Committed ribster Jonathan Peers relates the story of a memorable day’s adventure from his home port of Holyhead, Anglesey, to the port of Peel on the Isle of Man’s west coast.

For many, standing on the shore gazing out to sea at the seemingly infinite fills them with an inner peace. For others, that same view may hold a sense of wonderment and respect for the great power the ocean embodies. The sea may also raise a sense of fear, even dread, within the hearts of some. However, for those who are drawn to venture upon it, their intrigue with the sea may well lie in their curiosity about that which lies beyond the horizon.

The two RIBs: the Ribcraft and Tornado, rafted up alongside on Peel quay.

The two RIBs: the Ribcraft and Tornado, rafted up alongside on Peel quay.

My own fascination with the sea began to be satisfied when I was able to buy my very first boat back in my late teens. When that humble inflatable later became the RIB I have now, my dreams and aspirations of voyaging to distant places looked all the more attainable.

But unlike the great explorers who neither knew how long their voyage would be nor what indeed they may find when they reached their destination, we have the advantage today that the unknown has already been charted. To an unprecedented degree, we know where we are going and what we shall find when we get there.

Tom plotting our course to the Calf of Man.

Tom plotting our course to the Calf of Man.

Regular readers may know that my home port is the North Wales port of Holyhead on the island of Anglesey. From this exposed Irish Sea vantage point, we can see two main chunks of land that could potentially be classed as ‘foreign’. Due west, there is, of course, Ireland, and then to our north, that well-known tax haven and home of the Manx cat, the Isle of Man – located some 44nm off the Anglesey coast.

Ribcraft

My fellow dreamer and partner in crime on the high seas in recent years has been my friend Anthony. He’s as daft as I am, and like me he loves nothing more than to deploy his beloved RIB, Bowser, for literally anything and everything a RIB could possibly tackle. While others sensibly stay at home sheltering from the weather, he and I can often be found among those launching their boats in the wind and driving rain – allegedly in the name of fun!

Holyhead. © Phillip Roberts_iStock.

Holyhead. © Phillip Roberts_iStock.

A uniting of plans

But at the grand age of 42 and having spent a lifetime working in the construction industry, of late, my weary old bones have been telling me that if a longer voyage was to be realised, I really ought to set about it. Most certainly, the ‘Emerald Isle’ would always be a strong contender, but then again, the Isle of Man was likewise tempting, being located equidistant between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. ‘Maybe this should be our destination of choice, then,’ we mused.

Anthony and I may be drawn to pitting our wits against high seas and tidal overfalls, as well as being old hands at long-distance passage making, but in the case of the Isle of Man, we felt it sensible to limit any such intentions to wind speeds of single digits. But coordinating our diaries and the weather was never going to be easy.

The Skerries always feels like home.

The Skerries always feels like home.

Despite these challenges, we determined that 2023 was going to be the year. But as winter dragged into spring, and summer faltered from early promise to endless cloud and adverse winds, we all but gave up any hope of realising our plans.

The first week of September saw a super ‘blue moon’, and with it a huge tidal range of well over 6 metres. In contrast, the following week delivered some of the smallest tides of the year, and along with these a fabulous forecast of sunshine and gentle breezes. ‘The gloves were off’, as we reckoned it was now or never, at least for 2023! Fuel and food were bought in abundance, and all necessary checks were made on the boats. Charts and the trusty almanac were studied once again, then stowed aboard with compass bearings written down indelibly in case we should have any kind of GPS failure. Certain parts of the almanac were photographed for easy reference too.

Rafted up to make way for a local fishing boat.

Rafted up to make way for a local fishing boat.

Potential landfalls were shortlisted, including Port St Mary on the southern coast. Douglas and Ramsey were debated too, but in the end we opted for Peel on the Isle’s western side.

The availability of petrol on the Isle of Man is something of a problem for leisure craft, though. With no quayside pumps, visitors to the island are faced with having to utilise inland petrol stations, which involves all the logistical difficulties of transporting fuel cans. Our plan, therefore, was to carry enough fuel for the entire trip, there and back, though we felt it wise to have a backup plan should anything go awry. By using Google Maps and Street View, we felt that if push really came to shove, we should be able to land on the beach at either Peel or Port Erin (both located on the west coast) and walk to a local petrol station with cans in hand!

We were in no rush as we left Port Erin.

We were in no rush as we left Port Erin.

A course was duly plotted, consisting of two legs. The first would take us 44 nautical miles from Holyhead, past the Skerries Lighthouse, all the way to the Calf of Man, a huge rocky island just off the southern point of the main island. From there we would turn and follow the coastline northward for a distance of 11 nautical miles or so to our destination of Peel.

ribcraft

Tucked in against the harbour wall.

Tucked in against the harbour wall.

Circumnavigating the Calf of Man was a must.

Circumnavigating the Calf of Man was a must.

A screenshot can make any trip look deceptively simple.

A screenshot can make any trip look deceptively simple.

Exploring the coastline to Peel was far better.

Exploring the coastline to Peel was far better.

Finally, the big day

Rising early on the Saturday morning, we readied the boats and stoked ourselves up with a hearty breakfast. A quick walk to check on the sea conditions and yet another look at every weather forecast available to us, not only for our current location but also for our destination, and we were good to go. We had the pleasure, too, of being joined by my son Tom, and Paige, Anthony’s daughter.

The season’s unusually small tides meant that our slipway was not only usable at our time of departure but, more importantly, during the period of our likely return. This meant we would be able to recover the boats with ease even if it happened to be late and in the dark.

Back home ready to recover the boats.

Back home ready to recover the boats.

Leaving Holyhead, we set our sights firmly on the horizon. We were relaxed, though of course excited, but with no feeling of apprehension, which for me at least confirmed in my mind that we had made the right decision to strike out when we did, and that we were fully prepared.

I think at this point it’s worth noting that our boats, although incredibly capable, are not thoroughbred offshore cruisers. Far from it. My own Northwind Challenger is an old narrow-beamed Tornado model, powered by a Mariner 115 EFI CT. Anthony’s, on the other hand, is a 4.8m Ribcraft powered by a Mercury 60hp, and neither boat is worth more than £15k! I have to admit, though, that this sits well with both of us because it underscores the fact that offshore adventuring need not be just the preserve of the wealthy. What really matters is experience and being well equipped.

Northwind Challenger’s essential kit list

  • Fixed VHF DSC radios
  • Handheld VHF radios
  • Garmin 9sv plotters
  • AIS transponder
  • Radar reflector
  • Pyrotechnic flares
  • Imray charts C62 and Y70
  • Reeds Almanac (vital for local information)
  • RYA SafeTrx app
  • Drysuits and PFDs
  • Water, soft drinks and food
  • Extra clothing
  • Lots of fuel!
  • Steering and hand bearing compass
  • Personal locator beacon (PLB)

The great divide

Despite what the forecast had promised, and though the seas were flat, we were met with grey foreboding skies. Transiting Holyhead Bay, we passed a couple of porpoises coursing along just beneath the surface. A small pod of Risso’s dolphins made an appearance too. Ordinarily, we would have hoved to at a distance to enjoy the display, but today we were on a mission and so chose to leave our friends to their hunting and playful antics.

An open-water passage in these conditions can sometimes involve little more than simply holding a course and counting down the miles on the plotter screen. The rhythm of the motor and the gentle motion of the sea can have a soporific effect, which, while lulling you, at the same time atunes the senses to a state of high alert. It’s as if you start to become a part of your surroundings and the forces at play. You begin to notice every little difference in the sea’s surface, every colour change or shift in the water, and accompany this with a constant scanning of the horizon.

Risso’s dolphin off Anglesey.

Risso’s dolphin off Anglesey.

Astern of us, the thin profile of Anglesey had all but sunk below the horizon by now. We were now 22 nautical miles offshore, the midway point of our crossing to the Isle of Man, so we celebrated by pausing to take in our surroundings. It was as if the uninterrupted expanse of sea and sky had become an eerie amalgam of grey. A sense of the surreal swept over us as we floated motionless between the waters above and the waters below.

A welcome lifting of the sky gave us our very first glimpse of blue, but alas, no sooner had it graced our view than it evaporated before our very eyes. When we were imagining we might gain our first sighting of land, the prize was robbed from us by nothing other than the mariner’s worst enemy – fog! The dense bank enveloped us on every side, and we were 2 miles off the coast before we could make out even the faintest outline through the uneasy gloom. But before we knew it, the huge profle of Chicken Rock Lighthouse suddenly loomed before us directly on our bow. We’d arrived!

Chicken Rock lighthouse

Chicken Rock lighthouse

Land ahoy!

Chicken Rock lies just off the Calf of Man, and upon making its acquaintance, the completion of our first leg had been successfully navigated. From here we set a course up the coast to Peel, beneath a blanket of low cloud. I know I’m biased, but it’s my humble view that the Anglesey coastline is one of the finest anywhere to be found, and I have to say that the coastal sights we were now at close quarters with were nothing short of breathtaking. Towering stacks, weathered rock faces, both rugged and sheer, with some of their summits crested by lush, green vegetation – these sights formed a veritable army of giants gazing down on our little boats as we sped along our course. On past the mighty South Stack, where we were greeted by a collection of local fishing boats as well as opportunist seals staring inquisitively as they languished on the tide-washed rocks at the foot of the cliffline.

Sea mist half way home. Boating adventure on Ribcraft

Sea mist half way home.

It wasn’t long before Peel Castle hove into view, along with the breakwater that serves to protect Peel Harbour from the prevailing winds. Once inside the outer harbour, I attempted to make contact with Peel Harbour control on VHF Channel 12. On my third attempt, an incredibly helpful lady from Douglas Harbour, no less, responded, and upon explaining our intentions, she advised us to tie up alongside the breakwater with the local fishing fleet. This was perfect – no marina fees while still having easy access to shore, albeit via the decks of two other vessels and a very long ascending ladder! This may not have constituted footprints in golden sands, but we were still stepping foot on foreign soil. It was time to see what the natives had to offer!

Glass like sea. Ribcraft. Boating adventure

Glass like sea

Much a Peel

Peel is the third-largest town on the Isle of Man, after Douglas and Ramsey, but the town benefits from being the island’s main fishing port, as well as a popular seaside resort for many of its residents. As such, we found no shortage of places to eat. The café on the harbour breakwater, for example, conveniently located to serve visiting yachtsmen, looked a good place to refresh oneself after spending time at sea, and it certainly appeared to have no shortage of customers. Walking towards the town, we passed the entrance to Peel Castle, a popular, if not cultural attraction open to the public throughout the summer months. Both the castle and the town’s breakwater are built on a small island called St Patrick’s Isle, which in turn is linked to the town by a causeway with the harbour on one side and a sandy beach on the other. Up ahead, we then got a good view of the inner harbour and its marina. If overnighting, this would be the place to aim for. At its entrance is a tidal gate, which means entering and exiting have to be timed according to the tide, which is worth factoring in if you ever contemplate visiting Peel yourself.

Very happy to be in Peel Beach. Isle of Man

Very happy to be in Peel Beach.

Port Erin has plenty to offer when it comes to exploring. Boating adventure

Port Erin has plenty to offer when it comes to exploring

Spanning the entrance to the marina here, directly above the tidal gate, is a footbridge that takes one directly to the promenade. However, with our drysuits half-donned, we plodded on in search of ice creams. To their credit, none of Peel’s inhabitants seemed bemused by our attire. Instead, they appeared to be well used to seeing salty types among them, and not as much as an eyebrow was raised. Given more time, we would have enjoyed looking around the House of Manannan, a local museum named after the pagan sea god. The museum definitely represents a worthy place to visit, as it provides an extremely interesting insight into the island’s maritime history, as well as its Celtic and Viking links.

In many ways, it seemed a pity we were only able to give Peel a quick recce, but our brief time exploring would definitely prove useful intel for visits of longer duration in the future. It was time to finish our ice creams and get back to the boats.

We made it! Isle of Man

We made it!

To sea again

A brief rain shower nudged us along, toward the quayside, whereupon we scaled the iron ladder once more to where our two RIBs lay rafted. But then, just as we were letting go our lines, the sun appeared from behind the clouds, enabling us to take in our surroundings with a renewed clarity and appreciation. We were sad to be leaving so soon, but as the old saying goes, ‘time and tide wait for no man’, so helm to port and bows to sea, we were on our way once more.

Our boats dwarfed by the local fishing fleet.

Our boats dwarfed by the local fishing fleet.

As we headed almost due south down across Niarbyl Bay, the afternoon sun added a sparkle to the water and a golden glow to the rural landscape and its rugged, west-facing coast. On we sped, making good progress through the settled seas until we came to Port Erin. Protected from the prevailing winds in all but a full westerly, the approach to Port Erin requires a modicum of care as it’s necessary to pay heed to the dangers associated with both a poorly ‘placed’ reef and the slipway of the disused lifeboat station on the southern side of the bay! Idling in, we gingerly made our way into the shallows and on towards the beach.

Peel beach and castle.

Peel beach and castle.

With its backdrop of period-style four-storey seafront hotels, the beach – decoratively lined as it is with beach huts and a faux red-and-white-painted lighthouse – makes for quite the quintessential British holiday town picture. Upon rounding the harbour wall, we then found ourselves mixed up in something of a happy community carry-on, because all about us there were people swimming, kayaking, paddleboarding and generally loving the water. From kids to adults, families and friends, everyone was splashing and laughing in the shallow waters of the little harbour. The school holidays may have been over, but the locals were clearly still enjoying every last moment of summer. Just off my bow, a small group of children were making conversation with a lady as they swam and she sorted shellfish on the deck of a local potting boat. It was the type of scene you’d expect to see in an old jigsaw puzzle.

Busy Port Erin, with families enjoying the water.

Busy Port Erin, with families enjoying the water.

A bustling Peel seafront despite the end of the school summer.

A bustling Peel seafront despite the end of the school summer.

Peel Castle & town. ©Keith Molloy/istockphoto

Peel Castle & town.
©Keith Molloy/istockphoto

Time for ice-creams.

Time for ice-creams.

The view of Peel from within the castle.

The view of Peel from within the castle.

A circumnavigation

Despite not going ashore at Port Erin, we found it hard to leave such an idyllic spot, and all too soon it was time to turn tail and forge on with our passage back to Anglesey. Even so, we couldn’t resist saying farewell to the Isle of Man without first undertaking a mini-circumnavigation of the famed Calf of Man islet.

Nosing down past Kitterland, marking the mainland’s most westerly tip, and with Spanish Head away to the south-east, we then entered the straits where, on the high ground at their narrowest point, a car park overlooks the sea. From here, onlookers can view this formidable stretch of water and the rocky outcrop beyond. One can only imagine what these straits are like during spring tides and a contrary gale of wind. Nothing short of awe-inspiring, I wager.

Around the ragged rock we went, followed by a last look at Chicken Rock Lighthouse, then we were on our way again with our hulls slicing through the ocean. With the late sun beginning to dip and a lingering sea mist hazing the panorama about us, once more we found ourselves entering a dreamlike world where sea and sky merged as one. Only the Seatruck ferry on passage to Heysham broke the stillness and serenity. And how grateful we were for our AIS, as this had already allowed us to identify the ferry’s ghostly presence.

With Dreswick Point having long slipped from view, our open-sea passage fell into its familiar rhythm, and it seemed that in no time at all, the north coast of Anglesey with its familiar landmarks could be picked out east of our position. Upon entering home waters, we paid our customary homage to the Skerries Lighthouse, before then powering up one last time for the final run back to the slipway at Holyhead where our day’s adventure had begun.

We were four tired but incredibly happy adventurers, each cognisant of the fact that we’d shared a truly special day’s voyage to and from a destination that will not only stay in our minds for a very long time to come, but also one to which we hope to return and explore more fully in the future. For Anthony and I, we can now tick a box we’d wanted to check for some time. For Tom and Paige, our humble RIBs extended their young lives a day of rich reward and valuable experience, as well as an extra-large scoop of Manx ice cream!

Isle of Man quirky facts

  • The island was colonised well before our Common Era.
  • In 2019, the population was recorded as 84,584.
  • It covers an area of 221 square miles.
  • The island is classed as a self-governing British Crown dependency, so technically it is not part of the UK.
  • With no wealth, inheritance or capital gains taxes, it is a tax haven.
  • The temperate climate means mild winters and cool summers, though plenty of rain!
  • The capital is Douglas on the east coast, which has a population of around 28,000.
  • The Manx cat is a feline famous for having little or no tail.

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