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From Latitudes and Attitudes, December 2005

"Have my mooring!" "No have mine!" rival boatmen call out as we enter the harbour at Hughtown on St. Marys, capital of the Scillies.

That's why I like it here; everyone is so friendly and helpful.

The Scillies (or Scilly Isles) lie out in the Atlantic, 30 miles west of Lands End and are the most western part of England. Surprisingly, there are always more French boats in the Scillies than English ones. That's because sailing to the Scillies from France usually involves a reach both ways, whereas English sailors have a 200 mile beat from the popular English sailing areas of Poole and the Solent.

The Scillies cover an area of over 50 square miles, yet comprise only five inhabited islands, with the largest just 3 miles wide. However, there are hundreds of rocks - most of which are exposed at low tide. They have a fearsome reputation as ship killers: Sir Cloudesley Shovell led his ships and 2000 men onto the rocks in 1707 (all drowned), the Torrey Canyon (creating the world's first major supertanker pollution incident) and most recently the Ceta ran aground on St Marys, 20 miles off course with the helmsman asleep at the wheel. Wrecks there are aplenty...

The pilot guide for the islands warns, "Apart from the obvious dangers of any group of islands strewn with rocks, mostly unmarked, large areas of shallow water and strong and often unpredictable currents and tide races, it also lacks an anchorage that is secure in all weather..."

So, it's always seemed to me like the ideal place for a Christmas cruise!

Although only 100 miles from my mooring in Plymouth, passage to the Scillies is difficult. Not only does it mean sailing into the prevailing winds, but fog and gales are more frequent here than elsewhere in the English Channel. That's because the Scillies are at the junction of two weather systems, one that affects the Irish Sea and the other the English Channel. It doesn't take much of a humidity difference between the two to produce fog, while strong winds can blow down from Scotland or straight in from the Atlantic.

Whenever I plan a Plymouth to Scillies trip, I always spend the week beforehand watching the weather forecasts before deciding whether it would be safe to go. It was even more important this time as it was to be a mid winter cruise. Fortunately the forecast seemed ideal, as a depression had just passed, and thus the wind was due to go to the north west and moderate to F4 or less. So we had a weather window for a few days. After that - who knows?

My 32 ft catamaran Eclipse is a fast, yet comfortable, cruiser and on the first day we had a great close reach with full sail in flat water. In fact, we averaged over 8 knots for the 40 miles from Rame Head to the mouth of the Helford River.

I find the Helford Passage a bit crowded for my tastes, so I always try to go up river, past the world famous Frenchman's Creek to Tremayne Quay, a couple of miles further on. Here it is quieter and you can usually tie up on the east side of the quay and have a great BBQ on the quay's grassy bank. The fact that Eclipse would dry out didn't worry me, as not only is it fitted with daggerboards, but it also has shallow beaching keels to protect the hull bottoms. Having said that, for those who cannot dry out, there is a small pool off the quay with sufficient depth at low water where keelboats can anchor safely.

Next day the wind had moderated, and we spent 8 hours motor sailing round the Lizard to St. Michael's Mount. Originally this was a monastery, brother to the more famous Mont St. Michael in France. After the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1500's, it became a private house and was owned by the St Aubyn family for over 300 years. It is now run by the National Trust (the UK equivalent of the National Parks Service). Very few boats enter its harbour. I guess because it dries out, or maybe because cruisers think it must be private. In fact the National Trust guides couldn't be more friendly and welcoming. They get 5-6,000 people a day viewing the castle in mid summer, yet still find time to chat with sailors in the evening. Better still, as I've often found, they don't always want mooring fees even when I've tried to pay them! We had a hard climb up the rock to view the house and found that some of the original 900 year old monastery still survives.

We'd have liked to stay longer but time was pressing, and we wanted to make the most of the favourable weather. So, after another dawn start, we motored over a completely calm sea, past the open air Mimac Theatre, which is precariously perched on the cliff edge. Then on past the most western part of the English mainland, Lands End. We sailed well to the north of the Wolf Rock, which lies roughly mid way between Lands End and the Scillies, and acts as a nautical cross roads. Here ships turn north or south, east or west and you've really got to keep your wits about you. I once did the trip in bad visibility and vaguely saw 13 ships appearing and disappearing into the murk. This time we were lucky to have good visibility and a calm sea. It didn't stop a bit of mutual confusion though, as we turned to pass astern of one ship just as he turned to starboard to go up Channel. I know you're not supposed to call other ships to ask their intentions, but this seemed the place to do just that.

As we approached Crow Sound, a pod of dolphins came leaping out to greet us, which we took as a good omen for the rest of the trip. And so on into Hughtown and the friendly boatmen. After an evening meal ashore and some last minute Christmas shopping, early the next day we motored a couple of miles across St Mary's Road to Green Bay on Bryher.

This is a favourite anchorage for multihull sailors, as it is completely safe in all winds and we could dry out level on a sandy beach. Again we heard cries of "use my mooring", but by then we had safely anchored.

Although windy, the next day was a beautiful sunny day, and we spent it exploring and walking round Bryher. As it is only a couple of miles across, it doesn't take long! I had once spent three midsummer days anchored in the aptly named Hell Bay on the totally exposed western side during a rare total calm. Not this time! Today there were pounding ten foot waves. Never mind, the deserted beaches were still covered in white sand and reminded me of the Caribbean. Later we dinghied over to New Grimsby on Tresco and saw palm trees - even more confusing - "where am I?"

We didn't sail the next day either; instead we started the day by opening presents. Then, while the turkey was cooking in the oven, we roasted chestnuts on the solid fuel stove and watched an old black and white movie on TV. Well, how else does one celebrate Christmas?

So far we had been lucky with the weather, but when we got up next morning there was thick ice on deck. Seawater doesn't freeze easily and thus it's easy to wash off ice with a bucket. Down below the solid fuel Dickinson stove ate up charcoal faster than you can say Santa Claus but kept the saloon at around 75 deg F. Originally I'd fitted the solid fuel stove as a bit of a gimmick, but in practice we have found the stove to be very effective at heating the saloon - especially when we get the chimney red hot! The down side is that, as hot air rises, the bunks in the hulls stay cold, so we slept in the saloon. The only way to warm the whole of a catamaran is to use a hot air central heating system. But if I'd fitted one I couldn't keep a pot of coffee warm on the stove, nor roast chestnuts over an open fire!

A south westerly gale blew on the 27th so we stayed put, but on the 28th the wind again went round to the NW. There was still a big swell rolling in which made it hairy motor-sailing out of New Grimsby Sound, past Hangman Rock and Cromwell's Castle. After bearing off and unrolling the genoa, we had an exhilarating reach back to the Lizard touching 17 knots at times. But off the Lizard the fan was turned off, and we started the engine. The tide had turned against us and, as we crept past the off-lying rocks, our speed was down to 1 knot on the GPS. Once in the open water again we could duck into Cadgwith Bay to catch the back eddy, and our speed over the ground went up to 7 knots - some back eddy!

By 4pm it was already dark. That's the one problem with winter sailing. You can keep warm and dry, but it is hard to sail more than 50 miles in daylight, even if you start off averaging 9 knots as we did. Unfortunately the Helford River is the first safe all weather harbour after the Lizard so we were committed to continuing for another fifteen miles. We arrived at 7.30pm in a pitch black night and so anchored in the main channel just off Port Navas.

It was raining the next day so we decided not to sail, unlike a couple aboard a 30ft sailboat. Unfortunately they ran aground just after high water right behind us (well we were right in the channel!). So we spent the day chatting, with the boats only a few yards apart, until the tide returned.

It is 25 miles from the Helford to Fowey. That's always an easy day sail in a south west wind. A reach turned into a run after Dodman Point, and so we had a comfortable sail, mainly because, with the wind aft, we suffered little from wind chill. However, it was too late to get the couple of miles up to St Winnow and its river-side church, and my favourite anchorage in Fowey. Instead we anchored in Pont Pill creek, where there is usually room for a couple of multihulls. Here you are not only far from the madding crowd, but also you don't pay harbour dues.

Despite the free night, the harbour master still took time out to come over in the morning to say, "The forecast is northerly 30 knots, but you're in a catamaran - you'll be OK." Regardless of his warning, we decided to leave, as I wanted to get back to Plymouth for some dinghy racing on New Years Day. This time the wind didn't drop, we missed most of the rain, and fortunately the worst squalls were short-lived. The highest gust we saw was 42 knots apparent when sailing downwind at 13 knots.

We got back just in time, an hour before dusk, having averaged over 8.5 knots for the last 45 miles with a top speed of 17.5. We'd been away a week, hadn't seen another sailboat at sea (can't think why not!?), had sailed 250 miles, and had Christmas on a desert island (well almost!). All in all it was a very successful end to the year!