Sunday, 10 September 2017

Calstar: Holms Race 2017

As I think I mentioned earlier, the forecast for Saturday 9th September in the upper reaches of the Bristol Channel was grim at the beginning of the week; Force 5 gusting 7. A spring tide running out against that would add an extra 6 to 7 knots to whatever you already had.

It wasn't looking too promising.

But as the weekend approached, the forecast for the really nasty stuff pushed back to Sunday and Monday, leaving us with a relatively more moderate F4 to 5 expected for Saturday afternoon. 20 knots out in the Bristol Channel isn't to be taken lightly, but we've managed worse.

The last time we sailed the race in 2015, we took 21st place out of 39 boats finishing (so not counting the retirements, a couple of which were in quite dramatic style), completing the 42 nautical mile course in 6 hours and 11 minutes. My only real ambition for the race this year was to not break anything and improve on that.

Saturday morning's HW was 0955 in Portishead, the start-line opened from 1100. The Holms Race is an unusual format. A simple course: the start-line is between the Portishead Yacht & Sailing Club in Kilkenny Bay and the southern tip of Denny Island, the North West Elbow cardinal mark nine miles down channel is taken to port, the island of Flat Holm to port, the island of Steep Holm to port, then back up to North West Elbow again but this time to starboard and finally back to cross the finish line off the PYSC clubhouse in Kilkenny bay.

All the boats competing pick their own start time from any time after the start-line opens until it closes at low water. The idea is to time your start to the performance of your particular boat so that you reach Flat Holm at low water, cross between the two islands in relative slack, then pick up the flood as you turn Steep Holm.

Low water Flat Holm was 1615. Back in 2015, in similar conditions to the forecast, it took us 3 hours 15 minutes to cover the 16nm down to Flat Holm. Being one of the slowest boats in the fleet, we were one of the first to start, but arrived a little early at the island so didn't make the best of the tide.

The risk, of course, is if you leave your start too late you won't get to Flat Holm before the tide turns. Which means you won't get to Flat Holm.

I had my mind settled on a 1300 start. This year, contrary to being one of the first boats to start, it had become obvious that a good number of the 54 boats that had entered this year were planning to start earlier, some of them clearly bigger and thus faster than us. I have to admit, the belated realisation left me anxious that I might've miscalculated something. But the lock had been booked, we were committed.

We locked out at 1230, the sun shining, the winds feeling light in the shelter of the headland. The lock was packed, and once down opened to disgorge us out in to the shelter of an even more packed Portishead Hole. We picked our way out through the crowd, intending to make our way direct to the start-line and get on with it.

Looking over the breakwater, the sea looked relatively benign. I'd pulled two reefs into the main in expectation of a blow, but thought, briefly, about shaking them out. Then I heard Bristol VTS report over the VHF to some outbound shipping that the wind-speed out there was 18 knots, so decided to leave the reefs in a while longer.

The sky down channel looked black and angry.

We'd barely left the shelter of the wall and entered the Kings Road, and were getting ourselves ready to go head to wind and put the sail up when the squall hit.

Slamming us broadside, the little yacht heeled to 20 degrees or more under her still bare poles, Dad struggling to bring the nose up into the wind, cold rain hammering down in drops as big as golf balls, smearing his prescription sun-glasses and effectively blinding Dad at the helm.

I briefly toyed with the idea of heading back in, but kept the thought to myself, not wanting to even tempt Dad with the thought that doing so might even be possible.

Dad gunned the throttle to bring the bow up into the wind, then cut it back, holding it there as much through guess work as judgement. I hauled up the main, both reefs firmly in, and pulled the kicker on tight then, as Dad guided the boat off the wind, pulled the genoa out until it was just shy of the two dots on the foot that marked the second reef.

The sails filling, Calstar heeled hard over to the wind as we stilled the engine and began our beat down to the start-line, a couple of boats in front of us and one behind. Misery likes company; the sky was as black as sin, visibility grim, and silt laden seas were breaking over Calstar's bows as she ploughed through the churn of wind over tide.

We called up Race Control on the VHF to advise them of our sail number and that we were approaching the line. They replied that visibility was so poor that they were having trouble working out who was who and asked us to call again as we crossed.

We went over the line close-hauled on a starboard tack, cutting 4 knots through the water and close to 9 over the ground. With the hood up, we at least had some shelter from the vicious downpour of the rain. The squall began to ease, and with it the sea. We slowly gained on one of the twos boat ahead, which was a little unexpected but not unwelcome. Closing with the shore, we tacked to get out into deeper water and the faster flow and, having done so, tacked back again.

Sometime in all of this, at first quite unnoticed by me, the rain had stopped and sky had cleared, although the turgid darkness in the sky further down channel suggested more might be coming our way. But for the moment, things were looking up. The wind was blowing hard, but the seas had eased, and the sun was breaking through.

Things were looking up, at least in our little bit of sea.

We stood in towards Clevedon until we began to lose the tidal flow then tacked on to port to stand out towards Middle Ground. This put us straight in the path of another yacht closing from astern on starboard. I held course for a moment or two thinking we'd clear ahead, but couldn't be sure so tacked back, waiting for the other boat to tack off themselves, which they did soon enough leaving us free to tack again ourselves and push out from the shore to find the best flow of the tide.

The darkened sky down channel cleared ahead, instead pushing in over the Somerset shore and leaving us happily alone. The wind strength built and eased; we kept both reefs in the main but eased rolls out of the headsail as it dropped and pulled them back in as it hammered us again, keeping Calstar on her apparent sweet spot of 20 degrees heel, and cutting through the water at between 4 and 4.5 knots.

Leaving North West Elbow some way distant to port, it became pretty obvious we were going to be too early on the tide. But not as early as some. There was a scattering of boats around us, but a big clutch of sails ahead, already at the Holms far too early and another mass some way behind; the faster, later starters. The sea was intemperate, sometimes relatively slight and at other times eager to throw us around

Still over the deeper part of the channel looking for the fastest water it became obvious we were not going to lay Flat Holm. So as we passed the Monkstone Light we tacked to try and get up to the layline. Close-hauled and hard to the wind, the port tack set us slightly against the tide, our speed over the ground dropping from over 8 knots to less than 4, a slow, painful progress so we held it only for so long as we though we'd need to before tacking back onto starboard.

As we closed with Flat Holm the lead boats in the fast fleet astern began to catch up and pass us. Another short take to be certain we'd clear the rocky shallows, then tacked back to lay the holm.

We rounded the island at 1532, moving at 4.2 knots through the water, 6.8 knots over the ground and with 19.8 nautical miles behind us as we bore away to cross the gap to Steep Holm. Arriving 43 minutes earlier than I'd aimed for, it wasn't perfect but was tolerable, and with the front runners of the serious racers now catching us up, I was happy we'd timed it okay, with only a little bit of tide still left to ebb.

The short crossing over to Steep Holm was lively. A beam reach, I eased a little of the genoa out but soon regretted it as we cleared the tidal lee of Flat Holm and hit the confused race between the islands that forms past the Mackenzie Shoal. It smoothed a little past Holm Middle and the deep water of the main channel, but the race off Rudder Rock on the western tip of Steep Holm was in fine form and gave us an enthusiastic battering as we pushed on into it, our little boat charging along at a good five knots but taking the confused sea abeam.

We'd largely left the steerage to the trusty autohelm for the beat down, but I'd now taken charge of the tiller myself since bearing away around the first island. The Raymarine is a fantastic gadget, as good as a second pair of hands, but it has its limitations. Reading ahead the thrust and pull of the sea abaft and abeam is one of them, especially with a crowd of other boats about us to account for as well

We rounded Steep Holm at 1600, gybing onto port, and set off on the return leg, punching about a knot of foul tide, but the ebb fast fading now with low water on this side of the channel expected for 1610. As we cleared the gravel spit on the eastern end of the holm we hardened up a little to lay North West Elbow again.

By now the later starters were catching up, crowding around us or, for the much faster boats, pushing past. To windward of us, in a direct echo of the last time we were here in 2015, was a yacht called "White Spirit" of Portishead Cruising Club.

White Spirit is a boat of similar shape, size and vintage to Calstar. I think she's a Bavaria 26, although I might be wrong. And she's a hardened, veteran, proven Bristol Channel racer. In 2015 she placed in the top three of the Holms race; I think a Sonata called "Fantasy" took first place from her. I recall there was some complication over application forms lost, originally assumed to be not submitted that caused some confusion in the lead places.

In 2015, White Spirit caught us at Steep Holm, slowly pulled away from us towards North West Elbow, then hoisted her kite and disappeared ahead. As the faster boats screamed by, White Spirit again kept us company for the leg back to the next mark.

It was, at first, a fairly deep reach with most of the fleet sailing high as if they knew something I didn't, so I kept with them, but let them mostly pass well clear to windward. The sea state smoothed as Steep Holm fell astern, so I returned the tiller to the autohelm and, with the wind abaft and now with the tide, let out the full genoa, but kept the double reef in the main.

Our speed increased as the flood tide began to take a grip in earnest. Ahead I could see boats crabbing up. As the tide bit and the miles flowed away beneath us, the wind was veering, heading us and turning a comfortable reach into a lively fetch as we all converged onto the next mark. As we approached North West Elbow we were on a close reach. I was back on the helm and the rolls were back in the genoa; we were doing 4.9 knots through the water and 8.4 over the ground, 32.6 miles now behind us.

And, just like 2015, I was both beginning to feel quite dehydrated and really needing to pee, but didn't dare leave the helm for the moment.

The hard work for North West Elbow proved worth it. As we bore away to lay the finish line, the lifting of the wind meant our course was back to a beam reach, with none of the genoa collapsing, "should I wing it out with the pole or reach from gybe to gybe" anxiety that a broad reach would have brought. It also meant that nobody else got to use their kite, so we kept up with the pack for the rest of the way home, only falling out the back of it in the last few minutes, in company still with White Spirit.

We crossed the finish line at 1827, 5 hours and 28 minutes after we'd started, and a good improvement over the time of our previous race, giving us a respectable 20th place out of the 54 boats that started. There were 10 retirements, presumably boats that had left their start too late and not made Flat Holm on the tide.

Although our time was much improved, our position only improved by a single place. For some reason our handicap has dropped from the last time we sailed. In 2015 it was 1159, whereas this year it took quite a drop to be set at a much less generous 1142. I don't pretend to understand the technicalities of the system. The only change to the boat has been the addition of a whisper pole; that might be the cause of the difference? If so, it's almost amusing, because I very rarely use it and we didn't get the slightest chance to even consider using it this year.

So I guess the lesson from that would be to lose the pole next year. If it mattered. On the rare occasion we race Calstar, we're only ever really racing ourselves. I'm pleased with the position, pleased with the way we handled the boat and especially pleased with the improvement we made on our overall time compared to the 6 hours and 10 minutes of last time.

It took a couple of hours to get back into the marina at Portishead, 31 other boats ahead of us. The lock was packed. We waited it out at anchor just outside the Portishead Hole; the wind had dropped as the race finished, the sea was calm and we were treated to a gorgeous sunset out over the Bristol Channel.

Holms Race 2017 - 41.7nm - 05:28 hrs

Today, the forecast was for up to 33 knots out of the southwest.

We left Calstar safe and snug on the berth in Portishead and drove home. We'll take her back to Cardiff and her own home in Penarth when things are a little bit calmer again next weekend.


Anonymous said...

Great stuff Bill, congratulations on a fantastic result!


tatali0n said...

Thanks Huw, really enjoyed it. Things learned, things to improve on for next time, but quietly pleased with how it all went. Hope Milford Haven is treating Karisma and your family well?