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Sailing to the Scilly Isles: Penzance to St Mary’s

We awoke to a beautiful, calm morning in Mount’s Bay, just the start we needed ahead of our most challenging sail to date. The previous day we had sailed from the Helford River near Falmouth to Penzance on our first leg of our passage down to the Scilly Isles. And now we would be heading out into the Atlantic Ocean!😬

Despite a few nerves, spirits on board were good – and we mean amongst the crew not the drinks cabinet which ironically was not good! The boat felt good and we both felt good, essential as we would be leaving the mainland and heading out into an area which is renowned for unpredictable changes in weather and visibility; we needed to be on form!

Sunrise in Mount’s Bay

The Passage Plan

First up the weather was looking ideal. A north-westerly wind at 11-14 knots was predicted for the morning and into early afternoon before it was set to veer to the north and pick up slightly to around 13-16 knots. There was some cloud predicted but overall visibility was good, after all the Scilly Isles are not somewhere you want to arrive in fog, or even darkness for that matter. An archipelago of five inhabited islands but with some 140 or so smaller rocky islets surrounding them, the Scilly Isles pose a number of dangers; not just the sharp, jagged rocks protruding from the ocean, but shallow waters and strong tidal streams. Therefore we had to arrive during daylight hours!

We set our waypoints as follow:
WP1: 50˚5.564N 5˚31.211W near East Cardinal ‘Low Lee’
WP2: 50˚3.280N 5˚32.913W Stannock
WP3: 50˚1.139N 5˚40.339W Just south of South Cardinal ‘Runnel Stone’
WP4: 49˚57.00N 6˚0.00W Approximately half way from Lands End to Scilly Isles
WP5: 49˚54.00N 6˚16.00W
WP6: 49˚54.017N 6˚18.690W near East Cardinal ‘Spanish Ledge’
WP7: 49˚54.417N 6˚18.731W Portcressa Anchorage, St Mary’s

We were on neaps so were expecting a tide of around 0.5 knots. Low water at St Mary’s was at 15.44 at a height of 1.6m so as long as we arrived after then we would be arriving on a rising tide. As it was early July we had maximum daylight hours, it would not be dark till near 10pm. Our West Country Cruising Companion book by Mark Fishwick* (can’t recommend this book enough, it really is an essential read for those visiting the West Country!) recommended leaving from Mount’s Bay about 3 hours before HW Dover and pushing against the tide in order to reach the Runnel Stone for a good going south west tide before it then turns west for another four hours, thus ‘pushing’ us along nicely to the Scilly Isles. HW Dover was at 15.46 so 3 hours before would be 12.46pm. To allow us a little extra time we decided on an 11am departure.

The Actual Passage

We had planned our passage the previous evening, and we’re not sure if it was the beautiful sunrise that psyched us up or the fact that other boats around us were starting to head off in the direction of Land’s End from 8.00am, but that morning we made the decision to set off a little earlier! On checking the tidal charts again we noted that slack at Land’s End would be at around noon, the south bound tide off of Land’s End would start running around 12.30/13.00 before it would start turning to the north from approximately 16.00/16.30. We decided we would try to get to Land’s End for slack so departed at 8.30am.

The headlands along the coast from Penzance threw up some fluky winds, similar to what we had experienced the previous day by The Manacles and down to The Lizard. It would go quickly from 8 knots to 16 knots but we were prepared and had a reef in – just in case!

Scillonian Ship making her way down to the Isles of Scilly

Despite being against the tide, albeit a neap tide, and battling fluky winds, we made good going and reached Land’s End at 11.00am. But as we headed out into the Atlantic Ocean anticipating gusty winds and swelly seas we completely lost the wind; the head sail went flappy and we were becalmed! Reluctantly the engine went on, after all this was not a piece of coastline we fancied just ‘bobbing’ around in!

Passing the Runnel Stone Cardinal Buoy, approaching Land’s End

For an hour and a half we motor sailed, although we took the opportunity to shake out our reef in the main. The wind was fairly light and there was minimal swell; not what we were expecting but, like The Lizard, we were happy to accept a calmness rather than the alternative!

By 13.25 the wind had picked up enough for us to get back to sailing. With full main and full head sail she powered up again, although with the wind now coming from the west, we were heavily heeled!

Of course with two other yachts nearby one couldn’t resist the urge to ‘race’ – although the others were of course unaware of our challenge!😀 We were sailing as close to the wind as we possibly could and despite the south going tide pushing us slightly to the south we actually managed to not stray too far off our initial passage plan:

Our planned route in pink v’s our actual route in yellow

The yacht performed like a dream on this passage, happily sailing along at an impressive 7-8 knots, and we even surprised ourselves; normally we reef at around 12-14 knots but here we were fully powered up at around 16-18 knots. The sea state had picked up a bit and unfortunately the sun disappeared behind the clouds but we were enjoying ourselves. Even the Land’s End Traffic Separation Scheme zone was quiet; think we only had 3 ships come our way but no where close.

As the Scilly Isles start to come into view it can be hard to distinguish your ‘entry’ point. In fact what we thought was the ‘gap’ between St Mary’s and St Agnes was in fact the ‘gap’ between St Mary’s and St Martin’s! Trust your passage plan and, don’t worry, as you get closer things start to become a little clearer!

At 16.00 we arrived into Porthcressa, our chosen anchorage for the night, on the isle St Mary’s. As it was a predicted northerly overnight we deemed this to be the most protected. Unfortunately everyone else had the same idea and the anchorage was extremely busy. We dropped the hook but didn’t feel comfortable with our position; swing room was minimal and it just ‘didn’t feel right’. As we were tired and this was our first time in the Scilly Isles we made the decision to pop around the corner to the visitor moorings in St Mary’s Harbour, not the best port of refuge in a westerly/north-westerly wind as it becomes subject to swell, but we didn’t find it too uncomfortable, probably due to the fact that the wind was decreasing.

There are 38 visitor mooring buoys in the harbour; the yellow buoys are £21 a night (July 2022) and are suitable for vessels up to 12m, the green buoys are £26 and are suitable for vessels up to 18m. The buoys have a pick up line but be aware that this is attached to a rather strong chain. We orchestrated a bridle style set up; one line down to the chain and back up to our starboard cleat and another line to the chain and back up to the port side cleat with a loose ‘back up’ line over the bow roller.

Serious bit of kit! – The Visitor Mooring Buoy in St Mary’s

After 52 nights of cruising we had finally made it to the Scilly Isles! Our second leg had taken us 8½ hours and 38 nautical miles and now we needed to celebrate! We headed ashore only to find it was a case of ‘there’s no room at the inn’ – literally all the pubs were full! So we grabbed a bottle of wine from the local Co-op and headed to the best beer garden – our cockpit – to watch the sunset and toast our achievement🙏🏻

Sunset in St Mary’s Harbour

And by the way…we won the ‘race’!🤣

VIDEO: Sailing our Yacht to the Isles of Scilly!

Check out our little video filmed on our passage to the Isles of Scilly and please remember to subscribe to our channel for regular updates, we’d really appreciate it!

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