- A posh high tea on the terrace is an absolute bargain, and the views are sublime.
- Older readers may just remember that baffling 1960s thriller/sci-fi series The Prisoner, which was set at Portmeirion.
- The wildlife here is abundant, and you will often encounter schools of dolphins between the islands and Abersoch.
- Abersoch is a tiny and impossibly cute little village whose population expands a thousand-fold in the summer.
Alex Whittaker explores one of the finest cruising grounds in Great Britain.
On a chart of North Wales, Tremadog Bay stretches from the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula in the west to the Welsh mainland in the east. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty, and a superb cruising destination. Mountains and castles encircle the bay, and this is where southern Snowdonia sweeps down to the sea. Since the bight of Tremadog is so large, it encompasses its own bays, sandy coves and deserted beaches. If you crave cruising variety in a majestic setting, you will find it here.
Weather and shelter
Tremadog Bay is surprisingly sheltered. In settled summer weather it is truly idyllic. However, since most of the ports and inlets around the rim of the bay dry out, passage plans must always include a possible dash to shelter. This usually means Pwllheli. Also bear in mind that if you are caught out to the south-west in a blow, there is some limited shelter off Abersoch, around the St Tudwal’s Islands. As always, careful reading of the Met report each morning is a must. The only times we have experienced any really rough water were on the longish passage around the tip of the submerged reef of Sarn Badrig. Also, bear in mind that on a blustery day, it can become quite exposed from the Porthmadog Fairway Buoy back to Pwllheli.
Pwllheli is usually approachable in most states of the tide in a small boat. This makes it the obvious choice for a cruising base. For a while, dredging the river at Pwllheli was less than satisfactory. At times, even shoal-draught vessels like RIBs were getting stuck at the harbour entrance at low-water springs. Indeed, a few years ago, one of my friends removed his vessel from the river because access was becoming so unreliable. Eventually, interventions were made. A combination of allowing the river to scour its natural path and increased dredging improved the situation. In fact, the huge amount of spoil removed is now evident at the harbour mouth, in the form of a new man-made dune. Along with the eye-catching Gimblet Rock, this makes the harbour entrance doubly distinctive.
Pwllheli has an excellent infrastructure for powerboaters with its Hafan Pwllheli Marina and cost-effective traditional harbour master’s berths in the river. The marina staff are excellent and we have kept our boat here for the whole season. Hafan Pwllheli has a floating fuel berth with both petrol and diesel. There are also local chandleries, electronic specialists, boat sales, a number of slipways, hardstanding, indoor storage, repairs and comprehensive overwintering facilities. Many yachting businesses, such as Firmhelm Marine and William Partington Marine, are old, well-established concerns. Newer businesses like Ideal Boat, Navsar and Offaxis Nautique cater directly for powerboating in its many guises. The sheer number of powerboats based here is enormous. There are secure compounds full of them surrounding the marina complex. Of course, many powerboaters migrated here when Mr Prescott’s speed restrictions were applied to Windermere. If you have a powerboat or RIB, Pwllheli wins hands down as the base from which to explore the Llŷn Peninsula and Tremadog Bay. When we kept our powerboat here we wanted for nothing. This town is tooled up for powerboating. For those of us who like throttle bending, in purely practical terms, nowhere else around the bay has alongside petrol or diesel.
Just note that the town is a good walk from the marina. However, since you will probably have towed your powerboat here (over recently improved main roads), this distance should not present a problem. Pwllheli town has changed greatly over the past 10 years. There are now new supermarkets, trendy coffee outlets, a variety of chic cafes, good restaurants and many unique local retail enterprises. The summer buzz means that Pwllheli still feels like a traditional holiday destination. Colourful Wakestock was held here last year, as was the All Wales Boat Show. There is a big market in the town on Wednesdays, when traditional Llŷn life reasserts itself. Pwllheli has immaculate Blue Flag Award beaches, and there is the shiny new Welsh National Sailing Academy and Events Centre, which is set right in the dunes, near the marina.
Cruising south-west – Llanbedrog
When you leave Pwllheli harbour entrance you have two main cruising choices – broadly east or south-west. Let’s explore each in turn. Turn to starboard, and cruising a few miles south and west of Pwllheli leads you to Llanbedrog, which has a superb beach framed by an imposing headland. It has been loved by generations of family holidaymakers. It is also popular with trailer boat enthusiasts. It is noted for its distinctive row of gaily painted beach huts. In fact, it has few other facilities beyond a car park, toilets and a couple of cafes. Of course, this is precisely Llanbedrog’s charm. As an unspoiled traditional beach for families, Llanbedrog is unbeatable. You can close your eyes and it is a rerun of the comforting 1960s all over again. Trailer boats and RIBs can be launched here for the day, some by local tractor lads for a small fee. However, to my mind, Abersoch and Pwllheli are more convenient. From the sea, its headland provides a lovely vista. There are a few rocks near the headland, but at tickover you can clearly spot them. We would often potter in here on shallow drive, and land a member of the crew to run up the beach to fetch the ice creams. On a hot day, it is an excellent place to anchor in the shallows and swim in the clear waters from the back of your boat.
Just a few sea miles to the south-west of Pwllheli is the little gem that is Abersoch. Abersoch is a tiny and impossibly cute little village whose population expands a thousand-fold in the summer. It has long been a magnet for sailing types and ribsters who are not put off by its tiny drying harbour. Abersoch is also popular with the ‘Cheshire Set’, so its narrow lanes are replete with Bentley ragtops in the summer. Abersoch has spectacular views, stunning beaches, and just enough fashionable bars, restaurants and cafes to keep all the crew happy. The small selection of shops includes boutiques and a chandlery. If you look closely, you will find that there are quite a few boat businesses in the village. Abersoch Land & Sea have been selling boats here for many moons. Lads with tractors will tow your boat and trailer across the sand to the water for a very reasonable fee. You just radio them to pick you up when the tide falls. Abersoch is famed for the huge seasonal armada that anchors off the town all summer.
St Tudwal’s Islands
The compact but spectacularly rocky St Tudwal’s Islands, complete with sheer cliffs, are close at hand. Pilotage merely involves avoiding one or two rocks awash close to, and some submerged ledges, but the chart makes everything clear. Normal prudence will see you through. One island has an impressive lighthouse, and at the base of the cliffs there are astounding sea caves. The wildlife here is abundant, and you will often encounter schools of dolphins between the islands and Abersoch. We have often been approached by friendly dolphins showing off their young as we drifted engine off, sunbathing between the islands. It is a magical place, especially near sunset. You may even spot the odd porpoise, and some have claimed to have seen basking sharks. St Tudwal’s Roads, just off the islands, has provided safe anchorage since at least the time of Chaucer.
Aberdaron is a sleepy fishing village that lies about 15 miles west of Pwllheli. Remote and pretty, Aberdaron marks the westernmost extent of the Llŷn Peninsula for most summer powerboaters, unless they wish to make the passage on to mysterious Bardsey Island. In true rugged Llŷn fashion, Aberdaron has a protecting headland and unspoiled beaches. In high summer it is not the easiest place to park your car, and since it is so small, it has only basic facilities. But once again, this is precisely its strength. It always feels tucked away, genuinely Welsh and unsullied.
Cruising east – Penychain
Leaving Pwllheli and turning to port, we can immediately see Penychain headland. Just up the arc of the beach east of Pwllheli, it used to be the site of a huge Butlin’s complex – hence the old boater’s nickname, ‘Butlin’s Point’. English visitors often call it ‘Penny-chain’, though its Welsh sound is more like ‘Pen-uck-ayn’. Its bulk helps to shelter the eastern entry to Pwllheli harbour. If you are returning that way in a blow, it makes sense to tuck a little inshore to take advantage of its comforting shoulder. Not too close, though, as you will see rocks awash of the edge of the promontory.
Criccieth lies 9 miles east of Pwllheli. It has fine beaches and superb views, and is a traditional seaside resort. Its imposing castle sits atop a steep rocky plug. Backlit on a summer’s evening, it is a majestic sight. From seaward, backed by Snowdonia, Criccieth lies in a magnificent setting. Since the approach dries, we have only visited Criccieth on a rising tide. We laid off by about half a mile to admire the panorama. No lazy sightseeing trip from Pwllheli to Porthmadog is complete without a scenic detour to admire Criccieth Castle. Incidentally, the castle itself provides a good back bearing if you are crossing (past Black Rock Sands) to pick up the Porthmadog Fairway Buoy. In deep waves, it can get lost in the clutter. A back bearing will help keep you on track.
Porthmadog is a thriving Penllyn town with a drying harbour. It is seen by many as the gateway to Snowdonia. I reckon it is the closest you can get your boat by sea to the summit of Snowdon. It is a great harbour to visit on the top of the tide, to lie briefly against the stone wall, or perhaps one of the two small floating pontoons. It has lots of pubs, cafes and shops, and handy facilities for provisioning. Allports chippy on Snowdon Street over the road from the harbour is always worth a visit. Porthmadog has no alongside fuel, but you can carry petrol or diesel in cans from the road garage. This is only yards away at the head of the harbour.
The town possesses not one but two restored steam railways. You can witness the unusual spectacle of a steam train stopping the traffic while it trundles down the high street. These small trains of Wales are justly famous. The Ffestiniog Railway on the quay is probably the most revered, but there is also the equally fascinating Welsh Highland Railway. This is situated at the opposite end of the town. Last time we were here, we tied up to the slate harbour wall. The Ffestiniog steam engine announced its arrival on the other side of the quay with a piercing blast on its whistle. It’s quite an experience to sit on your own back deck and see an immaculately preserved steam engine puffing along just above your head. The town also possesses a famous causeway, ‘The Cob’, which crosses the Glaslyn estuary with road and railway. When I was a nipper there was a working toll house at the other end. It charged every car a whole penny to pass. It only stopped a few years ago. You can still read the stone tablet with the tariffs clearly marked.The Cob is also famous to many an ageing hippy as the site of the ‘Cob Records’ shop. Still going strong since 1967, this is the place to find that elusive classic rock or indie album.
Porthmadog approach begins at the Porthmadog Fairway Buoy (Lfl.10S / red and white). At this point the panorama is vast. Thence you tick off the 17 buoys in the channel. The channel zigzags across the wide and sandy Glaslyn estuary, bringing you past the village of Borth-y-Gest to port. Further in, the river narrows markedly, with a run of boatyards to port, one or two with floating pontoons. You arrive at the slate-walled harbour after passing Cei Ballast to starboard. Cei Ballast is where all the returning empty slate-trading sailing vessels would dump their ballast, creating this small island. It has the unlikely distinction of being one of the 43 unbridged islands in the United Kingdom that may be walked to at low tide from the mainland.
Access to Porthmadog is limited to 1.5 hours either side of high water for vessels carrying a draught in excess of 1.5 metres. Note that in typical North Wales fashion, the ebb in the Glaslyn estuary can be strong. Also, stiff winds from the south-west can make access to, or egress from, Porthmadog very difficult.
The Porthmadog harbour master, Malcolm Humphreys, and his staff are very friendly and always accommodating (telephone 01766 512 927 or visit www.porthmadog.co.uk). On request, they will email you an up-to-date chartlet of the buoyed approach from the Porthmadog Fairway Buoy. This is significant since the sandy channel changes, and the buoys are liable to be moved to take account.
For boats arriving on a trailer there is a wide slipway, right on the harbour, with a small car park/trailer area. This can be busy in high summer, so ringing ahead makes sense.
Visitors’ moorings provided by the harbour master cost £8.00 per night. A typical annual fee for a 10-metre vessel is a very reasonable £750. You can see that Porthmadog has a lot to offer the visiting powerboater.
Madoc Yacht Club
The hospitable Madoc Yacht Club (01766 512976 / www.madocyc.co.uk) on the harbour welcomes cruising visitors and has its own bar, restaurant, showers and toilets. Most conveniently, their website lists the day’s Porthmadog tide times.
A couple of miles from Porthmadog, and just over the sandy estuary from Borth-y-Gest, is a remarkable Italianate folly. It takes the form of an Italian-influenced village in a perfect Welsh setting. Portmeirion is unique. It is an astounding place to be, and an incredible expression of art. With its pastel-coloured, scaled-down buildings, all in the Italian vernacular, it is an architect’s dream carried through to waking life. It is at once theatrical and real. On a high tide it is just about possible for a shoal-draught small craft or a dinghy to get alongside Portmeirion’s crazy full-size stone yacht in its make-believe harbour, but the village is best visited by road. When I was a kid, its eccentric founder, English-born Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, used to stand at the gate and decide who could enter. Inside there are beautiful gardens, complete with monuments to particularly beautiful summers. No matter how many times you visit Portmeirion you notice a little more about the playful architecture and its wry detailing. By the water, there is the fine Portmeirion Hotel, which also offers excellently presented, good-value meals. A posh high tea on the terrace is an absolute bargain, and the views are sublime. Older readers may just remember that baffling 1960s thriller/sci-fi series The Prisoner, which was set at Portmeirion.
Borth-y-Gest is an engaging village on a drying inlet off the Glaslyn estuary. It is a tiny but satisfyingly beautiful place. It has astounding views across the sands at low tide. The beaches between here and famed Black Rock Sands are as good as you will get this side of the tropics. It is all pleasantly unspoiled and traditional. We have often anchored off at high tide, tucked in towards the beach, just past the distinctive slate pillar guarding its entrance. In extremis, you can wade ashore and fetch fuel by can from tiny Glan Aber garage in the village. It lies to the right of the handful of useful shops, some of which have integral cafes. Moorings are strewn over the foreshore and small boats lie scattered on the rough grass near the car park. The launching of small boats is possible, but not as convenient as at nearby Porthmadog.
The lagoon at Mochras
Not far from Porthmadog is a curious geographical feature. This is the large sea lagoon at Mochras. Like most sandy inlets of Tremadog Bay, the Mochras/Pensarn harbour channel dries. However, the approach is uncluttered between the end of Shell Island to the south and the pilings to the north. The channel proceeds via a red-topped post to port and a series of green buoys to starboard – straightforward in fine weather on a rising tide. (For pilotage details check out the Llanbedr and Pensarn Yacht Club chartlet: (www.lpyc.org.uk/lpycbar.htm.)
To protect the fragile banks, and the equally fragile lagoon ecosystem, there is a strict speed limit of 4 knots in force. As a rule of thumb, this means that it should take you about 12 minutes’ steady pottering from the red-topped post to tying up in Pensarn harbour. This general locality is also well known as Shell Island. Mainly due to its shells, fauna and flora, plus its massive campsite, this is a very interesting area. Being part of the Snowdonia National Park, as you might expect, the views in all directions are superlative. Picturesque and famous Harlech Castle lies not too far away across the dunes. Incidentally, once you have paid your money at Shell Island campsite office, you are allowed to ‘wild-camp’ in distantly spaced pitches. You may even set open cooking fires on the beach. Among local boating types the general names of Mochras and Shell Island are sometimes used interchangeably with Pensarn to mean the lagoon area. Overall, an intriguing place of wild beauty.
If you are adventurous and wish to cruise further from Pwllheli – to, say, Barmouth, Aberdovey or Aberystwyth via the southerly seaward route – then you will encounter Sarn Badrig (St Patrick’s Causeway). This reef juts out for 11 miles from Mochras Point. It is a serious hazard comprising large rocks and sandbanks, and must be treated with appropriate respect. However, with careful use of tides, charts, plotter and sounder its circumnavigation is routine on a fine day. Its south-westerly extremity is marked by the Causeway Western Cardinal Buoy (Q (9) 15s). We logged this at some 12.1 nautical miles from Pwllheli. Some years ago I made this passage at displacement speed in a force 6/7 and it was decidedly hairy. Therefore, I would only recommend it as a fair-weather trip.
Finally, my sailing pals assure me that there is a safe inshore eastern passage. This involves staying around half a mile close inshore, going south from Mochras Point. Sadly, I cannot give you any more details since I have yet to try it!
Admiralty paper charts
- Pwllheli Harbour 2012
- Pwllheli Approach Chart
- Imray Charts App UK
- Navionics Charts App UK & Holland
Also, check out www.visitmyharbour.com, which has free facsimile online charts for Pwllheli and approaches. Not for navigation, but ideal as a gazeteer.
- Pwllheli harbour master – telephone: 01758 704 081
- Hafan Pwllheli Marina – telephone: 01758 701 209
- Abersoch harbour master – telephone: 01758 7014 081 – (via Pwllheli harbour master)
- Porthmadog harbour master – telephone: 01766 512 927
Key slipways and launching
- Pwllheli: Two slipways, one at Hafan Pwllheli Marina, and a much wider slip near the harbour master’s office.
- Porthmadog: Slipway in the main harbour.
- Abersoch: By tractor over the beach can be very busy in high summer.
These are just the main slipways; there are others. My recommendation, based on sheer convenience, would always be Pwllheli.
Cruising Tremadog Bay means working around the sparsity of refuelling points.
- Pwllheli: Your best bet for the whole of the Llŷn Penisula is the alongside petrol and diesel fuel berth at Pwllheli. Part of Hafan Pwllheli Marina, it accepts credit cards too.
- Porthmadog: You can carry petrol by can at Porthmadog, but the harbour dries and a day visit is only practical near the top of the tide.
- Llanbedrog: There is a petrol station up on the main road just above Llanbedrog beach. In extremis you could anchor in the shallows and then carry a can up the beach, but your feet will get wet. It’s a good walk too, but there is also a shop and a pub.
- Borth-y-Gest: There is a non-24-hour petrol station by the beach at Borth-y-Gest, but the beach dries out to its chord. Anchor and wade.
- Abersoch: There is a petrol station across the road from this tiny drying harbour, but access from your boat and back with a can is less than straightforward.
- Pwllheli to:
- Porthmadog 10.6nm
- Mochras Lagoon 11.nm
- Llanbedrog 2.8nm
- Abersoch 4.8nm
- Aberdaron 15.6nm
- Sarn Badrig Buoy 12.1nm
These were taken off our powerboat log. They may not be the most direct routes, but they are practical indications.