A typical night at sea on a tall ship?

Tall ship masts at night

Tall ship masts at night

There’s probably no such thing as a typical night at sea, especially on a sailing tall ship, but here is an attempt to re-create the atmosphere on one night at the beginning of February, on the stretch from the Caribbean islands to Bermuda.

The southern end of a storm that had been dumping snow (and causing chaos) on the eastern seaboard of the US was to affect us for the best part of 36 hours, the first 24 being the worse easing slightly after that. This meant rough seas, a big swell (up to 4 metres at one time), squally showers (that were sometimes short and intense, other times prolonged) and battling against winds that wanted to push us south as we wanted to go north.

As is always the case the worse weather was to hit us during the night, when you can’t see what is happening and people are already weakened due to lack of sleep because of the heavy seas. (But this has to put into perspective. We weren’t battling for 40 days to get around Cape Horn as did the Bounty – before the famous mutiny – and we had all the amenities which the original sailing ships lacked, things like an engine and electricity to make life more bearable.)

Sailing on a tall ship at night is different in so many ways from during the daytime. Heavy seas are ‘doable’ when you can see what is happening. The same lurch forward at night can throw you into the dark unknown (where chances of survival are nil). Your attitude towards distance changes, psychologically. You can sit or stand at the same place at night as in the day but the distance between you and the space before you are thrown into the abyss of the raging sea reduces with the light levels.

The structure of the ship also changes. Heavy seas meant that although we were travelling on the ship’s engine (there is a deadline for getting to Bermuda) there was still some sail. I’ve been told that this helps to increase the stability of the vessel by keeping a higher centre of gravity. The few sails that are up, the spanker at the stern and the gaff and the staysail at the bow, increase the impression of height of the skeletal main mast, which reaches 108 feet from the deck below. The dark outline of these bare bones becomes more impressive against a dark sky (this was the night of the New Moon so all we had was starlight).

A sailing ship under power tends to plough into the sea (so it seems) and with the heavy swell there was plenty of that during the night. This, in its own way, creates a fascinating show. All vessels at night/under power have to show a port (red) and starboard (green) light and as the bow dives deep into the water (not what is desired as it brings the progress of the vessel to a halt) the foam takes on a red tint on one side and an eerie green on the other. For in the darkness all that can be seen is the foam that is created by the presence of the ship, all the white horses further out being effectively invisible. Lights from the portholes on the main deck adding their own particular sense of the unreal if there are still people up and about – although that night people out of their cabins not ‘on watch’ were few and far between, either trying to sleep or trying not to throw up.

This ship is never quiet, something I didn’t think about before. As we are under power there is the obvious noise of the engine but what is even more invasive is the noise of the ventilation system that attempts to bring the temperature of the engine room down to something that is slightly less than tropical. The engine being at the stern of the ship so is the ventilation system and the outlet is through the structure of the wheelhouse, which is where you stand on watch.

But the sound that is very reminiscent of the old sailing ships is that of the ship’s bell. This is located in front of the wheelhouse and the only time it sounds is when the ship’s bow ploughs into the sea. Not a warning, it comes after the event, but a mournful sound as the structure resents such mistreatment. Too many tolls of the bell signify an uncomfortable day/night and not what you want to hear. Here the question is not for whom but why the bell tolls.

The combination of bad weather, a dark night and lack of sleep (or at best disturbed sleep patterns) lead to hallucinations for those looking out at sea. All that can be really made out in the darkness are anomalies but after a few hours of staring out and seeing nothing but the darkness the brain starts to see what isn’t there, or misinterprets what is. Phantom ships appear and then just as quickly disappear. Added to that is the fact of there being so little shipping along this particular part of the Atlantic, not really being on any of the main shipping lines. Soon you start to doubt your own eyes and question if a light is really there. On this ‘typical’ night only one ship of any description came into view.

But even though the night was windy and the weather generally erratic (with a weather front passing through towards the early hours) there was still an opportunity for observing the night sky. This was the night of the New Moon and for the short time it was in view, just after sunset, the lack of light pollution meant that as well as the crescent of light being reflected from the sun the whole of the moon’s shape could clearly be seen.

If I don’t take this opportunity to get to know some of the constellations of the northern hemisphere I won’t get a better. One of the problems is that there are too many stars out there. In some ways the major constellations that are visible even in light polluted areas are easier to make out as all the less bright stars are effectively invisible. But the hours of looking out into the darkness has already provided an impression of the relative position of the major star structures. In this there has been one surprise and that is the opportunity to see, in full, the Southern Cross. As the days go by, no doubt, it will fall from view but at the moment it’s visible in the latter part of the night.

Another thing you learn NOT to do on a sailing ship like this is to move, or to move unnecessarily. Standing still in any sea conditions is doable. Perhaps not easy but you won’t fall over. Start to move and you walk as if you were a drunk baby taking its first steps. And ships are hard and if you are going to hit anything it will always be the hardest corner causing the most pain. Within a couple of days you find bruises which would normally be impossible to induce on land. You also learn NOT to forget anything if you are on watch. No ‘senior moments’ here of going to a place and not remembering why. Anyone with experience on a sailing ship, with no stabilisation whatsoever, is that the minimum of walking is the aim. This is especially so in the dark of a moonless night.

The one thing for certain is that there will be plenty of time to do all these things. Whatever work there might be on a sailing ship it tends to be needed at certain times, with urgency being part of the equation if bad weather arrives unexpectedly. The rest of the time is a matter of waiting for going on watch or sleeping. The expected length of this voyage increases all the time and I have no idea when we will reach the UK so projects will have to be devised to fill the time to come.

Rum shacks in the Caribbean

Rum shack at La Pompe, Bequia

Rum shack at La Pompe, Bequia

‘Rum shack’ is the generic name for the basic bars that serve the rum in various measures in all of the Caribbean islands, or at least the handful I’ve visited. They are not built for luxury but are functional and serve their purpose, that is to get people as drunk as quickly as possible.

Although what they are there for is the same on whatever island they might also double up as something else when not serving the rum. One place I went to was the village local grocery store (although no one came in to buy groceries whilst I was there) and yet another was attached to a ‘fast food’ stall in the bus station in Kingstown, St Vincent, which I mentioned when I wrote about the creeping privatisation of the streets.

But before talking about the places that do the selling I should write about what is sold.

Although not exclusively these rum shacks are there to sell the double proof white rum, each island having its own particular favourite brand. It might come as no surprise to read that each islander thinks that the best rum is produced on his island. This, to me, is a bit academic as it is such strong alcohol that there is no real taste to talk of.

Double strength means 80% or more. The strongest one, commercially, I came across was the Sunset brand from St Vincent. That is 84% proof. That has a warning message on the back label about naked flames and inflammable liquids! But I’m sure that the home-made versions that are on sale in the streets and markets could well be higher in percentage.

There is also a bit of a ritual with this rum. In the first rum shack I went into, in Castries, the capital of St Lucia, the rum was served in shots in plastic cups. The woman behind the bar was also behind a home-made reinforced steel rod cage and the booze was served through tiny hatches. I never saw any trouble in any of the bars I went into but presumably the bars were there for a reason. The gateway to the bar area was never locked but then I was there in the afternoon or (relatively) early evening.

In ALL the places I went there was either a full bottle of iced water – normally in a bottle that once would have held the local rum – available on the counter for all to use or given to each individual customer.

How this was used was up to personal preference and depended on how quickly you wanted the rum to enter the system. Some would knock back a shot and then drink 2 or 3 cups of the iced water to prevent the burning sensation from becoming too great. Others would water down the shot and then drink it at a slower pace. The former method was definitely the option for those who would come into the rum shack for a quick drink and then move on – to another rum shack.

In most places the manner of it being served was not by the individual shot as in the Castries (the shot costing 2 Eastern Caribbean Dollars (about £0.50p)) but by the measure. There would also be quarter spirit bottles and you could ask for a full one of these, or just a proportion. This would be filled from a full bottle of the local brew. It was then for the customer to decide the quantity to be served in the plastic cup and the manner, although most locals seem to prefer the quick shot and then the cups of water. To give an idea about cost the normal price for a quarter bottle filled in this way was about 12EC$ and to put that into perspective a 1 litre bottle in a supermarket would cost about 30EC$.

I don’t know where it all came from but there were a number of these rum shacks, on the various islands that were called ‘People’s Bar’ or variations on that. The one I like was the Poor People’s bar in Grenville, on Grenada, which lived up to its name as there was virtually nothing on show. There was enough to serve for the day and no money seemed to be tied up in providing an inviting display but not earning anything. This was confirmed when I was speaking with the owner of the bar opposite the mooring of the ship in St George, Grenada. He would make sure that he had enough stock for those days when there was a greater demand, such as the weekend, but had learnt to reduce surplus stock as much as possible.

What was common to all these places was the number of people who had obviously had too much. Sometimes during a life time but more often for that day. Sometimes this would be mixed with a little bit of marijuana and they were the ones who were really spaced out. But it was definitely a regular affair as I even got to know some of the drinkers in the bar in Castries as I first met them before the Caribbean Island Hopping and then met them again, in the same bar, drinking the same way 2 weeks later.

Haven’t found the equivalent in Bermuda so it seems that this drinking culture is restricted to the islands of the Caribbean, at least from my experience to the group known as the Windward Islands.

Sailing on a Tall Ship for the first time

Tall ship under sail in the Caribbean

Tall ship under sail in the Caribbean

First impressions of what life is like on a tall ship, for those who have limited or no experience at all of being on a sailing ship – or many other ships at all, apart from the Mersey Ferry.

Going up the masts

Was always going to be a daunting experience but at the same time the expectation was more of a problem than the reality. Modern day sailors who climb in Tall Ships at least are doing it by choice, but at the same time there still remains a risk, even though now you use harnesses and support wires which mean, unless you are very unlucky, all that you will lose if you fall is your dignity and not your life.

It’s just like climbing a very big ladder and as long as you maintain the basic principle of having three points in contact you should be OK. However, matters do take on a slightly different light when you climb when at sea with the rolling of the ship being an added factor. But this is generally more psychological than real as long as you are fixed you shouldn’t be any more at risk than if the ship was in dock.

What does become a problem is when you don’t know exactly what you’re doing. If you have a task in hand, do it and then head down again. This idea of playing around up top is a luxury that is only allowed to a relative few. Even those professionals who now work on some of these huge luxury cruise sailing ships who have to go aloft often would get down as soon as possible, I’m sure.

Getting used to the motion

So far there has been little problem in getting to grips with the motion on board. That’s not least because we have been sailing in the Caribbean in summer for the last couple of weeks or so. That’s not to say it never gets rough here.

There is quite a lot of time when there may not be a great deal to do so you tend to spend a lot of time just looking out at sea. Even when on watch the vast majority of the time is as it says, on watch, on the look out for other shipping. And looking at the sea itself.

Doing so you understand how the terms ‘ploughing’ through the water and ‘boiling’ to describe the foam that you leave behind in your wake.

There was one period of about twelve hours when we were under sail and going against the wind where the ship was bucking with the bow trying to turn the vessel into a submarine. This had the ship over at an angle of 20 or so degrees to port (that’s towards the left if you are looking towards the sharp end at the front).

But when the vessel is moving like that it’s a physical effort to take even a few steps. And it’s important to remember that – if you don’t you are soon reminded – that the surfaces on a ship are always very hard and it hurts when skin and bone comes into contact with metal. Also you realise how heavy the bulk head doors are when their weight is against you.

But it also has the effect of making you tensing the knees to deal with this, so it should be a benefit for the next project of crossing a small northern European country after crossing a major ocean.

How a ship works

There’s no way in the time I’m on this ship, even though it will probably be close on two months, that I will have little more than a general understanding of how a tall ship works.

Nonetheless, it’s an impressive piece of equipment and you can see how it has evolved over the centuries. Basic techniques have been refined and new technology has made a difference which early sailors would have killed for. However, most of the tasks involve ropes and muscle power and getting to know the best way to use whatever energy you have is part of the game. Knowing when to pull the correct rope, or more importantly when to let it go, is what getting the sails up and down quickly and smoothly is what it’s all about.

And being on the helm is fun. It’s a bit like driving someone else’s extra-large artic lorry. You can’t see exactly where you’re going and take instructions from the navigator. But trying to get a feel for things, how the wind affects your ability to steer and how to keep the wind in the sails and not to let them flap uselessly is where the real skill comes in to it, and that’s quite a way for me at the moment.


This, fortunately, hasn’t been an issue for me so far. There have been a few casualties, sea-sickness being one of those things that affects different people in different ways. However, the test is yet to come so there might be more to say on that the next time I get to add a post to the blog.

Conclusion – for now!

I did have a ‘why am I doing this’ moment the second time I had to get ready for the 12.00 to 04.00 watch. The first time was difficult but wasn’t so bad the second time. Haven’t really had one of those moments since although now looking forward to moving off from St Lucia. Only came to the Caribbean to meet the ship and so didn’t really do any research into the islands in any meaningful manner. That means I didn’t have the information to fill the time here and spent too much time drinking the awful lager beer or the rot gut super strength rum. From tomorrow (Saturday) on the ship will be dry for the next 10 days or so until we make land on Bermuda.

Attitude might be different then.