Well, what can I say- one weekend spent on Bessie Ellen was eye opening. Learning the ropes, working as a team and marveling at the craftsmanship which has made this wooden beauty such a pleasure to spend time on, was just a small part of my wonderful weekend.
Bessie Ellen is a West Country Trading Ketch from 1907 and her history is visible right down to the inner cabin walls, every dent and mark tells a story from transporting cargo across oceans and between countries. An impressive looking ship, still remaining elegant in her lines and welcoming below decks.
Nikki the skipper and owner was incredibly organised, taking full responsibility for twelve relative newbies as they fumble around grabbing the wrong rope and heaving at the incorrect time. It is wondrous how she manages to keep everyone busy and on the correct job, and with eyes in the back of her head watching what else somebody might be up to.
The ethos that Classic Sailing shares is echoed in Nikki’s teaching. “Our skippers will teach you how to sail and teach you very well as the boat cannot sail without the guest crew.” There are important jobs for all abilities, so if you are less agile or favoring a less active holiday, then you will still be vital to the process of setting sails and maneuvering.
Although I thought I had developed my sailing jargon well over the years as a Dinghy Instructor, I often found myself thinking twice and looking blankly at Nikki as she instructed us all on setting, trimming and down-hauling sails. “Overhaul the Main”, “Make Fast the Topping Lift” “Gasket the Stay Sail” and “Stand by on the Inner Jib” are just some of the phrases that were met with a blank stare within the first evening on board.
As I tried to make sense of the lines and pins on the deck, unsure which line belonged to which sail, I often found myself grabbing the incorrect rope. Nikki’s peripheral vision meant I was quickly corrected and slowly I began to familiarise myself with the rigging and feel more comfortable. Even though I had previously thought myself as a competent sailor, this trip quickly put me in my place as a newcomer to large traditional wooden ships.
What struck me first once on board was the size of the main sheet and practically nothing can be done on your own, everybody must band together which means you make friends quickly and strangers do not remain so for long.The teamwork involved really does improve your sense of achievement and the learning curve is rather steep. I came away wishing I had more time to really learn the ropes and predict the next move, without relying on the Deckhands or Nikki for reassurance.
Bessie Ellen is by far the largest sailing vessel I have ever spent any significant time on, but her open and airy interior makes her feel spacious and warm. It has been thoughtfully refitted, every space available has been cleverly designed and storage options intelligently disguised. On our first evening, we had sailed from St Mawes to the entrance of Helford River where we laid anchor and stowed the sails.
As we piled below decks dinner was being prepared and the tables were being laid, the communal space which sleeps 12 people gives you ample of room and storage to all sit comfortably outside your bunks. The bunks are nested in the sides of the main area, six bunks down each side and comprises of both a top and bottom. Your own privacy curtain and reading light adds to the comfort and I believe everyone slept well throughout the trip. Be warned though, what appears to be a handy shelf on the top bunk is actually a gap leading into the bottom of the hull. This mistake was made by myself, although thankfully I didn’t lose any items into the depths of the boat!
Freshly caught crab from Newlyn was served as our first starter, with an avocado salad. This president was set for the entire trip with an emphasis on locally sourced food such as nettle risotto, local cheese and homemade humus. Nobody goes hungry and dietary requests are catered for sensitively.
From Helford River entrance we set our sails and headed out to make way to Fowey harbour, roughly twenty nautical miles away. The morning was flat calm and as we set our four jibs and both the mizzen and the main I wondered just how long it would take. I couldn’t have been more wrong, the wind picked up instantly and blew a steady 25 knots. Safe to say, we made it to Fowey quickly and sailed beyond the bay to have lunch before heading back in for the evening to suss out the local pub and speak of our triumphs of the day.
Fowey hasn’t ceased to amaze me yet, this was my second visit as I had come here on Eve of St Mawes on my first trip. It really is beautiful and perfect for boats, in fact I hear it is a nightmare to drive to due to the limited parking and narrow streets. The only way and best way to see this beautiful town is from the water.
Once we had got to the shore and sunk a couple of well earned pints, I looked out to where Bessie Ellen lay and spotted the deckhands heading back to the boat in the tender with a pile of nettles ready for the evenings dinner. Ellen and Stefan work incredibly hard and clearly love what they do, wanting to further their careers and to become skippers of their own boat one day. I couldn’t help think what a wonderful teacher they had and how much knowledge Nikki will naturally pass on to these two young eager sailors.
When Sunday morning came around we made our way off the buoy under sail, turning the mighty Bessie Ellen in the narrow river entrance using pure sail power. It is really impressive how little Nikki uses her engine even with a boat so large. It is clear that she has spent her life at sea and finds these kinds of maneuvers almost second nature.
Once out onto open water I ventured out onto the bow sprit to discover my favorite spot to watch the world go by. The wind was light, boats were out and the sun shining. As I sat out there looking back at the ship and my new friends on board I found myself smiling and feeling quite philosophical about the history of the boat, the experiences she offers to people and of the character of wooden ships. You can read her history if you look close enough and every mark has a story. I clambered back inside feeling a sense of attachment to Bessie Ellen, seeing her from this new perspective had made me respect her all the more. It was then that Nikki asked me if I wanted to climb the rigging.
Once we has made our way back to St Mawes where we began, Nikki’s skills were shown yet again. We sailed onto a mooring buoy and as a team backed the main to stop the boat dead whilst the deckhands tied her on. No mean feat and very impressive to all onlookers and to all of us on board.
The trip was almost over and everybody exchanged very fond farewells as it felt like we had known each other much longer than two days. Bessie Ellen had looked after us all well and we were now a small part of her history, I was now certain that all wooden boats share with you their unique character and also create a bond with every person who comes aboard that will always stay. My fondness will only grow for Bessie Ellen I am sure, roll on the next trip!
There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.
– Old Norwegian Adage