From 26 to 29 August 2016 Blyth in Northumberland hosted the North Sea Tall Ships Regatta. After sailing from the port in north-east England the vessels raced to Gothenburg, Sweden.
Not so long ago I witnessed the grand sight of mainsails billowing as tall ships sailed out of Lisbon, Portugal. The tiny size of Vasco da Gama’s reconstructed ship surprised me as I saw it moored, making me appreciate all the more his achievement in navigating halfway around the world.
The idea of climbing into the rigging did not appeal even in the calm of the harbour. Great Britain would never have been a maritime power if grappling up a ratline to set the topgallant sail in a choppy sea had been left to me.
From Halifax to Tahiti
To find out what that experience is like I chatted to Ian Butterworth from Halifax, West Yorkshire, who spent time aboard the Søren Larsen, sailing between islands in the Pacific Ocean such as Moorea, Bora Bora, Tahiti and Rarotonga.
His duties, which were “hard work and fun” encompassed going aloft to stow and unfurl sails, keeping bow watch and making bread in the dead of night. He also spent time swabbing decks and at the helm, following a bearing set by one of the officers.
“Sometimes the ship’s compass would be covered and at night we would sail by the stars. I remember steering the Søren by keeping the reddish star Antares from the constellation Scorpius on the starboard side of the course yard arm,” he recalls.
“I would always keep the ship on course until an officer passed by when the compass would nudge itself way off course and the officer would give you a sarcastic grin. I’m certain they had magnets in their pockets,” he jokes.
Sailing into the sunrise
“We worked a traditional watch system—four hours on and eight hours off. The best watches were 0400-0800 and 1600–000 where you saw all the sunsets and sunrises” says the Yorkshireman.
“I found out I could take a sabbatical from work, up to six months unpaid leave whilst retaining benefits such as pension, share scheme and job,” says the employee of Halifax Bank.
“The only thing you weren’t guaranteed on your return was a chair to sit on—it would most likely go missing. It was an opportunity I had to take. To be honest, I don’t know why I chose sailing but once I did it seemed the right way to spend time away. It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life,” he says, recalling the adventure.
“It was exhilarating, exhausting and life-fulfilling,” he says of the experience, which he recommends to others.
Being watched by dolphins
“Sailing into Bora Bora, I was up on the yard arms helping stow the sails. The sun was setting and the captain was playing guitar down on deck. I suddenly spotted dolphins swimming upside-down off the bow. They were looking at us — life felt fantastic,” he adds fondly.
“The tradition, history and sense of nostalgia and heritage,” were aspects Ian most enjoyed about spending time on a sailing ship.
“It was the sense that, not too long ago, this was a way of life for thousands of our ancestors—so much so that there are so many sea faring terms engrained in the English language which we still use today,” he adds.
Volunteers and permanent crew
“I was a volunteer and paid to be on board…I could do as much or as little as I wanted. I took every opportunity to take part, the only thing they wouldn’t let me do was “flaking” the anchor and chain. It was considered the most dangerous job on the ship and only permanent crew members could do that,” says Ian.
“The permanent crew—officers and deckhands—were the main workhorses. Boy, did they did work hard! They were paid a small wage and it was their job to keep the Søren ‘shipshape and Bristol fashion’. The term was coined for ships taking the trip up the Bristol channel,” he adds.
“I briefly became a member of the permie crew, and thus the Merchant Navy, on a stopover in Tahiti for a week. I spent the week sanding down and varnishing the toilet seats and bowsprit. It was one of the best weeks of my life,” reveals Ian.
Being a volunteer on the Søren Larsen also meant parties, often in fancy dress, plus formal dinners with the captain on Sundays.
Ahoy, a rum tale
Like every sailor, Ian can tell a story.
“One night the ship was rolling quite badly in rough seas. I was on the 0000-0400 watch and it was my turn to make the bread. The ship took a roll and the bread mix went all over the galley floor. I took to my hands and knees to wipe up the mess and start again—my head was spinning, my stomach was churning. I started the mix again and put it in the oven. The next duty was to make the tea with one sugar, black coffee with half sugar, lattes, mochas and all combinations of hot drinks for the watch crew. I wasn’t in the mood and told the crew I was making a bucket of tea with milk for everyone,” he recounts.
“As I was exiting the galley with six cups in my hands, the ship took a roll, I slid towards the holes in the side of the ship that let water flow off the deck and the cups went overboard. The following morning I asked a crew member what the holes were called–scuppers. That made sense. The previous night I was nearly well and truly ‘scuppered’!”
The experience taught Ian a big lesson. “For most of us, the course of our lives is in our hands. It doesn’t have to be sailing but there is something we can all do to better our lives,” he says.
For me will include getting to Blyth over the Bank Holiday Weekend to unwind while viewing the ships.
The Visit Northumberland website has information about attractions in and around Blyth.
Tall ships return to north-east England in 2018. Sunderland will host the Tall Ships Races from 11 to 14 July.
Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.
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