I was taking part in the first leg of the annual Cutty Sark Tall Ships' Race, this year a 760-mile voyage from Falmouth to Lisbon. I was acting as crew member and unofficial on-board illustrator - I did some very wobbly drawings. As I made my shaky way up the gangplank of my ship, a sturdy but elegant Dutch brigantine (two masts, the forward one square-rigged) I tried to convince myself that previous nautical experience, which included rather dodgy skills acquired at the age of 10 on a Nottingham boating lake, would stand me in good stead.
About 70 ships, little ketches, yawls, sloops and cutters as well as barques, brigs and fully rigged, square-rigged ships - the Russians were the biggest - were already gathered in Falmouth, where there was a festival atmosphere.
Multicoloured flags flapped, sightseers thronged, born-again spivs sold woolly snakes on sticks, and there was a Cornish pasty crisis - Falmouth had sold out by early evening.
Cool Mexican sailors wearing black frock-coats with cinched-in waists, Walkmans and Canons slung from their cutlass-loops, were already doing very well promoting international understanding, one of the aims of the Tall Ships' Race, with admiring groups of Falmouth girls.
The race is organised by the International Sail Training Association. To qualify for entry, half the crew of each ship must comprise under-25s, not necessarily with sailing experience. In the second leg of the race, from Vigo to Dublin, the crews are swapped around. My ship, owned by her Dutch captain and built in Gdansk in 1993, had 50 people aboard.
There were 14 permanent crew - Dutch, German and Irish - most of whom had dazzling white teeth and swarmed up the rigging at the drop of a shackle pin. One of these did drop, rather alarmingly, along with a large Stanley knife and a wooden block. The rest of the crew included students from a catering college, various photographers, some young Portuguese who had won a Lisbon newspaper competition, a Scottish teacher, blonde sisters who had walked straight out of a Village of the Damned set, a radio man who at one point interviewed a dolphin, and two jolly watch salesmen with fat tummies who wore wonderful fluorescent sea ensembles when we reached warmer weather.
My cabin companion was a taciturn Brazilian who wore earplugs and complained a lot. I chose the top bunk. This was a mistake, I later learned.
As we sailed out of Falmouth, watched impassively by the monolithic QE2 - on her first visit to the Cornish port - there was not a fluttering hanky from the dock in sight; instead it was mobiles ahoy!
Then life at sea began.
Work could involve rope-pulling, deck-swabbing, washing-up and rope- coiling. I learnt several important skills - walking at acute angles, wedging and clinging. My cabin under the foredeck often tipped several feet under the Atlantic, and it took me three days to adjust to sleeping with my feet often higher than my head.
When the ship was heeled over, the only way to get into the top bunk was to walk up the side of the fixed cupboard. Rolling off could be avoided by wedging yourself in with your lifejacket. If the ship tacked the other way, you ended up sleeping on the ship's side. I began to walk with a lurch which involved little crab movements as we rocked and rolled south of the Scillies. Several people kept to their cabins.
The ship groaned, bellowed, sighed and whistled on its way. A homing pigeon with a blue anklet hitched a lift. As we entered the Bay of Biscay we were buzzed by dolphins, and whales spouted in the distance. We began to shed layers of clothes. One of the crew caught a tuna, which was eaten for lunch.
I asked the captain, "When is a ship a tall ship?" "When it thinks it is," was his reply. We hit a heavy Biscay swell, huge bully waves that knocked the ship about, and a force 10 wind. Three of the sails were badly torn and a cable snapped. Crockery zoomed across the saloon and smashed against the side of the ship.
Several ships retired from the race with damaged rigging. There followed days of drowsy langour punctuated by furious activity. Members of the permanent crew whizzed up and down the masts in a bosun's chair with gluepots and sail patches.
There was a serious outbreak of jokes.
We sighted land - the mountains of northern Spain - and rounded Cape Finisterre. Two of the crew polished the brass casing of the old binnacle, made by Lillie & Gillie of South Shields. I went up the rope ladder to the first platform (about 20 metres), my hands shaky for about half an hour afterwards.
As we sailed farther south a haze obscured the coast and there was a smell of singeing - sunbathing tourists perhaps? I got a fix of the radio man's factor 50, just in case. It was foggy and the ship was becalmed. The jokes got worse and there was an isolated case of karaoke.
We eventually crossed the finishing line at Cascais, just outside Lisbon, in the early hours of the eighth day after sailing from Falmouth. We seemed to be running third, with the Russian ships Mir and Kreuzenshtern in the lead. The ship's fire alarm went off, a singing duo banged a tambourine, chunks of the Atlantic whooshed over the deck, champagne corks popped and later that morning, apparently (I was tucked up in my bunk), Barbara the ship's blow-up doll joined the celebrations.
Although we were the third of the Class A ships to cross the line, a complicated handicap system is used to determine overall winners because of the disparity in the ships' sizes. I think we ended up 24th, but by then no one cared much.
THE TALL SHIPS will leave Vigo, northern Spain, on 12 August, and arrive in Dublin on the weekend of 22-23 August. Next year's race starts from St Malo on 23 July and finishes on 18 August at Aalborg, Denmark, sailing via Greenock and Lerwick.
For race information call the International Sail Training Association (ISTA) on 01705-586367, e-mail: raceofficeatista.co.uk
Costs for young people vary according to the vessel and success in finding sponsorship. For example, all 39 trainees aboard the schooner Malcolm Miller (owned by the STA) obtained sponsorship or bursaries to cover the cost of pounds 1,330 for sailing plus flights home. For the 16 trainees aboard the ketch Team Spirit of Wight (owned by the Ocean Youth Club, 01705-528421), the trip to Lisbon cost pounds 779 plus fare home, but most of them had obtained sponsorship.
For information about sail training, sponsorship, bursaries, etc, contact the Association of Sea Training Organisations (ASTO) through the Royal Yachting Association on 01703-627400; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The ship Lord Nelson is specially adapted for crew with physical disabilities.Reuse content