Studies in blue

We had an opportunity to study blue in all its forms and shades on the way back from the Scillies to Cowes.

Apart from a nice breeze round the Lizard, and a few interludes when the wind lazily stirred itself into action for an hour or two, it was motor-sailing most of the way on a flat and sometimes glassy sea.

In a perverse way I find this a great pleasure, though we might as well be in a motorboat. Hours of staring at brilliant blues above and below, with the occasional seabird or dolphin to intrude, induces an almost trance like state of calm mind on a calm sea, where time passes quickly and it takes an effort of will to do routine watchkeeping tasks.

Off watch down below, the thrum of an engine on low revs, the swish of water along the sides of the boat and the gentle rocking are just what’s needed for a good doze.

A glance out the window

From St Agnes we sailed in our only decent breeze to Penzance, arriving at 2pm a few minutes before the harbour gates were due to close after high tide. We passed close to St Michael’s Mount on one of our tacks.

St Michael’s Mount

No marina, but a berth rafted up to a beautiful old gaffer along the harbour wall and a rickety steel ladder to climb. Next along the wall was an engineless 100 year old Looe lugger, which has sailed to Brazil, Cape Town and the West Indies, its only auxiliary power a pair of sweeps.

The famous Looe lugger, front, and behind a raft of three boats, Spring Fever in the middle
The town seen across the harbour

Penzance is an interesting town, with winding old streets and some decent looking restaurants – we dined in a nice Polish cafe.

A trawler comes in

The boat was in a real, if run down, harbour. Outside the gate, the Scillonian berthed, and inside was an assortment of old craft, some yachts, trawlers – most of which are in neighbouring Newlyn – and the Scilly Islands cargo ship. We spent two nights there, the second dining well on board on fish bought at Newlyn, a 20 minute walk away.

Next, we mainly motor sailed round the Lizard to anchor with one other yacht close to St Anthony’s Head lighthouse opposite Falmouth – St Mawes, our original destination, was packed with anchored yachts.

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St Anthony’s after moonrise, from our anchorage

From there we went back to Dartmouth for the next night, refuelled with diesel, and headed out early across a limpid, glass-like Lyme Bay to pass south of the Portland Race and then well out from St Albans Head, clear of the army firing range. The coastguard announced in one of their regular brosdcasts that there would be firing that evening. We could hear the booms.

Our destination was Studland Bay, near Poole, where we anchored as dark was falling.

Tired and ready for a rest we noticed that there was a half moon and thought we were going slightly crazy – we were almost at spring tides so the moon should be full or new. Half moons were for neaps. Or were we just misreading the tide tables?

The penny dropped with a WhatsApp message from Chris asking whether we were getting a good view of the partial eclipse! No wonder the ancients were anxious about eclipses and saw them as portents: until prompted to remember, we were quite rattled by it.

Next morning, on a sea with barely a ripple, we motor-sailed to Cowes, catching the flood tide up through the Needles and arriving just in time to see a fleet of beautiful classic yachts racing. Last but biggest in the fleet was a restored Sceptre, a 1950s America’s Cup contestant which Chris and I last saw many years ago ashore at Glasson Dock in Lancashire, in a near derelict state. Years of restoration don’t seem to have helped her go any faster.

Third time to the Scillies, and it was definitely the best cruise yet round the islands themselves, thanks to a long period of settled weather. We logged just short of 500 nautical miles there and back, and the new engine was a treat: smell and smoke free, more powerful and thus easier to manoeuvre, and far better fuel economy.

Is your chart relying on an 1860 survey?

Footnote to cruising the Scillies: piloting there is a reminder of the importance of proper Admiralty charts, because they show the age of the surveys on which they are based, unlike any of the proprietary ‘vector’ charts available on chartplotters.

The Scillies is a mixed area from this point of view. Some of the surveys of the area were last done in 1860 – 1904 by lead line, probably from boats carried on naval survey ships and rowed up and down in straight lines quite a long way apart, so rocks could easily be missed. Other parts of the islands were surveyed at a range of different dates in the 20th century.

The little diagram showing which area of the Scillies was surveyed when is very instructive, and is a warning that in certain places extra care is needed. Interestingly, one small but vital area, the ferry route in and out of Hugh Town, was surveyed in 2012-14, by the Duchy of Cornwall, the landowners. At least we should be able to rely on that route.

This does not mean you have to stick with paper. We would have spent at least £5,000 in recent years if we had bought all paper charts for our cruises. UKHO (in other words Admiralty) charts for the whole of the UK and Ireland, complete with all the supplementary information, can be bought as a single package for very reasonable prices online from the Cowes firm visitmyharbour.com, and combined with the excellent Marine Navigator chartplotting app they make a fine tablet chartplotter as backup to the main system. What you are looking at then is a computer image of an official UKHO chart (technically, a raster rather than a vector electronic chart). In fact, the UKHO charts are now printed from electronic files anyway, so it is exactly the same image.

The popular yacht chart systems such as Navionics, Garmin and C-Map, leave out vital information such as survey age. They are not images of official charts but combine the data in their own proprietary way. They also contain potential traps because they are organised in layers, and as you click from one to another you get more or less detail. If you are on the wrong level you may miss something important. To have the UKHO charts as backup on a tablet is reassuring.

Furthermore, we have seen a number of examples over the years where Navionics has missed out features altogether or got information wrong. There was one example in Tean Sound, where Navionics showed one power cable crossing the sound under water. The UKHO chart, and to its credit C-Map, showed all four.

Round the islands

Below is the UKHO large scale chart of the Scillies, with green showing where the bottom is exposed at low spring tides. With careful tide calculations it is straightforward moving between the islands, though you have to be mindful of dangerous rocks scattered around the flats.

The old pilot books for the Scillies, one of which we have, give many complicated bearing lines for finding your way around using pairs of landmarks, which are still very useful to know.

A chartplotter helps nowadays, up to a point. Our main plotter uses C-Map, which has proved extremely accurate in two cruises around England, Ireland and Scotland, so we have confidence in it (much less so in our backup Navionics). But as a rule of thumb, we don’t rely on it when the accuracy required – eg between two reefs – is better than plus or minus a hundred meters or so, just in case the underlying charts are wrong, a rock has been missed on them or there are problems with satellite signals.

In the Scillies, we used a combination of plotter, compass bearings and leading lines and especially good old fashioned eyeballing, to move around; wherever there were doubts about the position of rocks, someone went up to the bow and kept watch, because the water is clear and shallow, and rocks show themselves through changes in colour and disturbances in the tide.

Regular visitors find and use all sorts of obscure anchorages around the Scillies, but it takes time to learn them and we were pleased enough to visit six good ones after we left the main harbour at Hugh Town, and stay overnight in four of them. Caution and inexperience of the islands dictated that we moved around about two hours before high tide to just after high tide, not wanting to risk getting stuck on a falling tide, though it was neaps so the range was small and the currents relatively slow.

We arrived from Plymouth from the east, entering by St Mary’s Sound and then round to the north-west side of the island, the biggest, where the main harbour, Hugh Town, is found. We found a vacant visitor’s buoy in St Mary’s Pool.

The drying part of Hugh Town harbour. The deepwater moorings are further out, in the Pool.
The Scillonian, the ferry from Penzance

From Hugh Town, we found our way across Tresco Flats to New Grimsby Harbour for a night, a much less intimidating route than it looks on the chart, with two helpful beacons marking the most dangerous obstacles. Then ashore to spend time walking around the island.

The next day we went through New Grimsby Sound, then round the north end of Tresco into Old Grimsby Sound and its Harbour, and we spent more time walking, eating and shopping for supplies ashore in the well-stocked Coop.

The blue view south from our Old Grimsby mooring
St Helen’s Pool

After a night on a buoy, we moved south-east, past Peashopper Island, and turned east through a gap and north-west around the reefs to St Helen’s Pool, a relatively safe and deep water anchorage south of the island of the same name. Sailing ships used to shelter here from storms.

Deciding not to stop there, we went through St Helen’s Gap and past the north side of Tean island and down into Tean Sound, between Tean and St Martin’s, where we anchored for the night in a strong current. By luck, we found a sandy patch, though the pilot book warns that there are a lot of rocks and holding can be bad. We used our largest scale charts and signs on the shore to keep away from the multiple power cables that cross there.

Tean Sound, Spring Fever third boat from left

The next day we retraced our movements to St Helen’s Pool, but decided not to anchor for lunch and instead motored south across the flats towards St Mary’s. We tried to use the line across the flats (Man-a-Vaur island lined up with the St Helen’s landing cairn, as in the chart) but could not see the cairn even with binoculars. We relied instead in a good look out and the chartplotter.

We then turned west to St Agnes, crossing the shallow Crow Bar – since it was high tide – and went through St Mary’s Road to St Agnes, where we initially went to the north-facing anchorage, Porth Conger, because south-west winds were forecast.

Looking out for rocks

However, we found an Atlantic swell, originating probably a long way away, was refracting round the north of the island into the mouth of the bay, so we motored round the island of Gugh – connected to St Agnes by a sandbar that dries at low tide – where we found a good anchorage for the night in The Cove, which is between the two islands. We went ashore for a walk and dinner in the Old Turks Head.

Do not, by the way, ever try landing your dinghy on the sandy beach by the Boat House beacon, though it looks nearer – you’ll never get off it at low tide because by then it is then just a mess of big boulders. Always go up to the sand bar in your dinghy.

Porth Conger, the north anchorage at St Helen’s, the swell gone by the time this photo was taken
The Cove, the south anchorage at St Agnes, just before we left next morning, Gugh island on the right and the sandbar linking it to St Agnes just visible
The Old Turks Head
The Cove at night in the rain

That was the only cold, damp evening we experienced in the Scillies. St Agnes, the smallest inhabited island, is very pretty but did not look its best. At least the sun came back the next morning before we left for Penzance.

Three times lucky

The Scillies are beautiful, but they take much effort to visit, even by public transport, because the air and sea links are from Penzance, right at the far end of Cornwall.

I’ve tried to sail to the Scillies half a dozen times, but only managed to arrive after three of those attempts because of bad weather, which makes the islands a rather precarious place to be: there is no all-weather shelter, and it is an area prone to gales and huge swells. Once, the weather forecast was so bad we gave up trying to go west by the time we got to Dartmouth. (I’ve also passed close by the Scillies quite a few times on races without attempting to go there).

This time everything was in our favour, with beautiful settled weather for several weeks, good enough to spend the best part of a week pottering around various anchorages in the islands before we headed home.

We set off on the day of the Round the Island Race, a spectacular sight, with 1,500 yachts marshalled in a succession of morning starts over a line out from the Royal Yacht Squadron building. We waited till near the last two starts so as not to get caught up in the fleet, and then motor sailed on the north side of the Solent, leaving the fleets to battle it out on the south side.

Tail end of the Round the Island fleet in the distance

On the way we called at Weymouth, with its delightful harbour and beach, though sadly it all remains a bit rundown. (The local paper reported while we were there that it was the least socially mobile town in the UK.)

We rounded the end of Portland Bill inside the ferocious tide race, and made several long tacks across Lyme Bay in a pleasant Force 3 to 4 wind, thoughat times it was hard work, because at Spring Fever’s 6 knots the aparent wind over the deck was up to Force 5.

Dartmouth, our destination, is always a delight after the steep-sided estuary entrance opens to view in the cliffs.

Castle guarding Dartmouth entrance
Paddle steamer passing in front of the town

After a night on a pontoon – not one conected to the shore – we motored up the River Dart to Dittisham, where we found the Anchorstone Cafe, a lunchtime fish restaurant with splendid food at reasonable prices, then walked up the hill behind the village.

Above Dittisham
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Spring Fever moored at Dittisham
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Peter F and Tony on the way up river
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Leaving Dartmouth

After a night at Dittisham, we left Dartmouth for Salcombe, another beautiful harbour, with a spectacular entrance, waiting at anchor just outside at Starehole Bay for the tide to rise over the bar, carefully avoiding the underwater remains of the Herzogin Cecile, a four-masted sailing ship which went ashore there in 1936.

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Salcombe at night
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Starehole Bay

We briefly visited Newton Ferrers, tucked away up a creek so it is almost invisible until you round up to enter it, before spending three nights in Plymouth, where Peter F left the crew to head for the Cricket World Cup. We had dinner with Tony’s Plymouth friends.

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Plymouth’s Barbican, the old wall of Sutton Harbour in the foreground.

Plymouth is where Peter R’s father lived as a boy, and he used to tell tales of jumping in to the sea from the wall of Sutton Harbour with his friends on summer days in the 1920s.

Finally we sailed overnight to Hugh Town, St Mary’s, in the Scillies, where we picked up a mooring buoy in the crowded harbour.

Sunset on the way
Hugh Town as we arrived soon after dawn. The main harbour is over the hill on other side of the town

Scillies Vineyard

The island of St Martin’s in the Scillies used to specialise in the growing of spring bulbs and flowers. As the old business has shrunk, a new use has been found for some of the tiny fields with tall hedges that protected the plants from Atlantic storms: England’s remotest vineyard and winery.

The winery

St Martin’s Vineyard was founded in 1996 when the offspring of the owner of the bulb farm came back to the island looking for a challenge. Father, in his 90s now, still grows some bulbs, but half a dozen of his little fields are taken up by vines of a number of varieties including Orion, Reichensteiner, Schonberger and Ziegerrebe (the latter in a polytunnel because it will not fruit properly in the Scillies otherwise).

Viniculturalists will probably know why these varieties thrive in the salty storm winds of the island.Production is small – only 3,600 bottles a year – but they make it all themselves, and sell it entirely within the islands. We tried two wines and bought one, and they were very pleasant to drink, though at prices of £13.50 a bottle and upwards they would not compete on price now with mainland English wines, except as a curious rarity, well worth trying if you are offered a bottle in the Scillies.

As vineyards go, it is in a spectacular location and visitors are welcome.Here is the nearby beach:


St Martins has a delightful pub, a village shop and a small, upmarket and expensive hotel called the Karma Resort, which had staff rushing around with customers’ baggage from a speedboat cum ferry when we looked inside.Below are two other residents of the island:

Tresco story chiselled in stone

New Grimsby Harbour from Cromwell’s Castle, Tresco to the left, Bryher to the right

On an overgrown, narrow footpath through the bracken near Cromwell’s Castle on Tresco in the Isles of Scilly we came across a modest, well-kept memorial to an extraordinary wartime rescue, invisible through the undergrowth until within a few feet. The inscription tells the story:

New Grimsby Sound, where the operation began, is beautiful; it looks like part of a tropical island, with its white sand, brilliant blue sea, and wild flowers on the islands either side, some of them improbably exotic escapees from the Tresco Abbey Gardens, which has a big collection of plants from all round the world.

The beach at New Grimsby, the island of Bryher in the distance.

Tropical, that is, until you dip a toe in the water, which at the moment, in July, is 14 degrees centigrade, so that swimming for most people requires a wetsuit. The Scillies are the furthest into the Atlantic of any part of south west England so as the tide sweeps through it brings in cold water from the continental shelf. Luckily, there are shallows over the sands where the water warms up a little in the sun at low tide.

A row of old estate cottages on Tresco

Tresco is much the prettiest of the islands, enclosing freshwater lakes and a central stretch of rolling green fields, with the Abbey gardens at the south end and wild, rocky vistas at the north. There are two villages, New and Old Grimsby, a pub, a couple of upmarket restaurants and a supermarket. We lunched at the pub one day, and it was friendly and much better than the average pub meal, while dinner another day at the Ruin Cafe was excellent cooking though in close to tasting menu quantities – not quite what a hungry crew might need.

Old Grimsby
Looking east from Tresco

When we first sailed to Tresco and the Scillies nearly 25 years ago the pub was a fraction of the size, and so was the shop, and I don’t recall a restaurant, only a cafe at the gardens. Parts of the island have now become an upmarket holiday cottage development, though a very discreet one. Tresco is owned by one long-established family and their developments have been carefully done and have not spoiled the island’s beauty.

Even so, I have to say I think I prefer being on Bryher, immediately across from Tresco: though not as stunning, you don’t hear so much cocktail party chat and popping corks as you wander past the houses on a summer evening, so it has a more remote and relaxed feel to it.

Anchorage at Old Grimsby at high tide
Spring Fever moored at low tide in Old Grimsby Sound