PAST SAILING - Cardiff Bay Sailing Ships

There has been sailing in Cardiff Bay for many centuries, but commercial exploitation of this port on the Bristol Channel first started in the 1850s. Cardiffs Bute Dock can be seen under construction in 1859.

At that time sailing ships co-existed with steam ships.

The difficulty of manoeuvering a sailing ship in a confined space is obviously dependent on the wind strength and direction and so paddle steam tugs were used to position the vessels for loading.

Cardiff Docks paddle steamers Cardiff Docks entrance

The colour print from a post card shows the type of paddle steamer to be found in the Port of Cardiff as it was then. This drawing would have been taken from the currrent location of the Dr Who exhibition.

The Pierhead building can be seen on the extreme right, the entrance to the docks can be seen clearly which is now filled in, and leads up to the Millenium Centre.

The second colour post card shows the entrance to the docks themselves which extended deep into Cardiff centre. The docks entrance would have been busy, with the paddle steamers manoeurving the coal laden ships out into the Bristol channel and replacing them with empty vessels. All of this work could have to have been timetabled around the tide.

The whole area would have beeen overseen by the Pierhead building which was built in 1897, it was the replacemenet for the headquarters of the Cardiff Railway Company, replacing the original Bute Dock Company offices which were destroyed by fire in 1892.

William Frame was the architect who had previously worked together with William Burges on refurbishing Cardiff Castle and the -fairy story style castle- Castell Coch.

The building would have dominated the entrance to the docks being in a perfect position to monitor movement in and out of the docks.In these offices and rooms, accountants, surveyors and hydrographers would have overseen the most prosperous docks in the world.

In the background can be seen the masts of many sailing ships at anchor in deeper water. In 1864 Cardiff was still quite a small town, and Cardiff was only granted City status in 1905 by Edward VII.

The view right shows St. Marys Street from the top end (Castle), with St Johns church on the left and Butetown in the distance. In the far distance are the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm, and on the right Penarth Head.

At this time Butetown was one of the original 5 towns of Cardiff, the others being Grangetown, Temperance Town, Crockherbtown and Newtown.

View of Docks

View of the docks showing sailing ships being loaded with cargo in 1912. The dock has now been filled in but the railway connections are visible.

The docks were served by a network of railways, with the Great Western Railway in the east and the Taff Vale Railway on its western side.

The extensive railway connections were used to transport the coal mined from the valleys of the Rhondda, the Cynon Valley and Taff.

The coal loaded on these ships would have been shipped all round the world. At this time it would have been transported in a 4 masted barque.

The barque differed from a clipper in that clippers had three masts and were generally slimmer, being designed to be faster and capable of delivering more expensive and hence profitable cargos.

Cardiff Coal Hulks

Clippers had tall masts and plenty of sail, so together with their narrow lines they were exceptionally fast for their time.

At this time clippers were very much in vogue, however, However, this took while, they were soon to be replaced by steamers, this took while. The problem with steamers was that they were not paticularly efficient. On long journeys the steamers used almost as much coal as they carried until their efficiency increased! The advantage of sail was that it was free in fuel terms.

As the clippers were replaced they suffered an ignominious fate in that many were turned into hulks.. their masts were cut off and converted into cranes for loading coal into their holds and the became a shadow of their former glorious days on the high seas.

The Story of the Coal Barque Dundonald.

The barque however, was a 4 masted vessel capable of carrying more cargo. In 1906, on the 9th of July, the four masted barque Dundonald sailed for Callao, Peru with a crew of 28. She battled her way round Cape Horn and arrived on the 6th December and discharged their cargo of coal. She then set sail for Sidney and arrived there on 21st of January. This meant that she had completed a 6000-mile journey in 46 days.

Coal barque Dundonald

The DunDonald then set of for Falmouth with a cargo of grain, heading south to pick up a Westerly breeze and cross the Southern Ocean south of New Zealand. Typically the Southern ocean weather set in with gales and cloudy skies making navigation by use of the stars impossible. 6th March the ship estimated her position to be 40 miles north of a group of islands called the Auckland Islands. At midnight on the 7th they sighted breakers but were unable to alter course due to the weather and their vessel struck the rocks. They were at the base of 200 ft. cliffs and the ship began to break up after the continuous pounding of the waves. Ten men were able to transfer from the top of the masts where they had been attempting to trim the sails. They were able to help some of their compatriots to the top of the cliff using the rigging. One man, Walter Low, slipped back off the top of the cliff and fell back into the sea. He was never seen again.

sailing currah

The roll call revealed that 16 of the 28 crew survived. Of those 16 that survived one of them, the ships mate, later died of a combination of his injuries and the cold and wet conditions. The island that they were wrecked on was the aptly named Disappointment Island.

They wrecked crew were stranded on Disappointment Island (the real name!), this island was 6 miles from Auckland Island.

This is the main Island of the group. Auckland Island was also stocked with food for shipwrecked sailors. The crew made a small boat. The boat was similar to a boat called a curragh. It was made out of tree branches fashioned as a frame, using this unlikely craft, (see a picture of it on the deck of the rescue boat), using this they were able to escape. The boat was made watertight by stretching a canvas over it and incredibly they were able to transfer all the survivors to Auckland Island.

Unfortunately the depot was devoid of food and they had to survive on whatever they could find on the island until seven months later when they were able to leave this cold and inhospitable place.

They were finally rescued by another ship, the Hinemoa, and taken to New Zealand where they arrived in October 1907.

Tramp Steamers

At the beginning of the 20th century tramp steamers took over from sail, at and at their height there were about 250 of them. They dominated the Port of Cardiff and brought a very different feeling to Cardiff. The expensive and lavish buildings of the coal era remain though with the world wide decline for the demands of coal meant Cardiff had to adapt to change.

Tramp steamers

Cardiff Extreme 40


Currently the Extreme 40s are in a sequence of visiting Cardiff Bay. This is a fast and dramatic form of catamaran racing. Last years event ran from August 31st to September 2nd in the Harbour festival. It involved the UK leg of the worlds most exciting inshore racing series. Team Wales was represented by Olympic silver medallist Hannah Mills and Windsurfing silver winner Nick Dempsey. The event was free and will be repeated in annually. It is particularly dramatic as it is held close to the waterfront. The event this year is described as Act 6 - Cardiff, UK 23rd - 26th August in the series. Try not to miss it!

Cardiff Extreme 40 sailing


The 13th edition of the Volvo Ocean Race will be visit Cardiff in 2017-18. The world's most important round-the-world sailing race will visit South Wales for the very first time, in fact it was nearly 10 years ago that the event last visited the UK. The Race's Chief Operating Officer Tom Touber revealed the forward-looking agreement during a presentation at the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay. The Volvo Ocean Race, which began life in Portsmouth as the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973, moved from England to Alicante, Spain three years ago in 2010. The last event in the UK was in Portsmouth.


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