Monday, 16 February 2015

First date

I spent last week watching the forecast with some trepidation, refusing to get too keyed up, loathed to state intentions or plan or prepare in case I jinxed it, and keeping my fingers crossed for Sunday. I'm really, really not superstitious in the slightest. But by Friday, I stopped looking at the weather forecast. Bottom line, with the boat now on the water, we were going over to Swansea on Sunday regardless. If we could take her out for a sail, we would, if not, we wouldn't.

Thing is, although this boat has been ours since November, until we could finally get her out into open water under our own command and back in again safe and sound, she was still somebody else's boat, whatever the paperwork might say, and I was still a dinghy sailor.

Dad drove to Swansea. I spent the journey checking the forecast, working out the tides, reading and re-reading the pilotage notes for Swansea Bay and the marina and generally fretting about what we were going to do and where we were going to take her.

We arrived at the marina for about 10am. The next couple of hours were spent fiddling and checking, and finding a quick bite to eat for lunch on the dockside. Back aboard and now committed, the bilges were still dry, the batteries charged, the engine started with very little protest. We called the marina office up on the VHF to request a lock out and cast off a little after noon. Dad always takes the helm when we're under power. It leaves me to do the leaping about, to manage the warps and fenders and, where necessary fend us off from anything hard or expensive.

None of the latter was needed, Dad handled her admirably. The big barn door of a rudder hung on the transom makes manoeuvring astern a dream, and with the spray hood lowered, visibility from the cockpit is great, so Calstar is actually easier to manage under power than our Lugger, Ondine. Out of the marina lock, with Julie up in the office cheerfully waving us off, we switched channels on the VHF to Tawe and were given permission to enter the river lock directly. A very short while later, we were through and steaming towards the breakwaters guarding the river mouth and the open reaches of the bay beyond. I set about stowing the warps and fenders, the relief of a job well done graffiti all over Dad's face.

Out in the bay the light was hazy, mostly overcast and occasionally threatening  a deeper murk, but with the odd breakthrough of sunshine and just enough of a swell on the water to remind me it wasn't our lake. The wind was the bottom end of a benign F3, blowing back onto a lee shore behind us. Enough to set the sails by, but not enough to be intimidating. Well, not much. The tide still had a couple of hours left on the flood, so we had plenty of water around and beneath us.

As we passed the Inner Green Grounds south cardinal that marked the end of the fairway out of Swansea Marina, I set up the auto-helm to hold us head to wind, and hauled up the sails.

A little throttle and the tiller towards me to take her out of the eye of the wind, the genoa filled and began to draw. As Calstar heeled over a few degrees in the caress of the breeze, we stilled the engine and she was finally ours.

I'm a dingy sailor. Even the Drascombe is really just a big dinghy, and the same basic principles apply. And one of those principles is that you work hard to keep the boat flat. Constantly adjusting the sail trim, the tiller never out of my hands; if a gust hits, I hike to stop the boat heeling, and spill wind from the sail if hiking isn't enough.

Close hauled aboard Calstar, it took a while to quell the sudden tendency towards ineffectual panic every time the wind swelled and she tipped majestically in deference to it; as nerve-racking as any first date. The instinctive physical response of a dinghy sailor to try and match the brute force of the blustering wind with a reply in kind became an unexpressed irrelevance.

As relatively overweight as I've become through a lack of sailing these last couple of months and the over-indulgence of the festive season still hanging on to me, my slight ballast makes no difference to the trim or balance of a boat like Calstar. Especially with the auto-helm engaged, sailing her is so much more a management of systems and forces than hurtling around the lake in my Enterprise could ever be.

I think our Drascombe Ondine has been a fine preparation, after a fashion, but the mass and energy involved with Calstar, her sheets, her sails, the wind and all that open water, are a completely different world. I think I'm in love all over again.

We stayed out, playing in the bay for a little shy of four hours, until about an hour into the ebb tide we fired up her engine, struck sail, and Dad took the helm once more to guide us back in.

There was a small drama with Tawe Lock; a mechanical failure meant they couldn't open half the swing-bridge, so we only had half the expected gap through which to enter. Dad managed the manoeuvre beautifully, and through the subsequent marina lock and one more swing bridge later, put us gracefully back into our berth without drama or fuss.

Calstar is now absolutely, irrevocably ours.

Just have to get her back to Portishead.

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