The swallows were lining the telegraph wires as we started contemplating a winter berth. Comparing prices, Conwy would be an expensive option for the winter. With Covid restrictions tightening again a passage to Victoria Dock, Caernarfon was agreed. Covid near misses and alerts ment several changes of potential crew during the week. At last a negative covid test result for Elin and Jonathan’s priority to stay Covid free to be part of the Commissioning Team for RRS Sir David Attenborough made the final crew Chris, Ian & Elin.
It was the end of September and an early start for what would turn into an eventful day. The winds had started to drop after the overnight gales. But a chill wind from the North persisted, Autumn is approaching.
After chatting with the owner of another Contessa 32 in Conwy who had only just launched after an extended winter refit, we left Conwy Marina for our winter berth. There was a stiff wind in the channel gusting into F6 with wind over tide. Turning for the reach out to the Fairway Buoy the chop eased as the swell thundered on the protecting banks to windward. But with Conwy Fairway Buoy abeam and no protection the ground swell increased with larger waves at intervals. We cleared Penmaenmawr and with the wind against the tidal stream coming out of the straits, the swell got steeper. Close reaching with full genoa and a single reefed main we aimed to clear Puffin Island. Then a large wave broke against the genoa pulling out the tack. Elin on the helm had us quickly furling the genoa to continue under engine and main.
Turning around the West side of Puffin Island with the main sheeted in to minimize the risk of damage from a crash gybe, we were running before large waves as we approached Penmon Point, the Tuddyn Ddu lighthouse and the entrance to the Menai Straits channel. A jet ski was having great fun playing in the breakers ahead as we turned into Straits channel. A few minutes later as we drew closer, we could see the Jet Skiers waving from the water, clearly in trouble and drifting across the narrowest part of the channel towards the sand banks. We closed to assist.
With our throwing line we were able to secure the Jet Ski and we picked up the first Jet Skier “Simon” fairly easily. But by this stage he was already very cold and vomiting sea water, he also seemed a bit confused. We then backed up the throwing line with a mooring warp tied by Simon’s mate to the handlebars of the Jet Ski. The swell was still considerable in the narrow channel between Tuddyn Ddu and the beacon off Puffin Island and worse further out. As the Jet Ski sheared off and capsized, Simon’s mate fell off into the water and was soon out of reach.
Ian sent the MAYDAY call to Holyhead Coastguard as I tried to turn White Knight around. Elin was everywhere, pointing to the jetskier in the water and sorting warps. The drag from the shearing Jet Ski made turning difficult, but I managed to use the mainsail to assist the turn.
Within a few minutes we managed to regain contact and get the second Jet Skier “Dean” on board. He seemed in better condition than Simon but was concerned that his phone and car keys were still in the Jet Ski. We updated the Coastguard that we had both on board and the Jet Ski in tow heading for Beaumaris. However, as it would take over an hour for us to get there and as Simon was still not in a good way Beaumaris Lifeboat was dispatched. Steering remained difficult with the Jet Ski shearing off sideways. Elin was dolling out warm drinks, coats and a space blanket while Ian continued monitoring Simon and Dean’s condition.
Above Buoy B1 and at last out of the worst of the swell, the mooring line to the jet ski handlebars became detached and the throw line quickly chafed through. We decided to stand by the jet ski until the Lifeboat arrived rather than attempt to reattach the tow.
The Lifeboat with its covid masked crew, was on scene less than 25 minutes after our initial MAYDAY call. Simon was very cold, still confused and clammy so, after covid checks, was immediate transferred to the lifeboat with Dr Ian for a rapid evacuation to Beaumaris and a waiting ambulance. Or was Ian really just wanting to have a trip on the Atlantic 85 B Class Lifeboat?
We stood by the Jet ski with Dean still on White Knight holding tight to the pushpit andvomiting regularly. Gradually we were drifting past Buoy B2 towards Dutchman’s Bank, monitoring depth as we drifted onto the edge of the deep-water channel.
The Lifeboat returned in time to collect Dean and recover the Jet Ski getting a tow line to the eye below the jet ski’s bows before we hit the sand.
I tidied up, washed away the worst of the vomit as we resumed passage up the Strait. Elin elated, steering and texting her friends and family reassuring them that everybody was OK and reminding every body that she was still wanting to join the Lifeboats.
I nipped below for a comfort break then felt the slight slowing lurch as we ran into the soft sand between buoys B6 & B8. Elin had not noticed the bend in the channel. It was quickly clear that going ahead would put us further onto the sands and the prop walk in reverse was also pulling us further on. Heeling only allowed the wind to blow us even further on. So as it was close to low water with no swell it was out with the kedge to await the return of the tide.
Elin wants me to point out that “it was not her fault” and there were several other factors at play:
- Previously (nearing high water) we had been able to cut this corner without incident, but the tide had dropped significantly while we were sorting out the jet ski incident,
- She was distracted as she was still washing vomit from the cockpit and she was following the lifeboat which had apparently safely cut the corner,
- The sand banks had shifted further into the channel
- The adrenaline high was kicking in
- The skipper was not in the cockpit at the time.
- The shallow water alarm had not been activated.
I rang Ian to say we would be a bit delayed. He happened to be standing next to the Coastguard. The lifeboat was dispatched back to tow us clear. After getting their tow rope cleared from around their prop, the Lifeboat, along with all our weight on the boom and shrouds to heel us, used its 230 HP to pull us clear. All a bit embarrassing. The old moto, “No good deed goes unpunished” proved just as true at sea as in office politics.
Coming alongside Beaumaris Pier old friend and Coastguard “Trigger” was on hand to take warps and add to the chaff. We finished clearing up after the grounding and collected Ian. Simon and Dean were by now deemed OK after having been checked over by the Ambulance crew. Somebody had given them a lift to collect their car and trailer.
Departing Beaumaris, we put a call through to Holyhead Coast Guard to thank them for their assistance and were thanked in return. Meanwhile the Coastguard crew were legging it up the pier then with blue lights and sirens heading off on another shout. A few moments later we were called back by Holyhead Coastguard, another boat was “in trouble off Gallows Point. Could we assist?” A RIB had been spotted aground on the sands on the mainland shore. We saw them and a jet skier was already assisting. We relayed progress to the Coastguard, but it was too shallow for us to approach any closer. Eventually the jet skier managed to tow the rib back out to deeper water and get it started again.
We picked up a large mooring off Menai Bridge for lunch and a snooze. Elin watched Benidorm on her I Phone while Ian caught up on E Mails. So we generally relaxed to await the tide to pass through the Swellies. By this time the local paper had got hold of the story and could not resist the headline “White Knight to the Rescue”
The Swellies is the most treacherous section of the Menai Strait. A medieval document states: In that arm of the see that departeth between this island Mon and North Wales is a swelowe that draweth to schippes that seileth and sweloweth hem yn, as doth Scylla and Charybdis – therefore we may nouzt seile by this swalowe but slily at the full see.
The reference to the Greek sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis who inhabited a whirlpool in the straits of Messina is apt, capturing the essence of the tightest bits of the channel with the seething waters sucking the unwary between the rocks and shoals with little control of their steering;
The sea monster Charybdis was believed to live under a small rock on one side of a narrow channel. Opposite her was Scylla, another sea monster, that lived inside a much larger rock. The sides of the strait were within an arrow-shot of each other, and sailors attempting to avoid one of them would come in reach of the other. To be “between Scylla and Charybdis” therefore means to be presented with two opposite dangers, the task being to find a route that avoids both. Three times a day, Charybdis swallowed a huge amount of water, before belching it back out again, creating large whirlpools capable of dragging a ship underwater.
Thank goodness for the now (hopefully) reliable Green Donkey in its stable beneath the companion way steps.
Slack water in the Menai Straits is a moving entity as the tides flow around the island of Anglesey and into each end of the straits at different times, initially from the south. “HW” slack moves from the North to reach the Swellies about 2.5 hours before HW Liverpool, the tide continuing to rise for another hour fed from the north, by which time the current can reach 4-5 knots. The ideal time for southbound boats to traverse is just before slack water with a north flowing current to give steerage without having much speed over the ground.
We dropped the mooring and headed under Telford’s great suspension bridge and through the Swellies, avoiding the Platters (North and South) Swelly Rock, Prices Point Shoals, Cribbin Rock and the Chicken Rock before breaking out under Stephenson’s box girder bridge less than a mile later and on into the southern Straits.
Felin Heli abeam and the sun dropping behind the clouds towards the horizon. News of our exploits was spreading, friends on holiday in Yorkshire started posting congratulatory comments on anti-social media. Oh, for the days before 24 hour rolling news. Past Plas Menai the sandbanks have grown substantially since the chart was last updated, with bouyage adjusted accordingly.
We entered Victoria Dock Caernarfon just before sunset securing to our winter berth to coil down and return home. A masked Jonathan giving us a lift back to Conwy to collect the car.
With Covid rising again it was time to start winterizing White Knight.