Monday 30 July 2018

Laser: shades

Ben, my eldest son, is encamped at the Lake all this week running the Club's annual "Junior Week". As I left the Club yesterday evening, I jokingly remarked to a group of friends that were setting up camp, parents of some of the kids and instructors participating, that if any of the kids found my sunglasses I'd buy them an ice-cream.

A short while ago, just as I was about to log on to my favourite chandlery to order a replacement pair of shades, I received the above snap from Ben, with the question, "Are these yours?"

Damn right they are! Amazed and delighted.

Laser: be careful what you wish for

That feeling mid-gybe when you know it’s all just about to go horribly wrong:

Despite a fairly active lifestyle by most standards, I’m pretty certain I can’t do my age in push-ups, at least not in a single set. However, Sunday was a demonstration that I can certainly match my age with the number of capsizes I can recover from in a single race.

Okay, perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Or maybe I’m being a little unrealistically coy about my actual age, I am well out of my thirties now!

It was lively. Which was welcomed after the sunny drifts of the last couple of months or so. For various reasons, I almost always do well in drifting conditions, but I really do love hiking weather, when the wind is blowing hard and you’re fully stretched out over the side of the boat, battling to keep her flat and brute force your way up wind. Or the exhilaration of a stupidly fast plane downwind, all spray and adrenaline; the boat hums beneath you, every shift of your weight or twitch of tiller or sheet is amplified through the hull.

We got a lot of that yesterday. I also got so much water pushed up my nose when I got dragged behind the dinghy by my ankles after an especially violent broach to windward that the next day I’m pretty certain my brain is still swilling in its own puddle of lake water. Another, similarly violent broach in the second race ripped my sunglasses off my face, which makes them the second pair I’ve surrendered to the lake this year.  I’m going to have to start tying them on. Years of capsizing an Enterprise and I never lost a single pair. Three months of racing a Laser, and I’m two sets of shades down. Clearly the violence is of a different order with this new boat.

Eight boats started the first race, of which four of us were sailing Lasers. The other three all sensibly rigged their smaller Radial sails. I only have my full sized Standard sail, so was denied that option. It was a punishing race, and I struggled with my overpowered rig. Three of the eight starters retired, including one of the Radials, but of the survivors, I finished last, a good four minutes behind the Radial in front of me. It’s very clear the Standard rig doesn’t sail very fast when the boat spends most of her time on her side with her helm either in the water or perched on the dagger-board trying to right the boat again.

Back ashore the gusts were so boisterous I lashed the Laser to her trolley and laid her over on her side to keep her safe whilst I drank my tea and nursed my wounded pride. I very, very nearly capitulated and declined the second race, the conditions, if anything, appeared to be strengthening. But I couldn’t do it. Lacking a smaller Radial rig to reduce down to, I compromised by rigging the thicker mainsheet, then launched for the next race.

Only four of us chose to start; Jon in his Radial, Pete in his Comet, Mike in his kid’s old Topper (the kicker is currently bust on his own Laser) and me. I got a good start, and refreshed with tea and rested from our short break ashore, managed a very good first beat, making it first around the windward mark and bearing away without mishap. By the second beat I was pulling clean ahead and feeling very good with myself. A gybe around the green mark, then a long, fast reach back down the lake to yellow. The wind hit and the boat took off on her fastest point of sail, spray everywhere and me literally hanging off the transom with my feel tucked into the toe-straps just to keep the nose up and the boat flat.

The bottom mark closing in a mad rush, outhaul on, Cunningham on, hard on with the kicker, then try to reach forward to get the board down. With a violent flick, the little boat broached, flinging me head first into the water as she flipped on top of me, dragging me along with my foot tangled in the mainsheet.

I chased the boat down, righted her and then finally rounded the mark to begin my second lap. By now both Jon and Pete had caught up and passed me. Then I realised how much brighter the day had become. That was the capsize that cost me my second pair of sunglasses.

At just a shade over 150lbs wet, I'm sure the wisdom of trying to race a Laser Standard rig on a day when the highest recorded gust whilst we were out on the water was over 40 knots was ill conceived at best. But I have to admit, I loved every second of it, or at least the ones when I was pretty sure I wasn't drowning. The first race was an absolute car crash, but almost all the capsizes were a lack of finesse, and not the necessary power to control the boat.

The second race went better, but the heavy winds were still beating me. In the end I finished second, beating the Radial but losing on handicap to the Comet. But I didn't really deserve it, and only took Jon's second place from him when on the very last lap the rains came in and the wind pretty much stopped. I always do well in a drift. Another lap of that and I reckon I'd have caught Pete as well. Maybe.

And, other than the unfortunate loss of my shades, nothing broke. The little boat gave everything I asked of her and more. I just need a few more days like that to practice with. And maybe, just maybe, I ought to think about getting myself a Radial rig as well as a bit of string with which to tie my glasses on.

[photos courtesy of Ken Elsey and Geoff Cox]

Tuesday 24 July 2018

The liberation of Bambi

There is a cottage beside the track leading up to the level crossing from our office car park. The cottage has a lovely garden with a wrought iron gate that opens on to the track.

Yesterday lunchtime, I pulled up in front of the level crossing and was about to call for the gatekeeper to let us across, when my son, sat in the car next to me, mentioned that he was further back down the track, by this iron gate.

I get out of the car and wander back down the track, a little concerned at what we might find, and discover Issac, the duty gatekeeper, and a chap who apparently lives in the terrace houses at the top of the road, are huddled over a small deer that has ill advisedly tried to squeeze through the vertical bars of the gate and got itself stuck mid-way through.

Apparently, the almost human, terrified screams of the animal when she had first got caught had been loud enough to attract the attention of the man in his house at the top, he'd come down to see what the noise was and Issac had joined him. The deer was led on her side, hindquarters twisted and midriff chafed raw by her struggles, panting and very, very distressed. The guy with Issac had got a towel to put over the poor thing's head, and was doing a very fine job of keeping her calm. By now a couple of colleagues from the office, Kirk and Will, also on their way out to find some lunch, had joined us as well.

Trying to ease the deer out from between the bars, either forward or astern, only caused the creature to scream, panic and struggle, with the obvious risks of doing more harm to herself. Will and Issac tried to put pressure on the bars to pull them apart, but to little avail. The lady from the cottage on the other side of the track had called a wildlife rescue charity, but said they couldn't be with us for another four or five hours. You can't fault them for that, these things are inevitably voluntary, and folks have a living to make.

Will mused over the thought that if we'd had a crowbar or something, anything to put some decent leverage on the bars . . . . I grabbed the car jack from the boot of my car. It fitted snug between the verticals, deer height above the poor creature, and as I began to wind, effortlessly spread the bars apart.

Once it looked like there was sufficient breadth, we gently untangled the deer's hind legs from the gate, then tried to lift her, ever so carefully, desperately worried about what damage she might have caused herself in her struggles before any of us had reached her.

We needn't have worried. The moment she sensed freedom, she stood of her own accord, slipped through and bolted, tripping once in her haste, but standing straight back up again, clearly very, very mobile. She gave one long indignant and accusing glare back at us, her liberators, and then turned tail and bounded into the bushes.

The five of us were left with nothing but big grins, and a somewhat mangled wrought iron gate that I figured I'd now have to explain to our landlady.

I needn't have worried, and should've known better, having known the lady concerned for as long as I have; aside from immediate concern as to how the deer had fared once free, she assured us, "No worries about bending fences and gates, etc, animals come first. 'twas my Uncle's attitude that all living creatures were safe on his land  (including big spiders) and we are all the same."

Friday 20 July 2018

Laser: crispy new sail

I had been saving up my pennies for a new sail for the Laser. Losing my Garmin watch did make me pause to consider diverting the savings towards a replacement for that, but in the end it felt too much like rewarding myself for being stupid enough to lose the watch in the first place, so at the minute I'm timing my starts using a batted old Optimum Time racing watch that I superglued back together, and filling in Calstar's log from her instruments, rather than the convenience of having the numbers on my wrist.

With all my other competing commitments, I only race the Laser locally at Frampton at the moment, and the club rules allow the use of replica sails for club racing. You can get replica sails for about a third of the price of an official class association sail, so not being sure of how much of a difference a new sail was really going to make, I took that option and bought a replica Mk2 Standard Mainsail from Rooster. My thinking was that if the difference was marginal, I wouldn't begrudge the money as much, whereas if the improvement was significant, I could then splash out on an official, approved sail later; that is, if I ever do start travelling with the boat to the various class Opens and the like, which remains a possibility for next year.

The difference made by the new sail was huge and immediate. With the blocked high pressure that's given us such a glorious summer over the last couple of months, conditions have been almost uniformly light to drifting, so aside from hiking through a few gusts, and an unexpectedly more lively Wednesday evening last week (no gloves, rope burn from the sheets), I've not had the chance to try the sail out in a proper blow.

But in light airs  the new sail has made the little boat nigh uncatchable. Aside from, that is, when her helm screws everything up with his poor decision making or lack of any tactical awareness. Which still happens often enough.

There is still plenty of weed blighting the water at Frampton, and I suspect it's put a number of racers off over the summer, which is unfortunate. However, it seems to be fading back a little now, and there are definite open patches and channels through the worst of it, once you get used to knowing where to find them. At the most optimistic, you could just argue it's added another tactical dimension to the racing.

Aside from not sailing through the worst patches, even if it means sailing further, the main trick is to keep your rudder lifted to 45 degrees so the weed slides off, and to clear the centreboard religiously at every opportunity, even if that means momentarily stalling and slipping to leeward when you're trying to beat upwind. It's quicker that dragging a jungle around with you beneath your waterline.

Not sure how the 45 degree rudder angle is going to work if we actually do get a proper blow come through however. The weed till now has, by and large, mostly been manageable because of the light conditions that have been prevailing.

Freefall: rugby clubs and barn dances

It's not often the band gets asked to play a 70th birthday party, but that's just what we did last Friday. Dad says it's indicative of the band's shifting demographic. I think that's a little unfair on the birthday boy, Mike, who was clearly 70 going on 21.

The venue was the new grounds and club house of what I assume is an old rugby club, Dings Crusaders RFC in Frenchay, Bristol. The venue is so new that when I looked it up on Google Streetview to get an idea of where to find it, the building was only a steel framework of girders and the pitch hadn't yet been laid.

Needless to say, the venue looks very different now, and proved to be a lovely spot for a great party.

Saturday's venue was a little different, and the first time I've ever been able to drive the band's trailer actually up to the stage to unload, and then just leave the car and trailer there until we're done, really to load back in and head home.

It was a barn in Portway Farm in Upton-Saint-Leonards, a very pretty little village on the outskirts of Gloucester. The excuse was a fund-raiser for the local church. Regardless of our own personal convictions, we don't generally involve the band in religion or politics. However, as the curate of the church was Jim, an original member of the band and for many years our keyboard player until we had to sack him because he found God and couldn't gig on Sundays anymore. So we thought what the hell, it might be fun.

I jest our sacking him, of course. Though he really did end up having to skip gigs on Sundays before he finally left the band. Actually, I say "left the band", but he hasn't really left. He just doesn't turn up to gigs very often anymore. Or rehearsals ever. But then that last point he has in common with the rest of us these days.

Jim also happens to be my brother-in-law, so another reason we wanted to help out.

Complete aside, I first met my future wife on the day I met Jim; we were up in his room at his parents' house, admiring his keyboard and trying to persuade him to join our new band (ulterior motive: we couldn't find a drummer, and keyboards have built in drum machines, although that's not how we phrased the invite) when his sister burst into his room to have a go at him about something or other.

Not realising her little brother had guests, she was wearing nothing but a bath towel and a frown and was, for but the briefest of moments, quite taken aback. Then she rallied, as I was one day to discover Nikki always does, vented her complaint at Jim, glared accusingly at the rest of us and stormed back out.

Anyway, I digress.

Back to last Saturday night, barn dance, and a barn that the cows had only vacated two days earlier and who's recent presence still pungently lingered on the air. In the end, they sold over 350 tickets for Saturday, and the packed barn made for an absolutely wild night. Lord knows what the cattle, temporarily domiciled in the barn next door, made of it all, but we had an absolute blast.

Wednesday 11 July 2018

TSC: some mud but no weed

I spent this last weekend crewing for Phil, a friend from the club at Frampton, on his Cherub at Thornbury Sailing Club's annual regatta. The Cherub is a 12' dinghy with a big asymmetric spinnaker, twin trapeze for helm and crew complete with rails to stand out on, and not like anything I've ever sailed before. Home built by Phil and his wife out of carbon fibre, she's very fast, very lively and very, very quick to bite if mishandled.

The invitation to come sail with Phil at Thornbury was phrased along the lines of there being no weed but "some mud"; TSC is perched on the eastern banks of the Severn Estuary just above the old Severn Bridge, and indeed has no weed, but mud aplenty. It's my kind of mud though, and I've quite missed it.

To a humble lake sailor like myself, first sight of the Cherub was both exhilarating and intimidating. A twelve foot hull with a bowsprit that, when extended increases the length overall to eighteen feet; dagger-board, made out of carbon, and thus so deceptively light that when Phil handed it to me, I almost dropped it; the rudder, carbon as well, has a pair of wings to generate lift to reduce drag on the transom. She is a strange combination of the familiar and the alien. Jib and mainsail, nothing new there, but both sails are fully battened, and the main is pulled down the carbon fibre mast to reduce compression, and needs to be loaded into the luff track from the head of the mast. So the boat has to be rigged on her side.

Saturday was hot and steaming, pitiless blue sky and very little wind, so it was almost a relief when, as we were launching, I accidentally stepped off the end of slip, hidden in knee deep, heavily silted water, and went for an inadvertent swim.

Getting out of the pill was a tricky affair in such light conditions, as without flow over the foils we had very little steerage, and without wind in the sails the boat was exceptionally tippy. Once into open water, we didn't have enough flow over the rudder for the hydrofoil to generate any lift, so to assist the trim I spend my time when we beating perched up on the very narrow foredeck.

Unlike the double-handers I'm used to sailing, on the Cherub, the centre mainsheet runs straight to the hand from the boom, and is the responsibility of the crew to trim when sailing upwind whilst the helm steers and balances the boat as necessary off the trapeze, unless the wind fills in, at which point the crew joins him out on the trapeze as well. This double trapezing wasn't a feature of Saturday's sailing.

Off wind, the crew gets to hand the mainsheet to the helm and then hoist and play the big asymmetric spinnaker. In light conditions, the helm comes in off the wire, and the crew hooks on and hikes out to balance the boat. The boat hadn't been sailed since last September, and there was some sort of tangle in the spinnaker hoist that hadn't revealed itself when we tested the hoist ashore. This complicated things, but the light conditions mean we were still able to nurse the pole out and get the kite up without major mishap, though the tack didn't set properly to the end of the pole.

Our first capsize came on our second gybe. I missed Phil's warning that we were going, and unfamiliar with the mechanism and technique, fumbled swinging back in and unhooking. Before I could warn Phil of my fumble the boom was across, I was hung up on the leeward side of the boat and the whole thing came over on top of me.

The first race was abandoned due to lack of wind, most the fleet unable to make way against the tide to make the windward mark. The wind filled in a little for a second race, although there was some chaos and confusion on the start line as the race officers changed the course, and the flags on the race hut ashore were standing away from us in the onshore wind and so unreadable. Having abandoned the first race, the race committee then tried for a third, despite being late on the tide.

The wind was much better as sea breeze began to fill in from down-channel, but by the end of the race the water was just on the end of the slip, which made recovering the fleet a muddy, strenuous affair. Both safety boats were moored up in the pill over night as it was too late to haul them out.

Sunday was supposed to be better wind, but although we could see breeze on the water both up channel and down, the waters off Oldbury Pill were flat and still to begin with. It seemed the north easterly gradient from up channel was pushing against a building sea breeze trying to push up from down channel, and TSC was in the no man's land bang in the middle of it.

A judicious delay to the start of the first race however meant the wind was beginning to fill by the time we launched, the sea breeze failing and the forecast north easterly prevailing as the afternoon wore on. As the wind strengthened, the Cherub sprung to life. When rigging, Phil had identified and fixed the tangle that had been causing us Saturday's trouble with the spinnaker halyard, so hoists and drops were now simple. We did have a near miss on one hoist when I forgot to hand the mainsheet to Phil first, and dropped it. The boat healed violently as the main depowered, the windward rail going under before Phil and I leapt to the leeward side to flatten the boat and I quickly pulled the mainsheet back in.

Like getting hung up on the leeward trapeze, that's the sort of mistake you don't make again.

With the wind up and everything working, I was up on the rail and hanging out off the wire with pretty much every reach, and one long beat in the second and final race put enough pressure into the sail to have us both up on the trapeze and hanging out to keep the boat flat.

It was stupidly good fun.

Thornbury is a lovely club on a gorgeous stretch of water, although I do understand the silt laden brutality of the viciously tidal Severn Estuary is something of an acquired taste and so perhaps not for some. Dad's okay with the tides and silt, as long as it's in the water, but he can't manage with the mud.

It's half an hour down the motorway from home and I've visited there on a number of occasions now, but it occurs to me that this is the first time I've actually sailed from there. Previous visits have been for powerboat training, when I did a tidal conversion for my existing powerboat ticket, or the time before that when I found myself relegated to the safety boat because I chose the week of FOSSC's second cruise up to Frampton Pill to break my foot.

c. Sept 2010
The temptation to move there is quite the lure, especially with Frampton so choked up with weed at the moment. Access to the cruising grounds of the Severn Estuary and the Bristol Channel beyond, Lydney and Sharpness less than an hour up channel, tides permitting. A competitive and very active racing fleet, tide and waves and long, long stretches of open water.

Except Frampton is home from home. And ever so convenient for an evening's sail after work. And I really can't afford the commitment of a second club. So not this year, I guess.

Tuesday 10 July 2018

FOSSC: a chemistry lesson

The lake at Frampton is now somewhat blighted by weed. I say somewhat, but in the fifteen years I've been sailing there, I've never seen it so bad. It's an accumulation of unintended consequences, I think.

A few years ago, we had a very dry summer followed by an unusually dry winter which saw the water levels in the lake, fed by water table, drop to an unprecedented low. We then had an exceptionally wet spring, the lake refilled and then overflowed, flooding out and into the village.

c. Feb 2013
c. Feb 2013
As I understand it, since then, the village has, understandably, been very keen on the sluice that relieves excess water levels from the lake being set at a level that minimises the chance of this ever happening again.

Last year, as the water levels dropped across spring and into summer, the lake was hit with blooms of blue-green algae. Nasty stuff, really upsets the system if you ingest water tainted with it, and is potentially fatal to dogs; walking around the 50 acre lake is a favourite with dog walkers, for obvious reasons. We're not allowed to swim in the lake, but dogs are, lucky things, and do frequently.

This spring, the Club Committee deployed bales of barley straw around the margins of the lake. The stuff evidently suppresses blue-green algae.

Now I'm neither a chemist nor a biologist, but I do keep fish so have a layman's understanding of the nitrogen cycle. Essentially, organic matter breaks down into nasty ammonia, friendly bacteria convert the ammonia into less toxic nitrite, and even more friendly bacteria convert the nitrite into much, much less harmful nitrogen. In a fish tank, this is the process you essentially replicate in your filter. An aquarium filter isn't really about removing physical detritus, but is instead a pretty neat chemistry experiment that replicates a very cool natural process.

The point of all this, aside from meaning fish don't ultimately poison themselves in their own waste, is that nitrogen is food for plants, a major component of chlorophyll which, of course, is the green stuff plants use to turn sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen. This is one of the fundamental processes that gives us life on Earth. In a fish tank, the aquarium plants are typically insufficient to use up all of the nitrogen generated by the fish waste, so in addition to or instead of growing plants in the tank, you control the nitrogen levels through frequent, partial water changes. But I digress.

My guess is that the barley straw rotted down, sorting out the blue green algae problem exactly as hoped. As a consequence we got crystal clear waters and a huge nitrogen dump. Lots of light, lots of food equals very little algae but loads and loads of weed.

Natural England, the government quango responsible for such things, apparently thinks this is great. Frampton Town Lake is designated an SSSI, or "Site of Special Scientific Interest" and the weed is great for biodiversity, of interest in itself plus gives lots of cover for fish fry and prey fish, so they should flourish too.

I should add that the lake isn't natural for all of Natural England's interest. It's an old gravel pit; gravel dug from here was, I believe, used to build the motorway and old Severn Bridge.

Not so good for dinghy sailors. Hitting the weed is akin to running aground on a mud bank, and when racing at Frampton now, navigating a path through the weed is, I guess, not dissimilar to picking the quickest route through the waves when racing at sea. Although I'd have to say waves are distinctly more fun.

It's not so bad in the Laser, at least not in the light, drifting conditions we've had in recent weeks. The Laser's rudder is small and under-powered, so if you cant it at an angle of less than 45 degrees of the vertical, the weed just slides off. Very manageable in light winds, you just have to remember to avoid the worst clumps of weed, clear the dagger board frequently, and pray no sudden, unexpected gust blows through because with your rudder offset, the extra weather-helm will either break something or knock you over.

Some of the other designs of boat aren't so fortunate however. Again, centreboards and dagger-boards aren't really too much of an issue, but if your rudder can't accommodate you sailing with it offset from vertical, then it becomes a nightmare.

Of course, if we get an especially lively day, the rudder's going to have to go back to vertical. I don't know how that's going to play out with the weed.

I've heard rumour that the Sailing Committee have considered suspending racing. It's all a bit of a worry. In the meantime we're still race, and another balmy drift is forecast for Wednesday evening. I'll be there, of course.

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Calstar: the Yealm

Saturday night's gig cancelled. I've no idea what it is about this year. That's the fourth cancellation we've had at little notice, and for circumstances completely outside of our control. On the other hand, with 43 gigs in the book for 2018 even after the cancellations, I should probably be grateful for the break.

Still, even with the cancellation I couldn't get down to Plymouth until late Saturday evening due to other commitments (had to go to church; the things you do for family!) At the time I thought it a pity, as the weather didn't look half so good on the Sunday as it did the Saturday, but as Dad and I both had Monday off work, we could still make the best of it.

Waking up Sunday morning aboard Calstar in QAB, the grim forecast seemed to be delivering as promised. The rigging was rattling in the wind, and the rain was pelting down. However, by late afternoon rain and wind eased, so we cast off and sailed around to the Yealm.

By the time we'd got around the Mewstones, the wind, still in the northeast, had freshened again, but the sky had unexpectedly cleared and the sun had come out.

A couple of hours of good sailing covered the 6 or so miles around the corner and into the Yealm. The pilotage to enter the river is a little bit involved, and not best advised at bottom of a spring tide as we did it, even if your boat only draws a little less than a meter.

We found our way on to the first of the two visitors pontoons without mishap however, although there was a somewhat intense moment whilst picking our way through the festoon of moored boats where we lost the channel and the depth under our keels dropped away to a little under half a meter before we found our way back to the channel again.

The forecast had suggested more heavy showers for the evening, but we saw nothing but blue sky. The Yealm is ever so sheltered once your in it by high sided, tree-shrouded river banks. Strangely peaceful despite the obvious popularity of the place.

We went ashore and walked around to the village of Noss Mayo to have a pint in the Ship Inn that afternoon, and then later on once the tide had come back in, took the tender up the Newton Arm to land back on the steps of the same pub for supper.

The following morning, the sunshine held for a pleasant sail back to Plymouth; leaving the river at high water is decidedly easier than entering at low. We shall certainly be back.