Atlantic Archipelago: Sailing to the Isles of Scilly
Huge swell rolls in from the Atlantic causing the MS Oldenburg to pitch and roll with each passing monster of a wave. Two colours dominate, deep blue ocean with each wave capped in white and a blue sky holding pure and dazzling cumulus clouds beneath the summer sun. Then, on the horizon, the misty shape of Lundy Island appears, home to incredible wildlife and some of the best rock climbing in England on her golden granite sea cliffs.
During my holiday on Lundy, while staring out over the Atlantic after completing a climb called Watching the Ocean, I wonder how it would feel to sail across the waves to distant offshore islands in a small boat. This dream was created during the last week of August 1999.
Dawn brings a strengthening breeze from the northwest filling the sails and heeling our yacht, powering her westwards across the open ocean. Two shades of grey dominate. A dark sky and even darker sea. Today is so gloomy and humid yet strangely warm during these early hours.
A hollow and strange sound drifts over the waves. Similar, but different from the distant moaning of grey seals. There it is again. A while later but much louder now, it repeats. Gradually something solid appears through the ocean mist. Wolf Rock Lighthouse looks lonely, almost lost out here, alone in the ocean. The foghorn groans once more. I feel satisfied my navigation is accurate with this position fix, but slightly anxious as this sentinel marks Off Land’s End Traffic Separation Scheme’s eastern fringe. This ocean corridor guides large ships in convoys from the Atlantic along the west coast of England and all I can see through the mist is the top half of a lighthouse hovering above the waves.
Lighter winds help us along as Wolf Rock slowly fades astern into the haze. Time slows. Just nothingness. Silence. Two shades of grey. This is life on the ocean; peaceful and simple. Hours pass.
Checking our position fills me with excitement as somewhere in the mist, only a few miles ahead lies our destination. Our goal. The reason for this voyage. The fulfilment of my dream. Nearly 100 miles and over 20 hours of sailing through the night from Plymouth has brought us here to a small archipelago on the very edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The Isles of Scilly.
Anticipation and excitement is building with everyone now on deck scanning the horizon for a glimpse of land. I often think how crazy it is that we yearn to head out to sea in our boats, yet after a short while we long for dry land and all the variety it offers. Maybe land and sea complement one another and finding a balance between the two is the perfect combination.
A coastal breeze tears the mist into ribbons so lightening the tones until colour finally floods into our world. Grey turns to blue above and below our boat. Puffins fly past with sand eels dangling from their red and yellow bills and I can hear waves breaking on a distant shore. Suddenly the mist peels away from the sea and sunlight illuminates the most beautiful of landscapes.
Colourful fishing boats appear, mobbed by gulls while fishermen haul lobster pots aboard. The sea and sky around them full of excited sea birds also busy searching for food. A lighthouse perched on rocks forms a backdrop to this scene and beyond this, dozens of pastel headlands belonging to different islands, all jagged and steep are blocking our passage ahead.
Ocean swell sweeps in pushing breaking waves to the base of sculptured granite cliffs. After hours in our grey, watery world senses re-awaken to this truly breath-taking scene.
We sail slowly around a large headland where fast currents sweep over a reef. This is no place to hurry because thousands of dangerous submerged rocks and drying sand banks surround this collection of offshore islands.
A cardinal buoy with resident cormorants marks the final turn into Porth Cressa where sailing yachts swing gently at anchor in a beautiful narrow inlet protected by headlands. The smell of freshly mown grass drifts out to sea, I can hear people talking and laughing. Lush green fields, windswept trees and stone buildings surround a small beach with families enjoying a day at the seaside.
We have arrived at St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly, nearly 20 years since I looked out over the Atlantic Ocean from Lundy Island. My dream fulfilled, maybe yet just beginning. I am sharing this voyage with Alan, his brothers Stuart and Phil and their cousin Paul. It is Stuart’s 40th birthday and he wanted to go somewhere special.
Foreign! Is this the best word I can find to describe it here? Tropical? Almost Caribbean? I struggle to find simple words to describe the feelings now I have finally arrived. Living on a small yacht after sailing her across the sea from England feels incredible, almost dream-like, so let me take a moment to describe what I found, experienced and felt during my stay.
This archipelago of 140 islands, most of which are populated by sea birds, seals and crabs is very compact and complex. The 5 islands inhabited by people are quiet and peaceful even in the summer months.
Life is simplistic in this natural wonderland. The sailor has two choices for the night. Either drop anchor in a bay or find a mooring buoy because there are no marinas anywhere. The gentle rocking is comforting. I feel close to the sea and nature living in the zone between land and wild open ocean.
You feel the Atlantic Ocean here. You are surrounded by it, influenced by its energy, weather, swell and currents. It controls everything.
By evening we have rested from our voyage and need to go ashore. Our tender is inflated, the small outboard helps shuttle us to the beach 400m from our anchorage. We all pull and push our small rubber dinghy up the beach to where a line of shells and seaweed divide the wet and dry sand. Beach makes way to sand dunes and beyond, a small lane leads into Hugh Town, the capital village of the Isles.
Stone flagged narrow streets squeeze between shops, cafes and houses. Above the harbour, we find the Mermaid Inn, where the setting sun shines through its windows warming the bar with a crimson glow so marking the end of an amazing day. I feel so happy and relaxed here. Returning to our yacht is fun and reminds me of camping trips when kids. We get soaked pushing the tender into the sea, holding it in deeper water while trying to start the outboard with waves pushing us back onshore. Weaving through anchor chains we finally find our yacht and relax on deck watching shooting stars streak across a pitch-black sky full of stars.
By dawn our boats motion changes from gentle rocking to pronounced swaying. The strengthening wind is holding us beam onto the swell which has changed direction from yesterday, now pushing into the bay. No anchorage provides shelter from all wind directions and swell, so you must be prepared to move often at short notice.
This is Scilly sailing life. Weighing anchor and motoring around the island into St Mary’s Pool is easy. With high tide soon, we glide up to Hugh Town Quay, taking on water before slipping off to a mooring buoy in the pool. This quay dries at low water so provides only limited access to the only fuel and water in the Scilly’s.
Sea fog arrives each night during our stay. Passage plans must be precise, pilotage accurate, time and headings closely monitored and cardinal buoys used as waypoints. Spencers Ledge and Steeple Rock cardinals lead us through the North West Passage. Surrounded by thousands of invisible dangers in a complex arrangement, these threaten to wreck any boat which strays off course. There are clear passages with transits and leading lines for the prepared skipper, but today simple headings are all we can use in the fog.
This is exciting sailing. Deep swell sweeps past, waves being felt rather than seen in the murk, cardinals appearing when only metres away. Around mid-day the sun starts to burn off the mist by heating the surrounding islands, creating a gentle breeze which sweeps through the Sounds. Now we can approach our next islands with improved visibility.
New Grimsby Sound is a narrow canyon cutting between the islands of Bryher and Tresco. It leads past the ominous 17th century Cromwell’s Fort and opposite Hangman Island still complete with its gallows, the noose swinging gently in the breeze.
Four brightly painted fishing boats sit together on moorings in New Grimsby Sound. These little boats often sailed to northern France with spy’s onboard and while the fishermen worked close to shore, vital reconnaissance was gathered to assist with the D-Day landings. They still fish today around the islands with their bright paint glistening in the sun.
We make our own beach landings daily in our little tender, the feeling of exploration enhanced by approaching shore in such a tiny boat. Tresco has a tiny row of cottages above the beach. Quiet lanes twist between deep hedgerows through woodland, across meadows, passing farms until a gate crosses our path. A red light on the gatepost starts flashing, the sign reads “STOP”. Moments later a quiet hum vibrates across the meadows before a small Twin Otter aircraft appears over the trees and touches down in a field then taxis to a small building where tourists disembark. The Light turns off allowing us to cross the grass airstrip, closing the gate behind us to keep out the cattle.
The narrow path cuts through sand dunes to a beach where turquoise water laps over quartz white sand. These islands resemble the Caribbean and with the sun beating down from a blue sky I find it difficult to believe we are only 25 miles from England. I wade through warm water and clamber up rocks for a better view. Low water exposes large drying sands which allow people to walk from Tresco to Bryher, with mini pop up festivals held on the sands until the tide returns, bringing a natural end to the party.
Whichever way you look there are islands surrounded by white sand or waves sweeping onto rocks. The water sparkles around these precious ocean jewels. We wander slowly from beach to wooded lane then back to the New Inn where cool beers and home-cooked food can be shared with a friendly song thrush who visits every table in turn. Time to relax, unwind and take a moment to really enjoy life.
The Isles of Scilly are paradise in the Atlantic Ocean. A world-class destination, naturally perfect for exploring by boat. The most beautiful place I have sailed to anywhere on Earth.
So, when are you going to visit?