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Sam Llewellyn reaches landfall in the Isles of Scilly

It has been a long night. Yesterday we sailed from Baltimore at the southwest corner of Ireland. Scilly is somewhere over the horizon ahead. At four o'clock in the morning the sea was suddenly lashing with hundreds of dolphins under the full moon. Now the sun has climbed over the horizon and the world is flooded with colour. We are under full sail, heeled well over to port, hurdling a long, slow, bright blue swell.

The swells are not trivial ridges in the water. They are things that if you saw them static and covered in grass you would think were a gardener's landscape feature. A sunfish slides by, rowing its disc of a body clumsily towards America. A couple of cables to starboard the lackadaisical black fin of a basking shark comes and goes with the rise and fall.

There is a bit of breeze, so we are using the ancient techniques of sailing over swells to windward. Luff on the upslope, then bear away on the downslope. The sparkle of the day and the rhythm of the sea are infectious, at least for the helmsperson. The standby watchkeeper disappears down the companionway, and the smells of coffee and bacon drift aft.

The wind is getting up, and white clouds are sliding on to the sky. But ahead, far, far ahead, little crumbs of grey are nicking the saw-toothed horizon. It is time for a hearty roar of Land Ho, which will be echoed by prayers of thanksgiving from those inhabitants of the cabin whose night has been a queasy one and who are blaming the smell of paraffin, though there is in fact not a trace of paraffin on the boat. A couple of them crawl into the cockpit, tousled and pale green, fleeing the frying bacon.

The islands rise from the swell. A fishing boat goes by, only its masts visible as it sinks in the trough, then perched high on a hill of water. There are granite cliffs on the shore, topped with yellow gorse and purple heather. At the foot of the cliffs the waves thump in, sending up trees of white spray. As the three peaks of Men-a-Vaur slide by to port the green faces in the cockpit grow gradually pinker, and someone puts on more bacon. Ahead, the waves suck and crunch on the grim and ever-boiling Kettle.

Bear away now. Let out some mainsheet. Over to port the waves are standing up on the Golden Ball bar, toppling, crumbling into Persil-white foam. We can feel it in the boat: the lift of the stern, the sinking of the bow until we are looking deep into the trough, then the surge ahead, aiming upwind a fraction to avoid the dreaded broach. The green people are now not only pink, but clustered round the log, cheering between bites of bacon sandwich.

Physics dictates that the maximum speed of a displacement hull is 1.34 times the square root of the waterline length, so we are in theory limited to slightly less than seven knots. Today, though, physics is flat on the canvas and the referee is counting it out, because the log says ten knots, eleven, thirteen, and we are flying on great white wings of spray. Until the wave rolls on ahead, and we wallow, waiting for the next one to come along, and it starts all over again.

Then we are past the Golden Ball Ledge, and the movement has changed to a steady glide, and in to Old Grimsby we sail, Toppers and children on the beach and the Blockhouse smiling over the white bay. Roll away the jib. Come head to wind. The anchor goes down. Silence, with the cry of gulls.

Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly

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