Follow the River Truro south of the Cornish capital — down through light-industrial units and car mechanics, past mudbanks silvered by watery winter sunlight — and, between a metal scrapyard and gas storage tanks, you’ll find yourself unexpectedly transported into the late 1800s.
Smelling of freshly sawn wood, the Rhoda Mary Shipyard is a boat nerd’s dream. Within are racks of wooden blocks and drums of hemp rope. Oak trunks lie sliced into planks and neatly stacked.
Three shipwrights clamber through the ribs of a 19th-century cutter like the skeleton of a whale. “She’ll cost her owner a million quid to restore,” says Luke Powell, the master shipwright. “But there’s no logic to wooden boats. Building one is just cavalier and mad, a romantic idea that it’s something worth doing.”
Grasp that and you’re halfway to understanding why Powell has dedicated his past five years to the Pellew, the largest wooden pilot cutter built in the United Kingdom for about 150 years. Through his company Working Sail, Powell has designed and built nine pilot cutters since 1993 but Pellew is a game-changer: a third longer than his previous largest boat at 21 metres, jigsawed together from more than 70 tons of Lincolnshire oak, flying an impressive 242 sq metres of sails. Yet every inch was built the old way, by hand.
Powell designed her the old way too. An artisan to his core, he spent a month honing Pellew on paper (computer design glosses over “the kinks in the line”, he says) based on 19th-century photos of a Falmouth pilot cutter.
Proven designs, those. Come zephyr or gale, they sailed west of the Scilly Islands to intercept inbound cargo ships that required the navigational expertise of local pilots. Because the first boat won the job, they evolved to be fast, manoeuvrable and tough enough to take some of Europe’s wildest seas.
After a four-year build, the £1.2m Pellew — the name comes from Admiral Edward Pellew, a local packet-ship captain’s son who became a hero of the Napoleonic wars — was craned into the River Truro last February. A full schedule of sailing holidays lay ahead. You can probably guess what happened next.
I’m in Falmouth for a preview before the maiden season finally launches this coming April. It’s a crazy day to go sailing — gulls sit hunch-shouldered against the biting cold, only workboats are about on the river — but I couldn’t care less.
Although I’ve sailed fibreglass yachts for the best part of three decades, my heart belongs to wooden boats. There’s no logic to it. By modern standards they’re cramped and as high-maintenance as pop divas; should you ever want to test the truth in prime minister Ted Heath’s line that sailing is like standing under a cold shower tearing up £5 notes, buy an old wooden boat.
Yet what looks! With a rakish swoop to her hull, Pellew has a hefty, workmanlike presence to make surrounding yachts appear like yoghurt pots. And so many ropes to play with! A cat’s-cradle of lines threads through varnished blocks as shiny as conkers. Below decks she’s almost cottage-like, with eight guest bunks stacked in a forward cabin with a shared bathroom, plus a cosy saloon arranged around a large dining table — the social heart of the boat.
Powell lights up as he clambers over Pellew’s topsides. “I love being aboard,” he says. “This feels like home. It’s the boat that I always should’ve built.”
Perhaps only Powell could have masterminded a project this ambitious. He is one of life’s enthusiasts: practical yet romantic about wooden boats, boyishly enthusiastic, as mildly eccentric as you’d hope of a man who, aged nine, sailed to Greece with his artist parents on an old fishing boat, where he was home-schooled before returning at 18 to become a trainee shipwright, restoring Thames sailing barges in Kent. He later returned to the Aegean for 12 years aboard his own wooden tub.
There, among one of the last wooden cargo fleets in Europe, he had a lightbulb moment. “A long continuity of design and boatbuilding just stops in our time,” he says. “I thought, ‘Is no one going to do something to keep this alive? Are we just going to walk away from hundreds of years of evolution?’” The upshot was Working Sail, a company designed not just to build wooden boats but to preserve the traditional skills required to make them. Pellew was funded with a £900,000 donation from Brian Pain, a friend of Powell’s who had recently sold his education business, investment that enabled the yard to take on and train apprentices in their twenties for the project.
In the heyday of pilot cutters, before nautical design became the preserve of architects with letters after their names, any backwater boatbuilder could’ve knocked you up a solid wooden boat. It was just part of the trade, a knowledge passed through generations. Powell insists Working Sail is nothing special. “We’re just the last people doing this. Everything dies if you don’t share the knowledge. So Pellew is really about keeping those old skills alive.”
Sam Coltman, 26, was one of five trainees in their early twenties taken on for the build. Everyone at the time realised Pellew was something special, he tells me as we prepare to sail, loosening the heavy canvas mainsail, shackling halyards to the staysail and the jib at the boom’s end. These boats matter, he tells me: “Everything is different about a wooden boat: the movement, the creaks.”
Although maritime heritage is central to Britain’s island nation psyche, we’re cavalier about our living sailing history. Its survival is left to enthusiasts who do it primarily for love. That’s quite a blind spot for a country that fetishises the National Trust.
Mooring lines dropped, we ease into the river, past cream and grey houses terraced up a hillside, past patrol ships in the Royal Navy dockyard and a dayglow-orange tug whose crew wave hello. Finally, the sails go up: first the mainsail, raised on its one-ton gaff using not-strictly-authentic hydraulic winches (“cheating really”, Powell admits); then the foresails, sweated up on halyards that leave your hands stinging.
Far up the River Fal two sails zigzag across the shallows — working boats dredging for oysters. Soft hills shaded by yellow gorse fold into beautiful silver-green water. We’re trickling along at barely three knots yet the mood aboard is almost jubilant — ahead is the open sea.
Pellew’s public launch comes amid an apparent surge of interest in sailing cruises. In May, the world’s largest square-rigger, the 162-metre Golden Horizon, a near-replica of a 1913 windjammer with 140 guest cabins, is due to embark on her maiden voyage from Harwich. After nine British and Nordic cruises, she’ll steer towards the Mediterranean then end 2021 in Australia. Among the itineraries on offer is the 77-day “maritime silk route explorer”, which starts in Croatia, ends in Bali and costs from £16,903.
Edwina Lonsdale, managing director of specialist agent Mundy Cruising, says that a perception of sustainability plus an ability to visit destinations inaccessible to standard cruise ships explains why bookings for sailing trips have risen from 4 to 15 per cent of her business in the past year. The superyacht broker Burgess says it has sold 10 sailing vessels in the last 18 months, rather than the four or five it would have previously expected to sell in that period. “Now more than ever, owners want to ‘sail over the horizon’ and leave the busy world behind,” said a spokesperson. “A sailing yacht allows you that autonomy.”
And, of course, there’s the Covid factor. “People who would usually book a five-star hotel are realising a sailing charter lets them holiday in their social bubble without being confined to one location,” says Dora Vulic, founder of Sail Dalmatia, noting 80 per cent of bookings now come from first-timers. “They can wake up to new scenery every day and still have superb accommodation, catering and entertainment.”
I wonder if the growing demand stems from something more profound too. In an age that reveres speed, there’s something radical about travelling by sail. By prioritising journeys over destinations and forcing the crew to take time away from screens or other distractions, sailing encapsulates the zeitgeist for slow travel.
A mile off Falmouth the wind fills. A solid Force 5 tears rags of foam from the waves. Rain clouds scud like bruises across a low sky, unleashing stinging showers and gusts. Pellew leans a shoulder into the blue-black seas and presses forward at six knots, seven-point-five, eight knots.
It crosses my mind that no modern boatyard would ever design such a hefty craft. But some boats capture the imagination, exciting dreamers and romantics.
Not everyone agrees. Some enthusiasts argue that new traditional boats devalue the originals; that Powell should focus on preservation not recreation. He counters: “Boats are made to go sailing and to be mortal, not so precious you’re frightened of breaking them. If you break one make another. You can do that quite happily if the tradition is still alive, and the only way to ensure it’s still alive is to build not repair, which means new boatbuilders.”
Standing at the helm, I begin to grasp something else too. There’s a magic to these new wooden boats. Five years ago, Pellew was a heap of timber. Now she seems to be alive. Her ropes creak. Her sails slap as if annoyed when I stray off-course. Barely heeled to the wind, seemingly oblivious to the waves’ slaps, she instils trust.
Like the pilots of old, we race towards the horizon, romping south through building seas, our wake hissing astern like a steadily unfastening zip. It seems a huge pity when we have to turn back.
The plan is to establish Rhoda Mary Shipyard as a hub for traditional boatbuilding: more new boats, more apprentices, perhaps a forge and a sailmaker. Powell hopes Pellew will be the first of many large vessels.
Just not for him. Pandemic permitting, he will run away to sea again in April, sailing as Pellew’s captain on charters to the Scilly Islands, the Hebrides and Brittany. “She represents freedom,” he explains. “That’s what boats are all about.”
So what happens if he’s commissioned to build a 33-metre Cornish trading schooner? He stares out to sea. Then with a small smile: “I suppose I’d have to say yes, wouldn’t I?”
Cruises aboard Pellew in 2021 can be booked through VentureSail. Running from Easter until early October, they run from three days to 13 days and cost from £395