The Fishing Trip

In early 1933, Thomas Roberts a 15-year-old boy from Tudweiliog, Llyn, had just left Botwnnog County School. He had done very well in his final exams, and his parents expected him to attend university, to further his higher education. Tommy on the other hand had different ideas, like so many young men from Llyn he wanted adventure, and wished to go away to sea.

On the morning of Wednesday March 22nd Tommy told his mother that he was going to a near by farm to see friends, but would be home in time for tea. After walking only a short distance he changed his mind, and decided to go along the cliff top path to Porth Cychod, about a mile away from the village. Porth Cychod is a small sheltered horseshoe shaped, pebbly beach, which was full of clinker built boats at the time, most of the fishermen from Tudweiliog and the surrounding area kept their boats there.

John Jones, a 25-year-old merchant seaman was home on leave, and was at the cove on that cold March morning, loading lobster pots into his newly acquired boat “Mary”. She was a 14ft traditional Llyn peninsula clinker built boat; they were widely used around the Llyn at the time, being excellent sea boats, and were ideal for the harsh sea conditions around the peninsula. “Mary” for example had seen a lot of dirty weather in her day, having at one time been owned by Love Pritchard the last King of Bardsey. He would have used her for lobster potting and netting around the Island and its treacherous waters. 

The invitation to go out fishing was too much of a temptation for young Tommy, and in no time he was rowing Mary out to sea with John firmly at the helm. The weather conditions that day were far from perfect, with a brisk wind from over the land (south southeast) plus a strong flood tide running northeast up the coast towards Caernarfon Bay. John knew that if he kept quite close to the shore this would not be much of a problem, as it was quite sheltered and relatively calm close in underneath the cliffs.

With Tommy rowing and John baiting and streaming the pots over the side they were far too pre-occupied with the task in hand to realise that they were drifting further and further out to sea, and when they did look up they were shocked at how far they had travelled. They immediately started rowing for the land, but soon realised that it was a lost cause. The strong tide and even stronger wind was pushing them deep into Caernarfon Bay. By now the swell had increased significantly and John decided to jettison the remaining lobster pots, as the boat was taking in a lot of water and he feared that she might capsize. To add to their misfortune one of their oars was lost over the side, and “Mary” immediately went beam on to the waves and started rolling furiously. Llyn peninsula boats in those days carried sails as well, and this boat was gaff rigged. But to save on space for the lobster pots, John had left the mainsail, gaff and boom ashore, but thankfully his two small working jibs were still in the boat.

A local man Capt Griffiths was out for a stroll that afternoon, and watched the drama unfolding from the cliff top. When he saw a little jib being hoisted, and the boat by now was heading away from the land in a north-easterly direction he immediately ran back to the village to raise the alarm.  John and Tommy had decided that it was a lost cause to try and get back to Tudweiliog, as the waves were now breaking over the boat and she was rapidly filling up with water. Their new plan of action was to head for the Anglesey coast about 15 miles away to the east, and with the speed she was moving, with luck, they would make it before dark. They also bailed out the boat as fast as they could, with the only thing they had at their disposal, John’s hat! They said later that they weren’t particularly worried at this stage, as they thought they could easily reach their intended destination.

By late afternoon it was clear that they would not make Anglesey, the wind and tide was driving them north along the islands coast, and in the night they past close to the South Stack lighthouse on Holyhead island.  “We were so close” said Tommy later “The light of the South Stack turned night into day every time it shone in our direction”. It was at this time that the storm was at it’s worst, the waves were piling up behind them as they surfed along in the strong wind. Just north of the Anglesey coast they encountered their first steamer, they took their coats off and waved to her furiously, plus they shouted till their lungs hurt, but the vessel steamed off into the night. The next ship they saw was one of the many ferries that run from Ireland to the U.K. be it Holyhead or Liverpool, this time the vessel stopped quite close to them, but for all their shouting and waving, the steamer got under way again and disappeared over the horizon. They were to see another four steamers in the night, and one of them nearly ran them over, but none of the vessels saw them.

Back at Tudweiliog, the sad news quickly spread that John Wenallt and Tommy Gwelfor, as they were known locally, were missing, their boat had been swept away by the strong wind and current, never to be seen again. The whole village was overcome with grief, and the people were just standing around openly weeping. The local lifeboat at Porthdinllaen had returned to its station empty handed, after hours of searching the coastline and beyond. How could something so horrendous happen to these two popular young men?

By daybreak they were cold and very miserable, they were wet through and hungry, but the worst was the thirst, with nothing to drink in nearly 24 hrs, their mouths were bone dry, and they could taste nothing but salt, their faces also were sore from the dried seawater. The only two good things were, they were still alive, and the wind had abated quite a lot. The boat now was far more comfortable that she had been through the night. They felt very isolated, because when they stood up there was no land on the horizon, nothing but this vast expanse of water. They didn’t have a clue where they were, or how far they had travelled in the night. Several times during the day they thought they saw land, only to discover they were looking at low clouds on the horizon, so they stopped looking to avoid being disappointed. The weather was mostly overcast, but Tommy did recall in an interview in 1971, “The sun came out a couple of times, and I’ll never forget how warm it felt on my face”.

Come nightfall on Thursday the 23rd they saw flashing lights ahead in the distance, and as they slowly came nearer, two of the flashing light became much brighter than the rest, so they decided to aim their bow between them in the hope that if they marked an entrance to a harbour or river, they could sail the boat straight in. But the tide was going to scupper their plans, and they were carried to the left (south) of the lights in the strong current.

The next thing they heard was a loud scraping noise. In a flash and without warning the boat capsized, throwing them both into the icy water. John managed to hold on to a line that was attached to the mast, and he prevented the boat from being washed away by the waves. After being in the boat for so long they found it tricky at first to walk up the pebbly beach, and in the darkness they found it all very disorientating.

Once they composed themselves they started walking along the beach, and they started wondering where they were? It could have been a number of places, Ireland, Isle of Man, North of England or even Scotland. All of a sudden they spotted white painted steps leading up the cliff, so they decided to walk up them to investigate. When they reached the top they saw a small cottage across the road with only one light on upstairs, and further along a larger house with the lights on in every room. They decided to knock on the cottage door, which they duly did. Almost immediately an upstairs window opened and a woman poked her head out to inquire what they wanted. But when they told her that they had been fishing off the north Wales coast, and that they had been at sea for two days, she just would not believe them, and it took them quite a while to convince her otherwise. Tommy said later “If someone knocked on our door at home in the middle of the night and told us that they had come all the way from Ireland in an open 14ft boat, I don’t think we would have believed them either!!!”

After she let them into the house it was obvious to her that the young men were telling the truth, she could see that they were soaking wet and shivering with the cold. She generously gave them food and plenty of water and tea to drink. She told them that they had landed at the busy fishing port of Kilkeel in County Down, Northern Ireland. It was just after 10pm, so they had been missing for nearly 36 hours.

The large house next door turned out to be the Coastguard station, and after their meal she took them round so that they could tell their story. They were anxious to let their families back home know that they were safe and well, and the Coastguard immediately sent a telegram to Tudweiliog. They also asked for some money to be wired, as they didn’t have a single penny between them.

Mr D. Griffith the Tudweiliog Postmaster, was getting ready for bed when the telegram arrived, his hands were shaking as he read it. He immediately bolted out of the door and ran down the road shouting “The boys are alive, Hip Hip Hurray!!!.” John’s mum was sitting in her kitchen when she heard the shouting outside. She hadn’t eaten or slept since her son had gone missing. She said later “It was like a big weight being lifted off my shoulders” “It was a day I will never forget.” Within half an hour the house was full of villagers, they were dancing and singing, and most of them stayed all night.

The boys spent that night at a plush local hotel. And were given clean warm clothes and another meal before they went to bed. “The kindness the Irish people bestowed upon us was unbelievable” “We were treated like a couple of princes” John and Tommy later said.

In the morning after breakfast they went back to the Coastguard station where the press was waiting for them. They came under a barrage of questions. Such an amazing story had to be told to the world, and could not go unreported! That’s when their photograph with the sail was taken, and it made front-page headlines in several daily newspapers the next day.

During the afternoon they were taken to Belfast, but stopped at the village of Newcastle on the way to pick up travel warrants. At 6pm they boarded the night boat “Ulster Queen” for Liverpool. All paid for by their generous hosts.

The ferry arrived at the Pier Head Liverpool, right on time at 6am. And the first thing they saw when they came ashore was their photograph and story on the front page of a national newspaper! They caught the train to Pwllheli, and then on by bus to Tudweiliog, arriving home just after 5pm. (The only part of their journey that they had to pay for!!!)

Saturday the 25th of March 1933, was an incredible day for Tudweiliog and it’s people. “It was a day that those that were there at the time will never forget or want to forget” One villager said. “Two of our young men, which we all thought were lost to the sea are alive and well, and will be coming home today!”

The whole village was waiting when they stepped off the bus; their families were standing on a wall, so that they could be the first to see them coming up the hill. It was very much a carnival atmosphere in Tudweiliog that day. One newspaper reported said, “It was the happiest scene I have ever witnessed, and probably ever will.”

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(Footnote) John was offered a good price for the boat at Kilkeel, but be wanted to have it shipped back to Tudweiliog. After he got home he changed his mind, and sold it to someone from Kilkeel. Tommy returned to Kilkeel in 1940, when he went to Northern Ireland as a merchant seaman, and the boat was still there then.

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Report in the Daily Mail

Newry Reporter, March 25th 1933        Newry Reporter, March 28th 1933

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Many thanks to Mrs. Menna Jones for all her help.

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