In years gone by, sailors would proudly paint their ship’s name on their hat ribbons (or ‘tallies’). These have since been replaced in the Navy with gilt embroidered ribbons but the emotional attachment is the same, and that attachment is just as strong in the traditional sailing world. We may not sport tallies these days, but the ship’s T-Shirt has become a strong equivalent.
This is not merely a proclamation of ‘been there, done that’ but something much deeper. The shirt is worn with pride for the ship, but also pride in the person you were when you were on board, and the adventures you’ve had together.
It’s a symbol of how you formed part of the crew. You might have scampered up to the t’gallants, made the tea in a heavy swell, or helmed in the sunshine with a big grin on your face. You became a member of the ship’s extended family. This might mean spending every summer holiday together, or just keeping in touch via social media. Either way it’s a connection that will last a lifetime.
Love at First Sight
It’s your first trip on board, and you’re heading to the harbour to meet the ship. The buildings part and you glimpse masts and spars. You might have been sailing before, and find yourself scanning the lines and comparing her rig set-up to other boats you know, or this might be your first time, and it all looks incredibly complicated and unfathomable. Either way the sense of excitement starts to rise in your chest.
You meet the crew and fellow guest sailors (they are strangers for all of about 5 minutes, and by the end of your trip it’ll feel like you’ve known them for years). After settling in to your bunk and unpacking, you take a stroll round the deck, running your hand along the capping rail and completing the necessary tall ship handshake (yank a line, look up, see what wiggles).
Waking up after your first night on board and coming on deck- seeing the rigging above you as you climb up the companionway. The quiet of the morning feels like the deep breath before the start of a story, and sure enough it’s soon time to start removing gaskets and casting off morning lines. When the wind fills the sails for the first time and you feel the power of the ship beneath your feet you know this is it. This is love.
Through the Hard Times and the Good
There’s something special about the mixture of type-1 and type-2 fun you get on board a sailing ship (for the uninitiated, type-1 fun is great at the time, type-2 fun makes a good story in the pub afterwards!). Working hard and getting through tricky situations as a team, with the ship taking care of you, means relationships are cemented in double-quick time.
You’ll have plenty of glorious days, with lazy sunsets, a steady beam reach, dolphins playing in the bow wave. At these moments you can revel in the ridiculous loveliness of it all, take some photos, enjoy the somniferous sounds of the hull through the water and the wind in the rigging. Maybe have a nap on deck, leant up against a sail bag.
However there will also be those exhilarating times when the wind suddenly picks up and sail needs reducing quickly. You’re caught in a storm and waves are crashing on the deck. The swell is so steep that it’s an achievement getting a mug from the galley to the helm with an inch of coffee still in it. No time for photos now, just clipping on, keeping watch and helping the crew where you can. But you’ll find that smiles are often even broader at these moments, and laughter comes from all quarters. This is madness! I can’t even move from here to there! I’m walking like a drunk!
And all the while the ship, YOUR ship, is keeping you safe and sound. The crew are keeping you well fed, cheerful and informed. Whatever the weather throws at you, you know you’ll be coming out the other end with anecdotes that will still have the power to make you howl with laughter years later.
Like any relationship, your connection with your ship only grows stronger the more you go through together. You get to know all her quirks and oddities, and you relish the qualities she brings out in you. Your resilience, humour, confidence and bravery all increase while you’re on board, and she becomes a symbol of the things you can achieve.
A Lasting Connection
From the moment you step ashore after your first trip you know that this wasn’t just another holiday. There’s a large part of you that doesn’t want to leave, and as you head home, with images of your ship firmly in your mind, you find yourself downloading Marine Traffic so you can keep an eye on where she is. Sharing photos and memories with your fellow sailors, rekindling all the ‘in jokes’ from the voyage. Trying to get back into the rhythm of ‘real life’.
Describing your trip to family and friends its hard to find the right words- you can explain the weather, the accommodation, the characters of the crew, the wildlife you saw, but there is something intangible which cannot be explained. The particular sound of the ocean through hull planking as you slept. The sense of accomplishment as you back the staysail just right for a tack. The way your respect for the ship got stronger the more you learned about how she worked and how she was maintained. You’ll find yourself saying ‘You don’t understand. You had to be there.’
And whether you return again to your ship (perhaps to sail in new waters, or on a longer ocean passage) or keep your first voyage as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, she will always hold a special place in your heart.
And as for that T-Shirt… wear it with pride!