Sailing Meeting at Plymouth 17th July 2003 - on the Bessie Ellen
After a long hot spell of brilliant blue skies and sunshine, the weather finally broke a day or two before our planned day’s sailing on Nikki Alford’s newly-restored Bessie Ellen. The twenty-eight members and friends who had booked a passage therefore set out from destinations around the West Country and as far afield as South Wales early on the morning of 17th July in wet or overcast conditions. But we need not have worried, for as we descended the higher ground into Plymouth, the weather was clearing, patches of blue sky could be seen, and a fair wind from the South West was blowing.
Bessie Ellen was berthed at the Plymouth Yacht Haven Marina, Mountbatten, not a stone’s throw from the yard at Clovelly Bay where she was built nearly 100 years ago by William Francis Kelly as one of the last West Country trading ketches. Laid down on speculation, she was bought in 1907 by Captain John Chichester of Braunton, and remained for most of her working life in the family’s ownership until sold in 1947 to Captain Moller from Denmark, where she traded until 1971 when she was laid up at J.Ring Anderson’s shipyard until acquired by Nikki.
Shortly after 10am, much to our valiant organiser, Martin Hazell’s relief, all the party were on board. After a welcome from Nikki and her crew, coffee on deck and safety drill, we quietly slipped our mooring and headed out of the Cattewater under motor. Enthusiastic members lent weight to the halyards as the crew set the sails, and by the time we had passed the breakwater to starboard, all but the flying jib and the topsail were set and the motor dispensed with. The weather was perfect for sailing and Bessie Ellen certainly showed her paces, her clean white sails, made by Jimmy Lawrence of Brightlingsea, drawing nicely as we headed close hauled on a starboard tack into a steep swell at about six knots. The skipper took us out towards our three mile off shore limit past the Mew Stone, Wembury Bay and the entrance to the Yealm. After going about with a quick burst from the ‘iron spanker’, our chairman, Julia Creeke, took the helm and held us on a long beat across the Sound to the degaussing buoy.
It took a while for some of us to find our sea legs as Bessie Ellen pitched, tossed and cork-screwed through the sea, but she sailed true and fast, showing just what a good sea boat she is. After a good hard sail we bore off inside Rame Head, when the motion of the ship eased. The couple of miles of coast between Rame Head and Penlee Point are spectacular. Densely wooded cliffs plunge into the sea and are remarkably indented with great fissures in the rock formation that culminate in caves at their base. Once round Penlee Point, the swell disappeared and in the calm of sheltered waters we anchored in Cawsand Bay off the old torpedo boat station and piped ‘hands to bathe’. No sooner was the hook dropped and sails sent down than Nikki and her crew miraculously produced lunch from the galley. A choice of red and white wine and fruit juice and an individual picnic basket each with hot baguette, cheddar and brie cheese, Scotch egg, prawn and chicken salad and fruit yoghurt. All eagerly consumed on deck before weighing anchor and running back to the eastern end of the breakwater before gibing smartly to port to make our approach to Mountbatten,.
On our return trip we could see a squall approaching from the west, which hugged the Cawsand side, enveloping it in a rain haze but we fortunately missed it. Rain caught up with us just as we returned to our berth but not for long, just enough to wash the decks before disembarking shortly before 5pm. There was general agreement that we had had a memorable day and we parted with the hope that we could sail again with Nikki and her friends and wished them bon voyage as they prepared to take Bessie Ellen back to Denmark later this summer and up into the Baltic.
For one new member of the society and his two daughters their trip in Bessie Ellen was of special significance. Tom Welch had not sailed on a West Countryman since he had accompanied his father on the Result in the sixties. Tom’s father was Captain Peter Welch, owner master of Result and his grandfather Captain Tom Welch had been master of her before his father took over. Like Bessie Ellen she too was one of the Braunton ships. How appropriate then that Tom should bring his two daughters with him for our day’s sail on Bessie Ellen, which had been named after Bessie and Ellen, the two daughters of her original Braunton master, John Chichester.
Finally our grateful thanks are due to Martin Hazell for arranging the day, and to Bessie Ellen’s skipper and crew for giving us such a splendid welcome.
Reported by Peter Ferguson
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