The Lydney Fleet caught up with us in Ilfracombe on Tuesday afternoon; Wednesday and Thursday the weather effectively kept us all pinned in harbour. A gusty, northerly F5 for the most part, if we'd needed to get somewhere it would hardly have stopped us, but Dad wasn't keen on braving it simply to get somewhere for the sake of going, I wasn't especially keen to put Nik through the same for no more reason than that, and our Lydney friends seemed content to stay put for a couple of days and patronise the Ilfracombe Yacht Club bar, so we sociably elected to do the same.
By Wednesday evening the general feeling amongst our friends was to head back via Porlock or perhaps Watchet. I'd considered Swansea, but certainly wasn't adverse to Watchet again. Thursday's forecast looked great, with a late lunchtime low water and a west or southwesterly F4 to carry us back up channel. The outlook for Friday morning was more of the same: beginning southwest 3 or 4 but building to a 5 later into the afternoon or early evening. This seemed fine to me for a Friday afternoon dash back to Cardiff from Watchet, but Dad, using my gig as the reason, along with the attendant, absolute need to be back in Cardiff for Saturday and the (apparent) foolishness of wearing myself out before a gig, decreed that we'd head directly back to Cardiff on Thursday and not take any chances.
Although the gig was cited as the reason, I suspect that at the end of two weeks he was exhausted himself, had quietly had enough of the discomfort of being in a harbour on a mooring buoy and away from the comforts of Calstar's Penarth berth, the shore power hook-up and the Marina facilities, and simply wanted to get back.
The last time we sailed direct from Ilfracombe to Cardiff, we'd made a very inelegant hash of the passage, getting caught out by the tide somewhere between Breaksea and Minehead, and spending about four or five hours reaching back and forth in thick rain, next to no visibility and uncomfortable seas. I wasn't adverse to trying it again, if only to see if we couldn't make a better job of it.
The general advice was to cast off the mooring on the falling tide in the morning, before we lost water in the inner harbour, make our way to just outside Ilfracombe and then drop the hook to wait at anchor until about two hours before low water, expected that afternoon a little after 1400. Two hours before low water, weigh anchor and set off, hugging the Devon coast close, punching the tide up-channel until it turned at low water, hopefully just shy of reaching Lynmouth. Then push off northeast and ride the big, chocolate coloured tidal escalator all the way back to Cardiff. I'd already established on our trip out that my crew didn't do waiting at anchor with any great degree of grace. Dad gets bored and Nik hasn't yet got used to the rocking of the boat when she's not actually underway.
With this in mind, and with lack of hardly any wind, after dropping our harbour mooring at high water around 0900, we set directly off with the engine chugging at a sedate 2000 revs, hugging the rocky cliffs close, never more than a cable's length out from shore. As the tide turned hard against us, staying in so close meant we found back-eddies aplenty to push us up and along our way, but around each headland invariably got thrown around a fair bit by the enthusiastic tidal races that were forming with a spring ebb now in full flow. We kept a sharp lookout for lobster pots, especially as the occasional headland generated a fine back-eddy for us to ride, but would also potentially make for a distinctly unwelcoming lee shore if the engine failed or the prop got tangled in a stray pot line.
But the scenery, especially scale of the cliffs so close in, was breath-taking; well worth the anxiety of the pot-watch and discomfort of the occasional battering we took to enjoy it.
The wind was very light, which undoubtedly helped through the various tidal races. The sun was a sometimes companion, but lovely and warm when it was out from behind the shelter of the cloud-scattered sky to keep us company.
We reached Lee Bay, just west of Lynmouth around 1200, three hours before low water; earlier than expected. Much less hindered by the adverse tide than I'd counted for, we'd covered 10 miles in around three hours. Beyond this point were the shallows and sandbanks off Lynmouth and then the serious tidal races of Foreland Point. I didn't fancy either with the tide still dropping hard. The sun was warm and bright overhead, so we picked a spot close in the bay where low water would still leave us with a couple of meters to float in, and dropped the anchor for lunch.
I mentioned the crew don't do waiting at anchor gracefully or with any great patience. It turns out that if you pick a warm sunny day, the shelter of a picture-postcard-perfect wooded bay and time it for a picnic lunch in the comfort of a sunny cockpit followed by a quiet snooze afterwards to let it digest at leisure, they do it just fine.
At 1415 we retrieved the anchor, hauled up the sails, set a course for the Welsh shore opposite with as deep a reach as we could go without collapsing the headsail and left the tranquillity of Lee Bay behind us. As the tide turned and we left the shelter of the North Devon coast astern, the wind built steadily to an enthusiastic F4, the bullying, quartering sea making hard work for the auto-helm but pushing the little yacht along at close to 5 knots through the water at times. With more south in the wind than expected, even once the tide turned and assisting us we couldn't set a course deep enough to lay any further east than the Nash Passage without sacrificing one or another of the sails. I briefly considered setting the pole and goose-winging them; it would've been the appropriate thing to do and not being able to otherwise sail any closer than about 30 degrees to downwind was frustrating. But by this point, the conditions had become quite lively, so I decided to opt for the quieter life of not frightening Dad by playing about on the foredeck and settled for a course that would see us make our way back up channel in a series of gybes.
We knew our Lydney friends were out there with us somewhere. We'd sighted sails that I reckoned to be Peter's Achilles 24 "Suomi" and had made radio contact with him and his crew Bill to confirm that they were somewhere a little ahead, having passed us whilst we were still napping in Lee Bay. They advised that Annabel and Tina aboard their 16' Wayfarer dinghy "Windlord" were somewhere a little behind us. A short while later, a little over half way across but still some miles off Aberthaw, as the emerald sea patchily returned to its natural, chocolate flavoured hue I spotted sails astern and slowly closing. The boat's sails were either goosed or she was flying a kite, hard to tell at the initial distance, so I couldn't at first believe it was Windlord. However, as they closed the gap it became obvious that was exactly who it was.
Closing with the northern shore, we gybed, and Windlord crossed our track some way astern, but sailing a much deeper course with their spinnaker aloft. They very soon overhauled us, the girls giving us a cheerful wave as they on sailed by. By the time we got back to Cardiff later that day, we would've clocked close to 50 miles of sailing ourselves over the course of that single passage from Ilfracombe to Cardiff. Windlord would've covered close to the same, albeit a little less with the advantage of their deeper sailing angle; but still a very creditable day's of sailing for two people in a small, open and unbalasted sailing dinghy. By the time they finished their week's cruise, Windlord, with Annabel and Tina living aboard, would have covered over 150 miles in straight-line distances from their home port in Lydney Harbour, down to Ilfracombe and back again.
Although they crept steadily ahead, we kept the little dinghy in sight for the rest of the trip, until they finally rounded Ranie Point and entered the Penarth Roads ahead of us. We gybed a couple more times, zig-zagging our way home, until a final gybe some distance off Barry let us just about lay Ranie point ourselves. The wind had stiffened considerably and the sea between Barry and Lavernock Spit had pushed up into its inevitably boisterous race. With a breaking sea on the stern quater and the wind now pushing up into the top end of a F5, I put an extra couple of rolls away on the headsail and relieved the auto-helm of its duty, taking over the helm myself. As a helmsman, the auto-helm has considerably more nerve than me (or more accurately, a simple, complete lack) but I'm much better at anticipating the swell. Calstar surged along, trying valiantly to surf her orcine form and weight along the front of each overtaking waves, before falling off its back to get picked up and surged along by the next.
We hit a shade over 6 knots through the water riding one of those waves off Sully Island. Hull speed, the the fastest I think our little boat will go; without, that is, attaching her to the towline of the Barry All Weather Lifeboat, which I'll add I'm in no keen rush to do again.
We finally turned around Ranie Point at 1918, after more than 45 minutes of tearing along on that final reach. Hardening up, we beat up the Penarth Roads, charging along heeled hard over, lee rail digging in, but the water was smooth in the shadow of the sheltering cliffs to windward and the boat felt stable and happy to be alive in my hands.
We caught up with Annabel and Tina in the Barrage, locking in at 1945, checked they had a tow to their intended berth in the Graving Docks from friends aboard "Kittiwake", another Lydney boat that had followed up from Ilfracombe in our wake and had locked in behind us. By 2005 we were comfortably back alongside our own berth in Penarth; Calstar was home.
Some basic raw figures for the day's sailing, mostly for my own interest:
Ilfracombe to Lee Bay (leisurely punching the tide with engine and headsail)
Underway: 03:13 hours
Average: 3.1 knots
Distance: 9.9 nautical miles
Lee Bay to Cardiff
Underway: 06:00 hours
Powered: 00:37 minutes
Average: 6.0 knots
Distance: 36.4 nautical miles
Ilfracombe to Cardiff
Underway: 09:13 hours
Powered: 04:15 hours
Distance: 46.3 nautical miles