Sailing The Isles of Scilly – A Baptism Of Fire

Life boat

Log 25 May to 11 June, 2017

Our time in the Isles of Scilly was, if nothing else, eventful. A mayday call, rummaging through garbage with the police, unseasonal storms, an encounter with a basking shark, and some jaw dropping beaches.

Shortly after our passage to the Scillies, when Elena succumbed to seasickness and Ryan hand-steered through the night, we decided that we needed a quick and reliable method of steering the boat before we set off across the Channel – a passage of nearly double the distance than that from Cornwall to the Scillies. No problem we thought, we’re still in the UK, we’ll order a tiller pilot from a chandlery and get it delivered here.

Ryan rang Force 4, and checked how long it would take for the package to arrive. “Definitely within 48 hours” promised the reassuring sales assistant on the other end of the phone…

Three weeks later, and following a police investigation and the chandlery dispatching a second parcel, we finally received it. It turns out that if you want something sent to the Isles of Scilly, don’t use UK Mail and their local carrier Island Carriers who, to our utter bewilderment, instead of delivering it to the Post Office as addressed, delivered it to a shared house of transient workers, open 24/7, where it promptly disappeared. Thankfully Island Carriers made up for their mistake – we got our tiller pilot and a two-night stay in a lovely B&B.

The local police were great, and we felt like we were in a TV detective drama, as we scoured the island, asking questions and rummaging around in people’s garbage.

But being part of a police investigation wasn’t, by a long way, the most dramatic thing to happen while we were on the Isles of Scilly. Coastal gales, unusual for the time of year, were forecast for two days straight, in the middle of our stay.

As they were forecast to be from the Southwest, veering to the Northwest, we checked the almanac and online resources for the best place on the islands to be in this sort of weather. Everything unanimously pointed to one place: Watermill Cove.

Watermill Cove

Nestled on the northern side of the island of St Mary’s, this cove is simply stunning. We sailed round with a perfect breeze pushing us along steadily in the sunshine. We arrived there a couple of days before the gales were forecast to start, so that we could get a decent spot and spend some time chilling out in this lovely anchorage. We dug the big Manson anchor in well and settled down. The next day, after chilling on the beach for a bit we hunkered down ready for the storm to start early the next morning.

Three French yachts arrived that evening; two moored up next to each other and proceeded to have a party. Another yacht anchored almost on top of our anchor. Predicting that they’d swing onto us when they settled to the wind, we gave them a glare. They promptly upped anchor and moved to another spot, but only about 15 metres to the side, so they still ended up way too close for comfort – a decision that nearly costed us both dearly.

The next morning the wind was up. The two French party yachts had anchored separately now and the bigger of the two had dragged its anchor and was in the process of re-anchoring when we got up, their CQR anchor covered in seaweed.

The morning was windy but quite comfortable in Watermill Cove, the wind was coming straight off the land, so the waves weren’t very big. We were pretty relaxed, other than the French boat that was too close. When the wind went more southerly, Elena went on deck and shouted over to them in her best French to ask them to put more chain out. This eased our worries a bit, but ideally they would have anchored much further away.

The winds died slightly in the afternoon, and the crew of one of the French party boats, and some of the crew of the other French boat went ashore, leaving the larger yacht, it later turned out, unattended. The winds suddenly built again in the evening, and with no one on board, the yacht started dragging towards the rocks. We looked at the scene thinking someone would pop out from down below and drive the boat away. To our astonishment, the yacht was empty and within two minutes, it reached the rocks, where it stopped, the waves crashing on its side, pushing it on the rocks over and over again.

The other French yacht, left with three people on board and no dinghy, initially attempted a rescue. They prepared to pick their anchor up, but the events unfolded too fast – by the time their anchor was on board, the other boat was on the rocks. As we turned to look at the stranded boat, we saw a basking shark fin and tail just a few meters away. We were glad the animal was safe – the boat could have dragged onto it. But there was no time to be in awe of the sighting.

Boat aground

When the French guys were back, they ran towards the boat and started boarding it. This made us feel extremely worried. Elena asked the other boats if they called the coast guard in French. No one was answering their radios and no one made a call. Fearing for the safety of the French guys on the rocks and on board the vessel, we decided to call a mayday relay.

While Ryan was down below talking to Falmouth Coastguard, the third French boat (the one too close for comfort), started dragging and almost crashed into us. Elena tried her best to move Kittiwake out of the way, although we were tight on our anchor, so the task was very difficult. Two near miss crashes later, the boat picked up their anchor and left, losing their dinghy, which was simply tied to their stern, in the high seas which were now streaming in from the Northwest.

High seas

In the meantime, the RNLI lifeboat arrived to Watermill Cove. It attempted to get the boat off the rocks twice, but a man was sadly hurt during the operation. The lifeboat shot off super fast to take the man to the hospital, while the land-based crew took the French yachties to safety.

Life boat

We were the last ones standing. Our oversized Manson anchor had held firm, and hadn’t budged an inch while other yachts were dragging all over the place.

We learned a huge amount from these events and are very grateful we left unscathed. We’re now even more weather forecast-obsessed than before, more appreciative that we have an oversized anchor, which is our main safety device on the boat, and more understanding that the actions of boaters don’t just risk our own lives, but that of lifeboat crews too, who put themselves at risk, often to correct the mistakes of those less experienced.

But the Isles of Scilly weren’t just all storms and mishap. Stay tuned for our next log to find out more about these cold, but tropical-looking islands.

Update: we now have put together a video that tells the events of this log.


2 COMMENTS
  • CJ Grabenstein
    Reply

    Wow what a series of events! Glad you guys were safe! We too started without an autopilot trying to determine if it was a necessity, and the answer is yes it is!

    1. Sailing Kittiwake
      Reply

      Thanks for commenting CJ! We are grateful to be safe, that’s for sure. Yeah the autopilot makes sailing so much more relaxing. It’s been our best upgrade, after the solar panels 😉

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