Memories from the Ship draws from my sailing experiences in the Atlantic and Pacific aboard the tall ship Søren Larsen.
All the incidents in the piece are first-hand accounts of what I witnessed and experienced at sea and on various exotic islands.
This partially dramatized account won second place in a creative writing competition awarded at the Brindley Arts Centre in Runcorn.
There’s a stone carving on the bridge which crosses the canal. You can’t see it from the road, you have to be on the towpath, you have to look carefully. It shows a sailing ship, a three-masted barque from another age, the 19th century. Imagine.
Jack often takes a walk in the old town, through its green spaces, the hill, the heath, sometimes the cemetery, but he always goes by the carving. You might see him standing there, staring at it for the hundredth time at least, motionless. Well, physically motionless, his memory will be soaring.
Imagine if you could read his thoughts, share his memories. What would you experience?
A memory from childhood of wonderment at seeing sailing ships in picture books and from reading about great sea adventures, dreaming what it would be like to see exotic places, yearning to get away.
The feeling of awe when told about his great-grandfather who had sailed to San Francisco around Cape Horn, not just a story but real, tangible, if only as a yellowing memoir. Dreaming of emulating that adventure some day. Then, years later, of having an opportunity to go to sea. Oh the memories of that voyage . . .
The first sight of the ship the night before going aboard, wondering where it would take him. In the morning by the quayside, the seaweed smell, the cries of gulls, shouts of busy people. Small talk with new companions, ‘Have you sailed before?’ ‘Me neither.’ Names to try to remember. Relief to find everyone seems friendly. On the dingy heading for the ship, the tight knot of nervousness in his stomach, then clumsily clambering aboard, obviously a land lubber.
The confusion of rope, sails, swaying masts, the ceaselessly moving deck, more new faces and accents, some Australian, the nautical jargon – fore and aft, sheets and staysails, clews and bunts.
Being shown around, given a berth in a cramped cabin, shown the engine for when there’s no wind, here’s where we’ll eat and here’s the ‘head’, hand pumped with sea water to flush it. Then on deck being given an introduction to the bewildering lattice of ropes or ‘lines’. Shown how to coil a rope correctly. Hauling on lines and watching a sail unfurl overhead, billowing as the wind gives it body to power the ship as it leaves its anchorage.
The ship which had been yesterday’s view from the land was now home and the homely coast now the view from the ship. With the movement of the ship the land recedes then grows distant, details become indistinct then blur until the land mass is just a green-brown shape of hills, then a dark smudge until its gone and the horizon holds only water in all directions.
Getting used to the movement of the ship’s unsteady deck, trying to balance, to predict the random lurching, guessing a pattern among the sways and rolls, tensing leg muscles to gain a grip through sea boots.
Life in an alien world governed by watch rotas, sleeping in the day, working in pitch black darkness. Hauling lines with muscles burning and hands blistering. The ship never sleeps, it exhausts the crew with its demands for attention as it keeps sailing, moving relentlessly like one of the creatures in the depths below.
Oh that first night of feeling sick! Can’t lie down, can’t stand up, wishing the motion would stop, but it won’t, not for three weeks. Oh no here it comes. Quick, rush to the head. There, its over, the sickness has won but it has passed. Feeling weak now but relieved, go on deck for fresh air, its raining but that’s refreshing, its dark so no-one can see the homesick tears. There’s the ship’s carpenter, head over the side, so the old hands get sick too. Jack felt better for seeing this, closer to being a real sailor.
A baptism of fire, or rather of water. A force eight storm in the Bay of Biscay. Grey. Storms are grey. Wind is grey. Sea, sky, grey, grey. All colour is washed out of the world, from the crew’s faces and from the ship, maybe the ship is ill too. Great slopes of slanting waves, 45 degree gradients of water beneath and all around, the ship riding them like a cork. From the sky, rain and hail lashing faces. For three days, and nights. Lonely watches, Jack made up rhymes to bring a little relief as the grey watch hours passed.
When the storm abates there’s a rolling sea like rounded hills of water, watery downs. A deep swell, the ship gently rises and falls in the peaks and troughs of ocean.
Further south there’s calm, bright sun and a blue sky at last. Faces redden and smiles break out. Now there’s light winds and light work and time to dry clothes. The storm of jargon is clearing too as days pass and experience increases. Port is left, starboard is right, the galley is the kitchen, shrouds are ladders and lines are ropes. But lines aren’t just lines they are clews, bunts, sheets. Sails aren’t just sails but, staysails, main, topgallant, jib. ‘Two points aft of the port beam,’ actually means something.
Tea break or ‘Smoko’, ah tea, there’s no other name for that. Fresh baked biscuits, jokes, laughter, the eccentric engineer, wear your hat at the table and pay the forfeit of a beer fine.
With the ship easing its way along there’s time for songs on deck accompanied by the mate’s fiddle and boatswain’s accordion. Shanties from a long time ago, folk songs from home. Jack told a limerick, The Barmaid from Sale.
Sharing the excitement of seeing wildlife. Dolphins riding the bow wave, whale spouts in the distance, luminous phosphorescence, a whale shark as long as the ship.
Then land. Madeira. A foreign island, thick forest, green, the colour you don’t see much of at sea, the bustle of a town, sounds of a strange language, thick wine, ‘Have some, me dear’. Feeling the ground swaying when you go ashore looking like ragged pirates amongst the cruise ship tourists. The unfamiliarity of an unmoving bed in the hostel that first night.
All too soon it’s the end of the voyage, just as calluses were hardening and what was once a confusion of rope now seems an orderly system. There’s handshakes, hugs and tears amongst the goodbyes, firm friends after three weeks on the ocean.
That was the planned end to Jack’s voyage, a taste of his great-grandfather’s adventure. But the taste left him thirsty for more ocean, he went back before long and the adventure gained momentum . . .
Hot, hot, Panama. It had been freezing in England. A quick tour to see the canal then cast off with another exotic passport stamp and out into the greatest ocean. The Pacific, that vast body of water sprinkled with islands.
The first was Cocos Island, uninhabited except for wildlife rangers. A hike in oppressive humidity, sweat pouring from every pore, but at the end a cool shower with hand sized spiders for company. Resting in a hammock slung between coconut trees by a beach of white sand, sounds like a cliché but it was real. Then back to work on the ship.
The galley. Cooking dinner for 35 in a moving kitchen. Everything behind little barriers or held magnetically otherwise once you put something down its gone with a lurch of ocean swell.
There were unexpected, incredible sights. Like the tuna factory ship whose helicopter crashed into the sea and had to be rescued. Or, on a smaller scale, the turtle entangled in a plastic bag, what chance was there it would cross paths with the ship and be freed of its bondage of litter?
Galapagos where Lonesome George the giant tortoise lives, the last of his species. At 150 years old he might have hatched when Charles Darwin was an old man.
Crossing the line. Becoming a shellback at the court of King Neptune in a ceremony which must remain a secret.
Blue water sailing, several days in the remote Pacific more than 1000 miles from land. Few people ever come here, even the sea charts have scant information. Jack helped measure air and sea temperatures, wind strength and direction, figures to be collated and added to the statistics for the next set of charts.
Woken for the 4:00 am watch, still half asleep, still dreaming, stumble into the galley to make tea, black no milk, take it on deck, careful don’t slip. Sit waiting for the captain’s words, sip tea, count constellations, sip tea, name stars, sip tea. Watch for the sun’s rays, dawn approaching, the purest sight, dawn at sea, guiding stars fading, here comes the master, the sun rising, clouds changing hue each minute. Take off a layer, heating up now, drink some water to keep hydrated.
Routine set in and after a few days Jack forgot what day it actually was. Often he sat astride the bowsprit gazing at the ocean’s pattern, with no thoughts, or played games with water bombs, or studied navigation. He learned how to use a sextant, to bring the sun down to the horizon through coloured filters then measure its angle, but he couldn’t master the maths to work out the ship’s location. One of the crew calculated the position to be 20 miles south of Berlin!
The night sky’s display, 360 degree sunsets; a red moon; shooting stars; scintillating stars; the Southern Cross; the smudge of the Magellan nebula.
After a few days life appeared, a lone gannet then other birds more frequently, some perching on the rigging, until the sightings were common as land was neared. The Polynesians used such creatures as navigation aides. They knew by species if they were migrating or out hunting and by the time of day and direction of flight could estimate their position relative to land.
More islands. Isolated communities. Easter Island with its ancient statues. You can walk around the quarry where some statues are only partially carved from the hillside. An eerie place as if the workers are due back at any moment.
Pitcairn with its few dozen descendents of the Bounty mutineers. Welcoming hospitable Christians, by name and faith. Some artefacts survived the ship being burnt, the canon, the bible.
Back to more days at sea and expanses of ocean. Flying fish gliding through the air and diving into the swell, some landed on the deck and were found days later. Storms ahead, a water spout - a cyclone of wind sucking up water to create a surreal funnel moving across the ocean’s surface.
The Marquesas, palm forested islands, where the crew watched a dancing troupe and were given flower garlands which were strewn about the deck for days. The ship was full of colour with fruit and vegetables hanging from any free place. Fruit port, veg’ starboard, but Jack forgot one night and bit into a plantain thinking it was a banana.
Ultimately, Tahiti. Goodbyes at last and more tears, like leaving family. A flight home, modern transport doing in hours what the ship had taken three months to achieve. In an aeroplane full of strangers, leaving part of your life behind. The final glimpse of the ship at its mooring, seen from the aeroplane window. ‘Fair winds old friend.’
A car horn startles Jack out of his reminiscence. He smiles fondly at the carving, sadly. These are his memories, small against the reality of the present, like the canal is to the ocean. He’s happy to be home now with family near by, no longer moving, the yearning to travel satisfied. He misses the sea, the crew and the ship, but he can stand by the canal any time and look into the carving to relive his memories.