Rupert Parker channels his inner mariner as he helps crew a tall ship in rough seas Sailing the Cornish Coast.
I’m not really one for cruises, finding the idea of being crammed in among thousands of people, not really my idea of fun. Therefore, when I’m offered the chance of a voyage on a tall ship sailing the Cornish Coast, I picture myself as a hero in that 70’s TV Series, The Onedin Line. Now I’ve little experience of actual sailing and, nagging away in the back of my mind, is how I’ll cope if the sea doesn’t behave.
I first catch sight of TS Maybe in Penzance harbour and I’m already out of my comfort zone as I drop down a rusty steel ladder and cross the deck of another ship before clambering on board. The Maybe was built in Holland in 1929 and has spent many years sailing around the world. She’s a Ketch with two masts, seven sails, 24m long and 25m tall.
Accommodation for sailing the Cornish Coast is in four cabins containing twin bunks and a washbasin with two shared toilets and showers. Meals are provided by an onboard chef which we eat communally around the big saloon table. Food is of the hearty variety, using as much local produce as possible. And there’s always plenty of it
There are four passengers on board – three have sailed before and me, the tall ship virgin. The crew consists of Skipper Chris, Mate Toby, deckhand Violet and cook Shane. I’d imagined that I could stand by and watch them do the work, but it wasn’t to be. It requires all of us to sail the ship and shirking is not allowed.
Anyone who’s been on any sort of cruise knows there’s always a safety briefing, and for the Maybe, this is disconcertingly comprehensive. We learn what to do in case of fire, flood or sinking, how to abandon ship and launch life rafts and what to if there’s a man overboard. Lifejackets are compulsory on deck and we must strap on to the safety line if it’s rough. Then there’s the rope ladder dangling over the side where we climb down onto the rib, a small inflatable, bobbing in the swell.
We’d all signed up to go to the Scilly Isles but the weather isn’t looking good, with a strong wind from the west. Still, the captain puts off his decision and we go for a trial sail up to Newlyn, a couple of miles up the coast. He uses the engine to get out of the port, then it’s all hands on deck to haul the sails.
First is the largest and heaviest of them all, the Main Sail. We work in pairs on each side of the boat, one hauling or sweating the halliards, the other taking up the slack, known as tailing. It’s hard physical work and members of the crew join in to help, using the weight of their bodies to get it up the mast. Others include the Stay Sail and Mizzen which thankfully are bit easier. Engines off, it’s exhilarating sailing driven solely by the wind.
Next morning, the Scillies are definitely off so we go in the other direction, towards the Lizard. After leaving the safety of Newlyn, the waves are against us, the ship rolling from side to side. Hauling the sails gives us more stability but there’s still a corkscrew motion and it’s disconcerting to find that we’re alone on the high seas. I strap on safely, as there’s rough swell on the starboard side, the deck tilted almost at 45 degrees.
Mercifully it’s not raining and I just stay put as we near the Lizard, feeling slightly queasy. Some of the crew members look as bad as I feel and one of my fellow passengers lies prone on the saloon table down below. As we sight the lighthouse, the skipper tells me that boats are blown onto the rocks here and it’s far more treacherous than Land’s End. That’s scant comfort as the swell is getting larger.
Our little ship edges forward and gradually we round the headland to calmer waters. By the time we drop anchor in the Helford River it’s been five hours since we left Newlyn and there’s an air of celebration. I realise this has been a difficult crossing for everyone and I’m pleased to have without making a fool of myself.
Next day the sun is shining, the wind has dropped and we go ashore on the inflatable rib, beaching on a small strip of sand without getting our feet wet. This is an unspoilt section of the river and we follow the coastal path to Frenchman’s Creek, immortalised by Daphne du Maurier. There’s time for a drink at Helston’s Shipwright Arms before getting back on board.
That afternoon we pull up anchor and make our way leisurely west, past Falmouth to Gorran Haven. It’s so completely different to the previous day that I’m even allowed a stint at the helm, closely supervised by Skipper Chris. We anchor out in the bay and enjoy a quiet night. That all changes when the swell comes up early in the morning. I’m woken at 5am by the boat rolling from side to side so we pull up anchor and move to calmer waters at Portmellon, close to Mevagissey.
This is the furthest west we’ll get and next day we start heading back to Penzance, tacking against the wind. We’re joined by pods of dolphins who swim with us, disappearing under the boat and then reappearing. Halfway is an idyllic anchorage up past Falmouth in the Fal River where the green trees go right down to the water and curious swans check us out. There’s another stop at Porthallow before we’re once again rounding the Lizard.
This time the sun is shining, the swell is down and we’re no longer alone. There are plenty of yachts out today and I’m allowed a long stint at the helm, before passing St Michael’s Mount. Penzance harbour beckons, the professionals take over and we’re soon moored back where we’ve started after 155 nautical miles.
As all sailors know, weather is everything and there’s certainly been plenty of it. I’d imagined being propelled by a gentle breeze between anchorages in tranquil bays, enjoying a quiet sundowner. Instead, it seemed at times like I was on one of those Boy’s Own adventures with Lieutenant Hornblower. Still, I’m still keen to sign on again sailing the Cornish Coast and have another shot at reaching the Scillies. You never know, this old sea dog may yet learn new tricks.
Tell Me More About sailing the Cornish Coast
Venturesail Holidays on Maybe range from three-day tall ship taster weekends to seven days sailing the Cornish Coast and the Isles of Scilly in 2022. West Coast Scotland adventures are scheduled for 2023. Accommodation is provided in private twin berth cabins and prices start from £662pp including all meals.
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