My earliest memories of ‘messing about in boats’ started on the Helford River, having been taken there as a boy, and taught to sail by my late-Dad in a mirror dinghy. So it is apt that my very first blog post on the simple joy of messing about in boats starts here too. And what a place to mess about in boats.
The Helford River is a fantastic sail and boating area on the Lizard Peninsula in South West Cornwall. Helford is similar to an estuary but is technically a ‘ria’, meaning flooded river-valley. The Helford River was formed by huge rises and falls in tides during an ice age over 400M years ago. Over 9.2km long with its mouth facing east, the Helford River is beautifully harboured from the prevailing southwesterly winds and choppy seas that you might normally find in South West Cornwall.
I was glad to find that the Helford River was largely unchanged since when I first learnt to sail there, over 25 years ago. It is mainly surrounded by deep woodlands with trees that bend down to touch the water at high-tide. Due to its unique location it has some very special wildlife there too including seahorses, rare gobies, herons, egrets, flying fish, seals and sex-changing wrasse. If that’s the sort of thing you’re into.
There are many beautiful villages nuzzled cosily around the shores of the Helford River, with links to days gone by when pirates and smugglers would have snuck in here with their loot. As depicted and immortalised in Daphne Du Murier’s 1941 novel ‘Frenchman’s Creek’. We didn’t see many pirates during our visit, but there are some wonderfully enchanting pubs and olde-world shops all worth stopping off at. All of which are easily accessible from the water provided the tide is on your side. The villages worth navigating too would be Helford Village, Port Navas, St Anthony, Helford Passage & Gweek.
My favorite pubs to stop off at would be either the Shipwrights Arms in Helford Village, or the Ferryboat Inn over on the north side of the ria at Helford Passage. Both have their own pontoons and great viewing area up and down the river. In either, you can sit under a palm tree and watch for any changes to the tides whilst deciding whether or not you should have a second pint. Yes, palm trees do grow in this part of the UK due to the unique climate and flow of warm seas from the southwest. The Ferryboat at Helford Passage has a natural south-facing beach that you can sail right up to in most small-sized boats. This works as a perfect sun-trap on lazy summer’s afternoon for either a drink, cream tea or an ice-cream to keep the kids happy. There is also a pontoon you can leave your boat on for short periods provided you don’t get in the way of the Helford River ferry.
If it’s too early for the pub then popping up to the Helford Village shop for a home-cooked cornish pastie or making it all the way up to the seal sanctuary at Gweek would be an equally enjoyable option.
There are several options for messing about in boats on the Helford River. Small sail-boats, inflatable ribs and windsurfers will usually out on most days over the summer. Larger yachts tend to moor in the deeper waters at anchor in the ria channel. If you decide to stay in the channel for this night, then you’ll just need to wave down the ferryman (in a red Helford River ferry). He’ll then shortly come over to take you ashore for little more than about three squid fifty.
With hired a traditional Drascombe Longboat from Sailaway St Anthony at the entrance of the Helford River. Sailaway offer several boats for weekly, daily or even shorter-periods during the height of the summer. The friendly crew at Sailaway will patiently show you the ropes if you’re inexperienced. They also have different options from which to pick the boats up from depending on your schedule. Our trip was a great introduction to the joy of messing about in boats for my 7 year old son. The Drascombe came fully topped up with fuel for as much engine time as we needed. But you will probably decide to motor over to a good spot then choose to use sails for the rest of your trip. These are perfect boats for a lazy day’s sailing. In addition to Drascombe Schooners Sailaway have Wayfarers, Lasers and Toppers from which to use for glorious times exploring the Helford River. Some of their boats might require experience to take out. Sailaway are equally helpful over the phone so best to call ahead of your trip.
The crew at Sailaway make recommendations on suitable sailing areas depending on the tide, seas and wind direction. A strong east wind can generate a fair amount of chop down the Helford River making sailing here unsuitable for the inexperienced. It is worth taking a well-charged mobile phone with you before taking your boat out since Sailaway appreciate a call on your approach back to their pontoon. More information on Sailaway St Anthony can be found here.
Other options for messing about on the water in Helford include Helford River Boats who offer motor boat hire, kayaks, row-boats and the increasingly popular stand up paddle boards (SUPs). More details for Helford River Boats can be found here.
In short, however you do it, the Helford River is an amazing place for messing about in boats. The only possible downsides are miss-timing the tides, easterly-winds or bumping into pirates & smugglers in Frenchman’s Creek.