Tales from the Slick

Scillies pelagic - or, Three Men in a Boat! Alan Harris recounts the experiences of an RMRG expedition to see pelagic seabirds off Scilly.

Scillies pelagic… Or… Three Men in a Boat…

Alan Harris recounts the experiences of a Rye Meads expedition to see pelagic seabirds off Scilly.

Wilson’s Storm-petrel (Matt Wallace)

 When Matt Wallace was regaling us with stories of the Scillies pelagics, Gary Gardiner and I were enthralled.

‘We’ll come with you next time’, we boasted. Turns out Matt doesn’t ignore these half-baked shows of enthusiasm and the next week he had the dates. We couldn’t back down now………….

So it was late on the evening of Thursday 12 August 2021 that we rolled into a quiet Penzance, armed with every seasickness remedy imaginable and then some. Illegally parked and settled in our little rooms in the Longboat Inn way after closing, I snuggled into bed, toasting myself with a Christmas miniature Port, and thought…well…here we go…………..

Bright and early next morning after our ‘full English’, car ticket-free and now safely parked in the long stay, we shuffled on down to the pier to board the notorious Scillonian, a rolling rustbucket that serves as the marine link to the Scilly Isles. We got a spot on the top deck and soon we were off and heading into a brisk ‘south-westerly force 3-4, imminent ‘, whatever that is. Well, what that is is a choppy sea where the Scillonian periodically and unpredictably seems to drop down a hole, or hit a wall. Keep occupied, keep your eyes on the horizon. Never look at the boat. These are very good tips. In a feeble attempt to remain chipper and keep our minds off it I was giving a running commentary of the south coast of the Lands End peninsular from Penzance to Porthgwarra, a stretch of coastline I thought I knew well from my annual role as a Cornwall holidaying landlubber. Bit disconcerting when you see a mainland lighthouse that you didn’t even know about.

Fortunately some birds started to appear, about our fifth shearwater in was an obliging Balearic which flew parallel to the boat and showed very well. Then a flock of around 11 Whimbrel came low over the sea. The rest of the sailing was fairly uneventful, with plenty of Manx, Gannets, Fulmars, Common Dolphins and a brief sighting of a petrel whose identity remained unsolved.  By lunchtime we were sailing into the sunny and suddenly calm Scilly archipelago, with turquoise seas, its many rocky reefs, low boulder coastlines and white sandy beaches. Breathtakingly beautiful. I was beginning to hanker for my bucket and spade. But no time for that, we had business to attend. Swiftly we booked into our hotel and the old hands took the Scilly virgin (me) on a tour of the hallowed hotspots of St. Mary’s. Sounds more exciting than it was. It was their turn to bore me rigid with their ‘where they saw what rarity, and when, who saw it and who missed it’ (like I cared).

 Suitably sunburnt we meandered back and readied ourselves for our first trip with the legendary Scilly Pelagics on board the evening sailing of the Sapphire. Until a few years back when petrelhead Bob Flood turned up, skipper Joe Pender had had an idyllic life transporting daytrippers across the shallow lagoon from one island to another in his lovely forty foot tripper boat, a wide, open, flat bottomed craft with a small cabin at the front, seating maybe 50-60 people at a pinch. What do we know about Joe? Not much. Probably in his early forties, dark haired and clean shaven, he dresses in those slip-on pie top shoes, shorts and polo shirt combo like he is on holiday himself, can nimbly move around a listing and bucking boat without ever having to hang on to anything, and is now one of the most experienced seabird ID experts in the UK, who can spot stuff like nobody else, and all whilst ‘driving the ship’. He also dives out of the cabin to take stupendous photos of seabirds apparently without any real effort. We did have some discussion as to whether he could tell a Bullfinch from a Chaffinch………..but then why would he ever need to?

Quite how he got persuaded to spend his days ferrying boatloads of (mainly) old men miles out into the ocean, picking a spot, switching off the engine and drifting is anyone‘s guess. Matt (who is our astute financial expert) cast his eye round the boat, did some sums in his head, and thinks he knows.

Bob Flood was more in the expected mould, an older man with unruly white hair and a slightly tamer beard, he stands sentinel on the steps of the cabin, rarely venturing onto the deck. His balancing abilities are even more remarkable when one considers he only has one arm, and is constantly holding his binoculars to his face with the one hand he has got. Periodically his resonant voice announces a birds arrival near to the boat with; ‘Wilson’s. Nine o’clock. Heading past the stern’ or ‘Wilson’s, in the slick…….’

Every time he said ‘Wilson’s’ I just heard captain Mainwaring’s reproachful and tired admonishment of his languid sergeant in Dad’s Army. It was not often that his team of spotters beat him to spot one.

 Soon we were chugging out of St. Marys harbour and into the deep. Bob and Joe stayed in or around the Cabin, using the additional height for ‘spotting’. They have four experienced helpers to look out for birds and give directions. One sits at the back of the boat and ‘seeds’ a constant trail of bread, mealworms and fish oil to encourage a phalanx of gulls to follow the boat out. Once out of the shelter of the islands this hoard of noisy scavengers soon brings in other seabirds to investigate, a few Kittiwakes, Gannets and terns and a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, picked out by fellow Lea valley birder Barry Reed, who also happened to be on board, along with a rogues gallery of some of the UKs leading UK and World listers; apparently it’s as near as they can get to birding overseas this year. Bob Flood was barely interested in gulls or terns; they don’t seem to count as seabirds with him.

Eventually we reached our chumming spot, a featureless bit of ocean. On the Friday we encountered the first Grey Phalarope of the season (spotted by Joe) on the way. Delightful.

At the chum site the engine is cut and we drift, and an altogether different motion to the cruising commences. The heavy swell means inexperienced seafarers like us were constantly lurching off balance and grabbing for a hand hold. Holding binoculars to the eyes was difficult. Plenty of abrupt, unplanned sit downs. Even when sitting you could lurch forward and off the seat. I enjoyed watching Drew Lyness doing a fair impression of an overturned tortoise down the starboard walkway.

Crew were mustered and the magical chum was deployed. Nowadays this has evidently become a practiced and polished operation. Back on shore a 5 litre tub is lined with an onion bag. Various rotting bits of fish (pilchards preferred), fish oil, mealworms and bran fill the tub which is then frozen. The resultant ‘chumscicle’ is removed from the tub and lowered over the side on a rope to slowly defrost and release its goodies. A stinking oily slick is the result, which attracts the petrels from far and wide. And because they smell it from far and wide, it can be take an hour or more before petrels start to arrive.

The waiting began. Quiet prevailed, spotters scanned. More often than not the long monotony would be suddenly broken by Bob’s soon to be familiar ‘Wilson’s, in the slick’, followed by a rush of activity as people jumped up and the camera motor drives began to wurr. As we turned for home we had seen five or more Wilson’s, the holy grail of pelagics.

 We deemed a celebratory pint was in order before we crawled into bed, tired and mindful of the need to be at the quayside early on Saturday.  Matt, being our organiser supreme, leader and old hand, had single occupancy as was befitting of his status, me and Gary were sharing. I woke early but drifted back into a deep sleep, safe in the knowledge that Gary had set the alarm. I dreamt of birds as usual; I was showing Paul Leader an Olive-backed Pipit which was in a tiny hedge rimmed garden lawn with a small table. As we crawled on all fours through the hedge the ‘OBP’ was under the table, and remarkably, hopped over (pipits walk) and perched on my hand. ‘Bloody photographers… they’ve been feeding it mealworms’ I explained. The alarm brought me back to the living.

 Full English mark two, and off to the Sapphire of fun. It was the same routine, steaming out with our trail of gulls, some lovely Arctic Terns and a Bonxie getting in behind the boat. Suddenly a Great Shear crossed the front of the boat, as it came into view on my side all I saw was a distant silhouette which could have been anything. Ah well…………..

 Reaching our anonymous and apparently random chumming spot we stopped and drifted. Action was swift. ‘Wilson’s close down the stern….nine o’clock’. And so another good day with the petrels, better views of both European Storm and several Wilson’s.

We turned for home in a leisurely zigzag route. Bob Flood explained that now it was about shearwaters. We would slowly cruise along still towing our gulls to draw the birds to us, still chumming, and all the while looking out for distant feeding frenzies; gannets, dolphins or shearwaters working a fish shoal; such congregations may give up some rare shears……..

 A Sooty passed across our wake, another superb seabird. We saw several over the days. I had a little grin to myself as I realised the crew and their ‘spotters’ had an overt running joke going. Sooties always ‘sweep’ by in the announcements, as in ‘Sooty sweep-ing down the port side, 5 o’clock!’ Glove puppets-r-us.

Suddenly a Great Shearwater was in the wake.  My heart leapt, when my eyes were finally on it I was ecstatic! Surely the best shearwater of all. It dropped to pick in the wake then powered up the left (starboard) side of the boat (us looking back) giving under views with the belly smudge and patterned underwing, and then sharp cut the bow. As it sheared across it we swivelled and it passed within a few feet of Matt and I on the right-hand (port) side. If we’d had a landing net we would have been in with a chance….. What a view… top side, slo-mo in my head even now…… WHAT… A…. BIRD….

Great Shearwater (Matt Wallace)

As we steamed back into Scilly after a long, choppy day few shipmates were bothering to watch anymore. In the wake amongst the gulls I saw a petrel, another Wilson’s !  I told Matt and as we watched it I realised it was, in fact, a European Storm Petrel. Just when I’d got confident I’d ballsed it up. It was a knock….but it didn’t spoil my day at all!

We docked in the late afternoon and had plenty of time for another look around St Marys, get more sunburnt, and have a pub meal in the legendary Mermaid Inn; time to reflect on the trip so far. Much discussion revolved around the forecasted deteriorating weather for the morrow. Anyone jumping ship? The Kings shilling in the bottom of our beer glasses settled it. Ultimately, we were as one.

The Sunday sailing started earlier (and finished earlier, to allow our farewell on the Scillonian). The swell was precipitous. The wind speed had increased by 5mph on the preceding days, to average 20 mph. Sitting side-on to a wave drop of 15-20 feet was concerning to say the least. Grip on tight. Dropping off a wave crest took your stomach ahead of you. You caught up with it in the trough. It was relentless. But in many ways it was the best day. It started slow bird-wise, no Kitts or terns in the run out, just the obligatory Yellow-legged Gull. Three Dunlin and a Whimbrel caused Barry Reed to ask what kind of pelagic was this exactly? Then a small skua flew alongside. Cameras wurred. Bob Flood called Long-tailed, disturbingly against my gut feeling for Arctic. Birding is different now. Photographers chimping. VAR analysis was almost immediate. Arctic. I’m back on the up.

There were no petrels in the slick for the first hour or more. The slick looked good, heavier seas meant wider troughs, a clearer trail. And then, after an age, petrels were with us. For me, easily the best views of both Wilson’s and Euros, and time to watch and study them. With the bigger swell and wider troughs it was easier to track the birds without interruption. 

Small consternation at the stern of the boat. At the rear port quarter (right) side a man’s treasured baseball hat had gone over the side, whipped off his head by the wind. This is the same guy who on the Saturday pelagic arrived late and had to take a leap of faith from the quayside steps to get on board as we cast off. Always in these things with strangers you are acutely aware of the vast array of opportunities to make an early tit of yourself and fervently hope you don’t. Good of him to stake his claim so the rest of us could relax a bit.

 ‘Burial at Sea’ someone announces solemnly as everyone checks their own hats, almost in a gesture of deference to a lost colleague. Looking back down the boat from the cockpit Bob Flood sees it drift under the boat and out the starboard quarter (left) and announces deadpan ‘Hat in the slick’. We all watch it drift away. ‘Wilson’s on the hat’ is Bob’s next dry proclamation before he enters a quick ‘Scilly pelagic baseball hats are available. Price ten pounds’. The bald, hatless gentleman signals an affirmative order and quick as a flash one is being passed down the boat. With people unable to stand or let go of the boat for fear of going overboard a small gap in the hat chain emerges. ‘Noooo, don’t throw the hat!’ came several urgent warnings as the hat bearer appeared to be about to do just that. Eventually the hat gets to the potential purchaser and is settled on his bare bonce. At the end of the trip as we enter harbour Bob goes into his now familiar sales pitch but this time suggests hats are available for sale at ten pounds, or (since he hasn’t had his money yet) for hire, also for ten pounds. Our poor hat loser gracefully acknowledges the joke at his expense, and dutifully coughs up as he leaves the boat.

 At 4pm we left Scilly as we had arrived, in calm seas and sunshine. Hardened seafarers now, we were steadfast on the Scillonian’s deck, scanning the waves. As soon as we left Scilly waters it was back to normal-grey and choppy. A few Sooties sweeped by, 200 or more Manxies and a self-found Great Shearwater kept me more than perky. A schoolboy error whereby we split up to watch both sides of the boat cost Matt and I dear – Gary picked up a Cory’s hard in to the landward side out from Tater–Du amongst maybe a thousand westward Manx; despite Gary’s best efforts me and Matt missed it.

Even that last minute disappointment didn’t take the shine off a most memorable weekend – how did it pass so fast?

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