The Isles of Scilly are one of the author's favourite paddling destinations. The summer weather is often fine here, and the waters warm and, for the most part, sheltered. The scale of the archipelago is perfect for island hopping by sea kayak, and the weary paddler can find cafes and cream teas near most of the places they will land!
Boats can be shipped to the islands on the Scillionian Ferry run by Isles of Scilly Travel. It is wise to arrive early to drop your boats on the quay, as cars are not permitted once loading with forklifts begins. 2 or 3 local businesses near Penzance will look after your car. On arrival, a trolley is useful to shift the boats to an easy launch off the beach at St. Mary's. If you're staying here, it's possible to touch the boats away against the sea wall at the far end of the beach.
High water in this area is 55 minutes before high water at Plymouth. Tide times for St. Mary's are available.
The tidal stream atlas from Admiralty chart 0034 (reproduced in leisure folio 5603 and in Graham Adam's 'Isles of Scilly' pilot) is well worth laminating and marking up with the day's times - it contains all the information needed for tidal planning in this area in a simple and compact format. The information below attempts to summarise this, and perhaps show where there remains uncertainty.
St Mary's Sound: The east going stream begins at 5 hours before high water at Plymouth (devonport). The west going stream begins at 2 hours after high water at Plymouth (devonport). The flow reaches a speed of 1.7 knots at springs. A race can form on Peninnis Head. The flow accelerates over the Bartholomew ledges, marked with a red pole.
St. Mary's Road: The east going stream begins at 5 hours and 40 minutes after high water at Plymouth (devonport). The west going stream begins at 1 hours and 45 minutes before high water at Plymouth (devonport). The east going stream reaches a speed of 1 knots at springs. The west going stream reaches a speed of 0.8 knots at springs.. The 'westerly' stream varies in direction between south west and north west.
Crow Sound: The east south-east going stream begins at 15 minutes after high water at Plymouth (devonport). The west north-west going stream begins at 5 hours and 40 minutes after high water at Plymouth (devonport). The flow reaches a speed of 1 knots at springs.. The streams flow for around 3 hours then weaken. An eddy forms near St. Mary's from 5 hours after high water at Plymouth.
Old Grimsby Sound: The tide runs south east here for 8 hours. The south-east going stream begins at 4 hours and 30 minutes (or 3 hours and 15 minutes) after high water at Plymouth (devonport). The north-west going stream begins just after (or at 1 hours and 15 minutes before) high water at Plymouth (times give here are from the Pilot and stream atlas, with information from the Pesda Press guidebook in brackets). The flow reaches a speed of 2 knots at springs.
New Grimsby Sound: The tides at the North end of New Grimsby Sound change direction four times in 12 hours. Information is a little vague, but it seems likely that the stream begins to flow north at -5:30 (+5:10), turns south at -2:30 (-4:15) , turns north again at +2:00 (+0:15) and turns south once more at +6:00 (+3:45). All times relative to high water at Plymouth; the times given are from the tidal stream atlas and the yachting pilot, with times suggested by the Pesda Press Guidebook in brackets. Rates reported to reach 2 knots, although it is unclear when.
At the south end of the Sound, an inspection of the tidal stream atlas would suggest that flows are similar to the north end. However, the Pesda Press guidebook suggests that the north going stream begins 15 minutes after high water Plymouth and the south going stream begins 5 hours and 45 minutes before high water Plymouth.
In practise, you will need to keep an eye on the many mooring buoys and boats in this channel to work out what is going on. Eddies can normally be found near the Islands.
Tean sound: Tidal streams here are thought to be similar to Old Grimsby Sound The south going stream begins at 4 hours and 30 minutes after high water at Plymouth (devonport). The north going stream begins at at high water at Plymouth (devonport). The flow reaches a speed of 2 knots at springs.
To the north of the Scillies: The east going stream begins at 5 hours before high water at Plymouth (devonport). The west going stream begins at 30 minutes after high water at Plymouth (devonport). The flow reaches a speed of 2 knots at springs. Stream may run faster than this inshore - uprooted to 4 knots has been reported.
To the south west of Mincarlo: Tidal streams here are somewhat rotary. As a general guide: The south-east going stream begins at 5 hours before high water at Plymouth (devonport). The north-west going stream begins at 30 minutes before high water at Plymouth (devonport). The flow reaches a speed of 2 knots at springs.
South of Little Minalto: The east going stream begins at 5 hours and 30 minutes before high water at Plymouth (devonport). The west going stream begins at at high water at Plymouth (devonport). The east going stream reaches a speed of 1 knots at springs. The west going stream reaches a speed of 1.5 knots at springs.
Bar between St. Agnes and Gugh: The Bar submerges on spring high waters, when a strong south flowing stream flows across it forming and anti-clockwise eddy in The Cove.
Smith Sound: At the north end of Smith Sound: The south south-east going stream begins at 3 hours and 30 minutes before high water at Plymouth (devonport). The north north-west going stream begins at 1 hours and 30 minutes after high water at Plymouth (devonport). The flow reaches a speed of 2 knots at springs. The flow is generally in the direction of the Sound.
Broad Sound and the Western Rocks: Tidal stream in this area are best described on the tidal stream atlas. With times relative to high water at Plymouth, the tide flows north until -3:30, then east until +0:30, then south until +2:30, then west until -6:30. Rates may reach 1.2 knots at springs in south westerly and north westerly directions and up to 1 knot in the easterly direction. Races can form around the rocks and ledges.
As it is not permitted to take a car to the Scillies, the usual considerations around parking cease to matter. The list of access points given below may prove useful for access to towns, points of interest or campsites, but it is possible to land in many other places. However, be aware that access to some of the island is restricted - see the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust map, currently here.
The archipelago permits many options as to where to go in a day's paddle. Your plans will depend on whether you are island hopping between campsites or paddling from a single base (e.g. St. Marys) - both options allow easy access to all parts of the island chain. The trips below are intended to give a feel for some of the areas you might pass through.
The Western Rocks and the Bishop: The paddle out west from St. Agnes demands settled conditions. The western rocks have an eerie sense of solitude. Tidal streams are evident here, but do not tend to run especially fast. The final paddle out into the Atlantic to the Bishop Rock is committing, and the place feels like the end of the world. Beware waves steepening and breaking across the many ledges in this area.
St. Agnes: The deep water of St. Mary's Sound makes St. Agnes feel somewhat separate to the rest of the Scillies, and a little more care is needed in this crossing due to the tidal streams and lack of shelter. However, St. Agnes and Gugh are well-worth the visit.
Around St. Mary's: The trip around St. Marys is a varied one, encompassing the Garrison hill, rocky Peninnis Head, the airport flight path and the opportunity to inspect various neolithic remains near the coast. The strong flows of St. Mary's Sound and the exposure of Peninnis Head are the biggest challenges of the trip, so a group might consider a paddle from Hugh Town north beach to Old Town if conditions are not ideal.
Tresco: Tresco is well worth a visit, if only for the botanical gardens, with their cafe and ship figurehead museum. The island is run as a holiday resort, and hence feels different to the other islands. If you choose to paddle around the island, be aware that the north coast can be much more exposed to swell than any other part of the coastline.
Bryher, Samson and the Norrard Rocks: Bryher is perhaps the quietest of all the main islands. It's western coast is exposed to the Atlantic, but if you get the chance, it is well worth slipping through the narrow channel south of Shipman Head and visiting the rocky outcrops to the west.
St. Martins and the Eastern Isles: Apart from the modern hotel at the western end, St. Martin's is well worth a wander (and paddle) around. Choosing to paddle the northern end at high water will give more options through the reefs and enable the channel south of White Island to be used if desired. The Eastern Isles are beautifully quiet, home only to seabirds and seals. It is wise to check on the timings for the Scillionian Ferry before crossing Crow Sound.
The Northern Islets: There is much interest in the area of Tean, Round Island, St. Helens, Men-a-vaur and the many other Islets between St. Martins and Tresco. Be prepared for the Atlantic swell that is likely as you leave the shelter north of St. Helen's.Back to index