The sea hisses and spits,  rattling against my oilskins as I kneel up onto the heaving rail, turn, clutch the tarred rope and climb.  ‘Go on, It’s just like going up a ladder!’, the bosun shouts. Some ladder!   This one tilts violently as the ship drops into another trough and rears up the next wave.  ‘Keep climbing! Don’t stop!  Don’t look down!’.  Two thirds of the way up,  I transfer to an overhanging ladder to reach the first platform, then climb unprotected  to an open frame of metal girders bolted to the mast.  To get onto it,  I lean back so I am hanging at 45 degrees.  My arms are getting tired and so I must move quickly.   Two thirds of the way up the next flight, I reach out with my left hand and, grabbing the metal rail along the top of the topgallant mast, transfer one foot onto the loop of rope beneath it.  Far below, the deck twists and heaves and red and black figures stagger in orchestrated drunkenness.  Nobody looks up as, straddled across the stomach-churning void,  I unhook the long sling from around my neck, clip it to the safety wire and edge along the mast.   It’s noisy up here.  The wind hums through the rigging like an electric generator and the loose canvas snaps and flaps.  Holding on with to the mast with my right hand, I bend my knees and reach down with my left to pull up the rope that is attached the back of the rucked-up sail, creating a fold into which I stuff the sail using my right forearm.  I then pull the package up onto the top of the mast and tie it to the rail with a slipping clove hitch.  I move across onto the next hitch and continue until the sail is neatly tied.  Working with the sail makes me forget my fear.  I gaze out across a grey sea, frothed with white and feel, for the first time, a sense of exhilaration. 

 

The Prince William is a modern two-masted brig.  It measures 200 feet from stem to stern  and the mainmast soars 150 feet above the deck.  It was built just ten years ago and fitted out with an auxiliary motor, the latest computer navigation systems and basic but comfortable accommodation.  Nevertheless the 18 sails,  five on each mast – course, lower and upper topsails, topgallant and royal, –  four jibs, three stay sails and a spanker (the large wedge shaped sail behind the mainmast) are worked in the traditional manner by the crew.  Sailing ships are run on ropes.  There are 10 ropes for pulling each of the sails up and down,  20 for raising or lowering the masts, and another 20 for turning the masts. Turning the ship into the wind is known as tacking.  Turning it away form the wind is termed ‘wearing’.   Both require all the crew to pull on the horizontal masts or yardarms so that the sails are set at the correct angle to the wind.   The lower yards are very heavy and it takes a ‘hauler’ and three or four ‘sweaters’ to pull them round.  Like Nelson’s sailors, the hauler synchronises the efforts of his team by shouting ‘two–six’, and sweaters respond by calling ‘Heave’ and pulling on the rope. 

 

The ship is owned by the Tall Ships Youth Trust, a charity dedicated to the personal development of young people, especially those from deprived backgrounds.  But some voyages are available to paid ‘guests’; adventurous spirits from of any age from 18 to 75.   We were those guests.  There were 48 of us,  divided into three watches of 16; red, white and blue.  Each watch takes it in turn to run the ship in 7 periods (also called watches) throughout the day;  five of four hours and two dog watches in the early evening of two hours each.

 

Each day at sea begins with a briefing by the captain and an educational session;  flags, lights, rules of the sea and turning the ship.  This is followed by ‘happy hour’, during which the crew clean the ship.  Thereafter, activity is determined according to the ‘watches’.   Life on board soon settles into a round of sleeping, eating, cleaning and hanging about waiting for things to happen, interrupted by intense periods of strenuous and often dangerous activity.  You get frightened, you eat.  You get exhausted, you sleep – at any time.   I found the motion of the ship lulled me to sleep and I could cat nap for an hour and feel fresh again.  The voyage crew sleep in pipe cots, canvas hammocks attached by rope to the frame of a bunk.  Men and women sleep in the same cabin with only a thin curtain by each cot to provide a semblance of privacy.  Although somewhat disconcerting at first, you quickly get used to the snores, farts, groans and bodily odours of the others on your watch.  This is what is known as ‘bonding’.  But just in case anybody is tempted to bond too much, a notice outside each of the cabins forbids sexual activity between crew members under threat of the Captain’s displeasure.  

 

During the course of the year, The Prince William sails to the Caribbean, the Azores, the Canary Islands and the Mediterranean.  Our voyage was less romantic; Brixham to Swansea in late October. 

 

We left port on the motor at midday. The weather was bright with just a light breeze,   but by the time we reached Berry Head,  a few miles south of the harbour  the wind freshened, the sea became ‘lumpy’ and half of the voyage crew hung over the rail regretting breakfast.  Setting the sails eased the motion and we blew down the channel on an easterly wind and were south of Falmouth by evening.  The sun shone all the next day as we passed Land’s End.  We watched gannets cruise  the waves like warplanes, turning themselves into living darts to spear schools of mackerel in a bursts of spray.  And a pair of wood warblers, late migrants to Africa, joined the ship south of The Lizard and fluttered around the rigging, oblivious to the fact we were carrying them the wrong way! 

 

That night, I was on watch as we ghosted up the coast of Cornwall.  Meteors scorched their way across the rotating tapestry of stars,  The Plough pivoted around The Pole Star to stand on it’s handle and the brand new moon smiled, a sliver of bright light on a pale disc of earthshine.  And on a slippery sea that resembled dark treacle, wraith-like dolphins materialised in trails of phosphorescence. 

 

A bright dawn found us sailing up the western shore of Lundy Island, but by afternoon,  the wind shifted and we sailed down the eastern shore.  At anchor in Bideford Bay, the beer lent nostalgia to our songs; reminiscences of our youth, hymns from the Welsh valleys, and the Captain’s unforgettable rendition of Allouette.    

 

Crewing on a tall ship offers something that is rare in our risk aversive society;  that real sense of comradeship and confidence that develops out of the challenge of facing up to our fears.  For older crew who have reached the age of reflection, it is pure nostalgia, but for young people, struggling to find their way through the turbulence of adolescence, it can provide the pivotal experience, around which their emerging identities crystallise.  Self awareness and confidence are gained, not only through the acquisition of new skills and the solving of problems, but also by taking responsibility for themselves and others and through the supportive relationships they form with adults and peers.  And what’s more, it’s fun! They may forget how to tie the knots but the friendships and confidence will last for life.

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