We spent a week in Padstow, not because we were stormbound but because we were having such a lovely time. Barberry was tied up to the harbour wall, right in the heart of this picturesque little Cornish town, and we often overheard some fascinating snatches of conversation between the tourists, sitting on the benches just above us and munching on their Cornish pasties.
The locals call tourists emmets, which comes from the Cornish for ants. Seems like the perfect name for the hundreds of slow-moving, traffic-unaware bodies weaving along the edge of the harbour, up the steep cobbled streets, and drooling down the windows of the cafes, restaurants, ice cream shops, pastie shops, etc that have proliferated in modern Padstow. It’s known locally as Padstein since celebrity chef, Rick Stein, now owns so many eateries, delis and guest houses in the town.
While we were in Padstow, we tried our best to be good little emmets, taking the Black Tor ferry across the River Camel to Rock village and walking the sands, visiting with old friends we haven’t seen in maybe 20 years, climbing the hill to visit Prideaux Place, buying a bottle of Cornish whisky, and treating ourselves to cream teas. I have to recommend Prideaux Place, if you ever find yourself in Padstow. It’s a privately-owned stately home that has been in the same family for 15 generations, has a deer park with 100+ head of Fallow Deer, maintained by the lovely and knowledgeable Jim, and the tour of the house is way better than most other places we’ve been. We also visited the tiny museum, and were pretty shocked to see a map showing some of the boats that have been wrecked on the Doom Bar.
Fraser also went for a long walk (my aching knees chose to remain on the boat) as far as Stepper Point, which overlooks the Doom Bar. There’s a tiny Coastwatch station there, where volunteers keep an eye on all boats passing through these hazardous waters. They were delighted to chat with Fraser and even showed him their log entry for when we sailed Barberry past them a few days previously. There’s also a tower there, called the Daymark, as it acts as a guide to navigation for sailors wanting to try their luck on the Doom Bar. It’s not lit at night, hence the name.
Eventually, we knew we needed to move on so we started looking for a weather window for our passage around Land’s End. This was one of the passages we had been most anxious about. It’s a bit of a rite of passage (pun intentional) for sailing folks as the tides are very strong and there are many hazards along the route, including numerous rocks and islands. The day we chose was Saturday 22nd April, and we calculated the tides with care.
The situation was made more complicated by the fact that Padstow Harbour is closed in by a gate that only opens two hours either side of high water. The times it opens to allow boats to enter or leave don’t play well with the timings we needed for rounding Land’s End, but there’s nothing that we could do about that as the Camel Estuary outside the harbour dries out completely much of the time, so we couldn’t even nip out the night before and wait. However many times we did the maths, we couldn’t find a way to have a favourable tide with us around Land’s End if we did the passage in one leg. We decided that rather than hang around at anchor off St Ives to wait for a good tide (a notoriously bumpy anchorage), we’d just go for it.
Alarms set for 0500, we awoke to the first faint rays of dawn and prepared Barberry for her long passage, putting on pretty much every item of clothing we owned to try to keep out the cold and the forecast rain. By the time we were struggling into our lifejackets, we looked like a pair of Teletubbies.
Then we waited for Rob, the Harbour Master, to start opening the gate. As soon as it was clear, we followed a local yacht through and down the estuary against a strong incoming tide that tried its best to shove us onto the shifting sandbanks on either side. As the sun rose, we breathed a sigh of relief and turned Barberry’s head southwest, hoisting the sails to help the engine along.
Sailing is wonderful. It’s hard to describe the lift of spirits as the engine is turned off, the boat lifts her bows into the waves, and all you can hear is the wailing of gulls and the ripple of water passing along the hull. This wasn’t one of those days. There’s a world of difference between going out for a wee day sail and making passage, especially when there’s a tidal deadline to meet and tricky waters ahead. We had the engine running the whole time, using the sails as extra propulsion to push Barberry to her best speed across the ground. At first, we were fighting the tide, but then it began to turn in our favour and that wee boat fairly flew along. The Cornish friends we’d met up with while we were in Padstow messaged to say that they could see us flying past. We were almost doing a pace that could be managed by an overweight jogger!
Not long after leaving Padstow, we passed a group of rocks called the Quies. Our friends told us an interesting story about these rocks. Apparently in WWII, a German submarine confused the rocks for a Royal Navy warship and torpedoed them! As we passed by, we could definitely see how such a mistake could happen. They do look, from certain angles, very like a warship. Unfortunately, the torrential rain that started around then, and continued the whole way to Newlyn, prevented me from taking a good photo.
Rounding the Longships lighthouse, set on craggy rocks just off the tip of Land’s End, was an amazing experience. We had plenty of time to appreciate it, because the tide had turned fully against us by then, so we passed it at snail-pace. It seemed to take hours before we finally put it behind us and made the turn eastwards around the Runnel Stone.
By the time we chugged into Newlyn Harbour, we must have looked like a pair of drowned rats. Every stitch of clothing we owned was saturated, we were freezing cold, exhausted, but incredibly happy to have put that passage behind us. We were directed to a berth in the heart of the fishing fleet, past the sign that says, “No yachts beyond this point”!
Newlyn is a busy working harbour, not really intended for leisure boats, but as we squeezed Barberry into a space between two fishing trawlers we were welcomed by the harbour master who helped us tie her up securely. It’s such a privilege to be allowed to stay here, amongst men and women who go out in all weathers in some of the most inhospitable waters in the UK, to provide us with our fish suppers and our lobster bisque or crab claws. We do this for pleasure and can pick and choose the days we go out there, but they have to go out, even in high winds and rain, to put food on their own family’s table. We have so much respect for them, and to watch their boat handling skills is a lesson in itself.
We planned to set off the very next morning with the 5am tide to sail around the Lizard to Falmouth, but when our alarm clocks went off at 04.45, we checked the weather forecast and it had deteriorated since the last time we’d looked. After a brief chat, we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and stayed put for a few days.
We’ve had some fun, here in Newlyn. Today, we caught the Land’s End Coaster, an open-topped bus that does a full circuit of the peninsula, returning to Penzance after taking us to Lamorna Cove, Porthcurno, Land’s End, St Ives, and Marazion where the spectacular St Michael’s Mount is located. Tomorrow or the next day, we’re going to break the folding bikes out of their various hidey holes and cycle to Marazion, hopefully timing it so we can cross the causeway to St Michael’s Mount and climb up to the castle at the top. That’s if we have any puff left after the cycle ride!
This part of the trip is taking longer than we’d hoped, because we’re waiting for really good weather windows (which are few and far between at this time of year). One good reason is pure common sense, but since we have many friends who volunteer for the RNLI, or work for the Coastguard, we know we’d never live it down if we had to be rescued because we’d made a bad judgement call. One of our Cornish Coastguard buddies shared a secret with us (rash decision!). He said the lifeboats have an acronym they use to save causing offence to yachties like us. If you hear a lifeboatman say that he’s been on a shout to a Wafwit (pronounced Waffit in Cornwall), it means they’ve rescued a Wind Assisted F**kwit.
While we were in Padstow, another unlucky sailor was towed in by the RNLI during the night, having caught a crab pot line around his propellor and almost run aground in the next bay along. We always think that “there, but for the grace of God, go I”, and make a vow never to put the lives of those brave volunteers on the line for us if we can help it.
It’ll be Fraser’s turn to write the blog next time, and by then we’ll hopefully be a bit further along the coast. Listening to the wind howling in the rigging as I type this, and feeling the boat heeling over even in this protected harbour, I think it might be a few more days yet!