‘It will be a life-changing experience’, the chap in the outdoor clothing shop assured me as I stocked up on waterproof bits and bobs before my trip.
I couldn’t possibly know how right he would turn out to be.
NOT YOUR AVERAGE SAILING HOLIDAY
The main mast of the SS Stavros S Niarchos is 40 metres high. To climb to the top involves strapping yourself into a harness, attaching yourself to a safety link, trying not to get the heeby-jeebies as you work your way up the rope ladders known as ratlines, hauling yourself onto platforms, then balancing precariously on a small rope at the top.
It’s an odd place to be, for somebody not keen on heights and who had only a few years previously changed my mind about the sea whilst on a gulet cruise in Turkey.
Yet 40m up the mast I found myself—in the middle of the Mediterranean sea—several times a day.
And I loved it.
A pirate’s life for me?
It was an advert in the Daily Mail travel classifieds, of all places (don’t judge, it wasn’t mine), which caught my eye one winter’s day. A week-long
cruise experience on what looked like a huge pirate ship for £500. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by that?
The idea of arriving at a destination in the same fashion as sailors of old appealed to the history geek in me. I thought these kinds of boats only existed for films involving rum and eyepatches and Johnny Depp and hornblowers.
It turns out that they also exist for sail training, and the advert in question was for a charity called the Tall Ships Youth Trust, a UK-based charity dedicated to youth development through sail training.
According to their criteria, I still qualified as a ‘youth’ for a few months so I promptly signed up for an 11-day voyage around the Balearics (because Mediterranean) on board SS Stavros S Niarchos, a two-masted brig.
Our voyage would take us from Mahon in Menorca to Ibiza and back, stopping off to explore Ibiza Town and the pretty bay of Cala Galdana.
SS STAVROS S NIARCHOS
If it’s more than 30ft long, has at least one mast with square sails, and looks like a pirate ship then it’s probably a tall ship.
SS Stavros Niarchos is a brig, which means it has two square-rigged masts with a bunch of triangular sails (fore-and-aft) in between. Square-rigged ships require large crews but provide plenty of long distance power, handy for trade winds. Brigs were popular as small warships, cargo boats, and pirate ships.
And these days as sail training vessels for youth, cadets, and strange people like me who want a challenge.
Speed: Up to 13 knots under sail
Capacity: Up to 67 crew (48 of them
voyage crew paying schmucks)
Number of sails: 18
Number of words in the glossary sent out before the voyage: 74
ALL HANDS ON DECK! LIFE ABOARD A TALL SHIP
I won’t lie, this was the most exhausting 11 days of my life.
It’s what they call ‘character-building’.
This is no pleasure cruise
Once I’d met my new boat family and been assigned waterproofs, the first day was spent untangling the basics– how to tie knots, helm, take bearings, clean heads (toilets), coil lines (ropes). Interpret the baffling and fascinating terminology (futtock shrouds? foc’sle? t’gallant? ratlines? spanker?). These words are rarely pronounced as they look. We got a practice run at climbing the rigging up one side and down the other—known as ‘up-and-over’—so it would be (mildly) less scary at sea.
Most importantly, we were instructed on how to follow instructions. These ships are run with military precision.
Within a few days my hands started to resemble crusty barnacles, and I’ve never eaten such mountains of carbs before or since.
Say goodbye to your sleep
There were roughly 35 of us voyage crew on board Stavros, a relatively small crew for such a big boat, plus the permanent crew and trained volunteers. We were organised into three watches—red, white, and blue—in order to operate the ship in rolling shifts over 24 hours.
Tasks are rotated on watch, included cleaning (‘happy hour’) and helping out in the galley. Cleanliness is next to godliness on a ship like this. If you ever want to get into the habit of cleaning your toilet daily then sail on a tall ship.
Within a day we had acquired an additional watch—the ‘green’ watch—consisting of the seasick puking over the side of the ship.
These numbers meant we were routinely woken by an ‘all hands on deck’ call, to pitch in tasks on deck requiring more people.
Climbing the rigging
The main tasks for the voyage crew are trimming the sails, which is done from the deck, and working aloft to stow the sails and untie the gaskets. It sounds simple but is no mean feat as it involves going up and out along the yardarms. Those glorious sails may look dainty in photographs but they are incredibly heavy and handling them is physically demanding.
Going up the mast is optional, but there was no way I was chickening out.
To be honest, I hadn’t thought about this too much before signing up which is probably a good thing. It’s pretty high. There are safety harnesses and wire, however, *SPOILER ALERT* there are a few sections where you must unclip to continue up. The higher you get the trickier it is, as everything gets smaller and the height accentuates the movement of the ship.
Just think of it as a giant climbing frame.
Well worth it for the view!
But there are moments that will stick with you forever
Have you ever seen the film White Squall? It perfectly conveys the awe you’ll feel first time that the sails go up and the engine is turned off.
(A word of wisdom though: if you’re at all nervous about sailing, don’t watch any sailing films–they’re all about disaster)
Similarly, your first night-watch, sailing silently under the stars and the moon, will always be something special.
Thankfully amongst all the hard work, we did get some time to sunbathe and go ashore for swimming, exploring castles and, in my case, tracking down sobrasada, a kind of spreadable chorizo sausage that’s hard to find in the UK.
And what better way to finish up the voyage than with a horrific hangover.
SAIL ON A TALL SHIP
Tall Ships Youth Trust
The Tall Ships Youth Trust is a charity that promotes youth development through sail training on a mixed fleet of boats. Adult-only voyages are available and the proceeds help subsidise youth bursaries.
Last-minute deals are often generously discounted, and if you’re on board for a week you might come away with your RYA Competent Crew (a basic course, certifying you as a vaguely useful crew member as opposed to passenger). Just don’t expect luxury or privacy—you’ll be in a bunk rather than a cabin.
Get in there quick though as the TSYT has decided to sell Stavros to focus on its fleet of yachts and catamarans. I’ve also sailed on one of their Challenger yacht voyages and had a great time.
Other tall ship organisations
In the UK, the Jubilee Sailing Trust takes a mixed disabled and able-bodied crew on its two tall ships.
A LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE?
The moment I went up the mast was the moment I decided to run away to sea. One look at the horizon and I felt the call. Six months later, I would be sailing around Africa on a replica Phoenician ship. More on that to come.
So in a geographical sense, yes.
But it was also more than that.
As someone who always managed to do moderately well without trying too hard, I managed to get to 24 years old without ever really learning how to learn. How to fail. I simply avoided the things I wasn’t naturally good at. And so I got pretty good at avoiding things.
But once I tried sailing, I was hooked. Even though I’m not a natural sailor.
I have slow reactions, a quiet voice, and terrible spatial awareness. I’ve got no clue about engines or fixing things. Everything I learn goes in one ear and out the other (unless it’s food-related). I’m really bad at waking up at 2am, it makes me very grumpy. Especially if it’s cold. I hate being cold.
However I love being at sea, and so I keep trying.
Sailing has taught me about persistence. To keep going even when things are difficult and you feel like you’re making a tit out of yourself. For the sake of your crew if not yourself.
And being part of a crew is an awesome thing. You can’t hold a grudge on a boat, living in such close quarters with no escape. Problems must be hashed out quickly. You have to trust. There’s no avoiding anything on a ship. Especially not yourself.
I didn’t join the voyage primarily for personal development, but that’s what I got anyway.
Do you feel the call of the seas, or does sound like too much hard work? And would you go up the mast??