Shipmates' Stories

Tall Ship Memories – A Teenage View of Sailing TS Royalist in the 70’s

Huge thanks to Richard for sending in this glorious account of his first Tall Ship Voyage. If you have a story to share, get in touch!

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I have Arthur Ransome to thank for my love of sailing and indirectly, for setting me on a course to my first voyage on a Tall Ship. More specifically, it was the film of his book Swallows and Amazons, which made such an impression on me at the age of 12 that I nagged my parents into getting me some sailing lessons and a canoe. The sailing school was on Bristol docks, still a working port in 1974 and the water quality duly reflected this – capsize was not an option! The canoe was a 12 ft ‘otter cub’ stitch and glue kit that Dad and I built over the winter, proudly launching it at Weymouth on a cold and windy Easter day the following year.

It would be fair to say my enthusiasm for boats and all things maritime during my teenage years was something of an obsession – but in a good way! I even kept a journal of nautical jottings, which I still have and its thanks to this that I have such clear memories of what I did and when. It included this far-sighted entry for 1 April 1975:

Saw Malcolm Miller STA ship leave Weymouth and the TS Royalist dock. Made up my mind to get on one of them one day.

A few months later I’d passed my National Dayboat certificate and to my delight, my parents bought us a Mirror dinghy! I was so desperate to try it out that we launched, with my younger brother as reluctant crew into a howling gale on the docks, resulting in an almost instantaneous capsize and then another. We spent the next 24 hours fearing we’d contracted some dreadful disease from the polluted water, but thankfully nothing hideous ensued, though I don’t think Simon ever forgave me!

In 1976, the opportunity to realise my school-boy ambition to sail on a tall ship unexpectedly presented itself when the Scout Association chartered the Sea Cadet brig TS Royalist for a week. I have my parents to thank – again – for making this happen and on 12 June found myself at Gosport with 20 other scouts and 3 leaders, full of enthusiasm for the week ahead.

When I got off the train at Portsmouth Harbour, I had my head in the clouds. A great ambition was about to be fulfilled, at last I was in sight of my goal to go to sea on the Sea Cadet Brig, the TS Royalist. From the ferry, I looked up the docks and amid the submarines and naval tugs were the tall masts of the Royalist.

At just 13 years old, I was the youngest on the crew, but don’t appear to have been fazed by this. The diary I kept is full of boyish excitement and ‘youthful directness’ typified by these musings following our initial tour of the ship:

We were shown round by the Coxn, an extremely beefy man with a beard and bare feet. He was Scottish. He said to us in a commanding voice “This is the Mess Deck, this is where you eat, sleep and live. If any of you are going to be seasick, for your own sake’s do not be sick down here for this simple reason. Below the deck are the bilges. In the bilges is all your grub for the week. If you puke down here it goes through the gaps in the planking and onto the tins below. Anybody who commits this sin will clean the Mess deck, clean the bilges, clean every tin and put it back in its correct place. That little job will take you about 23 hours!” There was a deathly hush…..

The first 2 days of the voyage were filled with sail drills in harbour and a shakedown day at sea. I climbed the rig for the first time, had a first taste of naval routine and discipline and got to grips with my tiny iron-framed bunk, which was fine if you were less than 5 ft 4 inches tall– I wasn’t – it was clearly recycled from a WWII submarine!

Leaving harbour for the first time with the anticipation of setting sail was a real thrill, though working out on the yards was less so and more of a challenge! In light winds the Sailing Master ordered us to set sail…. Jib, fore and main course, fore and main tops’ls and main stays’l. We hoisted the tops’l yards and let go the clew lines and bunt lines. The sails filled and for the first time I was sailing a real sailing ship!… We learned how to brace the yards and practised tacking and wearing ship until it was time to go aloft to take in and furl the sails. I don’t mind climbing the rig at sea, but was dead scared out at the end of a tops’l yard trying to gather ungainly bits of sail.

The ship was run as a naval vessel, quite a contrast to the more relaxed discipline of a Scout troop and it didn’t take long to get our first taste of the stricter regime:

We were just about to go ashore when someone was heard swearing – and everyone was made to run round the deck, except me and another boy, who were given a large metal container, knives and a bucket of potatoes! We sat on deck peeling spuds and cursing (quietly!) when our knives slipped in the half light.

I have abiding memories of the daily routine: Up at 0630, Colours at 0800, mustering for harbour leaving stations, dipping the Ensign to passing ships and the tannoy forever ‘piping’ us to our next duty. While this all seemed slightly quirky to us scouts (and I’m sure it was embellished by the crew for our benefit), I certainly felt a sense of pride – and importance as the ship and her young crew attracted a lot of attention wherever we sailed.

I also remember the dreaded twice-daily ‘Hands to Cleaning Stations’ followed by a thorough inspection of our efforts, but the ship was always gleaming as a result. The duties of Mess-man were also a novel experience. This not only entailed being a ‘galley rat’ for the day, but also acting as a steward at mealtimes, setting tables, serving meals to the officers and endless pot washing!

Meals didn’t commence until the Coxn had given these orders:

“Sit in” (sit down).
“Eyes in” (observe silence and bow head).
“Grace” (which he would then recite)
“Proceed” (dig in!).

The food was generally very good, though there was the occasional exception!

For supper we had steak, potatoes and cold revolting cabbage. Quite a few people said they couldn’t eat it and the Coxn and cook hearing this, proceeded to give us a lecture on scurvy, ending by announcing that no one would get shore leave until it had all been eaten. One boy picked his up, squeezed the soggy mess dry, put it in his pocket and headed up on deck where it was quietly despatched over the side.

With all our drills complete, we set sail for Alderney into a freshening Force 5 and had our first taste of sea watches and for some unfortunate souls, sea sickness. I was woken at 3.45am for my first watch with 4 other boys and our watch leader.

I was stern lookout and will never forget that first night at sea, the moon made a shimmering white path on the calm waves and the sky was shining with stars….

While visiting Alderney, the Ship hosted a visit from the local Guides, which included helping them to climb the rig. Health and safety clearly wasn’t a concern in 1976 as most of us had only been up and down a few times ourselves – and the safety harnesses consisted of a webbing belt with a short length of rope and a Karabiner! How times have changed!

We sailed for Poole next morning into a light head wind, which I wasn’t too chuffed about as we had to use the engine, but as I was one of the 4 mess men for the day, it was largely immaterial as galley rats didn’t keep watches. From Poole we headed for Cowes, holding a tug o war competition between the watches on the way. The victors were awarded half a Mars bar each (very generous!), the losers had to climb the foremast. Cowes was our last night on board and we sailed early next morning for the short hop to Gosport and the end of the voyage, though not before we had cleaned and provisioned the ship. My dream to sail a tall ship had been achieved!

Postscript

3 years later I fulfilled my youthful desire to also crew on the Malcom Miller during a 2-week voyage to France and the Channel islands. In 1980, I competed in the Tall Ships Race from Kiel to Karlskrona on Ramrod, a lovely 45’ Bermudan cutter and former Admirals Cup ocean racer. And then it all stopped. I joined the RAF and apart from a few offshore sailing trips with the Forces and without realising it at the time, life somehow managed to get in the way.

It was 38 years before my love of traditional sailing was rekindled in 2018 thanks to Classic Sailing, when following a bit of a ‘mid-life moment’ I booked a 4-day voyage on the Brixham Trawler Leader – and have kept sailing every year since.

A big moment came in 2019, when I boarded the magnificent Stadsraad Lehmkuhl to sail from Aarhus to Bergen, 40 years after I last sailed a Tall ship. Covid scuppered plans to rediscover the Tall Ships race in 2020, but unexpectedly opened opportunities to day-sail some of the UKs most lovely vessels once COVID restrictions allowed. Bessie Ellen (where I met Jess) and Mascotte and Anny of Charlestown (where I met Jessie) provided great sailing, so much so that the following year I signed onto Mascotte and Anny again for memorable voyages along the South coast and to the Isles of Scilly.

In 2022 I fulfilled a long-held desire to sail a square-rigger in Northern Norway as crew aboard the beautiful Christian Radich. This truly was the trip of a lifetime, memories of the utterly stunning scenery, a brilliant crew and fantastic sailing will stay with me forever. And finally last year, I enjoyed a positioning passage on Pilgrim (thanks to a recommendation from Jess), delivering her from Brixham to Falmouth.

This year, who knows? Much to my annoyance, a bulging disc in my lower back is proving frustratingly slow to improve to a point where I can play an active part as a crew member, so for the moment I’ll have to wait and see.

Thank you for providing the opportunity for me to rediscover the sheer enjoyment of traditional sailing, it has been truly wonderful and I hope to be signing on again through you as soon as I possibly can!

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