Sail Training in the Time of Corona

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

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Adventures in the Caribbean

We are now on route to Curacao as I write this, the last week or so has been busy to say the least!

We arrived into Soufriere, St Lucia on the morning of the 10th; after 18 days at sea crossing the Atlantic some of the students had mixed feelings about this as they had settled into the routine of life at sea so well that they wanted to carry on going! One thing they were very happy about though was the opportunity to go swimming off the ship. Anchored in the shadow of Gros Piton, looking up at the jungle covered slopes of the island and out across the Caribbean seas makes for quite a deluxe swimming pool!

We had a full day at anchor the next day and the students spent the day exploring ashore, however we pulled some of Blue watch back to the ship in the afternoon as they needed to do some planning: The first set of watch handovers started the next day; for a short leg we put the students into our shoes and let them have a taste of what is involved in being the Permanent Crew! All three watches got a go, choosing amongst themselves who would be Captain, Mate, 2nd Mate, 3rd Mate, Engineer, Bosun, BM, Cook etc. Of course, we’re standing right beside them to nudge, guide and help but the aim is to get them running the ship. They all did really well and I think they now have learned that our jobs aren’t just all about drinking tea and asking the helmsperson “How’s your head?”.

Blue Watch took over for the first leg from Soufriere to Bequia, the overnight passage went smoothly and we arrived into Bequia bright and early on the morning of Friday 13th, only to make our approach to the anchorage in the in the absolute drenching, deluging rain. We put down both anchors just to be safe, getting absolutely soaked to the skin in the process, and then it was hands aloft to harbour stow the squares. Of course, in accordance with Murphy’s Law, as soon as we had finished all of that the rain stopped.Soon the sun was out and we started to get the students ashore by boat, as we were nearing the last load we got confirmation that we could shift to the berth for a night alongside. Those who were left onboard leapt into action to help us get mooring lines out ready before we dropped them ashore as well and shifted the ship with just the Permanent Crew. We were very grateful for the opportunity to do this as the locals put themselves out by moving some of the ferries to give us room for the night – thank you guys!

Bequia is an absolutely gorgeous island, and I will never tire of visiting it, and I’m certain the students enjoyed it as well, of course it rained buckets again that evening, but it’s warm rain and really rather pleasant after all the hot sweaty days of baking sunshine! Next day we had to shift off the berth again and go back to anchor, but it’s not exactly an arduous RIB run, and the view is pretty spectacular as you zoom across the bay.Sunday 15th was our next handover, this time White Watch were in charge. An 0500 start meant a long days sailing, taking us this time from Bequia back to St Lucia again, but a different anchorage – Vieux Fort this time, where we stayed for a couple of nights to allow for planning before Red Watch took over and we headed for Carriacou on the 17th.

Mizzen watch took the bridge at 0400 the next morning, (the watches got mixed up for the handover and so also got renamed to prevent confusion!). The wind overnight had been a fairly steady F5-6, with occasional small squalls, so we were running under the Topsail, Fore Gaff and Inner Jib, motorsailing to keep on track for Carriacou. As 0500 approached, yet another squally blob showed up on the radar and I watched the anemometer carefully as it came over us; as with all the other squalls we’d had, the wind picked up by a couple of knots and all appeared to be normal, when suddenly, BAM, 40 knots of wind, followed immediately by my least favourite sound – that of a sail tearing. “Starboard 20 to bear away, Call the Bosun, Call the Captain, standby to hand the Topsail! Midships and steer 255” The team leapt to action, the Bosuns and Captain were on deck in minutes and we handed the now rather sorry looking Topsail. It was the older one, which we knew was nearing the end of it’s useful life, and these things happen, but the sound of a sail tearing is like nails down a blackboard to me!

As we then then handed the inner jib to turn into the wind and make directly for Carriacou under engines alone, we noticed a bright light in the sky to the West, below the moon and definitely not a reflection, too bright and steady to be a plane and with a huge plume coming off it in one direction, almost like a comet. It lasted about 15 minutes, and unfortunately we were all too busy handing and stowing sails to be able to really drink it in. We think it must have been a rocket launch but it will always be a beautiful mystery moment, the morning as a whole is one I will never forget! On arrival in Carriacou the Bosunry department immediately started pulling out the spare topsail and derigging the damaged sail while I ran the students to Sandy Island for a day on the beach, by the time we had got them all ashore the sail was ready to be lowered to deck and the replacement ready to go up. By 1700 when the boat went to pick them up the sail was fully rigged and ready to go for the next day. Bosun Elie, BM Sam and 2/O Simon deserve medals for their stirling efforts that day, and probably a massage for their sore backs after leaning over a yard for several hours! Next morning we bid farewell to Carriacou, and having sailed off the anchor, once again set the squares with the wind on our backs, heading west for Curacao and Christmas.

The Canaries

La Graciosa

Greetings from a rather damp and grey Tenerife! We’ve had some cracking sailing over the last few days and the sunshine has been beating down on us so it’s actually a welcome change, as long as it’s gone soon. From Essaouira we sailed to the Canaries, stopping off at La Graciosa first of all where I had a wander around the village, had my first swim in the sea and had a delicious ice cream. On my return to the ship I sailed us off the anchor and we had a quiet peaceful sail down the coast of Lanzarote to Isla De Lobos, arriving in the very early morning. The water was so still and clear that when we turned the deck lights on after anchoring, we could see the bottom!

Once the day had finally dawned and a hearty Sunday breakfast had been devoured, we could see the anchor chain laid on the sea bed and when we took the seaboat in to investigate landing on the island I had an aquarium view of the fish – no need to snorkel! Isla de Lobos is a fairly barren volcanic island in it’s infancy, still strewn with volcanic rocks and only a few scrubby bushes. Naturally when faced with such an alien looking landscape, Captain Ben went into full Star Trek Captain mode, so I became Spock and Project Manager Miriam turned into Bones, we set phasers to stun and searched for signs of life – quickly realising that it was far too early and that no-one would be around for another few hours. We returned to the ship, once again admiring the view to the sea floor below, and with water like that, how could we not have a swim, so it was all hands to bathing stations, also a perfect opportunity to test out the small training liferaft we had inflated the day before in our abandon ship drill!

The students were dispatched to the island after lunch for exploration and I had my afternoon nap, a very important part of my day when you remember I start work at 4 am. I did get a lie in next morning though as we only started at 0500. We weighed anchor once again and set off in the dark for Tenerife, once he’d overseen the unparking bit the Captain buggered off to bed again, leaving me to it with my watch. By the time he returned at 0800 I had us flying along under sail alone, well, 5.5kts in 13 kts of wind ain’t bad, and we had a lovely day under canvas as we made our way to Tenerife. The wind dropped off sometime in the middle of the night so our morning watch today was motor-sailing, but we were treated to an impressive view of the island as the sun came up behind us. Rather than come straight in we took advantage of freshening winds to get in some tacking and wearing practice, followed by a Man Overboard drill, going from under full sail, we got all the sails handed and rescued the casualty in 11 minutes! We have a few days here now, a final chance to stock up on European goods before we head further south and west, to take stock of what we’ve achieved so far, and while the students climb a volcano we shall have a day or so for some maintenance. And perhaps a visit to a pub…

Vigo to Essaouira!

Blue Watch

The weather continues to be a fickle fiend; after coping with the strong Westerly winds we experienced in Biscay we left Vigo in light North West winds – perfect for sailing… Unfortunately they soon died off and turned South so we have had to continue motoring. Still, calm seas and blue skies are far nicer to be out in than short seas and grey skies.

Everone is starting to really settle in to life on-board and the deck department is able to crack on with some of the neverending maintenance that is so vital to the smooth running of a square rigger. We have also shaken up the watches and moved to a fixed watch system. This enables us to run lessons while making sure everyone gets enough sleep: the 3 watches (Red, White and Blue) are split in to A and B. A watches take the morning shifts on the bridge while the B watches have school lessons, and then A watches have school in the afternoon while the B watches take the bridge in the afternoon. (If you think it sounds complicated, pity me; I’m in charge of organising all of this for the next several months – everyone will do every watch shift at some point…..)

I get Blue watch, and this lot have proved themselves be utterly mad, wonderful and fantastic. We’ve already danced the Macarena at sunset, hit the 1000 mile mark, spotted many dolphins, set and handed sails at silly O’clock in the morning, or at dinner time (sorry Abbie!), met some friends who blew in on the winds far from land, successfully not crashed into several big ships and tiny fishing boats and have seen Orion’s Nebula and the Andromeda Galaxy! At some point soon the A and B teams will swap over so the people I spend my afternoons with will be with me at 4am until we reach the Cape Verdes, at which point we shake the watches up again and I will have a whole new Blue Watch team to share the night sky and the sunsets and sunrises with. Blue watch is always the best watch 😉

Sailing – It’s a Rock n’ Roll lifestyle!

I write this from my bunk as I lie here waiting for the rolling to stop. The blood rushing to my head every time we roll to starboard and my feet hitting the bulkhead every time we roll to port is not conducive to sleep. After a week alongside on shore power I am now trying to sleep with our main engine chuntering directly below me while sliding up and down my thwartships bunk. Sleep has been elusive to say the least. At least I don’t have to contend with seasickness to boot.

Our intrepid bunch of students and teachers, most of whom have never sailed before, have suddenly been faced with the harsh reality of life at sea on a Tall Ship in the Bay of Biscay. It was a gentle river passage from Bordeaux on Monday morning, with cheering and singing as we passed under the lifting bridge, and then fitting harnesses in preparation for climbing and watchkeeping. We were midway through getting everyone Up and Over when we reached the sea around mid afternoon and were immediately introduced to life on the ocean wave by a squall. Oilies were donned and as the rolling started we ceased hands aloft training. 2 watches have done their first climb and the final watch will get their chance at anchor tomorrow. We taught them all how we brace instead as we needed to change the angle of the yards to give us the least windage and then started to settle in to the routine of life at sea.

When I came up on watch at 4am the swells were about 2 meters high, by 8am they were at 4 meters. It was an uncomfortable night for all, with the majority of the crew, including the permanent crew, feeling seasick to some degree or other. The Bosun, the Cook and I are lucky swine and seem to be the only three who are completely unaffected. Nevertheless, everyone on-board remains in good spirits, despite many of them regularly leaning over the side for a quick up-chuck. Better out than in!

I went up with the Bosun and Bosuns Mate to release the topsail from it’s gaskets after breakfast and it was soon set, making us a little more stable. After that I did some cleaning as our poor trainees really aren’t up to that yet as they find their sea legs, if we set them to cleaning stations while they’re seasick I fear they’d end up making more mess, and while I don’t get seasick, I do not cope well with vomit!! Tomorrow however, we will have reached an anchorage on the French/Spanish border and had a few hours of peaceful and still rest, so we should be able to get them working then without making anyone feel worse. Already though, some of them are starting to come through it and all of them are being absolute troopers.

In a few days I expect most of them will have become used to this strange way of life, rolling and bobbing about as we do. They have 6 months of this ahead of them and it does take a bit of getting used to, as well I know. Right now though, I just can’t wait for the engine below me to be turned off so I can get some sleep. I too am currently unused to sleeping while alternately landing on my head and then my feet every few seconds. I’d do pretty much anything for a fore and aft bunk in weather like this!

Has it really only been 5 days?!

Well things haven’t slowed down yet!

On Saturday it was turnaround day in Colon, this is always the busiest day of the week as all the passengers get off, and then a couple of hours later a whole new lot come on board. We also get crew signing off and new crew joining. My job is to sign them on and then give them safety and familiarisation training. This time I only had one new new guy, as the musician has sailed on the Star several times and didn’t need a tour. So it was easier giving training to one person, rather than a whole bunch. I’m sure I’ll get the tour into a better order once I’m more familiar with the layout, but I knew where to find everything I needed to show him. The other side to this part of my job is mainaning the records of what certification everyone has on the computer system, it’s a pretty boring job but if it’s kept on top of I shouldn’t have to spend too much time on it. I also am responsible for updating and printing out the muster lists, which have to then be posted in various locations around the ship, this has to be done twice on turnaround day, once before the passenger muster drill and then again after. I went to the passenger muster drill, but I have no active role in it specifically, and the 2/O has said he’s happy to do it as it cuts right into my rest period, we’ll take it in turns perhaps.

Then in the evening, it was my first full watch on my own. I was less scared than I thought I would be, probably because I’d been chucked in at the deep end the night before. I did call the Captain once, because I got confused about which track we were taking – there’s a long and a short both on the chart, and the waypoint we were headed to next had a very similar name as the one on the chart that we weren’t headed to… I felt like a muppet when he explained but he was still pleased that I called him rather then trog on and do the wrong course. We would have got to the same place, but at the wrong time, but still, better to call him and it be nothing, then not call him and screw up!

On Sunday we were back at the islands of San Blas and I spent my anchor watch doing admin and keeping a close eye on the tender service. From there we went back to Colon, as we needed to pick up a container’s worth of stores that had gotten a little bit lost. This meant that I did an arrival and a departure, in quick succession, which made me extremely glad that I had spent so long on the 4-8 watch last year on the Surf (which is pretty much always the watch that does arrivals and departures), the checklists are exactly the same as they were on there and things all went very smoothly. As we left the Captain concentrated on getting through the channel and the very narrow harbour entrance so my role was to keep watch for any traffic that might cause a problem. There was one ship making her way to the harbour entrance so we ended up having to wiggle through some ships at anchor to avoid her (not a technical term). If I’d been conning I think I would have had some serious fear going on at that point, but the Captain took it all easily in his stride and made it look like a very simple thing. That’s why he’s Captain really!

 

Monday started early, with a wake up call at 0540 for an 0600 start down aft, I was doing locks comms- as ships go through the locks they don’t tie up in a conventional manner, there are mules on each side that the vessel ties up to on both sides via wires, and they then move along with the vessel as she enters the lock, and hold her in position. They are called mules because it really did use to be a team of mules, but now they are large heavy engines on a track. All the work is done by a team of foremen that come on board, so all that needs to be done is telling the bridge when the mules are connected and what number mule it is, port or stbd, when the lock gates are closing or opening and when they are disconnected. I got half an hour for breakfast at 0730, and then did my watch (Pilot conning, I just did radio, log book and speed control) and then I was straight back down aft for the last two locks. I finally knocked off at 1420, absolutely knackered!

 

After some sleep I got up to the bridge at 1955 for watch and was told to bugger off for another half hour by the C/O, bless her. Watch this eve was fun- I finally got to play with traffic! I called the Captain once as I had an overtaking vessel had a CPA of 1.4, and he wants me to stay 2 miles from everything but he was happy that I was doing fine on my own and didn’t bother coming up. I’d waited until this guy was 4.5 miles behind me and then, as I had him on AIS, I called him up and asked what his intentions were (his original CPA was 0.1) from what he said to me I got the feeling that he’d only just noticed me. I get the impression that there are some muppets out there…

It was made more interesting by another vessel on a nearly reciprocal course to mine that I had expected to take some action, which they didn’t, (again with the muppetry) so by the time the overtaking vessel had cleared enough for me to be able to turn to starboard I did have to make a fairly big alteration (50 degrees) but I had enough time to do so without getting too close and by the time the 2/O came up on watch at 0000 I had us back on a course that would take us well clear of the other bits of traffic that could have become a problem.

 

Today was a sea day, but this morning’s watch was mostly taken up by training (Security, Environmental and Crowd management) so the C/O covered me while I did that (being trained, not training others). We were under sail only for most of it but by 1200 the wind had died completely and we had to put the engines on, first time I’ve properly seen her with sails out at 100% though, and Oh My does she look gorgeous! This evening’s watch was quieter, didn’t have to call the Captain, but he came up at 2200 anyway to see how we were doing – we were bimbling south, basically to kill some time and he decided that we would be best off turning 180 degrees and heading north again. I’d boomed out the sails to make best use of the wind (what little there was at that time) and so got to play with them again, and then as the watch went on the wind increased slightly so I took sail in, first to 50% then 30%. I love having sails, it makes life so much more interesting on watch 🙂 The nicest thing though is what the C/O said to me this evening – it’s only been 5 days, but I’ve settled in really well, and it feels like a long time since I joined. And it’s true, while on one hand I’m still very aware of my noobie status and I am super-keen to get things right, I already feel like this is home-from-home and that I have a place here that fits perfectly 🙂

 

How I got back on the water

I went sailing for the first time in nine years a few weeks ago, it made me decide to change track entirely and try and make a career out of it. It’s going to take a while to get there, and a lot of hard work, but this might explain why..

We drove up overnight to avoid the traffic, pausing for many cups of service station coffee along the way before finally reaching our stop off just above Glasgow at about half three in the morning. A lovely lady by the name of Hilary welcomed us into her beautiful house and fed us wine and beer before we crashed for a few hours on some exeedingly comfy beds. We had been aiming for a relatively early start in the morning but got rather waylaid by breakfast; a glut of bacon, sausages, scrambled egg, haggis, black pudding, tomatoes, mushrooms, toast, juice, tea and coffee that set us up in fine style for the last couple of hours driving. I got a front seat view for this bit and spent the whole journey peering excitedly out of the window at Scotland’s stunning scenery saying “Ooooooooooooh!!!” and demanding that we slow down for pictures. As first impressions go, Scotland does well; rocky bits, mountains, lochs, ruined castles, bluebells, chocolate box towns… it took me about 15 minutes to fall in love.

When we had all finally arrived at Dunstaffnage marina we found our vessel and got on with booking in, moving in, getting the shopping in and generally sorting ourselves out. It would have been useful if our captain had brought his captains bag of really useful stuff (including his wallet) rather than leaving it by the front door of Hilary’s house, and it was lucky for us that she had a credit card that she didn’t mind being used to act as surety against damages, especially as she wasn’t coming sailing with us! The boys were especially keen to try out the dinghy, before and after supper, to the point where they nearly missed out on Miss Boggis’ delicious brownies which featured heavily over the week, the woman must have been baking for days! A final chance for a shower in the luxury of the marina’s posh new utility block followed by a quiet drink in the bar and it was time for bed.

So, the ship was vittled, (mainly an obscene amount of cake- everyone had to bake a cake for the voyage, there were 7 of us on a 6 day trip, and Jules brought 2 plus three tubs of brownies) and watered (and wined, rumed and Pimmsed…) and we were up early in the morning to set off on our adventure. As we motored out of the marina and put up the sails I felt a familiar and much missed thrill course through me, I was home and it felt good.

There’s very little to do a lot of the time when sailing, the occasional tack (that’s turning to the uninitiated) means a flurry of activity as ropes go flying and get winched in, and the helmsperson has to concentrate on keeping course, but for the rest of the time you can sit, relax, enjoy the company of your crewmates and when sailing through somewhere as stunning as Scotland, admire the awesome scenery you are passing through. It was cold, but we were wrapped up in layer upon layer of thermal goodness and so only our noses really felt the chill as we made our way down the Firth of Lorne, down to Jura and into Loch Tarbert, which cuts right into the center of the island. We raced an American boat into the loch but they then wussed out and went to anchor at the side of the wider part, we however were aiming right for the far end, it meant navigating some fairly treacherous rocks using the white markers on the shore but we made it safely in. It was still pretty windy even surrounded by the hills but that didn’t deter the boys from making a bee line for the shore to explore the solitary house and the surrounding hills and rocks. Meanwhile the girls got on with sorting out wine, nibbles, music and supper. We received a couple of badly distorted radio calls, from the shore, something about one of them being abducted by a madman with a gun…. we had wine and home made tortilla chips though so weren’t about to go running anywhere. The boys miraculously survived the ordeal, the shout about food being ready had obviously scared the gun toting madman back off into the hills. By the time they got back to the boat the wind had died and the water had achieved a gently undulating glass-like quality. The sun had long hidden itself behind the hills but the clouds turned into a floating mass of drifting pink candyfloss as we finished our supper. Then it was the moon’s turn, trying to hide behind a few wisps of lace it lit them up instead with a delicate golden glow, and I stood on deck admiring a blurry Venus as she shone in the pale remnants of daylight while the moon peeped from behind the lace in the gathering dark.

The next morning was bright, breezy and beautiful, we extricated ourselves from Loch Tarburt and headed for Iona, bypassing Colonsay, which for some reason we had taken an instant dislike to. (Try saying the name in the way a footballers wife might say Chardonnay, that might help you see why…) The weather turned on us in retaliation and we were hailed upon viciously. Nick and I had taken the sensible option of retiring to the mess as it was cold and we weren’t vitally needed upon deck at the time so we were safe. We were however called upon to provide saucepans for the captain and mate as head gear to protect them from the large stones bombarding them from the grey Scottish sky. It soon passed though and we sailed on through sunnier but choppy waters, occasionally the cry of “WAVE!!” warning those below to hold on tight. Instead of heading straight for Iona we anchored in Tinkers Hole for the night. Iona has no harbour to protect a boat from the swell of the open water, but just across the sound, at the bottom corner of Mull, a tiny archipelago of islands that are barely more than rocks houses a pool big enough for a few boats to hide away from the ravages of the sea for a night. You have to navigate past the drying rocks and through some fairly narrow bits between huge chunks of stone, and once in, anchoring in a tight space is an essential skill but it’s a lovely spot. The sun was hidden from us long before it set, but once again we were treated to some awesome sunset colours that silhouetted the rocks and dusted the sky with pastels.

I nervously piloted the boat out through the rocks in the morning and we pootled over to Iona, after anchoring the boat we ferried ourselves ashore in the RIB for a look around. Iona is picture perfect; quaint little cottages, white sands, artistically placed boats and fishing tackle, if only the temperature had been a little higher, but you can’t have everything. We wandered up past the old nunnery, past lush allotments, yellow irises and a scarecrow competition until we reached the cathedral. Iona’s cathedral is beautiful, full of serene calm as can only come from centuries of quiet worship, I lit a candle and took a moment to remember Grandi, she would have loved it. Through the cloistered courtyard in the old refectory there was the ubiquitous gift shop where I purchased some Iona mead, and then it was time to head back toward the shore. Thoughts of having lunch in one of the restaurants were swiftly banished by the hoards of tourists that had just arrived on the ferry so we returned to the boat.

All was not well, the anchor had dragged and entangled itself around a nearby mooring bouy. Ben was all for stripping off and diving in, but the female contingent forbade it on the grounds that he’d get hypothermia! Eventually, after a lot of faffing, a lost boat hook and a bit more faffing we were free. Our boat hook, which I had been charged with watching as it bobbed away into the distance with the current, was returned by a kindly fishing vessel and we set off, hoping that not everyone had been watching from the shore, which, of course, they had.

As we approached Staffa, home of the legendary Fingals Cave we entertained ourselves with Dirty Shopping, a variation on My-Grandma-went-to-the-shops-and-she-bought… I think I was most disturbed by Nick’s purchase for G – Golf clubs?! We rounded the island admiring the crystalline rock formations and then set course for Coll. The weather and wind weren’t playing particularly nicely, and we had to tack a fair amount, which made cooking an interesting endeavour. We knew we’d get into harbour quite late that night and Jules had been doing stirling work in the galley most nights so far so I jumped in before her. I thought starting at 4 was going to leave me with plenty of time, but when you only have 2 small gas burners and a gas oven that only browns the few inches right at the back by the flame, cooking sausage and mash with gravy becomes a marathon task! I didn’t make it easy for myself either, the mash had leeks and cheese in it and I had to make the gravy from scratch by caramelising the onions and rinsing the browning bits down with wine again and again (some for the gravy, some for me..) I either had to strap myself to the cooker to stop falling back to the other side of the cabin, or brace myself against it to stop being thrown into the food, depending on the tack we were on. By the time we ate though the sea and wind had calmed and by the time we could see the lights of Coll’s harbour the sea had flattened out to a near mirror like surface, we slid in in the dark, all the mooring bouys had been taken so we anchored once more. By the time we were done it was about 5 to 11 but that didn’t deter people for heading shorewards to the pub, I reckoned it would be closed before we got there so declined, opting for a quiet glass of wine on the deck, listening to the clanging of stays, water lapping and a distant radio from another boat, a blissful little moment of calm. There was also the lure of fresh fruit dipped in chocolate sauce to keep me on board, Nat and Paul had also stayed, Paul had had a slight altercation with a door frame earlier and wasn’t feeling too well and Nat was tired, so we munched fresh pineapple and ginger cake smothered in chocolaty goodness and took it easy. The others returned a few hours later, I’d been wrong about the pub!

Showers were the order of the day in the morning, and we eagerly made our way to the hotel, there was only one shower so there was time to read the papers, play chess and shop for meaty goodness. On the way back to the boat the RIB engine packed up on Jules so we had to row the rest of the way, the lack of motor noise encouraged some local seals to get a bit closer and they silently circled the boat eyeballing us. We got going in the early afternoon and sailed over to Mull, we were looking for somewhere called Goat Island for our barbecue but it looked a little exposed so we landed on another piece of land that looked like an island, but turned out to be more of a promontory, it had a beautiful little sheltered bay though, and I bounded about excitedly with my camera for the first hour or so. We burned and ate the most delicious marinaded lamb from Coll, along with venison sausages, burgers, Camembert in foil and bananas which we ate with toffee sauce. More explorations followed and as the tide had gone out I found myself unable to resist the temptation to go mud paddling. It was gorgeously squoogy between my toes, the kind of smooth muck they put expensive glass jars and sell for exorbitant sums of money. As we packed up the sky cleared from a dull grey to a delicate blue and all was peaceful. At least until the RIB engine packed up again and Ben’s cry of “OH SH*T!!” echoed out through the dusk.

We had a glorious days sailing the next day, tacking down the sound of Mull with a good wind and bright sunshine, trailing our now usual mackerel lines. We hadn’t caught a thing all week but the boys were as yet undeterred, despite knowing we had no chance of snagging anything when going at 6 knots. We past ruined castles and towering rocks, Chewie and Ben sported bunches and there was lemon drizzle cake. There had in fact been cake everyday, apple cake, ginger cake, carrot cake, brownies, fruit cake…if I’ve missed some out I’m sorry, it was delicious though! The sunshine continued when we had moored in Tobermory harbour and after a visit ashore to see the town that inspired Balamory and, much more importantly it’s distillery, it was still so warm that we were able to discard all the warm winter clothes we’d been wearing and wander around in shorts admiring the scenery, the seagulls and the jellyfish. The mackerel line went over the side again and as if by magic they started biting, the first few were quite small but then some big fat ones started coming up on the line too, I gutted and cleaned them and they were put carefully into the fridge for later. After a haggis supper we made a vague attempt to smarten ourselves up and headed ashore, several whiskeys and a few hours later there was some rather drunken manhandling of the RIB and we nearly boarded the wrong boat.

A little worse for wear next morning, we sailed on down the Sound of Mull toward our final port, trailing the smallest of the mackerel we had caught on the line in the hopes of catching more, but we were going too fast and they were pulled off. Not before they had attracted the attentions of a seagull though, he eyed them for a while before making a grab at them, only to look rather embarrassed as they were pulled through his claws on the line. The scenery and sun made it a photographers dream, and Nat and Ben started cooking the mackerel. There were several schools of thought on the mackerel but we decided on half baked in foil with lemons to make pate and half fried in butter and served on oatcakes. The oatcakes course came first and we ended up eating more or less constantly for the rest of the day, by late afternoon the wind died and Ben was making burgers. We were becalmed, even with all the sails up and Ben and Chewie farting into them, we weren’t moving. There was dancing, mostly to Madonna, and the boys performed a whole routine for us before we decided to stick the motor on and get on a bit. This also involved chasing some unfortunate sea birds in futile attempt to pelt them with biscuits, they just casually dived out of the way to reappear somewhere else, looking smug. The wind finally picked up a bit and we were able to sail back into Dunstaffnage in style, jibing in the mouth of the entrance and making a tight circle to allow a boat out, we looked at them in envy as they motored out to start what we were just finishing.

Hilary was waiting on the pontoon to greet us and hand ropes, we cleaned the boat down and had a much needed shower. I was last out and nearly missed out on champers with mackerel pate on oatcakes, but some had been saved and I ate them in the car on the way to Oban. We ate at a very good fish restaurant and I indulged in all my favourites, oysters, mussels, langoustine, salmon…. Heaven! We were last out and headed back to the boat for a nightcap before our last night on board. A long car journey home the next day was broken up pleasantly by a late pub lunch and I arrived home sunburned, tired and with my heart set on going again.

Click here to see photos from this trip