There's more to boating than just boats, explains Jonty Pearce
At this time of year, especially on a rare warm winter fine day, I like to sit in Aurial’s cockpit and let my eye and mind wander over the marina life that constantly goes on all around. When at work, I find comfort in the knowledge that Neyland’s parallel universe continues to keep pace, albeit nearly three hours away.
For Carol and I, Neyland means much more than its marina. Apart from the town, shops and local population, a thriving business community has built up on the site of the terminus and remaining sidings of Brunel’s old ferry link to Ireland before it was abandoned in favour of Fishguard. Indeed, the marina office, cafe, chandlery and restaurant straddle the old track before it winds up the valley to Johnston en-route to Haverfordwest. A popular cycle path now follows the gently sloping route through a nature reserve, giving Carol ample opportunity to wander off to twitch by the ponds fed by the valley’s stream when she tires of my marine maintenance activities.
Wildlife abounds here. The constant mew of soaring buzzard and the splash of mullet amongst the pontoons are everyday background sounds. Dabchicks scuttle between the boats, and otters are a treat. Ducks, geese and LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs) dominate, and the extreme tidal range reveals acres of muddy habitat for wading birds – Little Egret spotting is now old hat, though the rare blue flash of a kingfisher pinpoints our attention.
The tidal range does make the slope of the marina gangways exciting when handling heavy trollies at low tide – but then again, we have seen the slope reversed and the car park full at high springs. It amuses me to reach up and touch the tops of the pontoon piles at high tide, only to look up in wonder when the water level has drained away to leave the same pile caps seemingly up at mast height level. Those sailing in these parts know that the tide and its currents are king.
But once on the pontoons themselves one of the most enjoyable occupations are gossip and people watching. We have made great friends by just stopping to talk to fellow berth holders. Chats lead to drinks, drinks lead to shared meals – and many are the blurry hours we have spent with Norry and Hutch or Janet and Jeremy, to name but a few! Such socialising is particularly welcome after a long day’s maintenance work.
Such get-togethers are also an immense resource of knowledge and advice. The experience of the average marina user is evidenced by the diverse projects under way. Opposite Aurial, the two Robs (father and son) have cheerfully converted a Vertue bilge keeler from a sloop to a yawl – the carbon mizzen having been sourced from young Rob’s boatyard workplace. Early trials suggest great promise. Hutch has upgraded to a Taylor’s diesel heater – Gwennol is now warm as toast. A neighbouring Albin Vega has enviable canvas work – but the owner advertises his marine upholstery business on his foredeck. There’s always people messing about in or on boats.
And thank goodness there are other boaters about – a year or so back, Carol was alerted to a commotion on the pontoon near us. Frank, the nonagenarian liveaboard from a nearby pontoon was in the water, having hit a cleat whilst unwisely cycling along the gangways as he directed brothers Alex and Adam in their new speedboat. It was winter – he was going blue, and the incoming current was trying to push him under the pontoon. With no-one around, he would surely have expired, but his cries for help were heard. It was time for an adrenaline surge of strength to haul him out, half carry him to his yacht, and dry and clothe him again. Mercifully, no harm was done except the loss of his glasses. I’m sure one of the mullet will have used them to read the labels of the three wine bottles that Carol had previously let slip overboard…
But the hub of marina life has to be those who look after us. Under James’ watchful eye and cheerful smile, Den, Louis and their companions are always ready to stop and chat as they roam the marina maintaining and updating the facilities. It gives us all great confidence to know that they watch out and deal with chafed lines, unplugged electrics, and loose covers to name but a few. Their office is conveniently next door to the Brunel Cafe, where Maureen slaves in the tiniest kitchen possible to provide a steady stream of ‘The Works’ breakfasts. Sisters Pauline and Carol marshal a delightful troupe of girls, who nevertheless were over-run on a sunny morning on the 1st of November – it was all hands on deck (or tables) so, as I cleared the outside tables, the Indoor Dragon (also known as the current wife) washed the dishes and dried them with an exhalation in her own unique way. The unseasonable rush was soon over, but you can never predict the weather here.
The final marina accolade has to go to Mrs Helen Haynes who runs the chandlery. I wrote an article on her for YM last year, and she remains the most sprightly, bright, and knowledgeable nonagenarian chandleress in the country – or maybe the world! Long may she continue to surprise us with her hidden stocks of essential nautical nick-knacks and never-ending stories.
And thank-you Neyland, for just being there and keeping me sane.