I love my job, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else these days. I think if you cut through me you’d find Sail Trainer written through my bones like a stick of rock. I regularly get asked how I got into this job, and this is the story I tell, it’s not a short story – I do try and condense it for people when telling it in person, but here I have the luxury of time and you can walk away at any time without me thinking you’re rude, so you might want to grab a cuppa and pull up a pew….
I’ve loved being on the water from an early age, we had a mirror dingy that we’d take on family holidays to the Lake District, until the fateful holiday that we took in Wales when we pulled it up onto a rocky shore and holed it, it only took my Dad 20 odd years to get around to fixing it! When I got a bit older, I did a couple of trips with the Ocean Youth Trust, going as far as the Channel Islands and buying my first half pint of cider in a pub at the age of 12 or so (I have no idea how I pulled that one off!) But I first sailed on a Ship at the age of 13. It was a day sail on TS Astrid, a Tall Ship based down in Weymouth, a mere 45 min drive from our home. My Dad had seen an advert and thought it sounded like a fun thing to do with the family. Fun didn’t come close, I was in love.
I remember getting them to let me climb the mast (in those days you wore a “safety belt” and only clipped on going over the futtocks and when on the yards) and waving down at my mother on the deck from the platform, she had palpitations, but I was hooked, and as it turned out so were they. They did a trip to France and then they got the chance to go to the Caribbean on her for (what felt like) three months, leaving me and my sister at school. Dad then continued to volunteer for them, which just lead to increased levels of jealousy and teenage foot stomping on my part.
After much badgering, when I was 15, I got my parents to allow me to do a short trip to France on Astrid with my Dad. It was, essentially, a booze cruise, but my mother reckoned I wouldn’t be able to get into too much trouble with my Dad looking after me. He left me to hang out with the (gorgeous and very gentlemanly) men in their 20’s while he hung out with the guys his age. It was heaven, and not just because of the lovely handsome young men who took me under their wing and bought me cider in the pub and champagne in the supermarket, and looked after me when I’d drunk too much, although I’ll admit that this did add to the attractiveness of the lifestyle.
A year later, in the summer between my GCSE’s and A-levels, I spent the entire holiday on board, joining at Weymouth to help take the ship to Falmouth for the start of the 1998 Tall Ships Races. We raced from there to Lisbon, took a leisurely cruise to Vigo, with several stops and parties along the way, and then raced to Dublin. The day before we arrived in Dublin, we heard the news about the Omagh bombing, which had shaken the whole country deeply. We still celebrated the Tall Ships, but also made sure we shared as much love and empathy as possible with the people of Ireland. One morning I was standing on the poop deck, polishing the binacle to my usual mirror-like standard, when a photographer passed by and asked if he could take my picture for the paper….. and that is how I came to be on the front page of an Irish newspaper next to a massive headline about the Omagh bombing.
The other truly memorable moment from that trip that I can talk about without embarrassing myself was at the end of the crew parade in Dublin: I was a total scruffbag, wearing my salt stained and well worn Astrid smock, my hair bleached by the sun and sea in a messy bun, our Captain was resplendent in his Merchant Navy finest uniform. When we arrived in the square at the end of the parade for the prize giving and speeches he told me to come and sit in the front with him, we were going to get a prize. I took it that I was the “token crew member” who always goes with the Captain, but he was very firm as he said this: “No, you go up first. You collect the prize. You’ve earned this.” Mary Mcaleese, the President of Ireland, was giving the prizes out and I was presented with a beautiful silver tankard. As we left the stage I was also handed a slip of paper inviting us to a champagne reception for the prizewinners, and then turned to the Captain to give it and the tankard to him – his ship after all! “No” he said, “That’s yours. Now come on, we’ve got champagne to drink, and then we’re going to go and christen that properly!”. I keep in pride of place both the tankard and the photo that someone took that afternoon, of him, myself and Mary Mcaleese at the reception (I had no idea of proper etiquette and put my arm around her). I look like the happiest little urchin alive don’t I?
After Dublin we sailed to Portsmouth for a Tall Ships Festival and finally back to Weymouth. My parents picked me up and I announced to my mother “When I grow up I want to be a Bosun!”, her response was simply “That’s fine darling but you’re bloody well going back to school to do your A-levels first”.
So off I went back to school, I had never imagined that sailing was something I could make money from and having done one of those career aptitude tests I was aiming for an Architecture degree, studying Art, Maths and Physics for A-level. Ironically, Art, the subject I loved the most and was feted to do really well in was the one that let me down, I did a goddawful exam piece which to this day haunts me and I got a C instead of my predicted high B or A. I failed to get the UCAS points required for the university offers I had and thus were my dreams of being an architect flushed down the drain. After a gap year, which included a few months teaching and travelling in India, I chose to go to art school instead.
I wanted freedom and self expression and “being creative” (teenagers eh?). I got analysis and essays and completely fed up. The foundation year was quite fun and the first year was OK; as a Textile Art student I was taught screen printing, tapestry weaving, machine embroidery, loom weaving and various other techniques, the skills aspect was great but as the course continued into the second year it became more and more apparent to me how much I hated having an idea I liked, then having to re-work it 15 times according to my tutors suggestions, and finding other artists who had done similar things to compare my work to, which made me feel like I was incapable of having an original idea, and then having to write some wanky bollocks about it’s deep layers of meaning. Oh, and for the history of art/theory lessons, they lumped us in with the fashion students. I also got a job, first in the student unions at which ever campus I was at, and then later in the Mash Tun, a pub which at that time was legendary in the Winchester scene and I loved with all my heart. I ended up as the bar manager and might not have been paying full attention to art school studies any more. At the end of the second year my three tutors sat down with me and asked “Have you thought about taking a year out?” I thought about this briefly and told them that if I did, I wouldn’t be coming back. They sighed and shuffled and told me I really ought to think about it again. So I thought about it, cried a little and then phoned my parents to tell them I was quitting.
I had managed to save up a bit, with the full time bar job and the student loan, so I went travelling again, this time to Tanzania with the boyfriend of the time, and then went back to Winchester to get a job. For the next few years I worked my way through being a Sandwich Maker, an Off License Manager, a Secretary for a quantity surveyor, and then an Admin Assistant for a road management company which then led to me becoming a Call Centre Operative for the same road management company.
It was dull. I describe this job as doing 12 hour shifts in a grey metal box beside the M4. We did 12 hrs during the day for 4 days, had 4 days off, and then did 4 nights of 12hrs, 4 days off, rinse and repeat. Logging into the various databases the potholes, dead badgers and RTAs that were called in, for the accidents we then dispatched crews to go and clear it up. The only good thing was that during the night shifts, out of office hours, we had unlimited internet and if nothing got called in, we were free to footle about on the internet.
It was at this point that I remembered those handsome young men who had been on my very first sailing trip on Astrid, one of whom I had remained in touch with while I was at school and I knew was still involved in sailing. So I decided to google him.
It didn’t take long to track him down and get in touch, he was delighted to hear from me and told me that he was running a sailing school, in fact he had a weeks trip on a yacht sailing around Scotland organised for later that year and would I be interested? Well of course I was! That trip is a blog all of it’s own, which you can read here. But that first morning sailing out of the marina was the wake up call I needed and it felt as clear as a slap in the face – I had to get back to being on the water.
This young man now started telling me about this new and unusual tall ship that was nearly finished, TS Pelican of London, and how awesome she was; with a crazy experimental rig, built by the same man who had built Astrid and now based in Weymouth. I didn’t take much convincing to go and have a look at her and then while innocently paying a visit to “just have a look”, I managed to get onto her second shakedown voyage, which I wrote about here. She was about to set off on her initial Trans-Atlantic voyage and had no spaces, but the return leg in the following March was not yet fully booked. So I started doing some serious saving and booked myself a three month trip, all of which I chronicled daily and you can read at your leisure should you wish, starting with this one. I flew out to St Lucia the day after my 26th birthday in March 2008 to join the ship, from there we sailed up the Caribbean chain, up to Bermuda, across the Atlantic to the Azores and then back to Weymouth. That handsome young man was 2nd Mate for this trip and he persistently encouraged me to go for this as an actual career, we even made a solemn pinkie promise that one day we’d sail on a tall ship together as Master and Mate, preferably Pelican but any tall ship would do! My final blog from this three month trip ended with these words:
So that’s it, we’re home, my grand adventure is over…. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking over the last few days, working out what to do next and the conclusion I’ve come to is fairly obvious if you know me. This is in my blood, metaphorically speaking, there’s no way I’ll ever be happy working on land, so I’ll be off to sea again. I’m already looking into enrolling on a deck officer course which would qualify me as an Officer of the Watch. With that under my belt I’ll be able to make good money on the tankers and cargo ships for some of the time, and then be able to go and play on the sailing ships for the rest. Running away to sea isn’t nearly so romantic as it sounds, the next three years will probably be quite dull a lot of the time, but I’ve finally found what it is I’m going to be good at, and in 10 years time I’m aiming to be Chief Officer on the Pelican, so watch this space!!
Of course that wasn’t quite the end of my grand adventure, I got off the ship for a whole week, did my laundry, and then went back as a volunteer for the Tall Ships Races, 10 years after my first Tall Ships Race on Astrid. After that I had really run out of money and had even had to go begging to the Bank of Mum and Dad for a small loan. I had managed to make myself rather indispensable by then, and on our return to Weymouth I went home for a night to do laundry. My father gave me a stern lecture on the importance of ensuring you know your own worth and returned with me to the ship to demand that I get paid for the work I was doing. The owner explained that they didn’t usually pay deckhands, it’s a volunteer position, but… he could offer me £10 a day as I was an exception. I took it, when you’re on a ship and have no bills to pay all you need is money for beer and smokes! I was doing what I loved and getting paid for it, so why did I need to go and do all that college stuff? I figured I’d allow myself a year or so of this lifestyle first at least.
Life had other plans though, in October we were in Madeira having just done the Funchal 500 Tall Ship’s Race, and we’d come third too! We anchored off the island the night before we went into port, swam off the ship and were excitedly talking about the next leg – the Trans-Atlantic leg out to the Caribbean, touted to be a far more enjoyable crossing than the trip from Bermuda to the UK, this was the NE wind trade route (Go south until the butter melts and then turn right) and life was looking good. The next morning though, the Captain called us to the bridge, he had received bad news from the office back home. The ship needs, as a bare minimum, on top of the 7 permanent crew, 15 trainees to sail her, and on a Trans-Atlantic trip even that would be a real stretch on everyone. There were 2 people who were not permanent crew booked on for this trip, and we were both onboard. Plus they hadn’t sold enough of the holiday trips in the Caribbean. The winter season had to be cancelled. Bugger.
We somehow scraped together a ragtag crew to get her back to the UK. I can assure you that sailing up the English Channel in November is not a very pleasant experience, especially when you didn’t pack for cold weather, but we still had some good fun along the way, and I have fond memories of that trip.
Once back home, and actually living with my parents again for the first time since I had gone to art school, I got serious about getting a cadetship. I wrote to all the shipping companies I could find, filled out a multitude of application forms and worked in a pot-pourri packing factory to make some cash while I waited for some response. Nothing happened, my biggest fear was that I was too old; until very recently at the time, only people aged 16 -25 were eligible for cadetships, the law had changed due to the age discrimination act, but I was painfully aware that there were many younger people than I applying. Then, a family friend who is a retired Merchant Navy officer, offered to get me the email address for one of the Elder Brethren of Trinity House.
Now here’s a Top Tip for those of you reading this in search of wisdom on how to get a cadetship, or any job – if you want your application to be noticed, you have to get it in front of the eyes of the people who actually have the authority to make decisions. Most of the time the initial viewing of your beautifully crafted CV and covering letter will be a brief glance as it comes to the top of a large pile of other equally well crafted CV’s and letters. The trick is finding how to bypass that; use whatever contacts you can, there are entire blog posts out there detailing how to get past that initial sift, where your application may simply get bypassed because there are too many to look at. So, use whatever means you can to get your CV in front of the person who actually makes the decisions, use your contacts, find out who they know and ask for a personal email address; professionally impress and make friends with the people you work with as a cadet/ junior officer and get their email address, while it would be lovely to think that your CV will simply shine on it’s own, if it comes with a note or a nod from someone, or even someone who knows someone they know that confirms that you’re alright, you’ll open so many doors, or at least just get the thing in front of the person who makes the decisions!
Anyway, back to the story.
So I got my CV in front of the the gentleman running the Trinity House cadetship scheme, apparently he liked to interview potential cadets himself but was in India at the time, but my CV and letter really were so kick-ass good that he was happy that someone else interview me to ascertain that I was in fact who and what I said I was, and I was in! I started my Trinity House cadetship at Fleetwood in January 2009, I wrote many blogs about that period of my life, starting in July 2009 when I joined the QM2 .
During my 3 year cadetship I spent 6 weeks on THV Patricia, 3 months on Cunard’s QM2, 4 and a half months on Windstar Cruises’ Wind Surf, 6 weeks on Fred Olsen’s Balmoral, 6 weeks on Stena Line’s Stena Adventurer, another 6 weeks on THV Patricia and 4 days on the cargo ship Heulin Dispatch. There are many stories on this blog about those times, although I will admit that I did not at the time reveal some of the, well, for want of better words, really juicy bits. I’ll save them for the book 😉
I qualified as an OOW in December 2011 and then allowed myself a little bit of down time. 2 months later I realised I needed to get serious about finding a job and contacted Chiltern Maritime, who administrated the TH cadetship scheme. My boss was horrified that I hadn’t yet gotten a job and immediately secured me an interview with Viking Recruitment, who do recruitment for a large majority of the cruise ship industry.
When I was interviewed for my cadetship, one of the questions I was asked was “What kind of ship do you want to work on?” My answer; “Anything but cruise ships”. You may have noticed in the list 2 paragraphs above that the majority of ships I was put during my cadetship on are, yes indeed, cruise ships. I never complained, but I never wanted to work with cargo that can argue back. Before you raise an eyebrow at me, cruise ships are vastly different to sail training ships; we take on trainee crew, they are not passengers. They are not there to be served and mollycoddled and pampered. They are there to do work; they do the steering, and heaving and hauling, and cleaning and cooking, and learning skills and growing as people, we put them in a situation where they have to come together as a team to succeed. It’s all part of the experience, and I love seeing them grow and develop new skills and become people who understand what it means to work with people to achieve a greater goal. Working on cruise ships is about pandering to the whims of the general public, many of whom, I’m afraid, are assholes. ( I have some stories..)
But a job’s a job and I needed one. I went to the interview, they liked me but told me that while I had passed the interview I would be put on a waiting list because they had no available positions at the time. As a newly qualified officer with no experience in rank, the only job I could have in my sights was as 4th officer with Holland America, I would be put on a waiting list and should expect to wait several months to get a call. I got home that night and messaged the Captain I’d got on particularly well with on Windstar, asking if there were any positions going. He called the recruiter and the next morning I was offered the position of 3rd Officer.
That first 4 month trip was fun but exhausting; doing a total refit of of a cruise ship while crossing the Atlantic was an experience that I never wished to repeat. I had worked my backside off to to get all the items I was responsible for up to a standard that I found acceptable and was was then told I would be going back to a the sister ship, which was due to do a total refit while crossing the Atlantic, plus I’d be taking over from someone I had sailed with as a cadet that I had not gotten on well with due to their lack of professionalism and general laziness. I needed the job, but I was not looking forward to this. Then, three weeks before I was due to ship out, I received an email offering me another job. Bingo!
While I was on my last trip as a cadet, that very short one on the tiny cargo ship to get the last 4 days of watchkeeping time, I had spent a couple of hours chatting with the Chief Engineer. He had mentioned that he actually ran his own shipping company down in the Falklands and said if I was looking for a job when I qualified I should get in touch. I had forgotten about this and lost his card, but he remembered me and I suddenly found myself being offered a position for £32 a day more than I had been paid by the cruise line, without even applying for it!
I spent 3 and a half years on the Pharos SG, the fishery protection vessel for South Georgia and it was an amazing experience. Bloody cold most of the time, but the island is incredibly beautiful and I got to see far more of it than any cruise ship passenger. I went from 3rd Mate to 2nd Mate and then realised that there was no chance of me progressing further. There were 2 permanent Chief Mates who were not going anywhere and no other ships in the company. Plus South Georgia, while stunningly beautiful, is only 90 miles long and very far away from everything – I wasn’t exactly fulfilling my dream of seeing the world.
I had managed by then, even after buying a house, to save a significant enough amount of money to pay for my Chief Mate’s course, and so I quit my job and took myself off to college. I got my Chief Mate Unlimited in March 2016 and had convinced myself that with this shiny new ticket that many doors would open and I would be able to find a new job with relative ease… Unfortunately, the bottom had fallen out of the North Sea Oil market and all the Mates and 2nd Mates had gone and found work elsewhere, every single job had thousands of applicants and I was kicking myself for quitting a perfectly good, well paid job.
Late one night I was browsing facebook, in a whisky fuelled state of self pity and job hunting misery, when I chanced upon a post from the Pelican’s page asking for volunteers. I got very excited by this and next morning I got in touch and arranged to go down for a week to help out with some maintenance – if I wasn’t working at least I could allow myself to have a bit of fun doing stuff on the ship that had set me off on this whole thing. We did some maintenance and at the end of the week we did a day sail. Oh My Goodness, I was like an excited puppy that day. The Captain, the very same lovely man pictured with me above when I was 16, got me to tack the ship, I was up and down the rigging like a monkey and grinning from ear to ear the whole time.
I would have loved to stay longer, and they asked repeatedly if I could stay but I was running out of money and had to go home and carry on with the job hunt. A few days later I got a call asking if I could cover the Bosun’s Mate role for a weekend, which is a paid position. We had a great weekend and then as the Captain dropped me off at Weymouth Station he muttered to me darkly “You may get a call sooner than you think”.
Next morning, I got a call.
The Captain had been suffering some health issues and needed an operation, so, the Mate was stepping up to take over and they needed someone to step in as temporary Mate for a couple of weeks. I very happily agreed and a few days later packed my bags and went down to Weymouth once again. We went to the office to sign my contract first. The boss had a funny look on his face and seemed nervous… He said “I know it’s very short notice, and very cheeky, but I was wondering of you could do two months instead of two weeks?”
I was waiting to hear if I had been shortlisted for another job at the time and asked if I could wait and see if I got the interview before extending. It felt like a gamble but he was fine with it. I didn’t get the interview so I delightedly signed a two month contract a few days later. I couldn’t believe my luck, I had achieved my 10 year goal in only 8!
It was an amazing summer and I really ought to write about it in detail at some point before I forget. I am also ashamed to say I have not yet (4 years later) managed to get all of those photos onto flickr, but once I have completed this epic tale I shall make that my next lockdown mission.
Unfortunately for me, the company already had 2 Mates on their books, so this was only a temporary contact. However, they asked me to write an application for the permanent role which I did with gusto and was subsequently offered the permanent position, starting later in the year. I did a month as 2nd Mate in the interim, most of which was spent alongside in Weymouth due to technical issues. And then the hammer blow fell. The technical issues weren’t going to get solved easily and the ship had once again been forced to cancel the winter programme. They asked if I could work over the winter on a reduced wage to look after the ship while she was laid up in Weymouth, but it wouldn’t have even covered my mortgage, plus being laid up in Weymouth with one other person onboard would have been pretty bloody miserable. I said no and once again threw myself into the job market.
I did now have the benefit of having someone who knew who I was at Seamariner, the employment agency I had signed my contract with for the Pelican. So it wasn’t too long until I got another call and swiftly found myself bundling off to Dover to join a ferry as 2nd Mate. For 5 months I was working 12 hour shifts, week on/week off and commuting through London at either end of my shift, which really meant I was working 8 days and getting 6 off. The money was good though and it was looking like I was going to be offered a permanent contract, plus, I was learning new skills and getting plenty of traffic experience driving across the Dover Straits. The worst part was the commute, if I had lived closer it would have been easier to deal with but I would get home, spend 2 days recovering, have 2 days in which to do stuff and then spend 2 days gearing myself up again to go back.
Occasionally a Tall Ship would pass through and I would stare mournfully at it and tell my co-workers that that was where I really wanted to be. One of the AB’s on the bridge said to me “Nah mate, you’re a lifer, you’ll be here for the rest of your career!” I felt thoroughly depressed by this concept.
Not long after that conversation, my contact at the agency sent me an email asking if I knew of anyone who had a Mates ticket and some Tall Ship experience. He was mightily confused at my eager insistence that yes, that person was me! I was leaping at the opportunity to take a massive pay cut and turn my back on the looming permanent contract. I begged. So, he sent my CV over to the Jubilee Sailing Trust.
I got the job. It was pretty short notice and I had a lot of things to learn about the ship before I could take over as Mate, so I flew out to join the Lord Nelson in the Canary Islands to do my familiarisation as we sailed back up to the UK. I spent this trip frantically learning how the ship operated and what exactly was required of me under the stern tutelage of the incumbent and very experienced permanent Mate. I loved it but it was a huge leap from driving the ferries, and this wasn’t just any Tall Ship; The JST’s ships are specially built to take people with disabilities sailing alongside able bodied people, so half of the voyage crew can be either wheelchair users, visually impaired, hearing impaired, amputees or have any one (or more) of other conditions that makes their lives more difficult than it ought to be. Once we had got back to the UK I had 12 days off while the ship did some maintenance and then I returned to take over as Mate for the Barclays Round Britain Tour.
Doing an ocean passage is very different to short hops, and for this Barclays Bank sponsored tour we got a brand spanking new voyage crew every 4 days, so on top of the usual Mate’s stuff, I had all of the joining day training to do every 4 days, we had to fit in all the mast climbs and assisted climbs, actually go sailing and get to our next port on time. I had thought the ferry was hard work; this beat that into a cocked hat. I ended up doing 7 voyages in 6 weeks, the short 4 days trips were broken up in the middle by the “Wrong Way Round” Voyage which was a 1004 mile romp under full steam from Aberdeen to the Isle of Man, the voyage had been planned to be a gentle 10 day bimble around the top of Scotland, but the weather had other ideas for us. That’s a whole other story though!
At the end of this epic stint I was pretty broken and while I was delighted to have been given this opportunity and had done my part to ensure we made all of the voyages a success, I did feel that I was in rather over my head, particularly when it came to organising the care and maintenance of a square rigger. Thankfully, I was allowed to step down to the role of 3rd Mate so that I could spend some time learning these things at a slightly easier pace.
I spent 2 years with the JST, working on Lord Nelson and then Tenacious and I learned so much. I worked with some amazing people and we had some fantastic times. I wasn’t earning filmstar wages but I could pay the mortgage, and after a year they gave me a permanent contract.
Shortly after signing that contract I was at the Liverpool Tall Ships Race with Lord Nelson, and finally managed to meet up with that handsome young man who had set me down this path all those years ago, he was still working on Tall Ships as well and had ascended to the heady heights of Captain by then. He pulled me aside and excitedly told me about his new project; I wasn’t allowed to breathe a word to anyone because it was all still so new, but he’d nearly got the Pelican! New management had taken over and an amazing 6 month school at sea voyage was being planned. Was I going to come and join him?
It sounded incredible but I had just signed a permanent contract! I’d also been let down by Pelican before so I wasn’t prepared to take a blind flying leap of faith or burn any bridges quite yet. I carried on working for the JST and watched social media carefully for news of Pelican. Slowly things took shape, she dry docked and then set off on the first Ocean College voyage. Meanwhile, I found myself on Tenacious, laid up in Canary Wharf over the winter, chipping and painting the foc’sle. When Pelican reached the Caribbean I knew that the Ocean College project was going to be success, and so, I picked up the phone…
I joined Pelican as she arrived into Brest in April 2019, completing her inaugural Ocean College voyage. I got to fulfil my solemn pinkie promise to that handsome young man from all those years ago and I have now been the Mate for a year. I can’t wait to see what happens next 🙂