Chew on a piece of ginger and keep your eye on the horizon, my friends said.
Armed with this advice for avoiding seasickness, and a photocopied map of the coastline of Western Europe circa 1930, (the map had a beautiful scrolled border), I set out for southern shores. I was taking part in the first leg of the annual Cutty Sark Tall Ships' Race, this year a 760 mile voyage from Falmouth to Lisbon, acting as crew member and unofficial observer - I did some very wobbly drawings. As I made my shaky way up the gangplank of my ship, a sturdy but elegant Dutch brigantine called the Swan (2 masts, the front one square-rigged) I tried to convince myself that previous nautical experience, which included rather dodgy skills acquired at the age of ten on a Nottingham boating lake, would stand me in good stead. About 70 ships, little ketches, yawls, sloops and cutters as well as grand barques, brigs and fully rigged square rigged ships - the Russians were the biggest - were already gathered in Falmouth, where there was a festival atmosphere. Multicoloured flags flapped, sightseers thronged, born-again spivs sold woolly snakes on sticks, and there was a Cornish Pasty crisis - Falmouth had sold out by early evening. Cool Mexican sailors wearing black frock-coats with cinched-in waists, Walkmans and Canons slung from their cutlass-loops, were already doing very well promoting international understanding, one of the aims of the Tall Ships' Race, with admiring groups of Falmouth girls.
The race is organised by the International Sail Training Association. To qualify for entry, each ship must have 50% of its crew made up of under 25 year olds, not necessarily with sailing experience. In the second leg of the race, from Vigo to Dublin, the crews are swapped around. My ship, owned by her Dutch captain and built in Gdansk in 1993, had been chartered by the race's sponsors, Berry Brothers and Rudd, owners of Cutty Sark Whisky, and had 50 people aboard. There were 14 permanent crew - Dutch, German and Irish - most of whom had dazzling white teeth and swarmed up the rigging at the drop of a shackle pin. One of these did drop out, rather alarmingly, along with a large stanley knife and a wooden block. The rest of the crew included students from a catering college, various photographers, some young Portugeuse who had won a Lisbon newspaper competition, a Scottish teacher, blonde sisters who had walked straight out of a "Village of the Damned" set, a radio man who at one point interviewed a dolphin and 2 jolly watch salesmen with fat tummies who wore wonderful fluorescent sea ensembles when we reached warmer weather. My cabin companion was an extremely taciturn Brazilan who wore earplugs and complained a lot. I chose the top bunk in the tiny cabin. This was a mistake, I later learned.
As we sailed out of Falmouth, watched impassively by the monolithic QE2, it was mobiles ahoy! on deck for farewells - no fluttering hankies from the dock - while I did some wave drawings in my notebook. Then life at sea began. We were divided into 3 watches -8 till 12, 12 till 4 and 4 till 8. Work could involve rope pulling, deck swabbing, washing-up and rope coiling. I learnt several important skills - walking at acute angles, wedging and clinging. My cabin under the foredeck often dipped several feet under the Atlantic, and it took me three days to adjust to sleeping with my feet often higher than my head. When the ship was heeled over the only way to get into the top bunk was to walk up the side of the fixed cupboard. Rolling off could be avoided by wedging yourself in with your lifejacket . If the ship tacked the other way you ended up sleeping on the ship's side. I began to walk with a strange lurch which involved little crab movements as we rocked and rolled south of the Scillies. Several people kept to their cabins. The ship groaned, bellowed, sighed and whistled on its way. A homing pigeon with a blue anklet hitched a lift. As we entered the Bay of Biscay we were buzzed by dolphins, and whales spouted in the distance. We began to shed layers of clothes. One of the crew caught a tuna which was eaten for lunch.
Ii asked the captain when is a ship a tall ship? "When it thinks it is." was his reply. We hit a heavy swell, huge bully waves that knocked the ship about, and a force 10 wind. Three of the sails were badly torn and a cable snapped. Crockery zoomed across the saloon and smashed against the side of the ship as though hurled by a marine poltergeist. Several ships retired from the race with damaged rigging. The following days followed in a routine of drowsy languor punctated by furious activity. Members of the permanent crew whizzed up and down the masts in the bosun's chair with gluepots ands sail patches. There was a serious outbreak of jokes. We sighted land - the mountains of Northern Spain - and rounded Cape Finesterre. Two of the crew polished the brass casing of the old binnacle, made by Lillie and Gillie of South Shields. I went up the rope ladder to the first platform (about 20 metres), my hands shaky for about half an hour afterwards. As we sailed farther south a haze obscured the coast and there was a smell of singeing - sunbathing tourists perhaps? I got a fix of the radio man's factor 50, just in case. It was foggy and the ship was becalmed. We seemed to be running third, with the Russian ships Mir and Kreuzenshtern in the lead. The jokes got worse and there was an isolated case of kareoke. We eventually crossed the finishing line at Cascais, just outside Lisbon, in the early hours of the eighth day after sailing from Falmouth. The ship's fire alarm went off, a singing duo banged a tambourine, chunks of the Atlantic whooshed over the deck, champagne corks popped and later that morning, apparently (I was tucked up in my bunk) , Barbara the ship's blow-up doll joined the celebrations.
Although we were the third of the Class A ships to cross the line, a complicated handicap system is used to determine overall winners because of the disparity in the ships' sizes - the last information I had was that we were 7th. Attended by dolphins cavorting under the bowsprit we sailed down the Portugeuse coast waiting for our berth at Alcantara docks in Lisbon.
The Cutty Sark Tall Ships will leave Vigo, northern Spain, on August 12th, and arrive in Dublin on the weekend of August 22nd. Next year's race starts from St. Malo on 23rd July and finishes on August 18th in Alborg, Denmark, sailing via Greenock and Lerwick.
information telephone the International Sail Training Association (ISTA)
on 01705 586367, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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