Freesteel Blog » Pembroke Kayak Nuts


Pembroke Kayak Nuts – June 2003

More pictures. More pictures to show. I’m not good at taking pictures when the time is right because, when the time is right, there’s no time to play with the camera. I’ve mistakenly taken the camera into enough unphotogenic and potentially damaging situations that I have lost my confidence and am tending to leave it behind when something interesting is threatening to happen.

Also, this text is more of a log report than for public enjoyment, so scan it and give it only the time it is due.

As you know, I’ve got these silly dive kayaks which I don’t know how to use yet. I lack basic sea safety skills, since I have not been taught any lessons or obtained the necessary safety equipment (flares, radio, common sense).

Becka tries to climb back on her kayak which is being sat on by our shore cover.

Fortunately, to overcome this, I had a plan. The University of Bristol Underwater Club goes to Pembrokeshire in West Wales for two weeks every year and dives around Skomer Island with their two inflatable power boats. I’ve been with the club many times before? So I thought: What if I kayaked to the same places as they took their boats. Then I would have some immediate backup cover in case anything went wrong.

While I was with them, I borrowed (Bristol diver) Damian’s mobile phone so I could call him on the shore in case I got washed away out to sea alone on my kayak. It didn’t work when I tried it. Fortunately, I was sensible enough to restrict the diving to sheltered locations, mostly when the boats were actually on the spot.

For warm-up, my long-suffering Becka came with me to Anglesey where we dived a wreck called the Missouri, out of Porth Dafarch in Trearddur Bay on a very calm, sunny Friday. For extra security, I brought a friend to keep watch from the shore in case the kayaks sank, went missing, or we needed to be presumed drowned. I dived this wreck with Bill last year, as mentioned on a previous web page.

We had an excellent time down there, poking around on the scrap metal, trying not to get lost from the anchor. I popped up halfway through the dive to collect my camera and take it for some murky shots. The sun was bright, the water was shallow, and natural light worked most of the time. My photography is awful, but it’s amazing what you can fix with a digital picture editor.

Diving around the wreck of the Missouri in Porth Dafarch, Trearddur Bay, Anglesey.

We popped up, climbed onto the kayaks. Well, only I did. I’d lent a spare wetsuit to my friend who had swum over and was occupying one of the kayaks. We made Becka swim back to the shore. I unloaded the kayaks and sent the two of them paddling across Trearddur bay towards Raven’s Point. Meanwhile, there was another diver on the beach, whom I chatted with, trying to sell him the idea of kayak diving, but he didn’t seem too interested. He really wanted to know about my transits for finding the wreck so he could dive it from a real boat some other day. I let him copy them down.

Transits are alignments of pairs of structures on the land which you use to find positions out at sea. Two or three transits in different directions allow you to pinpoint aspot on the otherwise featureless water. You drop anchor and hope to find something, like the wreck, instead of plain, boring sea bed. Of course, with an echo sounder and an accurate GPS, you can improve your chances of striking scrap metal.

Thirteen armed sun star. These things can move surprisingly fast when they are in the mood.

If I do many more of these offshore dives (as opposed to shore dives where you swim out from a particular spot located on a land map and is usually limited by beach access), I should create web pages for these dive sites. You can buy dive books for some parts of the coastline. Unfortunately, there aren’t any for Anglesey or West Wales. You can only get the information by asking people on the beach who happen to know what to tell you.

I’m thinking that it’s time to create a data format for the location and description of a dive site. Anyone who knows a site could write it up in this format and stick it on the web wherever they like. Then we can let a central cataloguer extract them all and present them from a single linked web page. There could be more than one of these catalogues and it wouldn’t matter. in fact, acting like a search engine would make it better. In general, the raw data should be freely kicking around as single records, freely editable, like those internet jokes and myths that bounce around cyberspace. Over time we’d get the whole country filled in with these useful snippets.

I happen to have one page of description of a wreck called the Hermine just around the coast from Raven’s Point. Becka and I (with the help of our shore cover standing on the cliffs with the map) tried to match the location from the diagram as best we could, and tied the kayaks to a lobster pot buoy. We prepared to go diving. No sooner was I ready than a fishing boat rolled up and heaved in the lobster pot. The fisherman didn’t seem too annoyed that we had been tied to his buoy, but it was lucky it didn’t happen while we were underwater or he could have untied the kayaks and let them drift out to sea. We threw down an anchor.

There was no wreck, but there were some nice overhangs and narrow gullies to explore. If I was a shipwreck, this is where I’d want to be. We’ll try a different spot next time, and maybe get lucky. When I do, I’ll draw my own map and description and publish it on the net for other kayak divers to enjoy. And that’s a promise.

And so, we drove to Skomer on the Wednesday night, missing the best bits of the Africa Oye free Liverpool musical festival. We arrived at quarter to four in the morning. The roads across Wales are not fast. It took six hours to do the two hundred miles. In the morning, the weather was bad and everyone went to Dale to go diving. Dale has a beach in one corner of Milford Haven, and so is sheltered from the wind and the weather.

I don’t often see Becka smiling underwater. Here, she’s brought me a big iron bar, which is making her laugh for some reason.


The Bristol people were diving on a wreck called the Dakotian near the main channel of Milford Haven. We set off before their power boats, and waited away from the shore for them to arrive since they were delayed by engine trouble. When they drove past, we followed and met up with them. We tied to their anchor buoy. Becka got kitted up and in the water. Then things went wrong. My tank had a knackered ‘o’-ring. This is the bit of rubber gasket that seals the valve of tank to the regulator bringing air to your mouth. If I used it, there was a chance that the gap could explode, and all my air would vent out of the tank in an instant while I was underwater. I got a new ‘o’-ring and tried to dig out the old one in order to replace it. But my dive knife is one of those blunt ended types without a point, so I couldn’t do it. It took forever for someone to lend me a pair of sharp pliers so I could fix it before we could get going, a little later than planned.

We went down as others were finishing their dive. Luckily, the boats waited for us to surface, because we’d got lost from the anchor. The current was running, and we’d have been stuffed had they not been there, drifting around in the bay up to our necks in water, miles from shore, with no hope of rescue. They towed us back to our kayaks and drove off, leaving us alone. The waves picked up. Becka was in pain from food poisoning and needed to get back to shore as soon as possible. It was an emergency, and I was getting intimidated by the sea. Just as we got it together, she capsized her kayak and screamed. I controlled my panick. We exchanged kayaks and I righted hers. Paddles were drifting everywhere (fortunately both were leashed). The wind was blowing us off shore. We struggled through the waves towards a spit of land. Becka tried to get ashore on the rocks, but this proved impossible with the waves flinging her and the kayak all over the place. We managed to paddle further round where there was a protective harbour wall, where we beached and recovered our wits. I thought, This is it. She’s never going to come out with me on the kayaks again. I might as well give up, apologize, and return to caving.

Caves are tempting places for kayakers Don’t know what happens if there are waves. You can’t visit the caves in September because mothers keep their seal pups in there.

After sending Becka off on a cycle ride for the rest of the day to wind down, and after a good night’s sleep, we were back at Dale the next morning. We were going to dive the Behar, a wreck even further away than the Dakotian. I couldn’t believe Becka was actually up for it, but I didn’t question the idea.

This wreck was four kilometres from the beach, along the shore, and it took 45 minutes to paddle to it. We checked everything was in order, waited for the boat to come back with the second wave of divers before we went down. We had an excellent time. This is such a huge wreck. There’s a massive propeller shaft which you can follow all the way to the remains of the engine. The pieces of the pistons attached to the crankshaft are two metres in diameter. The ship’s boilers beyond them are like tin cans to a flea.

On advice, we tied our SMB line to the anchor and reeled out a piece of string as we swam away so we couldn’t get lost. This was nowhere near as awkward as we’d thought it would be, and is now going to be my standard technique for times when I absolutely have to get back to the anchor. There was a high surface current up in the top two metres and none on the bottom. When you are exploring somewhere new, you have to exactly retrace your steps anyway, so having a string to reel back in does not force you to go where you would not otherwise have gone. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can take a circular route to get back to the start. You have no path or map to follow, and the problem of integrating your swimming velocity and direction to bring you back to where you started has no solution.

A common lobster. I am always fascinated by their claws, the way they are asymmetrical. The right one is like a pair of secateurs, and the left is like a nutcracker. The white bumps which do the crushing look exactly like molar teeth up close.

Once back on our kayaks, we bolted for the nearest beach to take a pee. This is a problem with diving in dry suits combined with the time it takes to get back from a dive. Not sure how to solve it.

We went cycling in the evening and rode over to St Bride’s Haven on the north side of the peninsula. The sea was flat calm. We met a diver there who told us where to shore dive out of there.

I had a plan to dive at Rye Rocks on Skomer the next day, until I heard that, because it’s a Marine Nature Reserve, there is no anchoring allowed. We could string a rope to the kayaks and tow them along the surface above us as we dived, but this sounded like a radical new technique that could wind us up in trouble with the kayaks getting smashed about on the rocks while we weren’t looking. We’ll try it some other time. The anchoring rule was contentious, depending on whom you asked. There was either an absolute ban, or you could get away with it because no one was going to find out. This didn’t seem within the spirit of a Nature Reserve, so we decided to scrap the idea. Later on, I found a leaflet which gave all the rules, and the correct answer was that it was complicated. Anchoring, except in the rare eel grass beds, was not forbidden by law, nor forbidden by the voluntary code, it was merely “Discouraged”. Which meant everyone still did it, just like the fishing off the cliffs, because there was nothing the marine conservation people could do about it. Such is the struggle to establish effective Marine Nature Reserves in this country when everyone is fighting against it because they prefer to keep the sea clean of all macroscopic life forms. Fish don’t belong anywhere in the sea, as you know. That’s why we subsidize fishermen to take the necessary precautions to eradicate this pestilence from all corners of the ocean. There must not be any reserve stock.

Spider crabs are very common. Their articulated claws are just the right length to lift food to their mouths. They would grow hungry if they grew to the wrong length.

Becka had another plan, though. We would kayak out of St Bride’s Haven, dive at The Nab Head just around the corner, and then paddle over to Martin’s Haven in the Marine Reserve where the Bristol club people were using their boats. It was deep water off the cliffs, about fifteen metres. We did a long dive, but there was nothing much to see, and the water was fairly silty. Then, after having wasted too much time exploring the coastline and the sea caves before the dive, we ploughed straight over to Martin’s Haven for two o’clock (which was when I had said they should expect us there) so no one got worried. If you go east from St Bride’s Haven it should be possible to dive on a sheltered side of Stack Rocks. We could have done that had we been brave enough.

No one took much notice of us in Martin’s Haven. Too busy rushing off on their boats diving Skomer Island. The tide was high and I persuaded Becka to paddle towards Jack Sound, the scary and notorious body of water between the headland and Skomer Island. The water was, however, motionless, and we met a dozen sea kayakers finishing a guided tour round the island. I tried talking to them to get information about my plan to paddle round Skomer Island, but they weren’t much help.

A sea slug, or nudibranch. Very small. This one could sit on the tip of your little finger.

The tide turned and the water began flowing south into Jack Sound. If we got caught by the current there’s no saying what would happen. We retreated and visited a sea cave I knew in the corner behind Wooltack point. We got out of the kayaks and swam right through to its second entrance in Jack Sound and explored a little local sheltered area called Mouse’s Haven.

Back in Martin’s Haven, everyone had cleared up when a lone sea kayaker arrived on the beach. I went and talked to him, asking if he had gone round the island, and whether he had any information about how possible this would be (I was beginning to feel that it might not be a good idea). He didn’t know anything about it since he wasn’t local. He had paddled round from Tenby on the south coast that morning. He was doing a round Wales kayak tour. In another week he would be complete, he said, once he got home to Llandudno on the north coast. That sounded pretty neat for a moment, until… hang on. Wales is attached to England. How can you paddle around Wales without also going around England, not to mention Scotland, as well? Answer: there’s a system of canals running south from Liverpool which connects to the River Severn, and lets you through to the south coast that way.

The next day was Sunday. A very big day with fifty people who wanted to dive, many of whom were novices. We joined in just to add to the numbers and chaos, and because I wanted to dive on Skomer at least once while I was here. Damian had negotiated an extra boat to do the north side of Tusker rock, the most exposed site in Jack Sound. Not many people know how to dive there (ie know how to predict the slack water times — the moment when the tide turns and briefly ceases to flow — and are willing to say it will be safe, because it doesn’t look it), and a local dive boat operator wanted to be shown the dive so he could take his paying punters there. Damian said he would show him on condition he filled his boat with our divers for a free ride.

I thought I’d photographed a standard grey sea urchin, but I don’t know where this purple and red colour came from.

Running a large diving operation, such as the Bristol University Skomer trip, requires tactics to make everyone do their share of the work. It’s not a hierarchy. It’s not a commercial operation, where there are staff in a hierarchy being ordered to do all the work while the paying punters sit around getting looked after. You need to share the work of unloading the boats onto the beach and getting all the communal kit ready, even if it all starts at 6:30 in the morning. The strategy is to keep the dive rota secret. Once person (often a novice) is put in charge of drawing up the dive rota the night before. You can ask to be put onto particular dives, and these may or may not be fitted in. But no one knows what the schedule is until the work on the beach is done, so you don’t know if you are diving on the first wave at seven o’clock in the morning, or later on in the day. If you knew you weren’t diving until three o’clock in the afternoon, for example, you’d be tempted to lie in in the morning and let everyone else do the work. (This is just a side effect of the lying in — you have no objection to doing the work, or even twice the work; but it’s the time in the morning that’s the problem.) If you are not there when the work is being done, your name will be crossed off the dive rota and you won’t get to do any boat diving that day.

Becka and I weren’t diving till three o’clock in the afternoon on north Tusker. What a long wait after such an early morning. We weren’t scheduled for a second dive at all. I sent Becka off for a walk and hovered over the dive rota until names started to get crossed out and changed (people were leaving early), so we could be inserted into a later wave. Even so. I fetched the kayaks, and put them on the beach, and told everyone they could have a paddle whenever the liked. Only two people actually did. I was pretty surprised. Some people can set up businesses on the sea shore renting out kayaks for money, and they make a living. Here I was offering it for free to people who already are involved in the sea. Virtually no interest. In fact, this kayak diving idea hasn’t been catching on quite as much as I would have liked. People seem to prefer the immense hassle there is with power boats. All I need is another two people to be bitten by the bug, and then we could go out diving as a foursome, which would make it safe because you could have two people on the surface while two people were underwater. But this isn’t happening yet. So I must persist in trying to spread the word.

The cutest fish Becka found. A tompot blenny. About the size of a mouse. These are a favourite for photographers because they are territorial. You cannot frighten them away. They will keep coming back to stand guard on their patch of sea floor.

Becka came back at one o’clock and we went for a paddle towards Jack Sound. Since this was before high water slack, the water was flowing north. Jack Sound posed no danger at all because the worse that could happen was that the current would be too high and would push you away faster than you could paddle into it. But Becka was terrified as we approached it. She thought maybe the sea would open up and swallow us whole. Here we were on Wooltack point, at the entrance of Jack Sound. There were three dive boats patrolling the corner for divers, about 50 people fishing off the rocks, and I was arguing with her that it was perfectly safe because so many people were watching that if anything went wrong — which was impossible — we’d be seen and rescued immediately. After much complaining, she let me paddle halfway into the Sound, and nothing happened nor threatened to happen.

We kitted up for North Tusker with all our best diving gear and pony bottles (small spare air tanks which you use as backup in case of gear failure), and left the camera behind because we might go too deep or actually see something worth photographing. The visibility was exceptional, more than ten metres. We went deep on the cliffs for a bit. We found a crayfish on a rock that was the size of a small dog (why does it not get washed away by the current?) There was a dogfish which I could have sworn had its eyes closed until we approached it — I thought fish didn’t have eyelids. There were all kinds of other life. In particular, there were walls of daisy anenomies (the size and colour of large field daisies) only found in waters with the fastest currents. It was a good dive.

At six thirty we got our dive on Rye Rocks, on Skomer Island. It was much murkier, but I took my camera this time. Sea fans were common, but they don’t photograph as well as these other more colourful things.

We left for home in the morning. At no time did anyone bother going to the pub, as we used to in years past. The local pubs were out of favour with people now, with no atmosphere and crap frozen expensive food. Everyone knows they can cook better on their own camping stoves or communal barbeque.

We didn’t go straight home. We headed for St David’s head, which is across St Bride’s Bay, from Skomer, to the north. One of the older divers, JL, told us about a place to dive near Abercastle on the north side of St David’s peninsula, which he’d just dived near the week before from a boat that was supposed to be going out to some deep wreck in the Irish Sea, but the weather was too bad. (Those were the days when we were diving from Dale.)

Draining the kayaks on our final day out in Abercastle. This is a spot on site because it’s sheltered from the sea and has wreck to explore in it. The island cut from the headland on the right hand side has a sea cave that goes straight through.

I thought we were just going to have a look at the place on our way home and come back another year. After a few good dives, and a try out of the kayaks where nothing went really wrong, I didn’t want to push our good luck too far. So I didn’t believe Becka actually intended to be up for it. We took a detour to Newgale in the bay and canoe surfed for an hour (we were pretty crap at it), then had a look at the harbour at Solva while licking an ice cream. When we got to Abercastle, it was two o’clock in the afternoon. We saw a couple people diving from a boat at the far end of the haven. I cooked the rest of our food for lunch, waiting for them to come in. They didn’t seem to be doing anything. Eventually, still not believing she was serious, Becka said we should kit up and go for a dive. So we did. It took half an hour to get the kayaks off the roof, rigged with our gear, and us ready in our suits. Not a lot of faff, I thought. As we paddled out, the dive boat drove back in, passing us. Hmm. I turned my kayak around and paddled back to the shore and spoke to them before they got their boat out of the water and drove away. I asked, Where’s a good place to dive?

Was I glad I asked! There was a wreck of a 4000 tonne ship within the cove called the Leysian, up the left hand side of the headland, which we didn’t know anything about. They gave me directions to it. Couldn’t miss it because there was so much scrap metal your anchor would get stuck for good. People know not to drop grapnel anchors there because they lose them. On ordinary rocky ground, the chain at the top of the anchor pulls it down horizontal so the hooks can catch on the rocks. When you reel in the rope and lift the anchor upright, the hooks come free and you can pull it up. However, if there is a lot of scrap metal there, the hooks are liable to get under one of the bars so that you cannot pull it away at any angle.

We had an excellent time. The wreckage is pretty flat, but spreads for acres and acres. The water was quite silty, but that’s the trade-off for diving in a protected place — there are no currents to carry the muck away. You could rub the orange slabs of metal with your fingers and polish off the rust to reveal a dull iron shine. We reeled out our string, as usual, and got tangled with it once or twice. The dive lasted an hour. The kayaks were perfect. It was ten minutes easy paddling from the beach that would have been a hard forty minutes of swimming had you tried to do it without a boat. More people should do it this way. It’s better and nicer than smelly petrol driven boats. I promise I will publish this site in a useable format for other kayak divers.

Six hours of driving got us back home to Liverpool. There are many closer places to explore on Anglesey and the Lleyn Peninsula.

And we are welcomed by piles of weeds in our allotment, as well as rows of foul tasting bolted lettuce.


Julian Todd 26/6/2003.