Peviously posted on YBW.com forum and in the Hunter Association newsletter.
In late 2008, we bought Ayla, a Hunter Channel 323 that was lying on the hard in Pwllheli, on the South coast of the Lleyn Peninsula. At the time, it seemed a good idea to sail her back to our mooring in Conwy, on the North Coast, overcoming the minor obstacle of Anglesey on the way. It didn’t seem such a good idea on Saturday.
We’d kept an eye on the forecast over the preceding week, and it was always going to be breezy – F6 from the NE overnight, dropping to F4 through the day. Work commitments, and life in general pushed preparations for the trip to the last minute – I was still getting stuff together for the Friday Launch at 01:00 Friday Morning, and we were still stowing stuff on board in Pwllheli marina at 01:00 on Saturday morning. The wind howled, and it rained, hailed and snowed as we cowered in our sleeping-bags trying desperately to cram some sleep in before the scheduled 06:30 departure – We needed to hit Bardsey Sound at low water slack, or we wouldn’t be going anywhere. The pilot says “If you are late at the sound, be prepared for several hours of sailing on the spot, or even sailing backwards…”
We were the only people up when we left Pwllheli at 06:15, aiming to make Bardsey Sound for 10:00 to 10:30. The sky to the South looked black and stormy, but overhead, and to the North was clear. A last look at the various forecasts on the large screen telly in the marina foyer confirmed that the forecast was holding, so we headed out into a slight swell, and made good time towards St Tudwal’s Island, motoring directly into the wind. It had been my intention to get the sails bent on the previous day, but the wind was blowing across our berth, and only dropped long enough for me to get the main up, and get to grips with the French knitting that was my first experience with lazy-jacks. Caroline was delayed by work, and the need to ferry kids and our crew around, and I was too nervous to take the boat out on my own to either raise the sails, or top up the diesel (the gauge read 3/4 and I also had a spare 25 litre can, so I wasn’t too worried about the diesel). Anyway, as we were out and making good time, we spent 20 minutes in the lee of the islands getting the jib up and sorted out for the first time.
As soon as we set off again, the dolphins arrived! Four of them put on a cracking show – jumping up through the bow wave and racing around to do it again. The photo is blurred, because I just grabbed the camera and pressed the button, but it gives an impression of what we had. It felt like a good omen, and we were all buzzing.
As we rounded the next headland, the seas picked up to maybe 4′ swell, with the occasional bigger wave, and the wind veered around to stay on our nose.
We tucked into the coast, and made better progress.
We reached Bardsey Sound at 10:15, and it was fairly benign – certainly no worse than anything we had experienced so far- so we were looking forward to smoother water between here and the entrance to the Menai Straits which separate Anglesey from the mainland. We were wrong!
There’s an area of overfalls called “Braich Y Pwll” near the end of the Sound, and despite it being slack water on neap tides, this was a mass of white water. Further around the peninsula, and on our direct route to Caernarfon is another area of overfalls called “The Tripods”. If we looked in that direction, all we could see is an endless succession of “shark’s tooth” triangular waves popping up everywhere and disappearing again. Even where we were, exiting the sound, there was big-ish swell from two directions which resulted in the occasional big wave, and an extremely uncomfortable motion. On one of these big waves, I reached for a hand-hold, and came back with the Navtex aerial. New bracket needed. The camera got put away. Wishing to give the areas of overfalls a wide berth, we headed NNW for about 3 miles, before returning to our required ~NE course. It wasn’t long before everyone began to feel very, very ill, Caroline being the first to lose her breakfast. We could at least get the jib up to steady the boat a bit, but things didn’t get any better as we turned for our destination, and ended up down-wind, with a cork-screwing, rolly swell under us. The next few hours were abject misery for Caroline and S. our crew, and I was desperately trying to convince myself I didn’t feel sick, too. I fairness, Caroline remained alert enough to understand me shouting “Not that side!” as she ran to the windward rail.
It was still blowing 14-20 knots, but progress under jib alone was too slow. Raising the main would only have blanketed the jib, and I didn’t feel confident in avoiding a broach in these conditions with the main alone, so we carried on motor-sailing with just the jib up.
The swell eventually became more regular, and things calmed down somewhat as we approached Caernarfon Bar, so the camera came out again.
The diesel tank is at the bottom of the deep cockpit locker, and the contents gauge is mounted on top of it behind a greasy perspex window. Mindful of the folly of running out of diesel in the notorious Bar channel, I braved the upside-down dangle into the cockpit locker with torch, and was alarmed to see the diesel gauge almost on zero. I’m pleased to say that the jiggly siphon I bought from the man at SIBS worked an absolute treat – I just tied the jerry-can to the pushpit, and the jiggly siphon did the rest.
Caroline & S were both sleeping it off by now, and I began to relax a bit, and stretched out in the cockpit looking back. The waves were quite regular now, and loomed high astern before passing underneath us. “Ah!” I thought sagely: “the waves must be getting bigger, because the water is getting shallower.” A quick glance at the echo sounder disproved this – there’s still 36 metres of water under us. “[–word removed–]!” I thought (less sagely): “What happens when this lot hits the bar ?!?”. It had been blowing a good 4 from the SW all day, and goodness knows what overnight. I seriously considered turning away now. Check the Pilot again, and the Caernarfon Harbour Master’s instructions. F5 against tide is dangerous. F4 with neap tide – ?? Out with the binoculars again, and standing as high as possible scan the route ahead. I can clearly see Llanddwyn Island, near the entrance to the bar, and most of the way across it. There’s a lot of white water to the South of it, but the bar itself only has the odd breaker on it. Onwards.
S wakes up just in time to act as another pair of eyes to scan for the bar buoys. We eventually catch glimpses of them between waves, and make out that they are the first pair. After going between them, We can’t spot the next one from my pilotage notes. Depth down to 4m and dropping. S goes below to fetch the chart, and comes up retching again (sorry S!).
Buoys spotted and we’re back on course. There’s the occasional big wave that tries to broach us, but nothing worse than we’ve already come through, and there’s no doubts about retaining control. Then, like someone switched a machine off, the sea flattens out and everything feels civilised again. We enter the Menai Straits with Caernarfon straight ahead.
We’re due to swap crew here – S’ wife J. is joining us, and S is leaving the next morning. The plan is to pick J. up from the jetty, but she’s been sent back to Morrisons for more supplies, so she isn’t there when we arrive. I’ve since heard various comments about the jetty – the phrase “death trap” sums it up quite well. The builders obviously had a job-lot of bolts that were 6″ too long for the job, and couldn’t be bothered to cut them down. I decided very quickly that there was no way I was going to try and get alongside this hideous contraption of rusty girders, protruding bolts and zig-zagging ladders, even if there were a few lengths of rubber fendering still attached (where it was protected by the bolts).
Luckily, it was high water, so we called up Victoria Dock to see if we could come in to pick up J. The very helpful Harbour Master (?) let us in, provided someone stays with the boat. We zig-zagged up and down outside while we got the fenders & lines sorted, and I mentally prepare for the stress of parking our new pride and joy for the first time in a strange dock.
Incredibly, all goes well, and there is no shouting – none at all! We moor alongside the last free bit of visitor’s pontoon, fitting in neatly behind a rib. HM comes down for a chat, and is surprised that we’ve come across the bar, and more surprised that we’ve come from Pwllheli. We chat for a while before he tells us that it’s £8.00 if we stay over half an hour, but generously concedes that as he’s kept us talking for 10 minutes already, he won’t be too strict about the timing! J has got the message that we’re in the dock (just as she got back onto the jetty) and has made her way round, laden with shopping bags – she’d left her car near Morrisons. S then suggested that she parked at the dock! S. made the journey back to Morrisons to fetch J’s car. We’re on our way again, heading up to Port Dinorwic (Y Felinheli, if you insist) where S. has left his car ready for leaving us in the morning, before we head through the Swellies.
Only a few of the buoys near PD had mooring strops on, so we assumed that these are in use, and headed for one of the ones without. On the first attempt, I managed to get a line through the ring on top of the buoy and started taking it forward, only to realise that I’d got the line inside one of the stanchions. Bugger! Let it go. It took us four more attempts before I could do it again.
Tied up, engine off at 17:00. 60 miles on the log.
J. is full of beans, and excited at the prospect of the trip ahead. I’m so tired I can’t speak, and my eyes won’t open, but I can still hear OK. S’ neck has turned to rubber, and it won’t hold his head up. Caroline has had a bit of a sleep and is marginally less comatose, so her and J cook us an absolutely gorgeous supper. J brings Champagne, so we toast Ayla, the voyage, and Neptune, but one small glass is enough. J started pumping water into the kettle to heat for washing-up, and I proudly show her that if you turn the red tap, hot water comes out – Ahh! the sheer luxury of a calorifier. The next thing I knew, it was morning, and the alarm was going off.
The morning was overcast, but ABSOLUTELY still.
I rowed S ashore as I couldn’t bring myself to shatter the peace by starting the outboard, and we were on our way again.
I’d attempted to explain the Swellies to Caroline and J, but had never been through. We arrived at Nelson’s statue at about 09:00, planning to pass through at about 09:30 (slack water). There didn’t seem to be much tide running, so I approached the bridge just after nine, only to find the current there stronger, so we hung around for another 15 minutes, after which, the suspense got too much, so we made another approach. Just as we were about to go under the bridge, we spotted two boats coming through the other way. Gawd! first time through is pressure enough, let alone doing it at low water slack, without having to avoid people coming from the opposite direction on the magic transit, too. So we aborted and turned away again. The skipper of the first boat gives us a big grin, and an exaggerated “Phew!”. After the second boat, I’m going for it – focussed on reversing the route of these boats, and the white beacon ahead. Caroline and J were watching the towers come into transit. I’d warned them that I might get a little terse. Just as we’re about to crash into Wales, we’re on the transit.
At this point, I made a bit of a mistake – I’d asked Caroline and J to call the distance the Swelly Perch while I concentrated on steering the reverse transit (I didn’t recognise Price’s point beacon for what it was until we went past it). I’m useless at steering reverse transits. I have evidence. Ayla has a ‘balanced’ spade rudder, and under full power, it feels a bit over balanced – let the tiller go, and it will slam hard over. We were in what was probably the narrowest part of the channel next to the Cribin rock which was poking menacingly above the surface. I was struggling to keep on the transit (brain problems) and decided to get up on the cockpit seat to steer. In executing this manoeuvre, I trod on the throttle and unleashed every ounce of the little Yanmar’s power, some of which went into pushing the tiller extension out of my hands, and whacking the tiller into my legs. As you might imagine, this caused a little consternation, as I struggled to get out from behind the tiller, find the throttle to back it off and then steer us the 90 degrees needed to get us pointing roughly the right direction again. I don’t think I found the optimum order for these tasks, but can report that the channel is indeed surprisingly wide. This shook me up, and I steered a very wobbly course up to Price’s point. Looking at the GPS track, I passed over the tail of Swelly Rock, so need to turn for the shore sooner in future.
The evidence (the track from the GPS):
We successfully avoided the Platters, and as we passed under the second bridge, a sense of elation took over! We picked up another buoy near Menai Bridge, and had a delicious cup of coffee and some toast while I stopped shaking and started grinning.
We were early for Conwy, and there wasn’t a breath of wind, so we hung around on the buoy, gave Ayla and Neptune their share of the Champagne (it was raining and dark the night before), and practiced reefing the main.
Sometime the sun came out. Still no wind, so we had a lazy motor up the straits on a sheet of glass.
J had never been around Puffin Island, so we cut in close, and hung around the North of the island watching the fat, lazy seals dozing on the exposed rocks before making for Conwy. The contrast in the sea state between Saturday and Sunday wasn’t lost on us.
Only one more horror remained – parking in the marina. Our previous boat (Pippin) was kept on a swinging mooring, and trips into the marina were a dreaded annual event prior to being lifted out. All fenders out, and J did a grand job of lassoing the cleat on the finger. All tied up, and STILL no shouting. A total of 80 miles on the log.
There’s some things I’d do differently if I were to have a second chance, and I wouldn’t have contemplated it if Ayla hadn’t been such a well sorted boat when we took her over, but I think we all did OK.
There was a definite spring in my step as I walked away down the pontoon.
If you’re read all this, you deserve a medal.