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Porthleven Harbour

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Overview





Porthleven is a small fishing harbour on England's southwest coast located in Mounts Bay eight and a half miles northwest of Lizard Point. The shallow harbour dries and boats that can take to the bottom can dry out alongside a quay in its inner harbour.

The harbour is exposed to west and southwest but in bad weather baulks of timber are placed across the entrance to the inner harbour to provide complete protection. Access requires attentive navigation at high water and during daylight as the entrance is fringed with rocks. The entrance is entirely open to the west and southwest so that it may only be approached in offshore winds or during settled conditions. It should not be considered a refuge in rough weather as it is dangerous to approach and is closed in any strong southerly or southwesterly 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
April 23rd 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 that exhibits a light, F.G.10m4M, and to the south of the Great Trigg Rocks that 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 southwestern England’s coastal overview from Lizard Point to Land's End Route location.

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

  • Track in from the southwest 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
Please use our integrated Navionics chart to appraise the haven and its approaches. Navionics charts feature in premier plotters from B&G, Raymarine, Magellan and are also available on tablets. Open the chart in a larger viewing area by clicking the expand to 'new tab' or the 'full screen' option.

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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 northeastern part of Mounts Bay about, 8½ miles northwest of Lizard Point and 6½ miles east by southeast of Saint Michael's Mount. Its sizable but shallow harbour consists of small drying inner and an outer harbour that is entered via a channel through fringing rocks 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 fourteen part-time boats that are all less than ten metres. It is also home to an increasing number of local pleasure craft and although it has room for a few visiting yachts it tends to be rarely visited because it dries.


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


Porthleven is highly exposed to the west and southwest 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 and 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 two meters 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 & Docks 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. They accommodate visiting yachts that can take to the bottom alongside their East Quay. Overnight stays are charged on the day of arrival according to LOA [2019] as follows: less than 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 southwestern 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 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 switching off 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 that extends off 130 metres in a southwesterly direction.

This passes between the two outer dangers of Great Trigg Rocks, on the northwest or port side, that dry to just 2.3 metres, and Little Trigg Rocks, on the starboard side south of the pier, that dry to 2.1 meters. Neither of these rocks are marked and there are no reliable or clear leading lines. However, good depths will be found here with 3.7 metres LAT found between the end of the pier and the Trigg Rocks. It does, however, dry at the foot of the pier, 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 northwest, 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 meters 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 building, the rock ledges start to fall back on either side. Three hundred metres within the entrance, the approach then 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, that 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, is uncertain. Some say it receives its name comes from the conjunction of the old Cornish words for 'porth', meaning 'harbour or cove', and 'leven', meaning 'level or smooth', so it would mean 'smooth harbour'. Others believe it could mean 'harbour of the stream' where 'leven' referring to the name of a stream that exited here, meaning 'the smooth one'. Others believe it is derived from the 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.

Whatever the case Porthleven 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 simpley pulled their boats onto the shingle beach. The stream, most likely, was full of silt owing to mining activity further upstream.

A depiction of the wreck of H.M.S. 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. It was only during the 13th-century that the bar started to cut Helston off from the sea and this process was only complete by 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 located at the head of the Helford estuary. Nevertheless, the settlement started to expand significantly by the 1700s but only because its fishermen were being joined by farm workers and miners, who worked 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 19th-century need for a harbour of refuge here. Back in the days of sail, the northeast corner of Mounts Bay was a fearsome black spot for wrecks. When easterly or northeasterly winds blew down the channel ships were forced to anchor and take shelter in what was then called Mullion Roads east or the Lizard and about four miles southeast of Porthleven. At this time there could be well over 200 to 300 sailing ships at anchor there and for up to two or three weeks at a time. But this left these ships, or indeed and any vessel that failed to weather the Lizard, 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, it was almost certain they were going to become a wreck here.

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 it. Notable wrecks include the recently discovered 17th-century merchant ship President that was returning home from India with a rich cargo including diamonds and pearls. The Torrington, en route from Oporto with a cargo of wine in 1782. The 1808 German ship Herman ran up in a gale, 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 the by far the most famous is that of the frigate H.M.S. Anson which foundered on Loe Bar in 1807 with the loss of 120 men.

The traumatic story of the H.M.S. Anson leads 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. H.M.S. Anson also got close inshore where it finally broached too. By good fortune, its mast then fell to provide a makeshift bridge over which several of the crew managed to scramble to safety. The local cabinetmaker Henry Trengrouse who watch 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 his inventions was a pioneering rocket-propelled rescue line called the 'Rocket Lifesaving Apparatus'. The device could fire a line to ships from the shore in such circumstances, and it went on to saved thousands of lives. Another of his inventions was a winch powered 'Bosun’s Chair' that 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 could be the only saviours for poor local families in an area where the poverty line was drawn factions of an inch above the grave. A 1751 Sherborne Mercury account describes the scene of a foundering vessel near Porthleven at a time after harvests failed, both at sea and on land, grain prices were high, and the price of copper and tin fell so 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 mines 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 leads 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'. At this time Cornwall and West Devon were providing the world with two-thirds of its copper and the port was also aimed at facilitating the export of copper and tin. The nearby mines of Breage, Germoe and Wendron were among the most active in Cornwall at this time. Since Gweek was by this time 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 used to construct the port included many prisoners from the Napoleonic wars. Further Acts of Parliament were required to extend the allotted construction period and work only finished in August 1825.


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


The geography of Mount’s Bay ensures 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, a complete failure. Back then boats faired little better inside, and the seine fishery was decimated inside the harbour by a bad storm. With these overriding aspects, the port was not a great commercial success, it 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 who carried out major improvements. The primary improvement 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 trade of tin and copper was at its peak then, and it 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 warehouse 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 that was a key local employer. Tasks such as pilchard-curing, net making, and sailmaking 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. Porthleven had its own lifeboat from 1863 to 1929 to keep its mariners safe. It 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 the turn of the century, but the 20th-century was going to be a picture of decline. By then 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 exports of clay from the port. The pilchards were long since gone and the boatyard closed in the late 1970s, but its most longstanding industry of fishing remained, if at a very reduced scale. Like most Cornish towns it now relies upon tourism to provide employment and to a smaller extent, it serves as a commuter town for Helston.


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


The handsome, massively-built harbour that we see today mostly dates from the 1850s since which few changes have been made to it. Porthleven is distinctive for its solid granite blockwork and coherence having been built in a limited number of different phases. Like many Cornish harbours and is quays are all now listed. The stout double-walled harbour is crowned by a brace of cannons recovered from the wreck of the HMS Anson. The guns are said to have fired on Napoleon's navy at the Battle of Brest.


Inner Harbour Porthleven
Image: Michael Harpur


Today, Porthleven's main claim to fame is as Britain's most southerly port. Its rough seas, that make it a blight for boaters, make it a boon for surfers and it is a world-famous surf spot. It is renowned among British surfers for having the finest reef breaks in the UK. Locally known as 'The Beauty and the Beast' this is a thing for expert surfers only as those who do not know how to handle it will most likely get all too well acquainted with the harbour wall. In recent years, Porthleven has seen new growth with many new businesses opening in the town, particularly restaurants and cafe-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 boats the can take to the bottom. But those who can lie at the heart of this pretty town in perfect security, with great provisioning and are most likely to have a wonderful experience.


What facilities are available?
Water is available from the Harbour Master and there are toilets on the quay. Petrol and diesel fuel by jerry from the garage at the northwest end of the harbour. The sizable coastal town has all normal facilities you would expect, banks, post office, camping gas, a good mini-supermarket (open daily 0800-2200), launderette etc. Some boat and engine repairs available locally. There are cafes, pubs and restaurants aplenty. 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 (0800 to 1000, Monday to Saturday, to six 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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