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October 16, 2017

It was an early start for many of the Voyage Crew coming from near and distant corners of the country, who arrived on board Lord Nelson on Friday morning for the start of a four-day weekend. It was also a hectic start for the permanent crew after a week of successful daysails for supporters and suppliers, from Portsmouth’s Gunwharf Quay Marina.

With everyone aboard and signed on to the ship’s articles, a mix of novices and old hands, were straight into Captain Barbara’s introductions and the beginning of the safety briefing and training in the ship’s routines. This really went on for the entire voyage – something new every day, sometimes every hour. Steve the Chief Engineer explained the elementary principles of living on board: water, sewage, smoke detectors – and of course the bar. Our first attempt at the evacuation drill was rather good, under the First Mate Lesley’s eagle eye; even so we did it all again the following day, to demonstrate that we knew our stuff.

After a few hours the members of the watches were beginning to bond with each other, with all the signs of a good crew forming. An early call for ‘hands aloft’ reinforced this. People who had never thought about climbing the masts, some for whom it was a longstanding desire encouraged and supported each other in their climbs. Whether accompanied by Stan the Bo’sun, encouraged by the four irrepressible Bo’sun’s Mates (an all-women team of volunteers on this voyage), or hoisted in their wheelchairs by a team of their colleagues, everyone achieved their aim. For some, the height of our ambition was to stay on the deck, and that was done well too.

Then we were off the berth – with a stiff onshore breeze it took some time – the fat mooring warps were coiled away under the tutelage of Rowan, the Second Mate. Jo, the Medical Purser, supervised bringing on board the portly orange fenders that stop the ship from grinding against the berth. We headed for our night’s anchorage off St Helen’s, Isle of Wight. Members of each watch were introduced to their duties of keeping the ship safe through the night, monitoring the wind speed, the radar and the radio to make sure the anchor wasn’t dragging, identifying lights around the Solent and on other ships.

Just before midnight the anchor watch heard a Mayday call, apparently from a yacht sinking off Southsea beach. The inshore lifeboat, the search and rescue helicopter, the onshore Coastguard and the police launches were mobilised.  Soon after 1am the search was called off. The supposed emergency was probably a hoax by Friday night revellers, not realising the danger to the searchers (many of whom are volunteers too).

Saturday morning saw us put into effect the previous day’s practice of bracing the yards, which alter the angle to the wind of the big square sails. Captain Barbara sails rather than using the engine whenever possible. She led us in ‘boxing’ the yards to bring the ship’s head round so that we could sail off the anchor, a centuries-old technique essential in the old-time square riggers.

Did I mention food? By now we had already eaten four hearty meals, delivered by Dave the Cook (some claim he is the most important person on the ship), Jenny his volunteer assistant, and the four messmen for the day drawn from each of the watches. Cooking fresh and delicious meals for nearly sixty people, in a galley smaller than your kitchen at home, is not so much a skill as an art-form. It goes on round the clock and requires the utmost dedication.

Captain Barbara’s aim was to bring the ship round when we reached a position in the English Channel from which we could turn and sail more or less directly towards Poole. Sailing ships can only go with the wind, so this entailed a long tack to the south, then another traditional manoeuvre called ‘wearing’ the ship to bring the wind on the other side. In glorious October sunshine we sailed on deeper into the Channel, while some of the crew climbed the masts again, some chatted, and others stored up sleep before their night watches. By this point, disabilities were forgotten: we were simply the crew.

Lord Nelson maintains a constant physical watch by two lookouts who scan ahead and astern; since we are relatively slow-moving, things coming up behind us appear out of nowhere very quickly. The mist turned to fog and during the night the ship’s foghorn sounded its urgent long blast followed by two short blasts. The lookouts looked around even harder.

During the night watch the early weather forecast from the Coastguard was full of foreboding: storm force 10, 11 and even hurricane force 12, the tail of Hurricane Ophelia. Captain Barbara re-appraised her plan to anchor on Sunday night in Studland Bay south of Poole. After a most enjoyable Sunday of sailing in the sun, we finally stowed the sails and picked up the Poole pilot.

Then – Dave’s fabulous Sunday roast, with second helpings. Did I mention the food? Medical Purser Jo opened the shop selling Lord Nelson and JST branded clothing, books and memorabilia and did a roaring trade. Crew members who hadn’t burned up enough energy sang in the bar, while the rest had leisurely showers or caught up with the sleep they missed on the night watches.

Monday Breakfast was at a civilised hour, then packing bags, stripping bunks and – Happy Hour! The revelation for new crew members was that this means cleaning the ship – and boy, did we clean it, right down to the bunk boards. Captain Barbara assembled the crew and reviewed the voyage.

Then farewells, hugs and handshakes between friends who had been strangers only a few days earlier. As the Voyage Crew departed, Hurricane Ophelia was showing her form: dense rolling purple cloud, the moon red through the Saharan dust swept up from Africa, white horses on Poole Harbour…


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