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
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.
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
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.
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...
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...