Category Archives: Seaside

The minor miracle of a mermaid’s purse – and The Shark Trust

When I first moved to Aberdovey I bought myself two books about what sort of things I could expect to find on the strandline of the beach.  My previous strandline discoveries have been posted here and here.  My books almost promised me that I would find mermaid’s purse of some description on the strandline, but until yesterday I hadn’t seen one.  Yesterday, attached to a bit of bladder wrack seaweed, not far from a nice example of an Echinocardium cordatum (see the end of the post) I found a battered but fairly in tact example of a mermaid’s purse or, more mundanely but more accurately, an eggcase, which turns out to be one of nature’s minor miracles:

An eggcase is the product of fish of the elasmobranch species – shark, ray and skate, which instead of having bony frames have skeletons made of flexible cartilage, and many lay eggs in pouches or eggcases.  The eggcases are made of collagen, a resilient protein found in vertebrate animal tissues. Some have curly tendrils at one end to attach them to the seabed and seaweeds.  Within the eggcase is a yolk that provides nutrition for the embryo.  As it grows, the embryo wriggles and this pushes stale water out of the hollow horns of the eggcase and pumps in fresh oxygenated water.  When the embryo has reached full size, it swims out of the eggcase, abandoning the empty pouch, a perfectly formed miniature version of its adult parent.

Skate Lifecycle.  Source:  The Great Eggcase Hunt, The Shark Trust (https://www.sharktrust.org/shared/downloads/projects/great_eggcase_hunt_report_2017.pdf)

In the example that I found, the seaweed to which it was attached had worked its way free and washed up on the strandline, with the eggcase firmly attached.  It took me a few moments to unravel it.   When they are washed up on the shore, they lose their flexibility, shrivel and become hard, but not brittle, and they can survive for many years.

I brought the eggcase home and dried it out on a piece of kitchen roll on the radiator before looking it up. This was the wrong thing to do.  According to one of my books (the absolutely excellent The Essential Guide to Beachcombing and the Strandline by Steve Trewhella and Julie Hatcher), what I should have done is soak it in water to rehydrate it so that I could compare it with photographs on the eggcase identification page on fabulous The Shark Trust website, where you can also record your finding.  The Shark Trust has an ongoing Great Eggcase Hunt, which began in 2003, and has now logged over 100,000 eggcases on British shores.  It has identified ten species of skate and three species of shark, and is beginning to get an idea of where favoured egg laying places are located.

Eggshell morphology. Source:  The Great Eggcase Hunt, The Shark Trust (https://www.sharktrust.org/shared/downloads/projects/great_eggcase_hunt_report_2017.pdf)

So it was back to the drawing board, by which I mean a saucepan of water.   After the eggcase had soaked overnight I had another poke at, prior to any attempt at identification, and it was just as solid as it had been when it went into the saucepan.  I assume that baking it on the radiator had rendered it immutable.  Checking the solid item against various photographs in books and on The Shark Trust website it was immediately clear that eggcases are either black or a translucent pale gold, information that appeared to narrow things down significantly. Although mine is light in colour, big patches of black suggest that it was originally black all over.  The shape is clearly either Nursehound (or Bull Huss) or Smallspotted catshark, but the smallspotted catshark eggshells are translucent and golden and only reach a maximum of 7cm in length, and mine is 12cm, not counting the tendrils, and 4.5cm wide at its widest.  So even though the colour is debatable, I concluded that mine was probably a Nursehound/huss, which is a common specie in this area (and I bought quite a lot of huss from Dai’s Shed during the summer) but I’ve submitted my guess with photographs so that The Shark Trust people can make their own judgement.

Nursehound eggcase. Source: The Great Eggcase Hunt, The Shark Trust (https://www.sharktrust.org/shared/downloads/projects/great_eggcase_hunt_report_2017.pdf)

Another nice find was an Echinocardium cordatum.  They are not uncommon on the Aberdovey beach, which astounds me as they are so fragile that you are in danger of them shattering as soon as you pick one up.  Also known as sea potato and heart urchin, they are covered with spines that, unlike the more familiar sea urchins, lie flat against their shells (“tests”) and look a bit like an animal pelt.  Also unlike sea urchins, they live burrowed under the sand of the seabed.

A sunny day, a lovely sunset

What a lift to the spirits when the sun comes out!  A few snapshots in celebration of a lovely walk on the beach, wrapped up with a really colourful winter sunset.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in Aberdovey in 2018

Pictures of the Atlantic 85 in-shore lifeboat in action (photograph of part of a poster on display in the Aberdyfi Boat House).

The RNLI is a vital national emergency service dedicated to saving human life, comparable to the NHS Ambulance service, with the fundamental difference that its boats are manned largely by unpaid volunteers, its shops are manned wholly by unpaid volunteers and it is funded mainly by private donations, legacies and its own fund-raising efforts.  The RNLI was established on 4th March 1824 as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, it was granted a Royal Charter in 1860, its Patron in Queen Elizabeth II and it has over 238 lifeboat stations and 445 lifeboats in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man.   In Aberdovey alone the lifeboat goes out between 20 and 30 times a year, dragged to and from its home in the boat-house on the wharf by a giant, custom-designed caterpillar-tracked tractor.

The RNLI has a long and really fascinating history, and much of that will be explored in later posts, with special reference to the RNLI presence in Aberdovey since 1837, but here I want to start with what the RNLI does in Aberdovey today, how it works and what it means to sailors, people and animals in distress and the community as a whole.

Let’s begin with the guided tour of the facility that was given to me by Dai Williams, Volunteer Shop Manager at the RNLI.   The lifeboat house in Aberdovey has moved around a lot since its establishment in 1837.  However, in 1991 the Yacht Club and the RNLI combined resources to extend the clubhouse and accommodate a new lifeboat on the wharf.  Most recently the wharf buildings were reconfigured in 2016 to allow the RNLI Lifeboat Station to expand, placing its new rescue boat the The Hugh Miles and its tractor under cover, improving the changing facilities for the lifeboat crew and moving the shop into a new location so that it is visible from the road and can benefit from passing footfall.  Funding from private donors was central to the modifications to the premises, and the new RIB was enabled by a donation from The Miles Trust.  The tractor is a massive and impressive beast on caterpillar tracks, a necessary adjunct to the boat due to the difficult recovery conditions at low tide.

The Hugh Miles, operating number B-896, is a fast inshore rescue craft, an Atlantic 85 rigid inflatable boat (RIB), replacing the previous Atlantic 75, Sandwell Lifeline.  The RNLI has two main categories of lifeboat: all-weather lifeboats and inshore lifeboats, each of which are suited to different conditions.  For the full range of lifeboat types employed by the RNLI see their “Our Lifeboat Fleet” web pageThe Hugh Miles is a specialized inshore lifeboat, one of the fastest in the RNLI fleet, powered by two Yamaha 4-stroke outboard 115hp engines, reaching top speeds of 35 knots.  It can go to sea in a force 7 wind during daylight hours and during a force 6 at night.  It cost £214,000 and, at nearly a meter longer than its predecessor, has the capacity for an extra crew member, bringing the total to four, although it can operate with three, and far more kit.  It is stored in a carriage, a cage on wheels, from which it is launched.  The RIB has a solid bottom and flexible sides, which makes it both strong and relatively light-weight.  The concept was originally developed in the Atlantic College, Vale of Glamorgan, south Wales during the 1960s and early 1970s.  Watersports were a big part of the boarding school agenda, and the college had its own in-shore lifeboat station.  They soon realized that the inflatable boat they were using could be improved upon and used marine plywood and rubber tube to create the templates on which the modern RIB is based.  The RNLI recognized the idea and created a glass-reinforced fibre model, which was a B-Class Atlantic 21 that came into service in 1972, its name commemorating the role of the college for this and future B-type RIBs.

Flicking through the Record of Service book in the life boat house there were a hair-raising number of minor and major incidences where the lifeboat was called out.  These involved yachts and other sailing vessels, power boats including a fishing boat, canoes, inflatable dinghies, kite boards, sail boards, jet skis, an inflatable toy, and swimmers in trouble.  Here are three examples of call-outs in 2018, all noted on the Aberdyfi Lifeboat’s Facebook page.  In July, the lifeboat was called out to the assistance of swimmers in difficulty at Tywyn.  On arrival, one casualty had been recovered but the second was still missing and the crew began a search, receiving information from the Coastguard that the swimmer had been spotted on the lifeboat’s exact course. The lifeboat proceeded as fast as was safe to the location where the helm manoeuvred the boat skilfully in the surf and shallow water to be able to put a crew member into the surf to recover the casualty with two members of the public who had waded in, recovered the second casualty.  First aid was delivered and a second  crew member from the lifeboat entered the surf with vital kit such as oxygen.  It should be noted that whilst the second casualty survived, the first one died later in hospital, a tragic reminder of the importance of the work of the RNLI.  One night in August at past 9pm, with the light fading and on an outgoing tide, the Aberdyfi Lifeboat was called out to a broken-down yacht.  The lifeboat reached the yacht and the crew were able to  secure a tow, bringing it back into the estuary and placing it on a mooring.  The lifeboat was returned to its station by 11pm.  At 1645 on an evening in September, the Aberdyfi Lifeboat was called out to aid a boat with eight people on board, which was experiencing engine problems and was aground just south of the Aberdyfi Bar.  The Borth lifeboat was already on scene and had managed to tow the vessel into deeper water, and from there they handed the rescued boat over to The Hugh Miles, which took most of the boat’s crew on board and set up a tow to bring them back to the Dyfi estuary.

David Williams, not to be confused with Dai Williams, is the Volunteer Lifeboat Operations Manager (LOM) at the RNLI in Aberdovey, leading the operation team.  He is responsible for authorizing the launch of the lifeboat and ensure that the lifeboats and all associated gear are maintained and in a constant state of readiness for action.  David Williams grew up in Tywyn and also volunteers with Mountain Rescue.  In the event of his absence there are also four Deputy Launching Authorities who can stand in for him.  The in-shore boat crew is headed by the Senior Helm (the equivalent of a coxswain on an the bigger all-weather boats), currently Will Stockford, who is also the Harbour Master and doubles up as boat mechanic.  Next in seniority is the Helm, who must be on board if the Senior Helm is unavailable.  The helm is trained in a variety of skills including navigation, search and rescue and casualty care, has many years experience as a volunteer and is in charge of leading any rescue.  Three other crew members may or may not be trained to steer and navigate the boat but all receive their initial training in Poole in Dorset at the RNLI.  As well as being on call for emergencies, the crew undergo practice drills and training on a weekly basis, usually on a Sunday morning.  The tractor drivers are usually former crew members who have retired.

Dai Williams is the Volunteer Shop Manager, currently with a team of six shop volunteers helping customers in the shop.  The RNLI shop on the wharf not only generates important funds for the charity but raises awareness of the RNLI and its activities, its staff acting as ambassadors for the lifeboat station, explaining its role and answering the many questions from the public.  The new merchandise in the shop is bright, modern and eclectic, offering everything from games and toys to calendars and diaries, as well as souvenir tea towels, mugs and clothing is provided by the RNLI.  Nautical themes dominate, of course, and many are by designer names.  There are also shelves outside selling second hand books, jigsaws and DVDs donated by the public. Having spent some time in the shop over the last month, it has been great to see the range of people who visit and buy products in support of the RNLI.  Small children with their parents, buying nets, shovels and buckets for crabbing are very happy contributors to RNLI funding.  I have been buying RNLI Christmas cards online for years, but it’s much better to be able to go and buy them in person.  And just about everyone is getting an RNLI tea towel in their stockings this year!

As well as the shop there is also an important fund-raising group based locally, the Aberdyfi Lifeboat Guild, which puts on events throughout the year.  Many terrific visitor activities take place, particularly during the course of the summer, which get everyone involved, from crew to visitors, from young to old.  Events have included Flag Day when there was a duck race (500 plastic ducks are launched and then retrieved!), the Abergynolwyn Silver Band played, there was a raft race and an afternoon tea was organized.  Other events have included a quiz night, a Crabby Competition, a barbecue, the Dysynni Male Voice Choir and a Fun Run.  There was even a stand at the Food Festival in August, demonstrating water health and safety procedures and equipment, and the Lifeboat Station has a stall at the Christmas Fair (this year on the 1st December, 10am – 4pm).

Aberdyfi Lifeboat Station and Shop

Donations from the public continue to be critical to the operations of the RNLI.  The donations that enabled the modernization of the Aberdovey RNLI base says a lot about the sort of people who help the RNLI not merely to continue operating, but to continue updating their technology and improving their services.  The Miles Trust, which funded the new boat, was set up in memory of Hugh Miles.  Hugh Miles, the only child of the late Herbert and took great pleasure in RNLI activities around South Wales and after his death his mother bequeathed her estate to the RNLI, part of which was to be used to fund a rescue boat for the Welsh coast.  The Aberdovey’s The Hugh Miles Atlantic 85 RIB is that boat.   The modification for the boathouse was funded by the Derek and Jean Dodd Trust and a legacy left to the charity by RNLI supporter Desmond Nall. Derek and Jean Dodd moved near Aberdovey, where Derek was able to kayak into his 80s.  Desmond Nall was an RNLI enthusiast from Solihull, who, together with his brother, Godfrey volunteered  on the RNLI’s stand at the Birmingham Boat Show for a number of years and funded two inshore lifeboats.

The Aberdyfi lifeboat station has a rather special and unique feature:  the bell from the HMS Dovey.  It is on loan from the Royal Navy.  Should another HMS Dovey be built, the bell will have to be returned, but at the moment it is a much loved and admired resident of the lifeboat station.  The HMS Dovey was the river class minesweeper M2005 commissioned in 1984 and sold to Bangladesh in 1994 for use as a patrol ship.

If you are a visitor to Aberdovey, do visit the lifeboat station and the shop.  You will find a very warm welcome.

Contact details:
Aberdovey Lifeboat Station
The Wharf
Aberdyfi
LL35 0EB
01654 767695 (If you see someone in trouble at sea dial 999 and ask for the Coast Guard).
The shop is open from Easter to October 10am–4pm Saturday and Sunday, and on some Saturdays in November and December.  During the summer it is open for some days during the week (opening times are shown in the shop door)
Facebook page

As well as the RNLI, local emergency services that receive no direct government funding and rely on their charity status and fundraising activities for their income are Trinity House (vital shipping and seafaring charity), the Wales Air Ambulance service and Aberdyfi Search and Rescue.

Many thanks to Dai Williams for correcting the mistakes and plugging the gaps in my first draft.  Helen Williams tells me that no matter how much you find out about the lifeboat station, there is always more to know and I believe her!

References

Aberdyfi Lifeboat Facebook page
https://bit.ly/2OXFbqx

Dermody, D. 2011.  Atlantic College students’ RIB sea safety revolution. BBC 15/05/17. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-east-wales-13377377

RNLI News Release 2016. Farewell to Sandwell Lifeline as Aberdyfi RNLI welcomes new lifeboat. RNLI 02/12/16. https://rnli.org/news-and-media/2016/december/02/farewell-to-sandwell-lifeline-as-aberdyfi-rnli-welcomes-new-lifeboat

RNLI News Release 2017. Double celebration ahead for Aberdyfi RNLI. RNLI 25/07/17.
https://rnli.org/news-and-media/2017/september/25/double-celebration-ahead-for-aberdyfi-rnli

RNLI News Release 2018. Aberdyfi and Barmouth RNLI Lifeboats involved in Tywyn rescue. RNLI 1/08/18. https://rnli.org/news-and-media/2018/august/01/aberdyfi-and-barmouth-rnli-lifeboats-involved-in-tywyn-rescue

Mid afternoon over the Dyfi estuary towards Ceredigion in early winter

I took these yesterday afternoon (12th November), but have only just got around to taking them off the camera.  Nothing special, just snapshots of remarkable light as the sun begins to go down – slowly, over a two hour period, and so early at this time of year.

 

 

A proper seaside walk – the beach, the sea, the waves, sun and even a sandcastle

Sunshine, sand, sea and almost no-one on the beach but me.  Idyllic.  When I woke up this morning it was cold and grey, but by noon the day had clearly decided to fall in line with the weather forecast and blossomed into a glorious autumn afternoon.  I had stuff I needed to do but I was done by 2pm and drove to the lay-by on the road to Tywyn, opposite the line of houses on the other side of the Trefeddian Hotel.   A path crosses the golf course, wends its way through the dunes and drops you by the Second World War pillbox.  From there Tywyn is clearly visible in the distance.  The tide was out, just on the turn, so it took a couple of minutes to reach the water’s edge, although the roar from the waves had been clearly audible from the road.

The beach was spectacular, the damp sand reflecting blue sky and white clouds, with deep dips holding pools of water like liquid silver and white-topped blue waves thundering as crests broke, chaotic shapes forming and reforming.   The main strandline was up by the dunes, clumps of dark weed, but there were long strands of weed shimmering in the sunshine, some floating in pools some strewn along the sand.  I took a few photos and a couple of videos as I walked towards Tywyn, got wet feet, and generally had a great time.  It really was a spectacular afternoon.  A lady on the checkout at the Co-op in Tywyn, who also moved here from London, told me that the novelty lasted six months with her, but I really don’t see it ever wearing off for me.  Mind, I haven’t survived an Aberdovey winter yet.

Crossing the sand dunes.  Close to the beach they are stablized by marram grass.

The first and last photos are burnet roses, small and delicate, that are usually found in sand dunes. The pink petals belong to a blackberry bramble and the blue berries are blackthorn, also common in sand dunes.

Lovely shapes and light on the wet sand

Ecofacts. The shells are a limpit with a beautiful yellow shell, an elegant variegated scallop, a saddle oyster and a purple-black common muscle. An articulated crab claw has become detached from its owner. This was the first cuttlefish bone that I have found on the Aberdovey beach, beautifully laminated. Within the calcium-rich shell there are chambers that that fill with gas or water allowing the cuttlefish to rise or sink.

Here are two of the videos.  I am still trying to get the hang of this whole video thing.  The autofocus on the little camera that I use for video was having trouble today, unsurprisingly, and it was having trouble with the shifting light too.  And of course, it was absolutely not all the camera’s fault that these are anything but perfect.  This was my first time trying to video the sea, and the learning curve shows rather acutely!  Huge fun though, and I’ll get there eventually.

The lay-by to park for this stroll on the beach is at The Crossing, just where the A493 goes around a slow but definitive bend. It is opposite a very fine terrace of tall houses. The footpath is a track on the left of the lay-by and takes you over two stiles across the railway. You then cross the golf course to walk along the path through the dunes and down on to the beach by the Second World War pillbox, marked on the above map with a red rectangle.

 

Low Tide at 1356 on Saturday 6th October 2018

Low tide yesterday was at 1344 and this shows it just a few minutes afterwards at 1356.  At that time it was only at 1.55m above chart datum (data from tidetables.org.uk) and was one of the lowest tides that I have noticed since I arrived.  The kayaks really put it into perspective, showing how narrow the channel had become.

 

For comparison, the following high tide was at 1902, at 4.60m.  It was getting dark by 1902 so this photo was taken at 1711, as the tide was coming in, at c.3.80m.