Jenny and I set last week aside to have our first ever full ‘cruise’ onboard Karisma, as the week fell between our birthdays and the Cabin Boy had been taken on holiday by his maternal grandparents.
Because we had missed the planned marina cruise to Portishead and Bristol in the first week of July (sorting out family business in Ireland), we looked at the tides and made a plan. All being well we would head up to Portishead on Monday evening, look to go up the Avon to Bristol on Tuesday morning, and, if the weather was as predicted, head back to Cardiff on Wednesday before taking the neap ebb and an easterly wind to Swansea on the Thursday, perhaps leaving Karisma there until the end of the sailing season.
How did it work out? Well, like the curate’s egg; good in parts….
The first problem was that the planned evening sail to Portishead would involve arriving at Avonmouth, which can be populated by some very big ships, around dusk. On checking the navigation lights I discovered that the steaming light was not working. Damn! it’s about ten metres up the mast, above the spreaders, and very inaccessible. It has blown bulbs before so I figured there must be something wrong with the fitting; a job for the winter but for now we needed to get at it. So on Monday afternoon Jen and I motored the boat round to the marina’s service hoist and, with some difficulty shorthanded with a westerly wind on the beam, managed to get the boat stationary alongside the supporting piles. Martin, from the marine engineers, then went manriding on the hoist to change the bulb, leading to a reciprocal question about how many men it takes to change a lightbulb- at least four, it seems.
Of course, we changed the bulb to no effect at all, and after investigation the problem turned out to be a dodgy contact at a deck socket. D’oh! Well at least we had some practice tying up on piles and the boat had at least moved during our cruising week- the way the weather was shaping up, it didn’t look like moving much at all. Wind and rain were forecast for Monday night, so at best we’d be moving on Tuesday morning.
Tuesday morning looked like this:
As we ended up drinking cofee in Compass, the marina’s caf, and looking at the grim and angry clouds outside. Suffice to say that the weather predictions (from £70/month PredictWind.com) we’d used over the weekend to plan the ‘cruise’ were looking more than a little sketchy. With evening tides getting a bit late to head up-channel Tuesday night, we went to the yacht club for a lunch, spent some money in the Penarth RNLI gift shop, and dined onboard after a few beers in Pier 64.
(If you haven’t been to Pier 64 in the last six months or so, you should give it a go. What was once a snooty, overpriced, unwelcoming restaurant full of landlubbers dressed up as what they imagine to be a yacht club commodore along with women off motorboats wearing stiletto heels, is now under new management- and very welcoming indeed to humble sailors in wet salopettes. Good beer, no pressure to dine or leave, and very welcoming staff).
Wednesday came and the stormbound cruise was in danger of descending into farce if we didn’t try to get away. It was wet but not terribly windy; around 10 kn from the south west. We decided to see what we could do, so off we went and locked out. We raised the sails to lay our course, first north towards Newport and then across the channel to the King Road at Avonmouth. However, the wind was on a dead run and no way were we going to get the 5kn target boatspeed for the passage out of that. Reluctantly, we dropped the main and set off under motor, with a little bit of genoa rolled out to stabilize the boat and make the most of an apparent wind as both wind and wave were now on the starboard quarter.
Of course, no sooner had we set off than we were engulfed in a shower which brought around 18 kn of wind. With this behind us it was no problem, but the sea picked up a little bit. Like the good skipper I am I retreated to the cabin (washboards in) to have a pee or check something or other or search in the bilges for a nurdle sprocket or, frankly, whatever it took. Jenny bravely stayed on the helm allowing me to snap this iconic picture:
Nevertheless, we made it to Portishead after three hours of on-off wind and rain but with no real sea state to worry us. By the time we locked in, however, the ‘jet’ of wind which always curls around Portishead Point was giving 26kn over the deck and we were quite pleased to tie up and get (veggie) sausage and egg sandwiches from the caf wagon next to the control building (far better than the adjacent and silly-priced Costa. Urgh! I said Costa). The sun even came out as we ate our sandwiches, which was kind of it, because it is only July after all.
Like the good skipper that (I keep saying) I am, I sat down to work out the pilotage to Bristol next day, for a little potter up the Avon. The result was an unbelieveable A4 page of instructions. It turns out the access to the floating harbour is not as simple as you’d think it might be. I knew about the very restricted lock-in times (only 3 lock-ins, all before high water) but there’s only anybody actually on duty and responsible for the lock system from about 3 hours before to a (very exacting) ’55 minutes after’ high water. So there was nobody to call to check our expectations would be correct before setting off up the Avon. Moreover, becuase the tide, although neapy, was not absolutely neaps, Bristol would be operating what it calls a ‘stopgate’ system, which essentially holds you in the approach locks for hours on the way in and hours on the way out.
The conclusion was that a night in Bristol meant waiting in locks for two hours on the way in and three hours on the way out, with absolutely nothing to do, so it hardly seemed worth it. Having written Bristol off, and having confirmed that neither Watchet (marina silted up; entrance gate broken) or Lydney (entrance gate jammed open and apparently ‘blocked by rocks’ which H&S won’t let anyone remove) were viable destinations, we settled for a couple of days in Portishead. The weather looked good for an easterly wind on Friday, so we dug in by heading for an excellent dinner in the new Harland and Wolf- er sorry, that’s Hall and Woodhouse restaurant.
The next morning we rose late, had coffee, and contemplated a quiet stroll around portishead. Idly, we checked the weather first.
The fair wind from the east for Friday had turned into a rain-lashed gale. Saturday, although fair, was windy too, and we really wanted to be home by Sunday as Jenny needed to be back at work. Aargh. High tide Portishead was in one hour.
Foulies on, engine on and we made the 11.30 lock out, bound for Cardiff. Of course, the wind was light and on the nose, blowing straight from our destination. As the tide began to turn to the ebb, a bit of wind over tide froth began to kick up, and although it was nowhere near nasty, it didn’t add muct to the experience of sailing unaided; we could either make Clevedon or Newport. Eventually, pragmatism ruled and we motored south to the Welsh Hook cardinal buoy, from where we could just about lay a course 30 degrees off the wind to Cardiff. Motor assisted, as the wind was still almost a headwind, we tucked in and had an excellent sail under no.1 jib and 1st reef back to the Barrage.
For this run I released Jenny from the helm in favour of our newest crew member, Sinbad. Sinbad is a Simrad (get it? he he he) TP20 autopilot and we’ve had him on board ever since we boat the boat. We’ve just never, ever used him until this weekend. We can no longer remember why that is as he now is, rather like Mr Burns’ inanimate carbon rod, our Employee of the Week. Having the boat under autopilot was a revelation which allowed us to sit back, drink coffee, chat and enjoy the sail.
It’s a measure of how far Jenny has come this season that as we thrashed across the main shipping channel, heeling at 15-20 degrees with rain and spray lashing the weather deck, she was sitting up, staring into it, and constantly pointing out how much fun this was. During yet another squall I took this picture of her looking like a smiling sailing ninja:
So we made it back to Cardiff for a lock-in at 16:15 pm and, after a few beers in the Yacht Club, a dinner in the ever reliable Romeos by the Sea. The rain had blown over, the Chianti was good, the Tiriamisu to die for and the Bristol Channel? Well, it looked almost good enough to go cruising again.
Maybe in August.
Oh, and, what of the Cabin Boy? Well, he had taken command of his own craft for the week- in 35 degrees and pale blue waters, with an endless supply of ice cream. He’s not daft- this is really the way to go cruising.