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

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents -

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.

Shore­side de­lights

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

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