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Wednesday, January 22, 2020
MV Scillonian

The romantically named Guiding Star, Sapphire and Sea King will be recognisable to folk all over the UK who are united in a shared love of the Isles of Scilly.

For these are three of the sturdy fleet of craft that ferry thousands of holidaymakers between St Marys, St Martins, Tresco Bryher and St Agnes which comprise this enchanting archipelago just 28 miles beyond Land’s End.

The launches, operated by the St Marys Boatmen’s Association, Tresco Boat Services, St Agnes Boating and some private operators, link these small Islands together and are an essential part of this special island holiday experience.

Every breakfast time, boatmen tour the guest houses and hotels in Hugh Town, St Marys, informing visitors about the trips they are running that day.

Then crowds gather on the quay to board the launches for trips to the off-islands or for sea bird and seal watching around a myriad of rocks and tiny uninhabited islands.

My wife, Jenny, and I voyaged out from Penzance to St Marys onboard the MV Scillonian III and minutes after our arrival, launches came alongside to load the luggage for the off-island visitors.

We were bound for St Martins onboard the Meridian so as soon the luggage transfer had been completed, she returned to the quay to pick us up.

At the helm, along with his spaniel Bella, was islander Paul Osborne, who first began helping out on the launches in his school holidays.

Paul, 49, who spent a decade skippering in the British Virgin Islands, said they were quite similar to the Scillys without the seasons which he really missed.

So, he came home and in 2014 acquired the Meridian which he now operates as a member of the Boatmen’s Association.

Once all his passengers were onboard, Paul announced that we’d be disembarking at Lower Town, St Martins, because the tide had dropped, and it was no longer possible to use the jetty at Higher Town.

Serving the off-islands at all states of the tide, is one of the challenges for the boatmen, especially on high springs when the water is so low that it’s possible to walk between Tresco and Bryher.

But they have made a virtue out of necessity on some launch excursions from St Marys to Bryher by towing an inflatable with an outboard, and transferring passengers from one to another and then landing them on a sandy beach.

This operation can take a little time and holidaymakers have to paddle ashore, but this desert island experience is often a memorable highlight of their holidays.

Paul’s switch of landing quays was good news for us because our hotel for the next four days, the friendly Karma St Martins, which resembles a row of cottages, is close to the jetty, so we were soon enjoying an alfresco lunch overlooking a white sandy beach and crystalclear waters.

Tresco, famous for its subtropical Abbey Gardens, and again wreathed in white sandbars, was the next destination on our islandhopping tour, so now it was islander James Stedeford who picked us up from the quay in his launch, the Falcon.

Like many of his friends, he grew up helping out on the boats and gained his first crew ticket when he was 16.

James worked for the family boating service until his parents retired and then launched out on his own with the Falcon as a private water taxi five years ago.

Now his 12 passenger launch is a familiar sight, plying between the islands and he’s even been chartered to take people back to the mainland when foggy conditions have grounded flights.

We checked in to the cosy New Inn for two nights and a short walk later found us in the Abbey Gardens, a 17 acre subtropical paradise established in the nineteenth century and now home to thousands of exotic plants.

But it was a simple slate plaque, amid the heather on the coast path, overlooking the sound, separating Tresco and Bryher, that brought small boat seafarers back to mind.

For it was in these sheltered waters back in 1942 that a top-secret flotilla of British operated Breton fishing boats rode at anchor between forays to the Normandy coast to gather information, vital to the success of the D-Day landings.

Then it was time to sail back to St Marys onboard one of two jetboats operated alongside traditional launches by Tresco Boat Services who mostly link Tresco and neighbouring Bryher with Hugh Town, St Marys.

At the helm, was the operator’s senior boatman, Dave Hooper, who came out to Scilly, became involved in launch operations, wed a local girl and the couple now have three children.

We’d not be needing directions to our final threenight hotel destination because the historic granite-built Star Caste soon hove into view.

Built in 1503, it is set on a hillside within garrison walls and tranquil grounds and with magnificent views over the town, the busy harbour and the off-islands.

St Marys, with its busy little High Street, bustling harbour, sheltered bays, nature reserve, pretty inland gardens and studios where artists paint stunning island scenes, has much to see and do.

But we were again lured by the siren call of those enchanting off-islands and sailed out to Bryher onboard the launch Sea King, skippered, for many years, by Boatmen’s Association member Fraser Hicks.

On a windy day, tiny Bryher, with its aptly named Hell Bay, takes the full force of the Atlantic breakers while remaining sheltered on its sandy bays St Mary’s side.

Luckily, the turquoise seas were calm when association member Ryan Sloane, aged 28, came to pick us up on his magnificent launch Seahorse which he bought a year ago and of which he is justly proud.

“I came for a season when I was eighteen, started crewing on the boats where I later met my wife Lizzy and I’ve never left.” he said.

All too soon our holiday was over, but there was time for a morning trip out to the uninhabited island of Annet for puffins, other seabirds and seals before catching the MV Scillonian back to Penzance.

Fittingly, our skipper, on his launch, the Sapphire, was islander and Boatmen’s Association Chairman Joe Pender who first started crewing for his father over 30 years ago.

He skilfully manoeuvred his boat for some exciting views of the tiny colourful puffins as well rock basking seals and, amazingly, even a nesting peregrine falcon.

Besides steering the Sapphire, he, like fellow association members, was able to keep up a fascinating commentary on the wave skimming seabirds and other wildlife all around us.

Joe told how the association, now comprising ten launch owning members, was founded over 50 years ago when competing skippers decided it would be better to work together, sharing the passengers and the income.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - September 2019 Issue
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