The Isles of Scilly are a stunning cruising ground for sailors, with turquoise waters, sandy beaches, and beautiful wildlife, such as puffins, basking sharks, and seals. They seem a world apart from mainland Britain, although the weather is definitely rather British. Hint: take waterproofs and a wetsuit with you.
The navigation can be rather difficult around the islands, due to the huge amount of underwater rocks and shallows. There are over 500 wrecks registered in the archipelago, so sailing here needs to be taken seriously. You need to know exactly where the deeper channels are and what areas to avoid.
Make sure you have a good, updated paper map, a reliable chart plotter, a good GPS, and a navigation backup or two, before you head to these beautiful Cornish islands. If done carefully, navigation around the islands can be great and very rewarding.
There are a number of anchorages and ports in the archipelago. We only anchored in the ones recognised by the Reeds Nautical Almanac (2017), as we thought it’d be too risky to tempt fate in an already challenging area.
Here is some information on the anchorages and ports where we stayed overnight.
St Mary’s Harbour – St Mary’s
Visitor buoys only
Protected from all but W/NW
St Mary’s is a pleasant little island with character and interesting history. The harbour waters are rather clear and the view of the beaches from the Star Castle Hotel hill (a short walk from the harbour) is stunning.
There are 14 yellow visitor mooring buoys at the harbour. The big ones are £36 a night if your boat is longer than 12m, or £24 a night if you boat is between 8m and 12m. The small ones (for vessels under 8m) cost £18 a night and the Harbour Master never tried to charge us more for being a catamaran.
Shelter. The buoys are protected from most winds, except for West/North-Westerlies. If there is a bit of swell, you’ll soon feel it, as the buoys aren’t protected by the harbour walls.
You can’t anchor in the harbour and if you wish to do so nearby, you need to do it outside of the harbour limits, away from the approaches. We tried this once to avoid paying another night. We anchored to the North of the harbour, but it was so uncomfortable even in calm seas, that we had to go back with our tails between our legs.
Facilities. The facilities are excellent. There is a big dinghy pontoon, but make sure you check the tides, as most of it dries out at low tide. Water is available from the taps by the Harbour Master office. On the quay, there is a block of hot showers, which will cheer you up on those long rainy days. Each round is £1 and enough for a good wash. There is a fuel dock, but if you have jerry cans you can contact Sibleys and they’ll fill them up at the back of the quay. The local chandlery is rather well-equipped, but it was closed for a whole month from the day after we arrived, at the start of high season, which was rather unhelpful. Good phone coverage with reliable 3G on the moorings.
Food shopping can be done at the local Co-op, which is a five minute walk from the dinghy dock. Supplies from the mainland don’t always make it to the islands, so fresh supplies can be harder to find when it’s foggy or the seas are rough. There is also a farm shop close to the Co-op that sells local produce.
Porth Cressa – St Mary’s
Visitor buoys and anchorage
Protected from all but S and SW
Porth Cressa is the bay on the south side of St Mary’s. It has a lovely beach on which you’ll find the Tourist Information Office and a restaurant.
There are 14 yellow visitor mooring balls for vessels up to 45ft in the bay, available from April to October at £20 per night. Anchoring is possible, keeping clear of the power cable area.
Shelter. The bay is well protected from northerlies and is good in westerlies, but it can be dangerous in south and southwest winds and the guys operating the mooring balls will let you know you need to leave. We sought refuge in Porth Cressa after a storm and found it rather comfortable in high (60mph) northerlies.
Facilities. You can land the dinghy on the beach, but locking it requires some ingenuity. Water is available from the tap behind the house of the mooring ball owners (they have a great dog!), who also offer diving services to boaties. We always restocked on water when in the harbour, as the walk to the dinghy dock is much shorter. You can dispose of your rubbish on the street behind the Tourist Information office. There are public toilets and showers (£2 with no time limit) to the rear of the beach, but check the timings for opening hours. To use these, you’ll need to collect the key from the Tourist Information Office. There is decent phone coverage in the bay. For other facilities, refer to St Mary’s Harbour – Hugh Town is just a couple of minutes walk away.
Watermill Cove – St Mary’s
Protected from S to WNW
This beautiful cove with transparent waters is a short walk from the best-preserved burial chambers on St Mary’s and just a dinghy ride from the stunning Pelistry Bay. It’s definitely worth a visit, especially as it was here were had our one and only basking shark sighting.
Shelter. The bay is well protected from Southerlies to Westerlies. If the wind veers north of WNW, then swell will enter the cove. The holding is great, if you stick to the anchorage marked on the charts. Pay attention: the area close to the local moorings is rather seaweedy and there is a rock to watch out for at certain tide states.
Facilities. The area around the bay is mainly farmland, so it won’t be easy to access facilities from here. A walk to Hugh Town takes around 45 minutes, so unless you want to call a cab, it’s best to stock up before venturing out here. There are no rubbish disposal facilities either. Phone coverage is almost nonexistent.
St Helen’s Pool – St Helen’s
Protected from most winds
This area is a body of water surrounded by rocks near Tresco and Round Island. A quick adventure on the dinghy to shore can easily turn into a hide and seek game with the local seals.
Shelter. The anchorage is good in most winds, but there can be a rather uncomfortable swell at high tide. We spent a few nights at anchor here, waiting out some rainy weather, and can vouch the swell does happen.
Facilities. There are virtually no facilities, so stock up before sailing here. If you’re willing to get the outboard on the dinghy and going to Tresco, you can go to the pub and groceries store in Green Porth, as well as explore the excellent beaches. Phone coverage is good, with decent 3G.
The Cove – St Agnes/Gugh
Protected from W to N
This lovely bay offers stunning waters, amazing scenery, and great fishing. If conditions are good, stay overnight to watch the sandbar getting covered at high tide – it’s quite a sight.
Shelter. The Cove is protected from northerlies and westerlies. If there is a strong northwesterly at high water springs, the anchorage isn’t viable. Swell can make the anchorage very uncomfortable at times, unfortunately. One evening we camped on the sandbar to escape another sleepless night. Avoid travelling by dinghy at high tide – the current going from one side to the other of the sandbar is strong.
Facilities. At the top of the hill on St Agnes, you’ll find rubbish disposal facilities for cruisers, by a pig pen. If you follow the paved path and walk a few minutes, you’ll get to a cute country pub. Just past it, there are some picnic tables in the green. There is virtually no phone coverage in the anchorage; you’ll need to dinghy to shore and get in view of the tower on St Mary’s to make calls or get 3G. We heard there’s a farm shop on the island, but we never needed to venture there.
Porth Conger – St Agnes/Gugh
Protected from S
This is the bay opposite The Cove. Not quite as stunning, but still a rather picturesque anchorage.
Shelter. This bay is well-sheltered in Southerlies, except when the sandbar is covered. It is conveniently very close to St Mary’s, so if it’s rolly or there is no space, you can simply head to the main island.
Space for anchoring is limited due to local moorings, rocks, and the drying out area by the sandbar. There are ferries to St Mary’s a few times a day. We attempted to anchor on the sandbar side and dry out, but the sand is very fine and we couldn’t get the anchor to bite. Phone coverage is weak by the bay entrance and nonexistent further in; better to dinghy ashore if you need a reliable connection. For the facilities, check back on The Cove.
That’s all folks. These are all the anchorages we scoped out. We hope this post is useful, if you plan to sail to the Isles of Scilly. If you’d like to know what else we’ve been up to on the islands, check this post out, while if you want to hear about the storm and boat accident we witnessed in Watermill Cove, head here. There are many other anchorages to explore. Have fun exploring and stay safe.