Tall Ships

The Lord Nelson

The Lord Nelson

Shrouds: ropes which hold up the masts of a tall ship, a ship with rectangular sails such as a clipper ship and the ships of the time of Lord Nelson.

Sheets: ropes sometimes attached to the corners of sails.

Perhaps like me when you heard those two words in connection with sailing you must have thought that they were some kind of sail or at least some form of cloth? What else could shroud and sheet mean? Surely not ropes.

My wife introduced me to the books of Patrick O’Brien, commonly regarded as the best writer of fiction about the war at sea during the time of Lord Nelson. An entire volume has been compiled, somewhat like a dictionary, of the terms used in his books. It underlines the extent to which the vocabulary of life at sea has penetrated and enlarged the English language as a whole, in terms of single words and a wealth of expressions.

‘The bitter end’ is when there is no more rope to pay out.

‘By and large’ means being able to sail both with and against the wind.

‘Chock-a-block’? ‘Charottez chokkefulle charegyde with gold’ – see chock hidden in thisversion of Morte d’Arthur circa 1400, meaning “full to choking” and later used at sea to denote when a wedge is driven so that an object such as a cask cannot move at sea.

‘Shiver my timbers’ – the greatest danger in sea battles was not cannon balls but shivered or splintered timbers which probably claimed more lives than any real ammunition. The cannon balls and shot broke up the wood of the ship and sent lethal pieces into the bodies of the crew. Special netting was used to try to stop it.

The influence of Patrick O’Brien, my wife and the sea vocabulary found me one day in Poole Harbour aboard the sailing ship Lord Nelson: length 43 metres, length including bowsprit 58 metres, beam 9 metres, keel to fore mast head 37 metres, sail area 1024 square metres… These are just a few of the statistics and when you imagine the sail area, you realise that this is a lot of sail for the wind to press against. Under sail the ship can reach 11.7 miles per hour or 10 knots.

So, I arrived on deck the first day of my trip, together with a couple of dozen others, with: anticipation, trepidation, and determination. Everyone assembled on the mess deck (next floor down) and the captain and members of the crew took us through safety rules, and our programme. The newcomers were divided into four groups known as ‘watches’, and each designated an assembly area: forward starboard side, astern starboard side, forward port side, astern port side. In any emergency or readiness for deck work you were to make for that part of the ship post haste. Below decks the ship was divided into parts so that one part could be separated from another and sea water could not flood the whole. This was achieved by water tight doors which closed very slowly but irrevocably, and it was humorously pointed out if you caught an arm or leg or body in these doors…

Each twenty-four hours was divided into watches of four hours each, except for the time between 16.00 and 20.00 hours. This four hour period is divided into two watches of two hours each and they are called the dog watches (a term in use at least as early as 1700 but with an unknown origin).

Each member of the volunteer crew (us) was issued with a card showing the cycle of watches we would be on. What struck me, listening to the captain, and during the time which followed, is the degree to which life on board is geared to one aim: the smooth and safe running of the ship, and all which that entails. This gives one a kind of strength of purpose. You never need to be wondering what you should be doing so even if you are not on watch, not helping in the kitchen, not taking the helm, not unfurling the sails, not washing the deck, not watching the radar, not taking the wind speed, temperature, direction, sea state (height of waves), keeping watch for other vessels, climbing the rigging, or asleep, there is inside one a sense of purpose which appears as soon as stepping from shore to deck and you know that everyone else, more or less, experiences the same.


The Stavros Niarchos

My experiences at sea for no more than ten days all told (as we go to press!) could make up an entire book so I will just write about a few aspects.

Standing on deck and looking up at the top of the highest mast some 120 feet above, I was wondering if, when invited to climb up the rigging, I would be happy to accept the invitation. As it turned out, up I went. It is worth describing in some detail how this is done. In days gone by the rigging was made of rope and did not have the same reliability as modern rigging. Today the rigging is firm wire with little give and sway, the movement under your foot is slight. Also, you have a safety harness which enables you to transfer safely from rigging to the platforms which we landlubbers would call a series of crow’s nests. On the rigging itself however, there is no safety clip-on. You just have to go carefully. The rule is that as you go up you must be in contact at three points, with either two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand.

The ascent to the topmost platform is achieved in three or four stages. Each stage ends at a platform. Now the trick is, as they say, that to transfer from the rigging to the platform you have to lean backwards, hitch your harness on to a safety line, climb over the edge of the platform and unhitch yourself.

On my first time up the rigging, when I had taken a few steps, I suddenly realised that I was entirely on my own. I had to hold on and not fall off! This was a global perception, swift and accurate, but up I went. I found myself standing on the platform and watching other newcomers to the ship clamber up. It was striking to see how people overcame the initial waves of fear to find a kind of resolve, a change of energy, as the sudden rise of adrenalin found a plateau of courage.

Once you are on the platform, the view is marvellous and there is a strong sense of having achieved something real. From the platform you go out along the yards, the wooden or nowadays mainly metal horizontal timbers from which the sails hang. Under each yard is a thick rope, threaded to a series of supports, and you stand on these as you make your way out along the yards. For safety’s sake you hook your harness on to a wire which stretches the length of the yard. The support for the feet is none too re-assuring but the clip on the yards gives a counter-assurance. The sails are furled or wrapped around the yards and when you first go out you will generally release the sails as other people hold on to the sheets, pull the sails into place and attach them firmly to the marlin spikes or metal “rods” thrust into the rails of the ship. As you step from the platform to the yard you call out what you are doing,so that everyone who matters hears and knows.

The whole process of going aloft, furling or unfurling the sails, securing the yards and so forth is a demanding job and needs plenty of energy. In the early days of tall ships (before the advent of safety harnesses)it was common for a member of the crew to fall to his death or to be mangled and maimed. In one 19th century officer’s autobiography he records that when he was no more than twelve years old, on his first day aboard his first ship, and had been aboard only a minute, a sailor fell from the rigging and lay dead at his feet. Similar falls still occur today, but much less frequently. I have been on three similar tall ships. Experienced seafarers climb the rigging with a respectful familiarity it seems but I have yet to reach that level. Still, there is in me a mixture of fear, determination and insouciance born of logic. Just don’t let go of the rigging!!!

The bosun is in charge of the crew and makes sure that everything is being done correctly, and supervises the main operations of deck work to do with the sails, ropes and allocation of jobs. On all the ships I worked on, the bosuns were tough,capable, considerate and strong women.

We were given instructions about man overboard, which I am sure was in the back of all of our minds. If you see someone go overboard you shout out “Man overboard”, at the same time not moving put pointing with outstretched arm and hand at the person in the sea. You follow him as he drifts, watching and pointing. You do not run to the bridge to tell the captain, because you would lose sight of the person. Someone else is bound to hear your shout and convey it to the “motor boat” crew who would launch their little vessel and rescue the unfortunate from the sea.

You must have wondered how it is that ships bang into one another sometimes when there is all that ocean out there. How can you sail into another ship? It seems ridiculous. There are two methods of keeping watch at sea eyes and radar. The blue radar screen is covered in yellow and greenish marks. The different marks indicate the presence of different things such as ships, heavy weather, landmarks, and so on. When you are on watch you keep checking these and in particular the appearance of any new marks indicating that another vessel has entered the screen. Then you inform the officer on watch. Also, when a vessel is at anchor offshore you check for anchor drift, that is, movement of the ship from the effects of wind and tide.

When your team is on watch, you are allocated the port or starboard side of the bridge and keep watch there. You sweep the horizon and gradually come across the sea to a close range. After a while it dawns on you that ships are arriving very quickly, quicker than you think. Some do so because they are fast moving vessels but the slow ones seem just to creep up before you know it. To some extent this has to do with one’s sense of time on board, which is different from when ashore.

Tall Ships Race2

On board one of the ships the first officer was a highly experienced seaman, qualified to sail any size or shape of ship anywhere. One day I watched him, standing beside a novice helmsman; feet firmly planted on deck, not speaking, just moving with the vessel, in tune with ship, sea, air and sky. The first time I went out I was at the helm, watching the dials, compass direction and so on. After a while I began to feel queasy and asked to be relieved because I thought I was going to be seasick. Typically the walls on either side of the loo are very narrow. This, I was obligingly informed, is very helpful if you are in a rough sea…….

I went below to the mess deck and the bar was still open, bought a single shot of whiskey and curled up in a chair. I stayed curled up and took the whiskey in such small sips that it lasted for a whole hour. When I stood up the sickness had gone, and I have never felt queasy since.

One experience aboard was particularly moving. It took place when we first began to haul on the ropes together. Even now, as I write about it, I am revisited by the feelings I experienced then. We were bending as we pulled the rope, about eight or nine of us. The lead man was calling out the pulling rhythm and we all joined in, hauling away together. As I bent forwards to make a pull I was suddenly, out of the blue, almost overcome by a feeling of being together. I was very deeply touched.

Sailing in tall ships is growing in popularity in the British Isles, indeed worldwide. New vessels are being built, and old vessels, such as HMS Victory are being restored. Some popular harbours or docks are Poole, Plymouth, Southampton, and Brixham. The biggest of these is Southampton. Ships of all sizes and types are moored there, up to the contemporary giant liners which look like floating streets.

Paul Crompton

Editor’s Note – The Last Grain Race by Eric Newby, an autobiographical account of a year spent working on one of the last tea clippers (the fastest ever cargo sailing ships) in 1938 is thoroughly recommended. It is by turns hilarious and fascinating, and the writing is so vivid that you can almost taste the saltiness of the experiences recalled.