‘Bessie Ellen’ 2/10 – a purpose

At breakfast the next morning I watch ‘Bessie Ellen’ glide quietly across the Sound into Oban. She looks grand – every bit as fine as I have imagined. This is why I am here.

Elsewhere on this site there are photographs of another Westcountry trading ketch, ‘Ceres’. Although this vessel has lived with me all my life, she has inevitably been a figure in my imagination. Yes, I have seen photographs – imag(in)es, read what others have written about her, listened while members of my family have told me about her, I have even spoken about her myself. But I never stood on her deck, never handed a rope, set a sail, steered a course, never felt the lift of that first wave on leaving harbour.

EPSON scanner image

If I missed seeing ‘Ceres’ – (she foundered 12 years before I was born), then I have found, albeit late in the day, the next best vessel – (indeed, the only remaining vessel of her type).


‘Ceres’ was built in 1811, whereas ‘Bessie Ellen’ – (here photographed at Coverack a week ago), was built in 1904. ‘Bessie Ellen’ is approximately 20 feet longer than ‘Ceres’ and has finer lines, honed from those 100 years experience. Nevertheless, there are more than enough similarities, caringly managed under the astute stewardship of Nikki Alford, her owner and skipper, for me to understand . . . and to own up to the depth of my ignorance.

This is a passage, not a cruise around the Scottish Islands. It’s as near as I can get to the work pattern of the trading vessels. Roughly speaking, the pattern ran something like this:

  • A cargo was loaded;
  • The vessel left the berth, or dropped the mooring;
  • Was piloted out of the harbour;
  • Navigated to the next harbour;
  • Piloted in;
  • Entered a berth, or picked up a mooring;
  • Unloaded;
  • Loaded, or took on ballast;
  • Left the berth . . . and so on.

With time and experience, the pattern would become a rhythm – a rhythm affected (in no particular order) by tidal streams, the weather, the type of cargo, the vessel and the crew.


This morning, ‘Bessie Ellen’ has entered a berth on the pontoon in Oban. She has offloaded her previous ‘cargo’ – twelve guests, and is preparing to take on a new ‘cargo’ – twelve more guests. The tide will be right to pass the Corryvreckan later on this afternoon, but there is a problem looming with the weather. The crew of four – Nikki, the skipper, Karina and Lucas, the two hands, and Pete the chef are working hard.

The ‘cargo’ is gathering. This is not passive cargo – they are expecting to work the passage.

(To be continued)

Images by Bill Whateley

Image of ‘Ceres’ from family records