The Bridge had fallen almost silent. Each person on night watch had spent over three hours falling into their rhythm. Starboard and Port lookouts, helming, hourly logs, and most importantly – tea duty and storytelling to keep morale high! I’m sure if I had asked, each person would have admitted their thoughts were fixed on counting down the last quarter hour and preparing for their rehearsed bedtime routine… kicking off boots, sliding out of oil skins and jackets. If you were an old hand at this you’d already be wearing your pj’s, shaving off precious seconds between being relieved of your duties and drifting off to sleep.
All thoughts of bedtime quickly drifted away on the breeze when Rory, the third mate announced that we were about to start setting the sails for the first time. Bedtime would have to wait, as all hands were required on deck.
Turning on the rigging lights after a four hour night watch was like turning on the Christmas lights on Oxford Street. She looked so breathtakingly beautiful. In this light the sails look like they were brand new, crisp and white against the stark black backdrop of the starless night. As the next watch joined us on the Bridge, the engines were turned off and we waited with baited breath to gauge how stiff the wind really was. Silence floated across the deck as all eyes shaped out the silhouette of the sails.
Both watches mustered to their stations ready to receive orders. The most remarkable element of sailing Lord Nelson is the ability to take people of all abilities and backgrounds and turn them into sailors. As we grouped around the main mast, awaiting orders I silently prayed that I would be able to keep up and understand the technical instructions and not land my watch mates in trouble. Any apprehension I may have had quickly dispersed as Rory, Ben – second mate and Kathryn – Bosun’s mate rallied around and seamlessly guided us from line to line. Every third word may still have been gibberish Pirate language, and I may not have fully known yet the outcome of hauling a particular line, but not once did I feel that I wasn’t an intricate part of this well-oiled machine, and that is the magic of what the Jubilee Sailing Trust is all about, and the true (and only important in my humble opinion) measure of a good permanent crew.
Nothing prepared me for the instant uplift in morale as we each grabbed hold of the topsail halyard and readied ourselves to haul. I was third from the front, and I just managed to steal a quick glance over my shoulder, down the long and winding line. I counted over ten of us on my line, different faces, different ages, all with our own stories and personal motivations for being here, but now, with only one objective… to get Lord Nelson sailing under her own steam. It was a very special and proud moment, and beat sleeping hands down!
2…6…heave… echoed across the deck as we worked the lines methodically. Sweating and tailing as it’s known in Pirate lingo – Sweating is the hard, physical pulling (hence the name) and tailing involves hauling in the slack line and making it fast on its pin. The sails unravelled themselves effortlessly and took up their natural form, ready to capture the wind. Gallant and proud she stood in the rigging lights, looking on approvingly of all our hard work.
Relieved of our duties, my watch handed over the helm to the next watch team and exchanged messages of appreciation and we wished them a good watch. As I made my way below decks I knew any chance of sleeping had now fully evaded me. I was far too excited to sleep. I had just set my first sail on tall ship Lord Nelson, in the middle of the night, adrift in the Atlantic Ocean – that topped any usual Thursday evening by most people’s standards.
I followed standard bedtime routine, stowed all my gear so as not to create raining debris in the night for my crew mates and slipped into my top bunk. I lay there for a while feeling the melodic sway of the ship, that had no doubt lulled my watch mates off to sleep by now, and ran through a mental account of my day. Up until night watch, I assumed the highlight would almost certainly have been our first dolphin sighting, a sight at sea that usually ranked high on peoples “peak of the day”… not today though. Dolphins are magical creatures, but today’s highlight was reserved for my crew. Not only the ones that stood shoulder to shoulder with me in the dead of night to set those sails, but the ones that were sleeping soundly in their beds, having worked tirelessly to feed and water us all day. The ones that would take the 0400 – 0800 watch, the engineers, cooks, and Captain that never stopped working behind the scenes to make this machine tick.
I flicked on my cabin light and reached my hand into the wooden trough mounted on the wall to stow my personally belongings and pulled out a book. For Esme – with love and squalor by J.D Salinger loaned to me earlier that day by Piers the mate. My heart was full of gratitude as I turned the first page and began to read. If today had been a story, it would have certainly had a very happy ending.
Forward Port Watch