Seafair Milford Haven - Wednesday 18 to Tues 24 June 2008

Writing about our participation in the Semaine du Golfe event last year, I said that I could not imagine any such event being laid on free of charge in the UK. I was wrong about that since Seafair Milford Haven is a sailing event which was actually inspired by the Semaine du Golfe and is similar in many ways to the French event, including being free to enter. I will avoid too much comparative analysis since these are both superb events, made possible by the efforts of an army of volunteer helpers together with some European Union funding offered on the basis of promoting tourism. I would say that Seafair in 2008 actually provided more days of planned sailing activity than Semaine du Golfe in 2007. The organised activity at Semaine du Golfe takes place mainly in the final three days of the week, leaving one free to sail where you fancy during the first part of the week.  Seafair Milford Haven offered a detailed sailing programme for each day, apart from one free sailing dsy. As it happened, we enjoyed the best weather of the week on that free sailing day, so the HSC used that day to make a longer sail than any of the trips in the planned itinery.

Semaine du Golfe attracted about 800 boats in 2007, Seafair in 2008 was a smaller event with about 200 boats, including about 70 small craft in the sail and oar fleet. At a guess, that is still something like 200 people in the sail and oar fleet, which is quite enough for a good party in the evening. The Brits are certainly welcome at Semaine du Golfe and there were quite a few small boats making the journey from the UK on road trailers. It is the intention to encourage continental participation in Seafair, but in 2008 there were relatively few foreign boats, I have an idea that this was becase the event clashed with another event being held in Brittainy.

Semaine du Golfe and Seafair Milford Haven are both basically intended for traditional boats. When you enter, which is most easily done on-line, you are asked for certain details of your boat and in the case of Seafair you are asked to email a photograph. The HSC Wayfarer and my 15 foot home made sailing dinghy, neither of which are traditional construction or rig, were accepted in the sail and oar fleet by both events with no quibbles. What does traditional mean anyway - if it means similar to lots of others that have been around for a while then the Wayfarer should be fine, there are 10,000+ of them and the class association recently celebrated a 50th anniversary. My boat is more questionable, but at least it is gunter rigged, never mind that the gunter rig has a rotating mast which as far as I know has never been fitted to any traditional boat. I think that the organisers of Seafair are keen to build up the number of entries, so if you are interested in entering but are not sure that your boat is sufficiently antiquated, I should email them a photo or two and see what they think. The event attracts plenty of traditional shaped plastic boats, but fewer contempory shaped wooden boats.

seafair map Sketch map of the area

A bit about the location of Seafair Milford Haven. Entering the River Cleddau from the Irish Sea, you pass the outlying nature reserve islands of Skokholm, Skomer and Middleholm, then enter the the lower part of the estuary which has high sea cliffs and some sandy beaches. This area is certainly beautiful.

Next, you then come to the central part of the estuary, a channel tapering from about a mile wide to about half a mile wide and eight miles long running west to east with commercial port facilities on either side. Oil tankers berth at 'T' headed jetties from which pipe lines lead up the hillsides to several oil refineries handling about 18% of the oil that powers the UK. As well as the oil terminals, there are older harbours at Milford Haven itself, at Nayland and at Pembroke Dock from which the ferry to Ireland operates. If you don't like industialisation then you had better avert your eyes from some of the scenary in this area, but those with an interest in industrial history might quite like it. Brunel, the Victorian engineer, had a vision for a direct service from Paddington Station in London through to New York with transfer from steam train to steam ship at Neyland. The 'Great Eastern', the 32,000 ton steamer designed by Brunel, was by far the largest ship afloat and it visited Neyland in 1860 and 1862, but a regular transatalantic service was never established. Relics remain of the broad gauge Great Western railway at Brunel Quay at Neyland.

Sailing on above the high road bridge which carries the main road into Pembroke, you leave the industrial scenery behind and can follow the main channel for about another 12 miles to Haverfordwest. There are also several long branches off the main channel, making this one of the most extensive estuaries in the UK with more than enough scope for a week of sailing holiday.

Some of the Sail and Oar fleet at Llangwm

Some of the Sail and Oar fleet at Llangwm

Wednesday 18 June

In 2008, the Seafair Sail and Oar fleet was based at the waterside village of Llangwm, well up the Cleddau estuary, see map and picture above. (future events may ring the changes with the base location) Arriving in the village on the first day of the event, we were greeted with welcoming signs directing us to the campsite which had been set up specifically for our use. It was not compulsory to use the campsite, but most alternative accomodation would be a lot less convenient since the campsite was just a couple of hundred yards from the river where moorings had been laid for the visiting fleet and where two marquees had been set up for evening gatherings and morning briefings. We set up our tents, parked our boats in the trailer park and just made it to the marquee in time to register for the event and collect a bulging 'goody bag' of literature, including our itineries for the week. Just time for a brew of tea then coaches arrived to take us to an introductory reception to be held in quayside buildings at Milford Haven. We listened to welcoming speeches and safety briefings (no naked lights when sailing within 100m of any oil tankers or tanker terminals!), then adjourned to the big beer tent on the quayside for a complimentary supper and to socialise with the crews from the 'big boat' fleets that were gathered in Milford Docks.  The 'big boats' ranged from cruising cabin yachts to tall ships.

llangwm campsite

HSC tents on the campsite at Llangwm

Thursday 19th June

We made our way down to the waterside where volunteers from the village had prepared us a generous continental breakfast in the smaller of two marquees, what had we done to deserve all this?  There was a charge made for breakfast and the use of the campsite, but it was very reasonable. After breakfast, we gathered in the larger of the two marquees for more welcoming speeches, the plan of the day and the inevitable safety reminders, but generally quite sensible ones.  The plan was to beat down to Neyland Yacht Club for a complimentary drink, then run back on the flood, followed by an evening of live folk music at Llangwm.  There was great excitement as the fleet got underway for the first time. On our boat I will admit that we were struggling a bit because we had not set up our rig quite right and also this was our first sail of the year and I think you do loose familiarity with sailing if you dont carry on through the winter months. It was getting quite exposed and windy beyond Lawrenny so we stopped alongside a pontoon at Bourton to make some adjustments to the boat and to don our waterproof clothing. We then continued to Neyland YC where there is a long pontoon extending out to a little beyond low water mark. Because we had stopped for a while, dozens of boats had arrived before us, but we managed to find a bit of a gap and squeeze in bows first to the pontoon. The run back was easy and the evening entertainment in the marquee was lively and a good opportunity to get to know some of the other sailors in the fleet. I am not knowledgeable on folk music but those in our party who appreciate it better than I were impressed and even I joined in with the choruses.

Live Folk music in the evenings 

Live folk music in the evenings

Friday 19 June

The plan of the day was to sail to Angle for a complementary drink and hotpot lunch, which we had come to realise was the standard carrot to encourage us to go afloat each day. From Angle we were to sail up Pembroke River to Pembroke where we would pass through a sluice gate into the non tidal basin alongside the spectacular Pembroke Castle. The evening entertainment was to include a reception with the Mayor of Pembroke followed by live rock music and disco dancing on the quay below the castle. Only part of the fleet got as far as Angle, others finding alternative lunch stopping places. Our boat was one of the first to arrive at Angle which meant that there was little water in Angle bay so we anchored off and waded ashore through some very soft mud - would have been better to wait half an hour. Once ashore we found that our lunch was ready in a marque that had been specially set up in the garden of the pub overlooking the bay.  After lunch we sailed for Pembroke, but on reaching the entrance to Pembroke River we were met by one of the organisers in a launch and he told us that because of a threat of strong winds from the west there was a risk that if we went to Pembroke we would be trapped at the head of the narrow river unable to beat out again the next day. Accordingly, we were asked to sail back to Llangwm from where coaches would be arranged to drive us to Pembroke. This was a bit of a disappointment since we had been looking forward to the sail up to Pembroke, but we realised that the success of this event depended on all participants following the sailing orders so we obediently returned to Llangwm.  The fleet did include a wide variety of boats of varying ability to stay right way up and to sail to windward, so it is very understandable that the organisers needed to be a bit cautious. Indeed the organising committee for the sail and oar fleet (photo below) were all keen local sailors with extensive sailing experience and they really went out of their way to help all participants, even to the extent of lending their own tools and helping to patch up broken boats. The sudden change of plan meant that several coaches had to be hired at short notice but most of us did get to Pembroke and back.  We did find the Mayor at Pembroke, he was waiting on the quayside wondering what had happened to the promised fleet of boats.

The core of the organising committee at morning briefing

The core of the organising committee at morning briefing - Tim (left), Bill (right), Dee (centre) - sorry Dee, is the problem that Bill has just anounced yet another lousey weather forcast?

Saturday 20 June

The original plan for the day was to sail from Pembroke Castle to Milford Haven docks where we would view the 'Fishweek' celebrations and enjoy drinks on board the tall ships. However, as had been forecast, the wind had got up a bit and the organisers decided that it would be best to arrange coaches to take us to Miford rather than letting us sail there from Llangwm. The Fishweek celebrations included more folk music (of course) and lots of small stands selling sea food, arts and crafts, chandlery, strange oddments etc. One stand was selling Italian flags(!) and, noticing the appropriate colors, Josephine thought she might buy some to make into HSC burgees, but the price was a bit high and proved not to be negotiable. We did enjoy going on board the tall ships and chatting to the crews. We were also shown on board the local fisheries protection vessel and were impressed by all the electronic equipment they have on board for mapping the sea bed and recording the tracks of fishing vessels. We found lunch in a cafe in the town then coach back to Llangwm for another lively evening of folk music in the marquee. I think this was the evening that one of the folk songs ended with the firing of a stage canon which somehow caused the fuses to blow and all the lights went out - dramatic end to the evening, intentional or otherwise!

Josephine on board tall ship at Millford Dock

Josephine on board Recouverance at Millford Dock

Sunday 21 June

The original plan of the day was to split the fleet into two groups, one to sail to Landshipping, the other to Cresswell Quay, but since the weather was still windy the organisers laid on coaches to take us to these destinations for an evening meal. For the rest of the day we were free to go afloat and sail about with safety boat cover at Llangwm, but most of the fleet chose to spend the day exploring ashore.  We got to Landshipping by road and spent a pleasant evening in the pub garden but it may well have taken longer by road than it would have taken by boat since we had to drive right round the top of the estuary via Haverfordwest. The alternative of driving round through Pembroke would be about the same distance.

Monday 22 June

According to the program, this was our day off, so there was no compulsion to go sailing but at last the weather had turned really nice, so sailing was the obvious way to spend the day and most of the fleet were in agreement on this. The organising team told us that they planned to motor sail down to Dale in Bill's big dutch barge style yacht and anyone who managed to sail there would be welcome on board for lunch. Our boat lead the fleet down to Dale, the HSC Wayfarer 'Meander' following in 2nd place, a full load of four HSC members must have slowed her down a bit. (of course it was not a race).

Industrial scenary on the way to Dale

Interesting industrial scenary on the way to Dale

We arrived at Dale about the same time that Bill's yacht dropped anchor, photo below shows our boat tied along side Bill's yacht and behind is the Norwegian 'Church boat'. In the distance is the village, beach and landing pontoons at Dale.  

At Dale Our boat alongside Bill's yacht at Dale, 'Churchboat' behind

The 'Church boat' is a modern design fourteen oar row boat with sliding seats, loosely based on a more traditional Norwegian craft. The owner takes it around Europe on a huge road trailer, doing long distance river voyages and attending sailing festivals. Not sure why it is called a church boat - is it because the rowers sit each side of a central aisle as in church, or was the original a means for the congregation to get to church?. Once lunch was over Josephine, myself and several others who had sailed to Dale were invited to have a row around in the church boat, which was fun - makes you feel like you are a small part of some big machine, but perhaps not a perfectly synchonised machine with us novices on board. The reason for holding the oars vertically, as in the picture, is of course to allow coming alongside.

After we had taken our exercise charging about in the Church boat, we landed from our own boat on the floating pontoons at Dale and met up with the rest of the HSC party to look at an extensive display of old photographs and other artifacts set out in the village hall by the local history group. A run back to Llangwm with the tide helping all the way completed a really enjoyable day, one of the most memorable day sails we have had in recent years.

Tuesday 23 June

The plan for the morning was to sail as far as possible up river from Llangwm before the flood tide turned. This was the first time we had the chance to explore the upper reaches of the estuary, most of our sailing having been downstream from Llangwm. We got a few miles up the eastern channel of the Cleddau, which is beautiful with woods along much of the shoreline, another time perhaps we could get right up to the water mill at the head of the river.

Returning to Llangwm, the next event was a single oar sculling race for which there was a substantial cash prize. Well I thought it was quite substantial - it would pay for half of the new mainsail we could do with. Our boat is not really suitable for sculling, having a low transom with no sculling notch. However, when we are road trailing the boat we clip a lighting board to the rudder fittings and we have a structure extending up from the lighting board which has a notched part to support the end of the mast horizontally above the boat. It occured to me that this notch could be used for single oar sculling and being quite high off the water it could potentially be a devastating 'secret weapon' allowing more efficient sculling than is possible with a typical traditional row boat. The race was only a couple of hundred yards accross the river and by the time we had got our lighting board fitted to the boat we were late at the start line. We did catch up with the stragglers, so the idea of the detachable skulling notch that clips to the rudder fittings may not be completely without merit.   However, there was no way we could beat the race winner who was Roger Barnes, President of the Dinghy Cruising Association. Actually, I knew all along that Roger was going to win this race. I have watched Roger single oar sculling plenty of times and for him it is as natural as walking, I have even seen him out-sculling French sailors in their traditional boats, and they do tend to be good at it.

The sculling race over, we gathered around the marquees at Llangwm for a barbeque lunch and thank you speeches to the hard working organisers of the sail and oar fleet. The plan for the rest of the day was to prepare our boats for departure in the morning, then take a coach ride to Millford docks where we would join in a grand closing ceremony with prize giving and supper for all the fleets. Josephine, myself and Roger Barnes thought it was a pity not to take a final sail during the afternoon, so we asked for permission to sail to Milford docks rather than going on the coaches.

Roger Barnes at Milford Dock

Roger Barnes at Milford Dock

Permission granted, we sailed down the now familiar river for the last time, but on reaching Milford we encountered an unexpected problem. It turned out that there was a fault with a sluice gate for the dock lock so the lock gate could not be opened until near high water. We parked our boats on the pontooon near the lock gate, photo above shows Roger Barnes nonchalantly sculling up to the pontoon, but then we had to wait with our boats since we needed to mind our fenders with the wind and slight chop against the pontoons. We phoned the organisers in case they were thinking we had got into difficulty and they said they would keep supper aside for us.

Keewaydin business card

Keewadin business card

Eventually the outer lock gate opened and a sizeable sailing trawler, the Keewaydin, glided into the lock, lowering the last bit of sail as she came in and without the engine even turning over, good to see. Once Keewadin was secured, the dock master bekoned us to come alongside her. It then turned out that we would have to wait a bit longer befor the inner lock gate could be opened, so we were all invited on board Keewadin and spent an hour or two chatting with skipper Paul and his happy band of guests. Paul rebuilt the Keewadin himself and runs it as a charter business. I am including a scan of his business card above in case anyone fancies a holiday on this wonderful old sailing boat, I am sure Paul would do everything to make it enjoyable - more details are available via Google.

Alongside Keewadin in the sea lock at Milford

Roger's boat and our boat alongside Keewadin in the sea lock at Milford

Eventually we did get our boats tied up in the basin and hurried along to the big tent on the dockside where we had not been forgotton. Although supper was over and the after supper speeches were underway, the cooks found some food for us. As with the Semaine du Golfe event, prizes were handed out for all kinds of achievements and speeches were many and loudly applauded. The loudest applause of all came right at the end following an announcement that there will indeed be a Seafair Milford Haven 2010 event. After that the beer flowed as a succession of folk groups took the stage. A great finale.