I’ve been home for a month now and have enjoyed the luxury of time to reflect on the last few months. While I haven’t left the house more than 3 times in that time, that’s still 3 more times than I got off the ship in the previous month. Some ships are still at sea, making for home ports where they will finally be allowed to go alongside, and I can only imagine how gruelling it must be for them. The Sail Training and Tall Ship community has been greatly impacted by this virus. This was my experience:
I left the UK in mid-February, headed for the warm sunshine of Cuba where I joined my ship, TS Pelican of London, to embark on the next leg of the 2019/20 Ocean College Voyage – a 6 month long School-at-Sea adventure. We had started in Bordeaux back in October with 32 novice sailors aged 15-18, mostly from Germany, 3 teachers and 8 Permanent Crew. We sailed from there to Vigo, on to Essaouira in Morocco, the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde Islands, before we crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean, Curacao and Panama where I disembarked for some much needed leave. The news about Coronavirus was at that time something happening in far distant lands and I never imagined it would have much impact on us.
By the time we had sailed from Cuba and reached Bermuda things were changing but the news we saw still didn’t give us any impression that the world was about to implode. We left Bermuda on the 6th March and I didn’t set foot on land again until the 23rd April.
A sail training voyage is supposed to be challenging; through the medium of sailing – working, living and playing together in what is essentially a 35m long metal box (45m if you include the bowsprit) we teach our trainees not only about sail setting, knot tying, weather forecasting, navigation, cleaning, cooking and maintenance but also about resilience, patience, fortitude, kindness, empathy, teamwork and tenacity. We usually get to also see a bit of the world while we do all this. We got plenty of the sailing part over the next couple of months, but the seeing the world aspect was suddenly rather curtailed.
Our Atlantic crossing went relatively smoothly, a few days of strong winds had us belting along under canvas for a while, but a large high pressure system had other ideas and sat over us for the majority of the mid Atlantic, necessitating the use of the “iron topsail” kept down in the bowels of the ship instead of the quieter canvas version. News came through to the ship via our satellite email system but we had no access to actual news outlets. We knew before we arrived in Horta in the Azores that we would not be allowed ashore but still thought amongst ourselves that all of this was a massive over-reaction and that the voyage would continue pretty much as planned.
We anchored off Horta on the evening of the 19th March and finally had phone signal, we called our families for the first time in 2 weeks and it finally started to sink in; the world had changed. The next day that message was fully hammered home when we finally got alongside – we were to be the last ship allowed in, purely to pick up fuel and food and then leave immediately. No gangway was landed, the workers who brought us our stores all wore masks and kept their distance, despite the fact we had been isolated on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for the last 14 days and had come from a country which, at the time of our departure, had had no cases – there was no way we could be carrying it, but no-one was willing to take the risk.
The plan had been to go from the Azores to a port or two on the northern coast of Spain and then back to Bordeaux, where the parents and families would be there to welcome our trainees back triumphantly with much pomp and circumstance, champagne and medals. With travel across Europe severely restricted and borders closed this was suddenly not going to be an option. All the ports were closed anyway and no matter where we landed them they then had to get home from there, with their vast quantities of luggage, so there was only one real option – we had to take them to Germany.
The next few days were the most challenging of all; we suddenly had a far greater distance to go to get to our final destination; the stores we had been able to pick up were all that the islanders had been able to supply, but were not a great quantity when you have 43 people to feed 3 times a day and need to keep it interesting; we were all now aware of the seriousness of the situation ashore and while we had spoken to our loved ones and knew that should anything happen to them we would hear of it via the satellite email, we couldn’t just pick up the phone and call home to check in. To add to that, the weather turned on us; slowly going from a ESE force 5 to a NE force 8 , driving our course further and further North until we were going North West in the direction of Iceland or even Greenland. We spent 72 hours beating up and down under engines and fore and aft sails trying to make headway to the North East, while mostly running back up and down parallel to our own track; and, it was getting colder by the day.
On top of these delights, when we left the Azores we mixed things up and put our trainees (who after 5 months, were very used to a fixed watch system consisting of 3 watches of 10 people doing the same watch-keeping hours every day) into 4 new watches of 8 people. Then, after 4 days of a 4 watch rotating system, we reverted to a 3 watch system with the 4th watch as the “Handover” team, with the watches rotating every 4 days to give everyone a “Handover” over the passage to Germany. [Figuring out how this all works is my job – hence my love of spreadsheets!] Each watch had a Captain, Mate, 2nd Mate, Engineer, Bosun, Bosun’s Mate, Cook and Doctor or Cook’s Assistant. For the 4 days of their “handover” they were acting as those roles, under the close supervision and guidance of the Permanent Crew in whose shoes they were walking. We might have done a lot of nudging and prodding, but we certainly gave them a taste of what it’s like to actually be the one in charge… I really didn’t think we could have made life much more challenging if we tried, so we threw some drills and emergency scenarios at them as well just to make sure, this is sail training after all. We were all getting very tired, physically and emotionally; frustrated at not getting to see the Azores, some were seasick, sleep was in short supply due to the lumpy seas, and the end was not quite in sight yet. But still, we all had 42 other people to talk to, hug, annoy, dance with, laugh and share food with. Your shipmates are your family, and that’s what gets you through the hard times.
We reached the English Channel eventually, and had one night of glorious respite tied up in Portland where we once again took on food and fuel as well as the charts for the previously unexpected next leg, and then set off once more for Cuxhaven, Germany. We took the scenic route along the Dorset coast, which is a piece of coast I am very familiar with as it is Pelican’s old stomping ground and magnificent to behold from the sea. (Many didn’t believe me that Durdle Door is in fact a dragon until they saw it for themselves!). We also had a Coastal Rescue helicopter fly by and practice some hovering over us – the trainee on the helm’s face as she realised there was a helicopter right over her head but she had to keep concentrating on keeping a steady course was a picture! The wind may not have been very useful, but it was mostly light and the sun shone brightly as we made our way up the rest of the Channel, through the Dover Straights and on up into the North Sea.
The end was now in sight and now people were starting to think about leaving. In the mess room, envelopes with everyone’s names lovingly drawn and illustrated were strung up along the bulkheads and when not busy with other duties, the trainees were all writing letters for each other to read after they got home. Despite not being able to show their parents around when they got there, they still wanted to the ship to look as good as she possibly could for our arrival, and many hours were spent sanding, oiling and polishing the helm and compass binnacle on top of our usual cleaning and maintenance routines. They practiced shanties and planned what to wear and drilled climbing in formation. Thoughts of home and families and real beds and pets and going to the fridge and eating whatever you like mixed with not wanting to leave; sadness at not seeing these crazy people every day, not being able to get a hug whenever you needed one, not seeing the sun rise over the sea in a million hues of pink or dolphins leaping at the bow. The prospect of returning to reality after a long trip at sea is daunting at the best of times, but we weren’t even sure what reality we were coming home to – not the one we left, that was for certain.
All things must end though, and so we arrived into Cuxhaven with the yards manned, the trainees aloft all resplendent in their red oilskin trousers and blue hoodies, belting out shanties that echoed around the port while their parents clapped and cheered at a socially acceptable distance from each other behind the port fence. It was glorious.
I cried a fair bit that day, I’ll not lie, but it was a happy sort of crying – tired, proud and knowing I was going to miss the lot of them despite their strops and eye rolling and huffing and generally requiring chasing around to get things done – but that’s the thing; in those 6 months we had become a family. In this line of work, as well as being sail trainers and teachers, we are stand in parents, and as such, our job is to teach them about life. It’s not an easy task, teaching “Life 101” is difficult to lesson plan for but I think we do a pretty good job of it nonetheless. The real impact of this or any sail training voyage is going to be seen by their parents, family and friends far more than us though, the life skills we have given them will take root and grow and I am quite certain that we will see great things in the future from many of them.
So what now in these weird times? Well, we had to get the ship home first of all; as soon as the last teacher had left we were off, with just the 7 of us Permanent Crew (having dropped the Doctor off in Portland). The weather was cold but fair and we even managed over 24 hrs under sail alone as we made our way along the south coast of England. We picked up a few extra hands at anchor in Penzance so we’d have enough people to moor her and then made our way to our home port of Sharpness where the ship has laid up for the moment. We have had to cancel at least the first part of our summer programme sadly and while this does mean we can achieve some maintenance, we are not even able to get large contingents of volunteers on-board to help due to social distancing. So, we are hunkering down, doing what we can, plodding along and keeping afloat (metaphorically as well as literally) and will be back as soon as we can, this may be as early as August, but nothing is certain yet, I am keeping my fingers crossed! The next Ocean College voyage is for certain though, and either way, I can’t wait to meet and welcome on board the next Pelican Family.
Tall Ship Pelican of London is operated by Adventure Under Sail, registered Charity No. 1124276. Please visit http://www.adventureundersail.com for more information