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Thread: Afon Menai - an unusual river

  1. #1
    Join Date
    May 2010

    Default Afon Menai - an unusual river

    Our plans for a canoe camping trip to Scotland have been postponed, as we couldn't find a time slot that we could all manage, so we've had more local overnight trips.
    Last weekend, we decided to look at the Afon Menai. Unfortunately, several team members couldn't attend so it was just me in my Charles River, with Graham and Doug in Graham's
    Legend 16.

    There are two unusual things about the Afon Menai. Firstly, it's only a river in Welsh, but it's in Wales, so we'll consider it one. Secondly, it flows in both directions (fortunately not, mostly, at the same time). In English, as you will have guessed, it's the Menai Straits. A spring tide meant it would be flowing well, and the times of the tidal streams more or less suited an overnight at Abermenai Point, at the South end of the straits. The plan was that Saturday would be a fairly easy day. HW Liverpool was 11:30, so starting from Menai Bridge at about that time, we'd be 2 hours into the ebb. We would pass through the strongest tidal swirls of The Swellies before the peak of the stream, then would have at least 4 hours of ebb tide to reach Abermenai, 17km away, before the flood started. Sunday was more tricky, the river would reverse again at about 04:00, which was after moonset and a bit early to get up, so slack water at Menai Bridge would be 10:00, and not long after that it would be too strong to paddle against.

    Since we were paddling open canoes on the sea, we didn't want too much wind. During the week before, the forecast was consistent at North East (unusual, as South West is the prevailing wind) and the strength varied. On Thursday night, it was forecast to be F3 on Saturday and F2 on Sunday; we would shoot down the straits with wind and tide, and then return with the tide, but against the wind - and at F2, we reckoned we could cope with that; 08:00 on the water should do it. We put backup plans in place in case we didn't make it before the tide turned; various points where we could land, with bus timetables and phone numbers of local friends to hand, to get us back to the car.

    Saturday saw us arrive at Menai Bridge at 10:30 on grey day with a NE F4 wind - a bit stronger than we expected, but going our way. The tide was already rushing past in an ominous way, and we'd seen the tongue of rough water under the bridge as we drove over.

    We had to quickly shift the gear to the edge of the slipway to allow a huge RIB to launch; about 20 seats and three 350hp outboards. Drysuits on, boats packed, we ferry glided into the stream at 11:40 and turned under the bridge. The Swellies were, as implied by the name, big flat boils, and the South Cardinal mast at Swellies Rock was making a good imitation of a submarine periscope at full speed. There were no hairy moments, but we were glad to be in drysuits. My GPS recorded 18.5km/hr as we passed under the Britannia Bridge, beating my previous record in an open canoe (17km/hr on the Spey).

    We took a lunch stop on the Anglesey shore, about a km before Moel-y-don, watching a sailing dinghy set out from Y Felinheli opposite and make zero progress against the tide. Then back onto the moving carpet, watch for the half submerged mooring buoys and onwards! We soon arrived at Caernarfon, and had a quick look at the Castle, but nobody wanted to be caught by the turn of the tide so we headed for the gap in the sand dunes that we could now see.

    As we approached, the tide pushed us towards the centre of the channel, but we rounded the point and beached, in plenty of time, at 14:10. A quick check revealed enough camping space for an army, so a brew was made, tents were erected, driftwood collected to take home for artistic purposes, and other driftwood for a later campfire. A spectacular place to camp.

    The forecast for Sunday was now F2/3, and we decided we'd need to be awake at 6:30. The fire was lit on the steep shingle bank just below the HW mark. We chose the location for shelter and to ensure that there would be no trace of the fire. Fortunately, the rising tide hissed on the embers before the whisky consumption became a threat to our early morning departure.

    It was barely light as we breakfasted and took down the tents, and we were afloat for 8:10 - only 10 minutes late, but that could be crucial. The latest forecast was F3/4, against us. To paddle 17km in under 2 hrs, we would need a speed over the ground of 9km/hr. Taking our flat water speed into a F3/4 as 4km/hr, we would need an average of 5km/hr tidal assistance - which would put another 5km/hr onto the apparent wind, making it another half a force in terms of its effect on paddling speed.

    The moving carpet was going well, however, and we progressed rapidly past Caernarfon as the sun rose over Snowdonia.

    As we approached Y Felinheli, the going became harder. The fastest water was no longer obvious, and there was a significant wave chop. Questions were asked about the prospects of reaching Menai Bridge. I would have like to stop to refuel my arms, but every pause, even swapping sides with the paddle, would result in being blown back and losing momentum. I took no photos after Caernarfon, paddling was more important! I was beginning to wonder if we'd make it, but we were still moving forwards. If we could get through the Britannia bridge, I was confident we could track the boats to the Telford bridge and take out there.

    Fortunately, the wind dropped as we approached the statue of Napoleon (yes, we know who it is really!) and we paddled fairly easily through the Swellies with a gentle flow helping us. We passed under the Telford Bridge at 10:02, in slack water, and could relax - we landed on the slip at 10:16.

    For interest, here are the GPS speed traces (out then back):

    A very interesting trip, but one that requires a reasonable knowledge of tidal planning and marine conditions. Abermenai Point is great wild camping spot but if you go there, please note that it's not grass, but sphagnum moss on sand on shingle, and quite fragile. If your tent pegs pull out they will leave a hole, so take sand pegs and tap them well in.

    My thanks to Doug and Graham for their company, excellent as usual, and to Doug for driving us to Anglesey.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jul 2008


    Fantastic adventure, a really challenging trip with tidal planning, weather windows to grab, and wild camping in a stunning location. And a possible Canoe Speed Record to boot...

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
    Nr Hampton Court, West London


    Very familiar with this stretch, by canoe, sailing dinghy, yacht and on foot. VERY impressed as timing is all on the Menai.


  4. #4
    Join Date
    Dec 2015
    Ramsbottom - Tups ass


    Great blog Chris, I have been carrying a length of dyneema for months now to replace the one I borrowed for my skeg.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Jul 2008
    Kettering Northamptonshire


    Also impressed with your planning/timing...... many happy memories of playing in sea kayaks in the Swellies.
    A ship should not ride on a single anchor, nor life on a single hope - Epictetus

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Jul 2008
    Southport, really in Lancashire, UK


    Thank you Chris for an excellent account of our paddle along the Straits. Here's my bit.

    Preparing for launch.

    I paddled tandem with Graham in his Legend 16. We had a good ride on the Saturday with a tail wind and following tide our maximum speed was not apparent but a pleasant surprise.

    Chris ferry gliding out to avoid the very rough water near the bridge piers.

    A lonely cottage on Ynys Gored Goch. In the full flow of the Swellies

    Pont Britannia

    Chris under the watchful eye of Nelson (or Napoleon??)

    Two fellows fishing in the Swellies.

    "RIBRIDE VELOCITY" probably doing 50MPH. The 11.5m ‘Velocity’ RIB, powered by 900hp of Yamaha outboard engines.

    Chris, not quite so fast.

    The thin cloud cover allowed some warming sun for us as we paddled.

    Plas Newydd, the current building has its origins in 1470, and evolved over the centuries to become one of Anglesey's principal residences.

    A lunch stop at the site of an old quarry, that was probably the source of stone for Plas Newydd?? A little shelter from the chilling wind, a chat, food and drink comforted us. Then it was off again.

    Caernarfon in sight.

    Caernarfon Castle

    Caernarfon Castle

    Landing at Abermenai Point.

    Abermenai beach and Snowdonia.

    Camping was on a good surface but great care needs to be taken of the delicate habitat. It was good to see no fire or BBQ damage on the ground, a rare occurrence these days. We did have a driftwood fire but below high water mark and by the morning there was no trace.

    Abermenai beach

    Camp and sunset.

    The last traces over sunset lingering into the early evening.

    Food and cuppas, sorting out camp, collecting some arty driftwood for Graham and the evening progressed.

    Then it was time for a campfire, sited on the shingle below the high tide line. Chris got the fire going and we settled around to feel the warmth. The steep shingle beach giving a little protection from cold easterly wind.

    In the morning before sunrise the moon still lingered in the sky.

    Hints of sun yet to show. The Morning Star (Venus) showing in the sky above where the sun will rise. A glorious morning but a cold headwind to paddle against.

    Once we were breakfasted and the camp packed away it was time to go.

    The tide was running fast to the east along the straits.

    Almost sunrise.

    Looking back after a few minutes paddling, the sun was catching the houses on Anglesey, while the moon looked on.

    Sunrise at last.

    Plas Newydd, the current building has its origins in 1470, and evolved over the centuries to become one of Anglesey's principal residences.

    Chris continues to power on into a wind that was now beginning to gust.

    Nelson awaiting our return.

    We reached The suspension bridge as the tide slackened and only had minutes before it turned against us.

    Slack water and 500m to go. The tide will turn against us very soon. It did start to run against us but we were close to the finish now and arrived without too much trouble.
    Tight timing and even with 2 hours of continuous paddling, we only just made it.

    Altogether a great trip with good company, weather bright and sunny but an easterly chill in the air. Throughly enjoyable.


    A sample of nautical charts for the Menai Straits (not for navigation) HERE
    When there's trouble on shore, there's peace on the wave,
    Afloat in the White Canoe.
    Alan Sullivan

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Nov 2005
    Lochwinnoch, Scotland


    Planning round tides is not something I’ve ever really had to do. I can see how it can make a round trip downstream in both directions. Still end up paddling into the wind though. So some things never change

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Apr 2014
    Peak District


    Very interesting and enjoyable pair of blogs. Some great photos.

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