Treasure Islands: Exploring the Isles of Scilly on our 32ft boat

A long-held dream to visit the Isles of Scilly in their own boat finally came good for Matt and Jillie Dale but it wasn’t without its challenges…

When you’re a teenager you find your parents so embarrassing. You vow never to make those crass statements or be so out of touch.

As Mark Twain once said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant that I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

I am 40 years past that age but when I take stock, I realise just how similar I am to my father. My love of boating, my mechanical and practical abilities, my farming skills and a belt- and-braces approach to preparation.

It was the last of these that came to the fore when we took Molly, our Aquador 32C, to the Isles of Scilly in August. Not to father’s extremes though, he is of the school of: why have one spare when you can have a dozen?

Belt and braces

My preparations were a little more measured; the hull was clean but I gave the prop and prop shaft a good scrub. The fuel and water tanks were brimmed and my wife Jillie took care of the victuals. We also had our crew, Otto – my daughter Penny’s dog.

Next came the belt and then the braces. We had a new chartplotter and autopilot fitted last winter but as we were heading out into the fringes of the Atlantic, I wasn’t going to leave much to chance.

Molly already had a compass but I took a hand-held GPS, paper charts and a cruising guide as well. The charts were once my father’s. We also carried safety flares, a fitted VHF radio and a handheld VHF.

We had our lifejackets, the tender ready to go on the swimming platform and our mobile phones. We were going to be anchoring in sand so the 15kg Bruce anchor with the 60m of 8mm chain would be fine.


Matt settles in for the ride on their passage to the Isles of Scilly

However, I bought a second Fortress-type anchor too. It was mid-August, normally the busiest time of the farming calendar on our arable farm but such was the heatwave that we finished harvest in record time. Two days later, on 14 August, we were ready to roll.

Molly is not the fastest of vessels, she has a semi-displacement hull, shaft drive and is reassuringly heavy and solid. Unlike most Aquador 32Cs she was fitted with a relatively modest 260hp Volvo KAMD 44 rather than the more common 310hp or 370hp Yanmars – some were even fitted with a 450hp lump.

Although I feel this leaves her a little under-powered, she is very comfortable under way and will cruise all day at 13-14 knots. While this may not be particularly speedy, it does cover the ground.

Wolf Rock nostalgia

Despite leaving later than planned, we still caught the ebb tide at the Lizard. It was a spring tide and the water was racing past the tip of England at 5 knots, providing a boost to our speed.

Although we were always in the sight of land, it was still a little unnerving heading straight out into the Atlantic. The Scillies are a low-lying group of islands, so it is a long time before they appear on the horizon.

With the Lizard peninsular disappearing into the haze astern and the tip of mainland Britain far off to starboard, you really do feel as though you are venturing out into the open sea. Passing the Wolf Rock was a mini highlight for me; something of a nostalgia kick.

When I was a young agricultural student, I spent a year working on a dairy and beef farm in the heart of the Lizard peninsula. It was my first time living away from home and my bedroom window in the remote cottage faced due west. At night I would listen to John Peel on my radio with the Wolf Rock light flashing on the dark horizon.

Sealife safari

We were not alone on the water. There were a few ships on the move, several yachts, the odd fishing boat and one motor boat that passed us a few miles distant. None were very close so it felt like it was just us alone on the open sea surrounded by nature.

There were small rafts of guillemots and razorbills, and for a while we had hundreds of shearwaters skimming past us. We passed one huge mob of gannets bobbing around looking fat and full as they digested a big feed.

The two pods of dolphins that we saw engaged briefly and then went on their way. We even spotted a school of feeding bluefin tuna but sadly none of them breached.

Molly at anchor in The Cove between St Agnes and Gugh

I had decided to head for The Cove between St Agnes and Gugh, and soon we could see a dark smudge ahead on the water. I had opted for this anchorage as the approach is fairly simple with deep water all the way in and no hidden rocks to worry about.

After a bit of anchor faffing we settled in to soak up the stunning white sand, turquoise waters and unspoilt islands. We had a brew and then got the tender into the water and buzzed ashore.

A swim in the warm sea – almost unheard of in Scilly – was followed by some exploring of St Agnes, somewhere neither of us had been. We shared the joy of discovery together.

The sun sets on a short but successful adventure to the Isles of Scilly

After an early doors drink at the Turks Head we decided to stay and eat. We sat outside as the sun set, bathing the other islands in red, gold and orange hues.

The following morning, Monday 15 August, dawned as sunny as the day before. The day was pretty much a sequence of: swim, eat, walk, coffee, swim, walk, eat, walk, swim, beer, supper. It was a tough gig but somehow we coped!

Because of the spring tides, at high water the bar between the islands was breached. It was spectacular as the water roared over the sand and stones with standing waves. On our side of the bar, the south side, it created gentle swirling currents that had the anchored and moored boats pointing all over the place.

Jillie and Otto head for shore

Luckily, the anchorage was fairly quiet as the weather was due to change. There had been 27 visiting boats the previous day in an area that now looked busy enough with 10-12.

When we left home, the forecast had been for the weather to hold until at least Thursday, but as the days and hours ticked by the good weather window was getting shorter and shorter. We decided to cut and run. It had been a glorious day and a half rather than the intended four days but Scilly is a poor place to be when the weather breaks.

We had hoped to meet up with a friend whilst over there but he was away for a day or two. Tim was a boatman on Scilly and a great source of knowledge but without him on hand to ask for advice, we didn’t want to push our luck.

The forecast was for the wind to swing round to NNE and reach 15-20 knots on the Tuesday then build to 20 plus knots on Wednesday and Thursday. It didn’t sound much fun.

Brave rescue

Our plan was to spend the night in The Cove, pop round to St Marys for some diesel in the morning then head home. It was a horrible night, although the anchorage was sheltered from the NE, there was a small southeasterly swell creeping in.

Molly sat beam-on and rocked and rolled all night. Poor Otto was terrified. In the morning we shovelled down some breakfast and headed for fuel. The channel between St Marys and St Agnes was a mess, with the spring tide racing through, creating 4ft standing waves.

Otto keeps watch over the stern

It was then that I spotted something in the water close to the rocks by the Garrison. I went over for a closer look only to find that it was a tender with two teenagers aboard. There was nobody else around, so I went close and shouted to them to get a long bow line ready.

As soon as we turned round beam-on to the waves, I could hear everything sliding around in the cupboards, making an awful noise that terrified the poor dog. Jillie caught the bow rope first time and made it off. Beam-on for a third time, and then a steady run back to the shelter of Porth Cressa where their parents’ boat was anchored.

A very relieved father was waiting at the stern of a large sailing catamaran. The youngsters’ engine had failed and neither was wearing a lifejacket. Some lessons were learned that day. We stuck 120 litres of diesel into the tank and headed for home. Once we were past the shelter of St Marys it was a wet, bumpy ride. Again, Molly took it in her stride.

We were able to maintain a steady 12 knots but Jillie’s coffee making was more akin to a Cirque du Soleil act. Despite the juggling, she somehow managed to prevail and keep us both fully fuelled!

The nearer we got to the Lizard, the more the sea moderated. By the time we reached it we had the ebb tide on the nose, reducing our speed from 13 knots to 8 but at least the sea was calm. With a fresh northerly forecast, we headed for the shelter of St Mawes.

Safe and sound

The following evening my phone rang, it was Tim calling from Scilly. “Where were we? Had we found shelter?” When I explained that we were in St Mawes, I could hear the relief in his voice.

He had endured a horrible ferry crossing from the mainland on the Scillonian – or the “Sicklonian” as it’s sometimes called – and the wind was still getting stronger. Our trip to the Isles of Scilly had not gone entirely to plan but we were pleased with what we had achieved. We had made a plan, monitored the conditions, adjusted the plan and made a good call.

Our cruise may have been cut short but we enjoyed two glorious days of sunshine, completed our longest trip yet and fitted in a rescue. Confidence boosted, we will definitely be going back to these magical islands to see what more they have to offer.

First published in the August 2023 issue of MBY.