Shipwrecks of the Welsh Coast

March 28th, 2019

Wales’ heritage is tightly bound in a tapestry of maritime history, and the waters along the beautiful coast are rich with legends of wrecks, high drama at sea, long forgotten folklore and heart warming tales of rescue.

The black seas pound against the boat’s wooden hulls, while herculean winds snap sharply through vast sails. The storm is ferocious, and the captain begins to doubt the strength of his ship to guide them through tempestuous seas.

The mountainous metal anchor is no match for the pull of the ocean, and the hapless vessel is dragged impulsively onto coastal rocks and into shallow bays where the pitiful ship is left to meet its fate. Crew and passengers battle against the untamed seas, and pray that help is on its way.

The shipwreck has been a common scene along the coasts of Wales as long as boats have been sailed here. For the communities scattered along the shores, livelihoods were dependant on the rich waters, and by the end of the eighteenth century, trade had moved from small fishing boats to enormous schooners and riggers ferrying cargo and passengers all over the world.

On a winter’s walk on a wild and windy day, when the breakers clatter against the sand and the rough white crests of high waves stretch endlessly out to moody clouds on the horizon, it’s easy to imagine the dramas, disasters and daring rescues that once were played out along the coasts and beaches of the untamed coastline; and to picture the broken ships, changed lives and legends that are scattered across them.

Rough Diamond

The Diamond was a powerful American ship, built and owned by shipping magnate Henry Macy. With three towering masts, being 120ft in length and weighing a staggering 500 tonnes, she was perfect for the speedy trans-Atlantic crossings for which she became renowned.

She was on the very last leg of her journey having left New York twenty days previously, and was making her way north through the waters of Cardigan Bay on the 2nd January 1825. Little did the passengers know that the fate of the Diamond rested with a notorious reef that lay hidden and dangerous under the choppy waters.

The ship was just a mile from shore when it struck the Sarn Padrig (St Patrick’s) causeway – a shingle and stony reef that reaches out for 15 miles from the edge of Shell Island. The mighty ship instantly relented to the blow, and began to sink immediately. Help soon came from Barmouth lifeboat station. Reports from the period are vague, but it is believed that many of the crew and passengers were saved.

The tale of the Diamond doesn’t end there. Ten years ago two local wreck divers thought they had found the wreck remains, and the site was later designated a wreck site by historical preservation body CADW. However, it later transpired that the ruins were not that of the Diamond, and so the mysterious whereabouts of the stricken ship are yet to be discovered.

The legacy of the Diamond lives on today, with a strange twist to the tale. The ship was carrying a large cargo of apples, and following the wreck hundreds of barrels of apples washed up along the shores of Cardigan Bay, which were soon eagerly collected by locals.

A resourceful farmer planted the pips in the hills above the shore, and grew whole orchards from the seeds of Diamond apples. The large trees bearing bright red shiny fruits were gradually lost, but in 2006 one lone tree was discovered by horticulturist Ian Sturrock in the garden of a house about to be demolished. This special fruit tree breed was saved from the brink of extinction, and the Diamond Apple is now a distinctive Welsh apple variety.

Nautical Nefyn

The little town of Nefyn is now a peaceful seaside town and popular tourist destination famed for fine beaches, beautiful sea views and stunning cliff top walks. Walking through the town today, it’s difficult to imagine that the quaint streets and quiet shore were once dominated by the cacophonous noises of a busy shipping industry, to which the town owes much of its growth and wealth. Firstly an important fishing port, and then a renowned shipbuilding town; Nefyn is ideally located to serve the seas by which it sits.

The waters along the northern coast of the Llyn Peninsula were an important shipping route. Enormous vessels sailed gracefully along Caernarfon Bay en route to and from Liverpool. The ships and their trade linked Nefyn with the rest of the world, and during the nineteenth century it was said that this little town was home to more master mariners than anywhere else in Britain.

During October 1881 the whole coast of Wales was gripped by a fierce storm and mighty hurricane. The raging wind threatened to swamp any vessel brave enough to cross its path, and the dark sea had whipped itself up to an unimaginable frenzy.

Despite weighing nearly 1,500 tonnes, the Liverpool based Cyprian was no match for the herculean storm. She was bound for the sunnier climes of the Mediterranean when she crossed the bay at Nefyn and ran into difficulties. Sadly, she was soon crashing onto the rocks near Edern; a total wreck.

The young captain (Captain Strachan) was later praised for his brave actions. He gave up his lifejacket to a 12 year old stowaway who came out of hiding when the weather took hold. The stowaway lived to tell his dramatic tale, but sadly the captain drowned along with 18 members of his crew.

Local folklore tells of the scattered cargo and broken parts of the boat that littered the beaches for weeks. The wreck of the sorry skeleton still lies underwater, not far from the shore, and over sixty years later in 1942, the local community at Edern commemorated the events of the stormy night with a simple stone in the village churchyard, which still stands today.