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The Skerries, one of my favourite UK trips, it has it all! (Part one)

The Skerries - To get there we need to shape a course using the tides to assist, they can run up to 6 knots in this area, creating overfalls and races over the shallow reefs.  It’s a fantastic trip, full of adventure and maritime history because of its close proximity to the port of Liverpool.  I prefer to leave on an ebbing tide, which means we get to visit one of my favourite places; Cemlyn nature reserve.

Situated on the wild north coast of Anglesey with its unique, elliptical shingle ridge, Cemlyn is an incredible site to visit.  The ridge known as Esgair Cemlyn, is an important habitat for specialist plant species such as sea kale, sea campion and yellow horned-poppy. Beyond the ridge, the shallow lagoon is an interesting habitat for aquatic species such as the rare spiralled tassleweed; whilst surrounding areas of gorse and grassland provide habitat for a wide range of butterflies and birds.  Year round, waders and wildfowl can be seen around the lagoon at the adjacent shorelines. The site is best visited from May through to July when the islands within the lagoon host the nesting colonies of Sandwich, Common and Arctic terns. 

It’s a true wildlife spectacle, not to be missed!  Cemlyn has the only nesting colony of Sandwich terns in Wales which in recent years have increased to 1500, making it the third largest in the UK. Both Artic and Common terns regularly breed here, for this reason the area was awarded SSSI in 1957 and comes under the Skerries protection area internationally recognised by Birdlife International as an important bird area.  Other birds that breed here are Blackheaded Gull, Ringed Plover, Oyster Catcher and Shelduck, as well as being an important site for winter visitors.

Sandwich tern - The largest breed of the tern family with 11,000 breeding pairs in the UK, feeding on sand eels and sprat. These birds undertake a long distance migration in the UK after spending the winter in West Africa coastal waters. They are easy to identify with their scruffy black crest and black bill with a yellow tip.

Common tern - A medium sized tern found in the majority of the UK. The common tern undertakes one of the longest migrations, spending the winter along the coasts of the tropics including Africa, South America and South East Asia, an average round trip of 35,000km. Common terns feed on sand eels and sprat along with other small fish. The easiest way to identify them is by their red bill with a black tip. They can breed in large colonies of up to 20,000 pairs.

Arctic terns - A medium sized bird, which continuously moves between the Arctic and Antarctica. During the summer, arctic terns see more daylight than other animal on Earth. They are great wanderers, an arctic tern ringed in Wales was found in New South Wales, Australia, after just 6 months! They can live up to 29 years and feed on sand eels. Arctic terns can be badly affected by the population of sand eels, in 2001 large numbers of sand eels disappeared from UK waters, resulting in a failure to breed for the terns in some areas. In the Shetlands, which usually has 20,000 breeding pairs, not one chick survived. A good way to identify them is by their red bills and feisty nature, should you approach the nest of an arctic tern, you will most certainly feel its anger!

I prefer to park in the western area next to Bryn Aber where, behind the walls at Cemlyn Bay, you will find the mysterious home of the late Captain Vivian Hewitt, the first man to cross the Irish Sea by air on April 6th 1912.  In later years, he constructed the walls (some say he was a very shy man) with the intention of keeping predators away from his beloved wild birds, to this end he created a dam and weir which changed the land from salt marsh to the lagoon we see today, sadly he passed away in 1965 aged 77.  He lived alone, cared for by a housekeeper to whose sons he eventually left his property as he had no heirs.  One son received a home in the Bahamas and the other Jack Parry, received Bryn Aber and his widow, Sarah Olwen Parry lived there until 2009.

We unload our boats at the top of the lane at the small shingle beach at the western end of Cemlyn next to some derelict buildings with a rich History.  

The buildings known locally as Y Storws were built shortly before 1779 by Shadrack Williams, a local farmer, trader and dealer.  He dealt primarily in grain and coal, his family lived on there until 1907 and carried on selling coal and supervising the storage of grain.  He purchased grain and oats from local farms and exported it along the North Wales coast and they returned with the coal, he was described by his nephew as “a great improver and owner of vessels, a shop keeper, corn merchant and coal dealer”, it would have been nice to have had a chat with this great character as we pack our kayaks.

A little North of this site lies the location of Anglesey’s first lifeboat, the Cemlyn Lifeboat played a notable role in rescuing ships and sailors off the North Anglesey coast during the 19th and early 20th century.  It was established mainly due to the indefatigable efforts of a local family, the Lloyd Williams’s.

The name of Canon Owen Lloyd Williams, Rector of Llanrhyddlad and Chancellor of Bangor Cathedral, is synonymous with North Wales Lifeboats.  His mother, witnessing the tragic loss of life when ‘The Alert’ foundered off West Mouse in 1823, was the driving force in this whole process.

In 1828, five years after the Alert tragedy, the Lifeboat station was in operation.  For the next ninety years it would help sixteen ships in difficulty off this North West coast.  In fact, the Lifeboat Station closed in 1918, the same year that Canon Lloyd Williams died at the age of ninety.

Highlights of Cemlyn Lifeboat Rescues

  • On 1 November 1853, the schooner ‘Compeer’ from Salcombe, Devon, was in difficulty off the North coast. The vessel and five crew members were rescued.

  • The steam ship ‘Olinda’ was helped off Holyhead on 26 January 1854, and seventeen people were saved.

  • Off Harry Furlong's Rocks on 8 October 1879, the schooner ‘Haleswell’ was rescued.  

  • Five lives and the schooner ‘Maggie of Ardrossan’ were saved near the Platters rocks, on 10 August 1889.

  • On 14 April 1894, the schooner ‘Star of Douglas’ was in trouble to the east of the Skerries, three lives were saved.

So now it’s time to go!  Boats on the water, paddles in hand, we are full of excitement and anticipation for the day ahead.   Will our vectors work?  Could we miss the Skerries and float off to who knows where?  As we leave the bay out to the north west, we firstly see the green marker ofHarry Furlough’s rocks, thenVictoria Bank,Coal Rock, Ethel Rockand furthest out of all Arch Deacon Rock, these are all great transits we can use.

We reach the headland at the West of Cemlyn Bay; our first overfalls, it’s just after local HW on a spring tide and the ebb has started, a westerly wind against the ebb has caused some nice waves at the head of the race, should we stay and play?  Harry Furlong rocks changed to Furlough on OS maps, so named because they are a furlong from the shore and a local character called Harris was reputed to extinguish the beacon light that marked the rocks, thus wrecking ships.  There is no time to stop and surf some waves today, our target is now in view, ‘The Skerries’.

We ferry glide out to the ‘Victoria Bank’ north cardinal buoy, then out to ‘Coal Rock’, also marked by a south cardinal buoy.  Other good transits are the leading marks, ‘The White Ladies’ on Carmel head, line up with the white beacon on top of Maen y Bugial (West Mouse), which translates into English as ‘The Shepherd's Stone’, this comes from a folklore tale in which a shepherd who was looking for his sheep was annoyed by a stone in his shoe.  He took the stone out and threw it into the sea, the island arising at the place in which it landed. 

The tides that help us along to our destination are notorious among shipping, with at least three wrecks around the Skerries.  As we get closer to the east end of the island, we start to use more transits to bring us in, we are now committed and can see the white horses all around the island. How big are those waves?  We have lots of decisions to make and before we know it, we are through the races and heading to the lagoon on the north side for lunch.

It is soon apparent how the Skerries acquired its Welsh name of ‘Ynys Y Moelrhoniaid’, which translates into English as ‘The island of the bald-headed grey seals’.  The rocks here are a favourite haul out for the Atlantic Grey Seal, the UK has around 40% of the World’s population, and it sometimes feels like most of them are hauled out at the Skerries.  Adults weights are approximately - males 233kg; females 155kg and the Skerries is a favourite place for pupping during autumn.  During breeding season male grey seals come ashore to mate, the largest males, usually more than 10 years old, compete for a position within groups of breeding females. Occasionally males fight and may sustain deep scars on their necks as a result.  Grey seal pups weigh about 14kg at birth and have soft white fur.  They remain on land where they suck from their mother for 18-21 days.  A female’s milk contains up to 60% fat, so pups grow very quickly, gaining about 2kg in weight each day.  This weight gain consists mainly of a layer of blubber below their skin, which is vital insulation when they go to sea.  Female grey seals may live for 35 years, but males seldom survive to more than 25 years old.

The light house has a very chequered history, something which we will go into more detail, in part two of this blog on the Skerries...

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