A tall ship under sail

Tall ship under sail

Tall ship under sail

Images of a tall ship under sail whilst sailing north, on the western edge of the Bay of Biscay, in March 2013.

Just as the best view of the Liverpool seafront is from the opposite side of the River Mersey, so the true grandeur of a tall sailing ship can only be really appreciated when you are not on it. From the Pierhead you see Birkenhead, from a tall ship you see the sea.

On some of the other posts I have attempted to give an impression of what it’s like to be sailing on a tall ship; the way it seems to effortlessly cope with aggressive and threatening waves; how the sails take the power of nature and convert it into forward motion; how the evolution of the sails shows the ingenuity and inventiveness of past generations of seamen; and this you experience whilst standing on the deck as the vessel moves through the water.

I hope that the images I’ve added to my posts (so far) have given a bit of an impression of what is like actually being on the deck of a sailing ship.

When we were passing the western edge of the Bay of Biscay, on an incredibly calm, warm and sunny day, we were given the opportunity to get a view of the ship from a distance, with nothing (no land or any other vessels) in sight.

By that time the ship was becoming a little battered. The spanker, the sail at the back of the ship, was not set as the boom had been damaged in a gale a few days earlier. That does detract (in a very slight way) from the full grandeur of a tall ship but I hope the pictures in the slideshow below capture something of what makes them romantic to many.

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.