To Scilly on Barnabas, May 2016

The first sail of the season in Barnabas is known as a shake-down voyage. It’s a euphemism that means finding out at sea the various things that have gone awry: items left behind, distasteful objects accidentally brought along, sails lashed to yards upside down, fail-safe electronics failing, and so on. Usually there is a good deal of pumping of the bilge to be done as she dips dry planks under the water and works under the pressures of sea and wind. And occasionally things literally shake down, from shelf to floor, from rigging to deck, as the jobs half completed or forgotten present themselves again for attention.

But it is also a time of great excitement: what adventures will befall the Barnabas in this new sailing year? Who will win the World Pilot Gig Championship? What surprises will the spring weather spring? What will appear out on the sea? To discover all of this, on a Friday at 11pm our eight-strong crew slipped our lines at Newlyn’s old quay, set sail on a dark and gently heaving sea outside the harbour, and shaped a course for Loe Lee.

The case for sailing overnight on Friday was made by the tidal stream running favourably past the Runnelstone buoy from about midnight, and by a forecast for the prevailing westerly wind to shift overnight into the north west, before subsiding back into its habitual south west for the rest of the weekend. This would give us a reaching wind as we sloped west-south-west towards Scilly.

From Loe Lee cardinal it is possible to see Tater Du lighthouse: this light helps you keep clear of the Bucks rocks, and gives a reference for the next course changes out to the Runnel Stone cardinal mark off Gwennap Head. The toplight of Norwegian Blue, a steel yacht also on passage to the islands, was visible inshore as we picked up the succession of lights, all blinking and winking with their individual light signatures. More than 20 nautical miles away to port and then astern Lizard light, England’s most southerly lighthouse, flashed brilliantly – proof of a very clear night.

At midnight we set watches: two crew on deck standing a two-hour watch. The stars appeared; a rain shower passed over; constellations of lights on the horizon revealed merchant shipping crowding towards the Land’s End traffic separation scheme; the lights of fishing boats darted here and there. For those on watch, it was important to keeping reading this tapestry of lights, both to keep a handle on our own position and to anticipate and avoid closing with other vessels. As we passed the Runnel Stone buoy, the groan and whoosh of its wave-driven whistle floated towards us over the black sea. I always find it a bit eerie; it meant we were clearing the coast.

The cooler box drained the battery about half an hour later, so we unplugged it and ran the engine for a while. Then the bilge alarm shattered the peace. Quiet again. The wind freshened as we cleared the lee of the land, and we had some good close-reached sailing under a reefed main and the smaller mizzen lugsail. Two buckets of vomit were produced stoically below. One crew member fell out of the windward bunk with a thump and was lashed in with a few sail ties to his lee cloth. Norwegian Blue’s toplight faded inexorably into the night, dead ahead of us.

When the moon rose we were well out to sea, crossing the southern end of the Land’s End TSS, with Wolf Rock to port and the Seven Stones lightship way out to starboard. Round Island light began to loom ahead, and the red lights on St Mary’s TV mast became clearly visible.

By dawn, Barnabas was slipping along in the lee of St Mary’s island, with Pinninis Head marking the airstrip. The watch on deck tiptoed forward, quietly shook out the reef in the main and hardened in the sheets to run close-hauled past Spanish Ledges and into St Mary’s Road, the large expanse of water in the middle of the islands. The watch below having appeared on deck – we may not have talked much but there had been some clonking of halliard and sheet blocks – there we tacked and ran into Hugh Town, picking up a mooring at about 7am.

I was awoken at 11 o’clock by the sound of bacon and eggs being cooked on a monstrous South African gas-fired tripod apparatus set up on the afterdeck. It was a full blindingly bright morning, and on the beach the crews were tending to dozens upon dozens of gigs drawn up on the sand. The ladies’ Long Race, from St Agnes back to the harbour at Hugh Town, began at one in the afternoon, and by then we were tacking to and fro in a pleasant north-westerly, south of the rocks off Samson. Day tripper boats, yachts and the St Mary’s lifeboat rumbled around to leeward. The gigs were rowing out to line up for the Long Race: to mix the images hopelessly, they seemed like an armada of Vikings.

160 gigs drawn up in a line at sea is a sight worth the seeing. At some sound invisible to us they all leaped forward like a regiment of grasshoppers, and they were off. We had intended to hang about to windward and follow the line back, but the wind was too light to keep up with any but the slowest boats, and Barnabas trailed across the finish line back at St Mary’s about 161st.

Back on to our mooring – this time we sailed on to the buoy under mizzen – and ashore to Hugh Town. Because a significant proportion of the mainland migrates over for the bank holiday, there were many familiar friends and faces, and I was even accosted in the street by a Royal Naval officer who took me for my brother. In the evening, we sailed against a fresher breeze to St Agnes. A black-faced, puffin-shaped bird flew past and splashed awkwardly into the sea: puffins never give much of an impression of competency. Guillemots were about, especially over towards Annet, the bird sanctuary.

St Agnes is the jewel of the inhabited islands. It has lanes between high pittosporum hedges that enclose the flower gardens, rough moor and rocks on the south west side, and it is crowned by a now-defunct lighthouse. I suppose the Turk’s Head must be Great Britain’s most southerly pub, and one only has to wander about for a short while before encountering tame songthrushes. On the mainland they are a shy bird, but here they seem happy to be almost underfoot.

As we dawdled into Porth Conger, which is the cove that opens to the north and contains the main jetty, I saw the masts of five yachts in the south-facing cove on the opposite side of Gugh bar. A part of me wanted to be in moral safety with the rest of the flock, but I stuck to my initial conviction that the wind would go round to the south in the night, and we anchored opposite the Turk’s Head. Shortly after this, Norwegian Blue came over in a tender to ask who wanted canapés aboard. This unusual question threw the crew into hesitation, and the indecision was only solved by a sudden rain shower, which divided the crew into a canapé party (literally) and a shore party bound for the pub. There was a merry rendezvous later on and we all went back to the Barnabas in the dinghy, hailed on the way by one of the camping gig crews.

As a result of my decision to stay in Porth Conger, we spent the night rolling in the slight swell that crept into the cove from the north west. My bad temper the next morning, after a trying night of going up and down the companionway to frap whatever next bloody object that was banging about, was only slightly mollified by the sight of the southerly masts waving around too. The wind and sea had shifted to south of west after all – but too late for our quiet night.

Sunday morning proved dreary with fog, and the mood was subdued until the South African breakfast apparatus made a re-appearance. It seemed to chase away the fog of the morning and the haze of the night – though to tell the sad truth, nearly as much booze came back off the boat on Monday as had come aboard on Friday. Time spent sailorising kept us in good order.

We got our anchor, and having nipped back over to Hugh Town for the last time to wish certain of the gig crews good luck, were off Nut Rock in time to see the final heats set off. We were also privileged to witness the Porthleven ladies A crew round up off the starboard bow, drop their oars and complete a six-fold moonie. Each lady had a letter stitched to their knickers, and together their bums spelled ‘GOPORT’. It went well for them, as they finished 14th overall.

Meanwhile, Barnabas stood on northwards, and with the wind having backed all day towards the south-west, reached over the Tresco Flats towards Hangman’s Island. Using the chart plotter as well as sighting compass, we stuck to the dead centre of the channel: a good idea on the falling tide. As we picked up a mooring off New Grimsby, a strange hail from a figure on the shore caught our attention. After some bemusement and confusion, it proved to be a Dutch man who had sailed in some days ago on a yacht: it was his professed wish to see the Barnabas. I went over to the quay and fetched him aboard in the dinghy. We were able to give him a tour and a glass of wine – he folded his tall frame up in order to see down below – and as we were leaving he got stuck in to re-lashing the throat of the mizzen sail which had come adrift from its yard.

In the New Inn on Tresco, some of the crew had led the way by ordering large cognacs and coffee, and a few hours were pleasantly whiled away in warmth and comfort until it was time to leave for home. Not much that had been forecast had actually happened thus far, but as I was concerned to avoid a blow forecast for Monday morning, we left our mooring at 7pm and set off on the port tack north through New Grimsby Sound and out around the north of the islands.

We had dinner on deck, and had just got the foresail down to change sail for the night watches when a cry of ‘dolphins!’ caused us to drop everything. I gazed at their flashing forms as they crossed just ahead of the bow, rose to deck level in the swell behind, and swerved around us and each other. They blew air with a puffing hiss from their blowholes and rolled onto their sides – then they were gone.

Returning to nautical matters, we hoisted the largest mizzen sail, set standing, on the foremast. This reduced our speed significantly, but we made a reasonable five and a half knots and the boat would handle easily over night. Because the mizzen sail is always set standing when raised on the foremast, with the fore halliard purchase on one side of the deck and the burton on the other, we could also gybe with relative impunity. An uncontrolled gybe with the big foresail set dipping risks your safety in a lugger, particularly if it ends with the boat broaching.

Our course took us more or less due east across the top of the Scilly islands, south of the Seven Stones lightship and straight over to pass the Runnelstone buoy. Dark was a long time coming – slowly the colour seeped out of the sea and the sails, out of people’s faces and clothes. It was a quiet night’s sail though not very clear, and having sorted out our avoidance tactics for a line of merchant vessels heading for the TSS as we neared Land’s End, I went to bed, to be woken again what felt like a moment later after we had passed Tater Du light. It looked baleful in the gathering mist. Nevertheless, Loe Lee gave us a course to Newlyn. Off the harbour mouth, we took in our sails, started the engine and motored through the still harbour to our berth. We passed our lines ashore at 3.15am and went to bed.

Cleaning ship can be a dreary business, and I was grateful for the short sharp effort that occurred shortly after eight to get all things back to their proper state. We were ready for the voyages of the summer.

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Written by Cornish Maritime Trust