Sailing to the Isles of Scilly

Cheap air travel has made travelling seem like the ‘beam me up’ teleportation from _Star Trek_ compared to weeks at sea on sailing ships. As convenient as this is, the exciting moment of landfall has been lost, when you can look out onto the distance and wonder “is that some mist, some wishful thinking on the horizon, a cloud perhaps?” Then to see what is surely the outline of land in the distance; then the next time you look up, being able to identify perhaps an outline of the landscape and then the top of a tall building.

As Land’s End faded behind us, we headed for an archipelago 29 miles west, with more than 100 islands, five of which are inhabited. The guy we rented the boat from described the islands as “some rocks out in the Atlantic with some crazy people living on them.”

Surrounded by nothing but sea, the wind was blowing unusually from the east, pushing us effortlessly through the water at about six and a half knots. The crew basked in the even more unusual British April sunshine. We chilled out reading books and took it in turns to steer the boat.

A few hours after Land’s End had disappeared from view there was perhaps something on the horizon, and then certainly land and soon it was apparent that there were different islands. Then we spotted the TV mast and lighthouses. The rugged rocky landscape of Scilly came into view, before the fields and wild heath land and houses of the islands.

It was time to get the sails down. I as the skipper began to steer the boat into a small anchorage set between the barely inhabited islands of St Agnus with a population of 70 and uninhabited island of Gugh, joined intermittently by the “Gugh bar” – a sand beach between the two covered at high tide (probably the best instant barbeque location in the world). The crew were too busy to notice the seal pop up its head as we headed in.

St Agnus island is a strange place: one of the first things you will notice is that everyone says hello and is willing to stop for a chat, a weird occurrence for a committed urbanite but quite natural if you live on island with just seventy other people. There aren’t exactly “roads” as such or “cars.” There are dirt tracks and what can best be described as glorified golf buggies which islanders get around on. The local “bus” is a tractor that pulls a trailer with some seats on it.

We walked towards “the real Land’s End”, able to identify “the most southwesterly bin” “the most southwesterly telephone box” and the “most southwesterly post office.” At the western most point of the islands we could look across from the oldest lighthouse in Britain on St Agnus to the tallest lighthouse of the British Isles: Bishop Rock is the smallest island with a building on it in the world.

The next island to explore was Tresco, home to the famous Tresco Abbey Gardens. To get into the anchorage between Tresco and Bryher it is tricky to follow the transit between hangman island and a seemingly invisible hotel on St Mary’s island. Tresco Abbey Gardens were perhaps the highlight of the trip. The Isles of Scilly have more sunshine than any other part of the UK, sit out in the gulf stream, and are warm all year around – a climate just right for species of plants and trees totally impossible to grow on the mainland.

Surrounded by the tropical plants and some interesting multicoloured birds are many works of art and sculptures; one shelter in particular is decorated in a mosaic picture of trees drawn by hundreds of shells on the walls. Down a path from the garden is a beautiful and yet haunting place. Divers regularly explore the many wrecks on the rocks of Scilly, and brought to the surface are the figureheads of those sunken ships. Once ashore artists repaint them to what they would have looked like fixed to the bow intended to bring the ship good luck. It was all very interesting, but for a crew that had never sailed before to be surrounded by pieces of sunken ships it can’t have been great for morale.

It was our last night in the archipelago before we had to beat back to Falmouth against the wind the next morning. There are few places so at peace as there. We moved to an anchorage called “St Helen’s Pool,” some sheltered water situated between three uninhabited islands. On St Helen’s island we could see the ruins of an early abandoned Christian Chapel. This most lonely of islands had been used as a place to quarantined plague victims from passing ships.

I have never seen the stars brighter than in St Helen’s Pool. Something you will notice about being on islands in the middle of the sea is how much brighter the stars are; instead of looking up and seeing a few stars dotted that may or may not be aeroplanes, it is like looking at a light through a sieve. The stars, multiple in the sky within the haze of the Milky Way, are very visible. The only light “pollution” was the beam of the round island lighthouse arching across the sky every few seconds.

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