The Scilly Season is Here!

The Scilly Isles seems to be one of those destinations which sailors frequently pass close by, but rarely find the opportunity to stop and find out more about this miniature archipelago, lying less than 30 miles off Lands End. So it was with little knowledge and plenty of curiosity that an intrepid group of London Corinthians - Frank Jaschinski (Skipper), Catherine Baudinette (Organiser), Rose Littler, Bill Sherlock and Ben Young - drove down to Falmouth on the Thursday evening before Easter. We were on our way to pick up our charter boat, an MG335, for a four day cruise to the Scillies over the long Easter weekend.

Bearing in mind the desirability of arriving in unknown and potentially tricky waters during daylight hours, we slipped at around 2 am, having first provisioned the boat and achieved the not inconsiderable feat of finding somewhere in Falmouth to park the cars safely for the long weekend. The 60 mile passage out to St Mary's was scarcely the high point of the trip, with a south-westerly breeze on the nose and unfavourable tides meaning that motoring was essential if we were going to get here before dark. By mid-morning on Friday our engine had packed up more with a whimper than a bang, which gave Frank and Bill the opportunity to spend 3 hours demonstrating their practical skills in stripping and rebuilding diesel engines. It also gave us all the opportunity to feel pretty ill, drifting in a sloppy sea with the stench of diesel threatening to remind us all too soon of what we had enjoyed for breakfast.

We perked up considerably in the late afternoon when we picked up a visitors buoy in the delightful little harbour of Hugh Town, home to around 3/4 of the total Scillies population of 2000 people.

We were surprised to find we were the only visiting yacht - could it be that nobody else had the idea of cruising the Scillies over Easter? So it seems, as we didn't see another yacht the whole time we were there… Initial brave thoughts of paddling our inflatable 300 yards to the shore into a stiff breeze gave way to more pragmatic

St Mary's Island

ideas of beers and supper on board, as we relaxed and watched the traditional 'gig' racing across the harbour. We discovered gig racing is a Scillies tradition, solid clinker boats which go quite a way out to sea, rowed by six men. Some of the boats are said to be over 100 years old.

Although the Scillies comprise around 55 islands in all, only five are inhabited and apart from St. Mary's there is nothing more than an occasional hamlet We were surprised and delighted by the raw beauty of the islands, for the most part windswept with few trees, granite outcrops and isolated little coves with beautiful white sandy beaches. There is some cultivation around the settlements, mostly small fields with hedges in which the traditional flowers are grown on a smallholding basis. Most of the islands are no more than a mile across and you could sail round them all in a day, but you need to have a good chart and your wits about you.

Looking for a transit

Much of the water is shallow and there are plenty of vicious rocks, as the number of wrecks on the charts quickly reveals. We found our Channel Pilot and Almanac were enough for our purposes, but a special Scillies Pilot would be a good thing for a longer stay or less benign weather.

The next morning brought a visit to Hugh Town to sample the limited delights, and showers all round in a welcoming local hotel (the Harbourmaster's facilities being temporarily out of commission). Later, for some of us a brisk walk up to the top of the town revealed impressive old fortifications and a brief history of the Scillies. Although potentially strategically important owing to their location, the islands have seen no serious military action since the Civil War when Prince Rupert sheltered the royalist fleet here with the support of the locals. This may be some comfort to Prince Charles, who in his guise as Duke of Cornwall still seems to wield a lot of influence around here...

Our second night in the Scillies was spent moored off the only Hotel on St Martins, one of the bigger islands and said to have the most beautiful beaches. The only pub on the island had laid on a jazz evening and this was clearly a major local happening, as boats were arriving with visitors from all over the islands.

Rose, Bill & Frank on St. Martins

It would have been rude to miss this event which had been organised specially in our honour (?) so leaving Ben on anchor watch, the rest braved strong tides to paddle ashore and back. The Scillies are a good place to practise your rowing skills!

The following morning we continued our anticlockwise circuit of the main islands passing close to the vast brooding bulk of the twin Men-a-Vaur rocks, then on to lunch moored in the delightful estuary separating Tresco and Bryher islands. Bryher is said to be home to Britain's rarest flower the dwarf pansy, but we didn't see any! A lively sail in the afternoon round to St Agnes in the south took us through some shallow and challenging waters, a learning experience for some of us that transits are invaluable aids to navigation, but it helps if you know what the transit point actually looks like! We moored in an idyllic bay with an azure blue sea, only for a local boatman to tell us as we were leaving a couple of hours later that we had no right to pick up a buoy there at all and Prince Charles had the right to chop off our heads if we transgressed again (at least, it sounded something like that...). In fact, we weren't too sure at all about the locals on St. Agnes. Whether as a result of inbreeding or just a healthy contempt for 'grockles', the farmer who sold us home made ice cream when we ventured ashore gave us the clear impression he would have been much happier had we stayed on the mainland...

Gig training near Tresco

We left St Agnes that evening for a night sail back to Falmouth, which was at times slow work with a light westerly breeze dead astern and into a strong tide as we struggled to reach the Lizard, with no spinnaker. However as we rounded the corner and headed north for Falmouth we enjoyed an exhilarating sail with the wind on the beam and mid-morning found us having brunch moored in the picturesque Helford River. A fast reach back to Falmouth in a freshening breeze saw us arrive back by mid-afternoon, ready to brave the delights of a seven hour crawl back to London with all the rest of the holiday traffic.

So, to sum up what are plus and minus points of cruising to the Scillies? On the plus side, it is a beautiful destination, very different from anywhere else within reach of southern England, with glorious views, wildlife, history, solitude, idyllic beaches, a warm climate and excellent scope for honing navigation skills. And the minus points? It is actually hard to think of any at all...

Catherine Baudinette

Copyright © London Corinthian Sailing Club, 8 Sep 2006