Circumnavigating things has an inexplicable attraction to yachtsmen. For some the world alone is not enough, it has to be a first or the fastest or by the hardest route. For others dashing round a few buoys trying to be faster than the competition is an end in itself. Our ambitions were somewhere in between:- To sail our Cornish Shrimper “Daisy” around the navigationally challenging island of Anglesey in North Wales.
The waters around Anglesey are renowned for tidal streams of up to 8 knots; through the notorious rock strewn Swellies in the Menai Straits, the mighty tide races off South Stack and the Skerries Rocks off Carmel Head.
There are also many delightful sheltered bays, but they may not provide shelter when and where you need it. Many are also strewn with some of the oldest and hardest rocks in Britain and backed by storm beaches testifying to the great forces mother nature has used to make and shape Anglesey. At 75 miles the circumnavigation of Anglesey is 50% further than rounding the Isle of Wight. Though from Beaumaris it is feasible to complete the round trip through the three principle tide gates in a little over one tidal cycle, a break at Holyhead is more usual. Knowing the capricious nature of North Wales’ weather we allowed four days over the 2013 Whit Bank Holiday for our first attempt.
The next question is clockwise or anti clockwise. If going clockwise from Beaumaris the first tide gate is high water slack in the Swellies. However a fluke of the Anglesey tides means that slack water and high water do not necessarily coincide in the straits. This would allow us to carry the ebb down to and across Caernarfon Bar. The Bar is approximately 4 miles of shifting sands with shallow water which picks up a steep and dangerous swell when wind and tide are opposed. Next comes a 20 mile plug against a light ebb current up the west coast to South Stack this current gets stronger as South Stack is approached. However low water slack at the Stacks avoids the fearsome race, before carrying the first of the flood into Holyhead. The next tide gate is the narrow gap between Carmel Head and the Skerries. In wind over tide with a rough sea bed this gate has a deservedly fearsome reputation. At slack water or with light wind with tide it is a much more realistic proposition for a small boat. The tide along the north coast runs at up to 6 knots in springs before rounding Point Lynus for either the open crossing to Puffin Island or hugging the coast to Moelfre before crossing to Puffin Island and the last leg up the Straits to Beaumaris. Light to moderate southerlies favour this route.
Anti-clockwise I would aim for high water slack at Point Lynus then carry the ebb to Holyhead or if possible to avoid the race past the Stacks onto the south coast then carry the flood over Caernarfon Bar to get to the Swellies for High Water Slack. Light to moderate Northerlies favour this route.
At spring tides high water is around mid-day / midnight. At neaps 6am / 6pm.
Daisy is a Cornish Shrimper built in 1988. She spent the first years of her life sailing in the Baltic. She then passed to Sam Llewellyn the sailing writer who used her as one of his muses for the inspiring “Minimum Boat” series published in Practical Boat Owner. We bought the eponymous Daisy from Sam in 2012.
The Cornish Shrimper is a very popular design of trailer sailer, a “Plastic Gaffer” of which over a thousand have now been built. At 19’3″ long 7’3″ beam and a galvanised steel centreboard she is small but quite seaworthy in coastal waters. Sam had written articles about sailing Daisy around the remoter parts of the Hebrides north of Ardnamurchan in convoy with a select group of friends in similar boats. The Shrimper Owners Association website includes logs of many adventurous and not so adventurous voyages.
To preparing Daisy for the trip we added a ghoster, a storm jib (ex-mirror dinghy jib) and pride of the ship a new 2.5m long bamboo jib stick, to our normal rig of double reef able high peak gaff mainsail and roller reefing genoa.
For navigation our standard set up is PBO small craft almanac, Anglesey and N Wales Pilot, UKHO tough charts for the area and latest information on the Caernarfon Bar buoys downloaded from then Caernarfon Harbour Trust website. To try out this electronic navigation stuff, we added a couple of Garmin hand held GPS units and a 3G IPad with Imray raster chart plotter and tide plotter apps. For communication we carry a Standard Horizon handheld VHF radio and an old world band receiver. We also carry mobile smart phones with Pocket Gribb, Marine Weather and AIS apps. 3G reception around the island is generally very good.
Preparing ourselves included checking life jackets and upgrading Gordon’s 20-year-old waterproofs to breathable Helly Hansens. A suit with the added advantage that Gordon could also breath in it.
We arrived at NWVYC club house near Beaumaris late on Friday evening with strong NE winds blowing straight into the bay. Too rough to contemplate launching the dinghy then rowing out to Daisy’s mooring in the dark, we slept on the clubhouse floor.
Saturday 25 May 2013
Overnight the wind had dropped to a pleasant F1 still from the NE. Fried up breakfast, then inflated the Avon, fired up the Seagull and out to Daisy. Following our usual practice of beaching Daisy on a rising tide we loaded the kit and victuals, deflated the Avon and stowed it under the cockpit floor. Half an hour after beaching we were off, Gordon finishing the stowage below as we headed up the straits to catch our first tide gate, HW slack at the Swellies. The usual crop of high speed gin palaces played havoc with the moored boats.
Right on time for “Slack Water at the Swellies”, even so between the Menai and Britannia bridges passing the Swellies and the fearsome Gribbin Rock, eddies and boils played with Daisy’s keel. The sun shone, sun tan lotion was applied and coats were kept buttoned high against the cold. Past Plas Newydd and Porth Dinorwic, we motored “as fast as the wind”, but at f0-1 that is not a great claim. Avoiding the fleet of Optimists race training from Plas Menai we closed the Anglesey shore below the parish of Llanidan, home of my ancestors. The wind changed to SW as we passed the imposing ramparts of Caernarfon Castle, then onto the opening vista of Abermenai and the Fort Belan Narrows. All the while the mighty shoulder of Snowdonia filled the Eastern horizon.
We turned the South Westerly wind from our head to our beam as we crossed the bar, stopped the engine and laid course for the Stacks. We ghosted past Llanddwyn Island legendary home to St Dwynwen, Wales’ patron saint of love, on across the dune backed Malltreath Bay and the low cliffs of Aberfraw. The wind turned more Westerly and our speed was countered by the ebb tide, so we fired up the engine again to keep to time for the tide gate at the stacks. We killed the engine by Rhoscolyn then dozed. Tacking our way across Trearddur Bay we passed anglers hoping for a bite and sea kayakers playing the gentle swell. Close tacking in-shore we caught the back eddies of the dying ebb which carried us to Penrhyn Mawr and the start of the rising cliffs of Holy Island. With slack water approaching we ghosted close in under the guillemot coated cliffs, reaching South Stack in bright cold sunshine just as the tide turned. But with eddies spinning Daisy it was time for some steerage way and a motor past North Stack while a porpoise played in the eddies.
As the sun fell below the peak the first wisps of cirrus, gave a hint of the trouble brewing. Holyhead breakwater was beckoning ahead, but it took another half an hour to pass it then a further twenty minutes inside before we reached the Marina.
“Free Berthing for Gaffers” was an offer we could not resist; thanks go to the Old Gaffers 50th Anniversary round Britain Challenge. By the time we had secured, tidied ship, booked in and abluted, the party was well underway in the sailing club restaurant. Greeted by that ever enthusiastic Old Gaffer Sue Farrer we joined the fun. The threat of gales from the north was a hot topic of conversation. Refilling our spare petrol tank was achieved thanks to the generous Sue, her car and a quick dash across town to the all night filling station. Then back to the bar to complete our own refuelling. 20 hours after leaving them we returned to the warmth of sleeping bags, with alarm set to catch the early shipping forecast.
Sunday 26 May 2013
After the dreamlike quality of yesterday, high winds and a wind shift overnight left a dull early morning. The lowering greyness threatened more to come, with the shipping forecasts confirming it. Back to the realities of sailing Welsh waters. No chance of staying for the gaffer’s post hangover festivities, the early tide for us.
We were not alone as we quietly motored out past sleeping Gaffers. Comrades a blue hulled nobby was also heading out for Carmel Head as we made our way to sea past the long breakwater. An oily swell from the SW greeted us as we crossed Holyhead Bay. Approaching the Skerries our speed picked up and the fingers of tide started to play gently with Daisy’s keel. Gordon prepared a hearty breakfast of bacon butties, as the swirls and up-wellings from the submerged stacks became more pronounced.
At Skerries Slack + 2 Hours: We took the middle passage keeping well off the headland and the Skerries, while Comrades slipped through close under Carmel Head. 210oT back bearings on North Stack with South Stack just opening, confirmed our line while the GPS showed increasing “Speed Over Ground”. A standing wave across our route rose from the depths then was soon behind us. More boils and eddies followed until the 260oT cross bearing from the Skerries Light gave us our turning mark. Up sails and off with the engine to start the 6-8 knot travellator ride along Anglesey’s North Coast.
A late decision to cut inside Middle Mouse almost lead to disaster as the tide swept us uncomfortably close to the rocks. A quick burst of engine saw us clear and another lesson learned. Tracking close in under the cliffs we aimed for Porth Wen. Ferry gliding to jump off the travellator we explored deep into this sheltered anchorage backed by the abandoned brick works. Then back out into the tidal stream to be swept past East Mouse, Amlwch and Point Lynas.
Then the wind hit us. One reef quickly pulled in stabilised matters as we close hauled across Fresh Water Bay, Dulas Bay and closed into Moelfre. The stream of yachts and motor cruisers leaving Moelfre as the skies darkened giving a forewarning of the lack of shelter, so we eased sheets for Trwyn Du and the entrance to the Straits. On the horizon other gaffers started to appear heading for the shelter of the straits and beyond. Turning in past Puffin Island we made long tacks over the sands and up to Beaumaris. The wind was increasing all the way to the mooring.
Leaving Daisy on the mooring we went ashore for a brew and lunch in the club house. But with the winds picked up from F4 to 5 to 6 and above, there was no getting back to Daisy safely until the tide dropped. The sky cleared but the wind blew up and up. Eventually we waded over the mud to collect clothes and bedding before settling down for another night on the Clubhouse floor.