Former Rhyl harbourmaster Arthur Davies celebrates his retirement with a circumnavigation adventure along rivers, canals and across the sea
When we first moved to Deganwy I saw a programme on Welsh television with a couple of guys from Aberaeron who had circumnavigated Wales in a Drascombe longboat. That looks fun, I thought!
The memory stayed with me, and when I approached retirement from my role as Rhyl harbourmaster, I wondered if I’d like to do the same.
Years ago, when the kids were small, I’d sailed on the River Avon on a wide-bodied canal boat, but since then I’d stuck to the coast.
Around this time the local RNLI, who I’d worked closely with for many years, launched an appeal to raise funds for a new Shannon-class lifeboat. I could raise money for them along the way.
The idea was set in motion: I would sail clockwise around Wales, starting with the rivers and canals, and finishing around the coast.
Now I just needed a boat. I wanted a cuddy so I could sleep on board and not have to stay in B&Bs. Initially I considered a Drascombe Coaster; it has a lifting keel (essential for the shallow rivers), and its design is based on the traditional long-keel boats that are said to have good sea-keeping qualities.
But my search came to an end when I realised the yacht I needed was right under my nose! I got chatting to some guests at a gathering at the National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port. Previously I’d thought the minimum canal depth would be around 3ft, but they told me it was between 4ft and 6ft.
It dawned on me that my wife Sandra’s Vivacity 20 drew just 2ft 4in and would comfortably meet the draught requirements. I went home and measured the width at 6ft 10in. Perfect! With two berths Scooby would give me the accommodation I needed as well as being seaworthy.
I started planning the voyage. I wanted to go from Rhyl into the Chester basin, but there was a flood bund in place to protect the city. It had been installed two years earlier by Natural Resources Wales as a one-off test, and they’d never taken it away.
The Inland Waterways Association (IWA) and Canals and Rivers Trust campaigned to get it removed as it was blocking a navigation and in May 2018 it was finally removed – but the locks had silted up and the basin depth was less than 2ft. This wouldn’t be cleared in time for my departure so I had to plan an alternative route to Chester via the Mersey to the Manchester Ship Canal.
For this passage you need the boat surveyed and additional safety equipment – a precaution designed for canal boats rather than seagoing boats. This, plus waiting for the right tides to enter the Mersey, set me back a fortnight.
Resources for navigation
Scooby was already equipped with everything I needed – from flares and lifebuoys to a VHF and handheld spare. Whilst I don’t have chartplotter, I do carry all the charts and pilot books, and have the Navionics app on my phone. It’s amazing – I’ve used it for deliveries across the Irish Sea and it still works offshore.
Navigating the inland waterways is very straightforward, but I did find the Collins Nicolson Waterways Guides to be useful. These are the equivalent of pilot books with OS-style maps, featuring all the pubs and places you might like to visit.
The Canals and Rivers Trust manages the waterways. You can buy a key for their buildings, which have toilets, showers and waste facilities.
Next, I needed to sort out crew. While I was happy to do the trip single-handed, on inland waterways you have locks to contend with, and having an extra pair of hands to help secure the boat, and open and shut the gates definitely makes life easier. My racing friend Anne and neighbour Tony were both keen to help, and Sandra could join me at the weekends.
Sandra first spotted Scooby in Bull Bay, near Amlwch. She had moulded bilge keels with ballast, and for years the boat had been left in the owner’s garden, full of water. I gave her a hand moving Scooby and we stripped her completely – windows out, rubbing strakes off, stanchions – everything.
When stood on the ground, the hull pushed down on the keel and opened the frames up, so we had to use a lifting frame to get the keel hanging again. We ground it all out, reglassed it, and strengthened it – a job that took most of the winter.
Entering the Mersey
At last we were ready to go and the sun was shining. Anne joined me for the first stretch, and we timed our departure from Rhyl to carry the tide to the Mersey across the River Dee. For a 20ft boat with a small engine, strong tides have a huge impact on speed over the ground.
We headed across the top of Hoylake and cut between the Mersey Brazil Buoy and the edge of the Mersey to dodge the ferries up to Eastham Locks.
I called up Mersey VTS and advised them where we’d be entering the channel – for small boats like Scooby this is the starboard side, and they can track your progress.
The tactic for a small boat is to keep to the sides of the channel so there’s not enough water for anyone else to hit you. Anything that’s going to be a danger will be well aground before then!
I’ve always liked the Mersey. I used to be an engineer, mostly on steam ships, so it was exciting to see all the commercial vessels, from small coasters to ocean-going container ships, while passing the city and the Liver Building.
We motored at 4 knots, but with the tide made 6 knots over the ground and got halfway to Eastham before the tide turned against us. This was the beginning of the Manchester Ship canal, which branches off to the south of the River Mersey.
A further 2.5 miles along, we reached the National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port. What surprised me was the reception we got from well-wishers.
The IWA had run a piece in their quarterly magazine, and lots of people recognised us, including the staff at the museum. Even liveaboards tied up on the canals, gave us a wave.
At one point – when we got to Wolverhampton at the end of the Shropshire Union Canal – we passed a guy who had been canal-boating for 40 years and never seen a sailing boat!
From Ellesmere Port we took the Shropshire Union Canal and spent the first night at the basin in Chester. The next day we travelled through the Northgate locks together with an Australian skipper on a narrowboat.
As we were lifted 33ft to the main line below the city walls, Anne took some photos. This magnificent five-lock staircase was carved out of solid rock in the 1770s and, luckily for us, was operated by a lock-keeper.
A leisurely pace
When we reached Calveley, near Nantwich, Anne headed home for a few nights, and Sandra joined me. The weather was glorious. In fact, it was 28°C and we were praying for trees to shade us from the sun. Each morning we’d get going around 8am and stop between 5pm and 6pm.
You can plan the day ahead, but what you don’t know is how long it will take to get through locks, especially on the weekend. You don’t want to ‘waste’ water, so you tend to wait for boats to come through and, as they’ve emptied the lock, go in and come back up.
Inland cruising is very different to coastal sailing. The locks slow you down quite a lot – it might take 20 minutes to get through just one lock whereas at sea you’d have done a couple of miles.
You’re limited to four miles an hour, so progress is obviously a lot slower. But, as with any boating, you get used to travelling at a leisurely pace and get to enjoy the wildlife. I spotted many different birds and even saw a stoat swimming in the canal at Chester.
Previously we’ve had a 3.3hp 2-stroke engine, but I opted for a 5hp Honda 4-stroke so we could charge the lights, radio and instruments. Because we were going quite slowly the engine was just above tick-over.
We went all the way from Rhyl to virtually the end of Shropshire Union Canal on one 25-litre tank of petrol. We had two 12-litre back-up tanks too. As canal boats run on diesel it’s very hard to find petrol. When I needed to refill, I had to use petrol stations.
Just north of Wolverhampton, Sandra returned to work and Anne rejoined Scooby with a frozen chilli.
We set off on the Stafford and Worcester canal, which was much smaller and narrower. There were quite a few tight bits and places where we had to pull aside to let narrowboats past. Here, it was an advantage being small and manoeuvrable, but our main concern was that Scooby is a glassfibre boat weighing 800kg, whereas these canal boats are 10 tonnes or more and made of steel. If we saw one coming, we’d get out of its way.
The canal itself is typically 16ft wide but often it was narrower where trees and bushes were overgrown.
I liked the variety of the inland waterways. Sometimes we were in a narrow tree-lined cutting and others we were on an embankment looking down onto a valley. We passed through lots of towns as well as countryside; places such as Kidderminster, where a lot of the derelict buildings have been renovated and suddenly become desirable.
Next it was Stourport on Severn, where river and canal traffic meet. The only town in Britain to be made as a result of a canal, it was here that exotic goods were once brought from Bristol and Gloucester to be exchanged with manufactured goods from Birmingham and the Black Country.
The River Severn is a large, navigable stretch of water, kept full by a series of weirs with locks at the side to drop you down. These are big, manned commercial locks and you have to radio ahead so they can get them ready. Once in the first lock, the lock-keeper called ahead for us, which worked really well. On the Severn, from Stourport to Gloucester, we did 46 miles in a day, which was good going, helped by the flow of the river.
Worcester is a picturesque city, and it was surprising how, once out on the river, you don’t see much because it’s tree-lined. We met lots of commercial traffic along this stretch – big barges moving aggregate and stone. We even passed a vessel that looked like a floating hotel, similar to those you find on the Rhine.
Back out to sea
At Gloucester, Anne returned home and Tony joined me for the second part of the trip. The Gloucester Sharpness canal is virtually as wide as the Manchester Ship Canal. In days gone by they used to take ships to Gloucester. There’s a big basin where the warehouses have now been converted into houses and offices; it has a really vibrant feel to it.
As we had to wait 24 hours for the two traffic bridges to open, we spent an interesting morning in the National Waterways Museum, then lifted Scooby’s mast in preparation for the seaward leg. Scooby was looking like a yacht once more.
What was surprising is that the bridge operator travels ahead of you. So the guy we met in Gloucester we then saw in Sharpness. There were also operators on each bridge.
We left the last lock and sailed out into the Bristol Channel – back into salty water. Here, the challenge was to get down through the majestic bridges with 7 knots of tide under us. You can’t go against the tide in a 20ft boat, so planning ahead was essential. Had we encountered a south-westerly against the tide it would have been far too rough to go out, but once committed in Sharpness lock, there’s no turning back!
Fortunately, we had light to medium easterly winds along the Bristol Channel, and sailed all the way down to Barry. Here, we took a mooring in the outer harbour, which a contact from Rhyl had arranged for me with Barry Yacht Club.
We didn’t get a chance to go ashore. Already it was 9.30pm when we moored, and as we had to leave at 4am for the tide to Tenby, we had dinner and climbed into our sleeping bags.
We left before dawn at HW to catch the tide going out of the Bristol Channel. There are a couple of Ministry of Defence firing ranges on this stretch of coast, so we called to say we were on passage.
The wind was still from the east when we arrived in Tenby at 4pm. Here, the assistant harbourmaster kindly put our fuel cans in his truck and took us to the petrol station to get fuel.
A northerly headwind was forecast for our onward journey the following day. If we couldn’t make it to Fishguard, our backup plan was to go to Dale, or if it really picked up, along the Cleddau river past Milford Haven to Neyland or beyond.
We left early and enjoyed the sunrise over Giltar Point. There’s an inside passage between Skomer and mainland Pembrokeshire, where you go through Jack Sound and Ramsay Sound. It has something of a reputation, but in fact there was loads of room compared to the Menai Strait, where I’m used to sailing.
The thing with all these places is going through at the right time. As long as you’ve done your homework and know where you need to be, it’s not a problem. We carried the tide round Strumble Head into Fishguard, where we used the showers in Fishguard Bay Sailing Club.
Thick fog greeted us when we rose from our bunks the next day. To avoid the shipping, we kept to the inside of the coast and blew the foghorn every two minutes until it cleared, meeting just one potting boat along the way.
After 15 miles the wind picked up. With a north-going tide and 27 knots on the nose it became lumpy and the outboard kept lifting out of the water. That was the worst bit – waves were breaking over Scooby’s bow, and we still had 45 miles to go. It was time to call it a day before things got too bad.
We needed to find refuge, but all the harbours ahead of us were drying ones and the tide was out so, with heavy hearts, we turned back to Fishguard.
The following afternoon the wind was due to increase with Storm Hector coming in behind us, so we left at 4am. By 8am it was blowing 12-15 knots, and increasing. We surfed down the waves with a boat speed of 8 knots! It was an exhilarating sail, and in 12 hours we covered 57 miles with a full main and working jib. Scooby is a stiff boat with short bilge keels, so she felt really safe.
With the storm forecast, there was no point in continuing so Mike, a yachtbroker friend who works in Pwllheli, gave us a lift home to Deganwy until the weather improved.
Three days later I returned to Pwllheli, hoping to make Conwy in one go. It’s a 70-mile leg, which would take around 12 hours. We got through Bardsey Sound a little early by keeping in close and using back-eddies to dodge the tide. The flood then carried us along the Lleyn Peninsula towards the Menai Strait.
An hour before slack water we sailed through the Swellies – a turbulent, rock-strewn stretch of water between Anglesey and the mainland. Meanwhile the wind was building. By the time we got to Bangor it was 25 knots. We dropped the main and had plenty of wind and steerage to get us past Beaumaris before the tide turned.
Despite being so close to Rhyl I had to moor in Deganwy for another five days before the winds abated. Tony joined me for the last leg around the Great Orme, past Colwyn Bay and into Rhyl Harbour, where the inshore lifeboat was waiting to cheer us in. Then, when the tide turned, it was back to Deganwy for dinner.
We’d completed our 501-mile voyage in 26 days, navigating three rivers and four canals. What an adventure!