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PS Waverley, Bristol Channel

More than a year after booking this cruise, I had fair enough weather to go. Not great weather: drizzle and cloud were constant companions and a strong headwind caused all manner of problems.

First of these was the actual boarding at Clevedon Pier, which is more exposed to the swell than most. Then we ran late all the way and the English side of the ship on the outward trip was too blowy for comfortable viewing. Some passengers were also clearly green about the gills.

Even I was a touch queasy until after settling with a fine breakfast for a modest £5.75 (including coffee!) I’ve survived New Zealand’s notorious Foveaux Strait and Poole Harbour, which can be almost as choppy in a small boat. California’s Monterey Bay pelagics too.

I was hoping that 14 hours on the paddle steamer Waverley would be an equivalent pelagic for the West Country. Sadly, the Bristol Channel is rather devoid of seabirds, especially in post-breeding September. The first hour across to Penarth – still in the Severn Estuary – was never going to deliver (unless in gales) and breakfast occupied most of it anyway.

Then I settled in on the Welsh side, due to the aforementioned wind, and basically watched Barry, Aberthaw Power Station and the Glamorgan coast recede. Occasional forays to the Somerset board only disclosed the other Channel power station of Hinkley and the clear white parasols of Butlin’s at Minehead.

A moment of excitement ensued as we drifted closer to Exmoor when a dark long-winged bird sped across our bows. It was too fast and direct-flying to do more than discount shearwater and any auk. Skua was possible but shag or cormorant was more likely.

Periodic breaks to warm up from the birding were spent overlooking the Waverley’s three pistons pounding away and generating heat. The multiple cancellations over the year since booking the trip did mean that I got the steam ship, rather than the Balmoral, and this was a bonus. Oil-fired steam, it must be said, but still worth it for the smell and action. And warmth.

The birding improved as we crossed into Devon, halfway between Porlock and Lynmouth. That’ll be the next post.

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