This extract is from an article by Audrey Faith Parker, ‘An eventful trip in a Tubby Little Ship’, originally published in Yachting Monthly, November 1947.
Departing on a voyage from Beaumaris to Weymouth just after the war, Audrey recounts how they consulted the coastguards, lighthouse keeper and lifeboatmen for invaluable advice in planning and executing a safe passage from Beaumaris across Caernarfon Bay to MIlford Haven in’Robinetta’, despite storms and gales.
OGA members Alison and Julian Cable continue to cruise in ‘Robinetta’. Follow her log here.
‘Robinetta’ spent her war years at Beaumaris on chocks in the open, and having fitted her out we were now sailing her round to Weymouth. One worthwhile thing we did was to take ample local advice for the awkward corners. The coxswain of the Beaumaris lifeboat was a friend of ours, and he recommended us to consult his opposite number in Fishguard and so on. We also had friends amongst the coast guards, and they were most helpful with advice and weather reports. They watched over us the whole way round with fatherly care – a few hours after we sailed from Dartmouth on our last hop they telephoned through to our home in Weymouth to say what time we should be wanting hot baths the following day!
The Swellies we knew, so they were soon negotiated and we clanked busily under the tubular bridge. To anyone who does not know this horrid patch well we would say it is essential to have minute directions from a local expert, and to learn them by heart or to follow another ship. The passage must be made at the top of slack high water, and the whole thing is so much smaller and narrower than one imagines from reading sailing directions that you must know what is coming by heart as there is no time to refer to books.
Caernarvon Bay was, to us, much worse. By this time a fresh breeze had sprung up against the tide and there was a short heavy sea. We had been told never to attempt it in these conditions, but we were in it before we know. With the short steep-to seas we made no progress plugging into the wind, so making full sail we kept the engine running and managed to beat slowly and bumpily out.
At 1305 we dropped anchor in Pilot’s Cove, Llandwyn Island, in four fathoms. In this cove there is comparative shelter from all winds with any west in them, and the bottom is hard sand. Apart from the single row of old coastguard cottages and the little lighthouse, there are no buildings on the island; no camping is allowed, so it is quite unspoilt. Mrs Jones (herself an ex-Caernarvon pilot) and her son, the lighthouse keeper are the only inhabitants, and Mrs Jones will give expert, if valuable, advice on the best spot to lie.
Next day looked perfect sailing weather, the BBC was optimistic and the coastguard reported favourable conditions all the way down. We set off at 11.00 on the 80 mile hop to Fishguard with a light NNE wind and high hopes. At first the wind was much lighter than we wanted, but by the end of the first 4 hours it was a perfect sailing breeze and we were spanking along at all of 4 knots, which is good for ‘Robinetta’ towing a dingy. As we approached Bardsey Island the sky astern took on an evil purple colour and looked thoroughly menacing. We fixed our eyes ahead and sailed as fast as we knew – there was nothing else for it. We had been warned off trying to find shelter anywhere down the Welsh coast (off our route anyway) so we stuck to our course which, we hoped, would give us a landfall on Fishguard breakwater.
By 19.39 it was really blowing up, so we took three reefs in the mainsail and stowed the staysail. The only remarkable thing about Robinetta’s roller reefing is that it has always worked and can be operated single handed from the cockpit. An iron horse is fixed to the forward end of the coachroofing, to which are shackled all the blocks for the halyards and reefing gear, which are then led aft to the cockpit. On the boom is a drum, around which is led ½ inch wire which follows through an iron block on the horse immediately below, through a second block on the port end of the horse, then aft to a wooden block midway to the cockpit. Through this block is a single purchase to the cockpit. The operation of reefing is carried out from the cockpit by slackening the peak and throat with one hand and heaving in on the reefing gear with the other hand – and round goes the boom as required.
All this reefing seemed over cautious, but we did not know our ship too well or what the unpleasant sky had in shore for us. An hour later it was beginning to be a bit tough, with a heavy beam sea and blowing strong from the NE, so in gathering gloom G. went forward to shift jibs.
The entries in our log from now on become a bit scrappy and difficult to read, but at 22.00 we wrote: “Full NE gale, Co. SSW/ Roaring along and luffing over the bigger seas. Raining intermittently and very cold. Just enough moonlight to see breaking seas in time to luff.” It was not really a full gale, but seemed even worse, luckily on the quarter – an exhilarating if anxious night.
We took hourly shifts at the helm to start with, but later, by mutual agreement G. did the lion’s share for he did not care for struggling into the cabin and wedging himself in to consult the chart. The arrangement suited me, as I had somehow strained my shoulder, so beside navigating my job was to sit firmly in the forward weather corner of the cockpit and keep out any breaking seas with my broad back.
At 0215. when the night seemed endless, the faint yellow flash of Strumble Head came winking through the wet darkness, bearing SW on the starboard bow exactly where we wanted it. A most cheering sight, and both of us felt better for seeing it. We crashed on, very cold, very wet, for another hour and a quarter, and sure enough dead ahead came the flashing red light on Fishguard breakwater. Morale became much higher. Especially as the wind had moderated slightly, though a heavy sea was still running.
At 0530 we rounded Fishguard breakwater and looked round that dismal grey harbour for a snug berth. Thankfully we drank large mugs of comforting hot coffee and turned in – but not for long. By 0800 we were both wide awake, with ‘Robinetta’ dragging and plunging and snubbing at her cable to such an extent that we knew we should have to shift – but to where? The wind had risen again and was blowing straight through the harbour entrance and at us. The only thing for it was to ask advice. There was no sign of life anywhere, so with a certain amount of difficulty G. pulled ashore to the lifeboat house. An hour later he returned with Ben, the lifeboat coxswain, and we heaved up the anchor and steamed out of the harbour and across the bay to Lower Town.
We were weather-bound four days in Lower Town while the gale blew itself out. During that time we took the chance of going to St David’s Head by bus just to see what the ill-famed Ramsey Sound did really look like and the lifeboat coxswain there pointed out the best passage through. When we made the passage once again we stuck rigidly to out local advice and were grateful for it. We got safely through, but in parts it was decidedly frightening.
On the afternoon of May 23 we sailed from Lower Town for Milford Haven. The day was bright, with light variable winds, while eventually died altogether, so almost the entire passage was deafening engine work. All was literally plain sailing for the first four hours until we turned the corner of St David’s head into Ramsey Sound, with the tide under us and a faint breeze dead ahead. We motored straight down without mishap, passing some very ugly tide rips at the southern end. Course was then set to passage one mile west of Skomer Island – we had decided not to attempt Jack Sound. By this time there was no wind at all, but a big westerly swell, legacy from the recent gale, came rolling in. We gave us any attempt at sailing and stowed sail to stop the banging and slatting. At 18.30 we altered course round Skomer into Broad Sound and made for St Anne’s Head. The glassy calm here made the madly swirling tide rips of each side look most uncanny, and we understood why people write about boiling eddies. We tried sailing once more to give ourselves a little peace and quiet, but it was no good, and we resigned ourselves to the racket for the rest of the passage. At last, with shattered ear drums and jagged nerves, we entered the Haven and dropped anchor in Dale Roads. It was 21.15 on a breathless, golden summer evening.