Monday, 6 September 2021

Calstar: Holms Race 2021

This last Saturday was the annual Holms Race organised by Portishead Cruising Club. With Calstar now based back in Portishead, I really couldn't resist joining in. We've sailed it three times before, twice with Calstar in 2015 and 2017 and the last time aboard our friend Tom's boat "Sundance" in 2019.

I guess there must be something about odd numbered years. To explain what it's all about, from PCC's website, as they describe it as clearly as I possibly could:

The Holms race is the most high profile event in the club calendar with a typical entry of over 50 boats from clubs around the Bristol Channel.

It is held in late August or early September and is a down tide race starting and finishing off Portishead, with a course of NW Elbow to port, Flat Holm to Port, Steep Holm to port, NW Elbow to starboard and finish.

Competitors choose their own start time from 2 hours after high water based on the tidal streams and the wind with the aim of passing between the Holms at slack water.

The elapsed time taken is corrected for open handicap and with a tidal correction to correct for the natural advantage for slower handicap boats on down tide races.

The 2015 race was a particularly brutal baptism by fire, one boat losing her mast, another shredding her mainsail and a third beaching herself on the mudbank outside Portishead before she could even start. We placed 21st out of the 39 boats that managed to finish. There were more than 60 entries. A dozen or so were sensible enough not to even try to start.

The 2017 race was lively, but not quite as bad. We finished 20th out of the fleet of the 54 boats that made the start line. About ten of them failed to finish the course, albeit none for reasons as dramatic as the demasting, grounding or shredded sails of 2015.

2019 was a drift, and I screwed up the navigation badly, misjudging the tide and the lack of wind so we missed the first mark of the course, the cardinal buoy North West Elbow. As our skipper Tom observed at the time, we took it correctly to port, but were sadly travelling backwards with the tide on the wrong side of it at the time. 

With no chance of getting back against the strong ebb to round it correctly, our race was in default before it had hardly begun, and the rest of the day relegated to a pleasant Bristol Channel cruise until the tide turned around to carry us back home.

Saturday's forecast was for about 10 knots but, uncharacteristically, from the north east. That would turn the down channel leg into a 16 mile run. It sounds comfortable, but a Bristol Channel tide running with the wind can turn a light breeze into a listless drift. As we'd discovered to our cost back in 2019.

High water off Portishead this year was due 0608, but only a mere 9.9m as we were just coming off neaps. The start gate opened at 0800, so we could pick our start for any time after that. The down channel leg to Flat Holm is 16 nautical miles, and the idea, as the club's website states, is to get there for local low water, which was expected for 1144.

Calstar's average cruising speed under sail is around 4 knots. Get the tide right, and you can improve a little on that. Get the Bristol Channel tides right and you can improve a little more. But in the week leading up to the race, as the forecast settled out, I was growing increasingly paranoid about repeating our mistake of 2019, and ending up in a drift that failed to make NW Elbow, or perhaps less humiliatingly, didn't make Flat Holm before the tide turned and washed us all the way back home.

Early last week, my mind was settling out on a cautious 0830 start, maybe even 0800 if the forecast showed the wind easing even further as the week wore on. The Saturday before the race we booked the lock out for 0730 to keep our options open.

Around the middle of last week, against my usual instincts, I capitulated to some heavy, directed advertising on social media, and took a look at an app called savvy navvy. At first glance I thought it was a replacement or competition for Navionics, which is the chart plotter app Dad favours on his iPad. I prefer to use the raster charts supplied by a company called VisitMyHarbour using an Android app called Marine Navigator, though I did have a subscription to Navionics as a backup that had just expired (and as I never used it, had no intention to renew)

It turns out that savvy navvy isn't really a chart plotter, or if it is, it doesn't really compete with either mine or Dad's favourites on that score. What it is however is an excellent passage planning tool. You give it your boat's specs, say whether or not you're willing to use the engine, drop your waypoints on the chart, tell it to plot, and it works out your course against the tide and weather forecast and tells you how long the passage is going to take. 

Which is sweet, as it takes into account wind and tide strength and direction providing for the best course to steer. It then lets you set your intended departure date and time, and recalculates everything from this point, which shows you the difference the tide and weather make on your passage time dependent upon when you depart.

Which is exceptionally handy when your passage planning consists of lots of big tides and some very serious tidal gates. And, sat behind my desk in the middle of last week, it suggested that, whatever my misgivings, I was on course to make a very big mistake in leaving too close to the start line opening at 0800 on Saturday morning. In fact, setting the course and then varying the start times across the morning suggested the following:

Low water at Flat Holm was expected for 1144, but the tidal flow, which the savvy navvy web app showed very nicely, didn't actually turn foul for another hour after that. Which is all stuff I already knew from the actual paper charts, but seeing it so visually illustrated on screen was a real help.

Unfortunately, as the week progressed, on Thursday I tried recalculating the course with the app using the more up to date weather forecast, and the Bristol Channel won; the app had a kind of soft crash, repeatedly wiping my course every time I asked it to plot.

I raised the issue with their support (and it has to be said they've been ever so helpful since). But in any case, it had already given me the information I needed.

Anyway, enough of the prelude.

Dad and I headed down to the boat Friday evening, had supper at the local pub, and then a relatively early night set for an early start Saturday. At 0630 the following morning I met my friend Michele Inversi in the pub car park and walked him down to the boat. Mick sail a Scorpion at South Cerney Sailing Club and had mentioned an interest in coming out to sail with us on Calstar some time. The Holms Race seemed like the perfect opportunity.

We cast off at 0710 beneath a clear blue sky and a gently warming day. The lock was predictably busy, with seven of us crammed in. The gates opened onto the Bristol Channel to reveal a small flotilla of boats already outside, either waiting at anchor, moored loosely to the breakwater wall or loitering under power and stemming the tide.

We motored out, picking our way through the throng, and once outside the Hole clear of the mud bank, followed the shoreline a short way up channel before dropping the anchor in about 5m of water. Dad put the kettle on, lit the stove and we idled away the time before our departure with black tea and bacon sarnies.

The start line opened at 0800, some of the keener vessels began to prepare, and before long the VHF crackled with crews identifying themselves to the race committee ashore at Battery Point and announcing their intentions to start. 

We continued to sit tight, watching the colourful blossoming of spinnakers and cruising chutes as the departing vessels made their way down channel. Around 0910 we started the engine and weighed anchor. It came up easily from the soft mud, and Dad at the helm picked his way through the field of boats still at rest as I hauled up the mainsail into the face of a gentle breeze.

We turned down channel towards the line, stilling the engine. The headsail collapsed in the shadow of the main as we settled onto our course, so Mick and I pushed it out on a goosewing with the whisker pole. We didn't have a pole in the 2015 race, when it would've been very handy for the final leg back. We carried it in 2017 and although carrying it cost us 17 points on our handicap we never had the chance to deploy it because of the wind direction. 

This time it was definitely going to earn it's keep.

We called up Race Control on the VHF to announce our approach and intention to cross the start line in the company of a handful of other boats and at 0929 and 31 seconds we were over and finally racing.

For all that it was a race, it was gentle, leisurely sailing. Blue sky, flat sea, and according to the anemometer in my hand, a mere whisper of 3.5 knots of apparent wind from astern at deck level. Across the first stretch down to Clevedon and the narrows of the Bristol Deep we were continuously passed by a stream of sleeker, faster racing machines, their kites and asymmetrics lending the day a glorious bouquet of colour.

Seeing them all go by so soon was actually reassuring, except for the nagging doubt that if they'd timed the tide right then I'd have left it too late and would get shut out by the tide at Flat Holm. We dropped the pole and gybed the headsail as we approached Clevedon, staying over the deepest water and strongest tide, settling onto a broad starboard reach that promised to take us around the right side of NW Elbow this year. I sailed intentionally high just to be sure though. Our speed over ground was just shy of 6 knots.

We rounded NW Elbow at 1055, a couple of the faster boys streaking past on the inside under the gorgeous bloom of their asymmetrics. As we bore away onto a dead run to hold to the deep water, the headsail collapsed so Mick and I poled it out on to a goosewing to starboard again. The horizon astern was pebble-dashed with a riot of spinnakers as the bigger, faster boats chased us down.

An hour later and we were still goosed and on our final approach to Flat Holm. The sky remained warm and blue, the breeze astern beginning to freshen and the boat still pushing 5 knots or more over the ground. Most of the fleet were now ahead. We could see them stacking up between the Holms, with the front boats just emerging from the other side of Steep Holm to try beating their way back up channel but going nowhere fast against the still ebbing tide.

The Holms are beautiful, especially in warm sun and easy weather. Verdant, rugged and scarred, beaten by the relentless, elemental fury of the Bristol Channel but immobile and eternally defiant. They are like gatekeepers to my home sailing ground and gateway to the world outside, and I find myself continuously orientating myself relative to them when I'm within their sight, whether on shore or at sea.

We gybed under Flat Holm at 1210, and found our boat momentarily disorientated in the lee, bereft of both both wind and tide. We edged our way over the shallows and out in to the deep channel again above the Makenzie Shoal. The tide was ambivalent and with 2 miles to cover to reach Steep Holm before it turned, I was anxious not to get caught and washed back up in what felt like treacherously light winds that had, clear of the island, fallen astern onto our port quarter.

We sailed as deep as we could on a port reach without the headsail collapsing, the course suggesting it would just clear Rudder Rock on the western end of Steep Holm. Our speed sluggish at first, but as we left the deep water channel between the islands it picked back up and our course held good, the tide progressively lessening it's hold on us.

At 1240 we were abreast of Rudder Rock off the western tail of Steep Holm and safely across. In the lee of the tall island and too close to the shore, the wind stopped. We could see a sheer line ahead with surface turbulence suggesting more wind and, in the grip of its confusion, a boat ahead of us. We watched as their sails collapsed and then bellowed again, the boat doing a full 360° complete with a tack and a gybe before the flow took them out from the shadow of the island and they settled gratefully into clearer air.

We followed, using their own temporary misfortune as a guide to what was coming down the line for us. I took the tiller, the auto helm completely baffled, and hand on mainsheet, steered up on the fickle breeze, close hauled, hardening up and bearing away with the little way we carried; anything to tease the boat to keep her moving.

As we came out of the shadow of Steep Holm, the flood tide churned the sea against the breeze as it bit, and we went from becalmed in the lee to close hauled and shouldering through a short, sharp, foaming chop with 30° of heel. I played the main to keep the little boat happily on her feet until we were well clear of the eastern point of the Holm and the gravel spit that extends beyond it, and then we tacked. 

By 1300 we were clear of the Holms and on our way back via NW Elbow. Although we still had a handful of other boats for company, we could see most of the fleet pulling ahead into the distance now; most seemed to be holding a starboard fetch far out towards the Welsh shore before tacking to lay the mark. 

We settled onto our beat back out in to the deep water. The wind was fresh, so we put a roll into the headsail to stiffen the boat up and stop her fighting the helm quite so much. It reduced the heel back down to a steady 20°, but didn't seem to touch our speed over the ground, the little boat simply surging forward as the gusts hit rather than fighting the helm to round up.

We picked a course upwind to keep us in the deepest water and strongest tide, pretty much reversing the track we'd previously run down on our way out. With Mick and Dad to help with the sheet handling, tacking was easy, for me at least, so I kept them busy at it. And neither seemed to mind.

By the time we were passing NW Elbow again, the wind had eased a little, though the tide was now in full spate. We shook the roll out of the headsail and carried on up the beat under full canvas. The race off Clevedon was quiet today in the light tide, the only complication being a large freighter outbound from Royal Portbury Docks, but the timing was unusually good and our course took us inshore as she steamed down channel and past us, before we tacked astern of the ship and beat back out to the deeper water with no interruption to our intended route.

We crossed the finish line 32 seconds past 1624, just behind a handful of other boats completing the course. Out of the fleet of 46 there were only about 3 other boats behind us yet to finish. As we started the engine and dropped our sails, we could hear the lock having a busy time of it getting everybody back into the marina. We called up to ask for a place, and were told we were number 32.

However, by the time we turned into the Hole, most of the early finishers had already locked in, so we only had to wait half an hour or so for the lock ahead of us to clear before our turn came around.

By 1738 we were back alongside our berth in Portishead, our sailing done; 42.5nm left in our wake, and 9 hours and 18 minutes from slipping our lines to coming back alongside. More than an hour of that was spent at anchor sipping tea and eating Dad's bacon sarnies though. It's a brutal life, this racing lark.

Because of a computer crash, the results were delayed, so we had to wait until they were published online before we could see how we'd done. But it had felt good. All the timings had worked out, Mick and Dad crewing had made my life very easy for the beat back up channel and I felt we'd picked the best course we could to make best use of the small tide. 

And, whilst it arguably made little difference to the boat speed downwind, Mick's company had been a pleasure and, upwind, he had provided an extra body to flatten the boat and a practiced pair of hands to make the tacks fast, clean and easy. He's very welcome back aboard any time.

So I felt fairly sanguine about the result. We'd sailed well. The savvy navvy modelling had suggested a passage time of 07:12 for an 0930 start and we'd managed it in 06:55. For all the inconvenience of the app crashing, I have to say I was very impressed with it for getting the plot so close and saving me from an unfortunately premature start.

I figured something in the top 20 would be nice, especially if it was an improvement on our 2015 and 2017 results.

On Sunday evening the results were published. We took 11th place out of the fleet of 46. Our best result so far by a generous margin. I'm very pleased with that.

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