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On a picnic day like this 

Sam Llewellyn enjoys a picnic in the Isles of Scilly.

The sun is shining down on the harbour of Old Grimsby, Tresco, Isles of Scilly. There are little granite houses huddled round a crystal-white beach. The sky is a sheet of blue, the sea vodka-clear, shading into turquoise then deep azure. A little south-westerly breeze sets the ripples clocking against the boat.

All aboard. Someone ties the dinghy to the mooring buoy. The sails go up the mast, rich tan against the blue. A puff of wind shadows the water. The girl on the foredeck uncleats the mooring pennant, holds the jib aback to pull the nose away from the buoy. The helmsman sheets in the main, and the sails draw, and the deck tilts, and the small chuckle of the bow-wave becomes a comforting roar.

Swooshing tides

Little rocky islands lie scattered across the sea ahead. There are shallows. Serious cruisers with deep-water ambitions will be in the Western Rocks, where the huge blue swells will be crunching round the Bishop light. It is tough going out there in the Western Rocks. There is nothing between them and America, and the seas arrive charged with the power of four thousand miles of open ocean. Very few people now remember the intricate systems of transits that took the boatmen of Scilly through the labyrinths of ledges and the swooshing tides.

This is not something we have to worry about here in the lee of Tresco. The south-westerly knocking the tops off the swells in the far west of the islands is a warm zephyr wafting us down the channel. The ebb is with us, and the breeze is just forward of the beam, and on a picnic day like this there is no need for speed.

Cloud of gulls

The crew are sunbathing on the bottomboards, heads pillowed on jerseys. It is time to put the boat’s head eastish, on a course that will bring us hard up against Land’s End if we keep going for twenty-five miles or so, but we won’t. The Eastern Islands loom ahead, seals’ heads swivelling as we broad-reach by, twenty-two elegant feet of open boat, white hull and tan sails, picnic basket lashed in place.

The seabed is sinking away now. We are approaching the perimeter of the islands, and the horizon is wide enough to show the curve of the world, broken by a white cloud of gulls diving on a shoal of mackerel. The tide streams through the grim crests of the Hard Lewis as we go round to port, nervously eying the swirl and suck of the seas over the rocks off St Martin’s Head. The mainsail flops over as we gibe. The bay opens ahead, steep-to at first, then lined with a huge white crescent of sand.

Stepping ashore

There are two families on the beach – a crowd, by Scilly standards. We give the nearest one a hundred yards to itself. The water in the lee of the land is like glass, only clearer. We take the halyards off the cleats, drop the sails and haul up the centreboard. The boat carries her way. The stem crunches gently on to the sand. We grasp the picnic basket and step ashore.

We shove the boat off the beach with a tripping line to the crown of the anchor, which is balanced on the gunwale. The line pays out, accelerating as the boat moves into the breeze. When it is far enough off the beach someone jerks the line, and the anchor plunges into the deep, and the boat settles to the hook.

Never mind sextants and plotters. The chart, the eyeball and the tripping line are the skills necessary for a Scilly picnic. That, and keeping the sand out of the sandwiches.

Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly

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