THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN
Watching their charter boats shattered by a devastating storm spelled ruin for three skippers, but they bounced back in style
Holyhead skippers are back in business.
Few get through life without some sort of major setback, and the saying goes that ‘what doesn’t hurt you makes you stronger’. It’s how you react to a bad experience that builds character and resilience. The events of March 1 and 2, 2018 put three Holyhead charter skippers in exactly that position.
Storm Emma battered the North Wales coast for almost 48 hours with savage east to north-easterly winds exceeding 85mph. The huge groundswell and massive waves put severe pressure on the pontoons within Holyhead Marina, and these eventually broke up or tore their moorings out in some unprecedented scenes of devastation.
Some boats broke free and were washed on to rocks near the breakwater, causing irreparable hull damage. Other boats sank, taking severe and irreparable injury underwater from debris and contact with the seabed. Around 80 boats in total were lost or damaged.
Three skippers, Gethyn Owen (My Way), Aaron Smith (Bad Boyz 3) and Gareth Williams (Spindrift) could only watch from the quay as events unfolded, helpless to do anything about it.
We can only imagine what those three lads felt that day as they watched their boats, livelihoods and future dreams shatter before their eyes.
The process of retrieving the boats for initial damage assessment obviously took time. Indeed, Gethyn’s boat, My Way, was underwater for eight days. He was able to retrieve a little of the vessel’s contents at low water, but much had been washed away and lost forever on the seabed. The boat was full of mud and silt, and had a huge hole in her port side, along with other severe structural damage. It was the same for Aaron and Gareth, with almost everything they owned, boat-wise, lost or spoiled. All three boats were a total loss.
Equally difficult would be the process of waiting while insurances were sorted. Not knowing whether you’d be able to pick up the pieces, or maybe even be forced into a career rethink, must have been unbearable.
I spoke to Gethyn during and directly after the storm occurred, and the tragedy, shock and hurt were clear in his words and voice.
Amazingly, some five weeks later I was back in Holyhead and pleased to report that all three skippers are back in business with new boats and looking forward to a new start. Gethyn and Aaron both had charters that day, but Gareth and his new Lochin 40 were working elsewhere, so I didn’t get a chance to photograph her.
Having settled on the type of boat he needed, Gethyn found an Offshore 35. It turned out she was the original Offshore Rebel, but based in Gosport, and, most importantly, was well loved and cared for, so was ready to start work almost immediately. I managed to jump aboard, just with my cameras, at short notice, joining a group of individual anglers. It was only Geth’s third day working with the boat with anglers on board, but I was keen to get an insight into how things were panning out.
Visually, the once full marina space was empty. Remains of some damaged boats were evident on the far side off the breakwater, and a lonely mast still stuck out of the water where a vessel remained submerged.
At the height of the storm, as the pontoons broke up, the buoyant polystyrene began to disintegrate and create a pollution concern. This was partially contained by adding a floating boom across the marina area to stop the remaining polystyrene reaching the open sea, and this device was still in place. But there were still areas of floating polystyrene and general debris within the boom. It brought home that this was not just about the loss of boats, but also about the environment too.
Heading around the breakwater out to an earlyseason spurdog mark and chatting with Geth in the cabin, it was good to hear the positivity back in his voice. The loss of the original My Way will never go away, but his new baby, armed with its Iveco 420 purring away in the background, has dramatically increased his fishing options.
The old boat used to cruise at about eight knots, but My Way 2 cruises at a very easy 13 knots and can do 20, so fishing time is increased, plus it brings into regular range marks that previously were only fished occasionally.
Dropping anchor over the spurdog mark, the lads were quickly into a couple of dogfish, and then I watched the 15lb-class rod of Lewis Kearns dip a couple of times and a decent bend appear as he set the hook. This seemed a longish battle with a very reluctant weight on the end, and while this was happening, lads on the port side beat him to the first target fish aboard by landing two quick spurs. Lewis’s fish eventually broke surface, a nice spur about 8lb.
With 10 mackerel baits oozing their scent in the tide, the spurdog packs were quick to follow it, and spurs from between 3lb and 8lb started to trickle aboard. Geth had given the lads an early warning that the sport would be initially slow, but would pick up with the change of tide when there was a chance of bigger fish.
Top rig on the day was a heavy-duty twohook paternoster armed with red muppets with a luminous head, but from past experience, luminous yellow muppets work too. However, spurs are pack fish and like a moving bait, so you need to occasionally lift the rod tip up and down to move the lead weight and lift and drop the baits to attract the spurs.
What had started as a gloomy, overcast day, now saw broken clouds and a hint of warmth from the south to counteract the chilly north-west wind. It was a great day to be afloat!
True to form, half-an-hour later, with the tide picking up speed a little, the bites increased in frequency, and it wasn’t long before the first better fish, it looked about double figures, was aboard. Wigan angler Keith Heaton was on the portside stern corner and I watched him become instantly alert as his rod tip bounced a
couple of times, then curve over as he lifted into a spur with some weight in it. It was a spirited battle, and when landed it looked close to 12lb or so, but could have been more.
This same mark can give some quality bull huss too, and Lewis landed a really good-looking huss tight to double figures with distinctive leopard-like spots on it. Almost immediately, a second huss hit the deck, followed 10 minutes later by another.
The spurs were coming thick and fast now, with two or three more fish of 10lb or more, plus a number of smaller fish. As the tide run picked up, bites again eased back and it was time to consider a move. Geth elected to take the lads back inshore to a mark off South Stack where there is mixed ground with the chance of coalies, dabs, maybe a ray or two, plus whiting and other bits.
Thanks to his new boat’s capabilities, Gethyn has plans to further expand his fishing options in the future. He intends to do more wreck fishing and has some unfished hulks within range that look very promising. A couple of years back he had a day experimenting for porbeagles out in Holyhead deeps with some hint of success, so that could also be on the cards.
He already has a large number of inshore marks locally, but with more speed and range available, the intention is to seek out new areas that, as yet, have seen little rod-and-line activity. He may even move the new boat for the winter to give him access to almost year-round fishing. His horizons have definitely widened, and it’s great to see some good come from what was a devastating event.
We dropped anchor over a mixed-ground mark and the lads instantly found some coalfish. Not huge, maybe a couple of pounds on average, but they can run to 4lb or so.
Smaller baits on the bottom started to pick up a series of dabs, along with the inevitable dogfish and whiting. The hoped-for rays did not appear, but this ground is good for thornbacks, a few spotted ray and, occasionally, blonde rays can also show.
On the way back, Geth made the point that the charter skippers have stood together shoulder to shoulder throughout this troubled period in their lives. They want to make it known that their recovery would not have been possible without a huge amount of help from friends, members of the public, and associates.
Numerous events to raise cash for the lads were organised, including fishing matches on Holyhead breakwater, staff from Ysbyty Gwynedd hospital in Bangor raised £215 selling cakes, and Irish charter skippers John Fleming, from Galway, and Kit Dunne, from Wicklow, auctioned off boat places to raise money, as did other skippers, and there were many more.
In the days of social media, it’s also interesting to report that people spontaneously and independently set up crowd funding for the skippers, which helped raise instant money to cover boating essentials at a time when the lads needed it most. They are eternally grateful for all the help and kindness, the response being incredible from all involved.
Like a phoenix from the ashes, tragedy turns to triumph. So it’s fantastic to see that The Holyhead Boys are back in business, with passion, renewed optimism, and a very bright future ahead of them. ■
Wreckage from the damaged boats
Lewis Kearns holds a nice spur of around 8lb
Paul Brooks with a huss
James Kelly got a big spurdog too
Keith Heaton took the first double-figure spurdog of the day
A coalfish for Mark Dolben
A spurdog for John Badley
Red muppets worked well