Sam Llewellyn leaves behind the varnish brush for a wintry adventure.
This early in the year, some people are hanging around waiting for their newly-applied varnish to dry in the frosts of early spring. We reckon that warmer weather may easily arrive one day, and we will do the varnishing then, and that now is the time for a small adventure in a sheltered spot; like, for instance, Milford Haven.
This is a long, long inlet into the southern prong of Wales. It is protected to seaward by ferocious tides, jagged rocks and leaping overfalls. But we have no intention of going anywhere near them. We will be in a twenty-foot open boat, heading inland.
We are reefed well down as the wake roars along the lee side as we go beetling past the marine biology research station at Dale and thread the grim Victorian forts built to protect the Haven against an enemy that never arrived. Under us the tide is on the flood, and the wind, as so often in the Haven, is tumbling briskly in from the West.
We tie the cruising chute into a sausage with bits of wool, haul it up to the masthead and heave on the sheet. The wool breaks. A rumple and a whap, and the sail blooms red against the grey sky.
The boat’s acceleration is like a kick in the small of the back. The wake is roaring now, the shore sliding by. Ahead the tankers lie alongside the jetties like huge steel whales. One of them is moving ponderously into the fairway, fussed over by tugs. The lee rail digs in as we luff to keep clear.
The coastguard forecast on the VHF says force seven, but as the river winds and narrows, only the odd hard puff comes through. The jetties are far astern now. In Pembroke Dock the Cork ferry is following the channel’s great dogleg on to the north shore, so we gibe, bang goes the boom overhead, and duck behind a green buoy to keep out of the way of the huge slab-sided ship. Then we move up under the big road bridge, and the oakwoods sweep down to the water on either side.
The idea is to spend the night somewhere up the river, which divides into two a few miles upstream. The north, more civilised, fork goes to Haverfordwest. The south fork crawls through wild woods, becoming less sea and more river until it peters out in deep pools where sea trout leap in the late summer.
But it is by no means summer now, and the hands that haul the sheets are distinctly cold. At this time of tide there is warmth closer at hand. So we pull down the cruising chute and stuff it in its bag, and turn off the main river, past the endless trots of Lawrenny Yacht Station, skirting the black skeletons of fishing boats abandoned on mud banks, and into a small creek that snakes away to the southeast.
The trees overhang the smooth black water. The creek becomes less and less Welsh, more and more jungly. The wakes of fish make lightning vees in the shallows. An otter marches up the bank, pausing to give us an unfriendly eye. We stay on the outside of the bends, where the water is deepest, letting the tide tumble us through the thick woods.
After half an hour the sun has sunk behind the trees and there is a heavy chill in the shadow. An old stone quay looms ahead. Behind it lies the Cresselly Arms, where the ancient bar is staffed by kindly folk and warmed by an ancient Aga.
We tie up and go in.