Book Review – Tall Ships Races – Earth’s Most Thrilling Adventures
Seasoned sailor & journalist Libby Purves takes to the high seas in a square rigger
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Title – Adventure! Earths Most thrilling Experiences
Chapter on ‘Crewing a Tall Ship’ by Libby Purves
voted one of Earths 100 Most Thrilling Experiences by Time Out Guides
250 page travel book available in most good bookshops
Chapter Author: Libby Purves
Thrilling Activity? Crewing a Tall Ship in an International Tall Ships Race
How long? A week to 2 months
Where: All over the world
Who can apply? Young people 16-25 years and some berths or whole races open to adults
Thrill factor: *****
“Barrelling down Channel with a sunny autumn gale behind her, Tenacious rose and fell, smashing her long golden bows into the rising seas. I was off watch, stretched out on a cushion between the varnished wood frames of the mess deck after three hours of hauling and lurching on deck as we brailed the upper topsails and braced the yard arms.
That might sound like sailor talk but it merely consists of ruching up the higher sails to prevent too much wind pressure, and pulling across the heavy beams on which the sails hang, so the ship can alter course and not bang into the island of Jersey. In a wind like this bracing takes 10 of you on the uphill side, and a couple easing the lines gently off the pins on the other side deck. There was some giggling, a bit of swearing and rope burn for those hardy enough to do it without gloves. When it was all over, the ropes coiled and hung up and the big ship snug again, the watch on deck returned to steering and lookout, the galley team sloped off to peel potatoes, and we the off watch retired to bunks or the mess deck with our books. And we were happy.
This particular trip was not a race, merely an end of season delivery, but it brought back a host of memories: The North Sea race, for example, from Newcastle to Norway, when a third of the international tall ships fleet retired in dreadful weather – but we plugged on, and anchored at last in a remote fjord close to one of our rivals, the Shabab Oman. We had thought we were tired after a week of watch keeping day and night, but the Omani crew came aboard Tenacious with their Arabic musicians and taught us some wild dances. After a few hours all the girls on board were wearing the guests turbans and bopping around.
Then there was the race on Lord Nelson in the Baltic: Gadansk to the Aland islands in the shimmering summer heat, ghosting along with every sail we could hang, teenagers singing to a guitar on the bow at dusk. And a dozen other voyages on other ships – Norwegian, Dutch, British. Huddling from a bunk in the small hours for my 2 am watch, staring out over tumbling foam on a wild night, lying in oily calm watching for ruffles of wind….all of it has been magical, a step out of time into an older, simpler world.
Tall Ships Races
The tall ships races, and the voyages in between them, are a curiousity: Many people think they are extinct (until their local port suddenly bristles with a spidery web of masts and ropes). Others think that only the young can go, or that your have to be at school or on probation. Others are put off by the expression ‘sail training’ imagining some sort of National Services character building bullyfest. In fact although the annual races organised by Sail Training International stipulate that half the ships company must be between 16-25, there are places for adults even on race legs.
AIN’T NUTHING BUT A NUMBER
I was 45 when I first signed up on the Norwegian ship Staatraad Lehmkuhl, climbed my first rigging and slept in my first hammock (few ships have them, but they are surprisingly comfortable).Tenacious, like Lord Nelson belongs to the British Jubilee Sailing Trust, and take a mix of disabled and able bodied crews. But as the main deck language tends to be English, it is easy enough to sail with the Dutch on the wonderful barque Europa, or the elegant Swan Van Markkum – or one of the three Norwegian ships.
The internationalism of the fleet is one of the joys; At the height of the Iraq War, young Omani Arabs were dancing in the streets at end of race festivals with American and British teenagers. At the height of the Cold War Russian ship Khruzhenstern was already a favourite of the fleet; After the Falklands, the first Argentinian ship in a British port was their tall ship Libertad. The Mexican Cuauhtemoc is happy to join a European fleet racing towards Finland. And so it goes on.
ALL HANDS ON DECK
There is something about joining the Tall Ships Fleet that defies cynicism. Sailing these great vessels is not just a sport, and not just sentimentality. It fuses the old skills of laborious teamwork and communal courage with a new pattern of adventure and internationalism. Even the most timid and unfit deck workers find themselves rising to the task, inspired by the natural beauty of the sea and the human beauty of the great ships, and the people who sail them. On one gruelling upwind race, from Antwerp to Aalesund in North Norway, nearly everyone on Bark Europa had some kind of bruise or sprain, and Captain Klaas Gaastra came down from the bridge to one crew meeting and looked around in the drizzle at the bandaged, exhausted figures (we had been having ‘all hands on deck’ every two hours for three days) saying cheerfully, “I feel like Jesus, coming to the halt and the lame…”
Ania, a broke but resolute arrival from Old eastern Europe, paid her last euros to join at Antwerp and eccentrically went barefoot in all weathers. “It keeps my feet in touch with Neptune” she says “and saves me from the sickness.”
Tall ships – of all rigs, bring people together; up in the rigging or on the bow, feeling the drive of the ship, they make your blood sing. They teach you the most basic things about human life and history. They introduce you to the reality of many disciplines: Engineering, physics, geography, history, psychology, poetry. The engineering wisdom of the ages formed their blocks and gear and the cobweb certainty of the high rigging, yet it is instantly apparent that these things can do nothing without human muscle and weight.
It is the opposite of a computer game, and it demands trust and teamwork. A shanty is not a museum piece, but a vital way to make you lean and pull together, A curt order from the bosun is not oppression; It is essential: he can see what is happening high up at the far end of the line you are hauling. As a watch you work together; At the end of it, you fall into your bunk and trust the next watch to keep you safe. It is a lesson in being part of the human race. Adrian Sligan, who sailed in the last grain ships of the 1950’s put it best:
“A Sailing ship at sea is one of God’s most patient, yet steadfast and courageous creatures. So those who live with her, who watch her day by day, running bravely, lying becalmed for weeks or yielding with grace to the slope of the wind, such people learn from her in time.”
Well, I didn’t have months as they did. I had only 10 days. But whether in a race or a passage, whether in seas of dolphin-haunted blue or ragged grey, the fact is that using your body weight and strength, and having a common purpose night and day to keep a beautiful ship safe, is better than any therapy. You are never too old or too wobbly to know that magical thing that happens when you come up from the cabin tired and shaking, and suddenly see the stars. And perhaps take the wheel, and feel the drive and power of the ship under your own hands. As Louis MacNeice wrote: “Our end is Life. Put out to sea.”
WHEN TO GO
Races (Europe) take place in the summer, but remember this is not the only time these ships sail. There are opportunities all year around.
In spring and Autumn there are many week long trips out and back to the same UK port which works out cheaper.
ORGANISING YOUR TRIP
Adults can join sailings with Jubilee Sailing Trust, Ocean Youth Trust South and Classic Sailing www.classic-sailing.co.uk
Berth costs vary considerably, and don’t include flights to start and finish points.
AM I UP TO IT ?
Top fitness is not essential but it helps (note: going aloft is not compulsory). Seasickness medication is useful but should be tried out (on land) in advance.