An island lifeline – Cornwall life looks at 35 years of the Scillonian III passenger ferry

PUBLISHED: 11:44 22 August 2012 | UPDATED: 21:46 20 February 2013

Paul Rowe captained for more than 20 years, from 1978 until May 2001

Paul Rowe captained for more than 20 years, from 1978 until May 2001

Shelley Fletcher looks at life on board the Scillonian III passenger ferry service between Penzance and the Isles of Scilly, as it celebrates its 35th anniversary year

An island lifeline Cornwall life looks at 35 years of the Scillonian III passenger ferry


Shelley Fletcher looks at life on board the Scillonian III passenger ferry service between Penzance and the Isles of Scilly, as it celebrates its 35th anniversary year

For 35 years, the Scillonian III, which was commissioned by and built for the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company, has provided a lifeline service to the Islands. She has become a signature sight and popular method of travel for locals and visitors.

Officially launched by Prince Charles the Duke of Cornwall on 17 May 1977, she replaced the smaller vessel, the Scillonian II, which had been servicing the route for 21 years before her. Since then the Scillonian III has made over 7,000 return journeys to the Isles of Scilly, travelled more than 500,000 nautical miles and carried more than 3.5million passengers including visiting Royals, past Prime Ministers, (Harold Wilson was a regular visitor to the Isles of Scilly) and other celebrities.

Scillonian III also carries some cargo. The vast majority of this is carried by the Steamship Companys freight vessel, the Gry Maritha, but Scillonian III does her bit. Visitors to the Quay can often see large containers being loaded on board, carrying various items including gigs, flowers, beer and bread.

One of the more valuable items to be transported on board was a Porsche. In 2009, BBC televisions Top Gear presenters Richard Hammond and James May took on a challenge to race a letter from the Isles of Scilly to Scotland. This involved carrying the Porsche from Penzance to St Marys so they could begin the race on the Isles of Scilly. The first leg of the challenge was the return journey, back to the mainland on Scillonian III so James and Richard could try to outrun the postal service.

Scillonian III has had four Masters during her time. Harvey Thomas was the original Master from 1977-1978 when he retired. Paul Rowe took over and captained for more than 20 years, from 1978 until May 2001. During his time as Captain, Paul had many memorable experiences, from sightings of hundreds of dolphins off the bow of the ship to coming to the rescue of a wrecked vessel. Paul says: I enjoyed the fact I was able to captain the ship in a variety of conditions, weather and circumstances, it always meant the job was interesting and varied. My most memorable moment was sailing to Falmouth for the Tall Ships Race in 1998. With 400 passengers onboard, the ship departed Penzance to meet the Queen Elizabeth II and other craft for the start of the Tall Ships Race.

David Pascoe took over the helm from 2001. He says: I started on Scillonian III in 1982. I was first a Relief Master and then a Master from 2001-2010. I enjoyed the sense of community with Scillonian III and the chance to be able to interact with local life. The most challenging part of the job was keeping up with regulations and rules and ensuring a first-class service no matter what the conditions. My most memorable moment was carrying our past Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, on the bridge a number of times on his personal holiday visits to the Isles of Scilly.

The current Captain, David Redgrave, took over in 2010 with Peter Crawford as Relief Master. David says: As a youngster I only ever wanted to be at sea and didnt look into doing anything else. Prior to becoming Master of Scillonian III, I was Master of the cargo ship Gry Maritha that also sails to the Isles of Scilly from Penzance. He adds that he enjoys all aspects of the job but particularly the varied responsibilities that come with sailing to such a unique location. The isolated nature of the islands can have its difficulties - the varying weather and sea conditions are challenging at times, he adds.

So what does the future hold for Scillonian III? In recent years, this vital sea link to the Isles of Scilly has been discussed at length and the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company recently carried out a Vessel Options Review, which was completed in May 2012 and sought to identify options for the future. Andrew May, Chairman of the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company says: We have been operating our route to the Isles of Scilly for more than 90 years and feel strongly that we are a force for good in the community. We have agreed to make a significant investment in Scillonian III to ensure that she can continue to operate and also to improve the customer experience on board.


The Scillonian III has made over 7,000 return journeys to the Isles of Scilly, travelled more than 500,000 nautical miles and carried more than 3.5million passengers.

Andrew continues: The investment in Scillonian III is a compelling business case. We are bringing forward the necessary works and are currently assessing the timing of this. By carrying out the work, it means we can continue to operate our maritime services effectively and reliably, while looking further to the future and our options.

Transport links have been in the news of late following the decision by British International Helicopters is to end its service from Penzance to the islands, which has run since 1964, in November.

The company blamed the decision on uncertainty created by legal challenges to its sale of land to supermarket giant Sainsburys.

Responding to the news, Andrew said: We are disappointed and saddened by the announcement because the helicopter has been a fixture of islands travel for almost 50 years and during that time our two companies have worked together in a spirit of friendly competition. Personally I recall vividly that first helicopter landing on St Marys all those years ago.

In the absence of another operator coming forward our focus now must be to work with the island community to ensure that we do our best to compensate for this loss of service.

The Steamship Company CEO and full board, of course, routinely considers strategic risks and changes to our business and although we were not anticipating this outcome we are confident we can respond by looking at our scheduling and how we deploy our air and sea resources.

Chris Gregory, Chairman of the newly-formed Islands Tourism and Business Partnership, said: Inevitably the loss of the BIH route to Scilly in the autumn is a blow and marks the end of an extraordinary service that has been enjoyed and valued by residents and visitors alike.

However daunting the challenge of finding solutions to replace the convenience and flexibility of the helicopter service may seem at this moment, I have absolutely no doubt that all those who will be involved in securing the level of service that is required to meet the Islands needs, will apply themselves with appropriate vigour.

I am also sure that the solutions will provide the capacity and certainty that our tourism industry will need for the 2013 season.

Longer term options for the sea link to the Isles of Scilly continue to be investigated, which includes looking at the eventual replacement of Scillonian III and the Gry Maritha. The Steamship Company is open to looking at both a single ship option to provide freight and passenger services, as well as investigating options for two vessels, one for passengers and one for freight. The company is also considering options for purchasing a vessel which is currently operating on an existing route, as well as looking at the feasibility of building a new ship. n

Scillonian III sails from Penzance to St Marys from late March until the end of 3 November this year. For information on sailings: 0845 710 5555, ios-travel.co.uk

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