A Deckhands Perspective

2013-07-10 21.27.44

“What are you hoping to get out of this experience?” It’s a perfectly fair question, but not one I was altogether prepared to answer. I told Nikki, “Sailing experience, with an eye on a possible career change,” but I’m not certain that’s the full answer.

The cuticles on all my fingers are torn up and streaked with dried blood. When I wash the heads, using a vinegar/water solution so I don’t damage the woodwork, the cuts burn. My muscles are sore, which isn’t surprising, considering I left a desk job to come aboard, but I’m an athlete and it’s been four days… Hopefully, my body will adjust to the climbing and squatting and pulling in the next few.

On my first voyage we circumnavigated the Isle of Mull, exploring caves, viewing puffins, and tromping up to Gylen Castle, which has a grim history reminiscent of A Game of Thrones. That was tourism, though, and while those small trips were fun – in fact, they are the purpose for many visitors – those trips weren’t my purpose. This is a tour ship, but it’s also a living community, a century-old trading ship worked and maintained by a small crew. The experience of working a vessel is what I am here for, and despite the physical strain and the foibles of literally learning the ropes, I’m experiencing a sense of satisfaction that I haven’t in a long time.

I can’t pronounce, much less spell, some of the knots I’m using: the bowline, clove hitch, reef knot, sheef (sp) shank (?), and slip knot. We coil clockwise “halyards”, “lines”, and “sheets” – not “rope”. We lower the main sail “throat” first, followed by its “peak”. All these words, which I struggle to remember in a pinch, are becoming a part of my daily vocabulary. Aboard the Bessie Ellen, I am trading a comfortable office for sea spray and “dreek” Scottish weather; swapping the summer sunshine of my home in Istanbul for rain and fog and cold; and leaving behind the bustle of 23m people for a small boat with fewer than 20 passengers and crew, sailing remote islands that feel like they’re locked in the 19th century.

The Bessie Ellen - 27/08/2013

It’s jolly good fun.  Today will be the start of my second voyage with the Bessie Ellen. More learning and cleaning and work awaits. Tonight, we’re bound for Loch Buie, continuing our search for good wind to sail and eagles to watch. Sometime in the course of all this excitement, I hope to find an answer to Nikki’s question, but I get the feeling that I don’t need to be in a hurry to do so.



Heading out again soon.  Rain and thunder on the way, but it has been so hot here in Oban the last days. Looking at the forecast of South easterlies, we will take Loch Buie for eagles  as an anchorage, before heading towards Islay again to pick up the cargo of Bruichladdich for Drogheda.

Ballycastle and Rathlin are on the way and I hope to make it to Warren Point where Bessie Ellen used to trade years ago. See you on the Boyne Friday morning.

Music, Mountains & Malt


From leaving our home in Falmouth we had a stunning but rather windless voyage up to Holyhead and Scotland which gave us time to cruise the Southern hebrides.  It feels really very quiet at this time of year, the season is just starting and we have the place to ourselves. Empty anchorages and lochs give us peace and more access to watching wildlife.  Just on Jura alone, anchored  under the paps of Jura in Loch Tarbert,  we had 5 red deer including some 6 point stags, seals and of course the wild Jura goats on the shore.  The ancient raised beaches  are superbly developed along the coast. They occur as terraces and extensive ‘staircases’ of unvegetated shingle ridges, formed at a time of high relative sea level as the last ice sheet was melting around 15,000 years ago.


Jura and Islay are two islands close together and world renowned for peated whisky.  Of course, it would be rude not to try the single malts, so Bessie Ellen’s guests gathered at Bunnahabain on the shores of the Sound of Islay for a tour of the distillery there.  The smell of the peated barley takes over the moment you walk in and you are treated to the site of copper stills and oak vats of enormous proportions, some over 100 years old now all making whisky in a time honoured tradition.  Our love for the water of life was a reason for joining the Feis Ile, a festival of music and malt.  Along with our colleagues from the Whisky Lounge, we visited most of the famous names of malt in the week.  Port Charlotte was a real find, a perfectly whitewashed small village on the edge of Loch Indaal where one of our guests had a long lost cousin.  So after a dram and a present of a Lobster we sailed on towards Port Ellen and the southern coasts where Laphroig, Ardbeg and Lagavulin nestle amongst the rocks distilling some of the finest malts.  We were honoured to have a tasting of some tremendous whisky hosted by Colin from Diaggio, an expert in his field who introduced us to Blue cheese with malt whisky, and certainly, it is one to try.



As with much of life aboard, food plays an enormous part of our day.  Our time ashore is spent foraging for mussels or sea spinach and the crew set the crab pots for the night.  So far, success has been remarkable with a few tins of tinned mackerel.  Our last haul from Gometra produced 4 hen crabs, certainly enough for lunch although this lobster was donated earlier in the week.

This week we are off down Southwards again to cruise Colonsay, Iona and perhaps Northern Ireland on the way south to Drogheda for the maritime festival.  Once again, Islay whisky plays a part as Bessie Ellen will be taking a token cargo of Bruichladdich whisky and malt to recreate old trading routes between the two ports.  If you would like to read further, then follow the link and come and see us there.  https://droghedalife.com/791/77379/a/whisky-galore-as-droghedas-hebridean-trade-links-to-be-commemorated

Early Season Sailing


So much has happened since last time I posted, and rather too long!  Spring went very fast, helped along by good weather for maintenance and the arrival from the West Indies of our shipmates aboard sail cargo vessel Tres Hombres.  Our first sail was to join them at anchor in Polkerris inside gribben head, the sail down to Falmouth with them where they received


a fanfare welcome and had organised events running all week.  Down in the hold,  Rum from Dominican Republic, molasses, Grenada chocolate and coffee beans all waiting to be discharged in a European port.  Falmouth to Amsterdam and beyond.  Lucy Gillam from New Dawn Traders has imported the rum into the UK and will continue to ship goods by sail when and where she can.  The ship looked great and our crew had a tour given by the crew and captain Lammert.  One of our old crew was also on board, Sam from two years ago, now been sailing all winter aboard Tres Hombres.  Its wonderful when you get to meet up with old friends and crew wherever you may be but can lead to late nights and headaches.

Now it was our turn to really get sailing, and with a pure stroke of luck Easter winds blew us down to Scilly and back. Our welcome there was as good as ever with an alongside berth after Scillonian had left and a visit from Fraser & Becky Hicks who run Sea King from St Mary’s.  Although hard hit by the winter gales, there was surprisingly little damage to the islands.

Heading Eastwards, we had some great sailing visiting the old cornish harbours of Polperro, Cawsand and Charlestown.  Basking sharks have returned early this spring. Numbers were seriously down last year, but on a short stretch of coast from Fowey we say some really large ones. Our guests this week were really game for trying their skills at setting sail and navigating. One lad, Dave who had never sailed before was up and down, sailing off the anchor and just really having the best time.  He could not believe how much fun you can have aboard a tall ship and has now applied for deckhand. A special guest also featured this week, Classic Yacht TV were aboard to film an episode about Bessie Ellen and the work we do now to keep our heritage alive.

Now, after a short passage, I am sitting in Holyhead marina contemplating the voyage past. After the lovely summery weather all spring, the West wind gods blew up a short gale and Bessie Ellen had to wait for it to pass.  Two nights passed before we could attempt Lizard point but the wind was becoming fair later.  Bit rough mind, but we finally anchored at midnight for a rest before an early start round Longships and Lands End and away on up towards St George’s Channel.


The wind abated and we stormed along under full canvas until the wind died off Milford Haven, so with 50 dolphins in the full moonlight we took it slow up towards Port Dinallaen.  Warm sunshine abounded and there was absolutely not a breath of wind to sail so we lay around seeing canvas and varnishing for the afternoon. To end the day, the small pub Ty Coch, opened just for us in the last of the evening sun. Bliss!

Spring, Varnish & Brightwork



We have been so lucky last week here in Fowey, Cornwall, spring has really begun with cloudless days, warm sunshine and the woodlands bursting into life beside the ship.  Bessie Ellen is lying alongside a pontoon in the river with an old building which was once a pilchard cellar for salting barrels of the silver darlings before shipping to the Mediterranean. Fish cellars were built, away from the town and other settlements, to process and store the fish. The sites were chosen for their ease of accessibility by water. The fish were stacked in the cellars and either pressed into barrels using huge oak beams, smoked or pickled in brine. Another of these cellars was at Brazen Island, and parts of the pits used to collect the fish oil still remain. Its sad the fish are not here in their vast shoals any more, but they are returning slowly and are now fished in a more sustainable method using smaller boats and cotton filament nets.

As we work on setting up the new bowsprit rigging of new whisker booms and guys, tarring rigging and varnishing, the air is full of bird noises.  Mallard and swans visit for any morsel of bread, the ever present gull and the rather prehistoric cormorants entertain us with their diving and popping up all over the place with beaks full of wriggling eels or small fish. Early afternoon brings the herons as they return back to their nests. Mobbed by gulls, their barks and squawks ring out over the river  and just epitomises life on an English river.

This weather brings out the varnish brushes, scrapers and sandpapers.  There is much discussion over brightwork, but we seem to have reached a good and fairly maintenance free solution.  All our spars and pin rails and what we call heavy use woodwork is treated with Tonkinois, a french manufactured mix of natural oils with added hardeners.  We use this because of it is easy to repair and apply, plus it has a good fire rating. (Does not burn easily)

This varnish does not give a huge glossy finish, but is good for our native timbers and lasts well. I must add that it is not so good for tropical oily woods such as teak or mahogany.

The aft cabin roof, planked in Douglas fir has a harder, more glossy finish.  The choice here is Hempel Classic as all our paint products are Hempel and it keeps things more simple.   Hard enough to take the traffic but not great against sun, this area needs to be redone about every four years and takes a good week to strip, sand down and add enough layers to build a shine.  This photo shows five coats and we should do at least two more for a good high build.

Application of both these varnishes is relatively easy, you need a good quality brush and some natural gum turpentine  to make the products flow off the brush and blend a little more easily.  A trick I have learned from Denmark is adding a little liquid driers.  This really helps in cold or damp conditions which we get in the early evenings at this time of year but does not affect the final finish in any way.

If you would like to ask any questions regarding your own varnish projects, then please do get in touch and we can try our best to assist you to reach a perfect finish for your brightwork.

Bessie Ellen Birdwatching Week


Are you interested in birdlife? Then perhaps voyage BE310514 is just what you are looking for. This year we have professional  guide  Dave Paynter who will join us on this voyage only, for a week of discovering  all birds both native and migrants that live here in the western isles of Scotland.

images-2Dave has been the Reserve Manager at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust reserve at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire for over 30 years, as well as the physical management of the reserve he runs an extensive visitor engagement calendar of walks, talks and tours enthusing thousands of visitors with the wildlife that surrounds them. He has extensive knowledge of Waterfowl, Seabirds and Birds of Prey with previous jobs on Skomer Island and Skye; this has also allowed him to develop as a keen botanist and all round naturalist. He has had a lifetime passion for Scotland especially the Western Isles and has travelled extensively there. More recently he has been exploring the area by Sea kayak and in 2011 a big Birthday treat fulfilled a lifetime ambition by introducing him to classic sailing with a voyage on Bessie Ellen. He describes this as probably the very best way of exploring this amazing landscape and seeing its wildlife up close.

imagesAmong the species we are likely to see are: Sea Eagles, Golden Eagle Auks, guillemot and puffin Corncrake Wheatear May is the breeding season, so do make sure that you bring your field glasses to really get involved.  We do carry some bird books on board but bring your own if you have a chosen favourite.

Interesting Puffin Facts


Bessie Ellen loves puffins so much that this year we have moved to start voyages earlier in Scotland just so we can see more of them during the breeding season. We will be visiting Canna, Lunga and Shiants to see both the puffin and guillemot in their millions, as they feed and nurture their young on these remote cliffs._MG_1697

Photo courtesy of G Hudson

Atlantic puffins, dubbed “sea parrots’, are small seabirds that belong to the Auk family and sport large, brightly-colored beaks on their substantially-sized heads.
For most of the year, Atlantic puffins live on the open ocean, with a range spanning from the eastern coast of Canada and the northern United States to the western coast of Europe and northern Russia.

Puffins are specially adapted to living on the open sea. Waterproof feathers allow them stay warm as they float at the ocean’s surface or swim underwater. Diving as deep as 60 m (200 ft.), they swim by flapping their wings as if flying through the water and use their feet to steer. There, they hunt herring, hake, capelin, and sand eels. Atlantic puffins are also excellent fliers. Flapping their wings at up to 400 beats per minute, puffins can reach speeds of 88 km/h (55mph).

April to mid-August is breeding season for puffins. When a puffin is around 3-5 years old, it will choose a partner at sea to mate with for life.

It is thought that the birds’ colorful bills and feet, which fade in the winter and brighten in the spring, help puffins assess potential mates.

Puffins create burrows, about 90 cm (3 ft.), in rocky cliffs either in the soil or between rocks. Often, couples will return to the same burrow year after year. At the back of the burrow, they build a nest lined with grasses, seaweed, and feathers. After the female lays a single egg, both parents take turn incubating the egg for about 40 days.
Once the chick hatches, the mother and father will take turns bringing it fish to eat several times a day. Atlantic puffins have the ability to carry several fish in their beaks at one time. They push the fish to the back of their mouth with their tongue, where ridges at the top of their bill secure the fish in place. This allows puffins to keep their mouth open to catch more fish without losing any in the process. In general, they can hold around 10 fish in their beak at once.

Conservation Status
With 6 million alive today, Atlantic puffins are not endangered. But some populations have been drastically reduced. Puffin colonies are threatened by overfishing, which causes a shortage of food for adults to feed their young.

Happy New Year

 The Bessie Ellen - 27/08/2013Greetings from Charlestown, Cornwall.  We have been blown into the new year with gales and rain with still no sign of let up, but at least we are afloat and sheltered inside the lock gates here in port. Work starts today with maintenance to blocks and rigging as we move on into spring and the start of sailing in March.

Two new crew join today, George and Freddie who sailed back from Denmark in December have signed up for the season to learn more traditional methods of sailing other than yachts. Both have good skipper experience from working in the Med for a charter company in Greece last season but I think they will experience a very different type of sailing aboard a traditional tall ship.

First on the list will be servicing around 60 wooden blocks (Ash).  For the last three years they have been aloft in sun, wind and rain and now need stripping down for greasing, revarnishing and checking for defects, i.e wearing on the cheeks.   Although an easy task, it can be long and drawn out as the varnish will need good drying temperatures, not what we have at present.  To reduce the chemical and polluting effects, we are using a Tung and linseed oil mix that penetrates the wood and provides a good shine, plus it is easy to repair when worn.  Stockholm tar is added to colour the mix and help the waterproofing.  Stainless pins are greased and new copper plates are set over the holes.  I have a large collection of penny and ha’penny that are just perfect for this job and they have a sailing ship/ Brittannia on the coin face.

Rope wise, each halyard and sheet will be end-for ended where possible. New splices turned in and served and parcelled in the traditional manner with spun yarn or tarred marlin.

Using our strong ties with Denmark, many of our rigging products are sourced there.  If you are looking for belay pins, hoops, blocks or other wooden items,  can recommend H.J.  Jacobsen for a fast and efficient service and not ridiculously priced!

Now we have the time, i hope to update the blog weekly to give tips and advice to any boat owner also contemplating maintenance, and if you would like to get some hands on experience, then give us a call and come down to try traditional skills for yourself.

An update from Svendborg

planking 3Launching day arrives and today sees a beautiful contrast  to yesterdays heavy rain, with warming sunshine, crisp air and a cobalt blue sky. Having spent three weeks on the slip at Ring Andersens’ shipyard  Svendborg, our ship is ready to make a splash in her new livery of green anti-fouling and tarred topsides.

The carpenters have renewed three planks on starboard side.  Why three?  Due to the age of the pitch pine, now over 100 years old,  it had become brittle, losing much of its  resin and strength.  The seams were also far too wide to caulk, and the trick of caulking in bandsaw blades was unthinkable this time. One of the planks held all the chain plates so the main shrouds were released and all the bolts driven out to allow access to plank and frames.

Afloat  again  and its time to re-rig the shrouds by tensioning the lanyards through the deadeyes to the chain plates. So it’s out with the handy billy and some applied muscle with accompanying grunts. The important thing is to get the tension just right. Not too loose or too tight and of course even on both sides.  Once set up with the mast straight, a racking seizing is laid onto the lanyard to hold the rope from slipping then finished with a cowlick hitch.  Today we work with a modern spun yarn instead of the more traditional tarred marlin, it lasts longer and doesn’t break so easy.  Luckily for us we have the help of Oda who has recently come from the training ship Georg Stage who has a keen interest in traditional boats and rigging.  Niels, a long   standing crew member has also arrived from Copenhagen to give a hand h ere and there.

So while we are busy  down in the yard, Pete’s work is to pull a crew together for the voyage home in a few weeks time. The plan is through Kiel canal, past Cuxhaven then down towards Dover before we turn west to Cornwall and our winter berth, Charlestown harbour.

On our arrival in Charlestown in early December we will be organizing a series of events  over the winter months, these will include open boat days, work shops highlighting traditional skills, presentations, lunches and possibly public Christmas dinners.

Scilly post

49 55′ N   006 19’W

Preparing for sea.  Our voyage crew are ashore on Tresco being given a guided tour by Will Wagstaff.  With the weather we have been having, this place is better than the Carribbean, the sand so white and azure sea.  Yesterday we took a picnic lunch on St Mary’s provided by our chef,Pete.  Homemade quiche with chilled white wine, salmon and potato salad all went down surprisingly well.   One of our old Scillonian crew made a fabulous birthday cake for one guest so after all that food  we slept on the sand with the birds singing in  the spring sun.

Tonight will be a different story.  Forecast E’ly 5-6.  I suspect a long voyage back to fowey but well worth it.  Bessie Ellen will sail with double reefed mizzen, full main and three heads’ls, hoping to make 6.5kts, arriving Fowey Sunday morning.