Clinging to the swaying rigging of a three-masted sailing ship in the middle of the Atlantic, 100 feet above the deck, I looked up and saw there was still 50ft to go. 'Don't trust your safety harness - I once saw one break; you must trust yourself,' said the seasoned sailor with me, as the ship heaved with the motion of the sea. My grip tightened and I climbed on up the ratlines - the ropes strung across the rigging to act as ladders.

Behind me, the pink and orange glows of a mid-Atlantic sunset suffused the sky. We were 1,000 miles from land. There was no other ship in sight. From the top of the mast, I stepped across to the royal yard, the spar that holds the uppermost square sail. I shuffled away from the mast along a precarious footrope, my hands holding a steel rod fixed along the top of the yard. The deck was so far below I felt I was looking down from an aeroplane. I was four times as high as the roof of my house in London. Leaning over, I could see great white sails hanging from each of the yards below.

The square-rigged ship plunged through a turquoise sea under full sail. I was standing where the sailors work for a living. The sails are released and put away by pulling ropes on the deck, but the job up on the yard is to tidy them away safely by lashing them to the spar, or untie them when they are wanted again. I was on board for just a few weeks.

As the tension of the climb faded under the exhilaration of getting to the top, I felt surprisingly relaxed and secure. I did not want to come down. It was addictive, and no sooner had I started my descent than I was itching to get up there again. Professional sailors who worked aloft every day would doze off in boredom, drooped over the yard, secured by harnesses. They could not understand why I was awestruck by the height, the sunset, the clouds, the sea and the sails.

I was on board the Dar Mlodziezy (pronounced 'dar mod jerje'), a Polish ship. We had left Boston three weeks earlier with the Columbus Regatta fleet, which was racing across the Atlantic to Liverpool. There was a permanent crew of 30, plus 120 cadets from the Marine Academy in Gdynia and 35 other trainees in paying berths.

I and another nine of the trainees had won a Cutty Sark whisky competition organised through LBC radio in London and the Liverpool Echo. Cutty Sark sponsored our ship in the race. Another 10 were paid for by their employers, and 15 of the crew were paying about pounds 1,000 of their own money for the privilege of a month before the mast. Many of the tall ships in the fleet accepted paying crew members, and in some cases passengers.

The Dar Mlodziezy is 354ft long, full rigged - square sails on every mast - and painted white with pale-yellow masts and yards. The name means 'Gift of Youth' - the money to build her 10 years ago was raised by the youth of Poland. She has been around the world and through storms off Cape Horn.

Life among the crew revolved around a watch system, of three shifts in every 12-hour period. I was on the unsocial 4-8am watch and then again in the late afternoon. The watch began with an hour or two of adjusting the sails, which entailed an awful lot of rope-pulling on deck. At least 10 of us would grab hold of a rope and chant 'Hey ras] Hey ras]' (ras means 'one' in Polish); by pulling on the 'ras]' we kept in time.

Even after a month, I could not sort out which of the 250 ends of the ship's 16 miles of rope was attached to which part of the rigging, especially as all instructions were given in Polish.

When there was no rope-pulling to be done, the routine jobs began: painting, chipping rust, polishing brass, washing corridors, sewing sails and, of course, scrubbing the deck. As one of only 13 women in a crew of 160, I met some old-fashioned attitudes.

On turning up to collect my hammer and safety goggles for rust-chipping one morning, I was told: 'No, no, not women's work - we have something for you . . .' and was handed a broom and bucket. I managed to find an excuse.

We lived, five men and five women, in cheerful squalor in a cabin for 10, 12ft by 10ft and lined with bunks. Considering that we had not met before we started our voyage, we got on amazingly well, for ever bonded by the night we stood up during a Boston bar's karaoke night, in yellow Cutty Sark jackets, to sing 'A Hard Day's Night' and 'Twist and Shout'.

It was a noisy, smelly existence, putting up with snoring and unwashed feet. Showers were rationed to two a week and we could not open the portholes. We were not all on the same watches and slept at different times - so inevitably there were fraying tempers when, having finally drifted off to sleep, we would be woken up by another watch trooping in, searching for tea bags and chocolate with which to celebrate the end of a stint. But water-pistol fights and ritual garrotting of teddy-bear mascots helped relieve tensions; and, given the chance to split up into smaller cabins, we all preferred to stick it out in our cosy pigsty.

Although sleep was hard to come by, it was often much more pleasant to stay up through the night listening to the sailors singing and playing guitar on deck, an intriguing mixture of traditional Polish folksongs and U2 hits.

The early hours of the morning were also the time to make clandestine and forbidden climbs to the end of the bowsprit, the most beautiful and peaceful place on the whole ship. From there we could see it in its entirety, as if we ourselves were not on board, with the wake on either side lit up like fireworks by the phosphorescence of the sea. Looking up, thousands of stars framed the huge, white sails. Sometimes it was too rough to go up on the bowsprit. When we passed through a force 9 gale, we had to hold on to safety lines even when walking along the deck.

Food was, if not varied, hot and tasty, though occasional Polish specialities such as raspberry soup with pasta or suet dumplings fuelled hallucinations about Big Macs and chocolate milkshakes waiting back home. Compared with crews on other ships we were spoilt: there was an on-board baker who made fresh bread each day as well as beautiful cakes on birthdays.

Sundays brought competitions, such as a tug-of-war tournament and heaving a line through a lifebuoy, in which four of the five top places were taken by English cadets, to the astonishment of the Poles. Many lazy between-watch hours were whiled away playing gin rummy and chess on deck. When the temperature reached the 80s there was plenty of sunbathing on the poop deck.

Often the highlight of the day was the sighting of dolphins, which would catch up with us and then race along at the bow, leaping in formation out of the clear blue water. And among other unforgettable moments were evening language lessons on the bow deck as the sun set behind us, and helping a cadet propose to his girlfriend with giant placards, which we painted and held up from the ship as we arrived in the Mersey. She said yes, and we were headlined 'The Love Ship' by the enthusiastic local paper the next day.

The voyage was an experience that anyone could take part in, and there are more reliable ways than winning a competition. But you need a sense of adventure, an interest in, though not necessarily experience of, sailing, and to be prepared to rough it. You will be part of a working ship and the crew are not there to give you the red-carpet treatment.

I was on board for four and a half weeks and made many friends. The tears flowed when the ship pulled out of Vittoria Dock on the Mersey, with the crew lined up along the deck singing 'The Leaving of Liverpool' in Polish, especially for us as we waved from the dockside. As I set off back to London and the Dar Mlodziezy set sail for Germany and then Gdynia, I was already homesick for my smelly cabin for 10.

FACT FILE

Cost: A berth on the Dar Mlodziezy for a month across the Atlantic from Boston to Liverpool was about pounds 1,000, including food. Berths were also on offer to join the crew from Liverpool to the next port, Bremerhaven, at dollars 60 (pounds 31) a day.

A number of the tall ships in Liverpool were offering berths to their next destination at similar rates, and the Russian ship next to us had chalked its prices on a board beside the gangplank. It is quite common for paying crew to sign up on the dockside without booking, as several of my new friends had done in Boston or New York. It was also possible to book a private cabin on the Dar Mlodziezy as a passenger: across the Atlantic it cost about pounds 3,000.

Further information: The best-known annual events are the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Races, organised by the Sail Training Association. This year these took place in the Baltic. The Columbus Regatta was separate, with Cutty Sark Scots Whisky sponsoring only the one ship.

For information about how, when and where to plan a passage on one of the foreign-owned tall ships, how to book and how much it costs, contact the Tall-Ship Friends (Great Britain), Houseboat Sabamati, Scorland Bridge Lock, New Haw, Addlestone, Surrey KT15 3HJ (0932 344084); or Tall-Ship Friends (Germany), 74 Meiendorfer Str, D 2000 Hamburg 73 (010 49 40 219 4619).

Britain does not have such spectacular tall ships as Poland, Russia, Argentina and Denmark, but we do have a few square-riggers. For example, the Astrid Trust offers voyages to the West Indies and other destinations for the 17-25 age group on a 138ft brig (a two-masted square-rigger) for pounds 42 a day.

The Jubilee Sailing Trust operates the Lord Nelson, a modern 400-ton three-masted barque (which has square sails on two of the masts). It is specially fitted out to allow it to carry disabled crew, who make up half the complement of 40, paying pounds 50-pounds 55 a day, all found.

The Sail Training Association operates the Sir Winston Churchill and the Malcolm Miller, two three-masted topsail schooners (with square sails on their foremasts) at pounds 460-pounds 770 for a two-week cruise. The Sea Cadets operate Royalist, a 110-ton brig, which has five berths a week available for civilian adults, from pounds 110. Details of these and other, more conventional British sail training vessels for young people can be found in a free brochure, Sail to Adventure, from the Association of Sea Training Organisations, c/o Royal Yachting Association, RYA House, Romsey Road, Eastleigh, Hampshire SO5 4YA. One of the best ways to get on to the Cutty Sark races each year is to sign up with one of the ASTO members.

Skill required: many start from scratch but, for all crew members, training is part of the voyage. British qualifications can be gained on ASTO member vessels.

(Photograph omitted)

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