Along Britain’s dramatic southwest coast, historic tall ship sailing journeys offer a sustainable way to uncover Cornwall’s smuggling past and maritime heritage. This trip was provided courtesy of VentureSail Holidays. All opinions expressed are those of the author and the Travel Tramp editorial team.

By Richard Collett

“Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie. Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.”

A Smuggler’s Song’, by Rudyard Kipling, 1906. 

Filémon Darbois has spent a lifetime at sea. Captain of the Grayhound, Darbois’ bare feet were firmly planted on the wooden deck as he kept masterful control of the tiller as the swell of the English Channel rocked us sideways and the sun disappeared – blood red – over the horizon. 

We were sailing east, back to port in Plymouth, Devon. Sails were hoisted high, the wind was strong and even as darkness descended Darbois kept the engine firmly switched off as we navigated by moon and torchlight.

This was the last night of a three-night, four-day journey from Plymouth to Falmouth – and back again – on a replica 18th-century tall ship. I had zero sailing experience when I boarded, but now, here I was standing on the bow of the ship, pulling ropes and letting the sail fly in the darkness as Darbois shouted orders from the stern. 

As we caught the southwesterly wind, I felt a burgeoning affinity with the countless mariners that had made this same journey before us. It was exhilarating, and I vowed that this would not be the last time I hoisted sail on a tall ship. 

“These wooden rails”, says Darbois as we slowly move through the sound, “they are the edge of our world until we reach land again”.

Grayhound: An 18th Century Cornish Lugger

Our journey had begun three days earlier at Mayflower Marina in Plymouth. The tall wooden masts of Grayhound stood out amongst the yachts and motorboats moored against the pontoons, and Darbois and his crew of six English, Spanish and Bretagnes were busy tying knots and mopping the decks as we hailed them from the dock. 

Grayhound is a replica of an 18th-century Cornish lugger, a historic type of sailing ship that the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall describes as the “workhorse of the Cornish fishing fleet for over two hundred years”. Luggers were famed for their speed and named for their ‘Lug Sail’, a distinctive, four-cornered sail that’s suspended from a yard mast above the deck. 

The Cornish Lugger’s slender and sleek design made it not only an apt fishing vessel but ensured that larger builds could cross the English Channel at speed and traverse rough Atlantic waters. This meant that the lugger became a favoured vessel for both the smugglers and the customs agents, who were pitted against each other for centuries along Britain’s southwest coast.

Grayhound is an accurate 5/6th scale replica of a real ship (also named Grayhound) that was built in 1776. The modern version was painstakingly handcrafted from oak using traditional boat building methods, before being launched in 2012. The first Grayhound was used by customs agents to chase smuggling vessels; two centuries later and adventurous travellers can follow in their wake on a journey along the smuggling shores of Southwest Britain with VentureSail Holidays

I didn’t know my fore from my aft, but as we raised the sails and set out across Plymouth Sound I was keen to learn the ropes.

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Learning the Ropes in Plymouth Sound

With five travellers and the crew and captain all aboard, in true 18th-century naval fashion, we were instantly pressed into readying Grayhound to set sail. Despite having almost zero sailing experience between us, we travellers were organised into two teams. I was placed on the ‘Tackle Team’, given a rope and told to wait for commands. 

The beauty of a journey on a sailing ship like this with an experienced crew is that you can pitch in and assist with the ropes and sailing as much, or as little as you like. I didn’t know my fore from my aft, but as we raised the sails and set off across Plymouth Sound I was keen to learn the ropes. 

After ten minutes of frantic rope hauling, we were away. As we slowed down and crept out of Plymouth, I quickly learnt that sailing is 90 per cent about waiting to catch the wind. We ever so slowly passed by the great fortifications of Plymouth, including Drake’s Island, as Darbois pointed the bow of the ship towards the twin villages of Cawsand and Kingsand on the western side of the sound.

“These wooden rails”, says Darbois as we settled in, “they are the edge of our world until we reach land again”. 

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Spanish Raiders and Battles with Smugglers

Darbois looks like he’s only just entered his 30s, but he explains how he grew up crewing yachts and sailing ships from his home in France to the ice strewn shores of Antarctica. Plymouth Sound is a far cry from these far-flung destinations, but still, he shouts with excitement as he steers us towards the colourful waterfront houses of Cawsand.

It’s a slower pace of life on board a sailing ship, and Darbois says that we’ll need to spend the night in the cove off Cawsand, still in sight of Plymouth, and wait for the winds and tides to sweep us out into the English Channel in the morning. Our goal was Falmouth, some 40 miles or so away as the crow flies, but we were at the mercy of the elements on this trip, and any plan was inevitably a loose one.

Darbois ordered the anchor dropped and the pilot gigs to be lowered into the water. With the mist clinging eerily to the houses in Cawsand, we clamoured down into the small boats and rowed across the beach. 

The beach emerged from the mist. Cawsand and Kingsand are part of the Rame Peninsula, an area that’s been given the nickname ‘Forgotten Cornwall’ by the locals that live here. Most people fly past on their way to caravan parks and holiday homes further west, and Cawsand and Kingsand lie forgotten, just miles across the water from Plymouth.

On the night of 14th March 1596, though, the Spanish didn’t forget Cawsand. Far from it, and out of the misty darkness Spanish raiders rowed to shore and attempted to burn the village to the ground. It was a brazen assault, so close to the English navy’s base in Plymouth, and as part of the relentless Anglo-Spanish wars, the Spanish replicated the raids along the length of the southwestern coast, hitting Penzance, Newlyn and Mousehole.

TK Source TK On 31 January 1788 the bay where Grayhound is anchored would become the scene of a notorious battle between smugglers and the Royal Navy. Cawsand had become a transit point for goods, and an infamous smuggling family from Cornwall – the ‘Carters of Prussia Cove’ – were landing illicit supplies when they were ambushed. Surprisingly, they managed to fight off the Royal Navy, and the Carters escaped to smuggle another day after a bloody confrontation that left John Carter almost dead from a cutlass blow.

‘My strength was allmoste exhausted; my breath, nay, my life, was allmoste gone….The bone of my nose cut right in two, and two very large cuts in my head, that two or three pieces of my skull worked out afterwards’.

John Carter of Prussia Cove

As darkness begins to descend, the mist begins to thicken, and we row back to the Grayhound to spend the night anchored in the same cove where raiders and smugglers alike awaited their fate in centuries past.

A Journey West to Falmouth

The next morning we hoist sails and plod out of the shelter of Plymouth Sound. With clear skies today, we can make out hikers on the South West Coast Path, a long-distance walking route that was originally carved from the cliffs to allow the coastguard to catch up with smugglers. 

The Fowey Harbour Heritage Society describes this remote, difficult to navigate coastline as a smuggling “hotspot”. Smuggling has occurred in Cornish waters for centuries, but it reached its zenith in the 18th and 19th centuries, fuelled by harsh taxes and the desire for cheaper goods, as well as the desire to make a profit. Fowey, which we pass in the late morning, was supposed to be a customs base, but the Fowey Harbour Heritage Society explains that even the mayor was “at one time accused of smuggling”.

We pass other smuggling towns, as we edge ever westwards. With rough waves now battering the shore, though, we can’t land and continue until darkness when we reach the safe harbours of Falmouth.

Some silk was found on board and the master of the French vessel was said to be a friend of Mr Bennett, the Mayor of Fowey. The Customs officers then proceeded to follow Bennett to his house and there found French wine and brandy in one room. On exploring further they discovered Bennett hastily breaking open more bottles of spirits and pouring the contents out of the window. 

Fowey Harbour Heritage Society

The Third Deepest Natural Harbour in the World

The Falmouth Harbour Authority describes the Fal Estuary and the Carrick Roads as the third deepest natural harbour in the world. Deeper natural harbours are only found in Menorca, Spain and Sydney, Australia. 

This made Falmouth one of Britain’s great maritime ports, as vessels have sought sanctuary in the calm waters of the Carrick Roads, a natural harbour that extends inland for centuries. Like many sailing ships before us, we spent the night anchored outside Falmouth, and in the morning, rowed the pilot gigs to town. 

For the first time in 24 hours, I step foot on dry land, and the level ground seems to sway unnaturally beneath my feet. Falmouth grew to prominence as the first major port of call for ships arriving home from the Atlantic. News reached Falmouth from the far-flung corners of the British Empire before anywhere else in the British Isles, and the town became an international port; a melting pot of cultures, languages and nationalities from across the world.

Today, you can learn more about this illustrious maritime past at the National Maritime Museum, which has an extensive branch overlooking Falmouth’s harbour. You can also enjoy fish and chips and a cold pint of Cornish ale by the old customs house, take a ferry ride across the harbour and visit the nearby beaches, but soon enough, were rowing back to the Grayhound, because the southwesterly winds were blowing. 

“This wouldn’t be a good place to be a smuggler”, says Darbois as the wind takes us past the cannon of Pendennis Castle.

Smuggling, Sailing and Sustainability

“This wouldn’t be a good place to be a smuggler”, says Darbois as the wind takes us past the cannon of Pendennis Castle, a Tudor fortification built on the orders of King Henry VII to defend Falmouth against Spanish attacks. “But then again, the customs agents were often in league with the smugglers!”

Boats like Grayhound were fast, and Darbois explains how the lug sails could be hoisted quickly to chase after smugglers, or indeed, to escape from the customs agents. “All that mattered”, says Darbois as we hoist another sail to meet the winds, “is how fast you could get the ship underway”. 

It had taken two days to reach Falmouth, but now with a southwesterly roaring down the channel, Darbois was confident that we would easily make it back to Plymouth that afternoon. He wasn’t wrong, but by the time we reached the Rame Peninsula again, we were sailing in the darkness.

With no engine noise breaking the darkness, it was strangely quiet as the boat rocked backwards and forwards against the great dark mass of the sea. I found myself hauling ropes under the moonlight as Darbois steered us back to the cove outside Cawsand where we’d spent the first night. 

The following morning, we rowed the pilot gigs around Cawsand’s cove, exploring hidden nooks and crannies along the coastline, before taking Grayhound back to the Mayflower Marina where our journey had begun.

“We only use the engine when we need it”, Darbois had told us back on the first day. True to form, for most of the voyage we’d run on sail power, although Darbois had used the boat’s engine every now and then to give us a boost in the busy harbours of Plymouth and Falmouth. 

I was sad to leave the sea salt behind. But not only had I found an appreciation for the skills of mariners and sailors, but I was satisfied that the voyage had been a sustainable one. A journey that would have taken two hours each way by car, from Plymouth to Falmouth, had taken us the best part of three days to complete, but we’d expended almost no carbon, met no traffic jams on a busy Easter weekend and been rejuvenated by the slow pace of life onboard Grayhound. 

“Boats need to be sustainable by their very nature”, says Darbois, “and we not only use the power of the wind, but we conserve fuel, we can turn seawater into drinking water, and we reuse everything we can!”. 

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