So Karisma has finally escaped the inner Bristol Channel! After four seasons of iffy weather, commitments and complications, we were determined to bring her West for the summer this season- with all the promise of blue water, flat (ish) seas, sandy beaches and ice cream that the Welsh coast from Swansea to Pembrokeshire offers. At the start of the season, Jen identified the May Bank Holiday tides as perfect for heading West- mid range heading to neaps with high water mid-morning, allowing us to carry a fair tide on the ebb to Swansea during daylight hours, and the Tawe Lock (which allows entrace to Swansea harbour) operating throughout low water meaning that access would be unrestricted. You can imagine how excited we were when last week, PredictWind started to offer up a perfect weather window on Thursday (26th) for the trip to Swansea- flat seas, blue skies and near windless, which didn’t bother us as it’s a six+ hour trip round the bottom of Wales and we were going to motor it anyway to get round in a single tide. Through the week we watched various weather models and grew more excited as they all coalesced around the theme of a sunny, quiet Thursday. Jenny booked the time off, I fuelled up the boat and checked various little things, and we packed our bags on Wednesday night. A quick curry in the Jaflon and we bunked down for the night in a state of great excitement.
We had long ago planned a passage to Swansea for a delivery trip in quiet, settled weather and mid-range to neapy tides. There is an inshore and an offshore route to Swansea; The offshore route means taking a trip around the Nash and Scarweather sandbanks, whilst the inshore route- about 5 Nm shorter- means passing through the Nash Channel, a narrow but deep fairway about 1/4 mile off the beach, between the rocks which run out from Nash Point and the inside end of the Nash sands. The inside route also stays inside Scarweather sands by passing over the shallow water between Kenfig Patches and Sker Point; joining the dots between these tow ‘pinch points’ in the passage, the rhumb line runs close to the drying Tusker Rock reef off Ogmore-by-Sea, where a large motor cruiser came to grief on a glassy, windless day last year. The final part of the inshore trip is a relatively simple run for port across Swansea Bay.
We decided on the inner passage, largely because it is quicker and because we know where Tusker Rock is. Also it provides more interesting navigation- the Nash Passage is generally spoken of in hushed tones- and more interesting views of the coast, especially places we visit often like Ogmore, Southerndown beach, Llantwit Major beach, Nash Point, and Porthcawl. Here is a plan of the route chosen, drawn on Imray electronic charts.
Thursday dawned bright and just as promised. With HW Cardiff at 10:30 in the morning, and reckoning on a passage time of about seven hours as long as we managed a speed through the water of five knots, we knew we would have to punch against the last of the flood to make Swansea before low water. To give ourselves a bit of leeway (!) we took the 08:30 lock out from the barrage, and set off to round the Rannie spit.
We had a foul tide of around a knot and a half, and were making aobut three knots over the ground. Perhaps more in hope than expectation I brought a book on seabird identification up into the cockpit, but the only thing to see was a large tanker leaving Cardiff and steaming down channel. We waved goodbye to Cardiff as it disappeared behind Penarth Head. The sea around Rannie, even on such a quiet day, was still slightly confused with a slow-boiling appearance, but the infamous rip was quiescent and we rounded the spit without issue.
As we approached Barry, one or two fishing boats buzzed about and the foul tide began to slacken and turn in our favour. There were numerous tide lines in the water, which were caused by sudden and strong changes and speed and direction of the flow. Our ground speed began to vary from slightly less than our speed through the water to up to a knot more.
At this point the one problem of the journey reared its head. The autopilot, so reliable last season, wasn’t playing ball at all. It simply wouldn’t listen to any waypoint commands- an issue I have since traced to a problem with the navigation system, so not the AP’s fault- but neither would it sail to a compass course given it by its own internal gyrocompass. It would
sometimes hold a course for forty-five minutes; sometimes for forty five seconds before the boat would wander off course and one or the other of us would have to attend to the blighter. Right now the reason for this is uncertain and I’ll be looking for advice from the YBW forum before we make a further long trip. It’s a five-hundred quid piece of hardware so I don’t just want to replace it, but it is also quite old and its time may be up. Instead we kept things simple by using the boat’s new chartplotter to line up the projected track with the plan and then get the AP to hold a course on that. This worked well enough and the chartplotter is certainly a labour-saving boon. I still maintain that they aren’t really necessary for anyone who can read a chart and operate a dividers, but they do take a lot of stress of- and sailing is supposed to be about having fun, after all.
Passing between Barry and Roose around local high tide (10:30), we started to get some serious tidal lift as the ebb turned in our favour. The tidal diamonds on the chart would lead a skipper to expect 1.5 to 2kn of assistance- but the diamonds are quite far out in the deeper parts of the Bristol Channel fairway, and here, within a nautical mile of the shore and tucked beneath the Jurassic cliffs of the Vale of Glamorgan, we got a lift of between three and four knots in water around 20m deep. As our speed over the ground touched 9 knots, we excitedly noted how the water ‘got bluer’ every time we crossed a tide line. In reality perhaps they were still shades of green brown off Rhoose- but we were sick of sailing in chocolate murk and couldn’t wait for any colour change. The SAR helicopter, perhaps on exercise, made its way across the horizon to St Athan, and a succession of planes took off from the airport with their engines booming over the water, but we were the only boat there to see them fly.
The southernmost point of the trip- the point at which you start making north and west, towards Swansea- is at Breaksea Point. Here, there is an offshore caisson- a rather foreboding concrete tower- which acts as a water intake for the Aberthaw power station. We followed our plan to give it a good offing but could have sailed closer. The domed top of the caisson was covered in bird muck so perhaps my seabird guide might have come in handy!
The beautiful Jurassic cliffs of the Vale passed by as we rounded the caisson and for the first time saw Nash Point, with its twin white lighthouses (one old, one new) acting as guardians to the inner Bristol Channel. Slowly running north and west we closed with the coast, but any anxiety we felt was taken away by the smooth sea and- pleasantly- a wave from a small sports fishing boat bobbing about just below the lighthouses. Moreover, we were early- the Pilot book told us to enter the passage above half-tide, which would have been 13:00 at Porthcawl, and we had planned to arrive at 12:30. But our tidal boost at Rhoose meant we were beneath the lighthouses just before 12:00. We took a lot of photos of the approach to the point, and they deserve a little album.
The passage plan required us to enter the Nash Passage by sailing close to the East cardinal buoy at the end of Nash sand. From the beach at Nash Point, this buoy seems alarmingly close to land, so I was determined to hand steer the boat through the passage to ensure she pointed safely, especially as we were making seven knots over the ground. The tiller felt heavy as I took it with so much tide running square behind the boat; the bow wave on the cardinal was a strong reminder that there will only ever be one winner if you make a mistake with the tides of the Bristol Channel.
Once past the Nash Channel, Porthcawl opened up before us and we passed by Tusker Rock without incident, keeping the red Port Lateral can, which marks the rock, to starboard. The water was by now a sort of Solent-like blue-green, and the view of Nash Point falling behind felt like an escape:
We were a bit disappointed that Porthcawl doesn’t look like much from the sea; low-lying cliffs, and the dunes north and west towards Sker point, don’t make much of an impression. We passed between Sker and the Kenfig Patches without incident around 13:00 and at about half tide; the (very handy!) chartplotter told us the height of tide was about 6m, and with a charted depth of 3m the 9m totalled up by the depth sounder agreed. I wouldn’t want to come thorugh the area too close to low tide, especially with wind over tide, as it did seem shallow. All of this was unimportant though, because on rounding Porthcawl we could see a white building glimmering on the far shore: the Meridian Tower, standing above our destination- the marina at Swansea.
Now we could see our destination and all we needed do was motor straight for it. Swansea Bay is actually quite large; it took just short of two hours motoring at 5kn to reach the inner fairway buoy just below the pierheads of the harbour. The water, however, was going from green-blue to actually, properly- blue.
We arrived at the Tawe Lock at 15:00, just 6 1/2 hours after departing Cardiff Bay, and only 30 minuted before local low water at 16:00. Although we had expected the lock to operate throughout low, its lock-keeper had other ideas; and with as little as 1.4m of water in the approach channel (Karisma needs 1.2m to stay afloat) we just snuck into the last lock lift he was willing to put on until the tide began to rise again. We collected our visitor’s pack from the Marina and, by 16:00 Karisma was tucked up on berth M27. A bottle of Prosecco- parsimoniously chosen but strictly reserved for the occasion- was opened and didn’t even touch the sides. We’d done it, reached Swansea, and the flat blue water of the huge, inviting bay promised so much better sailing.
Well, if anything was missing from the delivery trip it was- sails! So we recovered the Cabin Boy from his stay with his grandparents and, after a family day out on the Mumbles on Saturday, took Karisma sailing on Sunday. The weather was perfect- a light six to eight knot southerly rising to eleven to twelve knots apparent when close-reaching, which is Karisma’s favourite ‘slot’ windspeed. In the flat blue water, we sailed her from Swansea to Mumbles and back, hitting 6.5kn through the water when 50 degrees off the wind. The biggest difference is that the motion of the sea is so much easier; Swansea on Sunday had five metres of tide, compared to the usual ten or even fifteen metres of movement at Cardiff. The result was instantly more relaxed sailing, and to be quite honest we sailed with a mixture of elation and relief. With fab views of the Mumbles lighthouse, pier and RNLI boathouses, it was a fantastic day’s sailing to cap a fantastic weekend- and hopefully the first of many this summer.