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Chasing tall ships on a 44ft Pilot Cutter

by Corin Nelson-Smith 29 Aug 2023 15:30 UTC
Tallulah, a 44ft pilot cutter, exiting the Helford River, Cornwall © Corin Nelson-Smith

Having always admired pilot cutters, both for their design and historical significance, and in particular Luke Powell's modern replicas, I was keen to get on board one and see what they were really like to live aboard and sail.

Luckily, a number of these vessels are available for people to book berths aboard, and one vessel in particular stood out to me. Tallulah, a 44ft Luke Powell pilot cutter, built in 2008 at his Gweek boatyard up the Helford river.

She is owned and skippered by Debbie Purser, tall ship sailor and co-founder of the Classic Sailing charter brokerage, with whom I booked the 5-night voyage. The voyage was scheduled between the 15th-20th August, to coincide with the start of the Tall Ships Race from Falmouth, which promised to be an exciting spectacle, and something out of the ordinary even for a classic boat haven like Cornwall.

To see an overview of the trip, feel free to watch this short video I made, highlighting, well, the highlights! Or for a rambling account of the voyage, please read on.

Day 1

After doing battle with the parking machines in St Mawes (where Tallulah is moored) we were taken from the quay to Tallulah in 'No.8', her wooden, clinker-built tender, that was used throughout the trip to get from vessel to shore, usually under oar alone. A theme of practising traditional sailing skills will soon emerge, so that of course rules out any nights in a marina! Interestingly the tender itself is a replica of the tender to historic pilot cutter Vincent, on which the modern 68ft pilot cutter Pellew is based.

With the safety briefing and vessel familiarisation complete, it was straight down to business, casting off the mooring, and sailing out of St Mawes down the coast towards the Helford. Light winds, little swell and a beautiful West Country sunset made this a lovely introduction to the boat, softly cutting through the water under full sail until we reached our anchorage just at the entrance of the Helford. Clear skies and no light pollution meant our paraffin-lamp-lit dinner on deck featured shooting stars above and phosphorescence below as the crew got to know each other, before making their way to their bunks for the night.

Day 2

The following morning, after hot crusty bread for breakfast, we weighed anchor (manually, by barrel winch, of course) and set full sails for a day's sail back up the coast to an anchorage off Carne beach. Once again, light winds and Tallulah's 20 tonnes displacement made for a very relaxing motion through the water, and bright, clear skies meant it would have been rude not to send the drone up and see what we looked like from afar. I am particularly pleased with the footage of us sailing out of the Helford that you can see in the video, showing off the beautiful coastline and vessel at the same time.

Halfway through the sail, we milled around off Zone Point while the crew took turns rowing No.8 into a tiny zawn, only accessible via dinghy or kayak. Outside the zawn, we could see filming taking place for what looked like some sort of sun-cream commercial on board another classic gaff cutter, so hopefully Tallulah sailing circles behind them added to the footage rather than causing multiple re-takes!

With everyone back on board and No.8 back in tow behind, we continued up towards Carne Beach (the eastern half of Pendower Beach) and anchored for lunch. After some superb fajitas for lunch, most of the crew took the opportunity to go for a swim round the boat (some making more of a fuss about the cold than others, who dove straight in!). After this we practiced a beach landing in the dinghy, with more surf than expected letting us know in no uncertain terms that a stern anchor would be in order next time.

As the sun began to set, most of the crew went for a dinghy trip circumnavigating Gull Rock (under Torqeedo power this time), while I took the opportunity to capture some sunset drone footage of Tallulah at anchor before settling in for a delicious Thai curry dinner down below.

Day 3

The days of sun-dappled flat water and slow meandering were over as the weather changed, bringing a steady force 4 and cloudy skies to Cornwall. Friday (the following day) was scheduled to have the Tall Ships parade of sail taking place, starting and finishing in Falmouth, so the goal for today was to sail back down the coast to secure a spot in the anchorage right by the tall ships.

In the last of the sunlight we enjoyed an early morning yoga session on the beach, and then wolfed down possibly the best bowl of porridge I have ever eaten, cooked by the first mate Anthony who had spent a few years living in Scotland perfecting this dish. We then stowed everything down below and prepared for a livelier sail to Falmouth. The higher winds and uninterrupted Atlantic fetch brought more swell, but Tallulah remained as solid and steadfast as before, gently rising and falling with the swell rather than slamming as modern plastic boats do, proving how capable the time-tested pilot cutter design is, and giving us a cracking broad reach all the way into Falmouth.

I did manage to capture some drone footage of this sail, as you can see in the video, but I hadn't quite anticipated the challenge of catching a small drone that locks itself a certain height above whatever is beneath it, from a platform that is rising and falling as well as moving forwards... thankfully after five nerve-wracking minutes I captured it and had it safely back on board. Was the footage worth it though? Let me know!

Entering Falmouth harbour in the evening, we sailed alongside Marguerite, an original pilot cutter built in 1893, before turning round Falmouth docks and seeing the fleet of five tall ships dressed overall, amongst a veritable hoard of other historic vessels such as the 1874 Lowestoft drifter Gleaner, 1904 pilot cutter Mascotte, 1913 pilot cutter Jolie Brise, and 1881 lugger Barnabas, to name a few.

After anchoring with a fantastic view of the tall ships and dressing Tallulah overall to match, we rowed ashore for showers and a drink at the Chain Locker. And as we were all enjoying the buzz of Falmouth at the heart of the tall ships festival, we decided to have dinner ashore that night at a small tapas style restaurant called Verdant, well recommended by the first mate.

With some daylight left to play with, we rowed No.8 around the moored tall ships to get a unique sea-level view of these unique vessels. It was quite an experience, rowing right under the bowsprits as the sun set, the coloured lights of the tall ships lit up, and the Mexican ship Cuauhtemoc blasted Regeaeton music into the night. Back on Tallulah, we even had a front row seat to the laser light show emanating from Falmouth docks to round off the evening.

Day 4

Due to the worsening forecast and rapidly dropping barometer that would later be named as Storm Betty, the tall ships parade of sail was cancelled, but we didn't let that spoil the trip. Having decided that our anchorage was in fact the best place to shelter from the southerly F8-9 winds, and having waited for the morning fog to lift, we leant right into the stormbound mindset, as well as preparations for the following day due to the harbour master ordering the anchorage to be clear by 7am for the tall ships departure.

A few rowing trips to shore and back to fill the water tanks was first on the list, followed by letting out more anchor chain, reducing windage on deck, setting the No.2 jib and first reef ready for the following day's F4-5 winds, and a last minute pasty run before hunkering down below as the wind and rain began to build. The afternoon passed with crew reading or resting, interspersed with moments of grim excitement when we noticed and reported a nearby yacht dragging anchor to the harbour patrol, or listening to the Falmouth lifeboat being dispatched to assist boats in distress outside the harbour.

On a more cheerfully exciting note, before the worst of the storm arrived, the 68ft, 2020 built pilot cutter Pellew anchored next to us after a passage over from France, and the drenched crew wasted no time in heading ashore to the pub. I had so far been impressed with how comfortable and solid Tallulah's 20 tonnes felt, but the 74 tonnes of Pellew must be on another level.

Then followed a delicious dinner of sausages, spiced pickled cabbage and sweet potato mash, but a restless night as the wind whistled through the rigging, particularly for the skipper who was keeping an ear out for depth and GPS anchor alarms, as well as periodically checking transits on the shore.

Day 5

All crew were up at 6am and we had hoisted the anchor and slipped out of Falmouth before 7am, as requested by the harbourmaster the previous day. Sailing out of the harbour into the 2m+ swell that had been kicked up by the previous night's storm gave us our first taste of big sea pilot cutter sailing, and we made an impressive 5-6 knots to windward under No.2 jib, staysail and reefed main.

Not long after hearing the first long blast (a warning when a ship is slipping lines from the dock) we saw the tall ship Capitan Miranda motoring out of the harbour mouth, followed shortly by the Cuauhtemoc, the Georg Stage, the Fryderyk Chopin, and the Dar Mlodziezy. Unfortunately none of these square riggers could really hoist sail straight into the southerly wind (when they also wanted to travel south!) but we had a fantastic blast around Falmouth bay trying to get up close and sail alongside. This was probably my highlight of trip, getting to experience exactly what the pilot cutters were designed to do, as well as see the tall ships heading off in that rather majestic, dignified way that 21st century ferries, cargo ships, or whatever the modern equivalent is, simply cannot replicate.

After getting very quick at releasing and setting the running backstays, and becoming increasingly intimate with the seawater sloshing up through the scuppers under the pin-rail, we gybed round and headed back into Falmouth harbour, with life slowly returning to a more horizontal level. Thinking that we'd quite like a more relaxed evening and rest for the final night, we sailed up Carrick Roads past the moored tall ship Phoenix, and eventually motored up the River Fal, anchoring in the peaceful Truro river beneath Tregothnan House.

Here we took an evening row in No.8, and appreciated a slower pace of life compared with the thrilling sailing earlier in the day. Anthony cooked up a delicious aubergine curry, and the final evening was spent sharing music and putting the world to rights.

Day 6

For the final morning we had light winds once more, so after hoisting the anchor for the last time we set full sail for the trip back to St Mawes. It was one of those frustrating situations in which one feels as though one has just got the hang of something, and then has to return viciously back to real life. Which sadly does not involve belaying pins, blocks and tackles, canvas and secluded anchorages!

So after tying back up to the mooring, we tidied up the vessel, put the sail covers on, and enjoyed a last trip in No.8 back to shore.

If you have ever been curious about traditional wooden boat sailing compared to the white plastic boats most of us are used to, I cannot recommend contacting Debbie at Classic Sailing enough. Tallulah is a fine example of Luke Powell's craftsmanship and about as far removed from a Jeanneau as you can get, and Debbie and Anthony were fantastic crew who taught us, cooked for us (catering extremely well to two vegans alongside the rest of the non-vegan crew!), kept us safe without hiding concerns from us, and showed us what the Cornish cruising grounds have to offer.

Although one word of warning, after a voyage your search history will be full of 'pilot cutters for sale'...!

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