Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Calstar: motorboating

Friday 14th April: Portishead to Gloucester
(33.6 miles, 8 hours 5 minutes underway)

We locked out of Portishead on Friday morning at 0500 in the company of three other yachts, "Best Endeavour", "Noss Packet" and "Mary-L", beneath a full moon that was slowly sinking from a mostly clear sky. There was next to no wind forecast, and the flat moonlit sea was barely dimpled by the merest rustle of a breeze.

Nine other boats, members of Portishead Cruising Club, were planning to make the same trip, loosely organised by the sailing club's commodore, Julia. We're not members, though I keep meaning to re-join now we're back in the area, but they were more than happy for us to tag along.

The three yachts disappeared ahead of us, the flood tide picking each up as they slipped past the end of the breakwater and out into the gloaming. The glow of our bow navigation lights reflected red and green on the pulpit; all our mast electrics with the exception of the deck floodlights are still out of service, so I'd cable-tied a temporary steaming light to the spinnaker pole ring on the front of the mast. Looking at the forecast and the tidal gates involved, there didn't seem to be any chance of sailing this weekend, and certainly not that morning.

We made a straight line for the centre of the new bridge, some four miles distant. I could see two yachts off to starboard, hugging the shore as they made their way up, but I figured the better tide would be out in the main channel. I could see the lights of a dredger a mile or two ahead, moving across our bow and then turning down channel to pass us in the distance to port. It was a lovely morning, not chill, everything bathed in silvery moonlight except for the glow of the pre-dawn just beginning to bleed into the skyline over the eastern shore.

It was about now that we noticed an occasional rattle, quite noticeable over the engine noise, but intermittent at first. The engine was turning at comfortable 2000 revs, Calstar making just under 4 knots through the water, but clocking just under 9 over the ground with the help of the tide pushing us up through The Shoots.

We checked the engine compartment, but the rattle wasn't from in there. The prop shaft and stern glad were all fine, so we checked the rope locker and various other storage areas on the assumption that something was loose, but found nothing. It became a constant companion. Then, inexplicably stopped for ten minutes before resuming again.

We passed under the first bridge a little before 0600, our three companions just ahead of us, the glow over the eastern shore promising a glorious sunrise. The sea between the bridges was flat, but the conflicting currents turbulent. The sun broke from behind the horizon in all it's promised glory, timing its arrival with our passing under the old bridge, from where we turned our course to take us in to the Slime Road. 

The names they gave to the rocks and reefs and bays and channels around here never fail to put a smile on my face: the Dumplings, Old Man's Head, Leary Rock, Hen and Chickens, Whirls End. 

Slime Road.

The rattle continued, but the gorgeous sunrise distracted us from it for a while. We were pretty confident it was something loose in a cupboard somewhere, though slightly anxious it might be something wrapped around the prop shaft. In any case, we were too far out on the tide to turn back now, so the only way was forward.

Out from the Old Severn Bridge, we passed Noss Packet and Mary-L, and caught up with the smallest boat in the informal fleet, a Snapdragon 21 called Mistra. The two young brothers crewing her had locked out before us at 0430 to give themselves enough time to cover the 18 miles that would take us up to the lock at Sharpness.

We followed the flood up, sticking to the main channel that carried us along the west bank before cutting across the top of Thornbury power station's submerged cooling reservoir and then on up the east bank. We turned into Sharpness a little before 0800 to find Best Endeavour there waiting for us. We rafted up alongside her as the rest of the fleet followed us in.

The lock released us onto the Gloucester Sharpness Canal half an hour later and we proceeded at a leisurely pace towards Gloucester. Not counting the two bridges guarding the entrance to Sharpness Dock, there are thirteen other swing bridges between Sharpness and Gloucester, each with a bridge keeper who keeps a look out and swings the bridge on demand if traffic approaches from either way.

Likewise, there is a much more substantial lifting bridge just before you enter Gloucester Docks, that is also raised on demand.

There are, however, two significant road bridges blocking the final couple of miles of the approach to Gloucester; Netheridge and High Orchard, that need to be booked in advance and opened for any vessels with an air draught of more than 4.5m. The first of those, Netheridge, had been booked by Julia for 1500.

We meandered up the canal as a group, enjoying the slow pace and tranquillity. A couple of boats stopped off as we passed Saul Junction to avail themselves of the cafĂ©, whereas we pushed on up to Sellars Bridge. Which is where you'll find a lovely canal side pub with a long, sunny garden, called  The Pilot.

We passed through Sellars and came alongside against the canal bank a couple of hundred meters on, landing around 1140. A few of the smaller yachts put too alongside further down the bank, but a couple of the big ones, each around 40' or so and with significantly more draught than us, couldn't get in close enough to the bank to land.

The day was calm, and the canal hardly known for it's rough seas and strong tides, so they rafted up alongside us, their respective bulks dwarfing little Calstar in comparison. Everybody secure, Dad and I retired to the pub, where we found the crews of Mary-L and Noss Packet already relaxing in the beer garden.

A couple of beers and a basket of chips made for a very welcome lunch whilst we whiled away a pleasant couple of hours until it was time to cast off for our final approach to Netheridge. 

A little before 1430, we cast off again and made our way to Netheridge, which swung, as promised, at 1500. A little while later, the bridges of High Orchard and Llanthony were duly lifted for us, and at 1530 we entered Gloucester Docks, Dad and I putting Calstar alongside one of the pontoons outside the Dr Fosters pub.

That evening, Dad and I ate in the Greek restaurant next door to the pub. It's probably my favourite place to eat in Gloucester, and as always, the food didn't disappoint. Dad had Lavraki, which was a couple of fillets of sea bream on a bed of rice laced with spinach and a lemony sauce. I had Stifado, which is a Greek beef stew. It was delicious.

We'd covered distance of 33.6 nautical miles covered, 8 hours and 5 minutes underway, all with the engine. A very rattily engine.


Saturday 15th April: Gloucester to Rea Bridge
(2.0 miles, 0 hours 41 minutes underway)

We were still quite worried about the rattle. Firmly secured to the pontoon in Gloucester, we'd established that there was no noise if we rev'd the engine with the prop disengaged, but if we put the engine into gear ahead, once the revs passed about 1000 rpm, the rattle emerged, and increased in frequency as the revs went up.

It wasn't there when the engine was put astern however, and again, on checking the engine compartment, the prop shaft and the stern gland, it was obvious the noise wasn't coming from in there. Dad was worried about the cutlass bearing that supports prop shaft beneath the hull. The other fear we had was that we'd picked something up around the prop shaft that had only been been partly cleared by the rope cutter, but was now flailing against the bottom of the hull.

We attached the GoPro to a pole and tried to inspect the prop shaft and underside of the hull with it, but visibility beneath the water in the docs was zero, so that didn't work at all.

Saturday morning, we booked High Orchard bridge for 1530; the bridge keeper had it booked for another incoming vessel anyway, so it was only a minor inconvenience to let us out the other way.

We cast off from Gloucester at 1430, waited on the pontoons for High Orchard at 1530, then slowly pottered down the canal to Netheridge, which was swung to let us through. We then passed through Sims and Rea bridges, and went alongside the bank just down from Rea, where we secured ourselves for the night.

I checked with the bridge keeper that nobody would mind if I went paddling in the margins on the canal, to which he replied with a somewhat wry look on his face, that he'd have no intention of stopping me, but please keep myself safe.

I then dragged an old 5mm O'Neill wetsuit out from the front locker of our boat and a pair of cheap daps I'd bought in town that morning for my feet. I got this wetsuit when I first came back to sailing, some 16 years ago, used it for one spring season before realising just how damned uncomfortable 5mm of neoprene can be. And, even in the depths of an English midwinter, far too much of an overkill for merely sailing on a lake. My go-to wetsuit these days for the Laser, pretty much any time of year, is 1.5mm and much more comfortable.

And perfectly warm enough, as long as you keep moving.

Getting into the O'Neill was a bit of a challenge, to say the least. I'm going to argue it's all muscle, and close on to a couple of decades of sailing and karate means that I'm not a 9 stone wimp anymore. I'm now closer to an 11 stone wimp. But get into it I did, and was acutely reminded of just how little stretch there was in 5mm thick neoprene.

I left Dad nattering on the bank to one of the local liveaboards from a couple of moorings up who had wondered over to see what was going on, and slipped into the water at the aft of our boat. It was about chest deep, as expected, and the wetsuit did it's job nicely. I could just about reach the prop and shaft, with my face up pressed cheek to the hull, nose just above the waterline. It was far from comfortable

Ilfracombe, 2016

Running my hands around the prop, over the rope cutter (sharp, nasty thing), cutlass bearing and down the shaft to where it met the stern gland, I found nothing. No entanglements. I asked Dad to pass me my facemask, but removed the snorkel before putting it on. The canal is theoretically clean, and probably much cleaner than some of the lakes I've sailed on, and capsized into, but I still didn't want any more of that water in my mouth than I could easily avoid.

I dived down. The visibility was horrid and the first attempt achieved little more than to orientate myself. Back up on the surface Simon, our new neighbour, lent me a waterproof head torch, but it didn't help much with the visibility. I took the GoPro down to try and get a picture of what was going on, but gave up on that. Again, visibility.

Another dive; with my face close to the prop, rope cutter and cutlass bearing, I could make out dim shapes. I prodded around the mechanisms, careful not to cut myself too much on the serrated rope-cutter blades, and found that the fixed back plate to the rope cutter was loose and rattling. Resurfacing, both Dad and Simon confirmed they could hear it too from above the water when I moved it. 

We'd found our problem, but I couldn't work out how to fix it. In the muck and my inspections restricted to the time I could hold my breath, I couldn't find anything that had come loose that I could tighten. On the bright side, the integrity of the prop, prop-shaft, and cutlass bearing seemed absolutely fine and there was nothing flailing against the bottom of our hull, trying to wear a hole through.

The reason for picking an overnight mooring below Rea Bridge to do this was two-fold. Dad's house, and therefore his shower, was a ten minute walk from the boat from here. And Sellars Bridge, and the Pilot Inn, was a mere half an hour walk down the canal tow path in the other direction, and a friend was playing there on Saturday night.

Cleaned and dried, Dad and I set off down the tow path to the pub. We met my brother Jay and his wife Arya, ordered supper from the bar, and settled down for the evening to watch somebody else's gig for a change.

Sunday 16th April: Rea Bridge to Sharpness
(11.6 miles, 3 hours 31 minutes underway)

Sunday morning, we availed ourselves of Dad's house for a shower, then set off relatively early, determined not to push the engine any more than we needed to for the day.

With the revs tickling along at 1800 rpm, the boat pushed a leisurely 3 knots or so through the water, a pace that seemed to match the other occasional canal traffic we met quite nicely. The bridges slid by one by one; the day was mostly sunny but there was at times a bit of a stiff cross-breeze that made holding station for the bridges to open a little bit tricky.

We reached Sharpness and put to alongside the bank at 1345, three and a half hours after setting off. Dad went for a walk to explore the nearby Purton Hulks, and I relaxed in the sun and read my Kindle. Seven of the other boats eventually caught us up; Best Endeavour, being in no particular rush to get home, had elected to stay up in Gloucester for the week.

At low tide, Dad and I wandered down to the Old Dock to look out over the mud and sand banks of the estuary, up-channel towards the Noose, across to Lydney and down to the Bridges. It was a calm evening, and the ebb of the big spring tide had left much of the estuary over which we would sail tomorrow unmasked and bare.

Walking back, I stopped off to join everybody aboard the yacht "Lady Gwyneth" for a beer and a chat. That evening we fell asleep to the patter of light rain on the cabin roof. It was dry again by morning.

Monday 17th April: Sharpness to Portishead
(20.1 miles, 4 hours 45 minutes underway)

We cast off from the bank outside Sharpness at 0800 and formed an orderly(ish!) queue to make our way through the last two swing bridges, into the dock and through to the waiting lock.

A motor launch was already in there, with "Slioch" rafted up alongside and Mary-L alongside them. We rafted up alongside our friends Rodney and Margaret and their yacht "Teasla". Noss Packet came alongside us, with Lady Gwyneth, the yacht "Valarie" and the little Snapdragon Mistra entering last and rafting up together behind us. The gates closed and the level dropped.

Two hours before high water, it was still quite some drop.

When the seaward gates opened, the flood was still running hard up channel beyond the shelter of the outer harbour. The big boats, Lady Gwyneth, Slioch and Valarie followed by Teasla pushed straight out to punch the tide and start back to Portishead. The motor yacht went with them. With our limited draft we could afford to not get back until the last lock, but the bigger vessels would need to be earlier if they were to make it in on the same tide.

From the shelter of the lock we watched as the flooding tide grabbed each of them in its jaws, they turned to meet it, and slowly, slowly inched their way back down channel, their engines no doubt roaring.

We loitered for twenty minutes, in no rush to leave, before the lock keeper asked us to move out on to the pontoon in the outer harbour to make way for an inbound ship. We moved out. Mary-L was already up against the pontoon, Noss Packet put to along side her and we rafted up on them, third boat out.

The lads in Mistra followed us out and deftly reversed onto the space on the pontoon in front of us and by 0830 we were all settled alongside.

For the next hour we were entertained by the sight of a cargo ship, "Drait" arriving with a shipment of cement for the docks in the company of a small tug. With the tide still running, she swung outside the harbour to face it, then deftly edged into the harbour mouth until her bows were just level with the entrance to the outer harbour. The crew then passed a line to the dock workers waiting at on the wall, which they secured over a bollard. The ship took up tension on the warp, and then put her engine ahead to spring the big vessel around to line up with the waiting lock.

It was all very slow, very gradual and exceptionally precise.

We cast off at 0945 as Drait and her escort slipped past us and into the lock. The tide still had a bit of bite in it, so we turned into the flow and hugged the bank as we punched back against the last of the flood. Behind us, Noss Packet, Mistra and Mary-L pulled out of the harbour to follow.

The rattling of the loose rope cutter was harsh as we pushed the engine to 2500 revs; 4.7 knots through the water, 4.5 over the ground, hugging the bank was working for us, and by 1000 the flow was beginning to abate. The other three fell slowly behind, following our track.

By 1030 the tide had completely turned in our favour and we were moving down the submerged north face of the power station's cooling reservoir, crabbing slightly back against the ebb to stop ourselves from being pushed onto it.

Behind us though, I could see Noss Packet separating from the other two and, for reasons I couldn't fathom but couldn't bode well, heading now across the tide rather than with it, her track appearing to take her out over Lydney Sands.

The VHF crackled to life, and Dan aboard Mary-L called us up to advise us that Noss Packet was having engine trouble, but her skipper had asked us all to carry on and get ourselves back. With the tide now in full flow, we couldn't have got back to them if we'd tried, and even had we been able, I wasn't sure that we'd have had the engine power to keep both our yachts clear of the various obstructions and dangers down channel had we been able to give them a tow.

So, with an amount of reluctance, we pushed on, taking a little comfort from the fact that Chris, the skipper of Noss Packet, was very experienced and Bob, his crew, was a retired RNLI station manager. Between the two of them, their collective experience would probably out-weigh that of the rest of us put together. 

By 1100 we were into the Slime Road, Mistra and Mary-L having caught up with us. The wind over tide was getting things a little bit choppy, slowing us down to 4.2 knots through the water, but with the help of the ebb we were still pushing 8.5 knots over the ground. Our ETA for Portishead was looking comfortable

At 1112 we slipped past the Hen & Chickens, those vicious, still submerged rocks off Beachley marked by their beacon, the tide foaming past it, trying to set us onto them. A couple of minutes later we were through the old Bridge, the water turbulent and confused as it rushed over the submerged reefs of the Upper and Lower Bench, funnelling between Dod and Aust rocks.

Mary-L held close astern of us as we were flushed through, Mistra following a little way behind. Noss Packet was now out of sight, still struggling further up channel with her engine.

The stretch between the bridges was a bit like I imagine it would feel like to sail in a washing machine. The water was now moving very fast, but no two bits of it moving in anything like the same direction. Swirls and eddies and up-swells and cross-currents pulled and pushed at us. Chapel Rock with it's little ruined hermitage standing out clearly rushed by, and Charston Rock rushed on to meet us.

Mary-L, caught in a faster stream of tide further out in to the channel, slipped past us. Her skipper Dan called out to ask if we'd lead them through the Bridge, but we couldn't catch them and didn't want to push our engine any harder.

Out of shouting range, he called me up over the VHF to ask me to keep an eye on him. Their boat was still very new to him and his family, and it was his first time up under the bridges. I reassured him he was looking fine, reminded him about Old Man's Head and the need to keep it to port and not turn for the Bridge until he was past the cardinal and definitely clear.

I have a theory about these bridges. I don't think they're actually that easy to hit. The water wants to go around the footings, not through them, so, by and large, if you just ride it, then the tide will carry you clean through.

Dad has said he doesn't want to be anywhere near me in the same boat if I ever decide to test that theory. I confess I'm in no rush to do so.

Ahead of us, I saw Dan turn Mary-L to aim for the Bridge, clear of the rocks and cardinal to port. And shortly afterwards, we followed on the same track. Well over to the right of the channel, we could bear the rushing of water past the port lateral north of the Bridge as we were swept past, before the roaring of the water around the Bridge's footings drowned it out.

We watched the tide spit Mary-L out the other side of the Bridge and into the Shoots, and a few moments later, we followed. The time was 1137. the little Snapdragon Mistra was still clearly in sight astern, making it all look easy, passing under the Bridge herself a minute behind.

Out from the maelstrom between the bridges and into the relatively wider expanse of the Shoots, the turbulence calmed down. Portishead now approaching fast, and in good time for the lock, I set about preparing lines and placing fenders whilst Dad took over from the autohelm and guided us across the tide and into the welcoming shelter of Portishead.

Calling up to tell them we were three minutes off the breakwater, they held the lock for us and we cruised straight in to find Mary-L just making herself secure alongside to port behind the yacht Teasla, who clearly hadn't arrived that much earlier than us, despite leaving straight away to punch the tide out of Sharpness.

A few minutes later, Mistra came in and secured herself alongside behind us.

67.3 nautical miles, and just over 17 hours in total underway, all of it under power. The weekend was done. Happily, Noss Packet sorted out her engine trouble, a bit of seaweed blocking the strainer, and still made it back in time for the last lock after us.

Next job is to haul Calstar back out (it feels like we only just got her back in) and replace the bearings on the rope cutter. The lift is booked for this coming Friday.

Then maybe we can go back to being a sail boat.

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