A Tragic Year In Nefyn

January 1950

There have been many tragic years in Nefyn’s history with many of its inhabitants perishing at sea. This was especially true during the town’s heyday in the 1800’s as a seafaring port. Just walking through the cemeteries in Nefyn, or reading local history books, provides a stark reminder of the magnitude and frequency of those incidents. Since those early days, the deaths-at-sea of Nefyn inhabitants have been very much less numerous and much less frequent. More recent occurrences have been due to boating accidents - as so sadly happened in 2008. But to the families involved of course, each and every occurrence was just as devastating.

When I was growing up in Nefyn, I recollect 1950 being a particularly tragic year. Three young men from the town lost their lives in two incidents in the Irish Sea. I was only nine years old at the time, but I vividly recollect the sadness and gloom that descended on the whole town. The talk was endlessly about the two incidents. The young men were very popular, and everyone was struggling with how such a thing could happen to the town’s best and brightest.

I am not certain of the precise date of one of the incidents, but a young man by the name of John Charles Evans was found drowned in the dock on Bodeilias Point. He was a pleasant, good-looking and very personable young man, and his death came as an unbelievable shock to everyone in town. The dock is located on the north side of the Point, the first headland along the northeastern coast of Nefyn Bay. The dock was built in the late 1800’s for coastal vessels to load granite from a small quarry located on that headland. John Charles was always fishing in the general area. The official inquest, concluded, if I remember correctly, that he fell off the dockside knocking himself unconscious before slipping into the water. He was a bright-faced, dark haired, happy-go-lucky young man always eager to converse with anyone. Although I was young at the time, I remember John Charles purchasing a small boat named Titch from my father about two years earlier. Both my brother and I had learned how to row in Titch. It was a small eight feet long solid clinker-built boat. It had a wide beam, was very stable in the water, and it was just ideal for one person. I remember John Charles coming along Nefyn beach to pick up the little boat after he had purchased it, and, accompanied by my brother Mike, rowing the boat along the shore towards the pier in Wern where he kept it on a grassy knoll at the base of the cliff. He used the boat to fish in the area, and he was often stopping by our house in 6 Church Street to ask my Dad about netting, crabbing and lobster pots etc. Very sad that such a pleasant young man like him was lost so early in life.

The other incident I believe occurred on New Year’s Day. Two young men, both merchant navy cadets in a naval training school, were home on leave over the Christmas holidays. The name of one of them was Hefin Hughes. He lived in London House, a drapery shop his family owned, was located on Tower Hill that leads from the Square towards St David’s Road. The second young man was Humphrey Davies. His father was a sea captain and the family lived near Telynfa on Well Street. Hefin’s parents had a hut next to ours on the beach, and they owned a large rowing boat. It was a solid boat, and with the addition of a mast and some rigging, it could be converted into a sailboat. The two young men, presumably eager and enthusiastic to test their sailing and navigational skills, decided to use that boat to sail from Nefyn along the Lleyn coast towards Llanddwyn in Angelesey. I am not sure if they informed their parents in advance about their plans. Llanddwyn was located on the southern tip of Angelsey close to the bar entrance to the Menai Straits. There was a lighthouse located on a headland near Llanddwyn. The light from that lighthouse, together with the light from the South Stack lighthouse near Holyhead, provided a dramatic view at night along the Nefyn cliffs in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. The distance to Llanddwyn by sea from Nefyn was approximately 17 miles.

The young men apparently set off early on that fateful Saturday morning with a specific goal of reaching Llanddwyn by nightfall. If they were late for any reason, the lighthouse would be of assistance in guiding them to their destination. There was a light southwesterly wind in the Irish Sea at the time, and notwithstanding the wisdom of undertaking such a trip in the middle of winter, the conditions seemed ideal. Llanddwyn lies northeast of Nefyn, and the boat would be sailing along the coast ahead of the wind. However, a southwesterly wind in Nefyn bay can be very deceiving since it’s an offshore wind and the Porthdinllaen headland provides considerable shelter. On the shore, the conditions can appear relatively calm with the waves not directly visible, but out at sea the conditions can be substantially more difficult. Around noon that day, the weather started to seriously deteriorate. The wind picked up with heavy snow squalls, and more ominously the wind moved to a more southeasterly direction. A strong southeast wind can be very treacherous along that part of the coast since it swirls down from the gaps between the hills and mountains causing very choppy seas. With such poor communications that existed in those days, the lifeboat at Porthdinllaen was not called out until Sunday morning. It scoured the seas along the Lleyn and Angelsey coasts all day Sunday and Monday but to no avail. No trace of the young men was found.

The boat was eventually recovered several days later capsized off Holyhead. No one ever knew exactly what had happened to its occupants. The mast and sail, oars and rowlocks, and whatever personal belongings the young men had with them were all gone. The sail and mast had been deliberately taken down, probably to provide more stability to the boat in rough seas. After the authorities had completed their investigation, Hefin’s father asked my Dad if he would make the arrangements to bring the boat back from Holyhead. The boat was loaded on to Jack Pen-y-Graig’s lorry and driven back to Nefyn. I remember well the boat being lifted off the lorry at the bottom end of Screw Road, and someone commenting sadly if only the boat could tell the story of what exactly had happened out there at sea. The bodies of the two young men were never recovered.

Yes, 1950 in the small town of Nefyn was indeed a very tragic year.

Dr. Brian Owen
Emmaus, PA, USA

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