Comparing Three Very Different Barques

THE LONG READ: Comparing Three Sail Training Barques

“Hands on Sailing”

“Learn to sail a square rigger”

“Challenging adventure at sea”

“Adrenalin buzz aloft”

“No experience needed”

All these phrases are frequently used to describe the experience of sailing on a square rigger as paying crew….so how do you get beyond the hype and learn what it is really like to sign on before the mast as a trainee on an individual sail training ship.

Director of Classic Sailing Debbie Purser has sailed on 12 sailing ships with square sails and skippered a gaff cutter with charter guest crew for 20 years. She has recently returned from sailing on barque Picton Castle for the first time.

Picton Castle, Lord Nelson and Europa – How Do You Choose?

“Take three ships: Lord Nelson, Picton Castle and Europa.  They all have three masts and square sails on the main and foremast, which makes them a type of sailing ship known as a barque (or bark if you are Dutch).  All are classed as sail training ships and they have a mix of professional paid crew, experienced volunteer crew and paying trainee crew. I would say the experience of sailing each of them as crew is radically different. 

I am going to explain some of the similarities, but more importantly how I believe these three ships differ. Hopefully it will help you chose a tall ship ‘community’ that matches your travel and sailing ethos. Here are some of the typical questions that Classic Sailing customers ask us….and some of the more searching questions I think they should ask.”

Debbie Purser. Co founder of Classic Sailing. Sept 2017.

Debbie Purser sailing as deckhand on Bark Europa


Why am I called a trainee ?


‘trainee’ is a legal definition that means something very different from ‘passenger’ when it comes to the ships purpose and crewing requirements.

Don’t be too upset to be called a ‘trainee’ as it simply means you are on board a sail training ship in a capacity where you can get stuck into almost any aspect of sailing and ship board life as part of your sea education. You may have some roles in an emergency but they are likely to be in a supporting role to the professionals, rather than a key role.

A ‘trainee’ can be anyone from a Master Mariner on their holidays to a complete sailing novice.  Coping with a wide range of sailing knowledge, abilities and fitness levels is the watch leaders and professional mates perpetual challenge.


PICTON CASTLE – How Physical? How Hands On?

PICTON CASTLE has cotton canvas sails which get heavy when wet.  She also has natural fibre ropes, unlike rest of the Classic Sailing fleet, which use synthetic ropes which just look like ‘manilla’ but don’t shrink much. Real manilla is plastic free so its fibres don’t harm the marine environment if it gets into the ocean, but it can shrink and tighten a lot in the rain, which means you have to loosen them and then re tighten them as they dry. This is an extra job which requires more intelligence than you might think.

Combine these two authentic factors with a ‘monkey bar’ type manual windlass that requires at least 10 people to weigh (haul up) the anchor, a walk around capstan, and ships boats with oars to get ashore, and you have a very physical ship. Fun yes, but you need a strong back and a willing heart.

Trainee crew on Picton Castle sign an agreement where they agree to “participate and co-operate as fully as possible with the sail training program and the work of handling the vessel, and likewise duties assigned in accordance with the vessels programme of domestic work, repair, upkeep and maintenance.”

This means on this ship there is no dipping out of duties you don’t fancy, anchor or harbour watch rotas etc unless you are ill.  You really are signing on ‘before the mast’ and day to day life is very similar to a 19th Century sailor.

There are usually 3 watches at sea, so you do get decent downtime…..but if you just happen to cross the main deck (off watch) when your crew mates on watch are struggling with some sailing action, it is expected that you will lend a brief hand. Attitude is all.

Rotas on Picton Castle are carefully planned and port visits last several days so all crew get decent time ashore.

The training programme is attempting to turn you into competent seamen or women, where you are fully aware of the dangers and can take care of yourself, your shipmates and the ship.  The programme is very comprehensive and never rushed, as Picton Castle’s world voyage legs typically last for over 4 months. 


BARK EUROPA – How Physical? How Hands On?

Europa has a large professional crew of 11-14 and a lot of sails. Her deckhands have to possess basic STCW 95 maritime training certificates and start as unpaid volunteers but the best are typically invited back, as paid hands, after their first 3 month stint. The ship therefore attracts very talented and motivated professional crew from around the world (as does Picton Castle, but possibly for different reasons….like sailing in Polynesia).

On Bark Europa the deckhands have to be able to speak English as a working language and have a good attitude to customer service. Their role is to give the paying guests a good, thought provoking and exciting experience…..and sail the ship spectacularly.  A few ‘young bucks’ occasionally forget the former and get carried away with the latter….but good leadership from the Captain, usually re-addresses it, as they ask guests for feedback frequently during the longer voyages.

The deckhands on Europa carry out the cleaning / instruct and lead guest crew with sail handling, help in the galley, bake bread at night and maintain the ship.

Guest crew are split into three watches, elect their own watch leader and he or she works out a sensible rota for helming and lookout, whilst you are on watch (4 hour duty). As long as you are prepared to stand a lookout and learn to steer the ship, and be on ‘stand by’ to handle sails during your watch, then how much effort you put in is pretty much upto you. If you find steering a 300 ton ship a bit daunting you can do it with a buddy. If lookout in Antarctica is proving too cold for you, the length of time can be shortened to 10-20 mins. You don’t have to spend 4 hours waiting around on deck. There is comfy deck-house with windows all around, so you can see some action about to come your way.

The deckhands will come and find you in the deckhouse if there are yards to brace or sails to set or hand.  If they need the job done quickly in a squall in the middle of the night, you might find it done by the professional crew before you have managed to get into your waterproofs.

As Europa guest crew you can chose your pace for sail handling.  You can sweat and tail with the Captain on the poop deck, leap into the rigging on a wild and windy night with the volunteer crew and stow a sail in a rising gale off Cape Horn…..or you can play scrabble in the well heated deck house and only emerge on deck to set sail or climb the rigging if its calm and sunny. It’s very much your holiday, but the ships crew obviously want you to share their love of sailing this 1911 sailing ship.

On Europa you don’t need to clean the ship or do galley duty and there is usually enough keen sailors amongst the guest crew that you can dip out of the rope pulling if you are feeling a bit knackered.

LORD NELSON  – How Physical? How Hands On?

Lord Nelson (and her sister ship Tenacious) have less traditional sails to set and more crew to do it.  This is to make it possible to take disabled crew and older crew, who may (not always!) be slower to get into position, and not as strong (not always!) as the abled bodied crew.

Speed of sail setting is less important than inclusion and involvement of all. There is more time for humour, understanding the manoeuvre, watching the world go by as everything is prepared.  Experienced sailors might find the pace a bit dull. Unfit sailors may be glad of the breather.

Aloft on Lord Nelson

Learning to Sail: How is square rig seamanship actually taught on the three ships?

It depends a bit on the length of the voyage, but lets just assume all three ships are all on a decent ocean passage of 20 + days.

To put things in perspective:

Europa has 28 sails

Picton Castle has about 23 sails

Lord Nelson has about 18 sails but 11 are controlled by roller reefing from the deck.

Tenacious has about 20 sails but 11 are controlled by roller reefing from the deck.

All three ships need about the same number of people to tack or wear ship or any manoeuvre where they have to ‘brace the yards’ (change the angle of the spars which hold the square sails).

LORD NELSON – Emergency & Safety Training

Lord Nelson (and Tenacious) carries out a very detailed training programme at the start of a voyage, often completed before setting off.  The professional crew are very used to training novice crews on short voyages, so in the first few hours you may cover:

Emergency drills – where to muster, how to evacuate disabled crew, and your role in Man Overboard, fire or abandon ship.

Ropework and line handling – there are usually sessions in your watch group going through how to pull on a rope together, make up a rope on belaying pins and coiling.

Most the newcomers spend quite a bit of time getting ‘lost’ around the ship and learning where the various stairways, lifts and hatches lead.

There is a buddy system where most able bodied crew are paired with a disabled crew member.  Disabled crew could be in a wheel chair or be missing a limb, but equally they might be deaf or blind or simply over 70 or a diabetic. Mostly it is to help everyone help each other get to the right place for various briefings, action and meals…..and socially make sure no one is left out.

At some point there will be a training session about climbing aloft and getting everyone to try and climb to the first platform (fully supervised). This can be on the first day.

EUROPA – Emergency & Safety Training

The initial training for guest crew is a lot briefer. Mostly where to muster for various emergencies, how to don lifejackets and immersion suits. The detail of the emergency drills is for the professional crew, who will carry out specific drills for fire, MOB and abandon ship at some stage during the voyage. You only need to muster on deck and be ready to assist.

PICTON CASTLE – Emergency & Safety Training

You will be allocated a role in each emergency and trained in that role. There is a structured training programme that you progress through from trainee to able seaman.  You are unlikely to be allocated as rescue boat coxswain or rescue boat crew if you have no experience yet, but you do carry more responsibility to help deal with a ship emergency than on the Lord Nelson or Europa.  All drills are assessed afterwards to improve things.

PICTON CASTLE – Sail Training Programme

They operate a sail handling system where an order is issued and everyone repeats the order.  This might sound a bit like military training or a scene from films like ‘Officer and a Gentleman’ but it works well, keeps everyone alert and gets you used to the square rig sailors language. It soon feels quite normal and is a very effective way of learning the 135 lines on board.

At first it seems very confusing as experienced crew walk purposefully towards the quarterdeck with novices straggling behind -wondering what “set the spanker” and then 5 minutes later “sheet the spanker to weather” means….but they soon get the hang of the idea that the Spanker is a sail near the stern of the ship.

Picton Castle officers often split the ship into 3 main areas with a watch taking a zone each (e.g. quarterdeck, main deck, foredeck & fo’castle) for manoeuvres.   You still have to think and jump between jobs, but you are only learning 1/3 of the ships ropes at one time.

They are very good at setting sails and doing complex manoeuvres very quickly…plenty of shouted orders but no running. There is a very clear command hierarchy on Picton Castle and my view is it’s great to be part of a well oiled machine…and leads to a lot of pride in the ship……and it really feels like a scene out of Master and Commander.

The on going training on Picton Castle is very ‘hands on’ for all crew, with splicing, marlinspike seamanship, maintenance, sail making, treatments for preserving decks and rigging, leatherwork making ditty bags, even repairing or building ships boats. I suspect Captain Moreland would never run out of topics to teach and he has won a lifetime achievement award for his contribution to sail training education. 

Ships Boat repairs on Picton Castle

LORD NELSON – Sail Training Programme

Lord Nelson training progresses to lectures with models on tacking a square rigger, explaining the evolution of sail and different ships rigs, aspects of meteorology, and you might get to have a go at a sun sight with a sextant.  If you have experienced yacht sailors or instructors in the volunteer crew you might get a lecture or two on typical RYA syllabus topics….but that’s usually about it.

There is some awareness raising training about how a blind crew member or wheel chair user might navigate the ship. For anyone wanting to work in this ‘equality for all abilities’ field, it is an excellent opportunity to really make friends and understand some of the challenges facing those with a wide range of major and minor disabilities, and pretty humbling to see their strengths and determination to succeed in new things.



EUROPA – Voluntary Training and a Sea Education

Europa has a different mission statement from Picton Castle for its trainees. There are a lot of lectures offered by professional crew and extra topics from guests are encouraged too.  None are compulsory but it’s a great ocean classroom if you want to learn. Topics can be about quite advanced square rig seamanship, oceanography, birds, whales, seals, historic explorers. They have lots of nautical themed movies too.


The deckhands are continually stropping blocks, making grommets, making sails and re rigging new ropes and bringing down blocks for servicing or replacing leatherwork.  They are usually more than happy to have you help them – on deck or aloft.

Debbie’s Opinion – If I had to choose between these three ships as paying guest crew, these are my recommendations:


Best ship for a wannabe career sailor – Picton Castle.

Best ship for adult learning and epitomising the romance of the sea without too much hardship – Europa

Best initial training for novices – Lord Nelson / Tenacious

Best ship for the relaxed and calm giving of orders – Europa

Best ship for dynamic sail setting – Picton Castle or Europa

Best ship for ‘free time without duties in port’ – Europa

Best ship to immerse yourself in 19th Century life, sailors jargon, linseed oil and tar – Picton Castle

Best ship for the most free time and rest during sailing – Lord Nelson / Tenacious

Most civilised accommodation and eating – Europa

Best ship for a collective adventure involving the whole crew – Picton Castle.

Best Ship to go on the wagon and get fit? Picton Castle has no bar and is a dry ship at sea, apart from the occasional crew party.  No such restrictions apply on shore leave…but the usual dire warnings from the Captain if you misbehave (nothing changes with sailors it seems).

Best ship to go from novice to all round sailor, including small boat sailing and rowing – Picton Castle

Fastest sailing ? – Tenacious is no slouch and gets into 12 knots zone but has to watch heeling angles on voyages with wheelchair users. Bark Europa is a very stiff, heavy ship so she always sails with a lot of canvas and 9 knots seems pretty epic and can involve a lot of water over the main deck if seas are rough.  Picton Castle also has a heavy rivetted steel hull like Europa, so she will always set more sail to the max if the wind drops.  Her motto may be  “We might be slow, but we get around”, but if you are on the wheel, then steering an impressive square rigger like Picton Castle at 8 knots plus will feel quite fast enough.

Picton Castle in the South Pacific

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