the harbour wall whilst they cleared the outbound traffic currently locking down to the river.

Locking in was hassle free, having the spacious sea lock entirely to ourselves. They took our lines up and passed them back to us so we could adjust them through our ascent.

The two not insignificant road bridges guarding the entrance and exit from Cumberland Basin beyond were swung in quick succession once we were up, the Bristol traffic waiting patiently whilst we traversed the basin into the floating harbour beyond with minimal waiting around on our part. And then it was a quick trot around the corner to come alongside a pontoon in Underfall Yard where we made the boat tidy and secure for Jamie to do the promised work in the week to come.

We're hoping, with the work done, to take her back down the river and home to Portishead next weekend.

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Night Sail

The adventures of the weekend went well.

Got to the boat for a little after 1900 Friday evening, so had plenty of time to find something to eat at our current favourite Portishead restaurant, Bottelinos. It has to be said that one of the reasons it's a favourite is that the portions are generous, the staff friendly, and even if we turn up unannounced and without reservation on the busiest of Friday nights, they'll invariably find us somewhere to sit and feed us anyway.

I like that in a restaurant.

We also learnt something new: paella is a Spanish dish. Mum would've known this, and would also have known it was diplomatically unwise to ask for it in an Italian restaurant. However, risotto is a pretty damned close substitute. I'm not sure full-blooded natives of either country would want us to think the two are equivalent, but for Dad's and my equally unrefined pallets they do serve equitably well.

The Italian waitress took it all in good humour, serving it up with a smile and "Enjoy your paella, sir" when the dish was brought to table.

High water at Lydney on Saturday morning was 0905, and the instructions variously indicated the need to arrive between 15 and 30 minutes before the top of tide. Too early and you'd have a nightmare of a job stemming the flow for the ferry glide across the width of the river, from the navigable east bank to the harbour gate on the west, assuming you didn't come to grief on the sandbanks in between.

In April earlier this year, a first time visitor to Lydney didn't pay close enough attention to the instructions, arrived too early on the tide and after getting caught on Black Rock for a short while (opposite Lydney, off Berkeley Power Station) then grounded his port bilge keel on the sands whilst attempting to cross over to the harbour gate too early. The incoming tide then flipped all 8 tons of the 36' Westerly Galway Ketch over onto her port side where she was left wallowing before the tide fortunately re-floated her, ten minutes later.

Dad woke me just before my alarm at 0355. I could already hear the rain on the cabin roof overhead. Needing to be ready to lock out at 0530, I'd agreed we ought to be up an hour ahead. That somehow translated to an extra thirty-five minutes on top because "it takes that long sometimes to get me out of bed."

I can't fault the logic; I use the same when I get Sam up for college in the morning. However, once he'd shook me awake at 0355 the deed was done and there was no going back, so I struggled out of my sleeping back, into my waterproofs and set about preparing the boat to cast off.

Unsurprisingly, we had the first lock of the tide at 0530 to ourselves. Nav lights reflected in the rain rippled, gloomy waters as we descended to the level of the estuary. The lock gates opened and we motored tentatively out into the gloaming.

I hadn't fully intended to sail. Dad is, not unfairly, still both nervous enough about the dark and cautious of the unforgiving nature of the concrete footings of the Severn Bridge and the small target they present in the teeth of a fast flooding tide. The suggestion of sailing up would just add to the worry. However, accompanying the night's darkness and rain was a lovely, constant south-easterly breeze. Set across the tide, it kicked up no serious chop on the rain-oiled waters.

I hauled up the sails initially with the intention of motor-sailing, on the not unreasonable assertion that the sails would make us more visible in the darkness to anything coming down channel. I left a single reef in the main out of pure caution in the darkness; unnecessary as the pressure of the breeze didn't call for it, but in the dark I didn't have any of the usual visual clues to warn me as to whether it was building or fading, so chose discretion as the better part of valour.

With the sails up, and the wind loose on the starboard bow, less than ten minutes out of port I stilled the engine and we began to sail through the dark.

We were making good time; too good, the GPS was suggesting we'd be in Lydney for 0730 at our present rate, which would only work if we were prepared to get out and drag the boat over the sand. But the electronics can't be faulted for not knowing that. As we entered The Shoots on the final approach to the first bridge, our speed over ground touched 11 knots. A couple of times, Dad asked if I planned to start the engine before we reached it, but we had plenty of pressure in the sails for control, and room to harden up or bear away as needed, so it wasn't necessary.

I found myself completely in love with sailing through the dark.

I've sailed a dinghy at night before, on a lake, but any time I've been at sea we've motored through the darkness, or at best motor-sailed, usually through necessity of timings to keep. Tidal gates are brutally unforgiving around these parts, they take no prisoners.

In the darkness, I could feel the press of the wind on the sails, the heave of the boat as she leaned to it, feel the turning of the world as an unseen eddy in the tidal race headed her up or pushed her bow away. The boat felt alive and connected. Even the discomfort of the rain, still persistently falling from the black sky, faded into trivial insignificance against the sensation of movement, of forging ahead through the dark, a mere enhancement to the atmosphere.

The hardest thing was not fixating on any one thing at a time for too long. The glimmer of the electronics, the set of our sails, the readout of our speed over ground or ETA, the latter irrelevant for the moment, as it was awfully clear we were too early and were going to need to stem the tide at some point. Even just staring out into the rain-spun darkness became hypnotic, feeling the rush of the boat through the water beneath me.

The Lower Shoots beacon loomed out of the darkness, too close and too suddenly for comfort, and then we were through the bridge, the rush of waters growling around us. The beacon on Old Mans Head was the next lesson in keeping a good lookout, coming up much quicker than expected. The wind was now heading us to close hauled as we hardened up around the beacon to try and lay the Old Severn Bridge, lit up with a festoon of lights, apparently in celebration of its 60th anniversary.

Tepid grey light slowly bled into the sky as we approached it, a sorry, damp squib of a dawn. We tacked once onto port, ostensibly to gain height for a comfortable layline beneath the second bridge, but as much to burn time. The instructions had been pretty clear, don't leave the Slime Road before an hour and half before high water. The consequences of not heeding them had been amply demonstrated by the misfortunes of the 8 ton Galway back in April. Crossing under the second bridge a little before 0700 we tacked beneath Whirls End and then bore away to try and hold against the tide awhile. The rain was easing to drizzle as the sky brightened, all things being relative, but with it the wind was becoming lighter and more fickle in direction.

My efforts reduced our speed over ground to a knot or two, but not in the right direction. Nose to tide, wind in the sails, we slowly inched across the Slime Road Sands in reverse, killing the next forty minutes or with an enviable view of the light-festooned bridge and the the turgid brown waters swirling around the submerged menace of the Hen and Chickens rock guarding the Beachley slip just off our starboard bow. Eventually, we were pushed over the sands and into the channel of the Slime Road itself. With the navigation constraints now tighter and somewhat more demanding and these effectively being strange waters, I started the engine and furled the sails.

We followed the channel up and along the northern side of the now well covered reservoir serving Oldbury Power Station, catching up with a small handful of yachts out of Thornbury who were also Lydney bound. Knowing the waters better than me, they had fewer reservations concerning the sandbanks, so we followed their lead cautiously, in doing so surrendering the narrow navigation channel to a solitary, laden cargo vessel outbound from Sharpness.

Crossing over the sands from just above Bull Rock was uneventful. Approaching the outer harbour gates at 0850, the little boat's engine held her easily against the still running flood. Friends waved to us from the harbour wall, guided us in through the tidal outer harbour and then took our lines to secure us snug in the little lock at the head of the outer harbour with five other boats for the night.

It was a great party. There was a goodly amount of beer, excellent food and a fair bit of singing, and I indulged in all three immoderately but not, I think, to too great and excess and, in any case, was matched in my efforts by many others.

The trip home the following day was uneventful. We edged out of the harbour gates a little before 0930. With no wind to tempt even me, we motored down the west bank of the river and then dropped beneath the two bridges, our way lit across the tumbled chocolate waters by a bright, sun-jewelled azure sky.

We made it back into the shelter of the mud-banks of Portishead Hole for about 1130, and there dropped the hook and waited patiently for the last lock of the tide at 1215.