On July 4th I travelled to Exmouth to help sail our boat Mary down to Cornwall. Other than day sailing she had not left her home port since we bought her and after much preparation and planning we were finally ready to set sail. The idea was to have a group of people cycling who would attempt to rendezvous with Mary every evening, and for as many people as possible to have a go at crewing. Hopefully over a period of two weeks Mary would get as far as Falmouth and back. I went down to the mooring and met a few people at the boat, including Al, who was to be our skipper for the first six days (I was scheduled to sail for the first four). We weren’t setting off until the morning so after a few final preparations we went to find a place to camp.
On Monday morning the weather was fine and we set off with a crew of three. Once we were out at sea there was a fresh breeze and we made rapid progress past Teignmouth across Tor Bay, round Berry Head and up the river Dart to moor at Dartmouth.
On Tuesday I was due to sail again but Patrick had turned up having cycled from Wellington and rather than leave his bike behind or try to fit it on the boat I decided to have a day cycling. Al set sail with Patrick and another new crew member, Oli, while I stayed in Dartmouth with OJ to do some shopping and use the Internet in the Library. By the time we started cycling the boat had been out for a few hours but we heard that they were struggling to make headway in the South Westerly wind. Oli had to be somewhere in the evening so they decided to attempt to land him on the beach at Slapton. As we reached Blackpool Hill we could see Mary sailing towards the beach and amazingly we got there when she was within a hundred metres of the shore. Mary has a bilge keel which makes beaching her a possibility but it was steeply shelving shingle and the waves were not insignificant so Al wisely decided not to risk it. Instead I ran into the sea until I was waist deep so he could see how far to come in, Oli leapt off the bow, and I gave the boat a shove to help get it safely away again. As it was getting late and Al didn’t fancy getting to Salcombe in the dark he had to work out where to spend the night. Communicating by mobile phone we decided to carry on down the coast a bit and meet up again at Hallsands to attempt a beach landing. The beach there was less steeply shelving and was sheltered from wind and waves by Start Point so it was quite straightforward. Since the tide was coming in there was no danger of getting stuck and the waves were gently nudging Mary up the shingle which meant we didn’t really need to worry about losing her out to sea either (though we wrapped a long line round a heavy rock just in case). Al and Patrick disembarked and we cooked on the beach. After dinner we got the bikes on board then pushed off and motored a few hundred metres to a recognised anchorage just off a famous ruined village. For safety we had to keep an anchor watch and with four of us on board it meant we only had to do an hour and a half shift each.
When I came off anchor watch at 6am on Wednesday I went down below for a sleep while the rest of the crew weighed anchor and motored around Start Point before setting sail. When I got up a couple of hours later I immediately started feeling queasy so I quickly got up on deck to look at the horizon. Al noticed I was green so we broke out the crystallised ginger which is supposed to help. I soon started feeling better but seasickness seems to be contagious and Patrick got it worse than me, losing his breakfast over the side. It was an easy sail into Salcombe but as we motored up to the visitors pontoon the outboard suddenly died and we had to quickly grab the oars. We tied up safely and it was then that I found out from Al that the engine had been a bit ropey in the morning too, so we phoned Mike who knows about these things and he suggested replacing the spark plugs. We had a plug spanner and plenty of spare plugs on board so I got on with that and found that the bottom plug was oiled up. New plugs seemed to sort things out and although it was only a temporary fix we had enough spare plugs to keep swapping the bottom one if required. After having spent the previous night at anchor it was nice to be able to tie up to a pontoon and get a good night’s sleep.
On Thursday we left Salcombe with two new crew members, Dan and Cara, while Anne joined Patrick and OJ on bikes. There wasn’t much wind but by lunch time we had made it as far as Bigbury on Sea where we took advantage of a rising tide to repeat the trick of beaching ourselves to go ashore. At that time Burgh Island was connected to the mainland by a wide sandy beach and we had no trouble getting in on the sheltered Eastern side of the island, close to the Pilchard Inn where we went for a drink. I treated myself to a Burgh Island Donkey – a cocktail made with vodka, ginger beer and lime. I had a nice swim in the bay then cooked lunch on the boat with Al. Just as the island was about to be cut off by the tide we pushed off and got underway.
From here it should have been an easy sail to Newton Ferrers but the wind dropped right off and we were basically drifting with the tide at about half a knot. That was OK for a while but eventually we started going backwards so we dropped the anchor and waited for wind. After an hour or so with nothing happening we gave up and started heading back to Burgh Island where we knew we could at least anchor safely – but then we did get some wind so we turned round again to see how far it would take us. It was slow going but by midnight we were heading in towards the mouth of the river Yealm. Until now I hadn’t worried about getting up the river in the dark but there was no moon and it was clearly going to be trickier than I had thought. I was on the tiller but I couldn’t see the river banks and could only go by GPS on Al’s phone which I was holding in my other hand. The rest of the crew were up near the pulpit trying to spot any obstacles. We had a powerful handheld spotlight but we knew it had a very limited battery life so we had to use it sparingly. Dan was doing a quick scan with the spotlight every thirty seconds and before long he started picking out yachts moored all over the place. I slowed to a crawl and somehow managed to reach the visitors pontoon without hitting anything. Unfortunately it was full and we didn’t want to raft up next to another boat at 2am so we just tied up to the first buoy we saw, cut the engine, and breathed a collective sigh of relief.
On Friday morning we met up with Patrick, OJ and Anne who had been camping in the woods nearby. I had been planning to head back to Exmouth but it seemed a shame not to reach Cornwall and it wasn’t ideal having a bike on board Mary so if Patrick wanted to sail it made sense for me to ride his bike again. With luck Mary would reach Looe by the evening, from where I could catch a train. So Patrick joined the others on the boat to set off down the river while I stayed behind and got ready to ride with Anne and OJ.
We waited for the ferry to take us across the Yealm to the Wembury side and then struggled to push our bikes up a steep path to join Wembury Road. From there it was an easy ride to Mount Batten and a short hop on the ferry to Barbican. We were planning to get another ferry from there across the bay to Cawsand but the last one was at 4pm and we had missed it. Fortunately we managed to get a lift on a boat going to Cremyll, a nice way to arrive in Cornwall. It was a fairly steep climb out of Cremyll but we eventually reached the military road along the top of the cliffs, heading towards Freathy. We stopped at Whitsand Bay holiday park so OJ could charge her phone and Anne could eat chips. News from Mary was that they had spent several hours becalmed again but were making headway and still hoping to reach Looe. When we left the bar everything was shrouded in fog and there was a chill in the air but it was easy riding until we reached Seaton. From there the road signs were directing traffic to Looe via the A387, a distance of seven miles, but we figured it would be easy enough to follow the coast and save about four miles. There was a long steep climb which we managed OK but then the road degenerated into a rough track and we had to get off at times for the steep decent to Millendreath Beach. Worse was to come though as the only way up the other side was several long flights of steps. We eventually arrived in Looe at 11pm and got ourselves an Indian takeaway before going to scout for a mooring. By the time we found the visitors berths Mary was approaching the pier so we stayed up to guide her in before cycling off to camp in some nearby woods. When we left she was rafted up next to a fishing boat but Al was worried about what would happen when the tide went out and was planning to move her again.
On Saturday morning I got up early and went to find the boat which was now on the East side of the river towards the pier. As the tide continued to go out she touched bottom and within about an hour she was sitting high and dry. As it happens the Looe Festival by the Sea was on that weekend so there were various stalls setting up around us and lots of people wandering around dressed as pirates. I packed my things and then had a swim at the beach before heading off to the train station.
In general I think the trip went very well. It was a bit sketchy at times and coordinating everybody was not easy even with mobile phones but everybody had fun (except while seasick) and we learned a lot, which was the main purpose of the trip. I don’t know where Mary is now – hopefully well on her way back to Exmouth where she is due on the 18th. I hope the current crew are enjoying the passage as much as I did.