Explore the South West

Join sailing journalist, Sam Llewellyn in the second of his new series of anecdotes from around the UK. This month, Sam explores the South West.
08 Jun 23

Dart Marina Viewed from Dartmouth

The boat is sliding through the narrows between Dartmouth Castle to starboard and Kingswear Castle to port. The river Dart and its bustling towns and thatched villages are falling astern. The view ahead is the mainsail and the genoa, goosewinged to the northerly breeze, and beyond them the horizon. 

The ebb is slapping at a red buoy on the starboard bow. Four miles beyond it is another red can, and beyond it the white pillar of Start Point light. Keep well off – beyond and inshore of the second buoy the tide is ripping across shallows. The point comes abeam, dizzy against the clouds. Helm down, sheet in. The boat heels, lifting to a long swell. Off the port bow the horizon is no longer calm and respectable Lyme Bay, but hard blue Atlantic. The cliffs creep by.

wide shot of British coastline

The forecast says northerlies – offshore, nothing more strenuous than a reach on this passage. Salcombe is up there, protected by a bar lethal at low water in a big sea - a tidy town, fish and chips, posh soap and souvenirs, charming beaches for the children and a river snaking into the Devon hills. Highly attractive; but today's passage plan is for Cawsand Bay.

The shore ticks by: the grim reddish cliffs of Bolt Head and Bolt Tail, then Bigbury Bay and the river Avon, shoal draft boats only; then the river Yealm, beachless and beautiful, but full of boats in the season. The last crumb of sun sinks into the sea, and there is the Eddystone flashing white just above the horizon. Ahead and to starboard the sky is full of the dirty red glow of Plymouth. The wind has stayed in the north, bless it. We hurdle the swell full and by, nicely heeled as the stars pop out above the masthead trilight. 

View of Mount Batten Tower in Plymouth in Devon in England in Europe

We have sailed thirty miles, and the day is beginning to feel long. Plymouth bay opens up, a blaze of lights to starboard, marinas and Navy and the river Tamar winding north between its ancient quays and oakwoods. Then there on the port bow is the green wink of the Knap buoy, and ahead the lights of Kingsand, with Cawsand Bay tucked under its lee. Into the bay. Go head to wind. Down goes the anchor. The breeze is showing signs of backing. Fingers crossed for tomorrow.

Morning. The sky is blue, with white fluffs of cloud. It is still early in the year, but swim, shiver, breakfast. The wind, definitely northwest now, clears the bacon smoke. Falmouth would be possible at a pinch. But Falmouth is forty miles in a straight line, and if the wind backs further, as it almost certainly will, it will be a beat. The rule of four says never sail with more than four people for more than four hours in more than force four. It will be four hours to Fowey. Right. Fowey it is; early, with time to explore upriver, avoiding the vast china-clay ships, and tie up on the pontoon in Mixtow Pill. 

Wide shot of ferry boat with Cornish fishing village Falmouth in the background.

Fowey to Falmouth is not necessarily a picnic; but sailing to windward is said to be good for the soul, and when the soul has had enough there is always the engine. Still, it is a relief late next day to motor past Pendennis Castle into Carrick Roads and the great sunken valley of the Fal: ancient towns, stately houses, beautiful villages, luxurious  hotels, wild creeks winding into thick green nowheres swarming with birds. You could stay here a month – a lifetime – exploring mudbanks and oysters and superyachts, or gliding up the Helford River past National Trust gardens and Luke Powell pilot cutters.

View of the estuary of the Helford River, Cornwall

Enough of beautiful inlets, though. It is time for a close, cynical look at the forecast. If it suits – and only if it suits – take a deep breath and fill up with fuel and water in Falmouth Haven. Then slide south past the tolling of the Manacles buoy, and set the nose for the Lizard, the vast horizon, and beyond it the green-and-silver jewels of Scilly.

Discover more:

For more adventures, join Sam as he recalls the sights from his first exploration of this series, the Bristol Channel from Cornwall to Wales

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