Sunday, August 29, 2010

Back Snugly in Preston

[Kyle]Three o’clock in the morning arrived in Conwy. By then, we’d already been gone for 20 minutes. Our route out of the river had us going directly into the wind with the current until well into Conwy Bay, where we would make a crosswind turn to clear the peninsula before turning on the long downwind leg to the entrance to the River Ribble on the other side of the Irish Sea.

I had expected sloppy wind against wave conditions in the open bay, but almost as soon as we pulled into the ebb on the River Conwy, the standing wave party started. It was very dark and the current was sweeping us out of the river very quickly. We were both worried about being swept into moored boats or out of the winding channel should we fail to spot one of the navigation markers. Loss of way for steerage would have been very serious and I doubted the strong currents in this part of the river had left behind enough good mud for a hasty, emergency anchoring. I was less than eager to push our transmission/propeller too hard as I didn’t want a repeat of the same problem we had coming in.

Every time Footprint and a wave would collide, we would come to a complete stop, We may have even been being pushed slightly backwards. There is a pretty good chance the prop was also encountering the aerated crests of the waves as they passed under us every time we pitched into the next trough. At our modest power settings, the boat was not able to pick up speed again against her own weight as we climbed back out onto the next wave. This meant we had a pretty long time of having the engine in forward and the speed reading zero.

Or, it could be that the engine wasn’t converting any of its power to propeller thrust. If there really was a problem, I didn’t want to exacerbate it by adding power, which left us the option of waiting it out and using the ebb to flush us into the bay, using minimal power to stay in the middle of the channel.

It was a miserable ride through all of that slop. We were straining so hard to make out any obstructions that I had no time to really figure out why we were going so slowly through the water. It was a tense ride and our lower speed made it long and tense. It had very much the same feel as driving on a windy, deserted road with no reflective markings in heavy rain with dodgy brakes. It is amazing how much adrenaline gets released in such situations. Even though it was four in the morning and neither of us had done much else but nap lightly before our departure, we were WIDE awake. Even though we were moving over the bottom at what was ordinarily a sedate, even boring, speed of three or four knots, the idea of getting swept sideways into a big steel navigation mark, or worse, rocks, at four knots was sufficiently terrifying to get our full attention.

Further out into the bay, the current diffused and slowed. The horrible wind against wave mess we were in calmed down a little and we gradually attained the sort of speeds we would expect against waves of that size and wind of that strength. I gingerly added more and more power until we were almost at our normal cruising rpm with no signs of trouble. Perhaps it was just the conditions.

Once we got clear of the channel in Conwy Bay, we hoisted the sails, shut down the engine and made the downwind turn for England. Even though it was the Irish Sea, the ride wasn’t actually that bad. This was entirely because our point of sail was both well downwind and down wave, going the other way would have been a nightmare. Our forward speed brought the apparent wind speeds down into the mid-twenties, which was fast enough to keep us moving near wave speeds, giving us the sensation of a gentle, rolling float eastwards.

In fact, we were going a bit too fast. We needed to arrive at the Ribble about two hours before high tide in Preston in order to be able to clear the bar at the entrance. We reefed and reefed again until we were carrying only enough sail for winds double what we were experiencing before finally getting slow enough to make it work.

As we approached the English coast, the sea gradually shallowed, making the waves shorter and steeper. The wind had been gradually increasing all day until it was reaching into the 30s, causing the waves to grow even further still. As the depth decreased to around 15 meters, I started noticing that there were beginning to be a lot more waves that I couldn’t see over and it was starting to get pretty rough for us in spite of our downwind direction.

By the time we approached the river entrance in 5 meters of water, waves that were themselves 3 to 4 meters high were breaking and toppling over everywhere. It was getting rather alarming. We pulled down the mainsail entirely to slow down even more, just in case in we dropped off of one of them, and just rode the seas in. I could only imagine what we must have looked like to anyone watching from shore; a tiny catamaran with a scrap of sail hurtling in from sea through the pounding surf. I suspect the answer is: crazy.

Rough seas as the water shallows, with Blackpool in the background, and once fully in the river Ribble, calmer again with a down wind, with current sail and a scrap of jib to keep us in the channel

Further up the Ribble, the swell had finally lost all of its energy and the water was flat. We were pushed upriver by both the wind and the fast flood current. We were still going too fast to have deep water when we arrived at Preston, so I reduced sail further until we were only flying the reinforced panel at the clew of our jib. Eventually, that became too much, so we furled that and sailed for a few miles under bare poles. With just the drag of the wind going over the boat, we were averaging three knots through the water and about eight over the bottom, gliding through the flat countryside.

We started the motor sufficiently early to make sure it worked and called the bridge operator in Preston. That guy hates us. We have been told by several people that he’s grumpy anyway and really needs to retire, but he seems to hate us especially. He was civil enough on the radio on the initial call, but seemed to make a point of having us wait once we got there. I decided to be patient and just wait until he was ready, rather than run the risk of bothering him further with repetitive radio calls. several minutes passed with no sign of movement on his end. We were starting to get worried that he had misunderstood us and not interpreted our request for an opening as a bridge-and-all-other-intervening-encumbrances opening, and that perhaps he required a separate call for each step. I called as politely as I could and told him we were ready for the bridge when he was. He told me there was a train in 7 minutes and he would open when they were over. I got the sense that he thought we were idiots for not knowing that. Hmmm, seems like we could have been well through by now, but he’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. Well, we did get to see a cool steam train cross the river right ahead of us (no, I did not get the number).

Waiting for the train before the last lock gate and the swing bridge before home

Finally, we were in. Now that we were safely in the basin with no other critical maneuvering required, we decided to give our engine/transmission/propeller a good check-over. We figured this was the best place to uncover any problems as we would have all Winter to fix them if something came up. The poor engine and drive train. I did everything I could do to make it fail. Even with Footprint going as fast as I could make her go backwards, and then switching to full forward throttle (with a brief pause in neutral of course), putting maximum possible strain on the whole system, I did not notice any slippage or loss of thrust. Good news. We took Footprint back to her new and improved, wider dock and tied her up, probably for the rest of Winter.

That’s just as well. I’m getting pretty sick of the bloody Irish Sea as well as what passes in Britain for Summer. I’m sure poor Footprint would say the same if she could talk. I think it will be good to have a few months to give her some much needed TLC and get her back in proper shape for next year, which will, of course, whatever direction we head, have to start with yet another trip into the Irish Sea.

Friday, August 27, 2010

More Conwy

Telfords Bridge, and Edward Ist's Conwy Castle kept us busy for most of the day

[Kyle] We repo’d Footprint in the wee hours without incident. We floated off of the mud with a gurgle that sounded like a really hungry stomach growling. The engine started fine and the exhaust water showed no hint of mud. We got to our new dock with no steering or transmission problems. We later went to our old dock. There were still two teardrop shaped holes where our rudders were.

Much calmer than we were the night before, we went up to speak to the manager the next morning. He was very good. He said he understood our concern, took responsibility on the marinas behalf and offered to haul us out for a quick look at his expense. We declined because we didn’t think it as that serious and we didn’t want to spend all day doing that. He told us the next time we hauled out, to keep in touch and if we had any issues with the rudders, he’d make things right, then he refunded us the cost of our stay. We left feeling pretty satisfied (and a little surprised at their good nature); All is well with the world again.

We left for Conwy, that is. This time, having done most of the other stuff, we headed straight to the castle.

Conwy Castle is the best preserved medieval castle in Europe. This is because most other castles have had post-medieval additions and modifications that make them hard to pinpoint temporally. Conwy was completed entirely in the 13th Century and apart from replacing the roof on the main hall in the 14th Century, has been unaltered since. This was because, for the most part, it was never used as a residence and “redecorated”, nor was there any re-modelling over subsequent centuries. During his entire reign, Edward I stayed in the castle for a cumulative total of five months. Mostly it was occupied by 30 soldiers and 25 staff just in case he showed up and as a symbol to impress the Welsh with English power and superiority.

The place is impressive. The entire town, which was only occupied by English settlers, is visible and defensible from the castle’s turrets and the town walls. The castle itself is a monument not only to Edward I, but to extremely paranoid thinking. A castle is essentially layers upon layers of defenses. Starting at the unscaleable outer walls, the castle is designed as a series of well-defended fallback positions in the event of a breach. The King resides way in the back behind all of it where, if necessary, he can escape via the back way to the river. England had a Navy. Wales did not. All of the defenses ended up being unnecessary in this case because nobody even dared trying to invade.

We learned all of this and more form our tour guide, Neil, who is head of the Deganwy Historical Society (Deganwy is across the river from Conwy). For an extra £1.50, he took us around and told us way more than we ever knew about castles and the history of the time. He was really knowledgeable and interesting. It was the best £1.50 we could have spent. He made the whole place come alive.

Having crawled all over every stone in the castle, we went down to the adjoining suspension bridge, Built by Thomas Telford in 1829, and payed our toll to walk across, a little more than the 1d it cost originally. Pretty cool. The bridge was followed 20 years later by the railroad bridge, then in 1959 by the highway bridge. So when it was built, it was the only way across Conwy river.

After that, we had a nice meal in a pub to save both of us cooking and dishes, and then returned to Footprint for an early night. Our planned departure the next morning is at 3 o’clock.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cruising and the Emotional Roller Coaster

Leaving Plas Newydd, and setting out for the Swellies

[Kyle]Okay, so the day started out really well. We got to keep our mooring from the night before. We were well rested and we woke up to partly cloudy skies, which in Britain passes for clear.

We managed to depart early enough to ride a fast current through the Britannia Bridge, The Swellies and the Menai Suspension Bridge. So far, so good.

Britannia Bridge

On the other side of the Menai Bridge, the strait gradually opens into the wide Conwy Bay. The wind picked up until it was around double the forecast - the usual. It interacted with the opposite-going current to make for really rough, standing seas. Any help we were getting from the current was more than offset by or dramatic reduction in speed through the water as we fought both wind and seas. As we passed Bangor (our third, after Maine and Northern Ireland), the pounding got so bad that we had to pull back the throttle and drift through with the current. At least it was really pretty out. The terrain was getting more mountainous and rugged and there seemed to be a new castle along the banks every five miles or so.

Bangor Pier (Wales)

Further into the open bay, the current reversed and the wind picked up, making for some slow going. The route out of the strait and across Conwy bay makes an s-turn around an island called Puffin Island. We didn’t see any Puffins there but we weren’t really looking by then. The swirling currents had made the seas very big and short and steep. I spent the whole trip around that little island hunched over the wheel with my heart in my throat trying to keep poor Footprint upright through will alone. I ached to turn away from the waves and smooth it out a bit.

Penman Light on the East end of the Menai Strait

As we rounded the north end of the island, the waves curved with us and we saw no relief at all. The four mile trip across the open bay was a long four miles. It was miserable and we were getting really beat up.

At the other end of the bay, we got a little protection from its northeastern arm and things died down gradually. Then our engine did something weird. We came off of one last steep wave and the rpm rose by a couple hundred and the boat slowed down. The wave was steep enough that we thought the prop had momentarily come out of the water. A couple minutes later, it did it again, only this time the prop was definitely submerged the entire time. It seemed like our transmission was slipping in and out of gear or perhaps the prop was slipping on the shaft. It seemed to go away at lower power settings, but either one was not good. Due to all of the chop in the bay, we were running a little late to arrive in Conwy at high water. We needed to arrive before they closed the water retention gate and the more time we spent out there, the worse the ebb current would be that we would have to fight up the river.

My leading theory at that point was that we had been working the transmission really hard by using a lot of power all day and not going very fast, leading it to overheat and cause the clutch to slip intermittently. When I backed off an the power and gave it a rest, it was okay for a while. Then I would start to gradually try another 100rpm and then another, and then it would slip again. Eventually, when we got far enough up the channel that the water was flat, we were able to achieve normal speeds at normal rpm. I was still all clenched up the whole way up the river. If it failed more seriously, we would be stuck in an area of mud flats at low tide. The weather was also supposed to be even worse for the next couple of days and I did not want to be out in the open. Plus, there was the prospect of getting stuck in Conwy for a really long time to get a major problem fixed.

Well, so far, it all seems to have worked out fine. We got to the marina, bought fuel at the fuel dock and then repositioned to our assigned berth with no problems. We must have shifted from forward to reverse 30 times maneuvering around in the tight marina. Afterwards, I checked the transmission. The fluid level was good and it was so clean, it was hard to see on the dipstick, but we checked it with a tissue and it was at the right spot. Maryanne called the mechanics in Pwllheli and asked them if they had any ideas. He thought it may be air in the fuel system. Others thought the prop may not be gripping the shaft tightly enough, which is only a problem if the load is way too high. Another culprit may be belt tension, so I adjusted that just to be sure.

Right now, I’m hoping that if we don’t push it too hard getting out of Conwy and into Preston and sail all of the way in between, we’ll have all Winter to worry about it.

Not wanting to ruin the rest of a nice day over it, we walked into Conwy to have a look at what we had gone to so much trouble to see. The walk into town had turned out to be a lot farther than we thought. We were kind of expecting it to be like Cærnarfon, with the marina right in town. Well, Conwy marina as a couple of miles from town.

What a sight it was when we got there, though. Our Lonely Planet guide had basically said that, yeah, there was a castle there, but that Conwy otherwise had nothing to offer. They could not have been more wrong. There must be another Conwy. This place was wonderful. The town is, of course, dominated by a very impressive castle set on the West bank of the river, backed by green hills and connected to one of Thomas Telford’s suspension bridges, which is a work of art in its own right. The river along the town front is filled with boats of all types. Whitewashed houses with steep roofs and a dozen chimneys each cluster atop a rolling, winding landscape. all are encircled by a very impressive town wall with all of the features of 13th century fortification. The whole place is a postcard.

Walk along the town walls of Conwy

After meandering through town, we had an evening stroll along the top of the perimeter wall, which is all in good shape and accessible to the public. I don’t believe I’ve ever had an evening stroll like that before, taking in views and gliding over houses, gardens and traffic.

Conwy Castle with another Telford bridge, and river at most way to low tide

We walked back to the marina along the river at low tide, amazed at this huge area that just a few hours ago was water and now was all mud and sand and boats canting this way and that, looking very much like fish out of water.

We got back to the marina thinking about dinner and found Footprint riding high on her lines. The guy on the keelboat next to ours looked like he may be slightly aground. Then I noticed that the water in our vicinity didn’t look too deep either. We gave Footprint a shove when we got to her and she wouldn’t budge. I stuck a boathook in and found the water was 4” deep. She was sitting in the mud in 4” of water.

We were livid. We had told them we needed a meter and a half of water and then they assigned us this dock. We had specifically come to a marina with a flap gate because we wanted to remain afloat. Had they told us something like we would ground, but the mud is soft, we probably would have gone somewhere else. If we ended up having no other option, we could have at least prepared to take the ground. As it was, our speed wheel was installed and all of our seawater intakes were open. At the very least, they’re now packed with mud. Even if our raw water pump can suck in the mud, I don’t like the idea of running abrasive silt through our engine. More seriously, our rudders were down. They are not structural and are not designed to support any weight. Best case is that they were just slowly pushed into really soft mud, but if there’s a rock in there or a sunken dock cart or pretty much anything hard, it’s much more serious. At the very least, they’re gummed up with mud. Had we known we were going to ground, we could have pulled them up. Oh and our dock lines were tied like we were going to float. Now the dock is hanging from them.

To make thing worse, the next high tide is at Midnight, so if we want to avoid a second grounding in the wee hours, we have to stay up and move then. Maryanne is already about half yawns. I found the night attendant and asked him if anything deeper was available. He gave me a ‘what’s the big deal look’ and banished us to a far away spot, I think as punishment for bothering him.

So far, we’ve had the same problem with this marina that we did with the last. The first guy we dealt with, in this case the fuel guy, was really, really nice. Everybody after that, well...not so much. Maryanne went to go check in and was met by the “computer says no” woman, who couldn’t be bothered to do anything. When Maryanne asked for clarification or help with anything, she was treated like an idiot for asking. Not her job. Ask somebody who cares later.

Sure, we get to see some cool stuff, but sometimes this life can seem like non-stop frustration.

More of the castle (in the background) and Britain's Smallest house - the little red one!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Menai Strait Scenes

[Kyle] We had intended to motor the rest of the way trough the Menai Strait to Conwy. The day before, I had checked all of my figures and gone into the harbor master’s office to find out if it sounded good to him as far as tides and currents and such and to ask about payment. In an offhand manner, he said our departure time sounded okay to him and then spent forever looking up the fee on his table. He eventually came up with £19/day plus £3 for electricity.

I told him we hadn’t used the electricity and he shot me a look that said he thought I was a liar. “It says here you got electricity!” he said, pointing at his sheet.

“Nope, sorry, that’s wrong. We didn’t get electricity.”

“Well, it says here you did!” He started craning his neck to see around me to see if we were plugged in. We weren’t.

Eventually, he only backed down when I explained that the boat had an American electrical system and couldn’t take British power.

The next morning, Maryanne went in to pay and came back (not knowing about the conversation I had had with him the day earlier, except that she needed to take £38) and said she had practically got into an argument with him. He had taken forever looking up the rate and came up with £22/day plus £3/day for electric - a total of £50 or around $80 for two nights stay. When she said we hadn’t used electric, he wouldn't believe her. Eventually, she just refused to pay it, and handed over the £44 fee without electricity. Wow, the guy who checked us in when we arrived - Mark - was sooo nice. We miss you, Mark. Anyway, we left at the appointed time, not sure we'd be welcomed back again, nor if the Police were already being informed of our imaginary electricity theft.

It was a beautiful sunny morning with almost no wind. We wound our way up the Menai Strait passing tidy little villages with boats moored below. As we passed the beautiful stately home of Plâs Newydd, near the town with the longest name in Great Britain, here it is, ready: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerwchwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, or Llanfiar P.G. for short, the current started increasing rapidly against us. By the time we made it a couple miles further to the Britannia Bridge, it was near 6 knots and we were hardly moving.

Just in the other side of the bridge is an area called The Swellies. It is the narrowest and shallowest bit of water in the whole strait and, as such, has the strongest currents. It was just after high water, but the current was really killing us. We later found out slack water was about two hours before high water. We should have known that given the nature of the channel. Think of a wave. Water at the crest moves forward, water in the trough moves backwards. It’s the water halfway in between that’s stopped. The current at The Swellies increases about a knot per 10 minutes after slack water until reaching its peak. {Maryanne: Even I don't understand what Kyle's saying here... But generally high tide coincides (give or take 30 mins) with slack water, but not always, and in this case certainly not. We'd made a classic mistake, and although our decision was confirmed by a local, we were still wrong. Here the current flows around the island of Anglesea and from both directions at once along the Menai Strait, meeting somewhere in the middle and making the Swellies very difficult to "guess" at.}

Initially, my plan had been to just make it over The Swellies to the milder current on the other side, which was soon predicted to reverse in our favor. We approached the narrow channel under the Britannia Bridge and just stopped moving in the strong, swirly current. I increased the engine rpm from our normal cruising 2800 to 3300 (red line is 3400), and we gradually pulled away from the bridge at about half a knot. We got about another 1/4 mile before the current finally eroded that to the point where we were just hovering in place. We were stuck. We couldn’t get through.

Defeated, I finally pulled the poor overworked engine back to idle and turned around. We went back under the bridge at ten knots in idle forward. At Llanfair P.G. we considered picking up a mooring for the night. We were giving each one a good look over when we noticed a guy on one of them in an old lifeboat. He told us they were all available, but that they hadn’t been checked in a couple of years, so they might not be too secure. We thought about it for about half a second and decided to give them a miss and go back to one of the moorings in front of Plâs Newydd. When we got there, I had to use 1800 rpm just to stay in place while Maryanne secured the bridle. The current, even there, was now up to 3 knots.

We got all secured. Maryanne looked up the number for the house. She called them and explained our predicament to someone very nice who said the mooring was private, but she was pretty sure the boat using it was in the shop with engine trouble. She said she’d call the owner and ask if it was alright and call us back if it wasn’t. We’ll call back in a while just to be sure but, so far, no bad news. I hope we get to stay, the view is fantastic.

Our terrible failure in planning a passage through The Swellies, left us fortunate to find a pretty cool temporary home

The Impending Gale

The Castle dominates Caernarfon, and is the reason for most of the tourists visiting the area

[Kyle]Yuck! British weather is starting to get pretty tedious.

Once in Cærnarfon, the wind rose and rose all night. By morning, it was howling. It had also started raining in cold sheets. It made me think of the time in Newport, Rhode Island where, having only one free day, we forced ourselves ashore in miserable conditions and ended up wishing we had just stayed aboard. I wanted to see Caernarfon but I didn’t want to go out in Caernarfon.

Eventually, we both got stir-crazy enough to decide we were going out anyway. We bundled up and went out just as the worst of the rain and wind passed. Within an hour, it was hot and sunny and we were badly overdressed.

We went for an aimless meander throughout the town, mostly inside of the old walled portion. We navigated by arriving at a street corner and then choosing the most appealing direction until the next corner, repeat.

The old town in Cærnarfon is very nice. It’s dominated by the castle, of course. Around the perimeter but within the outer walls, the streets radiate away and are fronted by prettily painted buildings, mostly pubs and cafés with outdoor seating areas that were quickly filling in the sunshine. At the town square, right in front of the castle, a temporary fairground had been set up. Somehow, I managed not to buy an ice cream.

After several hours wandering, we were headed back to the boat when Maryanne spotted a grocery store just as I spotted a big hill. She did her thing, while I did my thing.

Kyle checks out the view from the top of yet another hill!

She was pretty worn out by the time we got home, so I treated her to my home cooking and then even washed up as usual afterwards.

[Maryanne]About a week ago now, I managed to bash my leg badly on a bad roll of the boat, and the bruising and swelling still seems to not be getting any better. I've been resisting too much hiking (not difficult in the rain) but I decided to play the sympathy card and insist Kyle cooked today.... He resisted, and resisted, and resisted, {Kyle: one resisted would have been sufficient!} but eventually (once he realised it was cook or starve) he turned out the most delicious potato soup, and kept a very smug grin on his face all through dinner. Now I know what he's capable of, I'll expect much more from him. I doubt my leg will recover for a long time ;-)

After dinner, Kyle and I went for a second stroll (I was sufficiently rested) and found the town deserted of the crowds of tourists, it's medieval streets seeming picture postcard perfect in the dusk of the day. We eventually settled for a drink at the towns Royal Welsh Yacht Club which was set in impressive and very old buildings; Porth-yr-Aur (The Golden Gate), constructed in or about 1284 (making it the oldest yacht club premises in the world - although certainly not the oldest yacht club). Our visit to the bar, proved yet again that EVERYONE has a story to tell; the sprightly old barman had quite a few stories, including having spent time in the bush of South Africa, and speaking Zulu (sounded perfect to us!). He attempted to teach us a few words of Welsh, but I think we're poor learners; we forgot it almost as soon as we'd left the bar (or could that have been the drink?)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

And...Summer’s Over Again

[Kyle] Well, surprise, the first thing I heard as I woke up was the sound of rain pelting the cabin top. Oh, this was going to be fun.

I had a look at the forecast and it looked to be a bit windier than previously predicted. This meant we’d be able to make a little bit better boat speed and so wouldn’t have to leave so early to get to the Menai Straight on a rising tide, stalling the inevitable.

At least we were alone in a big bay with lots of maneuvering room. This meant at least we would get to sail off of the anchor, one of my favorite things.

We bundled up in all of our foul weather gear and headed outside to prepare for departure. Within a couple of minutes, the sun came out and we were baking in all of our layers. I wasn’t falling for it. We pulled up the anchor. Footprint drifted backward a bit and her bows fell away from the wind. We sheeted in the sails and she picked up speed, heading south out of the bay.

We sailed a few more miles out into the open sea until I was sure we could clear the Llŷn peninsula on the next tack. When we did, our line looked good. We had a slight head current as the tide fell on the south-going ebb, costing us about a quarter of our speed. The wind was good and strong, though and we were going fast, even though we had put a couple of extra reefs more than we needed for good measure before we left. The Gemini always seems to do best in these conditions - 20kts wind with a couple a reef in each sail. These were ideal monohull passing conditions, except that there weren’t any around.

As we neared Bardsley Sound at the tip of the peninsula, the current sped up in the gap, eventually reaching 6 knots. We would be making slow but reliable headway against it and then we’d sail into a lull, the boat would slow down and we would start getting pushed backwards, or we would just equal the current and would end up crabbing sideways.

Our track had become a series of scribbled circles. In the lee of Bardsley Island, we kept sailing into the dead spot where the wind meets again on its way around the island and then drifting back into the wind to speed back up so we could get back in the lull. I was beginning to think that we were just going to have to wait until the current slacked a little. While we were waiting, I decided to try easing to one side or the other to try to find some good air. By doing this, I managed to escape the lull. We crept ahead of the island, found some good, clean air and we were able to power our way away from the worst of the current. We had spent so much time fighting the current that I was beginning to worry that we wouldn’t make it to the entrance to the Menai Straits in time.

We turned downwind and had a fast, half sunny, half pouring rain sail up the Welsh coast. The wind was increasing and the seas were starting to get bigger. the current slacked and then reversed, giving us some much needed help. The Coast Guard started issuing gale warnings for later, which seemed to jibe with the worsening conditions. The waves got large enough for us to surf. We kept reefing and then reefing some more to try to slow down.

As we approached the entrance to the Menai Strait, the sea shallowed and the waves began to get increasingly steep and alarming the closer we became. The Strait is entered by approaching the shore of Anglesey and then making a hard right turn to parallel the beach in a shallow channel just inside a sand bar. The height of the bar is maybe only a meter above the bottom of the channel. Entering near high tide, both were well submerged. The bar offered almost no protection against the steepening waves. It felt a little like we were just paralleling the beach for the experience of landing a Gemini in heavy surf. If it hadn’t been for all of the gale warnings flying through the airwaves, we probably would have skipped it.

Eventually, it came time for us to make the left turn into the gap. As soon as we did, the water completely flattened and we shot through the gap pushed by the flood at over ten knots. We zinged past pretty houses and mooring fields backed by mountains. In no time at all, we approached Victoria Docks at Caernarfon.

Arriving at Caernarfon at Sunset - the 14 century castle dominates the town view

The docks lie inside a basin protected from draining at low tide by a sill in the same manner as Peel on the Isle of Man. We called the harbor master, who warned us that the current was racing across the narrow entrance and gave us some advice for transiting the entrance, the best of which was to keep the helm hard over longer than felt right because, while most of the boat would be in calm water, the rudders would still be in the stream and would kick us around into the wall if we didn’t keep the correction in.

The harbor master directed us to a spot that was exactly the right size for us and helped tie us up. We were now safely in the middle of town and well secured against the impending gale.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Summer Again

OK - so this is close enough to summer right now, or the best we'll get we think

[Kyle] The next morning in Aberystwyth, it was Summer again. I was glad I waited. Now our pre-sailing checklist could be done in shorts. We left mid-morning at half-tide as it fell. Much later and we wouldn’t have been able to make it over the bar at the entrance.

I should have been more worried about getting off our dock. No sooner had we made the 180° turn away from the dock than we grounded on the drying grid next to the adjacent wall. A drying grid is a series of concrete slats with space between them to allow for drainage that boats rest on at low tide, like a big soap dish. We pulled up the rudders, but that didn’t free us. It urned out we had actually grounded the starboard hull. That was bad. On a catamaran, you just can’t hang out on the boom to get the keel up. With only one hull on the grid, and only part of one at that, we would have at the very least ended up at an alarming angle. At the worst, the small part of the hull supporting the weight might not be able to take the load and, well, our stay might have ended up being a lot longer than planned.

Luckily, we have a really shallow draft. Maryanne, no doubt drawing on our previous grounding experiences aboard Prydwen in Chesapeake Bay, lost no time in extending a boat hook and punting us off. If we could only teach her something to sing in Italian.

Well, that wasted more time than I would have liked, but we still managed to get over the bar and out into Cardigan Bay. It was cloudy everywhere inland, but the bay was a big, blue hole. It stayed that way for the entire day it took us to cross it. With the cockpit enclosure up to block the wind, I even managed to stubbornly stay in shorts the whole day.

Aberdaron bay

At the other end, right at sunset, we pulled into Aberdaron Bay at the end of the Llŷn peninsula. It was a bit exposed, but the current rushing by the mouth killed the waves, so it made for a nice, flat anchorage. Our first attempt at setting the anchor put us in too much weed, but the second one held. We had the whole bay to ourselves and just enough time for a glass of wine before bed.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Devil’s Bridge

Picturesque steam train journey to Devil's Bridge

[Kyle] The day after, the morning was bright and sunny, so we packed a bag and headed to the railway station to board the Vale of Rheidol Railway for the one hour trip up the Rheidol valley to Devils Bridge.

We’ll get to Devil’s bridge in a minute, but first, the train ride. The Vale of Rheidol Railway runs a narrow gauge steam train the 11 1/2 miles to the Devil’s Bridge. Steam trains really are wonderful. They make great chug-chug noises and there’s loads of steam and smoke, not to mention the clackity-clack as the cars go over the track seams. Growing up in Colorado in The U.S., I have been on a few steam trains in my day, but I have never done so in Britain. It is soo much more entertaining here. I am thinking of starting a new hobby category: Train spotter spotting.

In addition to all of the cool steam engine stuff associated with such a ride, there is all of the fabulous entertainment of train spotter observation. Train spotters in Britain are people who are oh, shall we say, obsessive about trains. They LOVE trains. They keep meticulous records of any and all minutiae related to trains.

Any time the engine does anything...anything, these guys (they’re all guys) run out and snap away to record the action. We saw one guy take a few dozen still photos, then switch to video to record the rest of the nonstop action of the stopped train.

Once we got moving, we saw one guy video pretty much the entire journey through the front window of the coach into the back window of the engine and then back out the front. All three windows were covered in rain. We chuckled. Both of the people that guy hasn’t bored to death are going to have to be subjected to that video. Actually, the ones left may be the ones who find that sort of thing riveting.

The whole experience provided even another level of entertainment for Maryanne. Every time I took a photo of any part of the train because, let’s face it, a well maintained steam train is a lot more interesting than some run-of-the-mill British Rail diesel, she would send herself chuckling for half an hour making various jokes at my expense: “Did you write down the engine number, Darling?” “Do you want me to buy you a DVD from the gift shop?”, “I bet they have an app on the iPhone for people like you.”, etc. Oh, Hardy-har-har! Very funny! After subjecting me to this for a while and making her sides hurt, she turned her attention to the stills-cum-video guy for a while, who was taking enough footage to reverse-engineer the engine in his basement when he got home. When the whistle was blown for all-aboard, he came and sat down right behind us next to his wife, who had been there all along. Maryanne got a guilty sheepish look on her face and now it was my turn for a good chuckle.

After an hour of watching the production of several different hour-long documentaries about steam discharge or axle use that all seemed oblivious to the stunning mountain scenery along the way, we arrived in very good humor.

It was raining pretty heavily when we arrived, so we popped into a local hotel for some tea and Welsh cakes to kill some time until it eased a bit, then we walked down to the entrance to the trails at Devil’s Bridge. Devil’s Bridge itself is actually three bridges, each built on the site of the previous one starting in 1087 and spanning a pretty, narrow gorge. The bridge(s) as well as the gorge and the waterfalls below are accessed through a pair of coin-operated turn-styles at the top. I didn’t realize until after I’d wedged myself in with my daypack on that the sign should have said: Adults - £1, packs - another £1, Americans - Please feel free to enjoy some of our other attractions.

Oh Boy, now he has me on steep hikes we have to pay for!

Anyway, the trails took us down the gorge for some nice views of the bridge as well as several waterfalls interspersed with A LOT of steps.

By the time we made it back to the road, it was starting to rain harder. We still had 3 1/2 hours to kill before the train ride back, so we wandered around a bit on the local roads until the increasing rain drove us back into the hotel for a lunch of soup followed by a game of darts and a sampling of Welsh whiskey - Penderyn - interesting in it’s own way, but not my favorite.

A perfectly placed pub to while away the rainy hours before the return journey

We slogged back to the train, boarded and then watched it rain harder and harder during our journey. By the time we got to Aberystwyth, it was hard enough that we were darting from awning to awning and zigzagging along the sidewalks on a route that offered the best cover from trees. We arrived back at Footprint dripping and cold, our glasses opaque. It felt so good to stand in the cockpit and not be being rained on for once.

Bloody British weather. It feels like we’re stuck in a perpetual early March. Every now and then, there’s a nice day, but it’s really not going to start getting warm for a few more weeks, except for one thing: it’s August! This is it. This is already the height of “Summer”. Everywhere else in the northern hemisphere is baking and people are looking forward to some relief from the unrelenting heat. Here, it feels like the first day of Spring must be just around the corner. I’ve got to go outside and prepare for the next leg, but I don’t want to go out in that.


Aberystwth Scenes

[Kyle]The beginning of our stay ended up being so miserable, weather-wise, that we ended up spending most of our time aboard Footprint. Every time it looked like it was clearing up, we grabbed our things and, by the time we made it outside, it was pouring so back into the boat we would go.

Eventually, it got to where it was only raining a little, so we went out to have a proper look at the town. We started with the castle ruins, which were beautiful, well maintained and free to the public. Next to the castle lies a crazy golf course and, realizing I had never played crazy golf next to a castle before, I decided we just had to have a game.

Fun in Aberystwyth

We followed that with a walk down the promenade carrying a suitably drippy ice cream from a place that must’ve packed a pint of ice cream on the side-by-side cone. I was glad we only got one. At the other end, we boarded what we later learned was the longest electric funicular in Britain (as opposed to the other one, I guess). At the top, we had a view of the entire city as well as the coast for a dozen miles on either side. We were hoping to get a view of Ireland, but it was a bit too hazy for that.

We headed back on an aimless, meandering route through the city that surprisingly spat us out right back at the harbor instead of miles away as we were expecting. The timing was perfect as it was just starting to rain hard again.