Tall Ships Race – 3 weeks at sea
Onboard: Liz Worledge (Skipper), Charles Hickling (Skipper-under-instruction), Martin Dennis (Quartermaster), Mike Roe (First Mate), Geoff Heddle (Second Mate), James Beech, Chris Claydon, Tamsin Mather and Samantha Sharpe (Cadets)
When we arrived at Falmouth yacht marina to join Marabu, the rain was pouring down and the wind was howling through the rigging, with the weather reports promising further gales over the next few days. It was not the best of starts. Charles, the skipper for the training week had originally planned that we would sail to the Scilly Isles as pre-race training. However, as we were to discover over the course of the next three weeks, the weather usually has the last word when it comes to sailing and we were forced to abandon this plan. As we all bustled around getting to know where things were, the cabin did seem very small for the number on board and we still had to be joined by our race skipper. I wondered how we would all manage to stay out of each other’s way when we were at sea. I was to discover that one of the advantages of the watch system is that as everyone is doing different things at different times there seems to be much more space.
Due to the high winds we spent the first day practising sail-changing and other manoeuvres in the sheltered Carrick Roads. It was not until the next day that we were able to do a trip of any length when we had a lovely sunny sail over to Fowey partly for the purpose of dropping supplies on board Kestrel where the previous crew had taken shelter from the vicious weather.
The next day we planned to practise some continuous sailing out towards the Scilly Isles overnight and then return to Falmouth the next day. As we progressed further south along the Lizard towards the open channel the swell became larger and I began to feel more than a little peculiar. An attempt to wash some mugs up proved the final straw and I was to experience my first bout of seasickness. Although I must shamefacedly admit to being the only one to actually succumb, apparently other crew members had started to feel queasy.
Charles decided not to break the crew before we had even begun the race and we went back in to the shelter of the beautiful Helford River. I think that judging by my colour he was probably concerned that I might desert before we had even begun. Certainly that night I did think with some trepidation about the time soon to come when we would not be able to escape to the coast to recover. That evening I discovered two side effects of seasickness. Firstly it felt as if the entire boat was on a slope with the bows in the air and the stern digging into the water. Secondly this gravitational confusion had exhausted me so much that even stereo snoring in the saloon could not disturb me that night!
The next day we made our entrance into Falmouth, all wearing our matching Marabu T-shirts. We felt a little dwarfed as we passed the mighty Russian tall ship Kruzenshtern, built for trading with Australia and Chile and with fake gun ports painted on her sides to ward off the unwelcome attention from pirates. We were ushered in to the small ships’ marina and then visited by a myriad of officials, inspectors and liaison officers. By the time it came to the beginning of the race it seemed a bit strange to leave our liaison officer Gene behind as she felt pretty much part of the crew.
That afternoon the five of us (cadets) made our way up to a patch of grass near Pendennis Castle to participate in the Gladiator Challenge. Once up there we got involved in the full range of activities. Being a small crew had its disadvantages as it meant we had to mix with other crews to make team numbers. However it was a great way of getting to know people.
After showering, Sam and I went for a wander and made our first visit to Cuautemoc, the Mexican naval training tall ship. We were a little nervous about asking to look around to begin with, but they seemed very pleased to welcome visitors. We were shown round by a young naval cadet in full dress uniform, complete with sword! We left with signed and stamped brochures of the ship and a promise from our guide and his watch to return the visit. We were not sure whether we had quite managed to convey through our non-existent Spanish or their broken English the disparity in size between our ship and theirs!
Sure enough they managed to find us the next day and were treated to our great English delicacies, tea and cake and invited to the ‘expanded trout’ party that was planned for Marabu that evening. James managed to break through the language barrier and negotiated tequila as the preferred beverage for them to bring (he was later to become known as ‘tequila boy’ among our Mexican friends!). The expanded trout theme had come from the labelling on the large waterproof bags which Charles had kindly provided us with to keep our night kit dry when not in use at sea. These bags apparently originally contained feed for such fish and it seemed as good an excuse as any to throw a party!
By 2200 hours I was not sure whether Marabu would survive the evening let alone a crossing of the Bay of Biscay. You could not see the deck or the cabin roof for people and we seemed to have taken over much of the adjacent pontoon also. However, the next morning after a lot of deck scrubbing all was remarkably ship shape. We were to have complete strangers coming up to us even in Lisbon saying what a good party it was!
That afternoon found the more serious competitors among us (that is to say the after-guard!) pulling off a respectable performance in the Gig boat racing while the cadets fared rather less well in the Dragon Boat racing against the British forces boat. After that it was time for the crew parade, which was an odd mixture of military marching and downright anarchy! At the start we were all herded into a warehouse area in the docks where the naval cadets from the various countries got into precise military formation and all the rest of us rioted with water bombs and water pistols as weapons until we ran out of water. The procession was to follow much the same precedent. Somehow, despite our matching Marabu T-shirts the Mexican crew managed to pip us at the post to win the best-dressed crew!
The next day after a lengthy struggle to get some washing done in the rather over-stretched laundrette facilities we went off to a party on board the Mexican ship. This probably marked the world record for the most people of different nationalities doing line dancing to the Mexican version of country and western music!
We then joined the rest of the crew, by now complete with Liz our race Skipper, to watch the prizes being presented by Princess Anne. She had apparently toured the boats earlier by motor launch and shown a keen interest in Marabu so it was probably just as well I had taken my washing in! A party was then arranged for all the crews. It was strange at the end to be saying, ‘Well, see you in Lisbon’; we all had a long way to go before then.
The next day was the start, preceded by the parade of sail past HMS Nottingham and the QE2. This was all pretty chaotic as there were so many boats making for the start line, plus all the pleasure boats that had come out to watch. The scenery of the surrounding headlands glinted metallically in the sun from the cars of the masses of sightseers who had flocked to see the event. There were some spectacular sights; the sheer number of boats and some of the square-riggers had their crews up in the rigging ready to free the sails when the gun went. Our class was the last to start and there was a lot of jostling for position amongst some of the other boats making the atmosphere fairly tense. However all went pretty much according to plan and suddenly after all the anticipation we were off.
The first couple of hours were a bit like dinghy racing, where you are very aware of how all the other boats around you are doing. As we cleared the Lizard and night began to fall we lost sight of many of the boats for the last time before Lisbon. The wind was from the south-west and we watched some of the square-riggers having to make extremely long tacks in order to try and make some way against the wind. Speaking to a friend of mine on board Astrid when we arrived at the other end, I was to discover that they had spent three days at sea and could still see the Lizard, at which point they had decided to retire and turned their motor on.
The next 16 hours are a little hazy for me as I spent them earning my sea legs. But I think that the first night was a bit hairy; all I remember is lying in the fore-cabin with water sluicing in through the mast foot and sail hatch every time that a wave dashed over the bows. When I crawled up on to deck the next morning to concentrate desperately on the horizon we had been forced to put the trisail up and were all slightly disheartened by our progress. I think that we calculated then that at our current rate it would take us about 15 days to complete the voyage; our water would only stretch to ten. Over the course of that rainy day on deck my seasickness became much less violent and I was able to do my night-watch that night troubled only by biting cold. But the evening of the next day I generally felt fine as long as I did not spend too long standing up below deck. I even managed some nutritious dry biscuits!
During the course of this day the rain stopped and the weather improved, although there was still no signs of the northerly wind we had been praying for. We also had our first visit from the porpoises for whom we were to prove a continuing curiosity throughout the voyage. It was lovely to watch them playing around our bows and it made us feel less alone. Fleeting glimpses from a distance were just about all we would see of other ships now, although at night their lights would give away their presence.
That night the first of two passing occluded fronts threw the sea into something of a tumult. On this first occasion we had been on a 20:00 to 24:00 watch before the front hit us and so we were left to be tossed about in our bunks as the others struggled with the boat. After such a night it was extremely frustrating that the following day was so calm and progress slow.
That night the sea again under went a magical metamorphosis to become an unfriendly tumult. This time when I lay in my bunk imagining what was going on outside. I knew that it would be my turn to go out into the thick of it on the 04:00 to 08:00 watch. As the grey sky grew lighter the wind and sea seemed to increase. Geoff, James and I, all in full waterproofs, struggled with the helm, roller reefing, tangled running backstays and a slim bag that had detached itself and caught around the propeller. Liz put us all to shame by coming to our aid, scrambling round the boat in only her night things!
I really learnt to appreciate my harness on that watch especially when James and I went up to the bow to try to secure the jib that had been tied onto the forerail and discovered how slippery the deck could be with waves dashing over it. After our four-hour watch and a recurrence of my seasickness I retired exhausted. I think that the moment when I woke up three hours later was, for me, probably the lowest part of the trip. I was still wet, cold and feeling ill and the southerly winds kept the end well out of sight. However, the squall had by now calmed down and a day spent drying out in the sun with the amazing sight of a whale close-to around suppertime did much to reconcile my differences with the sea!
After the two previous nights we had been praying for a peaceful night, however spending the 24:00–04:00 watch becalmed on a millpond-like sea was not quite what we had in mind! Just as Martin was coming up from below to take the helm from me I felt a slight breath on my cheek. The direction of the wind did not really register until I woke the next morning to find that we were no longer living life at an angle and were averaging over 8 knots in the right direction. Chris had even created a second mizzen sail from a jib and an oar so we were goose-winging fore and aft. From this moment on the voyage was very different with warm sunny weather and favourable winds.
By 1800 hours we had sighted our first land for five days and as the sunset we past Cape Finisterre with Morning Star and Sir Winston Churchill not far behind. That night we kept track of our position by counting the lighthouses as we sped at what felt like enormous velocity through the night.
The next day we continued on a broad reach down the coast of Spain and Portugal. I made my first attempt at using sun sights to determine our position and felt like a true ancient mariner! The next morning on the 04:00 to 08:00 watch I saw our last dawn at sea and by 11:00 hours we had passed the finish line, although there seemed very little to inform you of this fact. I think that I had always imagined that some gun or hooter or something would signal our finish, even if all the residents of the local area did not come out to watch. As it was I was sitting at the bow of the boat and did not even realise that we had finished until I came back and asked.
Although cruising down the coast like some of the other boats might have been enjoyable, the prospect of a fresh water shower proved too tempting for the majority of the crew and so we put the first load on the engine since Falmouth and headed straight into dock in Lisbon. The next few days were pretty much like our time in dock in Falmouth except rather warmer. The highlight was probably the crew parade and prize giving ceremony at Expo ’98. A true feeling of global solidarity prevailed as the military drummers beat out a rhythm and all the crews celebrated the event together. The chairman of the Portuguese STA said in his speech, ‘global problems can be overcome if it is the common interests and not the differences that become important’. The Tall Ships’ Race certainly seems to promote this goal through sailing.
This way my first experience of yacht sailing after many years as a dinghy sailor. Unfortunately, due to seasickness I was a less than useful member of the crew at times and no account of the trip would be complete without thanking everyone else who consequently had to pull extra weight. The three weeks spent on Marabu have left me with some memories that I will value for the rest of my life.