Situated as they are off the south western tip of the Cornish coast in the U.K. and benefiting from the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, the Isles of Scilly are a summer playground for boating enthusiasts or merely those that love the sea. Scilly Isles boating has a long, illustrious – and sometimes dangerous – history that makes for the perfect boating adventure.
The five islands that make up the Scillys – St. Mary’s, Tresco, St. Martin’s, Bryher, and St. Agnes – are all relatively close to each other making island hopping an accessible and immensely enjoyable experience. Spend the morning jumping onto unspoilt white sand beaches straight from your boat, or taking a dip in the temperate turquoise water.
The history of Scilly Isles boating
The Scillys culture and history are intimately linked to the sea, as any proud Scillonian will tell you. In the past, the Isles were a stop over for seafarers and traders since Norse times, while during the latter days of sail the Scillys Pilot Gig captains would use their boats to guide larger ships past hidden reefs and outcrops.
The Pilot Gig tradition continues in modern times with the Isles of Scilly World Pilot Gig Championships, which is held every year in May. Over 130 crews gather in the waters between the islands, and it makes for a rather good day out.
Scilly Isles boating – island hopping
The Scilly Isles secluded and sheltered coves, uninhabited smaller islands with abundant numbers of seabirds, and excellent dive sites – including the occasional shipwreck – all make for a fantastic day out on the water. Island hopping is probably the most popular activity for visitors. The St Mary’s Boatmen’s Association – a co-op of captains running a coordinated service from St. Mary’s – offers the most popular way to dart between the Isles.
The proximity of the islands to each other means you’ll have plenty of time to explore each in full. Must-see attractions include the Tresco Abbey Gardens – simply magnificent and probably one of the best gardens anywhere in the world – St. Martin’s miles of deserted beaches, and the quiet solitude of St. Agnes (population 73 or so).
For the more adventurous and experienced, you can also hire sea kayaks, canoes, smaller sailing vessels and motorised craft to flit between the islands as the tide dictates.
Recreational fishing, diving and wildlife watching
Scilly Isles boating is more than just tourism; there’s also a wealth of conservation work and fishing that forms part of the daily boating traffic to and from the islands. The seafood on the Isles is famous – chow down on some of the best lobster, mackerel and crab you’ll find anywhere – and when not hauling in the catch du jour or ferrying passengers Joe Pender, one of the St. Mary’s Boatmen, runs recreational fishing trips a few miles offshore. One of the most popular pastimes is shark fishing, where anglers can try their hand at wrestling in a mako or blue shark. Thankfully, Joe records the weights, sex and locations of the sharks and sets them free afterwards.
On St. Martin’s, Scilly Seals Snorkelling will take you to the secluded coves and outcrops where the Scillys’ seals frolic. No experience is needed, but you need to be confident enough to swim in open water. Seeing the seals in their natural habitat as they dart in for a curious glance at the awkward four-limbed things bobbing in the swell is a wildlife experience par excellence.
Further below the surface, divers of varying experience levels can explore the island’s vibrant underwater sea life, play with the seals at depth, or navigate the eerie silence of the many shipwrecks that have come to grief in storm-tossed seas.
For more information on the Isles of Scilly, check out our Karma St. Martin’s page here.