If you follow the northern coastline of the English Channel westward there is a finger of land pointing out into the Atlantic. This is Land’s End. If you then keep heading west for another 20 miles, you will reach a group of tiny islands called the Isles of Scilly. For the navigator these islands are a significant landfall point, the first land to be sighted after an eastbound Atlantic crossing. For the cruiser, the Isles of Scilly are a great destination, a welcome escape from a busy life.
Before lighthouses were established on these low--lying islands they were the scene of many shipwrecks. Today the Scillies are marked by three main lighthouses. The most famous, Bishop Rock Lighthouse, marks the finish line for Atlantic record attempts. Built in 1858 this impressive granite tower has withstood the onslaught of Atlantic storms for 160 years and is still going strong.
There are over 300 islands and islets in the Scillies group, but only five are inhabited. The largest of these, St. Mary’s, has the main port where the ferry to the mainland docks, and the other four islands have piers and jetties in sheltered waters where cruising boats can tie up and find great hospitality. Even Bryher, the smallest of the inhabited islands with a population of only 70, has the Fraggle Rock Bar and a smart hotel where people come to escape the pressures of modern life and enjoy great food.
If you’re looking for safe moorings and a warm welcome, the Scillies make a great destination. You will not find any marinas here so be prepared to pick up a mooring or anchor and take the tender ashore. When visiting St. Mary’s, the chances of finding a mooring in the harbor are small so you will likely need to anchor off. The best moorings in the islands are in the channel between Tresco and Bryher, where you can moor between historic Cromwell’s Castle, built in 1651, and Hangman’s Rock, reputedly used at about the same time.
To navigate through the islands you need detailed charts and a careful watch on the tides. Some channels dry out at low water and there are many unmarked rocks to catch the unwary. You are mainly in sheltered waters navigating through the islands, but when the Atlantic storms rage this can be wild country. Hell Bay, on the west coast of Bryher, is wide open to the Atlantic and the spray can be carried right across the island.
Though the weather can be extreme, the climate of the Scillies is mild. This means the islands display a spectacular array of flowers, notably on Tresco. And St. Martin’s flower farms specialize in early-season flowers sent for sale on the mainland. Seals are a common sight on the rocks around the islands, and sparkling white sandy beaches make the Scillies an island paradise for visitors.
I remember the warm welcomes I received here 30 years ago at the end of my Atlantic record attempts. Now I go back every year for a much different reason: to recharge and live life at a slower pace for a while.