North Wales: Navigating the Menai Strait

Once you sail north from Fishguard in Pembrokeshire, you will find little reliable shelter for a 43-ft yacht like N’Tiana until you reach Anglesey – the mythic island separated from north Wales by a narrow fiercely tidal channel called the Menai Strait.

Even there, the principal marina in Holyhead had been all but destroyed by Storm Emma a few months before our arrival, leaving few options for those seeking safe haven.

Sailing north across Cardigan Bay towards the Llŷn Peninsula, you cross an invisible dividing line. North Wales is where Britain gives up on being the green and pleasant land of soft rolling hills with patchwork quilt fields and rears mountains which loom dark and brooding against the horizon.

After a quiescent sail north east along the undulating Pembrokeshire coastline to Aberporth bay, we were up the next morning with the sun, which rose over the distant headland, bathing us in the golden whisper of warmth.

Our planned passage was to cut directly north across Cardigan Bay and round the Llŷn Peninsula to moor up somewhere on its north coast. This would place us just a short hop from the southern entrance to the Menai Strait.

Both Pete and I had been inspired to navigate this notoriously fast flowing slither of water since reading Libby Purves’s wonderful account of her 1988 UK circumnavigation, One Summer’s Grace, in which she described in vivid detail the magic of drying out against the wall below Caenarfon Castle.

Entering the Menai Strait from the south requires the crossing of a sandbar before following a narrow buoyed channel of shifting sands, only passable for us a couple of hours either side of high water and in sufficiently calm seas.

It was a brisk sail across Cardigan Bay with the wind building from the south west throughout the day bringing with it a series of squalls which enveloped us briefly in grey sheets of rain before racing on towards land.

We flew around Bardsley Island with the tide, clocking more than 9.2 knots speed over ground as the wind continued to rise, passing 20 knots, then 25, the waves growing with it until we were surfing the swell, coasting northwards.

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We had spotted a bay with mooring buoys called Porth Dinnaen near Nefyn on the chart, which looked like it would be well sheltered from the south westerly and was a convenient two-hour hop to the Menai Strait entrance. This made it an ideal spot to moor overnight in order to time our arrival perfectly with the middle of the flood the next morning.

By the time we reached Porth Dinnaen it was blowing 30 knots. Unfortunately the bay which had looked so promising on paper, provided little shelter from the wind which was whisking straight over the land mass of the peninsular and blowing a hoolie among the dozens of boats swinging on their moorings. Clearly many others had shared our idea, so all the mooring buoys were taken. We dropped the sails and motored in to drop anchor then spent some time checking it would hold against the near gale force wind. Thankfully, it did.

It was a civilised 9am start the next day with the wind calmed to a moderate breeze from the south west due to increase through the morning. Horribly aware that if the wind grew, the resulting swell would make entering the strait over the sandbar challenging or worse, impossible, we decided to get there slightly earlier than originally planned.

As we neared the narrow entrance, marked by the fairway buoy, the wind was blowing 20 to 25 knots and the seas had already built until it was touch and go but with few other options, we decided to head into the channel. Two bottlenose dolphins appeared briefly leaping out of the foaming waves alongside our bow. We took it as a good luck omen. With Pete at the helm, keeping N’Tiana’s bulk steady amidst steep seas breaking over the shallow shifting sands, we watched the depth sounder steadily descend, 30-ft, 20-ft, 15-ft then suddenly just 8-ft, perilously close to our six-ft keel, before rising rapidly, signaling that we had crossed the bar.

I counted off the channel buoys, their positions marked on the Caenarfon Harbour Authority’s latest guide.

The shifting sands extend about three miles out from land, with the narrow channel weaving its way through them, until you reach Abermenai Point, when the channel deepens and it is a straight forward journey up to Caenarfon with its huge medieval castle guarding the strait.

Reaching Caenarfon near the height of the flood tide meant we were able to squeeze our way into its small river entrance, passing the swing bridge to tie up against the town quay, below the castle, just as Libby Purves had done 30 years before.

Our next challenge was ensuring N’Tiana was safely leaning to, bound securely to the wall before the tide fell leaving her perched upon her keel. It was our first attempt at this stunt so we were probably over cautious. As Pete attached the lines quickly and methodically ready to adjust as the boat sank towards the riverbed, I busied myself down below moving all weighty objects to the wall side.

We then sat, slightly nervously, while the ebb tide sluiced the water out of the river until we were confident N’Tiana was sitting on the bottom and leaning in the correct direction.

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Located on the edge of Snowdonia, looking across the narrow channel at Anglesey and dominated by its huge medieval castle, Caenarfon is a lovely atmospheric town.

We made the most of our stopover, taking the famous Ffestiniog Railway steam train into the heart of Snowdonia before donning hiking boots and setting off into the mountains. It was a wonderful walk although the most beautiful vistas were obscured by the thick grey drizzle which sat heavy on the mountaintops. Seeking less hilly adventures, we took bikes along the cycle path following the Menai waters from Caenarfon to Thomas Telford’s Menai Bridge, at the north end of the strait. We spent a happy morning meandering among the historic stones of the castle admiring the views from its turreted towers and sampled the most tempting looking pubs and restaurants scattered among the winding streets of the walled town.

After a couple of days leaning against the wall some space became available in Victoria Dock marina on the other side of the town and we felt it sensible to give N’Tiana’s keel a break from bearing her 13-tons and move her round.

This meant we could time our departure from Caenarfon more easily – a vital consideration for any successful passage through the Menai Strait. The tide sweeps through this 14-mile channel at up to five knots or more in spots where the channel narrows due to obstructions, meaning most of the passage must be made as close as possible to slack water.

We left Caenarfon just after 11am to reach the Swellies about two hours before high water Liverpool. This scattering of rocks in the channel, which have claimed dozens of boats including the Royal Navy’s HMS Conwy in 1953, must be carefully negotiated to avoid disaster. Our timing would mean passing through these tidal narrows at slack water and catching the last of the flood to Beaumaris.

It was a tranquil picturesque journey up the strait, with the luscious tree-lined shore interrupted only by pretty villages such as Y Felinheli with its snug marina, Port Dinorwic, which provides great shelter in all weather conditions.

But as Britannia Bridge loomed into view, we braced ourselves. We had carefully read the passage instructions so while Pete helmed, I monitored our progress against the various channel markers, until they were lined up as directed. We passed under the central arch of Britannia bridge, then followed the channel to what felt perilously close to the shore to line up the leading lights which took us through the narrowest section of the Swellies between Cribbin rock and the mainland. We wound our way between the rocks, ticking off each step of the passage instructions until we found ourselves being swept under the central span of the Menai Bridge and we knew we were safely through.

With a silent sigh of relief and self-congratulation, we continued up the channel north east past Bangor, Beaumaris and Garth Pier, jutting 1,500 feet out into the channel.

To the south Snowdonia rose majestic over the mainland shore while Anglesey’s unspoilt lowland coast ended in the red and white lighthouse at Penmon Point. We sailed on past Puffin Island, teeming with guillemots and razor bills, and struck out into open water. The wall of dark mountains on our stern slowly faded into the blue haze as the easterly wind drove us north towards our next destination, the Isle of Man.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. andrewprynne says:

    This is a great description of a cruise in these beautiful but challenging waters. Great stuff!


  2. Janet says:

    What an adventure, and what a dramatic description – my heart was racing !!

    Liked by 1 person

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