Isles of Scilly cruising: Dutch trawler yacht owner shares an unforgettable adventure

The Leaver family fulfill a lifelong ambition to cruise the Isles of Scilly in their 18m Dutch steel motoryacht, Duchess.

Regular readers may remember my previous story about buying Duchess, a 59ft Van der Valk steel motor yacht, as a floating second home in Chichester Harbour as well a means of satisfying our thirst for cruising adventures further afield.

In 2018 we ventured to the Channel Islands and the West Country. In 2019 it was northern Brittany. For 2020, after many years dreaming about it and bearing in mind the difficulties of travelling overseas during the pandemic, our goal was to make it to the Isles of Scilly.

I had been loosely planning a cruise there for a couple of years and this seemed the perfect opportunity. After the strict measures of the first lockdown, it was a relief to see the harbours in the West Country opening up to visiting yachtsmen in early July and the pubs and restaurants we were hoping to visit also sparking into life.

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Being 30 miles to the west of Land’s End, a trip to the Isles of Scilly usually comes with a certain degree of trepidation for many boat owners. Quite right too. To get there and back safely you need the right weather conditions for the passage. And in an ideal world you also need a good weather window in order to enjoy a carefree exploration of this remote archipelago.

I had read many reports of boat owners getting to Falmouth, not having the right weather window and having to postpone the trip to another time.

To avoid this situation I booked three weeks off work. This would still give us enough time to cruise around Falmouth if we had to, a good week in the Isles of Scilly and time to get back to Chichester. To further improve our chances we arranged for our part-time skipper, Mark, to move Duchess to Port Pendennis in Falmouth for us in the first week of August.


We then took the five-hour train journey from Surrey a few days later to join him. Mark had the best week of weather for the whole trip and his delivery was characterised by a massive area of high pressure sitting over the UK, so zero wind and flat seas.

By the time we arrived in Falmouth our weather window was still there but with a big low developing in the Atlantic and strong wind forecast for five days’ time.

Isles of Scilly weather windows

Within an hour of getting off the train at Falmouth Docks we had cast off and moved to anchor in the Helford river with a plan to make a first-light getaway to catch the favourable westerly tide round The Lizard the following morning.


Approaching Hats Cardinal

On Duchess we generally cruise at 8 knots boat speed so having a favourable tide is an important consideration for us. With this in mind, we reckoned our 60nm passage from Helford to the Isles of Scilly would take us about seven hours.

We weighed anchor at 0600 the following morning and were rounding The Lizard by 0745 with the tide helping us along. There was no wind and the sea on our passage was like glass.

The only roll came from a passing container ship en-route to Liverpool which knocked over my hotel on the Monopoly board!


Wolf Rock is a useful waypoint on the approach from Land’s End

The vague outline of the archipelago emerged from the haze shortly after passing south of Wolf Rock, a useful reference on the rhum line from The Lizard. Because the weather was fine and we were arriving close to high water we made our approach via Crow Sound, passing between St Mary’s and St Martin’s, to the south of Hats Cardinal and Crow Bar.

Keeping a close eye on the chart and around us for marked and unmarked rocks we eased our way to St Mary’s Road where we then headed north over the Tresco Flats.

We had been warmly welcomed and guided in by great friends on their small powercat and by 1330 we had dropped anchor in New Grimsby Sound between Tresco and Bryher. We enjoyed a well-deserved lunch and glass of rosé while we soaked up the sunshine and our new surroundings watching the comings and goings on the Tresco side.


Duchess at anchor in New Grimsby Sound

It was a lovely scene with at least 20 visiting boats either at anchor or on one of the plentiful visitors moorings and the various ferries coming and going with day-trippers from other islands.

We stepped ashore for a short walk across Tresco to Old Grimsby where we found ice creams at the Ruin Café. Carrying on around the northern end of the island brought us back to the boat via Cromwell’s Castle before evening swimming and paddle boarding in the bracing but crystal-clear water.

We dined ashore with our friends at their timeshare next to the old Flying Boat Club looking out to Duchess at anchor silhouetted by a fiery red sunset.


Sunsets at St Helen’s

Tresco time

Conscious of the weather forecast, now predicting a storm with 40+ knots from the south west and a six-metre swell which would arrive in about three days time, we set about exploring the islands. We had the thought in the back of our minds that we may have to make a run back to the mainland in a couple of days before the storm hit.

Having taken a lovely walk around Bryher in the morning and bought prints in a little artist’s studio in a remote shack, we moved Duchess to St Helen’s Pool, which is another well protected anchorage from most directions.

It is bounded by the smaller islands of St Helen’s, Northwethel and Tean but is also convenient for tender excursions to the Old Grimsby side of Tresco and St Martin’s. From here the children were also able to water-ski and donut in the nearby flat water of Pentle Bay on the east side of Tresco while Mark went fishing for mackerel and returned with a generous catch of pollock!

In the evening we tendered ashore to Lower Town quay at St Martin’s for a simple pub supper at The Seven Stones Inn where we sat outside and they kindly obliged with an umbrella to shelter us from the drizzle, which set in just after we had ordered. The settled weather was starting to turn on us.

This was our first “eat out to help out” meal!

The weather turns

A lazy start meant that my alarm was the sound of Mark and the children returning in the tender from mackerel fishing with yet more pollock. On the way back from the pub the night before I had spotted a boat in the anchorage which I thought I recognised.

The idyllic setting and grounds of Tresco Abbey. Photo: Alamy

Leafing through a back copy of MBY I had used to plan our voyage, I realised it was Thea, owned by MBY contributors Tom and Lorraine Owen. They had written in detail about building their own 9m motor boat and subsequent cruising experiences on the Isles of Scilly. I paid them a visit and we discussed viable anchorage options to ride out the storm.

In reality there were only two really good options as we were approaching spring tides and, as seasoned Scillonians, Tom and Lorraine’s advice was invaluable. We now felt confident about staying longer in comfort and safety.

The day was spent ashore on Tresco visiting the beautiful Tresco Abbey gardens and the fascinating Valhalla museum. The museum features figureheads and artefacts from more than 30 famous merchant sailing vessels and early steamships wrecked off the islands, a chilling reminder how the islands caught out earlier seafarers before we all got chartplotters!

An evening tipple took the edge off James’s Isles of Scilly passage planning

We provisioned at the very well-stocked Tresco Stores before returning to Duchess to move her at high tide to Watermill Cove on the north-east coast of St Mary’s. From here we made a quick blast in the tender to Great Ganilly to swim with the seals.

The best words to describe the experience are freezing and amazing; being face to face with a curious bull seal is something I will not forget in a hurry! Hot showers and the barbecued pollock back on Duchess rounded off a wonderful day.

The following morning Francesca took herself off for a run while the rest of us breakfasted on deck in the warm sunshine. Watermill Cove was a beautiful spot with a small beach and nicely protected from the south westerly breeze.

Coming face to face with seals at Great Gannilly, Isles of Scilly

We took ourselves ashore for a family walk where we discovered a huge rope swing for the children to play on, with amazing views over Crow Sound and the bar at low tide.

We headed back to Duchess for coffee and we then weighed anchor and crept our way over Crow Bar with 0.6 metre under our keels about 45 mins after low tide. The sea state was flat so this was okay.

Our plan was to return to New Grimsby Sound and, due to lack of water, we circumnavigated Samson, Bryher and numerous outlying rocks before approaching the Sound from the north, dropping anchor 200m north of Hangman’s Rock, where a noose hangs from the thankfully redundant gallows. We were now where we needed to be for the forecasted weather.

St Martin’s notorious Hangman’s Rock. Photo: Alamy

Life on the Isles of Scilly

We took the 4m tender from here to St Agnes, tied up on the quay and sat in the sunshine outside the Turk’s Head pub for a scampi and chip lunch, soaking up the view of all the islands from this wonderful vantage point.

A short stroll to the western end of the island took us to Troytown Farm where they produce their own delicious ice cream. We sat eating our ice creams at what we concluded must be the most exposed camp site in the British Isles but with a stunning view of Bishop’s Rock and thousands of miles of uninterrupted Atlantic beyond it.

On our way back from St Agnes we dropped into the capital, Hugh Town on St Mary’s, to provision and explore, taking care to keep clear of the Scillonian Ferry making its daily departure back to Penzance.

St Martin’s looking tropical from the air. Photo: Peter Barrit / Alamy Stock Photo

The well-stocked co-op and independent grocery stores had everything we needed and we were soon on our way again. We enjoyed sundowners and an absolutely stunning sunset aboard Duchess with our friends.

For the next couple of days we used the tender to explore more of the islands, enjoying the slower pace of life where roads are occupied by walkers, bikes, tractors and the occasional golf cart on the privately owned Tresco. Everywhere you go there is a little stall selling locally grown or home-made produce, with an honesty box, which is such a charming way to sample the local fare.

Highlights included a crab lunch at Island Fish on Bryher – also good for take-away crab and lobster in the shell or picked – and a lovely walk the length of St. Martin’s where we rewarded ourselves with a delicious cream tea at Poltreath Tea Rooms.

Dolphin sculpture at Ruin Beach, Tresco

Pasties from the Island Bakery on St Martin’s were well worth the detour to get them. Finally, a low-tide walk on the stunning deserted white sand beaches on the south end of Tresco, finishing at The Ruin Cafe for oven-fired pizza, was a lovely way to spend a morning.

By the time Storm Ellen came through, Mark and I had removed all the canvas to reduce windage and let out all 80 metres of chain. We then kept a night watch. The wind was the main factor for us as the sea state in the Sound was comfortable enough but, for some of the boats in the deeper water, it was bumpier, particularly around high tide and the start of the ebb.

We recorded a maximum of 52 knots over our deck where others recorded 62. But this was because we had the protection of Hangman’s Rock. The day after the storm it was still very windy but sunny and Falmouth Coastguard was reporting that a 6m swell had built in all areas. We were not going anywhere for 48 hours!

The family enjoyed a slap-up scampi lunch at the Turk’s Head in St Agnes, where the views across Porth Conger were equally appetising

Our final day coincided with low-water springs, which makes it possible to walk across the bar between Tresco and Bryher. There would normally be a low-water market with stalls on the bar but, due to Covid restrictions, we settled for the walk and wade across, finishing up at Tresco in the New Inn at New Grimsby for burgers.

On return to Duchess the wind had veered and this meant that the swell was now rolling into the Sound from the north. We repositioned ourselves to the south of Hangman’s Rock for a more comfortable night, had a last evening swim and farewell drinks with our friends before turning in for our early passage back to Falmouth.

We weighed anchor at first light, leaving the way we had arrived, over Tresco Flats and out through Crow Sound. The seas had subsided to about 3-4m but, as this was a following sea, the trip was do-able. The waves pounding the Wolf Rock lighthouse and associated spray were an impressive sight as we passed.

A fun discovery at Watermill Cove

We had timed our arrival at The Lizard for slack tide and, given the stacked seas here, we were pleased that we had. We reached Pendennis in Falmouth by 1400 in time for a late lunch.

Our starboard engine exhaust had developed a small leak on passage so Mark and I were relieved to find tin and gum-gum in Trago Mills in Falmouth (a shop which seems to sell absolutely everything!) for him to effect a very dirty repair job.

In Port Pendennis we were moored in the shadow of Falmouth Coastguard’s tower where they were now issuing severe weather warnings for Storm Francis! As we still had two weeks to play with, we decided to stay put in Falmouth for a few days before hopping along the coast back to Chichester.

Cromwell’s Castle on Tresco

We all thoroughly enjoyed the National Maritime Museum and it was also nice to have time to meet up with friends at the wonderful Pandora Inn in Restronguet and enjoy another excellent seafood lunch at Castaways in Mylor Marina.

We rode out Storm Francis up the River Fal, anchored just south of the moorings in Malpas, which was well protected, had good holding in mud and a decent pub for our supper.

From Malpas we then started our trip home to Chichester via the familiar surroundings of Fowey, Newton Ferrers, Salcombe, Dittisham, Weymouth, Lulworth Cove and Brownsea Island.

Isles of Scilly sense

Looking back on this “post-lockdown trip” and, as I write in another lockdown, I marvel at how amazing it was for us to be able to cruise to the Isles of Scilly and back as a family in the significantly shortened 2020 season.

During the whole 25-night and 445nm round trip from Chichester, we spent just three nights in a marina or on shore power with the rest at anchor or on a visitors’ buoy or pontoon.

A trip to the Isles of Scilly is a must for the more adventurous motor boater who is looking for escapism and old-world charm whilst accepting that they will not be able to find a marina or shore power.

Watermill Cove in St Mary’s is a beautiful spot with a small beach and is nicely protected from the breeze

Navigation skills are put to greater test than usual but no more so than a trip to, say, the Channel Islands. And once there, the prize is being able to explore a unique collection of islands far removed from the pressures of modern-day life.

We found moving around the archipelago at high tide so much easier but it is still important to stay aware of banks and rocks which are not all well marked.

We will definitely be returning to these wonderful islands because, due to Covid restrictions, there were a few places and experiences we were unable to enjoy this time. But it will be nice to have the excuse to go again. All clouds have a silver lining.

First published in the June 2021 issue of Motor Boat & Yachting.

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