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Porthleven Harbour

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Overview





Porthleven is a small fishing harbour on England's south-west coast located in Mounts Bay, 8½ miles north-west of Lizard Point. The shallow harbour dries, allowing boats that can take to the bottom to dry out alongside a quay in its inner harbour.

The harbour is exposed to the west and south-west, and in bad weather baulks of timber are placed across the entrance to the inner harbour to provide complete protection. Access requires attentive navigation and should be attempted only at high water during daylight as the entrance is fringed with rocks. It is entirely open to the west and south-west so it may be approached only in offshore winds or during settled conditions. The harbour should not be considered a refuge in rough weather as it is dangerous to approach and is closed in any strong southerly or south-westerly conditions.



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Keyfacts for Porthleven Harbour
Facilities
Water hosepipe available alongsideWater available via tapWaste disposal bins availableShop with basic provisions availableMini-supermarket or supermarket availableSlipway availableShore based toilet facilitiesHot food available in the localityPublic house or wine bar in the areaCashpoint or bank available in the areaPost Office in the areaInternet café in the areaInternet via a wireless access point availableDoctor or hospital in the areaPharmacy in the area


Nature
Visitors moorings available, or possibly by club arrangementBeach or shoreline landing from a tenderQuick and easy access from open waterNavigation lights to support a night approachUrban nature,  anything from a small town of more 5,000 inhabitants  to a large city

Considerations
Dangerous to enter when it is Beaufort force 4 or more from SE, SSE, S, SSW, SW, WSW, W, WNW and NW.Restriction: shallow, drying or partially drying pier

Protected sectors

Current wind over the protected quadrants
Minimum depth
-2 metres (-6.56 feet).

Approaches
4 stars: Straightforward; when unaffected by weather from difficult quadrants or tidal consideration, no overly complex dangers.
Shelter
5 stars: Complete protection; all-round shelter in all reasonable conditions.



Last modified
August 28th 2019

Summary* Restrictions apply

A completely protected location with straightforward access.

Facilities
Water hosepipe available alongsideWater available via tapWaste disposal bins availableShop with basic provisions availableMini-supermarket or supermarket availableSlipway availableShore based toilet facilitiesHot food available in the localityPublic house or wine bar in the areaCashpoint or bank available in the areaPost Office in the areaInternet café in the areaInternet via a wireless access point availableDoctor or hospital in the areaPharmacy in the area


Nature
Visitors moorings available, or possibly by club arrangementBeach or shoreline landing from a tenderQuick and easy access from open waterNavigation lights to support a night approachUrban nature,  anything from a small town of more 5,000 inhabitants  to a large city

Considerations
Dangerous to enter when it is Beaufort force 4 or more from SE, SSE, S, SSW, SW, WSW, W, WNW and NW.Restriction: shallow, drying or partially drying pier



HM  +44 1326 574270      info@porthlevenharbour.co.uk     porthlevenharbour.co.uk      Ch.16 [Porthleven]
Position and approaches
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Haven position

50° 5.035' N, 005° 18.970' W

This is at the entrance to the inner harbour.

What is the initial fix?

The following Porthleven Harbour Initial Fix will set up a final approach:
50° 4.824' N, 005° 19.294' W
This is in 5 metres, 300 metres outside the outer pier, which exhibits a light (F.G.10m4M), and to the south of the Great Trigg Rocks, which flank the west side of the approach. Track in to pass midway between the northern shore and the pier.


What are the key points of the approach?

Offshore details are available in south-west England’s coastal overview from Lizard Point to Land's End Route location.

  • Saint Michael's Mount has outlying dangers that need circumvention but southward approaches are clear.

  • Track in from the south-west keeping a central path up the entrance and continue into the drying inner harbour.


Not what you need?
Click the 'Next' and 'Previous' buttons to progress through neighbouring havens in a coastal 'clockwise' or 'anti-clockwise' sequence. Below are the ten nearest havens to Porthleven Harbour for your convenience.
Ten nearest havens by straight line charted distance and bearing:
  1. Mullion Cove & Porth Mellin - 2.9 miles SSE
  2. Saint Michael's Mount - 4.1 miles WNW
  3. Helford River - 4.5 miles E
  4. Kynance Cove - 4.7 miles SSE
  5. Cadgwith - 4.9 miles SE
  6. Penzance Harbour - 5.2 miles WNW
  7. Mousehole - 5.3 miles W
  8. Gillan Creek - 5.4 miles E
  9. Newlyn - 5.5 miles W
  10. Coverack - 5.8 miles ESE
These havens are ordered by straight line charted distance and bearing, and can be reordered by compass direction or coastal sequence:
  1. Mullion Cove & Porth Mellin - 2.9 miles SSE
  2. Saint Michael's Mount - 4.1 miles WNW
  3. Helford River - 4.5 miles E
  4. Kynance Cove - 4.7 miles SSE
  5. Cadgwith - 4.9 miles SE
  6. Penzance Harbour - 5.2 miles WNW
  7. Mousehole - 5.3 miles W
  8. Gillan Creek - 5.4 miles E
  9. Newlyn - 5.5 miles W
  10. Coverack - 5.8 miles ESE
To find locations with the specific attributes you need try:

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Chart
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What's the story here?
Porthleven's outer and inner harbours
Image: Michael Harpur


Porthleven is a town and fishing port situated in the north-eastern part of Mounts Bay, about 8½ miles north-west of Lizard Point and 6½ miles east by south-east of Saint Michael's Mount. Its sizable but shallow harbour consists of small drying inner harbour and an outer harbour, entered via a channel through fringing rocks and protected by an outer pier. On the lowest tides, it dries out to the old lifeboat house about 150 metres outside the entrance to the outer harbour. Porthleven’s commercial role as a port has long since passed, but it still plays host to four full-time potters and 14 part-time boats, all less than 10 metres. It is also home to an increasing number of local pleasure craft and, although it has room for a few visiting yachts, it is rarely visited because it dries.


The tide gate with crane opposite to drop the baulks of timber
Image: Michael Harpur


Porthleven is highly exposed to the west and south-west and, when necessary, heavy timbers are lowered into a tide gate entrance to the inner harbour to provide storm protection. Accessible from half-tide onwards, the harbour has 3.7 metres MHWS at the tide gate to the inner harbour and 2.4 metres at MHWN. The inner harbour has a depth of about 2 metres at half-tide, although it is shallower at the northern end, where there is a slipway for trailer launches.

The harbour is owned and maintained by the Porthleven Harbour & Dock Company. It is advisable to contact the harbourmaster before any intended visit for advice and directions VHF 16 [Porthleven], Landline+44 1326 574270, E-mailinfo@porthlevenharbour.co.uk. Visiting yachts that can take to the bottom may be accommodated alongside their East Quay. Overnight stays are charged on the day of arrival according to LOA [2019] as follows: <6m £17.50 | 6m - 9.1m £26.00 | 9.1m - 12.2m £32.00 | 12.2m - 15.2 £50.00.


How to get in?
The prominent clock tower and Flagstaff at the root of the pier
Image: Michael Harpur


Convergance Point Use south-west England’s coastal overview from Lizard Point to Land's End Route location for seaward approaches. It is advisable to keep offshore and out of shallow water when approaching the harbour. The townhouses on the cliffs will be conspicuous from a great distance to seaward. On closer approaches, the outer pier with a prominent clock tower at its root and fronted by a flagstaff will become apparent. If there is nothing on the mast, the harbour is open, but the inner harbour is closed off when a red or black ball is displayed. At night, closure of the harbour is signalled by the switching-off of its fixed green leading lights.


Porthleven Harbour's outer pier
Image: Michael Harpur


Initial fix location From the initial fix, track in to pass midway between the northern shore and the outer pier, which extends off 130 metres in a south-westerly direction.

This passes between the two outer dangers of Great Trigg Rocks, on the north-west or port side, which dry to just 2.3 metres, and Little Trigg Rocks, on the starboard side south of the pier, which dry to 2.1 metres. Neither danger is marked and there are no reliable or clear leading lines. Good depths will be found here, however, with 3.7 metres LAT between the end of the pier and the Trigg Rocks. It does dry at the foot of the pier, though, so stand well off it.


Keep well off the outer pier as it sits on a rocky ledge
Image: Michael Harpur


Continue in parallel to the outer pier keeping slightly north-west, or to port, of mid-channel, where the fairway is about 40 metres wide. Keep well off the pier wall as its inner footing is fringed with rocks that encroach almost 40 metres into the channel opposite the Old Lifeboat House.


The harbour bending northward into the outer and inner harbours
Image: Michael Harpur


Once past the Old Lifeboat House, the rock ledges start to fall back on either side. About 300 metres within the entrance, the approach passes between pierheads of the outer harbour, 40 metres apart, after which there are no further dangers. Continue through the outer harbour as it is so exposed to south-westerly wind and swell that it provides no safe berth.


The inner pier-heads of the gate sill
Image: Nilfanion via CC ASA 4.0


The course then turns northward for 70 metres to pass through inner pier-heads of the gate sill, which is about 10 metres wide, and into the inner basin. The inner harbour is full of local boats that lie on fore and aft moorings on heavy ground chains.


The inner harbour with visitor berths on the East Quay (right)
Image: Michael Harpur


Haven location The designated visitor berthing area is alongside the East Quay immediately to starboard after the tide gate.

The inner harbour as seen from the slip at its head
Image: Michael Harpur



Why visit here?
The origins of the name Porthleven, first recorded in 1529, are uncertain. Some say its name comes from the conjunction of the old Cornish words porth, meaning harbour or cove, and leven, meaning level or smooth, making it ‘smooth harbour’. Others believe leven could refer to the name of a stream that exited here (meaning the ‘smooth one’). Others believe it is derived from Celtic Saint St Elvan, who came to these shores in the 5th century as a compatriot of St Breaca, the patron saint of Breage, a nearby village. There is still an area to the north of Porthleven called St Elvan, and the nearby Sithney parish chapel is dedicated to him.

However its name came about, Porthleven itself originated as a small fishing settlement in the Middle Ages. The small hamlet nestled into the shelter of a wooded valley of a tiny creek that formed a small natural cove. As no proper harbour existed here, the fishermen simply pulled their boats onto the shingle beach. The stream, most likely, was full of silt from mining activity upstream.

A depiction of the wreck of HMS Anson
Image: Public Domain
Having no harbour, it was not an important settlement throughout the Middle Ages. Although Helston was one of the ancient coinage towns, the River Cober was navigable as far as Helston for most of this period. During the 13th century the bar started to cut Helston off from the sea and this process was not complete until the 16th century. Likewise, even though the whole area from Marazion to Helston was rich in tin and copper, the metals were being exported through the port of Gweek at the head of the Helford estuary. Nevertheless, the settlement had started to expand significantly by the 1700s as its fishermen were being joined by farm workers and miners from the nearby copper and tin mines.

Porthleven would most likely have remained a small coastal hamlet until this day had there not been an overriding need for a harbour of refuge here in the 19th century. Back in the days of sail, the north-east corner of Mounts Bay was a fearsome black spot for wrecks. When easterly or north-easterly winds blew down the channel, ships were forced to anchor and take shelter in what was then called Mullion Roads, east of the Lizard and about 4 miles south-east of Porthleven. At this time there could be 200 to 300 sailing ships at anchor there for up to three weeks at a time. These ships, and indeed any vessel that failed to weather the Lizard, were vulnerable to winds that turned southerly, which would cause them to become trapped or embayed in Mounts Bay. When they could not tack out to sea, their fates were almost certainly sealed.

Henry Trengrouse
Image: Public Domain
The seven-mile stretch of coast from Rill Point to Porthleven was the deadliest of all lee shores. There are more than 150 known wrecks from the 19th century alone and countless before. Notable among these are the recently discovered 17th-century merchant ship President, which was returning home from India with a rich cargo that included diamonds and pearls; the Torrington, en route from Oporto with a cargo of wine in 1782; the German ship Herman, which ran up in a gale in 1808; followed by the 110-ton brig Royal Recovery, the 109-ton sloop Mars and the 500-ton Metis the following year. The list is long, but by far the most famous is frigate HMS Anson, which foundered on Loe Bar in 1807 with the loss of 120 men.

The traumatic story of HMS Anson led to some significant maritime changes. The recovered bodies of drowned seamen were buried without shroud or coffin in unmarked graves in the cliffs and beaches around the wreck site. This was the practice of the period, but the length of time that many of the bodies from the wreck remained unburied caused such a controversy that it led to the Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1808. The Act provided that unclaimed bodies of dead persons cast ashore from the sea should be removed by the churchwardens and overseers of the parish, and decently interred in consecrated ground. A monument to the victims was erected near Loe Bar afterwards. HMS Anson also got close inshore, where it finally broached. By good fortune, its mast then fell to provide a makeshift bridge over which several of the crew managed to scramble to safety. Local cabinetmaker Henry Trengrouse, pictured, who watched the tragedy unfold from the beach, was so inspired by the wreck that he devoted his life to inventing more effective life-saving tools. Among these was the pioneering Rocket Lifesaving Apparatus. The device could fire a line to ships from the shore and went on to save thousands of lives. Another of his inventions was a winch powered bosun’s chair, which many boaters are familiar with today.


Loe Bar today
Image: Nilfanion via CC ASA 4.0


Understandably, shipwrecks and wrecking formed a major part of Porthleven's history, and the residents of the area had a fierce reputation for their wrecking activities. Sometimes the spoils of the sea were a vital means of survival for poor families in an area where the poverty line was drawn fractions of an inch above the grave. A 1751 Sherborne Mercury account colourfully describes the scene of a foundering vessel near Porthleven at a time after harvests had failed, both at sea and on land, grain prices were high, and the price of copper and tin had fallen to such an extent that it was not worth mining: “…the cliffs, as usual, were covered with hundreds of those greedy Cormorants, waiting for their Prey, which no soon came within their Reach but was Swallowed up by them, more barbarous in their Nature than Cannibals... Amongst these greedy Wolves there were many of their Kind that made so free with the Spirit, and were so exasperated with each other, that they stripped even to their Buff and fought like Devils”.


Trewavas Head copper and tin mine engine houses seen over the pier head
Image: Nilfanion via CC ASA 4.0


The continued loss of life along this short stretch of coast led to an 1811 Act of Parliament being passed for the construction of a harbour at Porthleven, “to provide a safer refuge for the fishing fleet” as well as facilitating the export of copper and tin. Cornwall and west Devon were providing the world with two-thirds of its copper, with the nearby mines of Breage, Germoe and Wendron among the most active in Cornwall at this time. Since Gweek was silting up, Porthleven seemed ideally placed to act as their port. Construction of the harbour began in the marshland behind the original settlement. It was, however, slow and expensive, and the workforce constructing the port included many prisoners from the Napoleonic wars. Further Acts of Parliament were required to extend the allotted construction period and work did not finish until August 1825.


The Ship Inn is the best location to witness the fury of the sea
Image: Nilfanion via CC ASA 4.0


The geography of Mount’s Bay is such that storms hit Porthleven hard and, despite the massive construction effort, the attempt to create a harbour to run to for refuge was, as it is today, doomed to failure. Back then boats fared little better inside, and the seine fishery within the harbour was decimated by a bad storm. As a result, the port was not a great commercial success and was put up for sale as early as 1831.


Waves breaking on Portleven's seafront during a blow
Image: Public Domain


In 1855 the harbour was leased by Harvey and Co of Hayle. The company carried out major improvements, chief of which was the construction of the lock to seal off the inner harbour in a gale. The safe inner harbour made the port available to light shipping and far safer for the fishing fleet. Trade picked up dramatically after its construction as this was a buoyant time for mining in Cornwall. The export of tin and copper was at its peak then, and the trade drew in imports of coal, limestone and timber. The discovery of china clay and the increasing demand for luxury goods such as Wedgwood pottery fuelled the mining and export of china clay from Tregonning Hill. New warehouses and customs buildings followed to support the bustling harbour quays.


Porthleven's disused lifeboat house in the entrance
Image: Nilfanion via CC ASA 4.0


This activity, in turn, stimulated boat-building, which by 1850 was taking place on waste ground at the head of the harbour. The large slip saw the launch of clippers, schooners and yachts destined for ports around the world. The safe harbour also supported the fishing industry, which was a key local employer. Tasks such as pilchard-curing, as well as net- and sail-making in small net lofts around the harbour, involved large numbers of local people in the last decades of the 19th century. One catch in 1919 produced a record 162,000 fish. From 1863 to 1929 Porthleven had its own lifeboat, which ran 28 missions and saved 50 lives.


Porthleven Fishing boats alongside the quay today
Image: Michael Harpur


A small but substantial town had grown around the harbour by 1900, but the new century was to be a picture of decline. The tin and copper mines were almost worked out and by the 1920s mining had virtually ceased, taking with it the economic base for the harbour. The clay works around Tregonning Hill began to decline when china clay production in the St Austell district increased, leading to the loss of clay exports from the port. The pilchards were long since gone and the boatyard finally closed in the late 1970s. The most longstanding industry of fishing remained, however, if on a much-reduced scale. Like most Cornish towns, Porthleven now relies on tourism to provide employment and, to a lesser extent, serves as a commuter town for Helston.


Cannon recovered from the wreck of the HMS Anson
Image: Michael Harpur


The handsome and robustly built harbour that we see today mostly dates from the 1850s. Having been extended in a several phases shortly thereafter, it retains an overall coherence, and the solid granite blockwork of the double-walled harbour is a distinctive feature of Porthleven. The inner entrance is crowned by a brace of cannons that were recovered from the wreck of the HMS Anson. The guns are said to have fired on Napoleon's navy at the Battle of Brest. Like many Cornish harbours, the quays are all now listed.


Inner Harbour Porthleven
Image: Michael Harpur


Today, Porthleven's main claim to fame is as Britain's most southerly port. Its rough seas, while a blight for boaters, make it a boon for surfers and a world-famous surf spot. It is renowned among British surfers for having the finest reef breaks in the country. Locally known as The Beauty and the Beast, it is for expert surfers only, and the less accomplished will most likely get all too well acquainted with the harbour wall. In recent years, renewed growth in Porthleven has seen many new businesses opening in the town, particularly restaurants and café-bars serving a wide variety of fine cuisines.


Sunset over the entrance to Porthleven
Image: Public Domain


From a boating perspective, this is the domain of vessels that can take to the bottom. Those who can, lie at the heart of this pretty town in perfect security and with great provisioning, and are most likely to have a wonderful experience.


What facilities are available?
Water is available from the harbourmaster and there are toilets on the quay. Petrol and diesel are available by jerry from the garage at the north-west end of the harbour. The sizable coastal town has all the normal facilities you would expect: banks, post office, camping gas, a good mini-supermarket (open daily 08:00-22:00), launderette etc. Some boat and engine repairs are available locally. There are cafés, pubs and restaurants aplenty. There is a slipway for trailer launches, for a fee to the harbourmaster, at the northern end of the harbour.

Bus 2, Penzance to Falmouth, stops at Porthleven (08:00 to 10:00, Monday to Saturday, to 18:00 on Sunday).


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Please zoom out to see the 'initial fix' for this location.
The above plots are not precise and indicative only.






Porthleven Aerial overview




Sights of Porthleven



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