From Festipedia, hosted by the FR Heritage Group

In pre-railway times, and therefore before any harbour existed at Portmadoc, slates were carried from the three main Ffestiniog quarries (Diphwys, Bowydd and Rhiwbryfdir) for two miles in panniers on the backs of ponies or mules to Congl y Wal (mid-way between Duffws and Ffestiniog village) and then on carts hired out by local farmers, through Ffestiniog and down 700 feet over rough and muddy roads to small quays on the Traeth Bach along the shores of the of the Afon Dwyryd below Maentwrog. "Philistines" was the name given to the boatmen who came from Llanfiangel y Traethau or Llandecwyn, and who transported slate from these quays to the exposed anchorage of Ynyscyngar for a third trans-shipment to sea going vessels bound for Liverpool.

These were strong men selected for heavy work and they loaded and sailed away their small vessels which could hold about 6 tonnes of slate. They were called Philistines because of their appearance (giants like Goliath?) and they were clothed like game keepers except that they wore tall felt hats.[1] Each boat had two men on board and it was not unusual for up to six to leave the Dwyryd quays together on the high tide. Their destination eight miles away was the anchorage at Ynys Cyngar where their slates could be transhipped into coasting vessels. Later their destination became Porthmadog. Many of the Philistines owned their own boats.[2] These were probably quite flat bottomed boats to cope with the shallow waters of the Dwyryd and to lie upright on the bottom next to the quays as the tide went down. They were not suitable for taking out beyond the bar to other places. Judging from plate 1 in Hughes they were single masted and fore and aft rigged. (This plate is interesting for other aspects such as the views of Plas Tan y Bwlch and Dduallt Manor, both very old houses, and the lowest bridge across the Afon Dwyryd at Dol-y-Moch.)

It is probably a mistake to think of the Philistines always sailing their boats for Hughes tells us that "when the tidal waters of Tremadoc Bay flushed along the banks of the Dwyryd, the barges floated and were rowed by the "Glaslyn Boatmen" to yet another home-made quay at Portmadoc". [3]

The Philistines' activity was a natural training ground for sailors who could man larger ships going further afield. Hughes writes:[4]

"Although accustomed to the life of the valley's fertile fields and cattle, the attractive rates transportation of slates could demand whetted their appetites. It stirred in their hearts a desire to follow the slates on longer journeys across the sea, The little boats changed hands, ships were bought and sailor men were made; new Philistines were born and so the process continued."

Hughes tells us that even when the new railway was built the little boats continued to fight it tooth and nail until they ceased to operate in about 1860. With that the Philistines were no more.

Any modern yacht skipper knows some of the thoughts that must have gone through the minds of the Philistines as they contemplated their next passage from the Dwyryd to the Traeth Mawr. It was clearly desirable to leave with the tide still rising so that if the boat goes aground the rising water will help float it off. On the other hand if the tide is near high then the depth of water in the narrow and shallow parts of the river will be greatest. The calculus varies slightly from neaps to spring tides. Then there was the wind speed and direction to take account of and the points of sail the vessel will have to make while in different parts of the channel. The Philistines through their constant traversing of this one journey and back knew how the wind and tide would affect the waves at each point of the trip. They probably took account of the current winds and tidal conditions when deciding how heavily they could load their craft with slate without taking unacceptable risks.

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  1. ^ Hughes Henry (1969) Immortal Sails, T Stepenson & Sons Ltd, Prescot, Lancs. p 24
  2. ^ Hughes Henry (1969) Immortal Sails, T Stepenson & Sons Ltd, Prescot, Lancs. p 25.
  3. ^ Hughes Henry (1975) Through Mighty Seas, 2nd ed., T Stepenson & Sons Ltd, Prescot, Lancs. p vi.
  4. ^ Hughes Henry (1969) Immortal Sails, T Stepenson & Sons Ltd, Prescot, Lancs. p 25.