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Made famous by the 1967 TV series, "The Prisoner", created by, written by, produced by and starring Patrick McGoohan, the village of Portmeirion, may be reached by sea. I've been looking for the right tidal conditions to sail there and they occurred yesterday. So I phoned a friend, Ray, who'd already expressed an interest in sailing there with me and we made a plan to sail there from Criccieth on the Lleyn Peninsula.
We launched the Magnum 21 trimaran at low tide and I taught Ray the basics of sailing as we passed Black Rock Sands on our way to the entrance to Porthmadog harbour in fine conditions.
I've passed the fairway buoy several times but never entered the buoyed channel before. Using my new Garmin GPSmap76Cx we could see that we were sailing exactly along the chart datum line. When we passed the theoretical entrance to the channel I ventured to enter it. But we quickly found the centreboard hit the bottom so we beat a hasty retreat and started to read the water instead.
To be fair, the chart indicated that the channel was subject to continual change but that it was freshly buoyed each season. The buoys were some way off to the south and close to the Harlech side. We could easily see where the waves (which were coming from the SW) increased in amplitude and started to break, indicating shallow water, so we steered clear of them. In the far distance was Harlech with it's famous castle, once supplied directly from the sea, which was then at its foot.
We observed a green buoy on the beach, which was surprising! Maybe it had been placed there at low tide and would mark the edge of the channel when the tide came in.
As we got closer we also noticed jetskis zipping along the beach! "Ah ha!", I explained to Ray, "A mirage!" At sea the mirage (normally associated with the apparent appearance of water in deserts) is upside down. The refraction of the light caused by cold air over the sea and warm air above means that objects on the sea appear to be above it. So the green buoy was not on the beach after all.
We made the channel safely.
We turned left onto a very broad reach and had to watch out continually for the impending gybe, which inevitably came. Fortunately we'd practised this already and there was no great drama. The shore was very close and we could see the colour of the water change from slate blue to pale brown when we got too close to it. There were holidaymakers all along. Following the red and green buoys we were surprised by the sharpness of some of the turns we had to make and how close to the rocks we had to go to follow this channel. It was fun, discovering a new place and using the buoys in the manner that was intended, to lead a stranger into a port safely.
As we drew near to Porthmadog we arrived at the point where we would have to leave the channel and head for uncharted water. Well, there is a chart but it's not much use as it is based upon aerial photography and is dated 2002.
First we tried following the more obvious route between the sandbanks but quickly found the centreboard popping up and then the rudder also. We could see the bottom was only about a foot deep and we could easily step out and manhandle the boat if required. But it was about 1400 and we were hungry so we stopped for lunch instead, furling the jib and lifting the board and rudder so that no harm would come to them.
I had taken the precaution of bringing along a GoogleEarth aerial photograph of the Afon (River) Dywryd, which now served us well as we set off after our short break.
The channel took us on a semicircular sweep a considerable distance from the Portmeirion peninsula. The first sign of Portmeirion was the miniature lighthouse on the SE corner of this peninsula.
We were repeatedly touching the bottom with the centreboard. The bottom must have been undulating. Ray developed a technique with the centreboard control lines that enabled us to make progress whilst measuring the depth with the board. The rudder only popped up once or twice. The wind was slight and so fortunately we were only doing about 4 knots with the tide at this time.
Then all of a sudden we could see our destination, Portmeirion, opened by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis in 1926 to demonstrate how a naturally beautiful site could be developed without spoiling it.
We drove right up on the beach and Ray leapt ashore with the anchor whilst I took the sails down.
Then we climbed into the village for afternoon tea passing, on our way, another architectural masterpiece, the ketch that is actually part of the fabric of the village and yet looks quite realistic from the sea.
There are plenty of places to eat in Portmeirion and all kept immaculately clean and free of crumbs by the extremely tame wild life. The birds sweep in for their afternoon tea as soon as you stand up. In fact a one or two birds stood expectantly on our table whilst we were eating. There was, a robin, a chaffinch, a sparrow, a blackbird, a blue tit and more.
But we couldn't hang around admiring the architectural masterpieces that comprise this exquisite village because the incoming tide had already covered the anchor and we needed to get back into our trimaran whilst we could still paddle out to her.
It was this view of the estuary filled with sea water that had led me to want to sail here in the first place. Why? Because I could do it with the shallow draft of the Magnum 21. And, it was an adventure getting here. But now we had to get back before the tide ran out and, perhaps, left us high and dry.
Once in the boat, as there was still a bit of water left to come in, we had time for Ray to indulge his passion for bird watching. He was particularly keen to catch sight of the Osprey that is known to be hereabouts so, first of all, he set about cleaning my binoculars.
Leaving Portmeirion the wind was against us and the channel of indeterminate depth and width so I elected to use the engine. Ray kept an eye on the breadcrumb trail that we had made on our way in on the GPS chart and I kept an eye on the water for any clues about depth.
Sometimes it was the colour of the water but mostly it was a ripples, or rather the lack of them, that gave away the position of the deepest water. The tide was in the final stages of the flood and the wind was from the sea so the ripples were greatest where the water was slowest, over the shallow water. But there seemed to be another factor. There was a slight oilyness on the surface that seemed to be spreading out from the occasional gloopy bubble that emerged from the depths. There must have been some sort of animal life down there that had chosen to live where it would be covered with water for the maximum amount of time. And this thin layer of fish oil led to a calming of the ripples on the surface. We'd been motoring slowly at about 3 knots but as we emerged unscathed from the Dwyryd we started sailing and put the engine away as we were safely able to do 5 knots.
As we headed into Porthmadog for a quick look, we could see the narrow gauge Ffestiniog Mountain Railway train steaming along the causeway that separates the Afon (River) Glaslyn from the sea.
This is one of the great pleasures of sailing, seeing something or somewhere familiar from a completely different perspective. I have been in this train and I have driven along the road that is on the other side of the railway here but I had never seen it from the sea.
After Borth-y-Gest, a suburb of Porthmadog, we came upon the Porthmadog & Transfynydd Sailing Club slipway. In the right of the picture you can also see an island named Cei Ballast, which, of course, means ballast quay. In the days before railways all the trade was done around the coast and when a ship unloaded its cargo it needed to take on ballast before it was safe to sail away again. Otherwise the wind could have simply blown it over.
We decided to sail downwind between the two lines of moored yachts but mindful of the difficulty of tacking back out against the wind I turned around to test our ability to achieve this and discovered quickly that there was insufficient room for manoeuvre. Not because of the width of our trimaran but because the boats were tied nose to tail with virtually no gaps. This would have meant coming out on the engine and some dicey sail dropping in the confined harbour at the end. We changed our plan and headed altogether out of the harbour with the sails still up.
We did plenty of tacking. The channel was wide enough but perilously close to the rocks. Everybody else was coming back into the harbour under engine but we managed to avoid hitting anybody or anything.
Soon we out in the sea again. Once the beating to windward was over we were able to reach towards Criccieth at 8 knots where my car and the boat trailer were waiting above the high water mark in the evening gloom, as the sun was now unable to penetrate the thickening mask of cloud that had arrived from the south west. On the way home to Chester it rained heavily. Looking at the forecast upon my return it is clear that we'd managed to capture the last of the good weather for a while to come.
We'd only covered a total of 17 nautical miles but we'd enjoyed every minute. This was quite a different type of sailing to the passage from Criccieth to New Quay that Sue and I had undertaken four weeks ago in this Magnum 21 trimaran and it reminded me again of The Riddle of the Sands, a book written in the pre-war tension of 1913. Recommended reading.
I'm off to the USA today for a week on business but you should still be able to contact me by telephone. Best way is probably by text on my mobile number, 07985043981, which I am assured by Carphone Warehouse is a triband phone and will work there.
After a great breakfast at Summat Else we were taken by Kit in his car to the harbour at New Quay where our Magnum 21 trimaran was moored in the morning sunlight.
We'd turned up at the same state of tide that we'd left the boat the night before so that I could wade out to it before the tide went out and fix the centreboard with the aid of a screwdriver that Kit lent me. Sue (left) and Kit (right) chatted meanwhile with a lifeboatman from the adjacent lifeboat station.
With some care we extracted ourselves from amongst the web of mooring ropes lying round about and I realised the value of the oarlock at the stern. Shame we had no oar with us!
We anchored just a little way out to hoist the main sail and I took a series of shots that I later combined into this panorama of New Quay.
Kit photographed our departure into the haze that had engulfed Cardigan Bay.
A lone dolphin saw us off from New Quay and we quickly left behind the other two yachts that were leaving at the same time as we were, even though we were pointing more upwind than they were. We headed for the furthest point of land that we could see. This was our strategy all along the coast, so each time we could make out a new point we turned towards it. This meant that we were never more than 3 miles from land.
When we were alongside the TV mast that had been a major landmark for us the day before we stopped for something to eat.
A little further on was Aberystwyth. This time we passed it by.
Next after Aberystwyth we could see Borth, then Aberdovey and Tywyn.
But it was very difficult to make out what we were looking at. This is how it looked through binoculars. Click on it.
The red building on the top of the hill on the extreme right is the Aberystwyth cliff railway. The valley is that of Afon Clarach. To the left of the land that is in the foreground, just on the horizon, are some white houses. This is Borth. Aberdovey is not really visible at this stage and neither is Tywyn. But the farthest point of land visible, where the mountains slip imperceptibly into the sea, must be Pen Bwch Point.
When we got to Pen Bwch Point the wind was fresh and we had 20 minutes of excellent sailing at about 12 knots in fairly calm water. Then when we came alongside Barmouth the wind dropped suddenly and almost completely.
So we started the engine and motor-sailed to St Patrick's causeway before abandoning the sails altogether in complete calm. Somebody was anchoring a yacht on the glassy water in full view of Harlech castle. We left the main sail up to keep ourselves conspicuous and took the jib sheet off in preparation for our final arrival at Black Rock Sands. But blow me if the wind didn't get up again as we passed the Porthmadog estuary. Another Katabatic wind. So with the engine and the main sail we made our final approach at 10 knots.
The sun finally set over Criccieth as we dismantled our great little French trimaran, the Magnum 21. What a great weekend we'd had.
We learned a lot about the effect of the local topography upon wind last weekend. I'd looked at the forecast thinking, "How great, an east wind. That means, as the wind will be coming from the shore and the fetch will therefore be relatively short, the waves will be slight and we'll be able to go really fast all the way." How wrong I was!
The day started inauspiciously enough with a quick and easy assembly of the Magnum 21 trimaran.
Pretty soon we were sailing past Harlech.
So far so good. Warm sunny day. Clear air. Good breeze and the spectacular backdrop of the Welsh mountains of Snowdonia. What could be better?
We intend to drop into Barmouth and within an hour we are sailing past Mochras Point according to plan. We've the gennaker out as we are broad reaching with the wind from the NE. But as we sail along Morfa Dyffryn the wind heads us so, down comes the gennaker and we sail with just the main and jib. The nearer we get to Barmouth the stronger the wind becomes. It is a katabatic wind coming out of the estuary, which is behaving like a giant megaphone for the air that has cooled at the top of the mountains and rushed down the hills and followed the river Mawddach as though it were rain! There are white horses everywhere now and it is clear that we are going to lose a lot of time on our journey to New Quay if we insist on dropping into Barmouth so I elect to abandon that idea and we bear away. Speed is soon above 10 knots. In fact we hit 12.6 knots somewhere along the way.
We have a clearing line to keep our eye on that involves keeping a backward eye on Barmouth. Whilst I helm and keep the boat under control Sue combines the task of observing the Barmouth Churches astern with the avoidance of splashes of water in her face. Just as we're coming to the rocks that we have to clear, we are going so fast that the rudder pops up. No problem. Quick adjustment and we're off again. But it's clear that the conditions have become more severe and we need to take a reef.
So we furl the jib and take our first reef.
We clear Pen Bwch point and quickly realise that instead of the wind abating, it is getting stronger. The sea is alive with white horses so we take another reef. Needless to say I am not taking photos at this point.
The waves are getting bigger, about 1m from peak to trough. They are coming from the side, directly out of Aberdovey (Aberdyfi). Things are a bit scary as, in a trimaran, we are not used to heeling. But with a freeboard of about a metre and the righting moment only coming from the leeward float, which is at the bottom of a wave, and the danger of a gust getting under the windward trampoline I decide to take the sails down altogether and take stock.
First we have to furl the jib and Sue is having undue difficulty with this (which turns out later to be due to the thimble at the foot of the forestay having cut through the line tieing the tack of the jib down but we don't know this yet) so I run down wind until we can furl it together.
We take down the main and try the engine. It starts OK. Japanese. But there is so much cavitation that we are not going to be able to make any useful way with it. We try heading against the waves directly in towards Aberdyfi but it is hopeless. We cannot keep her under any meaningful level of control with the engine repeatedly coming out of the water. It is low tide anyway so crossing the bar would be difficult if we ever got anywhere near it.
I consider a MayDay but we are not in grave and imminent danger. Just a bit uncomfortable. So we try sailing with just the jib. It is a sailing boat we are in, after all, and I've done eleven knots on just the jib previously.
It works OK and Sue asks where to aim for. The most obvious landmark is the TV mast just south of Aberystwyth so we head for that. We have a cereal bar each to help keep energy levels up. The luff of the jib is somewhat curved because now we do not have the mainsail behind the mast pulling the mast backwards. So the get a better shape in the jib I remove the mainsheet from the mainsail and tie it to the main halyard and pull the mast backwards with the mainsheet. This is much better.
We change places and Sue sets about tidying up the main sail whilst I see how high we can point. It seems that the further we travel past Borth the higher we can point and there is a good chance we can make Aberystwyth just on the jib.
I'm scanning the horizon to seaward and think I can see a sail. I look again but - nothing. Then it's there again. It's grey. Then it's gone again. What is it? It is not on the horizon; it is above the horizon. It's a flying fish. "It's a dolphin!", I exclaim. "Look." "There's a dolphin swimming towards us and it's jumping into the air every now and then to check that it is coming in the right direction."
"Where?", says Sue, all excited.
"Over there." I nod. But it doesn't reappear.
Under the strain of the waves and wind our boat is creaking and groaning and clicking much like a dolphin would. It must have heard us through the water.
Then all of a sudden there are three dolphins swimming and jumping and diving all around us. It's amazing how they seem to know when you need your spirits uplifting.
For twenty minutes they play with us and entertain us then they quietly slip away.
We are definitely going to make Aberystwyth on this tack. No need to change anything. We just need to check the charts for dangerous rocks and get the binoculars out to see where the best place to land will be. We elect for the middle of the beach. As we get nearer and nearer the wind becomes calmer and calmer so that by the time we arrive we have all but stopped and one would have wondered why we were rigged as we were.
We're ready for a cup of tea and a toilet break and it is now after 4. We've been out there a long time.
People are sunbathing on the beach and we look distinctly over dressed. After holding the Magnum 21 in the surf for a while we eventually let her go out a little with the anchor on the beach. But although the waves are slight and no indication of the roughness of the sea further out the boat is wallowing in rather gritty sand and, when we get back in to depart, my fears of a seized centreboard are realised. We have seen this happen once before, at Carnac in France, where the sand is also gritty. Not the end of the world. A minor inconvenience.
I've brought no tools with me, as we need none for assembly and rigging, and the only tool one needs to access the centreboard is a Philips-head screwdriver but I have left it in the car at Black Rock Sands. But hey, we are going to be sailing downwind from here to New Quay so we don't need the centre board! After a sandwich we sail on.
We pass by the TV mast we've been heading towards and find ourselves running downwind, not particularly fast and as the evening progresses we feel the need to start the engine so that we can arrive at New Quay before dark. I phone Angela at our bed and breakfast, "Summat Else", to tell her we are still on our way and she kindly agrees to book us into a local restaurant overlooking the harbour.
Now we are surfing waves that are going in the same direction as we are and going pretty fast, 8-10 knots, with just the main up and the engine on. We check the charts to discover the flash sequence of any lights we might see emanating from Aberaeron or New Quay before it becomes so dark that we cannot read the charts (although I have head lamps if we need them). But it is not that dark yet and through the binoculars we can see a day boat ahead with brown sails approaching the harbour and showing us the way.
There is enough light to take a tour of the bay before plumping for a bit of beach adjacent to the lifeboat station and Angela is there to greet us. How kind. Her husband, Kit, has been watching us approach with his binoculars from his bedroom window.
We're whisked off to the Hungry Trout where we have the most excellent fish for supper and then walk on our shaky sea legs to our 4 star B&B, where we crash out after a welcome shower and are asleep in seconds.