From Halifax to Belfast by Sea
Posted by Tall Ships America on August 26, 2009
It has been over a week since I waved goodbye to the HMS Bounty in Belfast. As she sailed off the dock and joined the Parade of Sail, I couldn’t help but wish I was on deck too, watching the city recede behind us as we sail off to the next port of call. Instead I wandered aimlessly through the streets of Belfast, missing my new friends and feeling out of touch with the people rushing about the city. I found I was eager to get back to work. At least then, ensconced in the planning for the Great Lakes United 2010 TALL SHIPS CHALLENGE® Race Series, I would be able to talk to people who understood what it was like to be at sea for 22 days and how scary it is the first time you climb up to the royal yard while underway.
My tall ship experience began on July 20th, the day of the Parade of Sail out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was a stunningly gorgeous, windy day and a welcome change from the rainy, foggy weather that had settled over the city for the past few days. Not that the weather did anything to deter the crowds from coming down to the waterfront – if you live in Halifax, you learn to live with the fog.
It was thrilling to finally be a part of a Parade of Sail and to know that I wouldn’t be getting off the ship and hopping on a plane home that night. There was nervous anticipation all over the deck. I looked around, not knowing the first thing about what I should or shouldn’t be doing, and thought to myself, “Can I live with these people that I just met this morning for the next three weeks? Is the weather going to be rough? And, most importantly, will I get seasick?”
As we headed out to the ocean, Rebecca, second mate and my watch leader, offered to take us “newbies” aloft. No problem, I thought, I’ve been rock climbing before. A few white knuckled moments later, after I forced my trembling legs up the shrouds, I realized that climbing up a moving ship is a whole lot different than clambering around on solid rock and I didn’t like it one bit. Rebecca could see that we were nervous so we just sat at the course (the lowest yard) and took in the view. And what a view it was, the sunlight sparkled off the blue ocean, tall ships and square sails were all around us, and you could see for miles. Later that day, after I came back down to deck, I resolved that before I got to Ireland, I would make it all the way to the royal yard, 115 feet above the deck.
That first week was a time of adjustment. I had the 12-4 watch and found myself going to bed at 6:30pm so that I could get a few hours of sleep in before I was to be woken up again at 11:20pm to take the deck at 11:45pm. Bow watch on those nights was a solitary affair, just you, the slapping of the water against the hull and the sound of the sails straining against their lines. Looking up, the inky black of the sky was filled with a million pinpricks of light that stretched horizon to horizon. One night, we even saw phosphorescence in our wake, underwater fireflies that blinked and flickered as Bounty plowed along. During the day, when not sleeping or eating, we worked on the ship. There is always something on board a wooden tall ship that needs to be replaced or repaired. It was fascinating to learn hands on all the parts of the ship and how these parts are replaced while underway, from the topmast to the deck and everything in between. Sails needed repairing, lines needed to be spliced or patch served, decks washed, floors mopped, galley cleaned… the list is never ending on these traditionally rigged vessels.
By the second week, I was much more confident going aloft, mainly due to the fact that once you are up there you are too busy to think about how high you are off the deck. The crew and passengers had slipped into an easy camaraderie bound together by fog, rain, wind and the relentless foghorn. Once we were out of sight of land, the wind picked up and the weather moved in. Bounty was enveloped by fog. Since there isn’t anything you can do about the weather, you learn to live with it and drink lots of hot chocolate to ward off the damp and chill. On the rare occasion it was sunny, it was brilliant and you could find the crew back aft by the helm, laughing and enjoying the warmth. For that week, cribbage became the game of choice in the evening and several of us would gather in the galley trying to outmaneuver each other.
The third week arrived too quickly and there was a change all over the ship as we realized that this trip was rapidly coming to an end. However, Mother Nature wasn’t going to let us escape that easy and decided to show us some North Atlantic weather by sending in a low pressure system which brought 15ft waves that loomed behind the stern, high winds up to 25 knots and lots of rain. Bounty cruised along at a brisk (for her) 9.5 knots, at one point reaching 13.1 knots. With a hull speed of 11 knots, that was an invigorating speed. Unfortunately, all the rocking and rolling made it tough to sleep so the we all had to get creative with our sleeping areas. Since my cabin was athwart ship (head to the starboard side, feet to the port) every time Bounty rolled, I’d slide first one way and then slam into the other end. I lined my suitcases along the bottom of my bunk and wedged myself in to prevent all the slipping and sliding. You had to be careful walking around above and below decks since you were constantly being thrown off balance. Eating was an adventure, too, as your plate would suddenly slide away and, as you went to catch it, your cup would race across the table. It was extreme eating and you learned to eat fast.
Going aloft in that weather was exhilarating and, despite my trepidation on that first day, it was an awesome experience to be part of the crew in those instances, fighting to furl the wet, heavy sail, the wind and rain lashing at your face, the ship rocking beneath you as the yard arm you are attached to dips towards the ocean – it was exciting and sobering at the same time.
Eighteen days after we left Halifax, land was sighted. That morning, at 4:00 am, several of us climbed aloft to the royal to watch the sun rise over Ireland. It was my first time being that high the entire voyage and it was an incredible way to celebrate the end of this trans-Atlantic journey. For the next few days, we sailed up the Irish Sea and prepared the ship for the TALL SHIPS ALTANTIC CHALLENGE® event in Belfast. Those days were bittersweet, excitement to finally be on land again and to see friends, but sad because the adventure was over.
Sitting at my desk in Newport, RI, I can’t help but look back with envy on those days at sea, when my biggest concern was what was for dinner. The world shrinks down to 120 feet, friends are never more than a few feet away, and there is always the promise of someplace new over the horizon. Sail training changed me in ways that I can see, calluses on my hands, remnants of pine tar on my nails, and the smug knowledge that I didn’t get seasick. But sail training changed me in a more subtle way- rising to the challenge of being out of my comfort zone, realizing that being disconnected from my normal life is a wonderful way to reconnect with the world around me, and finally, knowing that I will always be bound to these people because of our shared experience on a wooden tall ship.