When Jeff Middleton got into difficulties with a stuck prop shaft while trying to anchor in Bull Bay on Anglesey, he never imagined it would result in the loss of his beloved 31ft Westerly Berwick junk rig yacht

Dreams of junk rig regatta events and my plans for sailing in 2023 came to an abrupt end on the 3 May when I got into difficulties trying to anchor in Bull Bay on Anglesey.

I’d set off from the north-west coast, bound for the River Dart where I intended to keep my Westerly Berwick Sesi for the summer, when I made what would have been an overnight stop in Wales.

I was single-handing to Holyhead to meet a friend so we could sail together the rest of the way. But I didn’t make it. Sesi was completely destroyed but I managed to get off onto rocks and scramble to safety before help arrived.

I suffered nothing more than wet feet though nothing could be done to save the boat, which I had lovingly converted into a McGalliard rig.

Sesi, a 31ft Westerly yacht sailing

Sesi at the Junk Rig Association rally at Kippford in 2015. Credit: Crew of Badger

The rise of Sesi

Sesi was one of the popular Westerly series of 31ft family cruisers, not the raciest of boats but a very capable passage maker designed by Laurent Giles.

She was the bilge keel sloop version built in 1978 that I bought in the year 2000 and kept moored at the Ribble Cruising Club dock at Lytham.

I was very happy with Sesi but I wasn’t confident in my single-handed ability to sail her to a safe haven in challenging conditions in the event of an engine failure.

While considering the options I came across the excellent article by David Harding in Practical Boat Owner in November 2011.

It told the story of how Slieve McGalliard, of the Junk Rig Association (JRA), had invented the split junk rig.

Slieve converted the Westerly Longbow Poppy to his split junk rig, it had cambered sails, was easy to handle, and outperformed many Bermudan rigs in the Round the Island races.

As the only difference between the Longbow and the Berwick is the keel, a McGalliard rig conversion seemed to be the answer I was looking for and indeed it was.

After joining the JRA I was able to contact Slieve who gave me all the help, advice and encouragement I needed to take on the conversion of Sesi.

I refer to it as the McGalliard rig because I think the term ‘split junk’ has become too generic as there are now many split junks which would not meet the requirements of Slieve’s specific design.

Over the winter of 2014/15, I converted Sesi to the McGalliard rig. This entailed installing an unstayed aluminium mast, having aluminium yard and battens made, making the sails and adding rigging hardware.

The sailing performance of the conversion was highly satisfactory, the sails were automatically always in balance and also self-tacking.

Weather helm was nonexistent, it was a pleasure to sail and easier to rig. I recommend this conversion to anyone who is considering a modern westernised junk rig.

The fall of Sesi

Stricken 31ft Westerly yacht against rocks at Bull Bay, Anglesey

Jeff had owned his beloved Sesi for 23 years before the grounding. Credit: Jeff Middleton

After having owned Sesi for 23 years I can say with confidence that she was well maintained and in good order.

I sailed her to the Isle of Man every year since her conversion to junk rig until 2021 and 2022 when Covid restrictions prevented it.

In those years I based myself in Anglesey which is an excellent cruising area and has the advantage of a good train service.

Come 2023 I planned to base myself on the River Dart where I could more easily get involved in the JRA events that take place on the south coast: the Brixham Heritage Sailing Regatta makes the junk rigs very welcome, and even have a junk rig class.

And also the JRA tends to have their annual general meeting in France. In 2022 it was held in Roscoff and a few boats went over.

Last year it was being held in the Gulf of Morbihan and I was hoping to get in on that. Sadly, I got no nearer than Bull Bay on the north coast of Anglesey.

I have to admit I’m not well practised at anchoring and in my case it is quite a laboured operation. I lowered the anchor with a trip line and by the time I got the anchor dug in and the boat had swung around I found that I was far too near to the rocky headland.

It was while trying to move to a safer position by a series of motoring forward then pulling in some chain, then repeating the operation, that the trip line got caught around the propeller and stopped the engine.

I re-started the engine in neutral and put it in reverse gear hoping the trip line may unwind itself but the engine immediately stalled again.

After repeating this several times it became obvious the prop shaft was well and truly stuck. I was by this time very close to the rocks.

I tried to sail away from the rocks hoping the sail bundle would provide some lift but it was too late.

Continues below…

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Bermudan rig vs Junk rig

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Stricken yacht against rocks at Bull Bay, Anglesey

Illuminated by the lifeboat on the scene. Credit: Bonty and Gaz Owen/RNLI Moelfre

I was side-on to the rocks and hearing the sickening sound of cracking glassfibre. I was going nowhere, it was time to call for help.

My Mayday call brought an immediate response from the Holyhead Coastguard who alerted the Moelfre Lifeboat, the Moelfre and Cemaes Mobile Coastguard teams, and the Coastguard Rescue Helicopter.

The boat was now being battered against the rocks. I’d noticed there was a large rock behind the boat that I could jump onto and get to safely. With the boat being battered I just knew I needed to get off and didn’t think to grab my wallet or anything.

I was hoping to be able to recover Sesi and take her somewhere to be repaired. She was in really good condition, with a great engine and everything.

I told the Coastguard that I was getting off the boat, and was advised to only get off if it was safe to do so and wear a lifejacket, which I was.

I climbed down the stern ladder and then jumped onto the rock. I slipped back under the transom of the boat as it came down and trapped my left foot.

I thought I was going to get a crushed foot but fortunately, the buoyancy of the boat took the weight off it and I was able to pull my foot out unharmed. I was extremely lucky.

It was not long before the Coastguard Search and Rescue teams arrived. They could see my masthead light from the road which was only a short distance from the headland.

They had powerful hand lamps and they were able to light the way up the headland and get me to their vehicles.

I waited in their vehicle while they did a full assessment of the boat’s situation.

The receding tide had left the boat perched precariously on the rocks, it was holed and had water in it.

Stricken 31ft Westerly yacht against rocks at Bull Bay, Anglesey

Jeff was bound for Holyhead but had an unforeseen end to his voyage in Bull Bay, Anglesey. Credit: Jeff Middleton

It was decided that nothing further could be done for the boat at this time and I’d have to look into seeing how Sesi could be salvaged the following morning.

I was taken to Holyhead Coastguard Station where I was allowed to spend the night in the staff restroom.

After some hours I was sympathetically advised that unfortunately the early morning rising tide had washed the boat off the rocks and it had slipped into deeper water.

Only the top of the mast was visible. Sesi was a total loss.

Mast of a sunken 31ft Westerly yacht against rocks at Bull Bay, Anglesey

Mast of Sesi, after sinking at Bull Bay, Anglesey. Credit: Jeff Middleton

I would like to thank both the RNLI and Coastguard Search and Rescue teams for coming to my aid.

Sesi was in really good condition, with a recent new engine, there’s just no real explanation as to why it happened.

People say ‘At least you’re all right’, I never felt in any danger although I was lucky not to get a crushed foot.

My insurance has paid out but I haven’t got another boat. I was 80 last April, the jury is still out on whether I’ll get another yacht.

Some people would say I’m doing things at my age that I shouldn’t be doing, but I’m inclined to believe that if you’re able to do something, carry on doing it.

My friend wishes he had met me earlier so we could have sailed together and it wouldn’t have happened.

He lives on the Llŷn Peninsula which is quite a way from where I live north of Preston, so I thought I’d save him the trouble of coming up by single-handing down to Holyhead.

I didn’t have to anchor in that bay, I just thought it would be a nice idea to anchor for the night. I am still incredulous about how I caused the loss of my boat in this way.

The insurance company quickly settled my claim for the total loss of Sesi so I can have no complaints about the eventual outcome but I think I’ll be feeling the loss for some time.

About the author

Jeff Middleton

Jeff Middleton

Jeff Middleton, 80, is a retired building services design engineer who lives north of Preston. A former Isle of Man TT motorcyclist racer, Jeff started sailing in 1996 in a bid to find a more family-orientated sport. As he began to do more single-handed sailing, Jeff joined the Junk Rig Association and happily converted his Westerly Berwick from Bermuda to junk rig for easier handling

‘There but for fortune go I’

Junk Rig Association spokesman David Tyler

Junk Rig Association’s David Tyler

Junk Rig Association spokesman David Tyler said: “There but for fortune go I”.

“Even a seasoned sailor in a well-found boat and in waters with which they are very familiar, will occasionally misjudge a situation.

“Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, one manages to retreat with one’s tail between one’s legs, suitably chastened; on the hundredth, one needs to call for help in good time. I recall dragging anchor towards the rocks in a bay south of Flinders Island, Tasmania. Realising that I might not cope, I made a Pan-Pan call at that time, rather than a Mayday when I was definitely in trouble. Help did come eventually, but by that time I’d recovered by my own efforts.

“One item of equipment that enabled me to go on single-handed coastal cruising into old age was a powered windlass with a switch at the helm position. When recovering an anchor in a stiff breeze or a strong tideway, it is then possible to motor forwards to take the load off the cable. With a manual windlass, the bow blows off with no-one at the helm, making the task much harder.

“Numerous times, I’ve managed to get an anchor warp around the prop in wind-against-tide conditions (a weight hooked onto the rode and lowered to just below keel depth helps to prevent that – a kettlebell of the same weight as the anchor is about right). Often the best, or indeed only, way to untangle it is to go into the water, using a secure harness, and dressed in at least a thermal baselayer, if a wetsuit is not carried.

Sesi, a 31ft Westerly yacht sailing

Sesi at the Junk Rig Association rally at Kippford in 2015. Credit: Crew of Badger

“I’ve never found that a trip line has helped in freeing a fouled anchor, especially on a boulder bottom. It might, though, in very specific circumstances, such as a sheltered anchorage with abandoned moorings on the bottom. In this particular case in Bull Bay, it was the problem, not the solution, so I wouldn’t routinely rig one. Sometimes, having enough windlass power to raise the fouled anchor to the surface is the only way out of the difficulty. Sometimes the cable must be cut, or slipped, so a good toolkit should be carried.

“I agree with point 3 in “Lessons Learned”. If one has to abandon ship, and survives, a credit card (and passport, if abroad), will buy you food, clothes, medical attention, accommodation, transport and whatever else is needed to get home. And during those long tedious passages where nothing much is happening, think of “what if this problem arises” scenarios and then think hard about what the solutions might be.

“None of the above is only applicable to junk rigged boats, of course; it applies to all cruising rigs. But junk rig does add to general safety, by virtue of being more readily hoisted, reefed and furled, on all points of sail, when manoeuvring at close quarters in an anchorage.”