What a fantastic weekend of sailing we’ve just had! It was the weekend of the Holms Race, the premier yachting event in the Bristol Channel calendar, hosted by Portishead Cruising Club on behalf of the Bristol Channel Yachting Association, and after entering but failing to start in strong winds last year, we were determined to have another crack this time. Light winds and sunshine more than made up for it.
Friday 16th- Penarth to Portishead
The weekend started with a delivery trip from Penarth to Portishead on Friday night (16th). Last year, we brought the boat to Portishead the weekend before the race, and this would have been my intention this year also (for reasons that will become clear) but Jen’s business trip to Houston in the week before the race meant I’d be a bit shorthanded for the job, plus of course I needed to be picking Fionn up from school during the weekdays. Jenny landed at Heathrow after a ten hour, all night flight at lunchtime on Thursday, went to bed at 8:30 and then got up on Friday morning to do a half day’s work before taking the afternoon off to bring Karisma up, so she had a pretty packed schedule as it was.
The forecast for Friday afternoon was of the not-going-out-unless-I-have-to variety; Predict wind offered up a F5 going F6 from the north-west, and the met office said something similar, perhaps slightly more foreboding, but at least the sun was shining brightly. We fuelled up the boat- not having used her since we returned from Swansea- and were waved out of the marina by our pal Hugh Kelsall, the assistant manager, who was himself later heading up to Portishead to race Exodus, a Maxi 1050 also berthed in the marina.
The wind was fairly shrieking out of the Taff in the bay, with lines of blown froth on the water and true winds of 23 or 24 knots. We locked out at 15:30 in company with a couple of boats from Cardiff Bay Yacht Club, also heading up for the race. CBYC sent a large fleet up; I wish we could get a similar participation from Penarth! We rounded the Outer Wrach cardinal and got a feel for the wind; raising the mainsail seemed unnecessary so we pulled out the full headsail and pointed north towards Portishead whilst I fiddled with fitting the tiller pilot. Whether it was me or the wind I don’t know, but the boat suddenly started a big windward swing in a 20-odd knot gust, so a couple of rolls went in the genoa. We left the engine running at just under 2000rpm to balance the centre of effort. Karisma can be a dificult boat when sailed on headsail alone, as she is designed to balance with a big main, and can develop lee helm without it, a problem I didn’t want to get on a pragmatic delivery run. The big spring tide meant the seas were predictably lumpy as we crossed the Newport Deep, where the flooding tide funnels into the ever-narrowing estuary of the Usk, but we were travelling at ten knots over the ground so were quickly into deeper, flatter water. By the time we were off Clevedon the wind, now piling up on the lee shore, was shrieking to a maximum 27 knots true, one knot short of a F7 blow. We rolled away most of the headsail but boat and crew handled the weather admirably. Fortunately the wind was from the wrong direction to start the awful Clevedon race running, and we came into the shelter of the pier at Portishead only around two and a half hours after setting out. This is where the advantage of bringing the boat up earlier became clear- the marina was choc-a-block for race day, and there were no pontoon berths available. We landed up rafting to some CBYC boats on the events pontoon, which was very convivial, although I would have liked to fill Karisma’s empty water tank up a bit and charge her house battery, but access to electricity was difficult across the raft and there was no water. Our raft neighbours were Pure Chemistry, an MG Spring 25, and clearly old hands at the game, who gave us plenty of tips for the race the next day. We had a bite to eat in Hall and Woodhouse, one-and-a-half pints of beer for me, and climbed into our bunk immensely excited for the race day to come.
Saturday 17th – The Holms Race
Saturday dawned bright, blue, sunny and with light winds in Portishead- perfect. The first thing to do was check the forecast! PredictWind offered up F2-3 gusting F4 at times, and everything was set fair. By the time I’d got back from cleaning my teeth we had been joined by our pal Martin, crewing with us for the day, and bravely (wisely, in fact) togged out in shorts!
The Holms is an unusal race in that there is not a single start time. Because everything in the Bristol Channel is so constrained by the tide, each yacht chooses their own start time, based on their estimate of how long it will take them to reach the down-tide mark (Steepholm Island)- it’s almost impossible, and very slow when possible, for any boat to sail against the tide. Thus boats that expect to be fast on the day start later, whilst boats that think they might be slower start earlier.
The race isn’t a straight thrash to the Holm islands; you must also round the NW Elbow cardinal. The full course is:
- The start line, between Portishead Pier and the Firefly buoy;
- Leave the North West Elbow Cardinal to Port
- Flatholm Island to Port
- Steepholm Island to Port
- Northwest Elbow to Starboard
- The finish line between the Newcombe buoy and Battery Point.
Here it is on a chart:
The minimum distance, in all, is around 35 miles, and an estimated time would be about six hours. However, as we were to find, wind and tide can extend both! On the day the earliest possible start was 9.30am, around an hour after HW Portishead, and the latest 15:00, or local Low Water.
The start is complicated by the fact that you can’t just lock out when it’s convenient to get going, because there are so many boats involved that the best lock out times would be oversubscribed, and so the marina runs a booking system. We had been given a 9.30 lock out time- very gentlemanly- and we had intended to jill around somewhere upstream of the start line for at least an hour or so. I reckoned it would be better to have a bit of ebb under us than flood when passing between the islands, because as long as we didn’t get set too far south and west of Steepholm we would assuredly get round it, whereas if the flood started going north-east before we rounded Steepholm (or before we rounded Flatholm) we might never make either mark. It was more important to leave a little earlier and be sure we could finish our race, than play the late game where you might get home faster, but then might not be able to finish at all.
Local low water at Steepholm was 2pm so I figured we should attempt to round Flatholm at around 1pm. The SOG rates of 10kn which we’d seen the previous day told us that we’d be quick getting down to the islands. So we decided that, if it was uncomfortable jilling around, we’d try to do at least an hour of it; otherwise try and hang on and cross the line at about 11am.
We locked out with the four other boats from our raft and a large 11m Comet called Lutra, which was to become our Nemesis on the day, in bright sunshine and with much bonhomie. Our options for jilling around hugely improved when we spied Exodus rafted to another boat along the sea wall inside the pier, and our pal Hugh beckoned us to raft up. Much boaty chitter chatter ensued.
With the tide ebbing and the water inside the wall dropping, the boat on the inside of the raft was understandably concerned about her draft, and as we had all had much the same idea to move off somewhere between ten and eleven, at 10:40 the raft broke up. We motored out into the King Road where, by now, many of the fleet were starting to raise their sails, but everybody was motorsailing to stem the tide and no-one had yet crossed the line. We spent tem nimutes motoring at a standstill over the ground just downstream of the Avonmouth Outer buoy. By this time, the previously silent M1 radio channel- race control- began to crackle thrillingly with boats announcing their name, sail numbers, and intention to start. We pulled up our sails, looked at each other, and decided to go for it! Karisma crossed the line at 10.59am.
The trip down to Flatholm was an exhilerating beam reach past Clevedon to the Monkstone lighthouse. With a flat sea but up to six knots of tide running, Karisma heeled smoothly under full sail and a wind which reacked 16 knots apparent at its peak, but was generally more around the 12kn of a perfect bottom-end F4. She was easily rattling off just over 6 knots through the water, and progress was excellent. We were, nevertheless, caught up by the 36-foot Lutra, who had started a couple of minutes later but whose greater waterline length allowed her to close the gap. Off Monkstone, the wind slowly died away, and Lutra and ourselves chugged along in close company at two or three knots, exchanging comments about fast, close racing!
We had also at this point caught up with a racy 21-foot Etap, ‘Pasha’, which had started a couple of minutes before us. As the wind fell, it veered slightly, moving to the north. Pasha now neatly demonstrated the advantage of a spinnaker, which neither we nor Lutra carried, and our good work in chasing her down in the leg to windward disappeared as the light boat made the most of the light winds and her spinnaker carried her away from us and round to the west of Flatholm. With steerage now being provided more by the tide than any wind at all, we threaded through the narrow channel between Flatholm island and its adjacent shelf, keeping a good eye on the Wolves cardinal, but the infamous rock is in truth far off the island, and had not yet emerged on the falling tide.
Flatholm and Steepholm
We rounded Flatholm at 1pm, an hour before the turn of the tide and exactly as we had planned. In fact, we found only half-a-dozen boats in front of us. Pasha was by now far ahead, and this was the last we saw of her on her way to an excellent sixth-placed finish on corrected time. We pointed Karisma’s bow slightly upstream of Steepholm to stem the last of the flood and lay the next mark, but now the chartplotter reported a woeful ETA of two hours to the waypoint, only a couple of nautical miles away, as the wind died utterly. We tried various different sail strategies- pointing upstream, downstream, and goosewinging the boat with a main preventer- but nothing altered a course over ground resolutely set south and west and, without a downwind sail or at least a pole, we were out of luck. In company with several other boats we drifted as far south as the edge of One Fathom Bank, with nothing to do but admire the sunshine and the view of the islands.
At this point we became aware that the greater part of the fleet were not going to make it. A quick head count showed that only around twenty-five boats had rounded Flatholm, none had done so for some time, and the prospect of any more now doing so seemed distant. There was an array of spinnakers between and behind the islands, and many boats were clearly heading up-channel. Meanwhile, we noticed that Lutra and several boats that had rounded a little later than ourselves had not been swept as far southwest as we had, with the tide slackening still. We ourselves had been concerned about being trapped by the first flood and unable to get around Steepholm; had there been any wind west of Flatholm, it would not have mattered to punch a weak ebb when sailing south between the islands, but now there was no wind, our drift away from the mark on the last of the ebb was punishing that more conservative strategy.
As the tide turned, we slowly began to drift first south and then east, so the far side of Steepholm opened up to out view. Around 3.30pm a cats’ paw of a wind opened up from the west, and suddenly we were sailing free towards Steepholm, on the front of a moving puff of wind! Alas, our hopes that this wind was a sea-breeze set for the afternoon were dashed, and twenty minutes later we were left becalmed again but, this time, appreciably closer to the island, and once again in company with Lutra and the other yachts which were last to make it around Flatholm, so much of the ground we had lost in drifting windless was made up.
Perhaps the most astonishing, and for us decisive, aspect of the race was the swell that now built with the incoming tide. ‘Swell’ is perhaps not the right word, as that is waves outside the weather system in which they originate; this was something more like a series of bores, as all the water of the big spring flood in the wider estuary to the south-west began to funnel through the narrow channel between the Holm islands, and force its way across the shallower flats to the north and south of them. Martin indeed remarked that this was exactly how the Severn Bore gets started. The glassy sea surface began to bulge into huge waves sometimes more than a metre high, some-incredibly- with little breaks on their crests. A mental note was made not to ever come down here in huge springs and strong contrary winds (we did something of that sort in our first season with Karisma, and this shed more light on quite why the experience was so fearsome). Karisma began to rock and slat, and it was hard work keeping her stern-to the swell.
Racing for home
The wind now filled in from the southeast, an unexpected direction, and we finally got moving around the south of Steepholm, where we had to tack to clear the island itself. One boat- I think it was the Sadler 32 Equinox- bravely stood on and passed close by an off-lying reef. The tack lost us a bit of ground but it felt better to be safe than sorry! The flood tide swell continued to build and, as we passed between Holm Middle and Tail Patch, it refracted through the narrow channel between the islands and became near-intolerable. The wind was very weak, down to around four knots, and it was now that we lost a lot of time against our rivals. Karisma is a light boat, and she was rolled so much by the swell that nothing we tried- points of sail, rigging preventers- would prevent the boom from slatting violently back and forth as we rolled, rolled and rolled again beam-on to waves of over one metre. Of course, every time the boom is thrown to the windward side of the boat, all the wind and driving force is flung out of her sail, and she has to start again all over in trying to make way. Heavier boats are no more able to make much of four-knot winds, but they roll less, and hold onto what little wind there is better than we could. The inertia effect of a spinnaker, which could be kept full with the south-east wind, was an even better motion damper. One by one, larger boats or those with downwind sails began to pull away. Lutra pulled ahead of us. A handful of boats without now retired, despite having worked so hard to round the islands themselves.
As a crew we reached our lowest point just south of the Hope cardinal. The sea began to flatten but with over ten miles still to run to the finish line, it was now five minutes to five, and the prospect of a late return to Portishead loomed. I was not particularly concerned about coming home in the dark- Portishead is easy to enter; but I was growing more concerned about our dinner plans, especially as Martin’s lovely wife Sarah would be joining us and was in danger of spending her whole evening waiting around on the quayside. I suggested we should take a discussion, but first nipped below for a pee and could hear Martin and Jenny turning over the increasing apparent futility of our plight. By the time I re-emerged, however, the wind instrument was beginning to register some real numbers. A wind filled in from a little east of north! Karisma began to take off and we passed our final mark at North-West Elbow at five and a half knots closehauled. The northerly wind meant our port tack would not lay the finish line; at Welsh Hook, we had a choice to stand on into Walton Bay or tack away towards Welsh Grounds. We took the latter option and, after standing on Starboard long enough to ensure we would sail free to the Newcombe buoy, a dying northerly wind took us across the finish line at 18:37, seven and a half hours after crossing the start line. Our nemesis Lutra sailed a fine race, and crossed the line two minutes ahead of us. We locked into the marina in a gloaming light, ready to join Sarah for deserved beers after a fantastic day on the water.
Although the shortest possible course is around 35Nm, we sailed 42Nm on the day, most of that being accounted for by the south-west drift between 13:00 and 15:00 west of Flatholm, and most of the time being made up by the light south-westerly which boats further east did not benefit from. Jenny tells me I am too competitive in analysing the result, but- assuming similar wind and tide in future- I would tweak our strategy so that we start around 20 minutes later, because that seemed to make a big difference in ground lost when rounding Flatholm. Moreover, it’s clear that the rating system doesn’t sufficiently compensate for not having a spinnaker on board (no rating system does, because if they did, nobody would carry spinnakers at all). It’s one thing to observe that if there had been any wind at all between the islands we would have kept sailing and probably placed higher, but wind is in the lap of the gods. What I do know is that the weather of the day emphasised the disadvantage of being a light boat without a spinnaker in the swell east of Steepholm, when we simply couldn’t damp the motion of the boat sufficient to get a grip on the wind and eke any boatspeed or even point decently with the tide. This was where it also felt like we were losing ground to our rivals. A spinnaker will be aquired next year even if I have to mortgage the Cabin Boy to pay for it.
Nevertheless, we placed fifteenth of the fourty-seven crews who crossed the start line that morning, and if you’d offered me that with my breakfast brioche , I’d have bitten your hand off. Lots of very fast racy boats and very big fancy boats overestimated their own potency in the wind and tide of the day and couldn’t even make Flatholm, which needless to say is GREAT, although I feel for the number of boats who rounded the islands and just felt it was too long a slog to drift back. I’ve been told on the YBW forum that we win the prize for resisting boredom and there might be some truth in that, because we never felt bored- it was brilliant having Martin with us and the cameraderie added up to the best day on the water we have ever had with Karisma. It’s also, by a touch, also the longest day and longest single sail we’ve had with her so far. This season the summer in Swansea and this race have really expanded our horizons. We’ll be back next year. In the meantime, there’s always the CBYC frostbite series!
PCC have written a report on the race here. below are the race handicaps and the official results.
Sunday 18th- Back to Cardiff
Our return trip to Cardiff was a simple motor under autopilot in flat seas, sunshine and six-knot winds. It would have been unremarkeable but deserves a coda because, whilst we were motoring along at 5kn off Clevedon, we were approached and hailed by the Portishead Lifeboat, a brand new Atlantic 85 at what, since the adoption by the RNLI of the old Portishead and Bristol independent boat, is the Institution’s newest station. The crew were on exercise and wanted to practice landing a man on a moving boat- could we let them put a man aboard Karisma? Of course it was a pleasure to help, so we put out fenders on the starboard side and the helm skilfully brought the Atlantic alongside at speed. A lifeboatman joined us in the cockpit for a chat about the service while the Atlantic did a doughnut before manouvering back alongside to get him. A wave and they were gone into the sunshine, while we set our course for Penarth Yacht Club‘s sunday lunch menu.