VIGO TO SOUTHAMPTON
TALL SHIPS’ RACE
By Hannah Knight
A Tall Tale
As one of the junior cadets on Marabu, I was talked into volunteering to keep the diary of our cruise and, consequently, take up my trusty biro to record the Tale of the Tall Ships.
Like all the great writers, I must begin with the characters in the drama:
Mike Hetherington – an old man (Skipper and member of The Little Ship Club), Mike Jenkins – a fatalistic sheep farmer (First Mate), John ‘Abaft The Beam’ Butler – An Irishman (Second Mate), Roy Pegler – An Ocean-Going Cordon-Bleu Mole, Ivor Cleverley – A Monk From The Monastery Of San Miguel, Bill ‘060°’ Kenyon – A-Sleep (Cadet), Leo Hetherington – A Health Hazard (Watchkeeper/Cadet), Cathy Palmer – A Yellow Gnome With A Hairbrush (Cadet), Andrew Hetherington – A Toad (Watchkeeper/Cadet), Hannah Knight (Hetherington) – A Beautiful Damsel (Cadet And Authoress)
Thursday 5th August
Our epic tale begins at Gatwick Airport where we have all arranged to meet. Ivor is late but arrives just as we are putting the gin bottle to the Skipper’s trembling lips to stop him worrying. After chartering a special plane to transport our duty-free, we all pile aboard the British Airways flight
The plane is full of Tall Ships’ crews and I don dark glasses to shield my eyes from the glare of gold braid on blazer. We are occupied with drinking gin and making shapes out of plastic ham so the flight passes quickly. I look out and see that we are over Lisbon. Then we’re over the sea. Then we’re back over Lisbon – then heading back towards England?
I fully expect the pilot to emerge from his cabin with a quizzical expression and a road map as he is clearly lost. But he eventually finds what looks like a runway and we land to resounding cheers and mutters of ‘haven’t been so frightened since we lost the main off the Lizard’.
We experience some problems with luggage at the terminal. The sight of 400 blue and white kitbags (essential for the trendy yachtsman) going round on the conveyor belt reduces me to tears of laughter. My 30-year-old army sack is easily identifiable by my underwear escaping through a hole in the side so I sit back and watch the fun.
We fight our way onto an already full bus, which takes us to the docks. There is Marabu looking spotlessly clean but more interestingly, there are drinks being offered on the boat next door. We had the good fortune to be moored next to Kukri, crewed by some soldiers whose hospitality and whose legs become a legend in the fleet. We drink until the early hours and retire with the dawn. The bunks on Marabu are really quite comfortable and I fling myself into mine with the enthusiasm of a termite gnawing into Chippendale.
Friday 6th August
Am awoken too early by one of the crew, then notice the sun streaming through the skylight and decide to get up with no fuss. I find I have already adopted Quasimodo-type stoop to avoid Mara-bruises. I rise carefully to avoid making contact with the six-inch nail that bored a hole in my cranium several weeks ago. (The stitches are out now and it’s healing quite nicely, thank you.)
It seems we have to be branded before being allowed off the boat so the Skipper goes off to negotiate our release terms. He convinces the authorities that none of us have rabies and that Mike J’s sheep fluke is on the mend – and off we all go to explore.
Ivor and Roy have the thankless task of finding a supermarket, which proves well nigh impossible. Andrew the Toad, however, finds a swarthy black-marketeer named Costa who promises to procure beer. After an enjoyable morning playing on the cable cars, we have a siesta then spruce ourselves up for a night out. We find a restaurant which, despite the spartan tiling on the walls, looks quite promising. We file in and try to order food and discover that the person who said that they speak English in Portugal is, not to put too fine a point on it, a liar. Finally, by making bubbling noises and swimming motions we make the waiter understand that we want sardines. He brings us these as well as some rather doubtful clams which didn’t order, but eat anyway as none of us know how to impersonate a clam.
Saturday 7th August
Another hot and sunny day as prepare for departure. The instructions for the Parade of Sail are the approximately the length of ‘War and Peace’. The Costa has failed to come up with the goods so we set off with no beer and not enough tonic for the gin. ‘Just have to drink it neat,’ says Leo.
We cast off and join the rest of the fleet at around 11:00. We spend the rest of the day floating around waiting for the signal to start. The sun is almost over the yardarm when we eventually set off and sail at high speed under the huge suspension bridge. Kukri pass us and throw us several cabbages and a bucket of water as a farewell gift. They are all wearing white shorts and Cathy and I are grateful for the cooling effect of the water. The President of Portugal is taking the salute and we give him a wave as we shoot past where we think he probably is. We’re not in a hurry and decide to stop off at Cascais for the night. We anchor next to Oyster Magic and it seems we have made the right decision as the wind has come up.
Sunday 8th August
We leave early with a northerly wind blowing. By lunchtime there are three rolls in the main and by teatime there are six rolls in the main and as many heads leaning over the side. Some violent Portuguese bug has stowed away on board and Roy has a high temperature. I retire to my bunk to die gracefully.
Monday 9th August
I spend most of the day being sick and trying to bale out my bunk. The Niagara Suite is once again living up to its name and I catch a conger eel, which has passed out after smelling one of Leo’s socks. Bill is heroic and makes bread rolls. I decide to give him all my possessions when and if I ever get home again. Cathy and I emerge from our beds of suffering in the evening – we don’t like what we see and crawl below again.
Tuesday 10th August
My teeth feel loose – no doubt it is scurvy. Search the woodwork for weevils to eat. The seawater showerbath that I’ve been having for two days has switched itself off which can only mean one thing – the wind has dropped. I go on deck to find out how everyone has coped without me and find that we have gone 150 miles in the wrong direction west. Then the same distance east again. I inform the rest of the crew that this was a bad move but they reassure me that it had to be done and that we’re now heading north again. We are becalmed so Ivor does a spot of fishing. His line makes friends with the Walker’s Log and refuses to part with it. We have to entertain the Skipper with songs and jokes while Ivor surreptitiously cuts the line free.
Wednesday 11th August
The most beautiful sunrise over the entrance to Vigo! The sea is still flat and all the crews are on deck except for the Toad who has re-discovered sleep and refuses to stir from his soggy pit. We tie up in Vigo at 10:00 and are struck by the searing heat, which makes our clothes smell even more rancid. We descend en masse upon the showers and the locals fall back in horror at the sight and smell of us. I find that soap makes very little impression and wonder if I can hire a blowtorch to remove the first few layers of grime. Leo removes his socks and they were last seen heading back to England without him.
Ivor and Roy turn their attention to victualling and we go forth with pesetas and Roy’s phrase book. As usual Ivor finds someone who understands what we need, namely beer and enough food to feed the whole fleet for six months.
In the evening Roy takes us out for a meal to celebrate his birthday in fine style. He remarks that he is not only celebrating a birthday but the fact that he has once more survived a voyage with Mike H as Skipper. We eat and drink excessive amounts and Leo spends a large part of the night asleep in a puddle. The puddle-dwelling weevils leave in disgust.
Thursday and Friday 12th and 13th August
I put these two days together as they merged into one sun and gin-soaked haze. Every few hours various local tradesmen arrive with provisions and we have to try and coax M.Jenkins to swim behind the boat or else there won’t be room for the peaches. The beer crates mount up and Ivor proves he is a conscientious shopper by taking a sample from each crate in case any of them have gone off. It seems we have weathered the sail from Lisbon as well as anybody. Various gnarled sea dogs speak of it as being worse than Cape Horn. We are told ghoulish stories of broken limbs and first-degree burns. I feel we’re lucky to have escaped with minor Mara-bruises and a large hole in Cathy’s knee where it met the compass at high speed.
On Friday we discover that the steering has seized up so John and his minions set to and fix the problem with aid from our patron saint, San Miguel. Marabu resembles a Chinese laundry throughout our stay in Vigo as every garment we possess is soaked, even the ones that were in kitbags. We are happy living in squalor, however, and spend many hours lying on sailbags watching the Winston Churchill cadets licking their deck clean. In contrast to Marabu, the STA schooners are run along the lines of a small slave ship, but then a fair amount of discipline is needed to prevent the cadets jumping overboard when they see what they’ve let themselves in for!
Saturday 14th August
All good things must end and with tears in our eyes, we bid farewell to Vigo. Ivor and Roy are cramming food below even as we are casting off. None of us relish the thought of another Parade of Sail, but this one is quite well organised. The King is taking the salute and we give him a cheerful wave as we try to avoid ploughing up the back of Dar Mlodziesy, which is going far too slowly. We anchor for lunch close to some beautiful islands. I try and measure the distance to shore as my cold feet are not solely due to the fact that my wellies are still wet. The Bay of Biscay looms large in all our thoughts.
The race starts at 13:00, but we aren’t allowed to start until 14:30. We all argue with Bill who is going on about ‘14:30 hours GMT’, as a result of being with Army people for so long. We’re told our late start is due to the handicap system but I think it is more likely to be the race organisers’ way of paying us back for not taking 27 assorted Poles and Estonians on the Cruise in Company. Sour grapes, I call it.
We eventually cross the start line and watch the unfortunates who have gone the wrong side of a very small buoy that we’re meant to keep to starboard. There is a good wind in the right direction – a thing virtually unknown in the annals of Marabu. We do our usual trick of heading for America whilst all the others are sensible and head the right way. Do they know something we don’t? Bill cooks steak for dinner and we all feel wonderful.
Sunday 15th August
We have our first and last contact with Maureen Mohr, the control vessel that is meant to keep us all in touch. Her radio breaks and we hear no more dull orders throughout the race. We’re meant to give a position every morning so the loss of contact is fortunate – we don’t know where we are after the second day!
It is the Skipper’s birthday so we all sing and present him with soggy cards. Leo is on the early watch and records that the empty beer bottles that they throw in the water are overtaking them. His entry for 06:00 hours reads, ‘Had a beer – good morning’. Of course, his watch have a way with words. John tells me to ‘prepare to alter course to 030 degrees – we’re tacking to avoid Finisterre’. I interpret this as ‘turn left or we’ll hit something!’
For a special treat, Ivor decides that he will cook kidneys for dinner. He spends all day hacking at rancid lumps of meat and drinking beer. Those with strong stomachs enjoy the meal and return for ‘seconds’. Mike H and Leo refuse to try it and further express their distaste by spending the evening throwing up in the dramatic manner of the inexperienced. The bug strikes again!
Monday 16th August
I am hit by the dreaded bug and miss most of the day. We are well and truly in the Bay of Biscay and feeling very small. The weather is perfect and we sail along at great speed.
Tuesday 17th August
Am woken by squeals of delight and leap on deck to see a grey warship overtaking us only yards away. It is the Leeds Castle returning from the Falklands after five months. We all cheer as they pass. Their Skipper gets in touch on the radio – like all Navy people he knows Marabu well and asks what we’re doing. Mike tells him and adds that he will probably pass the rest of the fleet later on. ‘Oh,’ says Leeds Castle, ‘we’ve already passed them.’ After we’ve revived the Skipper, who has swooned with delight, we say farewell to Leeds Castle and sail on feeling proud to be British.
We listen to the usual bad weather forecast. It predicts everything except a plague of locusts, but we are accustomed to the voice of doom. We race along all day with four rolls in the main.
Wednesday 18th August
Early in the morning we see a strange red vessel and try to make contact. They remain silent so we decide that it is a Russian spy ship. Then a voice comes over the radio, ‘This is Endurance’. ‘Well,’ says someone, ‘that must be the Navy submarine that is following the spy ship.’ Several hours later everyone realises where they have heard of Endurance, which is on its way home from the Falklands to a hero’s welcome. After all the excitement I see it is time to go off watch, so I wake Bill and tell him that he can go to sleep again.
Thursday 19th August
Land Ahoy! We all get excited and think of things English. Ivor declares that San Miguel isn’t such a good patron saint and he’s looking forward to worshipping San McKuens again. Even so, he tries to bite Toad’s hand off when he takes a beer from the crate that Ivor is using as a pillow.
We notice sails behind us and start to fidget. Some bright Welshman suggests we hoist a spinnaker. Three hours later the spinnaker is hoisted the right way up and looking very impressive. Just as the Weymouth ferry steams past us it tears and ties itself in a knot. By the time things have righted themselves it is time for me to go off watch. The wind is coming up and I lie in my bunk watching fish swim past the portholes in the roof. A tidal wave shoots down the steps and deposits Cathy in a sodden heap on the floor. I go back on deck to see the fun and a good time is had by all – with one exception – warning about ‘the squall which is about to hit us!’
We have kept our distance from the boats behind us and cross the finishing line at 19:05 to cheers and renderings of ‘Rule Britannia’. We have sailed for five days, four hours, five minutes and 20 seconds according to my Snoopy watch, which keeps better time than all the digital horrors that make toast and iron your shirts. We shoot round the headland and anchor in Studland Bay.
As Roy is cooking a celebration meal, a familiar voice comes over the radio. It is Kukri announcing their finishing time – an hour behind us! There is uproar. Leo leaps into the air with joy, hits his head on the roof, falls down the steps and lands on the cooker. Beating Kukri has become something of an obsession as they were convinced that we’d never find our way out of Lisbon. The howls of joy continue late into the night – as do Ivor’s risqué stories and John’s terrible laugh.
Friday 20th August
I have to be tied to the deck to stop me floating away with pride as we sail past the Needles and into Southampton Water. The British weather turns out to greet us but does nothing to dampen our spirits. We tie up in Southampton having sailed 1,300 miles and the unanimous feeling is that another 1,300 would be just the thing. There is no time to be sad, though, as there are friends to greet, showers to luxuriate in, bets to be collected, drinks to be consumed and, above all, enough Tall Tales to last until the next Tall Ships’ Race!
Race Result: Vigo to Southampton
Place in class 9/29, place overall 22/66.