‘Bessie Ellen’ 8/10 – working sail

We spent a day in Fowey while the mainsail was repaired – an excellent repair by the sail loft at Toms Boatyard in Polruan, and returned to the Helford River the following day. The pub at Helford Passage was welcoming, the meal back on board the usual high standard, and the bunk . . . . well, I don’t remember.

This will be the last day of my first voyage on a trading ketch. I am comfortable with my place on the ship. I know where I stand. If I were to apply for a job, I wouldn’t employ me yet. But that’s ok, I know what I would have to do to get there.

There is very little wind, and the skipper decides to show us how the hovellers – (hobblers in North Cornwall), would have towed these vessels out to sea. In some harbours, local men were employed to move ships around, in many cases it was the ships crew – and had been so for centuries. This tender is not up to the job, but the point is well made.


We sail quietly along the coast towards Coverack, making about 1-2 knots. This stretch of Cornwall shows itself as a series of quarries.


On the right is the beach at Porthoustock, and behind the silo at the right hand side of the picture vessels used to sail onto the beach to pick up freight from the quarries. Early in the Twentieth Century, ‘Bessie Ellen’ was one of those vessels.

In ‘Out of Appledore’, W J Slade wrote: “Once we were bound to Porthello (Porthallow), an open beach situated between Porthoustock and Helford River, and our ship was too big for that place, which was frequented by small ketches and barges sometimes in summer, but I never knew of a schooner of 11ft 6in draft go in there. We had a big freight and if we got away with it father would pocket a nice bit of money, and that counted volumes. We got up above the Manacles and it was decided to stick right in on the beach. This was fairly steep so we freed up about two feet going in with a good speed. The boat was got out at once and father went ashore and arranged to start working cargo immediately. We stowed the sails and got up our discharging gear and by the time this was done the tide had ebbed sufficiently to enable the carts to back under the bow up to there axles in water. . . “                                                          p.18 Slade W J, Out of Appledore, Conway Maritime Press 1972.

They worked for four days and nights, off-loading, working between tides, and sailed back to Falmouth, exhausted.

We sail out past the aforesaid Manacles, with its fierce reputation, and around to Coverack. In the photograph, the Manacles are around the point in the distance.


Billie Slade also wrote of one of the family vessels moored tight to this quay, when a storm blew up and she broke her moorings and dragged onto rocks below and to the left of this picture. Less than one month ago, a storm caused severe damage in Coverack, flooding houses, breaking up roads and damaging the sea wall. Engineers are still working on it.

On 29th July 1867, William Petherick took his newly extended, 65 foot ketch ‘Ceres’ onto the beach at Cadgwith, which is a few miles from Coverack towards Lizard Point. The entrance is narrower than Porthoustock and flatter. He brought in 82 tons of coal.


Four days previously we had sailed past Cadgwith and Coverack and round the Manacles Buoy, barely able to see the coast, the visibility was so poor.

(To be continued)

Images by Bill Whateley