Welsh Gaffer’s Log


Welsh Gaffer

Welcome to Welsh Gaffer’s log on watermarks. Here you can find comment on things nautical and not so nautical and a sprinkling of photographs.  I have worn many hats through the days of my years, and followed many different paths. But- it is often said it is better to be on the quayside wishing you were out there, than being out there wishing you were on the quayside. Or is it?

South Africa

Just back from South Africa – a first for me, indeed a first time anywhere in Africa. Hopped around a bit visiting Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, taking in a couple of rugby games along the way. I had the opportunity to visit the very tip of Africa meeting some of the occupants – baboons, wild dogs and penguins.

South Africa seems to be a country that is still emerging. No longer a place where black and white are at war with each other, but one where there is still very much a rich and poor divide. I have read about events in the 1990s which saw the end of apartheid and where politicians and leaders emerged of different colours. Sadly though, all is not right. Peel away the thin veneer of sophistication to reveal a mixed bag of corruption, crime and poverty. Have the black majority been let down in the land of broken dreams?


COMPASS POINT: A DISTRACTION, AN ADVENTURE  OR A BOOK? Imagined before Covid came to visit, enacted between successive waves and developed slowly. The emergence of a fascinating prospect. In an idle moment I had put my compass on the bar of Cardiff Bay Yacht Club and worked out where 32 Points of the Compass (N, NE, E, etc) would end up if I extended the lines to the furthest-most coast of mainland Britain. After much head scratching and re-measuring I settled on eight in Wales, two in Scotland and twenty-two in England. Interesting but what then? I think I knew the answer to that more or less from the beginning- I would visit them all one by one to see what was there- have a poke around, maybe find someone to talk to and take a photo or two (or a few hundred).

Setting out after the first lockdown, I pounced on the nearest ones to home, the eight on the coast of Wales. Some of the places I had been to before of course but a couple I hadn’t and in any case I was viewing them through a completely new set of eyes. And everywhere I went there were signs- on factory walls, in hedgerows, in the windows of people’s homes and on the backs of tractors- Thank you NHS! Hear hear!

There were many beaches- I clambered over rocks, climbed hills, sketched, chatted with a cow and met Mr. & Mrs. John Doe. Back home I looked at photos, drew maps and began to write it all down. When the second lockdown was announced I had no excuse.

(If you are wondering why there is no line to the right of Anglesey on the map it is because the next line continues until it hits the north-west tip of Scotland.)


From Kent to Somerset, I set out along the south coast. There were more places I had not been to before, or at least different aspects of them. The Isle of Grain, a curious name for a curious place and one I will return to. And more, from migrants to a donkey sanctuary and being caught on the beach dressed as nature intended. There were another fourteen Points to visit along this coast and a stretch of fine weather helped the traverse. Not just the places- the people too- locals and visitors, publicans and dog walkers and a digger’s hat left on a tree. Eight members of the Parachute Regiment laid on a smokey display just for me (and five thousand other people) at Lyme Regis. At Bude on the North Devon Coast, I was intrigued to find an octagonal  brick-built Compass Point standing on the headland. It has eight points of the compass carved on its panels. It said to be slightly offset by two degrees. Ah but the locals will nod their head sagely and tell you that it was deliberately set that way. Oh yes, of course….


There are just two Compass Points in Scotland, one in each corner and both are on the end of a long journey. Point of Stoer is a remote, dramatic, fascinating peninsula. I roamed around its fractured coastline and explored its empty and spooky interior. I had been waiting to meet the Old Man of Stoer for a long time- and we had quite a chat even if it was a bit one-sided. But what is the meaning of time to this ancient rock pinnacle?

At the opposite corner of Ecosse, I couldn’t resist slipping across to the Orkney Islands, also remote, splintered and timeless and tinged with a touch of sadness for me this time. Would that I could have stayed longer.


Just getting across to Holy Island in the dying of the sun was heart-warming. I was right at the water’s edge, watching it slowly recede on a glorious evening; the sun slowly fading over my shoulder. I kept creeping forward as the water fell back. The tarmac road is slightly bevelled so that the water streams off sideways in rivulets- mesmerising to watch; talk about the parting of the waves. Everything was bathed in a tangerine glow as the sun sank towards the horizon; all this and the evocative call of the curlew that came rolling in from the mudflats and a flock of Brent Geese flying low over the causeway, not once but twice.

It was the beginning of a splendid dawdle down the East Coast of England. Bempton Cliffs and a meeting with an Antarctic champion flyer, and the sad story of a missing boy. Exploring the Deben River, a magical waterway that draws you in from golden treasure to a mysterious lawn mower. And on to the story of a small town builder who spent most of his life producing beautiful etchings of Roman pavements.

What a unique and fascinating island we live on, with a coastline of many stories of many lives. It is my task now to try to capture an essence of it in thirty-two chapters.

The completed book can now be found via this page: Exploring the Coast by Degrees

Leaving New Zealand in March 2020

It was part of a routine of many years. Betty would expect to join me in Wales around the end of May. This year would be different though and so would the next and the one after that… There had been some talk of a virus going round and I got an inkling of the future when the aeroplane, usually full, was half empty and many people were wearing masks. Within a few days Britain went into full lock-down and people were told not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary, especially older people. (Is that me?)

I quickly ordered a new shed for delivery and spent the next few weeks converting it into a workshop and what a blessing that turned out to be.

Spring rolled into summer and with it came a few short weeks and the chance to explore parts of West and North Wales to make a start on my Compass Point project- to visit 32 Points of the Compass around the mainland coast of Britain. It wasn’t long before the open window closed again and it would be next year before it re-opened. I should complain- hundreds of thousands of people were sick, hospitals were overloaded tens of thousands of people died including some nurses and doctors. People stood on their doorsteps and clapped the NHS every Thursday evening. And it wasn’t just Britain that was affected- millions of people were dying around the world. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is, well… a bit of a buffoon and some things he got right and some things he didn’t. But we were in uncharted waters and who is to say that someone else would have done any better?

2020 continued where 2019 left off…

To begin with anyway. In February I spent three days with the kayak on Lake Alexandrina and camped for two nights on a remote headland with a good opportunity for some hillwalking. Three days when I didn’t see a soul. Dozens of black swans and other birds yes, oh and hedgehogs but they were neither swimming nor flying

2019: An Interesting Year

Indeed, it was an exceptional year for Betty and I. As ever, it began in New Zealand with numerous trips on the road in our thirty-year old Toyota 4WD camper-truck, known as Black Dragon 2 or BD2 for short. We did six trips between January and March (some with both of us, a couple by me solo) totalling 3,320 miles (5,345 ks).


Lake Benmore NZ

One of these solo trips involved an overnight kayaking trip at Lake Benmore. On a pleasant February morning I loaded up the kayak with the tent and camping gear and enough food to stay out for two nights if things worked out okay. It was a beautiful day and the lake was particularly calm to begin with, but conditions took a bit of a turn. The rain began in earnest in the afternoon and continued through the night with strong wind stirring the waters of the lake. The morning did not look too inviting either, so in the end I only stayed out one night. It was a bit of an uncomfortable paddle through half-meter swells on the beam, back to base camp the next morning. It was great experience though.

Scandinavia & the Arctic Circle

Back in Cardiff by mid-March, I was joined there by my very good New Zealand friend, Jonathan Pascoe, at the end of May. I had rigged the Ford Galaxy as a camping car and together we set off for Oslo, the capital of Norway taking several days over the journey. Leaving the car at the airport, we took off for the two-hour flight to Longyearbyen, the only settlement on Spitzbergen, part of an archipelago of islands hundreds of miles inside the Arctic Circle. We joined a ten-day polar cruise for an incredible experience of polar bears, reindeer, arctic foxes, walrus and vast quantities of ice that took us to within 600 miles of the north pole.

We got ashore in wild and uninhabited places every day, under the watchful eye of armed guides from the expedition team- polar bears can be seriously deadly sometimes.

Back in Oslo, we were joined by Betty and Jonathan’s wife Linda, and explored Oslo and Bergen together. After Jonathan and Linda left us in Bergen for Sardinia, Betty and I flew to Tromso for a few days back inside the Arctic Circle and 24 hours of daylight. After that we spent a month driving and sleeping in the back of the car returning to Cardiff via Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Belgium and France. It was a bit hard on Betty who had injured her knee after tripping over a guy rope; it is still giving her trouble six months later. Yet we had four and a half thousand miles on the road (as well as a thousand nautical miles at sea)- what a fabulous trip.


In August, I achieved a long-held ambition when I sailed my 19-foot gaff rigged sloop Nutmeg, solo up the Bristol Channel from Cardiff to Avonmouth. After which came the six-miles of the Avon River to lock into Bristol Docks. It was a weekend of wild weather, but the boat was safely tied up on a pontoon. Betty came over by train to stay on board for one night; it is questionable as to which is bigger, the back of the camping car or Nutmeg’s two berth cabin. The return passage included a night’s stopover in Portishead. Not a momentous voyage perhaps, but it was a satisfying thing to have done.


Betty returned to NZ at the end of September and flew to Australia in mid-November where she has relatives in Sydney and Sawtell in New South Wales.

Betty writes: My youngest sister Peggy, who lives in Sydney, is as cheerful and stoic as ever, despite now being on palliative care for her advancing cancer. Did I mention she is also Bossy despite me being the older sister? Peggy’s husband Jim died while we were in Australia. He had been in care for some years with motor neurone disease so it was a release for him. My middle sister Sally and her husband Max who live nearby have been incredibly supportive of Peggy and Jim.

My second week was in Sawtell with my brother David and his wife Linda.  David has also been having a run around with various specialists.  I have renamed ‘Sunny Sawtell’ as ‘Smokey Sawtell’ and my planned week of sea bathing and sunshine was scuttled by the smoke and a big surging and not very warm sea. A very minor inconvenience as the bushfire situation is now out of control.

I joined Betty in Sawtell at the end of November but as it turned out both my arrival and departure proved a little difficult. Bush fires have been raging in New South Wales for weeks and at the time of writing (January 2020) twenty-nine people have died and 4000 homes have been destroyed.

Arriving at Sydney airport early in the morning I transferred to a domestic flight to Coffs Harbour, (near Sawtell). Smoke from the bush fires was evident for much of the flight and as we were coming into to land, the pilot decided that there was not enough visibility and pulled out of the descent with a great surge of the engines. We flew back to Sydney where we were offered accommodation and another flight the following morning but with no guarantee that the same problem wouldn’t occur again. I opted to hire a car for what should have been a six-hour drive. However(!) thanks to a rather wayward GPS and being confronted by huge columns of smoke from a new bush fire that required a rapid back-track, it turned into a near midnight arrival after an eleven hour marathon. And that following a 30-hour journey from Cardiff. It was good to get some sleep.

We enjoyed an excellent week with Betty’s brother and sister-in-law, David and Linda Jones; Sawtell is a beautiful small-town gem lying on a golden beach between two extraordinary headlands. Long may it remain ‘undiscovered’. However, the smoke from the fires felt oppressive and meant that we saw little of the sun with the windows being kept closed. And walking by the beach we could see a line of black ash being deposited by the waves.

And then it was time to leave…

Arriving at Coffs Harbour airport at 5.30am we discovered that New Zealand Immigration had introduced new electronic visitor visa requirements last month, but they hadn’t told me! Betty was unaffected but I was refused a boarding pass for the connecting Sydney to Christchurch flight. After two abortive attempts to get a visa on-line we found a man in Sydney Airport who has a side-line in arranging visas for people caught out, at $30 (£15) a go. It was right in the nick of time and we were able to catch our booked flight to Christchurch.

Of Cycles & Deluges

For the past five years I have supported an older group of Kiwi cyclists on a week-long camping and cycling trip in various remote locations around the South Island. None of them are under seventy yet they an incredibly determined, adventurous and self-reliant bunch of people camping in tiny tents over the course of a week. This year was slightly different in that we based ourselves at a small wooden bach (cottage, pronounced ‘batch’) at Lake Clearwater in the Canterbury High Country. No mains electricity, piped water, sewerage, telephone or mobile connection but still a great ‘base camp’. The weather for the week could mostly be summed up in three words- strong wind, rain. Yet still the boys got on their bikes every day. Ask yourself why, after waiting in vain all morning for the weather to clear, they saddled up to ride 33 ks (20 miles) in the pouring rain. The destination may have been the nearest café but we could have had coffee in the bach- in the dry!

There was one fine day- on Thursday. Making the most of it, we all cycled around Lake Clearwater in the morning- 11 ks, 7 miles, and climbed Mount Sunday in the afternoon. A scenic if not exactly high peak, Mount Sunday was one of the locations for the Lord of the Rings films when a mock fortified village was constructed on its peak. I slept in BD2 throughout the week and that night the wind was incredibly strong, so much so the van was rocking back and fore.

The following day, Friday, was our last full day. After an off-road cycle ride (or walk for three of us) during the day, we chose to visit the isolated Mount Potts Lodge for an evening meal. We got more than we bargained for. When we came to leave we found that a section of the gravel road, half a mile from the lodge, had been washed away and was most definitely impassable. It is the only road in and out, so we returned to the lodge and accommodation was soon found for seven of our party plus eight or so other stranded people. As usual I slept in the camper truck.

This is an extract from my log book:

3am [Saturday morning] What a storm we are having!

Thunder and lightening has been raging for more than 12 hours. It is highly charged at the moment- lightening coming in groups of long flashes, 3,4,5 at a time, eight or ten times a minute. The thunder is continuous, only varying in its intensity. So explosive that the whole camper-truck is vibrating. The rain came in torrents. An awe-inspiring storm of biblical proportions. There maybe more than one wash-out by the morning.

It was a storm unlike any other and lasted for twenty-one hours, although it continued to rain on and off over the next few days. The car parking area and the lodge road down to the public gravel road was over-run with flood water and the lodge itself was threatened. We moved the vehicles to higher ground three times during the day and evening. Overnight the wash-out had doubled in size and it was clear that it was not going to be an easy or quick repair, nor would it be an early escape for us. Lloyd, the young man running the lodge, his mother Eliza, and all the guests got stuck in trying to divert the water. The local farm manager, Ash, and his tractor was the most effective, but it was a losing battle for much of the day and into the next night. Electricity for the lodge is provided by a water-powered generator and that failed around midday and took the internet connection with it. Thankfully, a large pot-bellied wood-burning stove was a centre piece and the ovens in the kitchen were gas. We would not be cold but there would be no light to eat by that evening.

We were given an option to fly out by helicopter on Sunday morning. It would only be a small helicopter with room for three passengers with the cost split between us. ($2,000) So, three flights through the gloom and the rain brought us all back to Clearwater where we still had two 4WD vehicles. Enough to get the nine of us back to Christchurch. I must admit I felt a bit guilty about leaving everyone at the lodge to soldier on without us. I understand there was more flooding on Sunday before it began to ease off.

We left six mountain bikes and two 4WD vehicles at the lodge and it was a week before we had news that the road was driveable again to allow us to retrieve them. Although the road was officially still closed, we were able to get through and collect the bikes and vehicles seven days after we had left.

White Island

New Zealand is reeling from a tragedy on a volcanic island 30 miles off the coast of the North Island. It is a popular tourist destination, I was there myself a few years ago- an extraordinary place full of sulphur and fumaroles where hard hats and gasmasks are routinely issued on landing. On Monday 9 December 2019, the day after we returned to Christchurch, 47 people, many from a visiting Australian cruise ship, were on the island when the volcano erupted without warning. Three helicopters responded and at least 34 people were taken off by their fearless pilots in an extraordinary act of bravery. Many of these people were suffering from extensive burns and a number have subsequently died; many of the others will have suffered life-changing injuries. Nearly a week after the tragedy, 23 people were still in hospital. Some of the injured had such extensive burns that days after the tragedy they had still not even been identified. It put unprecedented demands on medical staff right across New Zealand. Eight people were reported to be still on the island- none will have survived; six bodies were recovered a few days later. The remaining two will possibly never be found. Twenty-one people have been confirmed dead so far.

Five years ago, the boat that I previously travelled on to the island, Peejay 5, was returning to Whakatane on the mainland when it caught fire and sank. There were sixty people on board; all were safely rescued.

Ship Cove at last

Our last trip of the year began with driving south to visit Betty’s daughter and son-in-law’s farm near Mataura to spend Christmas with them and their four daughters. After a flying visit to Kaka Point on Boxing Day we drove home through the night back to Christchurch for a quick turn-around before heading up to the north of the South Island. After joining a wedding celebration in Nelson we camped for New Year at Momorangi Bay in Queen Charlotte Sound. From their we took a boat from Picton to land on Matuara Island before crossing to Ship Cove, a place I have long wanted to visit. It was a favourite anchorage for Captain Cook when he was exploring and claiming, New Zealand in the 18th Century. Even today, it is accessible only by walking track or be sea, there is no road; it is a very special place.

We returned to Christchurch via Golden Bay and the Matueka River Valley to pick up the 100k (60 mile) Rainbow Road from near St Arnaud to Hanmer Springs. The Rainbow Road is a demanding four-wheel drive gravel road with frequent fords and wash-outs. It was as rough this time as ever I have seen it, but since it was in the first week of January, it is a story for another year.

VH January 2020

Farewell to a Brother

On a Sunday Morning in early August in 2018, we were spending a few days camping at Llyn Clywedog near Llanidloes with sailing friends although we had chosen to bring a couple of kayaks rather than a boat. The lake was once a fertile valley before the dam was built to harness a water supply in the 1960s. During something of a restless night, I got up at 4.45am for the short walk to the clubhouse. Across the lake in the half light, the first signs of emerging rays of weak sunlight crept over the distant hills. The water of the lake was jet black and flat calm, not a breath was stirring.

I walked down to the water’s edge, far lower than I had seen it before because of the prolonged spell of hot weather. I paddled the inflatable kayak out into the middle of the lake. Slowly, the hint of sunlight grew into a deepening orange sky in the east. At the far bank, that now rises steeply, perhaps twelve metres to its normal mark, several sawn tree stumps had been exposed, together with a single small tree of bare-boned branches strangled when the valley was flooded more than fifty years ago. Remarkably it was still standing upright.

I paddled on with no particular destination in mind and soon found myself in a small bay. A line of bleached fenceposts led down the bank and disappeared into the water, the work of a farmer from long ago. It was strange to think that sheep had once grazed in pastures now many fathoms below the water. It led me into a contemplative mood as I half drifted back across the lake watching the sky becoming lighter and listening to the trout rising to the surface. An hour later I was back on shore returning to camp and eventually, back to sleep.

It was then rather poignant when later in the morning, I had a phone call to tell me that Malcolm, my eldest brother and family patriarch, had died from an apparent heart attack around the time I was waking up for the second time. Nothing stays the same, things change, often in small, subtle ways, punctured occasionally by more traumatic, events. Farewell brother.


Four days in Snowdonia May 2018

It was a plan that had been emerging for some time. Three generations of Heads spent a few days camping in the mountains of Snowdonia. It came together at the end of May during Morgan’s half term break from school and when Ben was able to get time off work.

Tuesday 29 May 2018

After loading equipment and provisions, we left Birchgrove at twenty passed eight and headed north on the A470 to take us through the heart of Wales. Arriving at an informal farm campsite on the B4405 below the south west flank of Cadair Idris, a mountain of much myth and legend. We pitched camp using two small tents, a Vango Storm 300, well capable of withstanding the elements, for Ben and Morgan and a more simple tent for me, one I had used in Tasmania in 2003.

A little after 1pm we set off on the path to Llyn Cau, a long, steep, energy sapping ‘staircase’ that took us an hour and a half to negotiate. The lake is set in the bowl of Idris’s ‘chair’ and is quite magnificent with a towering rock face leading the eye up to the summit. Ben was keen to go on to the top via a narrow, steep path on the left ridge. I felt it was too late in the day for it and in any case, I didn’t feel up to the extra climb.

We noticed though, that there was the thin outline of a little-used path running around the lake and took that instead. It was a bit of a scramble in places often a hundred feet above the level of the lake, but a truly majestic circuit with only the noisy crows or rooks wheeling overhead for company. A little over an hour later, we were back where we started and ready to begin the descent back to camp. Ben and Morgan forged ahead while I found getting down the big stone steps particularly hard on almost seventy-three-year-old knees.

After an excellent spag-bol meal we added some twigs to a BBQ for a great little camp fire. A fine finale to a great first day- only the midgies spoilt things a little when they came out in force as twilight approached.

Wednesday 30 May

A good night’s sleep for all and the look of another fine day. We broke camp and paid our dues before setting off for the short journey to Glaslyn camp at Lake Bala. Although the site is huge there is plenty of room and we pitched camp close to the water’s edge without feeling crowded in any way. Two bacon rolls each for a welcome brunch before we got the Seymor kayak inflated and afloat.

Taking it in turns to explore nearby stretches of water, Morgan proved to be a bit of a natural in the kayak having not been solo before. After a couple of trial circuits in the shallows he was off across the bay til almost a speck in the distance. His dad later disappeared around a headland for over an hour exploring the early reaches of a river at the west end of the lake. What a great place this is.

A BBQ meal of hot dogs and bacon rolls was followed by a long round of boules that only came to an end when the onset of murkning made it difficult to see where the jack had landed. With no serious rain forecast, we had pitched the tents under the spreading limbs of a large tree.

Thursday 31 May

The disadvantage of camping under the tree even without any rain, became apparent at 5am when a murder of crows took up temporary residence on the first of several early morning visits. Their raucous, elongated screeching did indeed make one think of murder!

Happy Birthday Ben, 46 today. We upsticks and left after a quick breakfast, intending to climb Snowdon today. The car park at Pen-Y-Pass was already full, as we had anticipated. Three miles down the Llanberis Pass we found a park and ride site with plenty of spaces. £5 to park and another £5 for three of us on the bus back to Pen-Y-Pass to begin the walk up the Miner’s Track, the most scenic approach to Snowdon.

It wasn’t long before Ben and Morgan were way in front of me and when we next caught up we made a contingency plan in case my legs weren’t up for the summit. I gave the car keys to Ben in expectation of him being down before me,

I have been on this path several times but goodness it seemed steeper this time even though it has been significantly upgraded to cope with the inundation of summer visitors. There were plenty of people here today though not enough to be a nuisance. The only downside of Snowdon is that it is such a beautiful mountain from any one of half a dozen approaches, it attracts many thousands of visitors keen to take on the challenge. In many ways it is a victim of its own success. There is no denying that on a glorious day like today it is a stunning panorama. Glorious yes, and hot too, making it sap your energy all too easily. I must admit I struggled a bit the higher up the path I got. Soon enough though, I could see the point where it would meet the Llanberis Track and the mountain railway and I knew then that I would make it all the way.

Morgan and Ben had been there for twenty minutes but I was pleased enough to make it at all. We asked a young French woman to take a photo of the three of us- one young, one middle aged and one old fella. This I think, is my sixth time on the summit of Snowdon and certainly one of the most satisfying. Cherish the moment.

I considered taking the train back down but didn’t like the thought of wimping out. But I did opt for the Llanberis Path which, although the longest route at five miles, I thought would be easier on the knees. But with a steep gradient and a lot of loose shale underfoot, it certainly had its own challenges. It was a weary pair of legs that brought me down into Llanberis. Ben and Morgan meanwhile had started back down the Miners Track but then diverted to the Pyg Track which proved to be hard going on the lower reaches.

The upper path is the PYG Track, the lower one the Miners Track

It was gone 6pm by the time both parties were down and by that time the bus had stopped running. So, it was a taxi each to return from opposite directions to the car at Nant Peris. Happily, we found a convenient camp site nearby and, even better, it was opposite the Vaynor Arms with decent fayre with which to celebrate Ben’s Birthday as well the end of our three days in the mountains. We had walked some nine hard, steep miles today and ascended or descended about 5,000 feet. Curiously, we had gone up one track and come down two separate and different tracks; so three different routes between us.

Friday 1 June

The only significant rain we experienced came just as we were striking camp- the sky emptied, ensuring the tents and everything else, including us, got thoroughly soaked. We paused at Capel Curig, largely to enjoy a traditional cooked breakfast. The only diversion on the rest of the journey was to call in at Llyn Clywedog where I have spent many a happy time sailing Fleur from the little clubhouse at the bottom of a steep drive. The lake was formed when the valley was damned in the 1960s to provide a reservoir used to top up the River Severn, itself a water supply for parts of England. It was a controversial and unhappy time because it drowned the local farming community.

Back home we unloaded and got things sorted and dried out and picked over the trip. I enjoyed it immensely and I know Ben did too. I asked Morgan how many he gave it out of ten? Nine point five he replied. It would have been ten if it wasn’t for the midgies. Quite so Morgan, quite so.

10 Days Around the South Island, Feb 2018

We had intended to have a trip up to the Golden Bay area at the north of the South Island. But fiercesome storms washed out some of the roads and made it impossible. Some communities were having to be re-supplied by boat for several weeks.

Heading south was a more realistic option and we picked out some places we had not been to before. It was a last trip before the camper-truck (BD2) went in for major surgery.

Overnight stop for BD2 at Pinders Pond near Roxburgh

Paddle boarder on Lake Dustan

Peddling hard but getting nowhere- Oamaru

New Zealand shag, Oamaru

Punk train, Oamaru

Kakanui fisherman’s wharf, South of Oamaru

You wait for a bus for ages then they come in threes, north end of Lake Benmore

Nearly where?

Taking a break in the Coach and Horses pub yard in Lawrence

Paddling :Lake Pukaki


Across Europe with a Caravan 2017

We had agreed to meet friends for dinner in Budapest- we thought we might fly but better still why don’t we drive? The accommodation problem was answered when I found a neat little two-berth caravan. A calm crossing and onto the motorway at Calais to cross Belgium, heading for Trier in Germany. Suddenly, we lost engine power and the foot brake was only about 10% effective. We limped off the motorway into the small village of Soumagne, it was 8pm on a Saturday evening. Luckily, with much gesticulation from three ancient Belgians, we found our way to a garage and the most helpful mechanic in all of Belgium. An hour later we were on hour way, driving into the night to park in a roadside rest area.  We arrived at Trier in time for breakfast.

On the banks of the Mouselle River, Trier is the oldest town in Germany; first occupied by the Romans in the 2nd Century and has no less than three World Heritage Sites. Besides, it is a town I was keen to visit for a different reason. My father’s brother, Reginald Head, was the victim of a gas attack in the trenches during the Great War; he was taken to a field hospital in Trier. When his father, my grandad, Harry Head, heard about it he set off to visit his eldest son in hospital. It was strictly against regulations to travel to the war zone but somehow or other he managed it. Reg was repatriated with his family but died seven years after the end of the war.

Days later, we happened upon a rural campsite some way south of Vienna; and there we met Leo who owns the site. In his younger days he had been an engineer on merchant ships and been into Newport, Cardiff and Bristol many times. His was a sad story from more than 40 years ago, he had met a girl in the seaman’s mission and formed a relationship. They met every time he came into port. One day though he sailed away and did not return. She wrote to tell him she was pregnant, but he never saw her again. Now, 45 years later, he has been trying to find Julie Saunders but without success. I said I would look for her when I got home- an all but impossible task. I did follow a trail but it inevitably petered out.

With poor timing we arrived in Budapest in the rush hour, crossing the Danube to the camp site six miles the other side of town. Excellent buses and a metro train got us into town to meet up with Kiwi friends, Jonny and Linda Pascoe and John and Mary Stevens. The six of us had spent time travelling together in Australia two years ago and here we were, together again in Budapest. We had a splendid evening meal in a pavement bistro café where the wine flowed and candles glowed. In the morning, we met at the Gellert Baths which are the most wondrous thing- Romanesque, elegant, genteel and multi-faceted including an outdoor pool. Afterwards, we enjoyed a coffee before the New Zealanders joined their river cruise boat for a ten-day voyage to Amsterdam. At over 300 feet long, the boat looks wonderful, but I am content with a wandering caravan and a slightly erratic car. We were tourists over the next two hot, humid and windless days.

Parliament Building on the Danube

Budapest is a beautiful, majestic and historic city, more appealing than Paris and sits astride one of Europe’s greatest waterways; the Danube rises in the Black Forest and empties into the Black Sea more than 1500 miles downstream. I enjoyed our brief time here, especially meeting old friends. Will I come back? Probably not.

We rolled on to cross into Croatia and after more than 300 miles, arrived at Plitvicke Lakes National Park, high in the hills and far from the sea. Camp Borje is a large, open campground and we settled in for three nights.  Plitvicke is an area of multiple lakes in close proximity, at different levels of altitude, connected by water races and waterfalls and inhabited by hundreds and thousands of fish. The water is crystal clear and an enticing green aqua. It is a spectacular, inspiring wilderness, except for the people, of which there are thousands. Some parts were fairly thinly populated but the boardwalks to the best sights were thronged by gawkers and sightseers, endlessly stopping to take photos. People eh? Still, a delightful place where we spent the whole day.

When we set out to leave camp, all was not right with the caravan. We pulled into a car park, the offside wheel was binding badly and Ivena from camp reception arranged for a mechanic. He quickly diagnosed a shattered wheel bearing. Milano had just two words of English, problem and kaput and in this case, both applied. What an excellent fellow he turned out to be. He took the hub away, sourced a new bearing in Zagreb and had it despatched the 100 miles to his village on the late bus. On a short evening walk we passed an open field with a small flock of sheep and a shepherd sitting on a log gently ringing a handbell. It was a scene of biblical peace and serenity. We raised an arm in greeting and the good shepherd waved back.

So, there we were, sitting in a car park with one wheel on our wagon on a rainy Thursday morning. True to his word though, Milano arrived at 9.15, re-assembling everything in twenty minutes. Once again, we have come out of a crisis smiling. Rolling again, over the mountains to the sea, we arrived at the small town of Senj and a camp site right on the beach. Passing through the countryside we noticed many farm houses and rural buildings with obvious lines of bullet holes from automatic weapons reminding us of the violence of this place not so long ago.

We wandered around Senj harbour and some of the narrow streets and squares of the old town- a few impressive old buildings are in a state of crumbling decay. On the highest hill overlooking the town, we walked around the outside of a 15th Century fortress, or rather lurched around it, the wind was super storm force making it difficult to stand or walk in a straight line. It was a wild night in camp! Gusts strong enough to rock the caravan- very heavy rain, incredible sheet lightening and prolonged thunder rampaging across the night. We lounged about the next day waiting for improving weather. The following morning the sea was flat calm and no wind or rain. I was in the kayak early for a paddle along the rocky shore. A shoal of fish in clear aqua green water that disappears underneath rocky shelves and a family of shags on a rocky point. So quiet, so peaceful, so out of sight and hearing of all of humanity.

We intended visiting Pula and one of the best preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world. But the forecast was dire so we just kept going, crossing the border into Slovenia and on into Italy and so to Lake Garda. Malcesine is a delightful town, full of interesting alleyways and shops selling all sorts of goods, mostly tourist related. Dominating all is Castillo Scaligero an imposing fortress on a rocky outcrop, half staring down at the town and half imposing its will over the lake. Iain and Joan McBride are old gaffers, whom we know through sailing. They had mentioned being at Malcesine for most of September; well we might drop in we said, and so we did. On a balmy night, as daylight drifted away, the four of us sat at an open-air restaurant beside the inner harbour and enjoyed a lovely meal, sharing lots of stories and a decent bottle of wine.

A balmy night on Lake Garda

Moody Tuesday followed; the sky over the lake was as dark as a three day bruise; the deluge wasn’t long in coming. One lightning strike seemed to arc into a field just in front and to the right of the road. Visibility was very poor, making driving hazardous. On the Italian autostradas we began paying serious money in toll fees. Switzerland has a much better idea. €40 buys an annual Vignette which covers all of the autoroutes and two of the long tunnels through the Alps. It is about the only thing in the Swiss economy that appears to be good value for money.

The St Goddhart Tunnel has a reputation for long queues. It opened in 1980 as a single tunnel with one carriageway in either direction. Ever since a crash in 2001 causing a fire that killed forty people, traffic volume has been monitored. Trucks in particular are filtered to allow only so many per hour. We however, had no such delay, moving slowly for a few minutes but soon on our way through the ten-mile long tunnel.

We camped beside the lake about 2 miles east of Lucerne and took the Goldene Rundeahrt round trip to the summit of Mount Pilates. An hour’s passage by steamer up the lake to Alpnachstad, then a ride on the 1889 cogwheel train, with a gradient of 48%, it is the steepest railway in the world. At the top, at almost 7,000 feet, we were met by a blanket of white cloud and a raging icy wind. Visibility was barely a hundred feet but shortly cleared to leave a gloriously panorama of stunning vistas. Continuing strong winds prevented use of the cable car descent, so it was a return by the cogwheel train.

Mount Pilates cable car

Crossing into France we met up with Bev, an old friend of Betty’s, and her husband  Phillipe. Since returning from Chad where they were missionaries for many years, they have lived in a home full of character on the edge of farmland. Bev took us into Belfort in her rattly old Peugeot, almost as ancient as the town itself. It is an old city with a great deal of history; stunningly impressive fortress ramparts sit high upon an upthrust of rock dominating the town. Today, it’s most famous resident is the Lion of Belfort, a monumental beast carved in stone by Frederic Bartholdi, who created the Statue of Liberty later presented to the United States. It was our last call before the long drive back to Calais and the ferry to home.

The Beach Across the Road

New Brighton, Christchurch, South Island
It was blowing a stiff easterly as it seems to do more often these days. A Saturday morning in mid-summer with no more than a dozen people along the flat, sandy  beach stretching for miles in either direction. Among them, two olive-skinned women, chattering in a foreign tongue, carrying plastic bags stuffed with healthy greens from the nearby Saturday market.

We walked to North Beach surf club, splashing footsteps in the shallows that rippled away in a couple of breaths. Spent waves receding quickly, a mass of silver strands rushing to greet the next incomer. The tide was out, leaving behind bright wet sand reflecting our own figures as well as the blue sky above.  A few idle wisps of cloud hovered above the Port Hills, otherwise, only a couple of fading vapour trails from aeroplanes long since gone by, shaded the blue.
A week ago, the South Island had been hit by what doomsday weather forecasters were calling a weather bomb. It missed Christchurch altogether but a deluge of rain fell on the Southern Alps beyond the Canterbury plains, filling rivers to unseasonable levels. Landslides closed the main road through Arthurs Pass for a week; the mighty Waimakariri River carried volumes of tree trunks and debris into the sea. The beach here was littered with them. Yet now they have mostly gone again, washed back out to sea, leaving a pristine beach cluttered only with knots of thick kelp at the water’s edge.
According to the woman who knows, the surf was too messy for any good sport today but we could not resist the temptation to test the water… She was right; confused and boisterous rollers came at us this way and that, driven by the easterly from somewhere deep in the Southern Ocean. The water was relatively warm (for the South Island) and there wasn’t too much of a sideways pull towards the pier. It was a refreshingly short dip. It would be easy to take all this for granted yet we are careful not to; this often isolated place of long skies and ocean spray. We left it to the black-backed gulls searching for pippies to drop time and again onto the hard sand; eventually breaking the shell sending the big gull swooping down for breakfast. Speaking of which…

Cock o’ the Bristol Channel Race 2016

The 2016 Cock o’ the Bristol Channel Race


Working Yacht 1 at the start

Since 1936, Barry Yacht Club has been organising the Cock ’o the Bristol Channel passage race. In 2016 the race began on the 30th of April; it was a long course taking the boats to the edge of the Celtic Sea. Starting from Barry, leaving Lundy Island and the West Helwick Buoy off the Gower coast, to starboard and back to Barry. 125 miles as the seagulls fly but sailing boats are not gulls; with much of it into a headwind, it was more than 200 miles. As always, a handful of the remarkable Bristol Channel pilot cutters were taking part. Many OGA boats have entered over the years, a few, a very few, have even won it. In this the 80th anniversary of the race, John Laband had entered Working Yacht 1, the 50ft gaff ketch, aboard which he is to be found cruising the Bristol Channel and beyond, often single-handed.

On this occasion John had taken on a crew of three to help get the boat get around the course. Les Willis, who was press-ganged from a Cardiff pontoon, Pierro Tassinari and me. The start was set for 12 noon on Saturday; skipper John Laband tried to take WY1 around to Barry on Friday afternoon but was turned back by some ferocious weather off Lavernock Spit. Still, the forecast was said to improve for tomorrow and so it did.

The big ketch left Cardiff at 0800 on Saturday morning and we made the 7nm passage to arrive off Barry Harbour in plenty of time for the 12 noon start, an hour before high tide. Seven boats competed including five pilot cutters- Agnes, Alpha, Dolphin, Mascotte and Olga. That left the beautiful gaff cutter Jan Roelan and ourselves to complete the fleet. Conditions were good with only light NW winds predicted for Saturday (ha!) and increasing SW on Sunday but still reasonable. Jostling for position in the calm before the start it was a spectacular parade of sail, glistening in the sunlight.


Mascotte leading Olga just before the start

First tack was across channel to the English coast in fairly light winds. Then the breeze quickly turned  into half a gale at 20 plus knots and with wind over tide conditions, short steep 3-4 metre waves became the norm. (It was not long before a serious bout of mal-de-mare meant I apologetically spent most of the night hours in a bunk but recovered reasonably well the next day.) Then came endless beating against the flood and into a headwind, tack, tack, tack and tack again. With 12 metre tides being routine, dealing with them is always a challenge in the Bristol Channel. At last came the return of the ebb; it was an all-out push to get around Lundy Island but we were almost beaten by the tide once again. We just scraped around the south west corner, admiring the wonderfully close and menacing outline of Black Rock protruding from a turbulent sea! The skipper murmured more to himself than anyone else, Why is it that all these evil slabs always seem to be known as Black Rock? It was now 20 hours after the start.


We careered across channel on a reach to round the West Helwick cardinal with Working Yacht 1 making ten knots over the ground. It was raining by now, that nice, damp, all embracing ‘Welsh’ rain. Some of it even found its way inside WY1’s ferro hull, bless it. But it was nothing a man with an old paint pot couldn’t handle. As we closed on Nash Point, the expected stronger winds gave way to a calm, even though the inshore forecast was still giving F5 to F7 for the Bristol Channel. Some of the fast cutters spent several hours at anchor here waiting for the wind and at one time we and three other vessels were in sight of each other after some 32 hours of racing. The three of us late arrivals found a zephyr and managed to keep moving, creeping past the brightly lit Aberthaw power station that seemed to take half the night to finally slide astern.

When the wind died away completely, we were at the mercy of a tidal drift taking us towards Barry, albeit much of it stern first! Then the tide turned and the beginnings of the ebb set us drifting back down channel. No more than a mile and half from the finishing line we dropped anchor and lowered sails prepared to wait for some wind or the flood in another six hours. The pilot cutter Dolphin half a mile astern of us, did the same. Just as we were settling into bunks, the ship heeled a little- we had some wind at last. Not much, but enough to send the crew scurrying on deck to raise anchor (with some difficulty) get some sail up and slip lazily over the finishing line a little before 4am. We sailed on, straight back to Cardiff- three hours sleep (after next to none the night before) then to Barry Yacht Club by road for the prize-giving lunch on Monday.

The pilot cutter Mascotte was first over the line but the Cock o’ the Bristol Channel cup was awarded on corrected time to Dolphin, the pilot cutter astern of us as we drifted so lazily back to Barry and who was in fact the last boat to finish. Delighted to report that Working Yacht 1 was awarded the Tern Cup for the best non-pilot cutter finisher. This was the 80th year of the running of this race- both cups were first awarded in 1936 and there are many famous names engraved upon them. It was indeed a memorable experience, in company with some fine vessels, skippers and crews. Just to participate was an honour and justifiably worthy of an entry in the sailing CV.