Round Land’s End in a ‘tubby little ship’: 1946

This extract is from an article by Audrey Faith Parker, ‘An eventful trip in a Tubby Little Ship’, originally published in Yachting Monthly, November 1947. Departing on a voyage from Beaumaris to Weymouth just after the war, Audrey recounts a challenging passage as they attempt to round Land’s End in ‘Robinetta’.

The morning of Saturday June 8, was beautifully calm with a good forecast. The many Londoners who set out in summer clothes with no umbrellas to watch the Victory procession will remember how wrong the forecast was, and ‘Robinetta’s crew will never forget. Mr Hanson’s description of the Bristol Channel in the C.A. Handbook makes depressing reading, but every word is true! However at 06.15 it looked like being a wonderful passage, so we planned to catch the tide round Land’s End and carry on to Penzance – if we made 3 or 3½ knots and had a fair wind it would be a 36 hour hop. We were under way at 06.15 and once clear of the Haven set course to pass 10 miles west of Lundy Island to get a fix, thence to a position off Trevose Head and parallel to the coast to Land’s End.

For the first 20 miles until we sighted the grey shape of Lundy there was little wind and we had to disrupt the peace of the day with the engine to keep to our timetable. At 09.35 Lundy bore S25E, and course was altered to the position off Trevose Head 20 miles distant. There was a perfect light NWW breeze, so we set full sail, and by 13.30 Lundy was abeam and Hartland Point in sight. It was a pleasant afternoon, we held out course and were making a nice speed of 4 knots. Tintagel Head came up in the distance at 16.15 – so far all according to plan. Two hours later, almost simultaneously with a depressing forecast, our world began to look rather less pleasant. Our NW breeze had become a fresh westerly wind, so remembering our timely action in Cardigan Bay, we set the small jib and carried on. The time was 18.30, the log read 38 miles and Trevose Light was in sight.

Trevose Head and its light are things we neither of us ever want to see again – once we picked up the light we could not leave it, and it stayed with us all night.

By 20.30 there was quite a considerable westerly swell with a cross sea, the wind was still backing and freshening, till it was SW and heading us badly. We began looking for Godrevy light to come up, as according to our corrected-to-date chart and Reed’s this light was visible for 17 miles. (When we got to St Ives we were reliably told that its strength had been reduced to show for 11 miles – as far as we know we never say the darn thing at all!) Two of three times we thought we had got it, and it disappeared to pop up again in a different place. Soon we realised that the rejoicing population of North Devon were celebrating the peace and confusing unwary mariners with bonfires and fireworks.

By the time darkness came we had changed our destination to St Ives, we were making so little progress against the buffeting sea – ‘Robinetta’ will not point up under these conditions – and being headed so badly it was rather wearying work. We did not know the north Devon-Cornish coast and disliked the sound of Padstow even more than St Ives.

The remaining dark hours were a nightmare. With a dead beat to windward, a really heavy Atlantic swell and cross sea, poor ‘Robinetta’ buffeted and smacked and staggered making, at times, about ½ a knot and at other times nothing at all. Dimly ahead the coast was flashing with lights, none of which we could identify at all. The hand bearing compass went mad, and try as we might we could get no sense out of it – one time we fixed ourselves on Dartmoor!

There was a fair amount of traffic about which ignored us dangerously, we thought, in spite of our wildly flashing torch, and these was little avoiding action we could take. Finding we were getting no closer to the land we tried a leg to sea. This brought us back to about the same place we had started from. We prayed for dawn when at least we might see where we were and whether we could turn and run for Padstow without broaching to – but Padstow had a doom bar. G. clung desperately to the tiller, his face drawn and haggard. I, who like to think I was tough (and have since changed my mind), was having trouble with the strained shoulder, and am very ashamed to admit passed out for an hour on the cockpit floor.

Valiantly G. tried to hold the plunging little ship to her course, but her nose was being pushed more and more to the east with each wave. At 04.30, feeling something must be done about it, we stowed sails (no easy task in the violent motion) hauled in the log to reduce all possible hindrances, started the engine, and tried plugging into it. We refrained with difficulty from cutting the dingy adrift. Estimated speed was then about one knot. Half an hour later in the grey dawn we identified the square lump of St Agnes Head about five miles ahead and we stood inshore in the vain hope that there might be less sea running. An hour later St Agnes head was still as far off, the wind backing and freshening from SSW.

Came the dawn, red and flaming, which we both pretended not to see. Gradually, laboriously we closed St Agnes Head and then could not get past it. Heavy seas were washing over us; with difficulty we set shortened sail again and, still with the engine, beat uncomfortably and slowly towards the Stones off Godrevy Point.

We now appeared to be in St Ives Bay, with the wind straight off the land, and we thought that in such an off-shore wind we should be sheltered, but apparently not in the Bristol Channel. For two hours we flogged across the bay to St Ives, giving the Stones a side berth, and not until we were almost into the tiny harbour did we find calm water. The relief was amazing. One minute we were bouncing and plugging into it, and the next quite still. Down went the hook at once. We knew vaguely that we should dry out in two hours time and that we were right in the fairway, but so done in were we that down came sails, anchor and everything. The boom landed in an unseamanlike and painful fashion squarely on my head, but my seaman like comments were smothered in sail as I collapsed in the bottom of the cockpit.

As is well known, St Ives offers no shelter to the small visitor. The size of the mooring chains used by the fishermen is enough proof of what the run can be – they would hold a destroyer. So we embarked a pilot who had come alongside the moment we fetched up. He took one look at us (and a more bedraggled exhausted pair could scarcely be imagined) sent us below for hot food, shut the hatch, saying he would take us to Hayle. He heaved up the anchor himself and once more we were plugging into it, taking it green, but now with a lovely feeling of security. Half an hour later we were tied up alongside the highest wall I have ever seen in unbelievable stillness. There was no visible means of scaling this immense wall, the river was fast reducing itself to a muddy trickle, the surroundings – a deserted shipyard – were grim and the Cornish Riviera express roared over a bridge just ahead of us. Torrential rain poured down. But below, in the luxury of a still and so far dry cabin we cared nothing for the world about us and slept.

Once again we were weatherbound for several days while the strong Sou’-wester blew itself out, and then the tides forced us to spend one sleepless night in St Ives harbour before setting out on the hop round the corner to Newlyn.

At 05.40 on June 13 we cleared St Ives harbour under power to catch the tide round Land’s End. Outside we found the inevitable westerly well and a light WNW breeze. After passing St Ives Head we set course WSW to pass Pendeen lighthouse. Off this point we found heavy tide rips, so we stood out a little to avoid the breaking seas, and at 08.00 altered course to S by W to clear Longships. There was still very little wind and we were forced to keep the engine running, heavy confused seas with the westerly swell predominating made it uncomfortable going.

At 09.00 with Longships abeam to port about a mile off, the breeze died completely, leaving of course the swell and the much cursed but hitherto faithful engine coughed and died with the wind. The engineer was worried. He whipped off the engine cover, fiddled, cranked, blew through pipes and swore there was something very wrong beyond his capabilities. Three times she started and stopped within half an hour. All the time the tide was pushing us slowly but surely towards the ugly-looking rocks round the lighthouse, but the thing got itself going again for no very good reason and our troubles were over once more.

A few moments later we altered course for the Runnelstone buoy and felt that now we were really in the longed for Channel all would be well. And it is quite extraordinary how well everything became. The swell, of course, was now with us, but there was less of it, the reluctant sun came out and shone brightly and a pleasant westerly breeze came to. So off went the engine and we sailed peacefully and happily up to Newlyn, catching mackerel as we went.

Read the full article on Log of ‘Robinetta’