r e t u r n t o s c i l l y

[ 23:32 tuesday 10 july 2017 : yacht “ange saint louis”, moored off st mary’s, isles of scilly ]

anna dropped me off at penzance harbour on saturday morning to join arthur and gregoire aboard “ange saint louis”, the twenty-seven foot yacht belonging to arthur’s father in which i’ve sailed with them for the last couple of summers. we picked up provisions in town. at 4pm the huge steel gate of the tidal lock slid into the water, we slipped our mooring and set out from the harbour.

penzance harbour has a lifetime of memories for me. in july 1983 this is where i boarded the ferry to the isles of scilly for the first time with a group of musicians from truro school. dozens of trips followed. then in february 1999 this is where i loaded all my belongings into a container on my way to live in the islands for a year. however saturday was the first time i’ve departed the harbour in a yacht.

over the years i’ve travelled to the isles of scilly by ferry, helicopter, light aircract and even on the freight ship during a heavy storm. but prior to this trip i’d never made the crossing by yacht. two years ago arthur, greg and i set out from salcombe with this intention but the wind was resolutely from the west which would have condemned us to days of motoring or endless tacking. we abandoned the plan and sailed eastward through devon and dorset instead.

on saturday once again the wind was from the west but this time we were not to be thwarted and set out under motor. passing along the jagged granite coastline of south-west cornwall every cove and cliff brought back memories from my childhood. the christmas lights and a brass band in the harbour at mousehole; kynance cove in a gale with huge waves breaking over the quay; summer evenings on the cliffside at the minack open-air theatre; picnics on the beach at porthcurno. after a few hours we passed land’s end and the mainland receded from view.

the twenty-eight mile stretch of sea between land’s end and the isles of scilly is a notoriously turbulent stretch of water. this is where the irish sea, the english channel and the atlantic throw themselves at each other, piling up unstable swells and currents. for us though the water was limpid and benign. throughout our passage we were accompanied by bottlenose dolphins. sometimes there were just one or two, leaping and darting around the boat. sometimes more than a dozen surrounded the yacht and played in our wake. greg sat on the bow and dangled his feet in the water, trying to touch the dolphins as they zipped past. the sea was alive with dolphins, i’ve never seen so many of them. it seemed like a positive augur for our voyage.

we had our first glimpse of the islands around sunset, just a low grey smudge on the horizon. above them clouds were gathering ominously in the sky. half an hour later a fine drizzle began to fall around us and the islands disappeared from view. we plodded on, the engine growling its monotonous note, relying on the GPS chart plotter for our course. around 10pm the plotter told us we were passing the eastern isles but all we could see was grey murk.

by 11pm it was fully dark and i was growing uneasy that we’d seen no sign of the islands’ three lighthouses. according to the plotter we were less than a mile from the penninis head light but peering into the darkness not even a faint glow was discernable. could it be the GPS was deceiving us and we were heading out into the open atlantic? after an anxious hour we saw a light close by which i recognised as one of the hazard marks in the channel between st mary’s and st agnes, to our relief. shortly after midnight we rounded the southern tip of the gugh, pulled into the cove of st agnes and dropped anchor.

when we awoke the next morning the sky was still overcast and drizzly but the mist had lifted. my heart leaped to see the familiar outline of the gugh on one side and st agnes on the other with the ever-shifting sand bar between them. we ate a speedy breakfast then inflated the tender, lowered the motor onto it, climbed aboard and buzzed through the anchored yachts to the sand bar.

it’s been twelve years since my last visit to the scillies. walking around the perimeter of the island with arthur and greg my eyes were alert for every change. a fine new bench at the top of the bar (which i later learned was designed by joffy hicks); reinforcements to the quay at covean; an unexpectedly grand new island hall with a glass frontage overlooking the playing field; a mass of boat parts and clutter around the old lifeboat shed. but nothing dramatic had changed, the island remained fundamentally as i knew it.

as we approached wingletang down the sky was clearing so i led arthur and greg down to the little beach at praskin and proposed a swim. praskin is my favourite beach on the island with coarse white sand running down to the water, jagged granite boulders along the north side and long tendril-like seaweed waving in the current. it’s sheltered in almost all conditions but hardly anyone goes there. i stripped to my bathing trunks and waded in. the water was just as cold as i’d remembered. i plunged in and began to swim, gasping at the glacial temperature. greg and arthur followed. afterwards i jogged back and forth on the beach to warm up.

having introduced arthur and greg to the island and had our ceremonial swim, i was eager to catch up with old friends. my first stop was to westward farm to see mike and christine hicks and their family. twelve years ago there was the old farmhouse and a bungalow built for mike’s parents. now the farm had expanded to five dwellings with new houses built for their sons ross and aidan, each with their respective families, plus a wooden holiday let managed by aidan. meanwhile the economic activity of the farm had changed beyond recognition. when i lived on the island in 1999 the main crop was scented narcissi, which the family had been growing since the start of the twentieth century. twelve years ago mike was starting to experiment with aromatic plants from which he extracted essential oils to make soap. today no narcissi are grown and the farm is a diversified patchwork of different elements. several fields are filled with rows of lavender, geraniums and other aromatics. another houses two hundred chickens. yet another’s planted with different varieties of cider apple from which scrumpy is produced. the latest innovation is a range of small-batch gins using local botanicals. one variety is distilled with wild gorse picked on the island. another uses geranium. everything is thriving.

after saying goodbye to mike and christine my second visit was to johann hicks and his family at tamarisk farm, where i lived during my time on st agnes. johann was one of the main supporters of my project nurturing digital skills in the islands. for most of his life he served as one of st agnes’ two councillors but now he’s retired. like mike and christine, the community on tamarisk farm has also expanded. johann’s two sons ben and joffy have both returned to the island with wives and children. johann took me over to visit joffy who’s converted one of the farm’s barns into a house for his family. here too the farm’s economy has evolved. ben has assembled an armoury of heavy machinery which he employs on construction projects around the island, whilst joffy applies his considerable skills as a joiner and designer.

leaving tamarisk farm i returned to the boat with arthur and greg. a fresh breeze had sprung up so we hoisted sail right away for old grimsby at the opposite end of the archipelago. it was grand to have the wind in our sails and the hull leaping beneath our feet after the long motor from penzance. however the tide was falling and the whole of the northern part of the archipelago has only a couple of feet of water at low tide. we realised were cutting it fine if we were going to reach our destination without running aground. once again relying on the GPS chart plotter we picked our way through the last half mile, trying to avoid the shallowest patches as the water ebbed. greg stood at the bows calling back with growing nervousness as the sandy seabed grew closer and closer. we made it through by the skin of our teeth and anchored for the night.

we spent this afternoon exploring tresco then sailed back to st mary’s and moored off hughtown. supper was fish and chips from a van, eaten sitting on the beach at porthellick. a clever seagull crept up on us and seeing its moment grabbed arthur’s fish from his hands and flew off with it. afterwards we took a taxi up to watermill in the north of the island to visit gaz. he’s been a friend of mine since we played together in a jazz band as teenagers in cornwall. in 1999 i spent several months living in a tent in his garden. now the wooden cabin which was his home is gone, replaced by a pristine two-storey house where he lives with his partner ashley and her children. we spent the next few hours gossiping and catching up. gaz also is representative of the islands’ changing economy, managing a new vineyard which produced its first vintage in 2014.

now we are back on the yacht preparing for the next stage of our voyage. we will wake at 5am, eat a swift breakfast, then set out for the channel islands 125 miles away. this will be a long passage. we are likely to be at sea for thirty-six hours and out of sight of land for most of it. the three of us will hold watches in rotation, each of us taking the helm for two hours then sleeping four hours whilst the other two take their turns. as if this wasn’t enough of an adventure already, a gale is forecast for the morning. winds up to force seven will arrive from the west around 10am and continue for the next fourteen hours before swinging round to the north and abating. the waves will be two to three metres high. i must confess to being a little afraid of the challenges facing us tomorrow, but that is part of why i love sailing.

: c :

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