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Sailing to the Scilly Isles: First Leg – Falmouth to Penzance

After holding up for a few days in Falmouth we were ready to start our journey down to the Scilly Isles. This had always been on our wish list of places to visit and we were now only 70 nautical miles or so away from achieving that wish. This was also going to be our most challenging sail to date; we would need to navigate around The Lizard (the most southerly point of the UK and a major tidal gate), deal with the Atlantic swell at Land’s End that according to Mark Fishwick (West Country Cruising Companion*) is ‘rarely absent’, before finally heading out into the Celtic Sea area of the Atlantic Ocean for over 20 miles on our first proper offshore passage with just the two of us. After much reading, planning, checking tides and weather, we decided we would go for it, but as this was our first time undertaking this passage we would break it up over two days.

We first hopped across the bay to the Helford River, a short 7nm, to anchor there for the night. This sail in itself was rather lively with fluky winds and gusts up to 20knts, more challenging because we normally reef at around 14knts so this took us a bit by surprise. However the river was a retreat of calmness and the perfect spot for us to get set for our first big leg.

Helford River Anchorage

The Passage Plan

In planning our sail our main objective was to reach The Lizard for slack, thus hopefully avoiding any ‘races’ and timing it so the water would be at its calmest (fingers crossed!). As The Lizard is a major headland and tidal gate the waters and coast around here can be very unforgiving and inhospitable so we didn’t want to take any chances.

With a predicted north-westerly wind of 10 to 12 knots we knew we’d have to tack once we rounded The Lizard if we wanted to sail, but we would have the tide in our favour, albeit a case of wind over tide😒 We eyed up potential anchoring spots outside of Mousehole, Newlyn and Penzance and, as you can probably detract from the title of this blog, you can guess which one we ended up at!

We set our waypoints as follow:
WP1: 50˚5.00N 5˚3.00W – East of Nare Head
WP2: 50˚3.00N 5˚1.00W – The Manacles
WP3: 49˚55.00N 5˚12.00W – South East of The Lizard
WP4: 49˚55.00N 5˚14.00W – South West of The Lizard
WP5: 50˚4.00N 5˚31.00W – Near Mousehole

We calculated that it was approximately 17nm to The Lizard and a further 17nm to Mousehole (you can also probably guess that Mousehole was our first choice of final destination! 🤣). We would be against the tide for the first part of the journey but preferred this option to being against wind and tide in Mount’s Bay. With slack at The Lizard at approximately 12.30pm we set our departure time for 9.00am.

The Actual Passage

We were greeted with a beautiful morning (July 2022) and weighed anchor at 9.00am as planned. We raised the main but kept a reef in as we were concerned that it could get a bit gusty around the headlands. There are many pots in this area so a sharp lookout is needed when transiting around here. After an hour we were able to sail though actually furled away some of our head sail in order to slow down; we didn’t want to get to The Lizard too early and were making good going.

At 10.40am we were passing Coverack, steering a course of 218˚, but dealing with very fluky winds around the headlands. One minute it would be forward of the beam then the next aft of the beam; one minute it would be 8 knots then the next 16 knots. By 11.15am we were in position 49˚59.588N 5˚05.451W (off of Black Head) when we started to head out a bit from the coast to try and pick up some more wind.

At 12.00pm noon we found ourselves at position 49˚57.520N 5˚08 261N (passing Vrogue Rock) but only doing an average of 2.5 knots. The wind had dropped to around 7 knots from the west/north-west and it seemed as if The Lizard was sheltering us from it. Just a few moments later we had no option but to furl away the head sail and stick the engine on.

Sailing Yacht approaching The Lizard
Sailing past The Lizard Lighthouse, Lizard Point, Cornwall

As such we motored around The Lizard, with a reasonably calm sea state. We had read so many ‘horror’ stories about this area so we were relieved that it had been kind to us. By position 49˚56.077N 5˚14.88W (south west of The Lizard) the wind had once again picked up as we cleared the headland to around 16 knots from the north west and we were back sailing.

We headed up into the bay sailing as close to the wind as possible, managing to get just west of Rinsey Head on our first tack. The wind was fairly consistent at around 14 – 16 knots from the north west.

Our determination to sail and resist from turning on the motor meant a long slog across the bay and a number of tacks. In hindsight we probably tacked too soon after The Lizard and should have run out for a few more miles before making our turn up into the bay, but hey we continue to learn!

As this was our first time in the bay and it was still only mid afternoon we decided we would take the opportunity to sail up to St Michael’s Mount, a historic castle just off the coast of Marazion. Situated on a ‘tidal island’ the Mount is connected to the mainland by a cobbled causeway, which at high tide becomes inaccessible by foot. Seeing this impressive and famous Cornish treasure from the sea was pretty spectacular, and worth those extra tacks! In fact there is a small anchorage to the north west of the Mount but as this would have been on a lee shore for the night we decided to give it a miss. Shame as it would have made a pretty amazing backdrop from the cockpit!

St Michaels Mount

As such we decided to head for Penzance for the evening, rather than our initial planned stop at Mousehole. There is an anchorage near Albert Pier however we discovered that they have six visitor buoys just south of Penzance Lighthouse, so we hopped onto one of them just after 6.00pm. The cost is £10 a night however no one came to bill us…..not that we’re complaining!

Penzance Mooring Buoys

We launched the dinghy and headed into the harbour. There didn’t seem any obvious places to land so we tied off to the floating pontoon alongside the Albert Pier. Despite signs saying maximum stay of half an hour and no leaving of vessels, we spoke to someone at the Penzance Sailing Club who said we’d be ok to leave it there for an hour or so. There is also a water point here, handy for refilling your Jerry cans.

Penzance Harbour

We enjoyed a short stroll around the town of Penzance, which is a lovely little place. Unfortunately with it now being approximately 7.00pm most places were shut up and the town rather quiet. We popped into a Tesco Express for a couple of bits before watching the Scillonian (the ferry which runs from Penzance to the Isles of Scilly) dock and unload.

Heading back to the boat we had a spot of dinner before planning the next leg of our sail to the Scilly Isles. We had covered 37 nautical miles so far on this journey and had pretty much the same to go again, so after watching a beautiful sunset we retired for the evening, after all we had a big day ahead of us!

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