Voyage Report: Pettifox - Sail Scilly

by John H. Luxton

[NOTE: THE PETTIFOX no longer operates trips in the Isles of Scilly having been sold around 2004]

Many of us old enough to recall the 1970s will remember those Sunday evenings sat before the TV watching the adventures of Captain James Onedin in the superb BBC maritime drama "The Onedin Line".  Younger people and those whose memories of the series have faded somewhat may very well have come across the first two series which have been available on video tape for some time and have also been screened on Satellite and Cable TV. Most will have wondered what it was like to travel on board a traditional sailing vessel as opposed to a modern yacht.

There are various sailing ships offering passenger cruises for both day and longer excursions. There are even sailing cruise ships. However, to travel on such vessels usually incurs quite a hefty fare.

Visitors to the Isles of Scilly, however, can experience travel under sail for a very modest fare which will certainly not break the bank and still allow you to sample a few hours on board a traditional working sailing ship replica. These journeys can be undertaken on the PETTIFOX.

The PETTIFOX [SC139] is owned and operated by Alfred Hicks. Launched in Summer 1992 she became the largest vessel to be constructed on the Isles of Scilly for over a century since the sailing ship Gleaner came off the stocks on St. Mary's in the 1870s.

Construction of the PETTIFOX began in 1990 with the vessel being built over two years by Alf Hicks and shipwright Peter Martin. Her design is based on the design of the Breton crabbers, a familiar sight of the Cornish coast until W.W.II. She is made of larch on oak frames.

The ship's name PETTIFOX is an old word used on Scilly for a five-bearded rockling fish. PETTIFOX is a distinctive vessel with a red upper hull, white lower hull and light blue boot topping, which when under sail on sunny day presents a most pleasing sight cruising the waters around the Isles of Scilly.

VOYAGE REPORT - Tuesday October 26th 1999

St. Mary's to Annet and Return

Though a regular visitor to Scilly this was only my third trip on the PETTIFOX. Preferring, as I do, to visit the islands during the quieter part of the year just before Easter or late October the vessel is sometimes not yet ready for service or has already been taken out of the water for the winter. This autumn I was lucky. Good weather had meant that Alf Hicks had kept the PETTIFOX in service that bit longer.

Purchasing my ticket at the Turnstone Gift Shop which acts as the booking agent I returned to the quay to await the 10.30 departure time. Out in the harbour Alf Hicks could be seen getting the PETTIFOX ready for her cruise. Using her auxiliary engine she was brought to the steps at the seaward end of Hugh Town Quay. Licensed to carry just 12 passengers you can be certain that three will not be any crowds, unlike some of the launch trips which can depart with up to 70 or more on board.

Sitting on the forward end of the cabin roof I looked out over the bow and waited there a short time before the rest of the booked passengers assembled.

Once everyone was on board, Alf took the PETTIFOX out into the harbour once again using the engine. Then, the engine was stopped and it was time to raise the sails.

The nice thing about the PETTIFOX is that you can go along for the ride or take part in the sailing of the vessel. "Like to haul this rope" asked Alf in preparation for raising the gaff sail. Hauling the sail up was the easy part, even though one had to keep time with another passenger whose rope hauled up the after part of the sail.

Once in position a large mound of rope lay on deck. "Can you coil that up?" Alf asked. No problem I thought, having seen him perform with an other rope use to raise the topsail. Everything started okay but as the coil became larger things started to go a bit astray. Tidying things up as best I could I fixed the coil to the belaying pin and hoped no one would notice that my coil was the least neat of the lot!

With all sails set and a south easterly breeze we drifted westwards out of the harbour. It was a very gentle breeze, the PETTIFOX making a very slow headway along past the headland to the west of Hugh Town known as the Garrison. However, there is something quite relaxing to hear the water lapping at the vessel's hull.

Off Steval Battery Alf started up the engine to give us more speed as PETTIFOX moved out into St.Mary Sound. It was a glorious morning more akin July rather than the end of October! I was glad I had only put on a light jacket, rather than my heavy waterproof Barbour which I usually wear on trips out to sea. Sailing south through St. Mary's sound we approached the Spanish Ledges buoy. This buoy fitted with a bell can be heard faintly over much of the western part of St. Mary's.

Despite its prominent yellow paint and bell, it did not provide sufficient warning in 1997 to the former Cunard turbine steamer which now trades as the cruise ship ALBATROS. She ran on to the Spanish Ledges, tearing a hole in her hull, which resulted in the curtailment of her cruise and her departure to Southampton for repairs.

Heading south through St. Mary's Sound the Island of Gugh, smallest of the inhabited Isles of Scilly [two houses], and linked to the adjacent St. Agnes by a tidal sand bar came closer.

Passing Dropnose Porth otherwise known as Beady Pool after the glass beads which still turn up on the sand as a result of an 18th Century  shipwreck we turned south west wards following the south coast of Gugh crossing the entrance to The Cove. Continuing SW passing Great Wingletang rock and Horse Point we headed north west up the west coast of St. Agnes, past the Lethegus Rocks and up Smith Sound which runs between St. Agnes in the east and Hellweathers Rocks and the Isle of Annet [A bird sanctuary] in the west.

As one sails around St.Agnes the former St.Agnes Lighthouse, now used as a residence remains prominent, crowing the centre of this the most south westerly inhabited part of Britain. Travelling west, the next landfall would be the USA.

The trip on the PETTIFOX coincided with low water. With spring tides prevailing, the rocks of Hellweathers and those along the shoreline of Annet presented as jagged teeth just waiting to catch an unwary vessel. At high water may of these rocks disappear just below the surface and have caused the loss of many vessels.

The Isles of Scilly have been the graveyard of hundreds of sailors and many vessels. The most recent complete loss being the container ship CITA in 1997, fortunately without loss of life.

Off the Isle of Annet which is bird sanctuary, and famous for its Puffins during the breeding season could be seen a number of seals.

A change of course near another buoy marked "Old Shipwreck" followed. [Having mislaid my map of Scillonian Shipwrecks I can't recall exactly which one this is!]. We then headed off in a north easterly direction towards the once inhabited island of Samson [Samson was the home of the Birdman in the motion picture "When the Whales Came" set and filmed on Scilly, and starring Paul Schofield]. Once off Samson we headed for Nut Rock, a prominent rock between Samson and Tresco from which the Isles of Scilly Gig races commence. Picking up a breeze again enabled us to float silently back across The Road to Hugh Town harbour. In the harbour sails were lowered and my handwork with the rope coiling noted! With all gear stowed the engine was started up and we moved back to the quay

PETTIFOX was back on the Quay shortly after 14.15 it had been a very enjoyable trip, the only complaint was that there was insufficient wind to enable the full journey to be made without recourse to engine power.

A half day trip on the PETTIFOX is unbeatable value for just 10 per head. During the summer season full day and evening trips are also available. The evening trips often coincide with the gig-racing evenings.

If you go to Scilly be sure to take a trip on the PETTIFOX. Tickets are obtainable from The Turnstone gift and craft shop close to the Bishop and Wolf Public House.

With sails being raised, PETTIFOX moves out of Hugh Town Harbour on 27th October 1999


PETTIFOX with SAMSON in the background.


Passenger launch KINGFISHER is seen departing from Hugh Town with a full load. ISSCo vessel Lyonesse Lady is berthed in front of PETTIFOX.

Approaching the Spanish Ledges in St. Mary's Sound between St. Mary's and Gugh.

Rocks off Annet, like teeth a waiting to snare unwary vessels. At high water these are just below the surface.




St. Agnes framed by the PETTIFOX's rigging.



Alf Hicks lowers the gaff sail after untangling my coil of rope.


Passengers help to secure the sails at the end of the cruise.


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