Tag: Pilot Cutter

A seasonal guide to sailing in Cornwall

Sailing guide to Cornwall Helford

Cornwall for many is the UK’s favourite holiday destination. With its astonishingly diverse and picturesque coastline, stunning sandy beaches and meandering streets in ancient fishing ports, Cornwall has so much to offer. A sailing holiday in Cornwall is the perfect way to experience a more undiscovered Cornwall, away from the crowds with local skippers as your guide.

Over the centuries, our nation’s foundations have been built on the age of sail and Cornwall played an integral part in the design and construction of wooden sailing boats. Today, Pilot cutters, trading schooners, rowing gigs and fishing smacks have all stood the test of time and offer a huge amount of pleasure to all who visit the county.

Escaping to the outdoors for the freedom of the sea and fresh air after the restrictions of 2020 has never been more needed. Thankfully, with a sailing holiday in Cornwall, you can explore the coasts and rivers at your leisure aboard a wonderful historic fleet of comfortable sailing vessels; each one superbly restored and hosted by wonderful captains and crew.

Spring sailing in Cornwall

Wake up from winter and spend a Spring weekend sailing in Cornwall. Find Bessie Ellen in the picturesque port of Fowey with its charming narrow streets and coloured cottages stretching the foreshore. It’s no wonder that the ancient town of “Foye” is such a mecca for outdoor sailing enthusiasts who come from afar to explore this perfect little estuary.

Explore the waters of St Austell bay, shielded by Dodman point and dominated by the Cornish Alps – the remains of China Clay spoils once so important to the historic harbours of Charlestown and Par. On returning to Fowey, the stark red and white bands of the Gribben Head day mark.  Built in 1832, the daymark was constructed to avoid confusion to mariners mistaking the shallow reefs of the bay with the deeper estuary of Falmouth further down the coast.

Eda Frandsen shakes of her winter blues and sets sail from Falmouth under new ownership with the lovely Mungo & Stella. The historic port of Falmouth provides an ideal starting point for a sailing holiday in Cornwall, exploring the river where each bend reads like a book, opening a new story on each turn. A morning walk ashore is one of the most relaxing ways to begin your sailing adventure as oystercatchers chatter away, herons clack in the branches and the quiet cormorants dive with a satisfying plop.

As the river gives way to mud banks, the spires of Truro glint in the morning sun.  Winding back towards the sea, the Fal is truly one of the great British rivers and remarkably unspoiled on all banks. The sea beckons, and with Stella’s fabulous bakery below from her tiny galley, munch contentedly on cake and she will happily divulge the secrets of the Helford river. Equally enchanting, the Helford is a smaller river hiding creeks and quays along the way. Daphne Du Maurier penned her famous Frenchman’s Creek after a sailing voyage from Fowey with her father. Today, the Helford is a place of absolute tranquillity and is surely a little bit of heaven on earth, and a must-see for any private charter sailing holiday in Cornwall.

Pilot Cutters unite!

The clatter of blocks and the crack of the canvas never fails to excite as the fleet assembles in the bay of St Mawes for the annual Pilot Cutter Review in May.  Over four days, Pilot Cutters of all ages, from new-builds to restorations, gather together to cruise in company along the coast to Fowey and back before rejoicing in friendly racing around the cans in the famous Carrick roads.  Join Pilot Cutters Agnes and Pellew as they join this spectacle of sailing along the Cornish coast.

Shanties and classic sailing in Falmouth

If you love the sea and you love a shanty, then the Cornish town of Falmouth hosts one of her biggest summer events in June, the Classic Boat rally combined with the increasingly popular Sea Shanty Festival. Street markets, food stalls and singers fill the streets, pubs infused with Breton stripe clad revellers resound with harmonies of John Kanaka and Fair Spanish Ladies.

From all over Europe, singers come together in song and friendship, keeping alive the old sea shanty traditions. Out on the water, graceful classic yacht Escape, traditional trawler Pilgrim of Brixham and gaff cutter Pettifox liven the bay with other classic boats, joining the parades of sail and friendly races that take place throughout the weekend before the tired sailors retreat to a corner of a warm and friendly pub to join in the merry singing.

Summer river sailing along the Tamar

Think lazy summer days spent messing about on a river. Life could not be more carefree as our traditional Tamar barge Lynher slides gently on the tide from the wide mouth of Plymouth sound up through the marshlands of the Tamar River. This great river divides the two counties of Cornwall and Devon and navigable upstream from the mouth a Cremyll.

Today, the industrial mines of tin in this region of Cornwall lie quiet, but the once busy quays are still there – famous Cothele, quiet Haldon and majestic Morwelham each have a unique story.

The banks of the meandering river come alive with wildfowl in the early evening light and a gentle peace descends over gently rolling hills after the heat of the day.  Well away from the tourist trails, the Tamar Valley is a real gem of a destination to explore. Great walks lead to historic monuments all wrapped in the unspoiled woodland valleys. Perfect for a family sailing holiday and private charter weekend away in Cornwall.

Be part of the historic Tall Ships race

Falmouth has once again been chosen as host port to the magnificent Tall Ships Race as they set off on the start of the Magellan – Elcano 500 Series, celebrating 500 years of the first circumnavigation, crossing Biscay to La Coruna before heading south to the famous ports of Lisbon and Cadiz. 

Falmouth is particularly suited to hosting the regatta, from St Anthony’s head to Helford, Flushing and Pendennis, everyone can enjoy a day on the cliff tops in the clean sea air, relishing in the excitement as the all Tall Ships and their crews prepare for their own adventures. 

Or perhaps you want to be closer to the action onboard Escape or Pettifox as they offer guests the chance to sail in Falmouth Bay and see the start of the Tall Ships Race and join the parade of sail. A sight not to be missed!

Head to the islands from Cornwall

As legend has it, the Isles of Scilly are all that remain of the ancient land of Lyonesse but today the Isles of Scilly are the perfect sailing holiday getaway. There is no better way to explore than by sailing boat, discovering new bays and anchorages, wildlife spotting of the Western Rocks or walking barefoot in powder white sand. 

Many of our fleet of sailing vessels visit the islands, but none are more suited to the area than Agnes, a true Isles of Scilly pilot cutter and gaff cutter Pettifox who was built on islands.  Built specifically for the sea around the islands, both boats have a shallow draft so are able to venture into some of the more isolated spots around St Martin and Tresco, and the hidden island of all – Gugh. 

With so much turquoise water and wonderful beaches, being in the water as much as on it is a must, netting prawns in the Tresco shallows is a favourite way to idle away the afternoon. Plants and gardens are very much a part of the island industry with plenty to visit or walk the gentle paths between old flower fields   Whatever the weather or time of year, the islands impart a little magic to everyone who comes here and leaves you wanting more of this simple way of life.

The history of Pilot Cutters and how these boats are sailing today

Agnes under sail classic boat sailing Cornwall

Imagine, it’s 1837 and you are the captain of an enormous wooden merchant ship, sailing into dangerous waters full of sandbars and submerged rocks, attempting to reach port after a lengthy voyage. Your vessel is fully laden with a precious cargo of cotton and tobacco and both your crew, and yourself, are utterly exhausted after weeks at sea, wishing nothing more than for someone to take the helm from you in these last, most difficult moments.  Reaching for your brass telescope you scan the horizon for a certain something that gives a glimmer of hope, then finally you spot it: a boat, perhaps 50 feet or so, making towards your starboard bow at a galloping pace. Exhaling a huge sigh of relief, you instruct your men to ‘heave-to’, able to relax at last, for the pilot cutter is here. 

This may sound a little dramatic but pilot cutters were often the saviours to larger vessels needing to head into port. Swift, agile sailing boats they had experienced sailors at the helm, each equipped with in-depth knowledge of local waters and able to safely guide the bigger ships safely into harbour, often through treacherous waters. Operated as a freelance service, pilots would strive to lead as many ships into port as they could to ensure a hefty profit. The more nimble the vessel, the quicker a larger ship could be reached which in turn meant that faster vessels became more profitable. 

Originally based on single-mast fishing boats, pilot cutters evolved a deep hull shape, a gaff rig and a long bowsprit with room for jibs in order to increase speed and manoeuvrability. The design of the cutters changed rapidly between the 17th-19th Centuries, sped up by the increased competition for business. 

Constantly outdoing other pilot cutters, of which there were many, was a top priority. Like all competitive evolutionary traits, survival favoured the fittest – and in this context, the pilot cutters not only needed to be fast and nimble, but they also needed to strike a balance between speed and crew size – more crew meant a higher wage bill.  Many of the smaller cutters working the Bristol Channel could be operated with just two crew; the skipper and the apprentice. In some cases, if there was a ship to be brought up river, the skipper offered his services as a pilot, leaving the cutter in the hands of the apprentice to sail it back.  

However, speed and agility weren’t the only requirements – ‘seaworthiness’ was also an essential part of the design brief. Off the coast of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly pilot cutters would fill their berths with experienced pilots before waiting out in the Western Approaches, often for several days, patiently anticipating approaching vessels. As soon as tall masts loomed on the horizon, the Captain would drop the knowledgeable Pilot off to schooners, brigs and barques to sail as fast as possible, ensuring they were first to arrive and offer their services.

As ever, times change and the arrive of maritime steam power saw the role of the traditional wooden cutter change indefinitely at the start of the 20th Century. Many traditional pilot cutters were sold off as private yachts to make room for the faster, more manoeuvrable steamboats. Yet the name ‘cutter,’ with its connotation of the provision of a maritime service, lived on and is still used today for customs boats in both the UK and the US. 

Proving that the legacy of the Pilot Cutter is strong, Cornish Shipwright Luke Powell has dedicated much of his time over the last 20 years to faithfully reconstructing numerous Scilly pilot cutters.  Luke has also established the Truro-based ‘Rhoda Mary’ Shipyard where, along with his team of skilled shipwrights, he has recreated a  replica of the Falmouth pilot cutter “Vincent” using only traditional wooden boat building methods. 

These fantastic traditional boats offer a thrilling sailing experience to both the novice and seasoned sailor and VentureSail are thrilled that both ‘Pellew’ and ‘Agnes’ will be part of our Cornish sailing charter fleet. Sailing on the very waters on which they plied their trade so many years ago, both vessels provide the opportunity for guests to taste a little bit of history as these nifty wooden boats skim their way across the waves, imagine a larger, tall-masted wooden vessel is in their wake. 

View Pellew’s voyages as she sails the coast of Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and the Hebrides.

Sail with Agnes as she explores Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.