“YYou have your weather report and your sailing experience, but you never really know what you’re going to find until you get out there,” said Gabe, skipper of the 14-meter pilot cutter Agnes, when I asked what to expect. The forecast was for strong easterly winds promising a wild ride to Fowey as we set out from Falmouth on our three day journey along the coast.
Across the calm waters of Falmouth Harbor there was a heavy swell but the 30-mile winds remained absent. However, there was enough to fill the sails and leaving the derricks and cranes of Falmouth’s industrial port behind on a wooden boat almost identical to those that sailed around near Scilly nearly 200 years ago felt to me as if we were stepping back in time just like going out to sea.
As we sailed along the south Cornish coast, Gabe decided we needed to hoist another sail to propel us through the pounding waves. Tasked with lifting it, I looked at four identical traps – the ropes used to hoist the sails – trying to figure out which one to release. I grabbed a line and Felix, the boatswain, tapped another as he passed and said with a grin, “That might work better.”
Had I resolved my initial decision, I might have crashed the boat’s huge mainsail on our heads. Felix was still smiling, however, as he gave directions to two of the other five guests standing on the forecastle. We had been on board four hours on our first day and were still literally learning to learn the ropes, although the satisfaction of watching the sails fill high above the deck was worth every misstep. We were rewarded with a shift of power as the wooden hull cut through the water, the spray began to fly and we began to feel that we were an integral part of bringing the boat to life.
The frenetic activity of sailing was interspersed with regular breaks where coffee and cake appeared, and meals impossibly impressive given the tiny size of the boat’s galley. There was also time to look out for wildlife. Along this stretch of coast I had seen a minke whale and a pod of common dolphins in the past few weeks, although the swell that morning meant we were unlikely to see either even if they were there. Instead, we watched gannets dive into the dark water like bullets, and guillemots and Manx shearwaters as they skimmed the waves. On the other side of the boat, the coast of the Roseland Peninsula looked almost completely untouched.
Built by renowned boat builder Luke Powell, Agnes is a replica of the pilot cutter that served the Isle of Scilly from which she takes her name. From the outside, at least, Agnes looks like its namesake would have done in the mid-19th century. Back then, Agnes was used to guide ships through the treacherous maze of shallow waters and hidden rocky outcrops surrounding the island archipelago, which lies 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall. Competition for the business was fierce, and the first boat out to an oncoming vessel was paid the commission to bring it in safely.
However, our small group of sailors, most of whom had met earlier that day, might not have passed with the old captains. Gabe told me enthusiasm and a willingness to learn were more important than experience on this journey. While most of us had sailed before, one openly admitted that he didn’t know one end of one case from the other. I had sailed, but mostly on dinghies with my children. But a boat like Agnes – with little technology of modern ships – is a leveler emerging from another time.
After the choppy seas, the calm of Fowey was welcome and we moored beneath the blue and white facade of Ferryside, the house where Daphne du Maurier lived in the late 1920s. As we sat on deck in the still evening, a heron flew over the water and landed silently in the shallows between us and Du Maurier’s house. We listened to the owls hooting at each other in the forest over the water as a hectic day gave way to a calm night.
By the time Du Maurier arrived in Cornwall, boats like the Agnes were already a thing of the past, being supplanted by the more powerful Falmouth pilot cutters encroaching on their territory, and then being superseded by steamers, who did not need to stop at the Isles of Scilly, before they reach the mainland. Boat builders like Powell kept their spirit alive with a passion for the high performance craftsmanship of the day, and Cornwall is all the richer for it.
Agnes’ decks might have felt like home to the original crews, but they would not have recognized our quarters with its neat galley, saloon with small library and comfortable bunks. There is little privacy on a boat of this size, but the upside is that everyone gets to know everyone quickly. Over dinner and as we maneuvered around each other in the cozy cabin, we shared stories ranging from winemaking in England to life as a cameraman at EastEnders. Then we collapsed into our bunks, exhausted.
We awoke to the clapping of oars and the screams of the helmsman from one of Fowey’s gig crews heading out for weekend practice. The water was already swarming with taxis and fishing boats, and as I sipped tea on deck, an impeccably dressed elderly man cruised past me on a beautiful one-man steam launch. Those quiet moments on board, watching the comings and goings of a transient aquatic community are always among my favorites.
As the weekend progressed we began to move around the boat with increasing confidence. We started anticipating what needed to be done before we were told, and by the end we were all confidently talking about toplifts and staysails. Over the course of a long weekend we went from an uneven group of travelers to a small and slightly more competent group of seafarers. We weren’t exactly skilled but we were getting there slowly and returning to Falmouth I wondered if I could tuck myself into this beautifully recreated piece of the past for another trip.
Being at the helm of a boat like Agnes as it roars through the water means feeling connected to the wind and waves, and knowing that you’ve tamed some of nature’s forces to move you across the sea. Agnes is a boat for those who dream of the golden age of sailing and want to try it for themselves. Sure there are easier and quicker ways to get from Falmouth to Fowey and back, but certainly none quite as romantic.
A three-day introductory trip in Cornwall on Agnes with Venturesail Costs out £390pp including meals, equipment and sailing lessons. A The seven-day return trip from Falmouth to the Isles of Scilly costs £1,100 per person
Wyl Menmuir is the author of The Draw of Ocean (Aurum, £16.99) and winners of Roger Deakin Prize to nature writing. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com for £14.78. Shipping costs may apply