It was about four o'clock on a December morning and we were somewhere in the middle of the North Sea. The wind roared, the waves pounded the deck above my head. I heard the shouts and heavy footfalls of the crew as they struggled to lower the mainsail, which had become a liability in the gale.
The Albatros - a Dutch North Sea clipper built in 1899, 34 metres long and weighing 140 tons - is the last sailing ship of her kind working as a commercial cargo carrier in Europe. She was bought in 1980 by Ton Brouwer, who spent several years restoring her before bringing her back into service.
The previous owner had bought the Albatros in the Second World War, during which he had traded building materials between Nazi- occupied Norway and neutral Sweden - as a cover for running guns to the Norwegian resistance and smuggling Jewish refugees to Sweden. 'He used to drink a lot,' said Ton, 'so the Nazis never bothered him. They just thought he was drunk and crazy.'
For the past four years, the Albatros has been bringing soya meal twice a month from Ghent in Belgium into the port of Wells-next- the-Sea on the north Norfolk coast. She also makes occasional excursions to the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Ton has a crew of three and will take up to six passengers as auxiliaries.
We set off for Amsterdam on the morning high tide, sailing under engine power out of the shallow channel from Wells in the snaking wake of the pilot boat ahead of us. At low tide, it would be difficult to float anything more substantial than a milk-bottle top. 'This is the only port where I need a pilot,' Ton said, spinning the large wheel ferociously and grimacing as the flat hull grazed the bottom.
Soon we were passing the pine- topped sand dunes by the channel mouth. Suddenly, the ship began to rock violently, the bows climbing towards the sky, then arching downwards as we breached the surf. Standing on deck, I felt as though I had boarded a fairground ride dangerously out of control.
We headed out into the heaving sea for three or four miles, with hungry seagulls floating around us on the fresh south-west wind. The sky was a clear winter blue, and the bleached sunlight glinted off the water, bathing the receding coastline in a shimmery haze.
Behind the wheel, Ton sucked at the cigar clenched between his teeth as he steered us through the swell. 'Perfect sailing weather,' he said, as he brought the ship around on to her new course. We were to follow the coast for a few hours before heading out across to the Netherlands. As the crew hoisted the sails, Ton silenced the reassuring chug of the engine. The sails filled and began to pull us along at an impressive speed, pitching and rolling but with a smooth, relentless rhythm.
The only other passenger on this trip (apart from Ton's guinea-pig, Blackie, and a rescued seagull he had cleaned of oil and was feeding back to health) was Dorothy, a Dutch artist who had sailed across with the ship a few days earlier. She was sitting in the wood-panelled mess staring unhappily out of the window, her complexion much the same green as the sea. I asked if she had been seasick on the way over. 'The whole time,' she said, forcing a smile, 'and I have lived on a boat for seven years.'
As darkness began to fall, I went back on deck. The sun had sunk below the horizon, but its pink glow still lit the underside of the thin grey clouds over the coast behind us. Soon the only visible illuminations were those of the brilliant moon, and the pinpoints of navigation lights from other ships and distant gas rigs.
'Can you help us, please?' Ton said, rushing past me, followed by Martin and Mark, the mate. One of the mainsail ropes had snapped. Mark and I took turns at the heavy winch, lowering the sail while Ton and Martin repaired the broken rope. When the repair had been made, Martin and I struggled to hold the boom in position against the incredible force of the wind, as the sail was raised again. I had a vision of the boom swinging loose and sweeping us into the icy water.
With white knuckles I clutched the rail as I wobbled my way to the warm and cosy wheelhouse, from which echoed a melancholy song. Harry, the third crew member, was at the wheel. His tenor voice reverberated against the wooden bulkheads as he steered. 'It is Schubert,' he laughed, before resuming his serenade.
Behind him in dim lamplight, cigar still in mouth, Ton pored over the chart table measuring our progress with a pair of brass dividers. The wind had been steadily increasing and so, in consequence, had the swell. We were making a steady speed of between nine and 10 knots. Martin and Mark were out on deck again, hosing away the remains of soya meal which had been spilt during unloading and had turned into a treacherous porridge. I stepped outside to watch them, and was nearly blown off my feet by a bitter blast of wind and spray.
I had been congratulating myself on not having succumbed to seasickness. But by about nine o'clock these congratulations were beginning to seem premature. As I stumbled around, making up my bunk, the heaving in the cabin in the belly of the boat seemed much more pronounced. Ton gave me a fatherly smile as, 30 seconds later, I bolted past him through the mess, my hand over my mouth.
After my troubled night's sleep, I resurfaced to the dim grey light of morning. The port of Ijmuiden was in sight, from where we would sail along the North Sea canal to Amsterdam. The waters were still churning, and the wind drove rain horizontally into my face as I leant over the stern.
'Good morning,' Ton said cheerily, cigar still glued in place, when I returned to the wheelhouse. 'It was a heavy night but we made it.' He had managed to snatch only two hours' sleep, and the other crew members, who had been busy all night, had not slept at all. The weather had changed dramatically for the worse after I had gone to bed. The wind had swung round to the north-west, rising to force eight and creating a swell of five to six metres. Water had got into the engine and now it would not start. We sat in the mouth of Ijmuiden harbour for three more hours as Ton worked in the engine room below, occasionally reappearing, his arms covered to the elbows in thick black grease. 'Praise the Lord,' said Harry jubilantly, as the engine finally sputtered into life.
De-greased, and still chomping on a cigar, Ton was soon steering us towards the sluice at the entrance to the canal. 'It has been the most difficult crossing this year,' he said, relieved. 'I think there is an angel over my head.'
After two hours of gentle chugging along the canal, he guided the Albatros into the quayside in central Amsterdam, a far cry from the sleepy seaside town of Wells we had left 27 hours earlier.
The Albatros sails between March and December but, because of the unpredictable sea conditions, exact departure dates are not known until a few days before sailing. For information contact: Rokus De Groot, Romi Shipping & Trading, William Pont Straat 91, 1135 ET Edam, the Netherlands (010 31 2993 63096).
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