Its been over 8 years since Bessie Ellen ventured forth to carry cargo under sail, but this year the opportunity came up to sail down to Porto from Cornwall at the end of the season to gather the harvest of wines and olive oils and almonds produced in the Douro region of Portugal and sail home across Biscay in time for the Christmas markets.. Our start from Fowey with a green crew, some who had never sailed, set a course to cross the channel in thick fog. With imminent gales, the ancient port of Concarneau provided us with a good jumping off point to cross Biscay. And cross we did, escorted by numerous dolphins, Bessie Ellen cam out the starting gate at a rate of 9.0 knots with the wind under her skirts, sailing starlit nights and sunny days until we reached Spanish shores. A brief run ashore in Baiona, renowned for Francis Drake attempting to take the town as well as the port that supplied Columbus with a crew for Pinta on his voyages to the New World.
The following morning before daybreak, we had a window to set off down the Atlantic coast in fairish weather but a big big swell to our destination of Porto. This part of our journey we shared with my old crew mate Dave Redhead along with his wife, Tor and their children. as they continued on their journey around the world on their steel ketch Sea Lion. A very slow start under engine with massive waves breaking over the bow, but our welcome into Porto was exciting and a delight to meet the wonderful people of Portugal. Our loading berth was in Afruada on the south bank of the Douro which is a charming port, air heavy with the scent of wood burning barbecues and sardines provided us with the perfect setting to hand load organic olive oils and wines from the small farms and fincas lining banks of this great river.
The crew loaded all our cargo by hand, two large wooden barrels of wine, sacks of nuts and chestnuts, olives and the oil. With the weather in our favour we turned for home which was a peaceful passage up to Finisterre and Corunna, where we decided to anchor and wait out the coming blow for a few days. Our departure in the evening was quiet as we sailed, double reefed under the lee of the cape, however, as the ship pushed on into Biscay, it was evident the gale had not ceased. At around 0100 hrs, a call from the Captain for all hands, the mainsail had blown out and with a big sea running it took a while to stow. Daybreak and a calmer sea, we took the mizzen sail from her mast and set it on the main. Once again, a severe gale was forecast and once again a course was set for Concarneau for shelter before heading homewards across the channel.
Sail cargo is never easy, never has been, demanding much of men and the ships they sail. But it is important at what ever cost to us in our time as awareness increases about the cost of shipping to our seas and how we can make transport, and modern day living, more sustainable.