Ingmar Hupp encounters fog, a fouled anchor
and a 44-knot wakeup call, all while attempting
to adapt to rapidly changing conditions
Having left Falmouth, we had high hopes of making it to the Isles of Scilly. It’s usually an 11 or 12-hour sail downwind with the weather forecast looking okay.
But we didn’t manage to leave quite in time, with refuelling taking longer than expected and the wind weaker than the forecast had predicted.
The plan was to go to the islands for a day or two, then come back to Falmouth, waiting out for a good few days of solid weather to eventually cross the Bay of Biscay.
By the time we rounded the Lizard, the most southerly point of the British mainland, we were already too far behind schedule and decided to turn into Mount’s Bay instead to explore some of Cornwall’s sandy beaches.
The wind on the other side of the headland was quite a bit stronger and we had an exciting sail into the shelter of Mullion Cove, a cozy spot with only one boat anchored two miles further south off the beach.
We dropped anchor right in front of the tiny fishing harbour, whose walls now seemed repaired after violent storms damaged them back in 2014.
After some food, we assembled and launched the dinghy before rowing ashore and beaching it inside the harbour, where a friendly tourist immediately interrogated us. The folding design of our tender is still somewhat unusual and we get asked about it all the time.
The harbour featured a few holiday cottages, a tiny café (closed), and some great views. Also several cars full of tourists. We walked a bit up the road and found a chocolate and souvenir shop, which was also closed.
Heading back, we discovered a crack in the rocks that upon exploration turned out to be a natural tunnel leading through the cliff to a small sandy beach, accessible only at low tide, before rowing back to Songbird for the night.
A rude awakening
Several hours later, we woke up to strong winds coming off the hill. Our spot provided great shelter from the waves but the wind was too strong to row ashore again and we had to sit it out on the boat.
Another cruiser arrived and anchored nearby. Not long after arriving, he lost holding during the worst gust (44 knots on the instruments) and was blown halfway to the rocky Mullion Island by the time he got his engine on.
He narrowly avoided some fishing markers that could have fouled his propeller, which would have left him helpless, and eventually managed to re-anchor his boat inshore.
Fortunately, our anchor held like it was nailed to the seafloor. It may have been because I researched it, got the best kit I could afford and learned how to use it properly. Or it may have been just because it was wedged under some lucky rock, of which there were plenty – we’ll never know, but when we pulled it up at 0130 in the morning, it came up clean and quick.
At this point we had decided we had to leave. The wind was forecast to turn to the south-west and leave us without shelter and a rocky lee shore and we only had a few hours to round the Lizard and head back to Falmouth before it would start really blowing.
We considered Penzance on the other side of the bay, but the forecast for the next few days now showed a gale warning and I didn’t fancy riding that out at anchor in unfamiliar waters and with no safe harbour to run to.
It was very dark when we left. We avoided some fishing gear we’d noted during the day and followed our own GPS track back out of the anchorage.
Mullion Island was barely visible as a black hump against the horizon, the smaller rock next to it completely hidden until we shone a flashlight on it, spooking the bird population who took flight and complained loudly about such nightly disruptions.
But soon the moon rose, casting a sickle of pale light on the seas and offering us at least some visibility. We nearly ran over two fishing markers anyway, whose black flags (so helpful at night) were spotted at the very last moment.
We soon entered the range of the Lizard lighthouse, whose very bright light would guide our way until dawn.
This night passage also allowed us to round the Lizard during slack tide. There was plenty of swell greeting us on the other side and when dawn finally came, we found the occasional wave washing over the decks.
In the thick of it
With dawn came fog. At first only obscuring the clifftops near land but as we closed in on Falmouth, it dropped to sea level and thickened.
We switched on the radar and fetched the red plastic trumpet, our manual foghorn. AIS is very useful, but we got a strong reminder that not everyone has it fitted when the bow of another sailboat burst out of the fog directly in front of us and on a collision course.
We both dodged to starboard and they waved somewhat sheepishly as they passed closely – we had been tooting our horn, but they had none. I should have seen them on the radar but was distracted with navigation and the radar was zoomed out too far.
We felt our way into St Mawes anchorage, as the tide was too low to try for Falmouth Marina. Radar was immensely helpful in finding it – we could read about 30 echoes on the radar screen but only saw two boats and a cardinal marker in the mist.
This was also the very first time the anchor didn’t immediately dig in. We hauled it up again and soon found why – it was fouled with an enormous ball of seaweed.
We motored in slow circles while struggling to clear it all off, then re-anchored a bit further out and this time, the anchor bit into the ground immediately and held against high revs in reverse. Assured, we set the anchor watch and fell into bed for a few hours.
Around noon, the alarm clock woke us and we found the fog had lifted and the usual busy traffic of Falmouth bay had returned, dinghies and boats buzzing all around us.
We could also, for the first time, actually see the boats in the anchorage, and the land.
We raised anchor (no seaweed this time) and made our way up the River Fal into Mylor. Falmouth Marina was unfortunately full to the brim – everyone was running for shelter from the coming weather.
After another nap, we walked into the only nearby town, Mylor Bridge, through a churchyard and along a beautiful path leading along the shore and past some cottages hiding in thick green growth.
We bought some supplies and since it was closing time, the friendly shopkeeper gave us their remaining bread from the morning for of charge. We managed to keep the bread dry on the way home, unlike ourselves – we got soaked in the rain.
The dehumidifier was soon humming away, drying our clothes, shoes and shopping bags while we had a small feast and some relaxation before crashing into bed for the night.
The night sailing and repeatedly interrupted sleep had taken its toll on both of us.
We gave up on the Scilly Isles, for now, and set out straight for Biscay several days later, following a series of gale warnings we were glad not to be in the middle of.
Perhaps we were a bit too ambitious; perhaps it was lucky that we didn’t make it – we were glad not to have missed out on Mullion Cove. Sitting there in a sheltered marina while the wind built outside made me feel glad about our choices.
If in doubt, wait it out
We were too eager to get out of Falmouth, having spent 12 days there to ready the boat for Biscay. Setting off with a short time frame to get to the Scillies and back with only a so-so weather forecast turned out to require more luck than we encountered.
Check the forecast
Mullion Cove has a reputation for sudden and unpredicted local wind. We only heard this after telling our tale to others. We should have asked before going.
During the refit, I’d researched gear and techniques and upgraded both significantly. We always set our oversized Rocna with high engine revs astern. It’s rare that it doesn’t set immediately (thick weed can defeat it), but once dug in, it never budges. This and the GPS anchor watch make for good sleep and are very reassuring in a situation like this. I’m very glad I did the reading and spent the money.
Shelter form the storm
Rocky cliffs and hills can give an illusion of safety so you need to plan to have proper shelter. We’ve learned this again at Sesimbra on the Portuguese west coast, where the wind was blowing down a mountainside much worse than in the rest of the area.
Prepare for a rocky patch
Not having a rocky island directly downwind of your anchoring spot is good. It’s worth considering what will happen if you do drag, and plan accordingly.
Always have your outboard and tender ready
While seeing our poor neighbour struggle, we realised how little there was we could do to help. With our outboard still in disrepair, all we could do for him was watch and radio the Coastguard if it looked like he wasn’t going to make it.