Sail back to the future

By Holly Thomas, Daily Mail

Last updated at 12:41 30 August 2005

Midnight and it's raining. Somewhere in the darkness, far below, I hear faint shouts. This makes sense, as I'm 100ft up a giant mast.

What doesn't make sense is why I am up a giant mast in the first place - especially one that is swaying violently in tune with a heavy North Sea swell.

I am, after all, a teenager. This is my summer holiday. I should be lying on a beach, gazing out onto the calm turquoise water of the Mediterranean. What am I doing?

In fact, I'm here precisely because there is not a lounger or beach in sight. When it came to this year's holiday, I wanted adventure.

So now I am onboard the Prince William, one of two magnificent 200ft square-rigged sailing brigs owned by the Tall Ships Youth Trust - an organisation that provides adventure in spades for those willing to be put out to sea on a big boat and told to make it go.

Now, when it comes to sailing, I am no expert. My total experience before this point was a week crewing dinghies in Devon. But tall ships are majestic things. They evoke feelings of old-fashioned, swashbuckling excitement - yes, even in girls.

But perhaps I had got carried away by the idea of them. Perhaps, I thought, as I clung to that rainsoaked, swaying mast, they are best viewed at a distance from a sunlit terrace, with a glass of something nice in one's hand.

But here we are, on the last leg of the Tall Ships 2005 Race from Newcastle across the North Sea to Fredrikstad, Norway, competing against 92 other ships from more than a dozen countries, the bulk of them crewed entirely by professional sailors.

On board the Prince William are six permanent crew, led by our skipper, Captain Derek, and 13 'volunteer crew', all experienced sailors. Otherwise, the ship sails entirely under the largely inexperienced hands of the 48 'voyage crew' - and I'm one of them.

My shipmates come from all sorts of backgrounds, from rawpalmed Geordies to smooth Old Harrovians. Some are twentysomething Tall Ships addicts on their third voyage; others are GCSE and A-level students looking to blow off steam after their exams - or, like me, seeking an extreme challenge.

One guy I met had been told only the week before we sailed that his parents had booked the voyage...

We had just one day to get trained before the voyage began. We arrived on the dock at Newcastle where the Prince William was berthed and were issued with a set of oilskins, led onto the deck and introduced to the ship's bosun, Fliss, the 24-year-old woman responsible for making sure that the ship ran smoothly.

Fliss was remarkably relaxed, setting us immediately at ease. We'd barely been on board an hour but already we'd been organised into three groups, or 'watches', named Red (my watch), White and Blue. And each watch had been set a task that seemed to involve pulling at a rope of some kind.

We set sail - and ran smack bang into strong winds and heavy seas. Luckily, I didn't suffer from seasickness and couldn't wait to get started.

Unluckily, I stepped out onto deck at the start of my first watch only for a solid iron door to swing straight back into my head. That evening, on lookout, I began to question what I was seeing. Were those just two very similar-looking ships I could see in the distance?

From the first afternoon, in dock, we'd had to climb part-way up the mast. Once at sea, we found ourselves stepping out onto the horizontal yard-arms, tying and untying sails. Everyone wore harnesses, but these were clipped to the arms only once you'd climbed as high as you had to go.

Despite the conditions, it was less scary than you might expect. Frankly, you're so busy concentrating on what you have to do that there's no time to worry.

The other big challenges were crossing the plunging, rearing deck without losing your feet, or getting through a meal without losing your lunch. You had to hold your drink with one hand as you ate with the other to stop your mug flying off the table.

Each watch took four-hour shifts - manning the helm, keeping a lookout and fetching endless reviving cups of tea.

When one watch is on duty, the others are likely to be catching up on much-needed sleep. Or trying to. If you go on a Tall Ships race, you soon understand why Ellen MacArthur spends so much time complaining about being tired.

There was serious rivalry between the watches, encouraged by competitions every evening. One task was to make a man-overboard survival kit that would fit into a yoghurt pot. The kit we came up with in Red Watch included a cigar.

'It transcends social boundaries,' said our spokesman Luke, a 19-year-old Geordie with a talent for spontaneous limericks and a degree in art history ahead of him. 'You would fit in whether you washed up on a dockyard, or a seriously posh shoreside party.' Luke and his sidekick Joe kept us entertained on the trip, with Titanic impressions on the bowsprit their speciality.

I'd never set eyes on any of my shipmates before I set foot on the Prince William. But you soon get to know each other well - not surprising, I suppose, when you're crammed eight to a cabin, in four sets of bunks made of canvas slung between metal poles. Not that parents need worry. There's not much chance of any hanky-panky when you've that little privacy - if only because so many people spend most of their time on 'Green Watch' - the popular term for being seasick.

One unfortunate member of my watch didn't leave his bunk for days. The running commentary from his cabin-mates about his worsening aroma led to speculation as to when, if ever, he would take a shower.

The poor guy eventually emerged to cheers from the watch, only to drape himself over the side of the ship, resembling a corpse waiting to be pitched overboard.

Four days unwound this way. Then, catastrophe. We had picked up a distress call. A nearby ship, the Excelsior, with a crew just like ours, had damaged her rigging - and was taking in water.

If we went to her aid, it would cost us our chances in the race. But the choice was clear. We sped towards the Excelsior.

When we reached the ship, bo'sun Fliss and one of the engineers set off in a tiny motorboat to find out what was wrong. Our hearts were in our mouths as we watched them traverse the stormy seas, but they made it safely.

They confirmed the worst: the Excelsior would have to be escorted to Fredrikstad - and the Prince William would have to retire from the race.

It was no matter. Of the 93 vessels in the competition, 38 had to retire. It goes with the territory. One ship went missing entirely for three days. And besides, racing to the rescue of a comrade was a far greater thrill than winning.

The fact that we continued across the North Sea gave us an incredible feeling of pride, and our arrival in Fredrikstad after six nights at sea was spectacular.

We entered port triumphantly, all arranged on the foremast. We cheered and did the hokey-cokey to a rapturous response from the crowd.

The following parade was a blur of crowds, sun, and music. Some ships could boast proper bands; we just had a collection of tin cans and wooden spoons.

The crowning glory was the prize-giving. After the main awards for the race had been handed out, the Prince William was given a special prize for going to the aid of another ship.

In the grand tradition of sailors coming ashore after a voyage, all that remained was to have a serious party.

And as teenagers, we certainly knew how to do that.

Travel Facts

The Tall Ships Trust is committed to the 'personal development of young people through the crewing of Tall Ships'. However, voyages are open to anyone aged 16-75 and there are bursaries and sources of sponsorship available to would-be crew members. For details of forthcoming Tall Ships voyages and full booking details, log onto or contact theTall Ships head office on 02392 832055.

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