Sailing Around Cornwall on a Tall Ship

Rupert Parker is on board

If someone had told me I’d be climbing down a rope ladder onto an inflatable dinghy in a heavy swell, hoisting and furling sails, ramming a beach like a D Day landing and steering solo for hours at a time, I’d have said they were crazy. Yet sailing around Cornwall, I went from zero to hero in just seven days, despite rough seas and strong gales.

I first catch sight of TS Maybe in Penzance harbour and I’m already out of my comfort zone as I drop down a rusty steel ladder, cross the deck of another ship before clambering on board. The Maybe was built in Holland in 1929 and has spent many years sailing around the world. She’s a Ketch with two masts, seven sails, 24m long and 25m tall. It’s not quite the Onedin Line but you get the general idea.

There are four passengers on board – three have sailed before and me, the tall ship virgin. The crew consists of Skipper Chris, Mate Toby, deck hand Violet and cook Shane. I’d imagined that I could stand by and watch them do the work but it wasn’t to be. It requires all of us to sail the ship and shirking is not allowed.

Anyone who’s been on any sort of cruise knows there’s always a safety briefing, and for the Maybe, this is disconcertingly comprehensive. We learn what to do in case of fire, flood or sinking, how to abandon ship and launch life rafts and what to if there’s a man overboard. Lifejackets are compulsory on deck and we must strap on to the safety line if it’s rough. Then there’s the rope ladder dangling over the side where we climb down onto the rib, a small inflatable, bobbing in the swell.

Now we’d all signed up to go to the Scilly Isles but the weather isn’t looking good, with a strong wind from the west. Still the captain puts off his decision and we go for a trial sail up to Newlyn, a couple of miles up the coast. He uses the engine to get out of the port, then it’s all hands on deck to haul the sails. 

First is the largest and heaviest of them all, the Main Sail. We work in pairs on each side of the boat, one hauling or sweating the halliards, the other taking up the slack, known as tailing. It’s hard physical work and members of the crew join in to help, using the weight of their bodies to get it up the mast. Others include the Stay Sail and Mizzen which thankfully are bit easier. Engines off, it’s exhilarating sailing driven solely by the wind.

Next morning, the Scillies are definitely off so we go in the other direction, towards the Lizard. After leaving the safety of Newlyn, the waves are against us, the ship rolling from side to side. Hauling the sails gives us more stability but there’s still a corkscrew motion and it’s disconcerting to find that we’re alone on the high seas. I strap on safely, as there’s rough swell on the starboard side, the deck tilted almost at 45 degrees.

Mercifully it’s not raining and I just stay put as we near the Lizard, feeling slightly queasy. Some of the crew members look as bad as I feel and one of my fellow passenger lies prone on the saloon table down below. As we sight the lighthouse, the skipper tells me that boats are blown onto the rocks here and it’s far more treacherous than Land’s End. That’s scant comfort as the swell is getting larger.

Our little ship edges forward and gradually we round the headland to calmer waters. By the time we drop anchor in the Helford River it’s been five hours since we left Newlyn and there’s an air of celebration. I realise this has been a difficult crossing for everyone and I’m pleased to have got there without making a fool of myself. 

Next day the sun is shining, the wind has dropped and we go ashore on the inflatable rib, beaching on a small strip of sand without getting our feet wet. This is an unspoilt section of the river and we follow the coastal path to Frenchman’s Creek, immortalised by Daphne du Maurier. There’s time for a drink at Helston’s Shipwright Arms before getting back on board.

That afternoon we pull up anchor and make our way leisurely west, past Falmouth to Gorran Haven. It’s so completely different to the previous day that I’m even allowed a stint at the helm, closely supervised by Skipper Chris. We anchor out in the bay and enjoy a quiet night. That all changes when the swell comes up early in the morning. I’m woken at 5am by the boat rolling from side to side so we pull up anchor and move to calmer waters at Portmellon, close to Mevagissey.

This is the furthest west we’ll get and next day we start heading back to Penzance, tacking against the wind. We’re joined by pods of dolphins who swim with us, disappearing under the boat and then reappearing. Halfway is an idyllic anchorage up past Falmouth in the Fal River where the green trees go right down to the water and curious swans check us out. There’s another stop at Porthallow before we’re once again rounding the Lizard.

This time the sun is shining, the swell is down and we’re no longer alone. There are plenty of yachts out today and I’m allowed a long stint at the helm, before passing St Michael’s Mount. Penzance harbour beckons and the professionals take over and we’re soon moored back where we’ve started. 

St Michaels Mount

It’s been a voyage of 155 nautical miles and I’ve done things I thought I wasn’t capable of. Certainly there are times when I’ve been out of my comfort zone and it’s not for everyone. However, if you’re reasonably fit, not too scared by wobbly ladders and have a sense of adventure, this is definitely one of those experiences you’re going to remember.


Venturesail Holidays on Maybe range from three day tall ship taster weekends to seven days sailing around Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in 2022. West Coast Scotland adventures are scheduled for 2023. Accommodation is provided in private twin berth cabins and prices start from £662pp including all meals. 

01872 487288


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Rupert Parker

Writer, photographer, cameraman & TV producer

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