Pilotage: West Wales passage planner
Jonty Pearce reveals his local cruising grounds and the adventure challenges that await
Jonty Pearce reveals his favourite local cruising grounds and the adventures that await
Yachtsmen sailing round the shores of these Blessed Isles encounter diverse pilotage and climatic challenges. Whilst doffing our caps to the navigational hazards faced overseas, there is no need to seek them out to stretch our nautical skills – we have enough coastal perils of our own.
My own chosen home sailing ground is Wales. Carol and I have sailed almost all its coastline aboard
Aurial, a Southerly 105 ketch with a lifting keel. Craft with variable draught and those able to take the ground do enjoy an advantage over deep fin yachts along the Welsh coastline, as many havens and estuaries are shallow or dry out, though there are ample options for those needing to remain afloat at all times. It must be remembered, however, that to access such shelters protected by shoal water often requires an approach over a shallow bar; these areas can be fraught with difficulties in adverse conditions. A dropping tide with a westerly Force 7 can induce fearsome breakers that make many west coastal havens unapproachable.
The key essential to enjoyable sailing off the Welsh coastline is forward planning. An accurate forecast and favourable timing makes the world of difference between a crew-frightening, yacht-tossing fight against a progressdefying adverse choppy tidal stream and a swift, calm, well-planned passage past gorgeous scenery. I have learnt to be governed by current and predicted nautical conditions as it can be both unpleasant and hazardous to allow the chronological pressures of one’s diary rule a passage plan. Due consideration must be given to tidal streams, tidal height, wind direction and strength, anticipated speed over the ground, as well as swell and sea conditions, before deciding whether a planned trip will be timely, pleasant, and within the safe limits of both crew and boat strength.
When it all falls into place my Welsh wife says that there is no better place to sail. A calm sea, a southwesterly Force 4, and a fair tidal stream can waft us from Milford Haven through Jack Sound, Ramsey Sound and past Strumble Head to Fishguard in a day, with time for a gin and tonic after arrival. A plethora of stopovers can tempt us on the way, and we have not tired of the area in 15 years of cruising.
Sailing in an area so dependent on weather, tides and depth allows us to hone and practice our skills. Regular study of the almanac tidal data and the ensuing secondary port calculations brings confidence and, subsequently, proficiency. I choose to table the hourly height of tide over the anticipated arrival time for any bar or haven – being prepared saves lastminute below-deck calculations.
Careful reading of the local pilot guides is invaluable to heighten awareness of approach lines, hazards and chartlets. Up-to-date charts are essential – whether on a tablet, laptop or paper they need to be instantly accessible. A word of caution here, while many of us habitually navigate by chartplotter, the information
displayed is only as good as the database. I have never found built-in tidal stream displays accurate enough for meaningful planning, and always calculate periods of slack water and times of tidal reversal from the almanac and tide tables – the best often being found in local pilot books.
A variety of weather forecasts are advisable – I have learnt never to rely on the most favourable prediction. Use the worst, and things can only improve.
One of my delights is night sailing, and at such times a plan and list of illuminated navigational aids is invaluable. Less predictable is the ever-present risk of poorly marked pot buoys. It pays to always have a port of refuge or back-up plan in case of trouble of any kind.
Every yacht has different strengths and weaknesses. Know your boat; her cruising speed, tacking angle, draught and performance both under sail and power, in all wind and sea directions. After nine years’ sailing Aurial, we know most of her foibles. Be cautious and don't take things for granted; other yachts following our big, wide ketch – ‘she must draw more than us’ – over a shallow bar (when our keel has already been retracted) could come to an unexpected halt. Know your own boat, and make your own calculations.
We adore pilotage round Wales. It keeps the skipper and crew interested and thinking, and fascinates rookie sailors and visiting children. When sailing, our brains are active and alert, and after anchoring at the end of the day we sleep all the better, content in the satisfaction of a trip well managed through waters that might have been a threat to less prepared sailors.
The west coast of Wales enjoys stunning scenery, a plentiful supply of thought-provoking adventures, numerous snug, secluded anchorages, some bustling marinas, and world-class wildlife. Wales may not always have the weather but its sunsets, seen over the rim of a well-earned glass, take some beating. Most of the ‘adventure challenges’ are safe and practicable given a modicum of experience and some forward planning.
The three articles that follow make up the main obstacles to a passage from Milford Haven round the tip of Saint David’s peninsula to Fishguard. We regularly complete all three in one passage, thereby opening up the gateway to Cardigan Bay and onwards to the treasures of North Wales. Stretch yourself a little and give them a try!
‘ The key essential to enjoyable sailing off the Welsh coastline is forward planning’
Aerial view from above Ramsey Island of the Bitches rocks in Ramsey Sound