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

Transadriatica 2019

One of the best sails I’ve had in the Mediterranean or Adriatic: nice breeze that kept the boat flat out much of the way, apart from a couple of hours after the start of the return leg. Only once or twice were we hard pressed, and what’s more the wind magically veered and backed almost on demand, just as we needed it, especially near the course turning point in the Gulf of Trieste. Even as the wind dropped approaching Venice, it was enough to keep us moving at 5 knots.

Spiuma, seen from another competitor as we neared the finish at the entrance to the Venice lagoon

From the start at 20.30 off Venice on Thursday evening, we arrived in Novigrad, Croatia, at 11.30 am the next morning, much better than 1500 in last’s year slow race; coming back, we crossed the line under genniker at about 0900 on Sunday morning, whereas last year we arrived under engine in a calm at 1500 and, like us, most of the rest of the fleet had retired hours before on a hot, windless day.

I’m not sure whether we were still the smallest boat in the race. The yacht that came first in our class was a new entrant of about the same length but, as the photo below shows, that’s where the similarity ends: the cabin appears to be a sail locker without accommodation, and it was interesting to watch them trying to decide which of their many hi-tech sails to use for the weather expected. By her own lights, 50-year-old Spiuma nevertheless did very well indeed. The lagoon-friendly electric motor was also hardly used.

Thanks to Martin, the owner and skipper of Spiuma, and his friend Ilir, an excellent helmsman.

New engine calculations

A new engine is a big challenge, not just financially but in the thought process running up to the decision.

Our Volvo is 30 years old and we had it taken out and largely rebuilt 10 years ago. It has been reliable since then but this winter it has been increasingly difficult to start, and the expert verdict was that the valves probably needed regrinding.

There is no space to do this without taking the engine out, and so the bill would be at least £1,500. Experience tells us that whenever you take an engine out and the cylinder head off, other problems turn up, and since the engine is already out (expensive in itself) it then makes sense to put them right.

That was exactly what happened 10 years ago, and the cost escalated so we ended up spending nearly half the fully-installed cost of a new engine. That has in the end proved worthwhile, because it has lasted 10 years.

The fine judgment this time was whether to take that risk again, or put the money towards a brand new engine with a 5 year parts guarantee. The idea of a new engine proved in the end more attractive than a second reconditioning, mainly because of the uncertainty about what else we would find out about the old one, but also because it would be more reassuring at sea.

One other factor is the rule of thumb one often hears that the value of a boat improves by roughly half the cost of a new engine. Evidence for that is hard to come by because there will rarely be a counterfactual (in the shape of an identical old boat for sale with identical equipment and condition but an old engine). But it’s a good way of persuading yourself that the true cost is only half what you are paying out.

The engine itself is only the beginning, of course. I’ve only bought one new engine before, for a previous boat, but this is repeating the same pattern: very broadly, professional labour costs are in the region of 40 per cent of the cost of the engine itself. Then there are the costs of converting the engine to fit, though in this case we chose a Beta Marine engine marinised in Gloucester from a Japanese Kubota truck engine, partly because they are pre-adapted to replace Volvo Pentas at only modest extra cost.

Almost inevitably we needed a new propeller to match the new engine, and a rebuild and partial replacement of an old exhaust system. Then we had to add new parts to connect up the boat’s hot water system and finally a new prop shaft because the old one on close inspection turned out to have some corrosion pitting. The total cost is heading for nearly twice the cost of the engine itself, similar to the outcome for the previous new engine, which also had the additional expense of a rebuild of the engine bed. This time there’s one vital difference: shared ownership, so 50% of the cost each.

Installation is not finished yet, but we hope to launch and test the new engine next week. Fingers crossed!

In place, not yet jnstalled

Hard Brexit and boat VAT – Treasury response

The Treasury has finally decided that if a yacht is in the European Union on Brexit day, it will not be liable for VAT if it is brought back to the UK later.

As reported before, the Commission said recently that British yachts would lose their EU VAT-paid status unless they were in the EU on the day of a hard Brexit.

If they were in the UK they would no longer have the status of union goods and would be liable for VAT on visiting the EU, so the best they could do would be to apply for temporary importation for up to 18 months.

But the UK Treasury stonewalled requests to say the reverse was not true ie that return to the UK after being in the EU on Brexit day could lead to a 20% VAT charge on the value of the boat, leading to anxiety among owners already in the EU. It made us go cool on the idea of going over to France to establish EU VAT-paid status (though only possible if there’s a big hard Brexit delay, because the engine’s still out!)

This is what the Treasury told the RYA:

“HMRC has said that it has made plans to replicate Returned Goods Relief (RGR) into domestic law in the event of a no deal Brexit. RGR allows those resident in the UK to return with their belongings (including pleasure boats) to the UK without paying customs duty or VAT as long as the items have not been changed since their departure and follow the guidance given in Notice 236: Returned Goods Relief.

The UK Government has undertaken that RGR will be available in respect of UK pleasure craft not moored in the UK on EU exit day. They may return to the UK after exit and be subject to Returned Goods Relief as long as the person responsible has evidence that the VAT was paid on the purchase of the boat in either the UK or the EU. The types of proof needed are shown in Notice 8. VAT accounted for in the UK would need to be shown in respect of vessels purchased after the date of EU exit”.

There are still loose ends. Do we have to pretend once back in the UK eg that we haven’t claimed EU-VAT status while we have been away?

Brexit petition.

Yacht owners are a tiny and unimportant issue in the big Brexit scheme of things and I certainly did not sign the petition to Parliament – link below – because of irritations over the treatment of boats and sailors.

Signatures were over a million last time I looked, and still rising so rapidly that the website kept stalling. Persevere! [6 million was the final tally].

Boat in a window

Thanks to Martin Walker for these pictures of the very last example of a large Lake Geneva trading barge, which must surely be much the same type as the one in the stained glass window in London (see this recent post). They have very similar hull shape, the two masts are both well forward, and they both carry lug sails. The one shown on the window at 2 Temple Place does not seem to have a bowsprit, but that’s a detail that can be easily modified.

The stained glass window is called A Swiss Summer Landscape and was from the studios of Clayton and Bell in 1895. It is one of a pair of very large stained glass windows on Swiss themes at 2 Temple Place (formerly Astor House) on the Embankment in London. They are unusual in being close to floor level so every detail can be studied. The barge is just one of those details.

The firm was founded by John Richard Clayton and Alfred Bell in 1855 and was a prolific English producer of the revived and – for decades in the 19th and early 20th centuries – very popular art of stained glass.

2 Temple Place is open occasionally to the public for free exhibitions and for the rest of the time it is available as an up market venue for hire. This is its website. I recommend the current John Ruskin exhibition, which is on until the 22nd April 2019.

Philosopher of sailing

The letter below was published in Cruising magazine this month:

If it does not prompt a few cross letters from traditionalists in the next edition, I’ll be surprised, especially after the recent finish of the Golden Globe round-the-world race using sextants and traditional navigation – just as they did on the first race 50 years ago, which was won by Sir Robin Knox Johnston in Suhaili. It was also the race in which the sad figure of Donald Crowhurst cheated in desperation and then disappeared from his yacht.

A victorious Knox-Johnston 50 years ago

Electronics were banned in the anniversary race, though I did read somewhere that they all had to sneak in a satellite phone just in case.

If the old guard don’t complain about my letter, then things have changed more than I expected….


PS I know I’m more than old enough to be part of the Old Guard, but I think modern electronic navigation is wonderful, and it leaves more time for actually handling the boat.