Celebrations on a tall ship in Mid-Atlantic

View from main mast in Mid-Atlantic

View from main mast in Mid-Atlantic

At 11.45 (more or less) on Thursday, 28th February the ship officially crossed the half way point between Bermuda and the Azores, effectively the Mid Atlantic.

How was this celebrated? Apart from many people staying in their bunks trying to catch up on sleep the answer is – not at all. There was an announcement but no real celebration. At the same time, why should there be? We had made close on 900 miles in seven days, which is considered good going, but it also meant that there was another 900 to go.

One reason that the situation was somewhat subdued could probably be accounted for by the understanding that we had at the time. This was that a second storm was ‘chasing’ us and it would catch us in the next day or so. In the morning the question was not whether but when. However, later in the day that forecast was downgraded and on the 28th there was no expectation of especially bad weather in the immediate future.

That does not mean to say, however, that there haven’t been preparations in case we have to face high winds. If they don’t come in the next couple of days there’s nothing to say later next week, or on the stretch from the Azores to the UK.

The ‘fear’ of a storm relentlessly pursuing us was made all the greater by the fact we had already gone through one (for about 30 hours) soon after leaving Bermuda. That created some impressive waves and interesting living conditions on board.

So in lieu of any celebration there was a session of tearing up cardboard and, just as that task was close to completion, a visit to the top of the main mast to try to make the two top yards more secure, the battening down the hatches approach.

Tearing up cardboard in the mid-Atlantic

Tearing up cardboard in the mid-Atlantic

Obviously I’m far from being an expert but I assume that these measures (which effectively mean that at least one of the sails couldn’t be used quickly in the future) were taken as we will be unlikely to use them in the conditions you’d expect to find in the North Atlantic in late winter/early spring.

(Here I totally misunderstood the situation. When under sail it’s best to keep the unused sails as tightly stowed as possible, to prevent any sort of damage, however minor. And it doesn’t take that long to make them ready for being set again, and this happened a number of times during the rest of the journey.)

As the trip advances volunteers are slower and fewer to go to the top of the mast when the ship is under sail. People will do so if they have to but try to reduce the time aloft. This is understandable. Apart from the precariousness of your physical position it’s hard work – especially if you are stowing away the sails. Whoever designed the rigging, either the original in centuries past or the late 20th century equivalent, the conditions for the mariners was never a high priority and the work has to be carried out in very unnatural circumstances, i.e., standing on a thick wire bent double over a yard arm.

Stowing the Royal sail

Stowing the Royal sail

I didn’t expect to be climbing today but (fortunately) had my compact camera in my pocket at the time so was able to capture the view you get from something like a 100 feet above the deck. They are in the slideshow below. Assuming we don’t hit particularly bad weather consistently in the next few days I hope to get up, when there is no work involved, and be able to give a better impression of what it’s like to climb the shrouds of a tall ship.

Self portrait on main mast

Self portrait on main mast

The expected length of the journey between Bermuda and the Azores was 18 days. Reaching the half way point in seven means that we can potentially cut that down to 14. And the vast majority of that has been done under sail, the engine only being used for less than a day. At the moment the seas are calm and progress is average so that full four days off the original estimate might be optimistic but there is a general attitude on board, I believe, that although it’s an achievement to cross the Atlantic in such a vessel, the quicker it can be done and we celebrate with a drink in an Azorean pub the better.

And the tearing up of cardboard? According to Marpol Regulations you are only allowed to dump cardboard in the open sea if it has been torn up into, more or less, inch square pieces. Then the location has to be recorded in a log book kept by the Bosun. It seems that this has been the situation in the Royal Navy for more than 50 years but is now part of Merchant Navy good environmental practice, but how strictly it’s kept to might be open to question.

One other point of interest, possibly, is that since leaving Bermuda behind on the afternoon of Friday 22nd February up to the night of the 28th we have only seen one ship, day or night.

It’s certainly the case that when you travel on a 114 foot sailing ship in the middle of the North Atlantic no-one can hear you scream.

And a part of me is now, forever, in mid-Atlantic. My woolly hat blew off when I was on the t’gallant yard arm and there was no great enthusiasm to stop the ship, turn around and recover it.

Sailing the western Atlantic

Tall ship facing an Atlantic storm

Tall ship facing an Atlantic storm

Nobody should be surprised to encounter storms in the North Atlantic during the winter months so no one could have been surprised when a night that was the literal ‘calm before the storm’ turned into the worst storm of the journey so far and, according to one of the full-time crew, one of the worst storms the ship has had to deal with.

The Watch between 04.00 and 08.00 on the morning of Monday 25th February is the most benign possible. There is so little wind that all it is capable of doing is to cause the sails (that are set to provide some level of stability) to merely flap and crack in the breeze, having no impact whatsoever on our progress which would have been nil if it were not for the engine. (The few hours that the engine is used that night was the only time we were not under sail after leaving Bermuda.)

By 08.00 things start to pick up and the ship is tacked to take advantage of the ‘favourable’ wind. It is blowing strong and, more or less, in the direction we want to go. But by midday the ‘favourable’ wind is starting to turn into a fully formed gale and it just grows and grows.

There is havoc in the galley. All the food cooking in the ovens is upturned and ruined. The ovens have to be stripped down and cleaned before they can be used again. The cook and assistant are not looking happy and the chef’s somersault from the galley into the mess is not one of joy.

The ship rocks severely from side to side, sometimes without seeming end. This means that water is scooped up and washed over the well deck (the lowest deck on the main deck). Timing is everything if you want to go down below. If you get it wrong you will be drenched. The sun is still shining and if you had witnessed the scene without experiencing the wind you would have thought it was an ideal sailing day. But it’s the Atlantic and you don’t want that cold water shower.

Fortunately no one seems to be suffering from sea sickness as the time away from Bermuda had allowed most to develop their sea legs. But the rocking is severe and would have its effect if it continued and the sea sickness pills in the medicine chest would take a hammering.

These are big seas and some have worried looks on their faces. ‘I know where I’d rather be, home,’ says one. ‘Britain doesn’t have long-range aircraft since they scrapped Nimrod, do they?’ asks another. But this is all academic. If the ship, or its crew, fails then there is no power on earth that will be able to help. Survival would depend on whatever was left of the original 23. Dependence on others would be meaningless. Four hundred miles plus east of Bermuda the nearest effective help would probably be from Nova Scotia in Canada

There’s an incredible wild beauty about this storm. So powerful, so relentless, a clear demonstration of the power of nature and the sea. But at the same time there is also a celebration of human ingenuity and ability to solve problems by the way the ship dances amongst these huge waves.

You get a strange sensation when looking towards the bow of the ship from the stern in such huge waves. It’s almost as if the ship were flying. There’s no sound from the engine as all the power is being provided by the wind and the sails are full. The more than 250 tonne weight of the ship is no different from a matchstick to the waves which just lift the vessel smoothly on the crest of a wave. The trough of the previous wave appears as a chasm into which the ship will just fall but as it descends another wave comes up to meet the downward momentum. As it does so the bow of the ship goes above the horizon and it seems that it is about to take off.

Another strange sensation is when the ship seems to be passed from the crest of one wave to the crest of another. Although we are obviously on the ‘flat’ – a relative term in such waters – it appears as if the vessel is actually going up hill. A couple of optical illusions that I’d never been aware of before.

As the ship bucks and rears there is a wall of water either at the bow or behind you at the stern. If you are on the helm you are totally unaware of what is developing behind you. Breakers that would appear in a surfers wet dream if on a beach in California or Australia race past the ship on either side, challenging us to go faster.

Attempts are made to carry on life normally below decks – but with a few modifications. Food is served in the galley rather than the mess and each holds a dish (rather than a plate) close to themselves as they maintain some semblance of normality, even using a knife and fork in a pudding dish, habits learnt at an English dining table being hard to drop for some.

By late afternoon the storm has really taken hold and helming on the ship is not just a mind game you play against the elements with the help of an hydraulically powered rudder. It is now a physical battle between the helm and the wind. Instead of trying to follow a heading that’s been given it’s now a matter of reacting to the direction of the wind as shown on one of the four electronic indicators above the wheelhouse entrance. This time it’s the decision of the helm that determines the reaction of the ship, now the direction of travel is only a general guideline, the aim is to keep the ship moving in the way that the sails have been set. It is not always easy on the helm (it was a doddle in the Caribbean) but now it’s a fight.

The helm is there to prevent the vessel from doing what it would do naturally, and that is to turn into the wind. The combination of the sails, the way they are set and the course decided (within the limitations of wind direction) all combine to tame the ship but in no way tame the waves. Push the vessel too far or make a mistake and the forces of nature will take their toll and serious damage could be caused to the integrity of the ship.

The following morning the wind speed starts to drop and the storm abates. For some time the waves are still wild and impressive but as the day wears on they return to the ‘normal’ mid-Atlantic swell. It’s interesting just looking at the sea as the weather conditions change. In the early hours of the morning it was looking black and foreboding, even though the day was promising to be one of blue skies and sunshine, yet for a time the sea looked more like mercury, a heavy, slow-moving mass that could change at any moment.

Later that day it’s possible to assess the damage. Nothing hugely significant, but as all we have is what we carry any damage can only be partially ameliorated whilst at sea. This time the tally was damage to four of the sails. One is replaced whilst another is repaired in situ. If this goes on (and it is predicted to do so) then there will be a lot of work to be done on the short 48 hour stop over that we will have in Horta, on the Azorean island of Faial, before heading up towards the bay of Biscay and the Western Approaches.

If nothing else after the successful completion of this trip the likes of Alton Towers or Port Adventura will have absolutely nothing to offer.

Click here to take you to a link on YouTube for another attempt to capture the sensation of a storm at sea on a basic video camera. At least this time the water looks grey as opposed to blue! But take note of the blue sky and sunshine.

Working on the helm of a tall ship

View from the helm of a tall ship

View from the helm of a tall ship

One of the two principal tasks when on Watch is to take control of The Helm (the other is the look-out, to make sure you don’t hit something – or something hits you). The Helm is the driving seat (although you stand up) of the vessel and is welcomed – or not – very much depending upon the weather.

(So I don’t get accused of teaching grannies how to suck eggs I will assume, for the benefit of this post, that the reader knows absolutely nothing about the workings of a tall ship – very much as I did before getting on board 2 months ago.)

The first thing to stress is that The Helm is at the back of the ship which is like driving from the boot if you’re a car driver. Also you can’t see where you’re going, there’s the wheelhouse and the sails in the way. And anyway, at least for a huge chuck of this voyage it didn’t matter that you couldn’t see where you were heading as all that could be seen from the front was sea, and more sea. It’s for the look-out to make sure that you don’t hit anything.

The helm itself is a big wheel (about 4 foot in diameter) that is as far as it is possible to be at the stern (the back or the blunt end) of the vessel. Go any further back and you’re in the water. This wheel is not protected in any way from the elements. That was OK when we were in the Caribbean, when ‘the elements’ were basically the blazing sun, but it becomes a different matter when heading further north into an uncertain late European winter/early Spring.

That has meant that since we started the northward/eastward journey we have encountered more rain and the wind can be ‘bracing’ as they say. In fact, one thing that has been surprising, to me and others, is the way air temperatures have remained fairly constant and relatively high. To take a random date (when I wrote a first draft of this post) the 11th March, both the day and night-time temperatures were around the 13°C level – and at the time we were heading towards the Bay of Biscay. So it’s not necessarily the air temperature falling that makes it cold on The Helm, it’s the wind chill that you get either from the following wind that fills the sails or the wind created by the vessel itself when under power.

There is a helm under cover. That’s in the wheelhouse but that’s just there to taunt you as you fight against the gale force winds (which we had on four or five occasions) and the face stinging rain that normally accompanies the occasional squalls that we encountered with increased frequency. This wheel does work (it was tested when we were shown what would happen in the event of the wheel being put out of action for any reason) but it has never been touched in anger, to the best of my knowledge.

Inside the wheelhouse of a tall ship

Inside the wheelhouse

As this is a training ship the policy to keep The Helm outside is probably all about building character, but personally I’d rather have no character and be warm.

At the same time, to be fair, a proper, professional helmsman/woman on a sailing tall ship such as this would need to be able to see and hear how the sails are reacting to the wind. They can remain stable for a long time but the changes of wind speed and direction can happen quite quickly at times, again especially as we head north into more uncertain climatic conditions.

So that sets the picture.

What does being on The Helm entail?

Basically obeying the orders of the Officer of the Watch and looking at 4 dials that give you the information you need to understand what is happening.

I’ve forgotten to mention that actual helm of the vessel is powered by hydraulics, it would be impossible for one person to move the rudder on such a ship without powered assistance of some kind. The speed at which the rudder reacts depends upon a number of factors; the speed of the vessel at the time; whether it is under power or under sail; sea conditions, i.e., how rough it might be (a big wave can push you off course by an amazingly high level of degrees); as well as the ability of The Helm operator.

So the 4 dials to watch, from left to right, are: the wind speed indicator; the wind direction indicator; the dial that shows the position of the rudder; and the compass heading. These are illuminated at night and are all replicated inside the wheelhouse so that the Duty Officer (who doesn’t have to stand out in the elements) can see what is happening in the outside world as well. If the weather conditions are not bad it’s quite easy to take in this information. If you hit a squall and it lasts for a while then the driving rain makes reading the dials slightly more difficult.

In general, being at The helm is fun. Here you are basically controlling this 114 foot, 250 tonne vessel, on the high seas. In a sailing ship all the crew does is prevent the vessel from going where it wants to go so The Helm is where that all happens. For example, if the ship naturally wants to go towards the port but your desired direction is to the starboard this means there is a constant ‘fight’ between the two forces.

And the physical experience is dependent upon the weather conditions. In the Caribbean the seas were quite gentle, as were the winds, and it was relatively easy to follow the heading given. But when we started getting into the heavier and more aggressive open waters of the Atlantic it became more of a battle, and you knew you had been working if you were constantly moving the wheel to keep on course. The hydraulics make it possible for a single person to control the rudder but it’s not the same sort of powered steering that you get on an articulated lorry.

Sometimes you might be told to steer not on the compass heading but by reading the wind direction. Here you guideline is that you must try and keep within a certain part of the wind direction indicator ‘clock’ – it’s divided up as a clock would be into 12 units and your guideline might be to keep with 25 and 20 to the hour (not the way it should be described, that involves degrees, but the easiest way for novices to understand). Failure to do so could mean that the wind gets on the ‘wrong’ side of a sail and the consequences can possibly be quite dire. The breaking of the boom on the spanker on the TransAtlantic crossing leg of the journey was probably due to this backing of the wind. It’s from this situation that you get the saying ‘sailing too close to the wind’.

From what I understand anticipation of what will happen is the key to working successfully on a tall ship. If you leave your adjustment until it starts to show then you have left it too late as the vessel takes some time to understand what it should do, this is even more so in rough weather when the rudder might be spending some time out of the water. This might make it difficult for experienced yacht sailors as those vessels respond much more quickly. And you won’t make many friends below decks if you are constantly following instead of leading at The Helm as the ship will tend to rock back and forth making any objects not nailed down fly around at random.

One thing I’ve found interesting about being on The Helm is your impression of speed. If it is at night and the wind is behind you, blowing relatively strong (i.e., 20 – 30 knots) you think you’re racing along even if you’re not. If you’re sailing during the day, with the winds negligible and therefore under power, you get the impression you are barely moving when you might be doing 5-6 knots, which isn’t a bad speed for such a vessel.

And as to speeds they have varied, as you might expect, on such a journey. With little wind and the engines on we can expect about 6 knots. But when we had the most favourable winds in mid-Atlantic we were clocking up more than 11 knots for short periods of time. That meant it was quite uncomfortable down below but we certainly clocked the miles then and that helped us to do the crossing from Bermuda to The Azores in less than 14 days.

Since we leaving the warmth of the Caribbean being on Watch, and especially at The Helm for any length of time, a wind proof jacket is vital. As mentioned above the air temperatures have been fairly, and surprisingly, high and constant but the wind chill is what gets to you.

Although I haven’t been too successful in capturing it on film another aspect of being on The Helm in bad weather is that you are totally oblivious to the walls of water that build up behind you. The vessel has been very adept at dealing with these types of conditions but the way the vessel rises on the crests of waves and then shoots down into the troughs makes for an unforgettable picture in your mind of the power of the ocean.

Under normal conditions you wouldn’t be on The Helm for more than about 30 minutes. In conditions which are in any way challenging you need to concentrate and that would be lost if you tried to stay on too long, especially for non-professionals. This is even more the case during a night Watch. The red compass heading dial becomes quite mesmerising as it ticks away virtually every second. You try and follow the course given but with modern equipment you are trying to do what would have been impossible in the past. Before modern electronics The Helm would have followed the general course as well as they could but it would then have been corrected over a period of hours rather than a period of seconds.

But it’s not just a matter of standing and occasionally turning the wheel. If you hit either rough weather or you have a favourable wind which will tend to make the ship list to one side you have to move to maintain your centre of gravity at such a point that you can remain standing. This means you have to bend your legs to compensate for the listing and this would be an acceptable exercise regime for Premier footballers. And although you have hydraulics assisting the wheel it still needs effort to turn that wheel, especially if a quick correction is called for, and your arms and back feel the strain after a difficult Watch.

Wheelhouse of a tall ship at night

Wheelhouse at night