Eight year olds love high speed boats
Can there be anything more exciting for an 8-year-old than cannoning across the waters of the Menai Strait at 30 knots? When our instructor Dion took us to get kitted out in dry suits and life vests, Joe simply couldn’t keep still. But he had to wait. We started slowly, exploring along the river banks. We saw cormorants plunging into the waters and secret passageways that lead from the river inside Plas Newydd House & Gardens, a stately home on Anglesey.
But all Joe really wanted was for Dion to open up that throttle! The surge of speed is almost immediate. We carved across the flat waters, wind battering our hair. Joe was shrieking with joy. Dion pulled tight turns making us hang on to our seats. Perhaps the best bit though was when Dion let him steer. Of course that was at much lower speed and with very careful observation.
This was Lord Nelson's training ground
Right there on Anglesey, looking sternly at us was a huge statue on an outcrop of rock. "Who's that?" asked Joe. Dion took us closer and we had our answer. 'Nelson' was inscribed at the base. What was he doing here?
"These waters are some of the most difficult to navigate anywhere," Dion explained. "According to legend Lord Nelson himself was the first to succeed. Most ships sailing up the coast of Wales would go around the outside of Anglesey, but Nelson used the straits as a short cut." He even used this stretch of water as a training ground for his sailors.
Navigating the Swellies is about lining up the markers
And Nelson was right. The unusual currents here caused by the sea washing in at either end make for treacherous waters. The currents find their epicentre at a patch of wild water called the Swellies.
These days, the trick to navigating them successfully is lining up markers in several different places. It's definitely not something to try on your own! Dion had the engine right down as we puttered one way, then changed course and chugged towards a beacon sticking up from the waters, lining it up with one on the shoreline behind. All around whirling eddies of water were spinning in all directions. It was a heart in mouth moment.
Holes in the wall are for catching fish
With those unusual tides large numbers of fish get washed through the straits. We spied a rocky islet right in the middle of the straits next to the Swellies. It's called Ynys Gored Goch (Red Weir Island). There's a forlorn little cottage on it. You can clearly see a line of large rectangular holes cut into the sides of one of stone the jetties that sticks out from here. They're actually fish weirs.
As the waters rise, fish swim through the holes. They get trapped when the tide drops back. The weirs were constructed in the 19th century and worked so well the owner built a smoking hut here to preserve the catch. Tourists would be rowed across to the island to take tea with smoked mackerel sandwiches.
Keel yachts tip, but they don't capsize
In the afternoon, the wind had picked up so Dion suggested we learn dinghy sailing. Once we'd got kitted out with safety gear and dry suits, we helped Dion get the sails up. He explained which ropes to pull when. "The wind is usually pretty constant, but today it's from all directions!" he said.
The little boat was just eight metres long, so every puff of wind was very noticeable. We picked up speed and the deck tipped hard under our feet. Joe let out a yelp. "Don't worry!" laughed Dion. "You see how tall the mast is? There's a keel under the boat the same length. It's almost impossible to tip it over!" Once we got used to the sensation, the feeling of effortless speed with just the hush of the waves under the keel was spectacular.
Caernarfon Castle looks brilliant from the water
Caernarfon Castle is one of the best in Wales - a feast of crenellations and towers. We visited when Joe was younger but of course we'd not been able to see it from the water. The plan was to sail down to Caernarfon and back. But the fickle wind had changed. Just as we were about to give up, it moved again. "Quick. Go about!" said Dion. We jumped to the other side of the boat as the boom came across. I was at the tiller and held a tight course, trying to keep the gusty wind in the sail.
Finally, the castle came into sight. We coasted right in front of it. Seeing its mighty towers reflected in the dark waters with the peaks of Snowdonia behind was the perfect end to the day. Now all we had to do was sail back.
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