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July 10, 2014

VOYAGE 409: The Tall Ships Races, Harlingen to Fredrikstad

10th July 2014

A minor sandstorm on the Harlingen quayside was brought to an end by a brief torrential shower: the sand remained, and has accompanied us on the decks until this morning, when we were finally able to hose down the decks in the sun. Our first full day of racing started wonderfully: flat sea, good wind and from the right direction. We should have known it wouldn’t last – and indeed it didn’t. Soon the wind and sea were rising, and with them the rate of donations to Neptune. But it’s always a revelation how much difference sunshine makes to people feeling a little bit green and we’ve had a lot of it.
We’ve been about halfway up the Class A fleet since the start: mostly we could see three or four of the others, but as we’ve all scattered sightings have become more and more infrequent except on the radar. Beating the competition, as always on JST’s ships, is far less important than making sure everyone can take part fully in sailing the ship, and in the life of the community that develops as the crew gets to know and respect each other. This crew is especially fortunate: although we have a complete spread of age and ability from 16 to 80 plus, and from severe disability to super-fit, we have learned to like and respect each other very quickly.

But we digress: there’s still a race on even if it isn’t dominating our lives, and even if we’re not sure who is the real competition. Though it has to be admitted that when we find out who they are, we have a large stock of water bombs and two ballista’s with which to launch them. Racing, even JST style, involves sail handling and manoeuvres and we’ve had a lot of them. The first was wearing the ship in the early morning, around the 4am watch change so there were plenty of hands available. So expertly was it managed that those blessedly asleep below were unaware of it until they found their bunk tilting the opposite way.
Since then we’ve hoisted sail, handed sail, tacked and marked the competition’s manoeuvres relentlessly. We couldn’t practise alongside in Harlingen because we were rafted with Pelican, and moving our yards would have swept her masts clear. So it’s remarkable how competent we became and how quickly (give or take a few fluffs and snarls). It really does take everybody to work together to tack all 25 sails on the ship, from the bracing teams on the main and after decks swinging the square sails on their yards, to the Engineers and Medical Purser on the poop manhandling the great spanker round.

We’ve been zig-zagging slowly towards Fredrikstad across the North Sea, the pencil lines and positions on the chart sometimes looking like the progress of a demented crab, because the winds have not been blowing our way. The night before last was close to gale force and the sea got up to ‘lumpy’, making it hard for our wheelchair users to work on deck or in the galley, and requiring everybody to watch their step or go for a quick trip! There were a few cuts and bruises but happily nothing serious: in fact the most serious thing has been the failure of the water boiler in the upper mess where tea-on-demand comes from, requiring some improvisation.

Ah, the race. Now you come to mention it, we’ve just finished. The adverse winds caused the Class A (square-rigger) fleet to be much slower than expected and to get to Fredrikstad in time for the festivities we needed to finish a day early. With no line and cannon we had to create our own drama: it turns out that we’re rather good at doing so. First the haunting tones of the Russian harmonica, then the skirl of the Scottish war pipes (recorded) floated out over the sea. Now we’re free to sail in the sun and fair wind towards Fredrikstad.

But you should have been aboard last night: clear skies, a steady wind and the sky bright enough to read by all night. We arrived on watch at midnight wishing for it to end so we could go back to sleep at 4am, but it was a pleasure to be out and see the moon set and the sun rise, an experience to savour and keep for the future. `

Aft Port Watch


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