Sailing barge blues.. our 2020 in review.

What a strange season 2020 has been for us as it has for everyone. Although we were moored in the River Fal throughout most of the summer in the hope that at some point social distancing rules might have been relaxed enough for us to do our sailing trips, sadly this never came to be.

There have been many that were very keen to sail with us this year and we want to thank those who bought experience vouchers for themselves or for loved ones for being patient with us through 2020, and who are now holding onto them until next year. Also we want to thank the many phone and email enquirers, we hope we helped you to find another way to get out onto the water. We also want to send our gratitude to those who visited and browsed our website in search of a boat tour and chose to follow us on social media or subscribe to our blog for updates. It all means a great deal to us.

We do have some positive news for 2021 which we will be announcing on our social media channels over the winter, so please do continue to follow us on either Instagram or Facebook.

Its now October, which would have been the time when our sailing season would have normally come to an end. We thought some of you would like to know what we have been doing and also what has been happening on the River Fal. A review of our 2020 if you like!

Starting with the late part of last year before Covid-19 was around we were in a boatyard in Millbrook near Plymouth, where the barge was having its winter haul out. We intended to spend only about 6-8 weeks at the yard having various works done but for one reason or another spent the entire winter here. Work performed included teak deck removal and replacement, new interior tongue and groove ceiling, grit blasting and refinishing the underwater hull, scraping and re-varnishing all of our spars, sanding and painting the hull, rudder refurbishment the list went on. After a few weeks in the yard we realised that if all this work was to be completed, we would have to do much of it ourselves due to the local tradesmen being busy. We ended up spending many hundreds of hours at the yard and we were renting a nearby holiday lodge.

Waiting to be launched, spring 2020.

By the beginning of spring the work was complete and we were looking our best yet. The trouble was we could not go anywhere due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

We already had as many trips booked for April and May as we had performed in all of 2019. We were looking forward to a very good second season on the water. It was a real shame that we could not perform those trips as we don’t remember a year when we had such fine spring weather. Under better circumstances, those trips would have been fantastic times to be out sailing.

When May arrived, Neil was needed in Truro for essential duties, and as the barge is our seasonal home on the River Fal we were at a loss at how we were ‘legally’ going to move the barge there. After a few phone calls between harbourmasters and authorities at Truro and Plymouth, we were given special permission to move the barge to Truro. It was now the middle of May and it so happened that this permission was not needed as we sailed on the first day that boaters were allowed back out onto the water. We had an amazing sail in dazzling sunshine and offshore winds of force 4-5 meeting only one other sailing yacht, a border force patrol boat and also a naval frigate which seemed to worryingly stalk us for a while. A brief and exciting encounter with a pod of Dolphins made our sail that day extra special.

Dolphins join us on our trip back to Truro after wintering near Plymouth.

When lockdown was further eased on July 4th, we had to carefully consider what we were able to do. We looked in detail at the new rules and guidance and reached out for clarifications. A major plus for us was that our cockpit (seating area) is very spacious compared to other sailing yachts of our size, but it was obvious that we could not adhere at all to the 2 meter social distancing rule between households (us and our passengers). We considered the 1m+ rule and fewer passengers but due to the length of our trips also had to accept we would have problems. The issue is when under sail there are lines, winches and steering to attend to and these are mostly placed in the cockpit which we share with our passengers. These are handled on a near constant basis which means frequently moving around and positioning ourselves quite close to others. We reluctantly made an announcement via our website that we would not be able to sail until social distancing rules eased even further.

So you might be asking what have we being doing with ourselves?

Well, we spent many of our days performing routine maintenance inside and out. Keeping everything onboard a boat running as it should and looking at its best takes a surprising amount of time and nipping issues ‘in the bud’ is a liveaboard mantra. We are happy to say we had very few issues this year as much work had already been done in the yard. The only notable mishap being a bent shaft in one of our mast winches casuing it to jam. This was the result of a very sporting sail one day in the Carrick roads.

Neil also has an additional job as a seasonal patrol officer for the port of Truro. This sees him on the water most weekday evenings during the summer. His role is essentially the welcoming of visitors and collectiion of harbour dues. There is of course a lot more to his job than that and has to be prepared for anything. This season he retrieved two boats that had broken away from their moorings, assisted a dinghy sailor in trouble in Mylor creek, attended a boat grounding on Turnaware bar and also was regularly stopping water craft when they were breaking local byelaws.

The River Fal has been more popular with visiting boats than previous years. This was most probably due to them choosing not to risk going far from our local shores and instead spend time rediscovering, or in many cases discovering for the first time the beautiful river Fal. The marinas in Falmouth were also not allowing boats to raft together, so many came up river to use the visitors pontoons instead, or if they were full, to anchor.

We spend most nights at anchor

For much of the year the weather was very kind to these visitors but there were also some wild times in the river. One particular summer storm saw a night with approximately 30 boats at anchor in the various reaches. Thankfully, even though most people had a difficult night in the strong winds and tide, there were no serious problems the following morning. The river becomes a lively and friendly community at times like these with everyone doing what they can to ensure others wellbeing.

Luke Powel’s ‘Pellew’ at anchor on the River Fal

A new face on the river was Luke Powel’s wooden pilot cutter ‘Pellew’. This had been built on the quayside at Newham, near Truro and was launched in the early part of the summer with the intention of doing charter work. Due to Covid-19 she was only able to perform sea trials but she is planning a full season of sailing next year starting with a trip to the Isles of Scilly in the Spring.

Sometimes ships moor in the River Fal. It is is surprisingly deep in parts and in an economic downturn shipping will come here to be mothballed and await better times. Two car carriers arrived at the beginning of lockdown and have remained here since. It surprises many that the river is actually a commercial port, albeit a very beautiful one. Hopefully they will be back to work soon.   

Mothballed car carriers in the River Fal

Wildlife wise we have seen the usual suspects but perhaps in more abundance than previous years. Herens, Egrets, Commorants, Shags, Swans, Gulls, Terns, Ducks, Buzzards to name a few. Seals were often spotted in one of their usual hangouts on the Mussel farm floats near King Harry Ferry. Otters were seen in some of the quieter parts of the river as was the occasional wild deer foraging along the shore or swimming from one bank to the other. There was the usual seasonal shoaling of fish of various types, and dolphins were routinley spotted in the main harbour (Carrick Roads) and occasionally made their way upriver. At the beginning of October Oyster gathering season began, this being uniquly and mandatorily performed under sail or oar as it has for centuries.

We did move Drifter around the river a little, especially on weekends. This is when Neil had his days off from patrols. Our favourite anchorage in the river is Channels creek where we can easily land our tender for walking around the fabulous Trelissick estate. Grabbing an ice cream from the small Callestick farm stall in the car park is always a must. We also anchored at Coombe creek and Ruan creek if the weather was not right for Channels. Otherwise our usual spot was at Woodbury near Malpas as this was where Neil started and finished his patrols each weekday.

Neil managed to swap his patrol shifts allowing us to spend a long weekend away. There was lovely sunshine and a fine breeze for sailing across Falmouth Bay to the Helford River. It transpired that many other boats thought the same that weekend and there were approximately 50 boats anchored off the shores of Durgan. This is by far the most number of boats we have seen there at any one time and it was brilliant to see so many boaters enjoying themselves despite the pandemic. We have a couple of paddleboards onboard and used them to explore the beautifully clear water and wild shorelines of the Helford.   

We very much enjoy living on the barge, we get to spend each day in beautiful surroundings and feel detached from the troubles and strife of the world ashore. Life does have to be necessarily simpler as there is no mains electricity or endless amounts of running water. We power Drifter from our 300 watt solar panels which charge our batteries through the day, only occasionally running a small portable generator for heavy duty maintenance tasks or if there has been little sun for a few days. We obtain water by regularly filling 20 litre cans ashore and ferrying them to the barge to decant into our larger onboard tank. Hot water for washing up generally comes from our kettle which is heated on an alcohol burning stove. If we have moved the barge at all under power, we get to have a small storage tank of hot water as the engine will heat this for us but it does not last for long. We have no oven onboard, instead we have a portable BBQ in which we cook everything we would normally use an oven for, alfresco come rain or shine. To keep warm we installed a woodburner last winter and this made early and late summer nights super cosy. It might be considered an envious lifestyle but it does come with a downside. For one, you do need to keep your wits about you with regard to weather, being prepared to cope with strong winds and choppy waters at times. For another, it is a small space in which to live so if your relationship is not rock solid things can get a bit edgy. We are happy to say we have lived and worked together on boats for 20 years, probably already spending more time together than most couples spend in their entire lifetime!

There were no Fal River ferries running up to Malpas this year. Normally these would run routinely throughout the day with their skippers commentary being attentively listened to by their numerous passengers. Their absence is a sign of the times with regard to the effects of the coronavirus on some businesses, and perhaps they will be able to return to their normal schedule in 2021. They did manage to run a much more limited service from Falmouth to Trelissick on their charter vessel ‘Moyana’.

No Fal River ferries were running up to Malpas this year, we hope to see them back in 2021

Other signs of the times were that many established events around Truro and Falmouth were cancelled, with the biggest loss being Falmouth classics and the Sea shanty festival, but also there were many much smaller but characteristic maritime events also falling by the wayside. Much effort was put into arranging a smaller Falmouth sailing week so racing sailors could get their kicks but the usual shoreside hospitality could not take place. Nonetheless, recreational boaters took every advantage of the great summer weather and the Carrick Roads were always a busy place.

Although we were unable to offer boat trips on Drifter this year, some other boat operators in the area did and we frequently saw in the river a couple of charter motor yachts from Falmouth called Windana and Sowena, as well as a floating restaurant based out of Mylor called Tethra, these boats being much more convivial for social distancing onboard. We were a little envious to say the least!

We are now in our winter berth which is a mud bank at Truro town quay. Truro is a great little city literally on our doorstep, which despite also cancelling many of its characteristic events due to Coronavirus is still a vibrant place. The fantastic festival of lights where mammoth candlelit paper puppets are paraded through the streets and also the hugely popular Santa parade will be very much missed this winter

Before we purchased Drifter, we had been working together on various other boats for 17 years. This has included crewing luxury charters, day sailing vessels, traditional sail training vessels, yacht deliveries and also supervising some very interesting restoration projects. We have sailed in tropical paradises, crossed oceans and even crewed a private ‘superyacht’ barge through the inland waterways of Europe. It is during that time we became familiar with Dutch sailing barges, and purchased our own. Our passion has always been for traditional vessels, and we were already very familiar with leeboards as we met each other while working on a Thames Sailing Barge in 2000.

The Falmouth and Truro area is a special place for the both of us. Even though we have both travelled extensively there are few places quite like it . An area that has a solid maritime industry and heritage, with a beautiful sheltered estuary and river surrounded by open countryside and coastal villages. Nearby are the equally beautiful Helford River and Fowey Harbour, as well as many lovely anchorages and sandy beaches. Its no wonder many sailors keep their boats here, rarely feeling the desire to sail anywhere else.

Evening reflections on the river

So there you have it, we are now at the end of possibly our longest blog entry so far. Perhaps we can now tease you a little about what we will be offering in 2021. We have had time this summer to adapt Drifter for returning to offering boat trips next season despite social distancing likely to still be a necessity. Our boat trips will have a very different focus than before, but will still be a very special way of getting on the water and discovering the beautiful River Fal. Please keep following us on social media, or consider subscribing for occasional emails.

Stay safe all and happy travels.  Neil & Debbie.