Valued friends & guests: I was hoping we were not going to be bearers of bad news but it is with deep regret that we have no option but to suspend our Spring Sailing schedule for 2020 until further notice.
For the ship & crew, this could not have come at a worse time as after a winter refit and overhaul, the hard working crew has her fully commissioned, surveyed and ready to go sailing.
My decision has not been made lightly, but as a hospitality business with no possible way of enforcing social distancing, the government have impelled us to cease trading (20/03/20).
As I am sure you are all aware, the government is telling “entertainment and hospitality premises to close temporarily”, that “people should only travel if absolutely essential” and that these steps must be taken to “stop the spread of the virus and protect the most vulnerable people in our society, and our NHS.”
Under this duress, and our primary concern being for the health and wellbeing of our customers and crew, we have no choice but to cease operating immediately.
We are already halting the start of the season hoping to operate as normal later on this year but the pandemic we are experiencing, unfortunately, makes the situation far from normal and difficult to plan ahead. We will be monitoring the situation daily keeping you in touch and up to date.
Whilst we have no way of knowing if government guidelines will be relaxed, we can look to the actions of other countries and expect, realistically, the situation will get worse before it gets better.
By acting now, and giving our customers as much notice as possible, we are
confident that we can ride out the difficulties ahead and be ready for a
rewarding full season of cruising in 2021. Next year we will be offering a
virtually identical itinerary, and so sadly our promises of Norway will be put over to the following year. I am freezing prices and all dates will be very
Customers who kindly booked with us for 2020 will be given priority on
these future trips and will be transferred onto the 2021 cruises.
We feel this solution offers a fair alternative due to challenging circumstances entirely out of our control (Terms and Conditions, 14 d).
We will be contacting guests individually over the coming days and weeks but
please bear with us as we have a lot of people to contact, and those with
bookings earlier in the season will be prioritised.
Customers who cannot reschedule onto similar dates in 2021, or alternative
dates if available, are advised to seek reimbursement of deposits with their
holiday insurance provider. We always recommend holiday cancellation
insurance when you book (Terms and Conditions, 10)
Considered management of both the current worldwide crisis and our own
resources means we are as confident as can be that we will meet the challenges ahead and just sorry that due to extraordinary circumstances, we are unable to offer your planned holiday this year. The crew and myself always look forward to these cruises just as much as you do and value each and every one of you who sails with us, many of whom have become friends.
Bessie Ellen is currently moored in the river Fowey and although she’s had an extensive winter refit and work will continue through this crisis, as long as it is safe to do so, thus ensuring the vessel is in excellent condition for next season.
On behalf of myself, and the team at Venturesail Holidays, we hope very much to see you aboard Bessie Ellen in 2021
We have been following the developing situation with the Covid-19 pandemic and regretfully have made the decision to cancel our voyages up until Saturday 9th May. The current government’s advice to ‘avoid all unnecessary travel’ and the ambiguous recommendations about restaurants and pubs throws our sailing plans into a grey area at best. We cannot, therefore, in all good conscience, continue with our sailing programme. Notwithstanding, along with that the current restriction placed on basic goods in supermarkets would make it impossible for us to victual the boat for the voyages.
Here is where we stand to date:
For those of you who have signed on for voyages up until the 16th May we will communicate with them individually today to make alternative arrangements.
For voyages following 9th May:
We hope to stick to our planned schedules for as best we can. However we are realistic that we will need to reassess on a regular basis in line with how things develop. In this instance we will be in touch with those booked on later voyages 8 weeks before their trip start to talk through options
Our decision making will be based on up to date government advice/legislation, email discussions with you as the guests and regular communications with our fellow boat operators whom we are lucky enough to be in constant discussion with. These are unprecedented times and we can only try our best to make the right decisions and endeavor to keep you up to date as much as we can as things evolve.
Remember, that this is a uniquely difficult time that we are living through, its a situation demanding community spirit, empathy and togetherness. Check on neighbours, ring those that’d appreciate a phone call, support your local businesses in any way.
Stay present but keep dreaming for the time when we can continue our adventures.
We are delighted to announce that Bessie Ellen has a new crew member joining us for 2020 and we would like to introduce you before you climb aboard.
His name is Bracken and comes in the small and furry variety and will be Bessie Ellens sea dog…. We obviously appreciate that although we are dog lovers, not everyone may feel the same way. If you have any concerns at all about travelling on Bessie Ellen with Bracken, please do let us know. We want our guests to have the best experience and if this doesn’t involve a sea dog, we completely respect that and Bracken can remain ashore at his second home.
His time on the ship will be spent in the Captains quarters and will not be sailing overseas.
So, if you are allergic or worried about Bracken being on board, please us let know otherwise we will assume that you cannot wait for cuddles!”
“Dolphins!” came the shout from Skipper Nikki Alford at the bow of Bessie Ellen. We were whipping along at a nifty 7.6 knots – a cracking pace for this beautiful Cornish ketch as she sliced through the Hebridean waves like scissors through silk on her merry way to Canna. Dolphins were in sight, and not just a few. Hundreds!
The sun is out, it is day 3 of my first (and by no means last) tall ship adventure, fulfilling my childhood dream of sailing the seas on an historic ship. The wind has toasted my cheeks red, the salty sea air is bone cold, my clunky million layers make me feel like the Michelin man and I’m wearing the Mountain Warehouse equivalent of a tea cosy on my head. I reluctantly had to put my sea bands on on day two because – guess what folks – I ain’t no pirate. (yet). But I am as happy as a seagull with chips. On crack.
Bessie Ellen is a 114 foot long, traditional Cornish wooden trading ketchoriginally built in Plymouth in 1904. Lovingly restored with painstaking attention to detail and craftsmanship by its skipper, the inspirational Nikki, she now sails all year round – in Scotland and Cornwall over summer, the Canaries and beyond in the winter months. She is a seductive beauty and the very image of all romantic dreams of seafaring escapism. I board on the 18th May – excited and buoyant – with 11 other ship nuts, lovers of the sea, or just curious adventurers, looking for something different.
We are from all walks of life – from the older Extinction Rebellion-ist couple to the single go-getter like me in their 30s, the old-handers on their 10th trip and the newbies like me getting giddy over reef knots and wet weather gear.
In our first hour on board, as ice-breaking patter is exchanged, we hoist our sails: mizzen, main, stay, inner jib, outer jib, fly – tall ship mantra poetry. We learn to make fast and coil ropes and sheets, get our safety brief, realise the wind is non-existent and the sea flat as a pancake and take the sails down and pack them away – a second lesson right there. One hour in and I want to jack in my day job and run away to sea. And we’ve barely left Oban harbour!
After whisky macs and rum and gingers on deck in the early evening mist, we huddle in the warm glow of lanterns, around the below-deck’s communal tables, with our hobbit-like bunks – each with it’s own pretty curtains for privacy and ridiculously comfy bedding – dotted around the main area. We’re here for the low down on our next six days’ passage, the likely weather, what wildlife we will encounter. Island names are rattled off like an exotic tongue – Rùm, Canna, Muck, Eigg, Staffa, The Dutchman’s Cap, Iona, Mull, Coll, Ulva, Gometra… it’s a lullaby to bask in as the waves gently sway us. All the while in the background Pete, Olly, Owain and Alex – our super crew – bustle about laying the tables, setting out wines and beers, tidying the deck and making ready our first (of MANY) sumptuous and indulgent meals on board: oysters (local, obvs), venison, celeriac mash, roast everything, apple pudding, cream. We subsequently learn that over the course of our 6 day voyage, 28.5 packs of butter are used. This is the James Martin school of sailing gastronomy. I mean, who wants a green-juice spa retreat, when you can have this?!
Back to day three. The dolphins surround us like a rabble of jumpy sea puppies, swarming on all sides of the ship as they playfully swoop and splash through the waves, chasing each other under the bowsprit and challenging us in a speed contest. I’ve never seen one dolphin let alone multiple pods – their smooth backs shining under a beaming sun as they dash in and out of the sea spray.
Olly – whose other talents include mustering dreamy cakes, fresh bread and sinfully good homemade sorbets from a galley kitchen the size of a teacup – is also our on-board paddleboarding guru and wild swimmer. So it is no surprise that as soon as our dolphin posse arrive, he is hopping overboard to paddle out with them. Cue a series of hilarious snapshots. The paddleboard overturns, out goes the rescue dinghy. The rescue dinghy punctures. Olly then has to pump the dinghy alive as it shuttles back to the ship, looking like a carrot-topped coyote from the Hanna Barbera cartoons furiously trying to blow up Roadrunner with an ACME dynamite pump. All the while the dolphins continue their mad dance through the waves. Could I be happier? I don’t even know – I am delirious with mad-lady grinning by this point and as high as Digby from Trainspotting on sea air and life.
On the southern tip of Skye, sailing past Soay and into Loch Scavaig, we find our anchor for our fourth night – the Black Cuillins peaks fiercely defending the isle like coal and smoke–coated icebergs. The lobster-red sun is dipping behind the crags, signaling our safe haven. Here, under a candy-coloured sky, the water tranquil and frequented only by plump happy seals and the odd tiny fishing boat, we drop anchor and head ashore for an evening stroll. This is Mordor, overseen by the great eye of Sauron – although in this case more a protective force, radiating sheer wild beauty.
I swim in freshwater Loch Coruisk with fellow ship nut Kathrin, with whom I have especially bonded on this trip. The water is placid, icy, refreshing and delicious. The mountains surrounding us whispering laments. That evening, back on Bessie Ellen, I – accompanied by a ragtag of fellow travellers – sing a bastardised version of the Skye Boat Song, knock back a dram and scatter my Dad’s ashes overboard. Four years after his passing. For a fleeting moment I wish he were here. He would be so proud, he would have loved to sail this same sea. I am grateful in that second for every single moment of my life, for everything achieved and everything yet to come.
Our days pass simultaneously as slowly as dripping treacle and as fast as light. Suns rise and we are out on deck, bellies filled with bacon, eggs, eggy bread, piping hot coffee, steaming porridge and fresh rye loaves. We hoist sails, get our course for the day and take turns on watch – steering Bessie Ellen to our next exploration point. We play tag against other ships, exchange life stories or simply marvel at the Hebrides’ quiet beauty as we sail past jutting rocky outcrops and staggeringly beautiful islands. We send the boys out in the dinghy with a bucket to collect lobsters and crabs from Sandy – a trusty fisherman spotted off the coast of Muck. We feast on lobster salad at lunch and a rich, creamy bisque under a balmy, wind-whippy sun. We drink tea as the ship lists and rolls pleasantly past Ardnamurchan. We anchor in coves and whizz ashore to marvel at Iona’s great abbey, Lunga’s comical puffins and chattering razorbills, Gometra’s “art gallery” – a craggy bothy standing sturdy and proud on this empty, wind-swept island crammed with seagull skulls, shell mobiles and watercolours by an anonymous visiting nomad.
Alex, Owain and Olly answer our millions of questions and indulge us in navigation tips, climbing the rigging, repeated rescuing of us when we get waylaid exploring on shore, crazy anecdotes and endless good humour. Pete, a font of too many Dad jokes and a mine of historical and sea-faring knowledge surprises us each and every meal with yet more gourmet treats.
We swim in the morning, plopping off the side of the ship into freezing crystal waters, hangovers to the fore (well, mine at least), dreams still swirling in our brains. We swim in the evenings either in pebbly coves or seaweedy waves. Time on deck is marked by the movement of the sun, and calls of “dolphins!”, “minke whales!”, “lunch!”, “jibe!”
Nights are cosy, hunkered down around a gastronomic feast, the air filled with mariner’s stories, anecdotes and jokes and swapped snippets of life, wine-induced giggles and silly games, belly laughs and then tranquil, happy silences on deck as the stars hum above us.
The final night arrives and I can barely remember the day I came on board. It’s like aeons have gone by and I’ve rewritten the life plan. I make a mental list of what I need to do to get back on board as soon as humanly possible, before tucking into yet another terrific dinner of Melanzane Parmigiana (a Pete speciality), far too much wine and a tot of Cornish-made Rathlee rum– a barrel of which is on deck “maturing” in her whisky casks as she is rolled across the oceans on a six month voyage to bring her a unique flavour.
We do a “pub quiz” recapping our escapades on board and revelling in the lifetime’s worth of stories we’ve amassed even in such a short time. We have strolled all over Kerrera, our final stop on land before arriving back in Oban – marvelling at the endless seascapes from the lonely turret of Castle Gylen and the graceful bulk of Bessie Ellen as she sails around the headland to meet us on the other side of the island.
A sail on Bessie Ellen is no mere holiday. No mere thrill seek. It is a moment of spirit-filling, unadulterated happiness and zen suspended in time. Palms raw from pulling ropes, skin stinging from spiky salt air, hands numb from steering in Scottish spring time and adrenaline pumping with joy at every glance across the waves. It is the childhood fantasy, a real life that continues to go on, lived by adventurers, whilst you are back at your office desk questioning it all. It is me, booking my next passage barely three days after arriving home, dazed, sea-leggy and grinning like Wallace and Gromit drowning in Wensleydale (looking like it too, as I promptly reinstate my gym membership and hurl myself into the sea for mad swimming dashes).
Don’t wait around for someone else to tell you about it, go and make your own voyage. Sails can be booked on Bessie Ellen via Venturesail Holidays(set up by Nikki) with early bird discounts currently available for early 2020 trips!
When Bessie Ellen departed Cornwall she took with her a barrel of Cornish distilled Rathlees Rum in her cargo hold where it will remain for the duration of her sailing season.
Heading north with Bessie, the barrel will spend its time gently rolling with the lull of the waves, spending the summer months cruising around the Hebrides and out to St. Kilda. This constant movement allows the rum to absorb the flavours from the wooden barrel – which will also experience a couple of dips in the sea, soaking up the sea salt to leave a lingering taste of salinity on the lips when drunk. Additionally, this particular barrel has travelled across from America where it previously held Tennessee Bourbon, adding an extra flavour level to the finished product. Delicious!
As guests of Bessie will be aware, this isn’t the first time the Bessie Ellen has transported cargo, in fact it is the very thing she was originally built for back in 1904 and remains an intrinsic part of her spirit to date. In the words of Nikki, “Transporting cargo is a part of Bessie’s heritage and we continue to embrace the idea of slow travel as an eco-friendly and non-commercial way of supporting locally sourced premium goods. Rathlees Rum is a high quality Cornish product and we are excited to be a part of their story.”
On Bessie’s return to Cornwall, the barrel will be unloaded to produce 50 bottles of outstanding sea-age, cask-strength rum, at 50% proof. Bottles can be pre-ordered via their website – rathleedistilling.com. This will be a distinct limited edition rum, perfect for connoisseurs and lovers of the drink.
The first major voyage of the summer started in Fowey, finishing up in Oban 520nm North. Leaving Cornwall’s warm spring sunshine we headed off at the tail end of Storm Hannah. Rounding Dodman with gusts still above, 40 knots, I decided to return to Fowey and leave the following morning on the tide and with a fair wind to round Lizard and anchor off Mousehole for the night.
Rendez-vous at sea
Over the VHF I hear a familiar voice of Arian aboard Oosterschelde, having sailed through storm Hannah from the Azores a night in the Helford was needed to recuperate and restock. We traded white flour , apple cake and coffee for a bottle of Geneva, a photo opportunity for both ships before sounding horns and heading off East and west.
As the sun came up so did the anchor, with all hands turning too, setting sail and settling into watches only to be met with the sailors enemy, fog! A little wind and fog, a rolling swell from the storm encouraged the crew to hand sail and motor as the wind died away completely. Upon reaching ST Davids head, a decent SE breeze sprung up and soon Bessie Ellen was charging along under full canvas just as in her working past over 100 years ago. The wind stayed fair until dawn on Wednesday by which time I believed with a good tide and engine we could reach Islay by nightfall. Once again fog banks loomed ahead which made our progress a little slower but with careful navigation we reached Mull of Kintyre where the sun broke out and all of our Hebridean Isles spread away before us.
Row the boat
After a long passage, nothing seems more satisfying than a walk and a pint – and of course a wee dram. So while Bessie Ellen held station off Port Ellen, Owain ran the voyage crew inshore with the plan that they would meet us at the anchorage off the beach, a short walk around the bay. All this went well until our gear in the outboard broke so the only thing to was row 200 yards to the beach. With much hilarity nearly all arrived safely back on board, however still missing two of our party – lost in a haze of whisky somewhere on Islay. Tony, who had been left in charge of troops, looked slightly sheepish but found out the escapees were hidden in the hotel, being entertained by Californians no less!
After a good nights sleep and in bright sunshine, our voyage crew sailed off the anchor under the skilful helming of Jeff, who’s great uncle Percy Lamey was skipper of Bessie Ellen during the 20’s and 30’s following the death of John Chichester. A walk and a whisky was in order with Ardbeg being distillery of choice, this involved a walk to Kildalton cross which was further than expected so our band of sailors opted for a coffee within Ardbeg’s walls. With pure Islay hospitality the manager offered all our crew a free dram as they were from Bessie Ellen.
With the final leg underway, our ships company tacked all the way up Jura towards Oban and I am happy to report that this merry band of sailors handled all the tacking unassisted by the crew. Hungry, tired and out of water after 10 days Bessie Ellen pulled alongside Oban after 530 nm happily back home in her summer waters.
Across the water from Plymouth lies the small village of Turnchapel, with the small peninsular of Mount Batten leading off it. It was here, in Clovelly bay that William Samuel Kelly, a shipyard owner, had his premises. It was in 1904 that he commenced the building of Bessie Ellen – she was being built as a “chopping block”. This was a project to keep the shipwrights busy in the time of a slack period, meaning that Bessie Ellen took two years to complete before being ready for launching towards the end of 1906. William Kelly had built Bessie Ellen for the Newfoundland trade; with a fine clipper bow and a transom stern she had the appearance of a fast sailer.
It was in the summer of 1906 that John Chichester, a ship owner captain arrived to pick up a cargo in his little ship, the Julie. Whilst in port, he heard mention of a 150-ton ship that was being built over the water in Mount Batten which he duly went to inspect.
When John had decided on buying the ketch, the shipping firm of Clarke, Incledon and Clarke approached him, asking if he would like to go into a partnership of the vessel. John declined though he did borrow some of the capital from Harry Clarke, Harry being his brother -in-law. Bessie, John’s wife also provided some of the funding. With his finances secure, John went back to Plymouth with his son Jack to buy the ship. During the journey on the train, father pulled out a bag of gold sovereigns and said to his son” I don’t suppose you have seen them before, and I doubt you will ever see them again” at which the bag went back in his pocket until his arrival at Williams yard where he laid them on the table and paid for his ship.
Although finished at the end of 1906, John withheld the launching date until January 1907, an apparent gain of a year regarding her age. John’s two daughters, Ellen 13, and Bessie 11 performed the ceremony between them, Ellen naming the vessel Bessie Ellen, and Bessie breaking the wine bottle on her bow. (Today in possession of the Chichester family is the postcard of Plymouth Hoe. Dated January 3rd 1907 it contains the message to his wife Bessie, saying that he was sending their children home, their part being done.)
Thus, after registration in Barnstaple, Bessie Ellen became the beloved ship of the Chichester family.
Scotland is one of my favourite places in the world and I would like to introduce you to some of my top locations. This month the focus will be on the Treshnish group consisting of islands and rocky outcrops. More information on all Scottish islands can be found in the island bible “The Scottish Islands” by Hamish Haswell Smith.
Just a few miles to the west of Mull, the archipelago of Treshnish lie in a turquoise sea that even tropical islands would find hard to beat (save the temperature). Now uninhabited, these islands are home to large seabird colonies and the month of May is the best time to visit with guillemots, fulmar razorbill, and of course the endearing puffin.
Lunga is the easiest to land on and is the highest, providing magnificent views stretching over the sea to Rum in the North with Iona and Jura’s peaks in the South. Nestling under the hill amidst the braken lie the ruins of old “Black Houses” once home to Donald Campbell who, with his family left in 1824 – the group is now owned by National Trust Scotland. The evocative Bac Mor or Dutchmans Cap, the distinct shape formed by an ancient volcano cone, with the flat plain surround was created from glassy lava fields. I have sailed round Bac Mor a number of times but there seems to be no real safe place to land. Rocky shores strewn with kelp along with the constant surge of the sea coming in from the Atlantic makes scrambling ashore quite tricky. Perhaps this year the weather will be calm enough to allow some of us to scramble ashore and reach the top.
Fladda is just like its name, a flat volcanic plateau where sea caves ring to the song of the seals who’s eerie mournful cry seems to belong here in this deserted and desolate place. The surrounding waters are teeming with puffins , thousands of them, fishing for sand eels in the clear waters. Puffin numbers are on the decline, either because of overfishing, or climate change, every year we notice fewer numbers.
Close to the Mull shore, Cairn na Burgh More believed to be where the monks of Iona buried their library for safety during the reformation of1560 – this treasure has never been recovered, but should you find them, these wonderfully illustrated books would be worth millions. Up on the top of the island lie the remains of a medieval castle and a chapel. There is a story stating that Maclean of Lochbuie was imprisoned on the isle for feuding. For company he was accompanied by the ugliest woman on Mull, but this did not stop him giving forth a son who won back his title! It is also believed that the castle is where the Maclean clans unwanted wives were imprisoned.
Lunga remains a favourite anchorage due to the tranquility of the place. The flora and fauna , chattering sea birds, vibrant colours of wild flowers, bluebells and pinks clinging to black cliffs on a warm May day, makes the island feel like a little bit of heaven. It is not all good news though, the ever present plastic pollution is rife and last year Owain and I struggled ashore at the far end of the island to collect the waste visible on the beach. We found drinks cans from America and Canada, large swathes of fishing nets, fish boxes and fenders, the pair of us carried as much as we could but it was hard to get the dinghy close enough to the shore to gather the rest to take back to Oban. It is so daunting to see the amount of damage we humans have done and the size of the operation needed to make things right for nature once more.
This autumn’s massive achievement award has to go to the phenomenal Ross Edgley. Yes, you may have heard of him as he just completed the Great British Swim, a 5-month odyssey to swim the entire 2,000-mile coastline of Great Britain.
Ross swam 12 hours a day using the tidal patterns to help him along, to swim against some of our tides would have made him go backwards! Sleep patterns were broken, as he would swim for 6 hours then sleep for 6 hours, and never the at same time. Edgley didn’t step on land for 5 months, but slept aboard Hecate, a James Wharram cat, built by Matt Knight, skipper and swim route planner for the epic.
As you can imagine, just being in the water all that time would really affect your body. For food he ate loads of carbs and while swimming he would eat soft foods from piping bags, just snip the end off and pump in custard. He had enormous trouble with salt water, after some months parts of his tongue started to break off and he would find them on his pillow. Salt-water sores and jellyfish stings are all up there in the daily grind of the Great British Swim.
Ross and his team finally finished on 4th November after 157 days. Bessie Ellen and her crew were lucky enough to catch up with them in August…..
It was the most fabulous day in early August when Bessie Ellen was honoured to take a small part to encourage Ross on his swim and meet up with him after he rounded Ardnamurchan Point. I had been in contact with Matt – the skipper of support boat Hecate – since the team had arrived in Scottish waters, really hoping we could make a rendezvous somewhere. Tight schedules on both boats made it somewhat difficult to arrange but finally, after hearing Matt on the VHF talking to Stornoway coastguard, I knew he was close. After a brief chat with our guests about changing the days plans (we had intended to visit Muck) we set sail from Kentra bay and with all sail set, stormed out into the Sound. Sunshine and clouds with a strong breeze sent the sea spray flying, and far to the South I could make out the shape of Hecate’s hull. I called up Matt on the radio and told him of our plan to sail close under full sail and then come up all standing beside Ross. With a plan in place, I asked for volunteers to swim with Ross to which two of our delightful ladies jumped at the chance.
I could see Ross, as the orange swim float was visible for quite some distance, along with the support boats and paddle boards. Altering course we bore down on Ross and once 30 metres from the swimmer, the crew swung round head to wind and dropped the heads’ls and tops’l. Our two swimmers, in just a swimming costume, (no wetsuits for these heroines) were taken out to join Ross. He was over the moon as our swimmers stayed with him for over 10 minutes in real cold, deep water Chatting and laughing with the girls, he stated his appreciation of being joined for a swim, that these moments filled him with energy to continue his mad venture.
After their incredible swim, our intrepid girls came back aboard, now totally in love with Ross, to get warm with a well-needed hot chocolate from the galley. Our generous cook sent up two fresh lemon drizzles to give to Team Ross, surely they needed it more than us. As the boats drifted apart, we set sail again and wished them all well, for the next 100 miles were surely going to provide some of the toughest challenges on the whole coast, both mental and physical. So now at the end of his challenge, we are thrilled to have seen him and been touched by his courage and stamina. Congratulations Ross, from Bessie Ellen’s crew.
1752 nautical miles swum, the equivalent of 85 channel crossings
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.