Crossing the Bristol Channel to Milford Haven

We left Cornwall under engine. The air was still, heavy and brooding as we motored along that final austere stretch of coast, passing Porthcurno and the Minac amphitheatre carved into the dark cliffs.

All was calm but ominous blackening clouds, sitting heavy over the dark contours of Land’s End and the Longships rocks, carried a silent threat of thunder. Once past Gwennap Head the sea began to undulate with the ocean swell rolling in from the south west.

As we struck north into the Bristol Channel the air started stirring, gently at first but graduating steadily over the course of an hour into a fresh breeze right on our bow. Behind the helm, I breathed deeply taking in the salty air. I revelled in the wind whipping my cheeks and the unlimited expanse of open sea.

It felt good to be on the water again, with a proper passage ahead of us and not just another coastal hop. We ate a warming chicken stew and watched the sun sink below the line of low clouds to the west and dive towards the liquid horizon, bathing us in its pink glow.

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I took the first watch then handed over to Pete at midnight only to lie awake for three uncomfortable hours. As evening progressed into night, the now strong northerly wind racked up waves which lurched southwards, fighting against the swell and the tide, creating steep messy seas.

We tried sailing, zigzagging our way north while being bashed by lumps of water from seemingly every direction with the wind leaping about from north to north east to north west leaving the sails suddenly luffing dramatically and requiring constant alteration. Our progress was so slow we gave up and turned the engine back on. But even under engine N’Tiana seemed unable to haul her heavy bulk through the aggressive seas.

As I took over for my second night watch at 3am we were only managing a maximum boat speed of two to three knots, compared to our usual six to seven knot motoring speed, even when upping the revs much more than normal.

Every couple of minutes N’Tiana would come to a virtual standstill as her bow was buried by a particularly large or steep wave and weepingly slowly she would claw back momentum only to be halted once again.

Desperate for some sleep Pete left me, mumbling something about potential ‘problems’ and saying to wake him the moment it was light enough to see so we could have a rethink on what to do. I had no intention of obeying this request unless forced to, feeling that what he needed most was some decent kip.

Swaying alone in the shadows, feeling the struggling boat beneath me, the night demons crawled out to grasp me and I began to imagine a whole host of nightmarish explanations for N’Tiana’s sluggish progress. There was clearly something wrong. What?

Perhaps there was something dragging on the propellor, perhaps engine was losing power and would die on us for good, perhaps the boat was taking on water somewhere… Being about 40 miles from land in total darkness, none of these were welcome thoughts.

Two hours passed with no impending disaster and a thin band of pink began to light the eastern horizon above the inky sea, announcing the return of daylight.

Night began its steady retreat as darkness dissolved into changing hues of blue and purple until the shy sun peeked over the waves and winked at us. Then, emboldened, began her ascent, bathing everything in her golden warmth.

Pete woke up with the light, a changed man from the harried sailor of three hours before.

The wind had settled in the north-north-east, blowing a healthy 25 knots, so we got the sails out and finally N’Tiana perked up and began her familiar gallop through the waves.

With the sails up, we rocketed along at seven to eight knots tacking towards the mouth of Milford Haven, the worries of the night seemingly cast off. After all the imagined horrors of the dark hours, we were forced to conclude that N’Tiana’s clumsy progress had simply been due to the sea state and thankfully not some more sinister cause.

I collapsed in bed for a couple of hours and woke to see the rugged coast of Pembrokeshire stretching out ahead of us, it’s beautiful and unforgiving rust red rocks rearing out of the water, fringed by green gold fields, parched by the July sunshine.

Milford Haven is one of the UK’s great safe havens, large and deep enough to host dozens of tankers at any one time. Enter between St Anne’s Head and Studdock Point and you are quickly ensconced away from the open seas behind the large rocky peninsula of Angle.

This impressive geography has been both its strength and its misfortune, depending on perspective. Its huge natural harbour close to the key Atlantic trade routes has made it the UK’s largest handling site for oil and gas, capable of delivering almost a third of the UK’s gas demand. Milford Haven port currently serves five major energy terminals including the biggest petrol tank farm in the UK and receives cargos from the North Sea, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe. It was recently chosen as the site of Europe’s largest gas fire power station, Pembroke Power Station. All this brings jobs and money and is a lifeline for much of the population in this out of the way corner of Wales.

It has also turned large swathes of this naturally stunning river estuary into a harsh industrial wasteland, the quiet green fields and cliffs teeming with birdlife, set to a backdrop of giant squat oil cylinders and tall chimneys stabbing into the blue sky and coughing out their black smoke day and night.

Milford Haven is a place of extremes, where industrialisation meets bucolic idyll. Farmland meets factories.

The main waterway is interrupted with long piers ending in tanker docks, their spaghetti tangle of pipes snaking far out into the channel to latch onto the ships and suck out their fossil fuels to feed our nation’s insatiable energy addiction.

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Here, the tide is king. The tidal range in Milford Haven is often more than 20-ft and dictates when and where you choose to moor. We arrived on a rising tide and let it sweep us up the estuary towards the town of Milford Haven, which sits on the north bank, accessible via a narrow marked channel and a lock through which boats can enter the marina at all states of tide. Once through the lock and tied up in a finger berth, a short walk confirmed that Milford Haven marina and the waterfront is probably the nicest part of the town.

The shabby high street is lined by a depressing array of unappealing takeaways, dusty charity shops, betting shops and run down pubs with darkened windows. Not even a half decent sandwich shop or bakery in sight.

A handful of newer, shinier restaurants and cafes overlook the marina, one of which was recommended by a passing local. We headed there for a drink but one look at the food convinced Pete we’d be better off cooking on the boat.

However, despite no pretence at beauty or fine dining, Milford Haven is a good place to stop before or after a lengthy sail north or south. The marina is a well equipped with very friendly staff and hot showers, a large supermarket nearby and a train station within five minutes’ walk.

Since we needed to get home for a couple of weeks, this was a key consideration.

It is also a perfect jumping off point from which to explore the upper reaches of the River Cleddau, where all evidence of industry is left behind as you enter a world of rural tranquillity.

Keep following the River Cleddau on past the rusting docks, flame topped chimneys and motorway bridges, and you discover a serene waterway winding through woodland and rolling hills.

Leaving Milford Haven and turning upriver, we passed Neyland and Pembroke Dock then Burton, where coincidentally in the 1960s my father learnt to sail at Able Boys summer camp, before being expelled aged 14 for leading a band of the able boys to the pub.

The offending watering hole, The Jolly Sailor, remains in situ, overlooking the river from the north bank. I took a photo as we passed and sent it to Dad. Happy memories and all that.

After this the river began to twist and turn between wood and field, its waters tightly embraced by the welsh countryside. We motor sailed on as far as Lawrenny where a small tributary offered some knackered mooring buoys. Feeling that a mooring buoy would afford us a more relaxed nights’ sleep than our anchor in such tidal waters, we stopped there to be greeted by a roguish pair of boatmen, accompanied by a mad collie dog racing in circles around their small launch busily snapping at the boat’s wake.

The boatmen recommended a good walk along the river so we duly went ashore. The narrow path wound its way up, down and round through gnarled old oak woodland whose twisted trees had hobbled right down to the waters’ edge. We were teased by the sparkling of sun on water through the branches until we reached the stream of Garron Pill. Here we finally freed ourselves of the hunched trees and leapt down onto the stony waterside to gaze across the calm wide stretch of river towards Llangwym and Black Tar, the sloping fields lit green against the azure blue sky and its delicate candy floss clouds.

We circled back overland, gently ascending to Lawrenny village with its sweeping views upriver towards Cresselly and Carew, before descending back to the creek with its welcoming waterfront pub. Sitting with a sunlit pint listening to the birds’ evening chorus, it was hard to believe the petrochemical giants still sat humming just a few miles away.

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