Fforest yr Esgob

an archaeological  survey of Deserted Rural Settlements.


Carmarthen Bar 

and its shipwrecks


Carmarthenshire Place-name Survey



Carmarthen Bar and its shipwrecks 

wpeA.gif (36779 bytes)Carmarthen Bar lies at the mouth of three rivers that enter the sea on the north coast of the Bristol Channel. The Bar is at the NE side of Carmarthen Bay which extends from Tenby to Worm's Head. The Bay was a dangerous place for any sea-going sailing vessel because it faced the prevailing SW winds. Sailing ships, were unable to sail into the wind out of the Bay and thus became 'embayed' and foundered. Shipping rarely entered the Bay by choice, but quite often accidentally, thinking they were entering St George's Channel or the Bristol Channel. 

The main river entering the bay is the Towy (or Tywi) which was used for navigation since Roman times. Eight miles inland (as the crow flies) lies Carmarthen, founded by the Romans and known as Moridunum. The town was the civitas capital of the Romanised local tribe (the Demetae). In the Norman period Carmarthen once again became important as the centre of royal English government. Throughout its history the river has been a major artery  first for conquest and then commerce. 

The formation of a sand bar of the river's mouth is recorded first in the 16th wpe8.gif (137573 bytes) century. The river became 'sore pestered by sands and shelfs' so that pilots were needed. Numerous attempts were made to improve navigation. In  1819, a comprehensive system of buoyage was established. Navigation of the Bar however  was (and is still) very tricky. The factors controlling this are (1) a large tidal range of about 30 ft at Springs making navigation possible only +/- 2hrs either side of high water; (2) the depth in the ever-shifting channel is rarely deep, and over the sand banks there is breaking water even in calm weather; (3) the extent of the Bar (about 4 miles) means that landmarks cannot be seen in thick weather. (4) Even in good weather landmarks that aid navigation are too far away to allow precision; (5) the south westerly aspect means that not just wind, but the Atlantic westerly swell enters the Bay causing ground swell. 

wpe9.gif (70561 bytes)Today there is no commercial shipping using the navigation, but there are numerous pleasure craft and three boat clubs. At low tide the Bar emerges (as a Captain Armstrong recounted in 1878) to appear 'like an immense desert of barren sands, miles upon miles of which [are]...to be seen with the melancholy momentoes of wrecked ships, their bleached, rotten timbers...just appearing above the sands, marking the spot where perished the unfortunate mariners...' 

Even today, the wrecks of many 19th century ships survive, because they become covered and protected by the sand. Periodically, they emerge phoenix-like from the sand to remind us of the sad loss of life of the unfortunate mariners. 

One of the most dramatic nights on record in 1886 saw literally hundreds of vessels foundering in the Bristol Channel. On one fearsome night the Teviotdale was swept into the Bay with the lost of 18 lives. She still survives today as a significant wreck and a danger to navigation wpeB.gif (46471 bytes) 

To improve safety for mariners, the Carmarthen Bar Navigation Committee was established in 1988 by the local boating fraternity. The Committee lays sea marks and undertakes a programme of annual surveys of the ever-shifting channel. With the introduction of Decca and GPS, navigation is now much more accurate and the waypoints periodically published will hopefully reduce the possibility of future disasters. 

Further reading: 

Robin Craig 'Carmarthenshire Shipping in the late 1840s' The Carmarthenshire Antiquary , xxi 1985 49-57; 'The Brig Priscilla, a Carmarthen Emigrant Ship - a note', The Carmarthenshire Antiquary xx 1984, 93-4. 

Terrence James: 'The logbook of the Brig Priscilla of Carmarthen, April to October 1820' The Carmarthenshire Antiquary xix 1983 43-52; 'Shipping and the River Towy: problems of navigation, The Carmarthenshire Antiq. xxii 1986; 'Where Sea Meets land, the changing Carmarthenshire Coastline' Sir Gar: essays in Carmarthenshire History (ed Heather James) 1991 143-166; 'A Carmarthen Bay Shipwreck', The Carmarthenshire Antiq. xxix 1993, 93-102; 'The loss of the Brigantine Amiable Martha off Laugharne, Sept. 1786', The Carmarthenshire Antiq. xxxi 1995 67-74 

More Shipwrecks  
Navigating the Bar today - Carmarthen Bar Navigation Committee