Father and son Lloyd and Sam Griffiths recreate a dinghy sailing from 60 years ago in the challenging waters of North Wales
As a child I’d been much taken by my dad, Lloyd’s, write up of his ‘Boy’s Own’ style adventure in a GP14.
In 1963, he and another teenage friend circumnavigated Anglesey anticlockwise and would often fondly recall the trip.
Nearly 60 years on, it seemed like a great idea to repeat the process.
Anglesey is separated from the north- west corner of Wales by a thin slice of water called the Menai Strait – a stretch of tidal water about 15 miles long.
The tidal effects of the Strait are highly unusual and caused by the odd topography of the region.
Admiral Nelson himself is reputed to have said: ‘If a sailor can sail a ship through the Menai Strait, he can sail it anywhere in the world.’
This did little to quell a certain anxiety we had about the cruise
For one, the weather looked unsettled and there was also the fact that our dinghy was completely new to us!
I’d sold my Welsford Houdini just before lockdown one in exchange for the beautiful Ynyslas, a 16-foot Shetland skiff I’d found on the internet, lurking behind a sea wall near Southport.
She’d needed some lockdown TLC, but her hull was very sound, and she benefitted from a new suit of fresh white sails.
A little trip up the Severn from home in Shrewsbury last summer had provided us with a chance to iron out any issues, such as a wobbly rudder, but this circumnavigation was clearly going to be a bigger test of her seaworthiness.
Dark skies and reefed sails
We set off from Holyhead mid-afternoon, having carefully loaded Ynyslas with our camping gear packed into waterproof bags and headed clockwise under dark clouds and with a heavily reefed main.
We were soon bearing down on our first headland at great speed: mighty Carmel Head.
Dad shook out the reef just as we entered the confused chop in order to power us through.
This was the first real test of the double ender’s seaworthiness and, despite the famously low coaming, she passed with flying colours.
From here we were able to harden up slightly as we headed north-east along the northern shore.
While this brought about a more comfortable point of sail stability- wise, it was now 1700 and oilskin jackets and woolly hats were quickly donned.
Despite being July, summer had not yet arrived in the UK it seemed.
The dark, scudding clouds, combined with the foreboding cliffs of this little-populated part of the island provided us with a real sense of adventure.
Indeed, we didn’t see another boat or person on day one and for most of day two.
The next few hours would provide the best sail I’ve ever had as we powered along, using the tide to maximum effect.
With it not being dark until 2200, we made the decision to simply keep ploughing on; sailing couldn’t get any better than this, despite the chill.
A desolate beach
This change of plan suddenly opened up the opportunity for dad to visit Traeth Bach beach, a place he had aimed to go into on his (anticlockwise) trip all those years ago.
However, with Puffin Island being inconveniently cut off their map and with no GPS in those days, they ended up making a horrendous navigation error.
Thinking they were much further east, they had in fact sailed almost halfway around the island, only to have to sail in darkness onto a desperate shore beyond Amlwch!
Yet to reach this promised land meant pushing our luck somewhat.
By 2030 we were past Point Lynas lighthouse, but the conveyor belt of a tide soon ground to a halt and this, combined with a beat in light winds up into the bay, seemed to take an eternity.
But by 2140 we were finally ashore at Dulas Bay – the most pristine and desolate beach.
I quickly took the ‘tents’ bag ashore and got them up while there was still a little light.
Dad secured the boat for the night (anchoring slightly further out, ready for an 0630 departure to catch the tide) and then we both fiddled around making a base among some rocks as the water boiled.
Warm pasta was just what was required after such a long sail and after a slab of chocolate we felt it best to get some sleep, it now being 2330.
Seals and Snowdonia
A dry morning greeted us, and Ynyslas was a sight to behold, dried out on the beach, looking every inch the well thought out miniature vehicle of her Viking forefathers.
Within an hour, the water was lapping at her sides, but we were starting to become a well-oiled machine when it came to this dinghy cruising malarky and had everything packed up and were happily under sail just as she lifted.
This time the tide was not quite in our favour, but this was no great issue as we crept past Moelfre, having to row at times.
The lack of wind would, however, probably be our downfall as we neared Puffin Island.
Taking full advantage of being in a dinghy, we kept within touching distance of the shore, attempting to catch any back eddy that might propel us forward.
This was pure dinghy sailing as we slipped along silently, leaving seals undisturbed as they sunned themselves on rocks – had anyone been in this close before?
I’m sure they had, but it’s always nice to think you’re a pioneer!
Being within a few feet of the shore, though, did mean the wind was somewhat blocked: headway was almost non-existent, so we made a snap decision to pull in, have some lunch and wait for the tide.
As we stood in the water, we realised the swell was much more aggressive than it looked, pulling the boat ashore would surely wreck it, while holding her off by anchor required a swim!
With tails firmly between legs, this mad plan was quickly abandoned, but this time we were in luck – the wind picked up slightly, enough to drive us around the headland, a quick gybe and we were suddenly heading south, delighted by our surprise progress.
We approached Beaumaris before tacking in among the moored yachts. Sun occasionally punctured through, but the view to a Mordor-like Snowdonia was somewhat daunting.
No matter, we would soon be at Smuggler’s Point where we planned to find somewhere to camp before heading into Beaumaris to watch the England v Denmark semi-final.
What progress we were making; now 1415 and over halfway around the island, we could even complete this in three days if our luck held.
Pride before the fall and all that, our moment of hubris was soon upon us.
Pulling ashore at the gravel spit, we were met by one of dinghy cruising’s big issues:
what to do with the boat in tidal waters when coming ashore.
It was now absolute low water and the sailing club looked miles away up the gravel shoreline.
I ran up to see if a beach trolley could be borrowed, but not a soul could be found.
Anchoring where we were and swimming out in the morning would have to be the answer but, as I returned, the heavens finally decided to open.
Huddled under the sail, it turned out that my 30-year-old oilies were not really that waterproof, and with damp shorts and wet sandalled feet, things were truly miserable.
The cloudburst lasted a full 35 minutes, enough time for us to wolf down some ginger cake and decide that the only solution was to row on with the tide, and hope the wind joined in later.
Off we went, but progress was desperately slow and the one not rowing really started to feel the cold – this was truly miserable stuff!
What’s more, where could we camp?
We were on the populated side of Anglesey and wherever we came ashore, we’d have the same issue with the dinghy as no sandy beach was apparent on the map.
The great thing about these trips though is the way progress – appropriately – ebbs and flows.
You like to think that behind every low moment a high is just around the corner and that certainly happened to us just then, as we were hailed by our very own good Samaritan from his yacht.
Heading from Conwy to Menai Bridge, he knew of a jetty from which he could take the morning tide under the bridge.
Did we want a line, he asked?
This was a tricky question to answer.
It meant that we would not be going around the island under sail alone, but such was our soggy state and the promise of a jetty, we gladly took it and were quickly frozen through as Ynyslas was dragged forward.
Once tied up, it was now obvious that we’d have little chance of finding anywhere to camp in a town and besides, we wanted to watch the football – accommodation would have to be found!
Feeling slightly like frauds, it turned out the only room at the inn was indeed at a budget hotel just off the motorway into Bangor, a far cry from the wilderness beach we had just left that morning.
Fast food was the only food on offer, but this had followed a hot shower and lying on a comfy bed watching the match – the best possible outcome given the circumstances!
The storm had long since swept through by the morning and we were back on track.
What’s more, we’d somewhat ‘bagsied’ another lift with our yachtsman friend – with no wind forecast until late morning, we again swallowed our pride and took the easy option.
A straight line through the Swellies (the most treacherous section of the Menai Strait) brought us to Plas y Menai in short order.
Here we anchored and cooked bacon sandwiches for breakfast before being spat out with the powerful ebb at 1115.
A Force 4 south-westerly meant a long beat as we followed a bounteous collection of superb beaches along the southern shore.
The double-ender again proved her worth with no waves coming aboard and it seemed that once heeled over, that’s where she stayed no matter what the wind strength.
Later, her stability was such that I even made tea in the bows.
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Coming close in to the famous Newborough beach, we then tacked north-west again before just creeping past Llanddwyn Island light on a port tack.
From here the day slipped by with intermittent sunshine; the mountainous Llyn Peninsular providing the most stunning backdrop.
On benign days like these, your confidence can get the better of you; I was already planning the next trip – perhaps an open sea passage from Holyhead (where we planned to leave the dinghy) across to the lovely Porthdinllaen on the Welsh mainland.
As ever, the weather would determine everything and just as we were starting to wonder if we’d even make Rhosneigr beach, at 1600 the wind backed and we were able to sail on a pleasant reach, cutting the sailing track in half.
Suddenly, everything had changed.
Our progress was such that an hour later we realised that, if we wanted, we could now sail all the way around Holy Isle, reaching South Stack at slack water and entering the finish at Holyhead by perhaps 2030.
However we are ‘creek crawlers’ at heart and the gut (a channel between sandbanks) that is the intriguing Cymyran Strait had long made us want to explore it.
We’d initially hoped that we could go all the way through and up to Holyhead, but after driving over the bridges a few days before we knew we could not get under the final one.
This was a tricky decision therefore: if we went this way, we were forgoing a circumnavigation by a few kilometres, but we were acutely aware that we had already hitched a lift and that the main reason we did such trips was to have fun, and this little oasis of ‘swatchways’ (same as gut) definitely required exploring!
Minds made up, we closely followed our passage guide, only to find we were completely flummoxed as to how to enter our fabled strait.
Minus binoculars, and the fact that it was absolute low water, meant that we just couldn’t quite believe that we were exactly where we thought.
Silver Sands Bay
We may have only been in a small dinghy, but such was the depth between the port hand rocks and starboard beach, we finally bailed and retreated to the outrageously beautiful Silver Sands Bay.
This was another ‘must see’ as it’s very difficult to access from the land (therefore often deserted) and it’s perfect horseshoe provided shelter from everything but a southerly wind.
Indeed, we felt every inch the Robinson Crusoe as we nudged onto the golden sands at 1800, after a full nine and a half hours in the boat!
I immediately donned my running kit and went to explore the entrance to the straits, while Dad wanted to work out a better way in which we could attach the mainsail to the mast.
A quick post-run dip in crystal clear waters to clean off and then it was a case of soaking up the scenery as the pasta boiled ready for its tuna, sweetcorn and mayonnaise topping – not quite Jamie Oliver, but filling!
At 2030 we left, hoping to use the last hour and a half of light to creep up the estuary.
In fact, such was the amount of water now, that we powered round under sail, easily identifying the landmarks in order to steam confidently through the extremely narrow entrance and into the eastern bay.
At 2100 we spotted a perfectly secluded little beach, just big enough for Ynyslas and two tents.
Wading out, I anchored her as far as I could manage without getting too soaked in order to make an early enough getaway in the morning.
We then had our usual fun of seeing if there was an even better camping spot elsewhere (always taking unnecessarily long!), before settling on a site by a wooden hut surrounded by a patch of grass, sand proving just too irritating when packing away tents in the morning.
The encroaching darkness witnessed us enjoying a hot drink next to an old wooden wreck, before crawling into the tents for a final night.
Dinghy sailor’s paradise
By 0730 on day four, the tide lifted Ynyslas one final time and under jib we took the flood up the narrow channel.
This was what dinghy cruising was all about – that ability to silently creep up close to shorelines and soak up the abundant wildlife so often missed.
The odd bit of rowing when turning into wind aside, this was the easiest of mornings and it was with some sadness that Four Mile Bridge and the end of the journey came into view.
A friendly kayaker gave some useful advice about the slip and indeed, whether it was in fact worth lowering the mast to go through to the ‘inland sea’ between the bridges.
But as the final tunnel under the A5 was too narrow for us, we decided to give this a miss, and were more than pleased with our decision to have come this more interesting way.
Given our initial scepticism, the whole trip had been an undoubted success.
Now was the time to take satisfaction in that and gorge ourselves in an eatery recommended to us in Trearddur Bay.
Two cups of coffee later, it was easy to conclude that Anglesey is a dinghy sailor’s paradise.
It has such a wonderful variety of brilliant beaches, cliffs, coves, exposed headlands and sheltered bays – and all with Snowdonia’s mountainous backdrop on the mainland.
And although, technically, we didn’t sail right through the legendary Menai Strait, having hitched a cheeky lift, I’m sure Lord Nelson would have approved of our seamanship decisions.