A party to remember in Looe

The people of Looe know how to throw a party. Every two years, they host the Looe Lugger Regatta, welcoming two dozen old luggers including most of the handful of boats which were built in Looe in the glory days of Cornish fishing, such as Guiding Star, and still survive a hundred years on.

This year was even more special: thirty years since the tradition of the regatta was revived in 1989. Looe Sailing Club laid on two buffets the length of the fish market, and on Saturday night, crews and town folk danced to local ska band The Mighty Offbeats until the concrete floor was wet with beer.


The winds were light and fickle but enough for two races on Saturday and one on Sunday. In the first race, we tried our gennaker, a cross between a big jib and a spinnaker which Guiding Star inherited from another boat. It can’t cope close to the wind because it’s set flying, but with the wind on the beam and Celia helming, the boat hit six knots at times. By the second race, the wind was getting up so we swapped to our usual jib; I helmed and struggled to tack the boat because I forgot to ease the mizzen so we ended up near the back of the fleet.

On  Sunday, the sun beat down on a glassy sea and we sat at anchor till early afternoon before Brian on the committee boat spotted signs of an incoming sea breeze. We did well on a couple of agonisingly slow downwind legs but were then caught by a bewildering 180-degree wind shift.

We finished the regatta half way down the fleet but did win a trophy for sportsmanship. I hit a mark right in front of the committee boat (Brian’s trawler) in the third race and thought I should fess up rather than be disqualified, so radioed to ask what was the penalty.

There was a puzzled silence until someone said, “You get to go round another mark.” Naively, I persisted until the voice said firmly, “Well, we didn’t see anything.”

We pressed on, and I was very touched that evening to find that my honesty was worth a trophy. (Everyone had to hand their trophies back immediately because, well, one from two years ago went missing, but we have the photographs).

The driving force behind reviving the tradition of the Regatta has been Paul Greenwood, who went to sea aged sixteen in the early 1960s on one of the five wooden luggers then still fishing, I.R.I.S.. She used her three engines, not sails, but the conditions on board were as punishing as in the nineteenth century: a skipper and five crew hauling a mile and a half of nets over the rail by hand, sleeping crammed into a tiny, fetid cabin in the stern. Paul’s two books, Once Aboard a Cornish Lugger and More Tales from a Cornish Lugger are vivid, funny and sobering.

Richard had to leave us in Looe to go back to work on Monday morning but Celia, Thomas and I had a perfect, warm day’s sail back to Plymouth, during which we saw a grey seal with its head out of the water sunning itself.

The committee said on their Facebook page afterwards that they were “all getting on in age now and creak more than some of the boats in a gale” but “everyone has decided to go for one more in 2021”, which is great news.

Thank you to Paul, Mike (“make those lines bar tight and you’ll be all right!”), Brian, the wonderful cooks of the Looe Sailing Club and everyone else who gave the fleet an unforgettable event.

Many thanks to Richard Lockhart for the photos of Guiding Star, and to Thomas for the photos of the fleet on the glassy Sunday.

New cooker for old

This photo doesn’t do justice to the state of the old paraffin cooker by the time I finally despaired of it. Despite hours of effort and a lot of money on spare parts, the oven burner still leaked, one of the top burners heated feebly and the cracked cast-iron top was flaking with rust. The oven door wouldn’t seal even with a bent piece of wire to hold it closed.

Happily, there’s a small firm in the south of England which refurbishes Taylor’s stoves for much less than the eye-watering cost of a brand new one. Taylor’s Heaters and Cookers are engineering artists. When our replacement cooker came down the pontoon on a trolley, I couldn’t see the difference from a new one.

The old one was wheeled away in part-exchange and I was left with several plastic bags of pieces to install the replacement. I spent a peaceful day sawing and bending copper pipe and screwing up eight separate joints to connect the fuel tank to an on-off tap, a filter and the cooker itself. The swap gave me the chance to move the fuel tank lower in its locker so it sits at a better angle for pumping up the pressure.

A paraffin stove is an entertainment to light, but I wouldn’t change it for a gas cooker because it’s safer. Gas explodes; paraffin needs to be persuaded to burn hot enough to boil a kettle. First, you pump air into the fuel tank to put the paraffin under pressure. Next, you fill a cup under the burner with meths and light it so that it heats the burner for three or four minutes. Finally, you turn the paraffin on: the oil sprays onto the underside of the hot burner and vaporises, and you light the vapour, which burns with a hot, blue flame.

If you try to light the burner too soon, the paraffin oozes out in liquid form and a sheet of yellow flame leaps up and smears soot across the galley ceiling. It looks alarming but it’s not very hot.

So, now we have a working cooker with an oven, a grill and two stove-top burners. It might be time to bake Guiding Star’s own bread.

If you too have a paraffin stove on its last legs, you can reach the experts on 07984 692766.

New vegetable net in the galley

Salt cod and sea shanties

We started getting in tune early for June’s Festival of Salt Cod (La Morue en Fête) in Binic on the north coast of Brittany. The wonderful French lugger Le Grand Léjon joined the Brixham Heritage Regatta over the May bank holiday weekend and invited us on board to sing shanties and drink kir in the sunshine.

Le Grand Léjon is a replica of a nineteenth-century cargo lugger built to carry sand: below decks, she’s cavernous and although she’s only a couple of feet longer than Guiding Star, she displaces thirty tons. Etienne, in the green shirt below, is co-founder of a sea shanty group called Fortunes de Mer which has been working for fifteen years to collect and sing songs from ports all along the Channel coast. Many of the shanties are very funny, about clueless captains, drink-sozzled sailors and fishermen dreaming of hot, salty Paimpol beans (which do actually have an appellation d’origine protégée like Camembert and Stilton).

The crew of Le Grand Léjon in Brixham in a brief moment when they weren’t singing

The racing in Brixham wasn’t our finest hour, since I mis-estimated how long it would take to reach the start line and arrived ten minutes late to see the two other boats in our class, Le Grand Léjon and I.R.I.S., already half-way across the bay. By the time we got back to the pontoon, the other crews were already breaking out the kir again.

Thomas, Paul and Celia racing with Berry Head in the background. Many thanks to Kate for the photo

We changed crews on Monday. Sadly, Thomas had to pull out of the trip to Binic because of an infection, and Kate and Celia had to go back to work. Andy and John joined the boat.

Le Grand Léjon led us across the Channel on Tuesday morning, reaching in a cracking westerly breeze on a big swell which turned all our stomachs. We slipped the town pontoon in Brixham at dawn and anchored in the River Trieux seventeen hours later, an average of nearly six knots. Early on, Le Grand Léjon left us behind, using what Etienne later called “un petit appui de moteur” (a little help from the engine) but by late afternoon we caught them up.

I felt confident entering an unfamiliar rocky anchorage at night across a fierce tide because we were following the immensely experienced Etienne in his home waters. But just when we were about to drop the anchors, all the electrics on Le Grand Léjon failed and they had to navigate the last few hundred yards by torchlight. We were saved by Navionics on my iPhone.

Binic, like many harbours in Brittany, is a mile from the sea at low tide. The gate to the harbour needs eight metres of tide to open so we had only half an hour for a dozen boats to funnel through the entrance and berth. Once inside, though, we had the perfect layout for a traditional boat festival: a long pontoon the length of the quayside, so that visitors could look down on the boats.  

Binic outer harbour at low tide

The two shores of the Channel celebrate parallel but separate histories of the sea. On the English side, people remember the Armada, Cornish smugglers, Nelson and the netting of massive shoals of pilchards and herring. On the French side, the heroes are the privateers of Saint Malo Bay who seized Spanish galleons and, later, English merchant ships, and the men who for nearly five hundred years crossed the North Atlantic to fish for cod in the fog and sub-zero cold of the Newfoundland Grand Banks.

The French call it La Grande Peche, the Great Fishery. Binic and ports along the Channel and Atlantic coasts of France lived from Newfoundland cod until the 1970s, when governments reacted to disastrous declines in fish stocks by declaring exclusive economic zones around their coasts. Britain nearly went to war with Iceland over cod; Canada shut the French out and an industry died.

The Newfoundland fishery took men away for six months of the year in brutal conditions. They crossed the Atlantic on big three-masted ships but the fishing was done by line from small boats called dories, carried stacked on deck. Two or three men would scull into the freezing fog to set lines. At the end of the day, they hauled the fish in and had to find their way back to the ship; sometimes, they never arrived. On board, the catch was gutted and salted by men and boys working long shifts, soaked in icy water and up to their elbows in fish guts and blood.

Even in the age of steel ships and diesel motors in the 1960s, the fishery was exhausting, dangerous work. At the Binic festival, retired fishermen in their seventies and eighties gave talks and a demonstration of gutting and salting. One man told how he’d fallen overboard and spent three quarters of an hour in the bitter water but had been rescued by two Portuguese fishermen. He wept when he said he’d been taken to Portugal two years ago to meet one of them who was still alive.

The Association du Grand Léjon, the non-profit group of about 120 people who maintain and sail the boat, organised the maritime side of the festival and treated us to a magnificent buffet of beignets de morue, fritters of salt cod with young nettles accompanied by potato and rutabaga mash, caremelised carrots and salad, with yet more kir before the meal and white wine during it. We sat at long tables in a community hall with shanty groups singing on a stage and everyone joining in long lines of Breton dancing after we’d eaten.

Fortunes de Mer sang Breton songs and then invited all the English crews onto the stage to join in The Leaving of Liverpool. If you have good eyesight, we’re in the bottom left of the postcard they made of the event.


On the spur of the moment, I bought a kilo of salt cod from the gutting demonstration and carried it home across the Channel and on the train to London, mostly unrefrigerated, and found a recipe for beignets de morue. They had a great taste, the texture chewier and the flavour more intense than fresh fish. Try the recipe!