Victorian Britain sail log
In 1885, 27-year-old Eden Northmore Jones wrote about cruising on a Swansea Bay pilot boat from Carmarthen to Solva. But what do today’s sailors make of this authentic Victorian tale? Find out on page 44
An account from 1885 of sailing into Jack Sound without an engine
Arig little known, but in my opinion none handier, is that peculiar to the Swansea Bay pilot boats. Not unlike a Penzance lugger, they are a species of the genus ‘fore-and-after’. They are celebrated as first-rate sea boats, and good sailers on all points except a dead run, when from the great rake of the mainmast the mainsail does not draw well. They will certainly soak to windward marvellously fast.
One of their advantages is that when it comes on to blow, and they are under main and fore-trysails and storm jib, there is no top hamper. All the canvas is inboard, and as they have only a few inches of bulwarks the decks cannot hold much water.
The Vivian is formerly a Neath pilot boat owned by Mr Hughes, who is well known for always having a craft ‘as good as she is ugly’. Vivian is no exception to his rule. She’s decidedly not graceful or handsome, but unquestionably serviceable. For a winter cruiser one would have difficulty finding her equal among vessels her own size.
On Sunday 11th of April 1885 she was lying just below the town of Carmarthen, in the tidal river Towy. We were to sail at high water, 4am the following morning. The crew was to consist of the owner, myself and a man in the owner’s employ called Jack.
Jack is not a sailor, though he has been to sea a good deal with Mr Hughes in his yachts. By trade he is a groom and in that capacity he usually serves his master. Jack and I went aboard at 10pm and turned in. Mr Hughes, who is a doctor, spent the night seeing patients: good preparation for a possible hard day’s work! Punctually at 4am he roused us out with three thundering raps on the companionway.
“Now then, below there: sleepers ahoy! Eight bells; d’ye hear the news there?”
We tumbled up, got the canvas on her and slipped the moorings. There was no wind, about north-east, so we got out the sweeps to keep steerage way on her and slid rapidly down on the ebb tide.
At 6am we were off Ferryside, a pretty little place at the mouth of the river. Here, we got a faint breeze which freshened slightly as we ran further out, so we shipped the sweeps and trimmed sails. By 7.30am we were over the bar and fairly started on our cruise. The wind soon came out south, and we ran across
Carmarthen Bay with the trawl down, hoping to get a haul before the wind freshened too much. Sadly, eight whelks and a two-ounce sole were a little disappointing.
Before passing to the southward of Caldey Island, we had the Berthon aboard and stowed, and everything ship-shape. Jack was seriously indisposed with mal de mer, Mr Hughes was sleeping the sleep he had earned by 34 hours’ work, and I was ‘in charge’. It was midday before we had anything like a breeze, but when it came there was plenty of it. I smiled as the vessel lay over and I thought how the cautious Mr Hughes would start the halyards and haul down the reefs, should he wake and come on deck.
About 2pm, as we were bowling merrily by the Saddle Head, a pale pea-green visage of Jack emerged from the cabin. In reply to my remark that it would not be a bad move to pipe to dinner, he feebly said he thought ‘his cargo would shift soon,’ but I fancy it settled again.
We were bound for Cork, but as it looked like a night at the helm for me, as well as a day, I suggested running into Milford Haven for the night so that we might all be in good form for the passage across the Channel.
Accordingly I went inside the Crow Beacon, off the Linney Head, and stood across Freshwater Bay, west. The others were lying down below. As neither Mr Hughes nor myself had ever been ashore at Dale, a village at the western extremity of the Haven, we had determined to bring up in Dale Roads.
Travelling very fast, we crossed the mouth of the Haven and ran under the high cliffs of St Ann’s. At 4.30pm the rattle of the patent blocks as the jib and foresail came down, brought Mr Hughes and Jack on deck. In two minutes more the Vivian was at anchor about a cable’s length from the houses. While we were getting into long-shore duds, we came to the conclusion that as Mr Hughes was due at home on the following Saturday morning, we had better give up Cork and keep to the Welsh coast. We had never seen St David’s Cathedral, the shrine to Welshmen dear, or the little harbour of Solva in St Bride’s Bay, four miles from St David’s.
We had a delightful stroll on shore that evening, getting a rare view of Skomer and Skokholm Islands, the Broad Sound, Jack Sound, and the Hats and Barrels rocks off St David’s Head beyond. We walked along the luxuriant spongy ground above Dale. The rich golden bloom on the furze, and the bluish grey rocks lit up by the crimson rays of the setting sun made a natural picture. We bought two crabs from a fisherman, and got from him some sailing directions for entering Solva harbour. An indigestible supper of crabs and whelks, and a smoke after it, did
‘Jack Sound bristles with rocks, most of which are dry at low water, and the tide rushes through it at the rate of six or eight miles an hour’
not prevent all hands sleeping like churches that night; but it may have had something to do with no one turning out till 8am next morning.
By 8.30am we were under way with a nice little breeze about south-west. We soon beat out of the Haven and rounded St Ann’s Head. St Bride’s Bay is formed by St David’s Head on the north-east, and the islands of Skokholm and Skomer on the south-west. The passage between the two islands is known as the Broad Sound and that between Skomer and the mainland is Jack Sound. The latter gives the shortest distance from St Ann’s into St Bride’s Bay, but it is little frequented except by small local coasters, as it bristles with rocks, most of which are dry at low water. The tide rushes through it at the rate of six or eight miles an hour, forming dangerous eddies and backwashes at the sides and round the rocks; moreover the fairway is not more than a warp’s length in width. There is, however, this advantage to those knowing the locality; that till an hour after half-tide the current runs through this Sound in the opposite direction to the main tide stream, so that should the tide be foul outside the islands, it is fair through Jack Sound. From St Ann’s Head to the Sound is about three miles and it is almost the same distance to Skokholm island, where we were headed, intending to go through Broad Sound.
Mr Hughes had been through Jack Sound once, I had not. It was now two hours flood, so the stream was running its strongest, and against us, and I half think this helped to change our mind. The wind was light and from the south-west. The course through Jack Sound to Solva is north-east, so it was a dead run. We stood right for Skomer to cheat the tide as much as possible. Rapidly we slipped along into a strong eddy, close to the jagged rocks, and so nearly half through the narrow gut. Now a big rock is right ahead; we must leave the friendly eddy and face the torrent. Vivian is goose-winged and steered ‘end on’. Now she gains; now she is stationary. The wind falls light, she goes astern. No, here’s a puff! She goes ahead.
“Mind your helm!” The mainsail jibes; she slews athwart the stream and is swept back into the eddy. For half an hour are these tactics repeated. The passage is only a cable’s length, but the wind is not enough to beat the rapids.
By this time a small smack was close astern. He knew the place, and we were glad to see he tried the same method as ourselves, and with no better success. For some minutes he was close abeam, then came another puff and we began to make headway. The puff held, and we were through. When about two miles on our
‘Were the truth only known I have no doubt most sailors have at times marvelled at their own imbecility in going to sea’
way across the bay the smack also succeeded, as the tide had by that time slackened.
We soon covered the remaining five miles and by 1pm were off Solva.
The first thing that strikes one on nearing this little harbour is ‘Where is the place?’ A large rock, some quarter of a mile from the apparently continuous coastline, is the only conspicuous object. On getting close inshore there is a small inlet completely shut in by high land, and the narrow entrance is almost closed by three separate rocks, which stretch in a line across it. The way in is either side of the western rock.
“Steer bold for the rock,” the fisherman at Dale had told us, “until your bowsprit is just on it, then shift your helm.”
Mr Hughes went ahead in the Berthon to reconnoitre, and I dodged her till he sung out to come on. I let her go right for the rock till close to it, then put the helm up and passed it just clear. A cable’s length straight on, then at right angles to the south-east, we saw the village up on the hillside, and two smacks lying in this land-locked little lagoon. It is absolutely sheltered from every quarter; the bay outside cannot be seen. It is a perfect little harbour. Solva lies on the north-east side of St Bride’s Bay, about six miles in from Ramsey Sound. The houses are invisible from outside. It is a pretty little spot, quiet and secluded.
We landed, and on enquiry learnt that St David’s was four miles away and that further down the coast to the north-west, in the direction of Ramsey Island, was a little harbour and village called Porth Claish, two miles from St David’s. As Porth Claish is only five miles from Solva, we at once decided to go there.
Accordingly, we returned on board, weighed anchor and beat out. The wind was now very light, but we reached Porth Claish about 4pm. We found it to be a long, narrow, straight indentation, the land rising up perpendicularly to a great height on each side. A pier had at some period been built, stretching two thirds of the distance across the entrance, but it had now a large breach and was otherwise dilapidated.
The bottom was rough limestone, and it looked as if it would be impossible to get out, even with a moderate breeze blowing in. Altogether it seemed such an unsuitable place to stay in with a falling barometer and with little time to spare, that Mr Hughes insisted on leaving at once. We got out the sweeps and pulled out and laid her head once more for Solva. But the wind had fallen very light, the tide was strong against us, and it soon became evident that we should not make Solva before dark.
The evening closed in black and threatening, and by the time we got the rock outside Solva under our lee, it was pitch dark. We lowered the foresail, and Mr Hughes went forward to con the vessel. We ran pretty close.
“Can you make out the entrance?” he sung out. “Hard down – let’s get out of this.”
“Let me have a look,” I said, and I gave Mr Hughes the helm. It was no use, I could see nothing but an unbroken black line. We gave up Solva till daylight, and made up our minds to a night’s ‘dodging’ in the bay.
I once asked the skipper of a
five-tonner what sort of a sailor his mate was, he replied: ‘Oh, he can steer a bit in fine weather.’ Now this was unfortunately the measure of Jack’s capacity as a helmsman. He could not be trusted to steer at night, so after supper Mr Hughes took the tiller, and I took a watch below, Jack staying on deck with Mr Hughes.
At 4am I was turned out to take the helm; a fresh north-east wind blowing, colder than any charity I know. They only had the mainsail and No. 2 jib on her, so in reply to Mr Hughes’s laconic statement: ‘Solva bears NNW… I don’t know how far,’ I said:
“Well, make sail while the watch is on deck – she must travel for me if I am to freeze anyhow.”
Sails set for Solva
They set the foresail accordingly, and then jumped below. The morning was as dark as the grave; I knew there was no sort of a light anywhere near Solva, but I meant to shove her in there at the earliest possible time, so I let her rip north-north-westerly.
Were the truth only known, I have no doubt most sailors have at times marvelled at their own imbecility in going to sea – I have often done so, and now as I froze at the tiller, and felt I was acquiring a shocking cold, I decided that the sea was poor as a business and worse as a pleasure. I registered a mental vow to stay ashore forever after.
At dawn I sighted the rock off Solva, and soon after the foresail coming down once more brought the watch on deck, to find the ship in the harbour.
When I turned out after a snooze, I had a cold and could hardly speak. But like all shellbacks I could growl. We succeeded in hiring a dog cart and drove to St David’s. There we purchased stores and went to a chemist, where Mr Hughes prescribed for me a mixture of most of the drugs in the shop – in quantity about a pint! I put all that in and within the hour my cold was nearly gone. After inspecting the fine old cathedral, which has just been restored, we walked to St David’s Head, where there is a grand view, and in the evening drove back to Solva.
The following morning, we sailed at 8am with a fine south-westerly breeze, which
freshened as the morning wore on. As we crossed St Bride’s Bay, we passed several vessels running in under double-reefed canvas, apparently making for Goultrop Roads, an anchorage in the south east part of the bay. Seeing this we unlaced the bonnet of the mainsail, which already had one reef in it, and set the fore-trysail and shifted jibs, but nothing came of it. In the afternoon as the wind fell lighter, we made sail again.
Back to Tenby
We returned the way we had come, through Jack Sound, but this time ‘on tide’, so we slipped through in no time. Nothing of interest occurred till we got up off Stackpole Head. There, seeing as we had plenty of time to make Tenby that evening, we determined to have a look at Stackpole Quay, a little place under the Head. We let go the anchor in the bay, and pulled for the shore in the Berthon.
The run on the big stones which form the beach was too much for the dinghy’s constitution, so we had to be content with what we could see lying off. Stackpole Quay is a very queer little dry harbour, terribly exposed to the south-east, where small craft go for limestone. To get in they have to go through a passage only about 12ft wide, made by clearing the stones away to a depth of some 4ft below their natural level, and then round a sharp angle into the harbour; how they manage it without mishap is a marvel.
We weighed anchor about 4pm and going to the southward of Caldey Island brought up in Tenby Roads as it fell dark. The next morning we sailed for Ferryside, and having hardly any wind only reached that place about 7pm. The Vivian was moored in a pill and left in charge of Jack. Mr Hughes and I separated, going by train to our respective houses, having thoroughly enjoyed a fine little cruise.
I may say I had already reconsidered and rescinded my rash resolution, as a future yarn may shew.
‘The evening closed in black and threatening, and by the time we got the rock outside Solva under our lee, it was pitch dark’
The new and the old: a steam tug and a traditional Swansea Bay pilot boat circa 1904
The SS Great Eastern at Milford Haven An old print of Solva Harbour
ABOVE Tenby Harbour circa 1890 LEFT Dale and the Griffin Inn (at right of photo)
Fishing boats at Tenby in 1899
Milford Haven circa 1900
The cargo steam ship Cardross in Milford Haven. The ship worked from 1909 to 1954 A Victorian warship in Milford Haven Hogans yard at Milford Haven