How do I sum up the experience of sailing on a three-masted tall ship across the Atlantic? Perhaps best to describe a typical day.
Someone shakes you awake at 11.45pm – it’s your turn on Dog Watch, midnight to 4am. Fifteen minutes later, armed with a cup of black tea, you climb the steps to the foredeck and take your place at a seat on lookout. For the next half an hour you are the eyes and ears of the ship, looking out for other shipping or debris such as fallen containers. There’s rarely anything like this, so you spend most of the time looking at the sky, noting that it’s a new moon so the Milky Way is fully visible. Every few minutes, if you don’t blink, you see a shooting star. Above the sound of the bow ploughing through the hissing waves, there’s the occasional series of skipping plops as a shoal of flying fish skitter out of your way.
Half an hour’s rest, then it’s your turn on the wheel. The team you’re relieving are visible only by the light from the big ship’s compass illuminating their faces form beneath. They tell you the course is still 220 degrees, and you take the wheel. She’s behaving badly tonight because she’d rather sail closer to the wind. You give her rudder a few degrees of starboard and she seems happy for a few minutes. Then you take a minute to look at the trail of phosphorescence in your wake, an underlit disco dance floor in the sea. You look back down at the compass, and she’s suddenly steering 245, the sails are flapping, and you to haul the wheel round to bring her back on course. The ship lurches from side to side and you imagine the other watches rocking in their bunks, cursing you.
2am brings soup and whatever left-overs there are, and the next two hours seem to pass quickly. Another stint on lookout, a few pages of an unchallenging thriller sitting in the deck house, and soon the day watch is being woken up, and you’re back to bed.
You sleep through breakfast (fine – there’s only so much ham and cheese a guy can eat) and wake up around 10am. You doze for a bit to the sound of the waves rinsing the hull, inches from your head. But it’s getting hotter – it’s never cooler than 30 degrees down here, and your head is burning where it touches the pillow. Out of bed, a shower and up on deck, and the sun is high in the sky. A few people sit on deck reading. Several are working – Erik the barman is sanding and varnishing the wheel house. Some of the crew are sanding blocks. One or two are putting on harnesses and going aloft to work in the rigging. You look over the rail at 360 degrees of deep blue, solid blue ocean, and a slightly lighter cloudless blue sky.
On watch again at noon. Then soup and sandwiches for lunch, and at 2pm the captain calls everyone to the main deck and gives his daily speech. We did 150 miles in the last 24 hours, which is good progress, and we’re due to arrive in Salvador a day or two early if we keep this up. You’re not sure how you feel about this – is that a good or a bad thing?
A lazy afternoon, maybe mending sails or helping on the ropes when the captain decides a sail has to be set or taken away, other than that, sitting reading in the sun – if the full complement of sails haven’t shaded the entire deck. The big excitement is a school of dolphins, leaping through the waves, racing for the bow, where they spend half an hour swimming alongside and under the ship. They love to see us – it almost looks like they’re taking a shower in the ship’s bow wave.
At 5pm Erik opens the bar and brings anchovies, meat and cheese out on deck. A couple of beers and all too soon the sun is setting, sinking quickly, setting fire to the sky in the west.
At 7pm dinner is served. Hearty and nutritious, but this sea air gives you an appetite. And then, as darkness completes its takeover of the sky, you’re back on watch again – the schedule moves round, and tonight you’re on 8 till midnight. At least it means you’ll get a full night’s sleep. Maybe tonight you’ll take your mattress up onto the sloop deck and kip under the stars…