Our plan for this year’s summer voyage is what we had planned to do last year had it not been for the pandemic - to head out of Bristol and meander our way via Wales and Ireland to Scotland, finally leaving Aremiti in Oban for the winter - a cruise of three countries! Last year’s alternative was our wonderful but eventful cruise to the Scillies and back to Bristol since when the fuel tank – cause of dramas last summer – has been fully cleansed of debris and an emergency back-up tank installed. We have also lavished more love – and money - on Aremiti, in the form of a new dinghy, new rigging and a new anchor chain, as well as all the usual maintenance and pre-voyage titivating.
We departed Bristol harbour in the middle of June, somewhat frazzled by all the final preparations on the boat and for leaving the house for the summer – amazing how many jobs can only be done at the last minute. A lot of farewell socialising was also required!
The preliminary stage of the voyage we regarded more or less as a delivery trip to get us out of the Bristol Channel ready to start cruising. The timing of high water Bristol on the day of departure was first thing in the morning, usefully giving us a full day to get as far as possible with good tide. Setting off down the Avon is always a lovely experience and all the more interesting since becoming more familiar with the river banks during lockdown walks. We emerged out into the Severn into sunshine and no wind at all – we’d never seen it flatter – passing more sights now familiar to us from walks on promontories into the Bristol Channel – Sand Point, Birnbeck Pier, Brean Down. We swept between the Holms just after midday at 9.2 knots and, motoring all 66 miles, arrived in Oxwich Bay in the Gower in time for supper. A useful first day and lovely anchorage for our first night - once the plague of jet skis roared away leaving us to enjoy the tranquillity.
Our second day was spent in a mist creeping along the coast as we departed on the west-going tide. Visibility went from bad to worse for most of the day and, again, there was no wind. Crossing Carmarthen Bay in low visibility and a lumpy sea was uninspiring – but at least the firing range on our direct route wasn’t in action that day so no lengthy detours were necessary, and we arrived in Dale just inside Milford Haven to anchor early evening by now in sunshine, after 45 miles.
Our stay in Dale was prolonged initially by our just wanting to chill out for a bit and then by forecasts of strong northerlies blowing up over the next few days. Had we been heading for Padstow, we could have enjoyed a most exhilarating sail. However, Dale is a lovely place to be – the prettiness of anchorage on two sides contrasting sharply with the view of the great terminal and oil refinery with incongruously huge ships entering between the scattered islands and rocks at the entrance of the haven. Completely protected and safe, we felt the tensions of the past couple of weeks of our hectic departure ebb away.
Planning for this first leg of our voyage – northwards up the coast of Wales to Holyhead – was dominated by tidal constraints, a scarcity of secure harbours and anchorages, firing ranges which potentially cover the whole of Cardigan Bay, and the seemingly relentless prevalence of northerly winds. The last time we were in these parts we bypassed the whole coast from Skomer right up to Port Dinllaen just a few miles from Caernarfon in one day but we had other plans this time.
Our next anchorage was the south haven of the island of Skomer just 10 miles from Dale. We arrived in the evening to the magical sights and sounds of birds wheeling, dipping and diving all around the little cove, watched not only by us, but by three large seals basking on rocks to one side. Enthralling. Waking early the next morning the cacophony of birds was busier and louder than ever, now watched by 14 seals. We sat, entranced particularly by the puffins – so endearing – most in little fleets on the water but many guarding their burrows scattered all the way up the steep hillside. It was hard to tear ourselves away after a couple of hours to make the exact timing for passage northwards through Jack Sound, between the island and the mainland. When you get the timing right for these tidal gates, you wonder what all the fuss is about, but get it wrong and you could end up battling between rocks through turbulent waters against 7 knots of tide. Across Bride’s Bay there is Ramsay Sound where, conveniently, the right timing coincides with the time taken to get there from Jack Sound.
We motor-sailed in very little wind – always northerlies or no wind - arriving in Fishguard mid afternoon to anchor in shallow waters some way out from the Lower Harbour. Last time we were in Fishguard, over 20 years ago, we were given special permission to anchor in the main ferry port behind the huge harbour wall, to protect us from a battering from the tail end of a hurricane, making the outer anchorage untenable. This time all was very peaceful and we gave our new dinghy its first proper outing to the quaint little drying harbour of Lower Fishguard with its sweet quayside cottages – many tastefully done up holiday homes - and bizarrely not a single shop of any description.
Forecasts of more strong northerlies, which would make Fishguard uncomfortable, meant we had to push on the next day to Aberystwyth which has a safe harbour and marina. This turned out to be a somewhat stressful passage. The entrance to Aberystwyth harbour is tidal and can only be entered 2 hours either side of high water. Having not visited this harbour before, we planned to enter before high water on a rising tide – just in case! We thought we had allowed plenty of time but encountered not only winds (against us) stronger than forecast but also a far stronger adverse tidal current than anticipated, between them slowing our progress to the point we seriously wondered if we would make it in time. There are no alternative locations with protection from the north on that 40 mile stretch of coast – hence the stress. There were distractions – listening to coastguard radio communications all around the Irish Sea – Milford Haven, Holyhead, Belfast, Dublin and Rosslare - felt like a welcome into Irish Sea waters. Three large and exuberant dolphins coming out to play at the bow lifted the spirits a little. The sight of Snowdonia appearing mistily as we drew closer was exciting and welcome. Eventually, two hours after expected, the tide gradually started to turn in our favour though never as strongly as it had been against us, and we were in - phew!
Other than the passage to get there, we were very happy indeed with everything else in Aberystwyth. The marina was a delightful mix of excellent modern facilities and helpful staff combined with the atmosphere of a working harbour alongside it. Our main purpose in going there was as a nostalgia trip for Chris who lived there between the ages of 6 and 12, so we spent some time, in the course of a couple of good walks checking out old haunts. We found the lodge where his family lived while his father was employed as chauffeur-gardener to the doctor at the ‘big house’. The Lodge was empty but we met the relatively new owners of said big house who were fascinated to hear what Chris could tell them about the house and history as they showed us over the extensive gardens. We met the current very enthusiastic headmaster of Chris’ primary school – which was in good shape, and unchanged from when Chris started there nearly 70 years ago when it was newly built! We checked out his grammar school – looking the same but now converted to flats, and various other landmarks around this slightly faded Victorian seaside resort.
While in Aberystwyth we had also hoped to sort out our wind generator. The replacement of one of its blades has put it off balance and correcting this will need a platform or crane, given that it is perched on the top of the mizzen mast. The harbour there has a suitable wall and a crane is available, however the newly instated harbourmaster for the area completely vetoed the operation on grounds of health and safety – leaving the marina manager and on-site sub-harbourmaster scratching their heads in bafflement, given that this is a working port and such operations have previously been routine ….
Our next major destination was Holyhead, involving more tidal issues - the exit from Aberystwyth, the passage through Bardsey Sound and the 45 mile passage onwards, ideally with, rather than against the strong tide to avoid numerous patches of overfalls off Holy Island. We were held up a couple of days by the seemingly never-ending strong northerlies, but finally a window appeared and we were able to move on. Almost immediately on leaving the harbour we found ourselves in perfect sailing conditions – a beam reach, in sunshine and good tide. A proper sail at last! Speeding along at well over 6 knots, sometimes over 7, under genny and mizzen was enthralling after so much motoring! We covered 30 miles in 5 hours before the wind dropped off and the tide went against us for the final few miles. We dropped the anchor in Aberdaron Bay, tucked in on the southern end of the Lleyn peninsula and well sheltered from northerlies. A good day!
Aberdaron is a pretty, very Welsh, little village, a bit swamped by holidaymakers. Moving on to Holyhead wasn’t feasible for the next few days – so a good walk took us out to the headland for a view of the island of Bardsey and to recce the notorious Sound. On the way we passed Porth Meudwy, a tiny cove from where small ferries take visitors to the island, involving a rather singular method of getting ashore. Boats, together with their passengers are brought out of the water on a cradle driven into the water for boat to position itself into, the whole contraption then being hauled ashore by tractor. We chatted to Colin, the ferry skipper about anchoring off Bardsey itself, which according to our rather scanty information looked dodgy. Lovely chap, he said ‘Why anchor, use my buoy there.’ So we thought we would! First thing the following morning we went across to the island, to Henllwyn Cove which serves as the island’s ‘harbour’. As the small cove is entirely surrounded by rocks with a few offshore outliers, we appreciated the buoy. The cove is home to a large colony of seals – magical just to sit in the cockpit observing them - some with heads bobbing in the water looked initially like small buoys, most were stretched out on the rocks higgledy piggledy in the most uncomfortable-looking positions – 50 or more of them all within a couple of hundred metres of the boat.
The island of Bardsey is a couple of miles off the mainland - its Welsh name, Ynys Enlii means ‘Island in the currents’. The island was a major centre of pilgrimage from the 6th century until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, and claims to be the final resting place of 20,000 saints – and also Merlin. The population is under 10 residents, most of whom spend the winter months on the mainland. There is a farm and bird observatory. Nine properties with extremely basic facilities are let out to visitors. These days Bardsey still attracts pilgrims – many in the form of birdwatchers and others simply seeking a retreat from modern life.
Going ashore at the concrete slipway – the only means of landing - we found the same system for getting boats ashore as in Porth Meudwy. A stroll up the main track took us to the one café where we ordered a meal for the evening – as suggested by Colin. The proprietor looked initially hesitant, telling us that she had no crab or lobsters – today’s catch had just been taken off to the mainland. However, she managed to contact the fisherman and get him to bring a couple of lobsters back for us! We strolled the length and breadth and height of the island – just a mile and a half long by half a mile wide and 548 ft high – soaking up the ambience – birds and sheep and a very defensive oystercatcher. Back on board Aremiti a stiff little breeze picked up causing some anxiety about the trip ashore for our meal. We’d be stuffed if the dinghy outboard broke down – blown straight out into the Irish Sea never to be seen again! However, by the time we left, it had died down. The lobster was sweet and succulent – in fact the best we have ever tasted - eaten outside with a view out across the Irish Sea where we could just pick out the Wicklow Mountains.
There was no internet or even phone signal on Bardsey – unusual these days for us to be without any form of communication. We missed our usual sources of information more than we’d have thought, falling back on Navtex, which we rarely use these days, and broadcast shipping forecasts, but without access to the online sites we usually scan.
After two days, although the forecast wind wasn’t particularly favourable we felt it was time to press on. Bardsey Sound is another passage best done at slack water to avoid vicious overfalls as tide races through. Going round ‘the long way’ is not really an option due to overfalls extending some miles offshore. We set off a little early with the tide still against us making for a slow and rather lumpy start, but within a couple of hours we had 2 knots of tide in our favour and a smoother sea enabling us to motor-sail a good course. We arrived off the very rugged coast of Holy Island as the huge Stena Adventurer ferry emerged from Holyhead harbour on its way to Dublin. A little too early, the 2 knot tide in our favour was still producing overfalls. However, as we turned eastwards towards the harbour entrance the current instantly reversed against us at 2 knots racing away in the other direction – very curious. The huge harbour is bounded by a mighty breakwater which, when completed in 1873 was the longest in the world, and is still the longest in Europe – 1 ½ miles snaking out into the sea in an aesthetically pleasing curve. Holyhead marina, in a corner of the harbour, was completely destroyed by Storm Emma in March 2018 which washed away pontoons and destroyed up to 80 boats. All that remains is a bleak and slightly battered concrete pontoon which visitors can moor to, surrounded by a vast number of boats on buoys. No one was there and this ending to our Welsh odyssey did not initially feel especially cheery. However, the place grew on us – and the shoreside facilities at the marina were excellent. Holyhead town is as down at heel as we’d anticipated, but we enjoyed a wonderful rugged coast path walk past north and south stacks and back past Holyhead Mountain.
We’re now 276 miles from Bristol and poised to cross the Irish Sea. The month has been characterised by almost permanent and very chilly northerly winds. On most days the Met’s Onshore Waters Forecast has shown the area outlined in red denoting strong wind warnings. We fervently hope for better in July….. Notwithstanding the weather, we’ve enjoyed the challenges of the Welsh coast and meeting so many seals!
Julia and Chris