Volcanoes on the edge of the Atlantic

A voyage in the Canaries aboard Bessie Ellen is so far away from the usual winter sun packages. You will be amazed at just how much diversity there is here in the far western group of islands offering you a very different winter  break.

Situated 180NM off the coast of Morocco, the western islands of Tenerife, La Palma, Gomera and El Hierro rise out of a sparkling cerulean sea and provide a a second home to Bessie Ellen. I have spent many winters here, and would be thrilled to sail with you to discover your own Canary Adventure.

None of our voyages run to an itinerary but if I provide an introduction to what you can expect, you will then be able to create your own unique experience

All the voyages will start and finish in the modern marina of San Miguel.  Chosen for its proximity to the airport and the shelter of the waters, it provides an ideal location as an embarkation point, giving a gentle start to your holiday.

Dolphin sailing next to Bessie Ellen

Whales and dolphins are abound here and none are more easy to find than the Pilot whale.  Not a true whale, but a species of dolphin, these quiet and gentle mammals are easy to spot in the calm waters under Tenerife.  As you set sail, the whales come close to the ship in large pods of up to 20.  They float or “log” on the surface in these groups, diving up to 2000 ft to feed on squid that live at great depth. Other whales of the larger species can be found to the south of Gomera and include Brydes, Fin and Sperm whales. Supper happy dolphins are easier to spot, the playful bottlenose form groups around the Masca cliffs, providing a great chance for you to photograph these incredible creatures in still, crystal clear waters. Spinner and Atlantic spotted dolphins tear out of the waves alongside us as under full sail, Bessie Ellen reaches up to 9 knots sailing between the islands.

The islands shelve very quickly into the sea and provide little in the way of snorkelling reefs, but there are a few spots to spend some time drifting on the swell, watching jewelled fish swim along the white rocky bottom.  If you are lucky, there are some spots where you can swim with manta ray and turtles.   

Sunset in the Canaries credit Gemma Turner

Leaving the glittering sea behind, it’s time to travel inland to visit some of the greener islands, and to get there, we sail.  Whether you are a seasoned sailor or have yet to set foot on a boats deck, part of the thrill of your holiday is taking part in hauling up sails and handling the ship’s Helm (wheel), learning some navigation and watching the ocean miles slip away. Over the horizon lie new lands ready to welcome you to their own ocean paradise.

My favourite island is La Palma, so green and unspoilt by commercial tourism and retaining the historical towns of 400 years ago.  There are two ports to choose from here, Tazacorte in the west where the banana plantations reach the shore and the black sand beaches offer inviting cool waters to swim after a hot day; or the more genteel capital of Santa Cruz, a typical  colonial  merchant town strung out along the shore, flanked by green mountains which soar up into the clouds. Although a little cooler, the city is a great place to wander through, sample some local wine and cheese or even take part in one of the many festivals held here.  A typical stopover here will include a day up at the top of the massive crater for a decent walk and stretch of the legs.  The crew hire a van and drive you to the very top of Taburiente, 2,400 meters above the sea.  This outstanding national park provides some great walks of different distances and levels of difficulty.  I know the area well now and choose the easier route passing round the edge of the caldera where the views are vertical to the sea below.  On a clear day you can even see Bessie Ellen in the marina. At the end of a 2 hour hike/ walk, the crew arrive with a picnic lunch before driving you back down the mountain, through the cloud forests of juniper and laurel. Take a brief dip in the waterfall before heading back to the ship for a dinner of something amazing from the local markets here.  Now, if you are not well and truly tired, and you should be, there are plenty of salsa bars in the towns to enjoy until the small hours.

View of the Canary islands

I am a great believer in the ship as a mode of transport set to arrive at unique places and explore. Gomera is one of these little gems of islands where you really feel you can relax.  I call it flip-flop island, a place where life runs at a much slower pace.  The island is small and public transport routes, combined with well structured walks, mean you can see much of the island in one day.  The top of Gomera is ringed by the cloud forest.  Stone peaks named by the Guanches with mythical names rise up out of terraced hillsides.  Palms and canes rustle in the breeze as you pass by on well worn tracks and, if you are lucky, you will hear the local whistling language, a language of trilling notes used as a way of communicating between the deep ravines and valleys.  From the lush green at the top, the landscape changes as you reach further down towards the sea becoming dryer and less fertile.  Cactus and lizards bake in the sun and the sea surrounding you, beckons for a swim.

As with La Palma, there are two very different places we visit.  The small town of San Sebastian is just delightful and is steeped in history – Columbus stopped here on all his explorations to the new world to take water and little his fleet.  He also had a lover here which may explain why! Life in town is simple, the gaily painted streets lead to a shaded square which seems to be the hub of local life.  Nothing can be more pleasing than watching the world go by here…that is if the crew let you! San Sebastian has become the beach of choice for our internship game of Frisbee. Played out on the sand at the edge of the bay, the townsfolk cheer as the Bessie Ellen arrives for a highly competitive game that is a cross between frisbee and rugby. Not for the fainthearted, and perhaps after a few bruises it’s time for a swim and a cold beer.

Sitting on the bow sprit

Sailing round the coast passing scorched red cliffs, the next stop is to explore the 18th century tuna factory, nestled at the bottom of a steep barranco. The ruined buildings are worth a visit and the fishing from our deck is just perfect. Sometimes we barbecue here as the suns rays bathe the beach in hot sun till late in the afternoon. Onwards to Vueltas and Valle Gran Rey, or valley of the great King.  And it is here, once the anchor is down you can dive out of the rigging into those velvet waters, cooling off after a hot day.  Snorkelling with manta rays is great here, plus there is the opportunity to walk up the verdant valley to steep cool waterfalls.  Once night falls, the stars here just glisten against the black sky.  The cool air is perfect to lie and gaze aloft, taking pictures and understanding ancient constellations. Why not indulge in a midnight swim under this starlit sky, which is mirrored with the stars below as the bioluminescence bursts into life and we float on an ocean of space.

El Hierro is far to the south and with the prevailing wind this island proves hard to reach. Restingua at the southern end made headlines recently when the underwater volcano erupted continuously for about 5 months. Now it has settled, this small community is a quiet place and it is here we get the best fish. Giant fish, wahoo and kingfish nearly two meters long chase brightly coloured lures. Tuna and bonito are exciting to catch and perhaps with help to land it will be your fish dinner today! Flying fish leap joyously from the waves, a sliver of silver against the onyx of the lava. Above though, a totally different world awaits. Small farms with sheep and goats range the lush green valleys, and it is this island that provides all the others with vegetable produce not imported. The bus runs from Puerto Estaca and along with children and chickens, the ride is exhilarating.

So, that’s my Canary life, but there is always more to explore and share with others, so if you find this your kind of adventure, why not give me a ring to talk over possibilities?

Lunch in a Spanish square on the Canaries

Sailing and the Single Traveller

I have spent some time over the last few weeks, taking a closer look at the demographic of our customer base, noticing that many of you are single travellers. For those of you who are yet to voyage with us, a holiday afloat on board Bessie Ellen offers a new travel experience filled with various outdoor pursuits, meeting new people and combining a greener way to travel with comfort and adventure.

It can be a little daunting taking the first steps in to something new so I will endeavour to interpret life on board Bessie Ellen, from first impressions to a typical day at sea;

From the moment you step on board the ship it becomes your floating home. Because we are focused on safety, and the crew are well aware that not everyone is nautical, the first thing we aim to do is teach you the ropes and terminology, thereby, enhancing your ability to take a more active role in your exciting new adventure. Most people are surprised how quickly they get the hang of it.

Day to day, we tend not to follow a strict itinerary, instead sailing to where the wind and weather dictates. Cruises are generally around islands where there is so much to see and explore, meaning that the day is frequently broken up by joining in with new found friends to set foot on deserted islands or land upon secluded beaches for a stroll and a picnic.

Evenings generally find us anchored up in an idyllic spot to enjoy some great food, story telling and possibly live music followed by a beer or glass of wine on deck to soak up the ambience, views and often breathtaking sunsets. Experience has taught us that this memory making leads to some of your fellow guests becoming lifelong friends with whom you will enjoy other adventures in the future.

If you have any queries about a voyage on board Bessie Ellen, then please do get in touch with myself, Nikki – I look forward to hearing from you.

Scottish sunset Frances Trainer

Gourmet Galley | Moules Marinière

We love to forage for free food, and mussels are bountiful and easy to find in Scotland – but make sure you watch out for the friendly seals!

Wherever you are in the UK, there will be mussels abound, but, as the story goes, only eat them when there is an “R” in the month. Before cooking, drop them in a bucket of cold water for about 4 hours so they rid themselves of grit. Clean the shells from any barnacles, remove the beard and wash in cold water.

Moules marinières

Ingredients (serves two)

2 good handfuls of mussels

1 onion, peeled and finely diced

2 garlic cloves, finely diced

1 glass white wine

3–5 sprigs of curly parsely

Knob of butter and a glug of olive oil (1 tbsp)

Salt and pepper

  • Melt the butter and olive oil in a large saucepan (which has a lid)
  • Add the garlic a few minutes later, so you don’t burn it, then the mussels and wine
  • Put on the lid on and leave to simmer, keeping an eye on the mussels to see when they start to open. This will take around 10–15 minutes.
  • Remove the lid and taste the juice to see if it needs seasoning, add your chopped parsley and voila – a feast fit for a king.
  • Remember to discard any mussels which are still closed at the end. Another method is to use exactly the same ingredients but steam the mussels in a large pan until open. Drain, then when cooled, pop the mussel out of the shell and add to the pan of ready cooked onion, garlic and parsley. Serve with a hunk of buttery bread, preferably on a beach somewhere remote.

Moules mariniere

crew working on Bessie Ellen

Winter Volunteers Needed!

After 18 months at sea and 20,000 NM, from N57 55’ to N27 42’ and back again, Bessie Ellen will be laying up in Denmark for a well earned rest at her second home, Ring Andersen’s shipyard in Svendborg. With the ever-growing job list on the table, the workload seems enormous – especially for our small team.

As a result of this, we are after keen volunteers who would jump at the chance to experience working on a classic tall ship, and one of the oldest trading ketches around. We would need you to be aiding us in the ships refit, all while learning new skills and re-discovering old ones. We hope to extend our dynamic team, building on values of friendship and learning to engage in a different, rewarding rhythm of life.

Trainees and crew working on Bessie Ellen

The dates during which we would need this extra help on board are between the 29th September to the 30th November – obviously we wouldn’t be expecting you to work for this whole period, but we do ask for a minimum commitment of two weeks per volunteer so that you can really get your teeth into the work and bond with team.

Food and accommodation will be provided in exchange for your help in overhauling the rigging and spars, engineering maintenance, hull work and renewing carpentry. There will be general skill jobs such as sanding, varnishing and painting, with a few marginally more technical projects like replacing and servicing rigging, creating new crew accommodation, and sorting a new auxiliary generator set. As well as this, Bessie will need a ballast removal and tank testing – and a whole heap more!

As you can gather, it will be a busy time, but providing we have the right team it should all be good fun. If you are well qualified in boat repair and other relevant skills, we do have paid positions available as well – you will be well appreciated.

If you fancy this great opportunity, please do let me know and I can answer your questions and vice versa. Email me with your interests and skills (nikki@bessie-ellen.com), and we will go from there – can’t wait to meet you!

Silhouette of people on pier

Love Our Islands Campaign

The National Trust for Scotland has just ended its ‘Love Our Islands’ campaign, which they ran to highlight the importance of the culturally and environmentally protected St. Kilda archipelago, amongst others, whilst raising funds to support the cause. St Kilda is one of our favourite destinations to visit – remote, untamed and breathtakingly beautiful, the islands hold a firm place in our hearts, and the recent campaign struck a chord with us.


Although there are no longer any human residents on the islands, there are still houses, churches and other buildings which all need to be protected from the elements of the North Atlantic. However, it is the declining sea bird population which deserves much of the attention. There are over 1 million nesting seabirds on the seven islands of St Kilda, including puffins, gannets and kittiwakes. This is Europe’s largest colony, and a quarter of Britain and Ireland’s breeding Atlantic puffins. Their significance cannot be stressed enough, and recent surveys have reported that the number of these birds are declining, with both the seabirds and their habitat under huge threat from global warming.

Seabirds in the Hebrides

With the National Trust of Scotland already putting in £270,000 a year in order to continue the care that is already taking place on the island, and to be able to use the seabirds as an indicator of global warming, the archipelago needs all of the money it can get.

Aboard the Bessie Ellen, we are pleased to announce that for every passenger to come aboard with us on our voyages up to St Kilda, we will donate £5 to the campaign. Given that we travel up to the islands at least once a year, we know first hand how important it is to preserve not just the history of St Kilda, but its environment and wildlife, too.

Seals in the Hebrides

Join us, and visit the beauty of St Kilda before it is too late – however we hope that the National Trust for Scotland’s campaign will be a roaring success, and enable them to keep conserving St Kilda before it gets to the point of no return. If you want to help immediately, rather than wait until next year, donate here.

View our full voyage schedule for 2017, and have a look at the 10-day St Kilda trip here.

Microbeads | Playing our part

A few years ago, while accompanying the sail cargo ship Tres Hombres into Falmouth with her cargo of rum,  I was lucky enough to meet Emily Penn and hear about her impressive work.

Emily is an advocate for the oceans, as well as a skipper, artist and international speaker, who is focused on studying various environmental challenges in remote parts of our planet. It was her awe inspiring ‘Exxpedition’ project which pushed me to really think about the bathroom products we use on Bessie Ellen and the impact they ultimately have on the ocean. For those of you who may not be aware, ‘Exxpedition’ is a series of all woman voyages to ‘make the unseen, seen’. In other words, to raise awareness about the impact of plastics and toxins on our oceans, which sadly, are literally swimming in plastic.  Plastic doesn’t just go away by itself, it takes an incredibly long time to break down and as it is doing so, causes so much harm to a plethora of animals and the environment in which they live.

With this in mind, I began to educate myself more about microbeads, which was becoming a popular buzzword in the media. Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic which are found in an extortionate number of hygiene and bathroom products – anything from your favourite minty toothpaste to your smoothing hair conditioner could contain these little nasties. With the UK government now under pressure to follow in the footsteps of America and Canada and totally ban them, now is the time to investigate what is in our bathroom cabinet and the impact it is having – not only on the environment, but also on our health. I could go on but for those of you interested in reading a little bit more, do check out this Greenpeace feature on microbeads and discover the excellent work being undertaken by the ‘Exxpedition’ ladies.

All of the above truly resonated with me and I am thrilled to announce that this year we have teamed up with Elixir Health, a family owned business in my local town of Wadebridge, to supply all our customers with pollutant free, natural ‘Jason’ products. These will now be the only products that guests will be able to use whilst on board Bessie Ellen to ensure that all she leaves in her wake are waves and memories.

Jason microbead free products

Meet the crew | Adriaan de Vries, Mate

Adriaan de Vries mate

voyage on Bessie Ellen is about so much more than the ship and destination. We have a fabulous crew who help to ensure your time with us is truly memorable. With this in mind, we would like you to meet them all, starting with Adriaan de Vries, mate.

Adriaan joins us after completing his Captains ticket at Enkhuisen seafarers school in the Netherlands.  Adriaan was thrown into small boats from an early age, learning the hard way but perhaps also the fastest!  Then, after completing his education, he became a cucumber farmer, sailing when he could at weekends.  At the age of 15, he felt the call of the sea again having met the sail cargo brigantine ‘Tres Hombres’.  Fully inspired, Adriaan worked extra hard and saved enough money to spend a year aboard as crew sailing to the Dominican Republic to bring a cargo of rum back to Europe.

After crossing the Atlantic twice on a ship with no engine, he ended up in Cornwall for a summer season working for Square sail on board “Phoenix”  making a guest appearance in Poldark then going on to fish for oysters under sail in the Fal Estuary over a winter. Before he signed up for navigation school, he asked to be employed as mate this season.  He brings good dutch humour, a wealth of rigging skills and pancakes – to our ship.

The History of Polruan Shipyard


Every year, Bessie Ellen is hauled out to Polruan Shipyard near Fowey for all the work that is needed to keep her afloat and in survey. Paul Toms, 4th generation ship builder now runs this charming yard right in the heart of this picturesque Cornish village. C. Toms & Son’s own story is just part of a long history of boatyards in Polruan, and we are pleased to be able to share some of the history of ship building in the village written for us by Maritime Historian, Dr Helen Doe.

“If you look at Toms yard today, you are looking at a site that has built and repaired ships and boats for centuries. Today’s craftsmen follow a long, long line of skilled shipwrights.

In the medieval period, ships from Polruan included the Edward that was involved in the wine trade with Bordeaux and was also known to take to piracy on occasions. This was a large ship and she was described in 1433 as carrying over 200 men ‘armed and arrayed for war’.

There is little to say exactly where such ships were built or by whom and it was not until the 1700s that a little more information could be gleaned. What we do know is that the site where Toms’ yard is now has been a shipbuilding site for a very long time and it can definitely be traced to William Geach & Son. They were certainly operating there from 1789 and were probably based there well before this date. They built sloops and schooners, the largest being 93-ton Mary in 1824.

William Geach & Son went bankrupt in 1836 and the site was idle for a while. At some stage Butson arrived and set up his business there, later moving upriver to Brazen Island. It is almost impossible to find out exactly where ships were built as information is limited.

Another shipbuilder in Polruan was Christopher Slade, who may have been an apprentice to either Geach or Butson. Slade’s first yard was below West Street and he operated there from 1841. When Butson moved to Brazen Island, Slade moved into the yard below East Street but retained his West Street yard and also leased a second yard further along West Street (this yard had originally been leased by Marks & Rendle until 1840s). The Slade family of shipbuilders remained on the site below East Street until the Second World War.

Beside the dock at Newquay lived John Edward Hocken who had a sail making business there until 1910. Many famous Polruan ships were built here during the 19th century and Polruan built larger and greater numbers of ships than Fowey during the last half of the century. The largest ship built in the port of Fowey was the E S Hocken, a 237-ton barquentine launched in 1879. Many of the ships were small and fast and built for the Atlantic fruit trade. Among these was the Jane Slade, 170 ton schooner, later to be immortalised by Daphne du Maurier as the Janet Coombe in her novel ‘The Loving Spirit’.  It was a period of boom for the local economy with many Polruan families investing in the ships and providing the masters and the crews.”

Bringing Helen’s history up to date, in 1922, Charlie Toms started his business working in a blacksmiths shop near the dock at Newquay. Over the years, he and his son Jack grew C. Toms & Son and took over the whole of the Newquay yard, using John Edward Hocken’s old sail loft as their offices. Meanwhile Daphne du Maurier purchased the boatyard below East Street in 1943 from the business partner of Thomas Slade and the Hunkin family ran the yard on her behalf.

Later in 1968, Ms du Maurier sold this yard to Jack Toms and his wife and in 1987, the beach between the East Street yard and Newquay was filled in to achieve the larger premises you can see today.