Anyone for a trip around the bay (Biscay that is)?

by Norman Harris

Having been at 17,500ft in Nepal, 16,300 ft in Peru and a paltry 8,500ft in Kenya, I thought I’d go for my biggest challenge yet, 60ft!

I signed on for a voyage (mustn’t call it a cruise!) on the Lord Nelson - a 500 ton square-rigger, one of the ‘tall ships’ as they are known.  This particular ship is very different from the others in that it is designed to be crewed by disabled people, each of whom has an able-bodied ‘buddy’.  No, I didn’t go along as mentally disabled, I went as a buddy.  The ship has stair lifts for wheel chairs, lots of tactile information for blind/partially sighted and, most importantly, a bar. The purpose of the voyage was to reposition the ship for its winter schedule sailing around the nice warm Canaries.

I joined the ship in Liverpool on a very cold night in November and we set sail at 6pm and it was sleeting.  As the wind got up out in the Irish Sea, I began to wonder if this was really one of my better ideas as we had the notorious bay of Biscay ahead of us.  I quickly settled into the watch system, which meant being on watch (setting sails, helming the ship, drinking coffee to keep warm and keeping watch for other shipping etc) for typically 4 hours in every 12.  I know it sounds mad, but helming a 500 ton sailing ship at night in a force 8 gale with massive sails billowing above you is just incredible and has to be experienced.  It falls into the same category as riding my Harley across the USA -  you only get two reactions, either “you must be mad” or “I’d love to do that”.  Biggest problem in high winds was sleeping.  It was OK if the wind was on the beam (that’s from the side for you land-lubbers) as you got wedged in one side of your bunk.  If it was from the stern the ship rolled like hell and you were constantly rolling from one side of your bunk to the other.  The lee-sheet, a device to stop you falling out of your bunk, was essential in these conditions!  Incidentally, the biggest roll angle we saw was 32 degrees.  Get your school protractor out and look at 32 degrees!  That feels horrendous and I was amazed we righted but it was surprising how quickly you got used to these alarming angles.  Because of these high winds at one point we touched 11½knots and the ship is only designed for 12 knots!  A passing tanker wouldn’t believe we were a sailing ship as we were going so fast.

The permanent crew were great at explaining how all the ropes, sheets and lines, about 200 of them, worked and what they did.  When the mate yelled “Let go your main course sheets, pay out your main course bunt lines and clew lines, prepare to brace your main course yard to starboard” the initial reaction was “Eh?”  For the first few times he may as well have been talking Chinese.  After a while, as least I’d worked out where some of the ropes where so didn’t look a complete plonker walking to the blunt end rather than the sharp end!  One of the best, most exciting parts of the trip was climbing the rigging.  For this you have to wear a full climbing harness to clip your self on to anything handy, preferably metal.  Only rule is don’t clip on to a vertical rope.  All this does is guarantee you’ll hit the deck on the way down!  I have been up on the main topsail yard stowing sails.  That’s the second yard up on the middle (main) mast in the picture.  About 60 ft up with the ship rolling below you is really exhilarating, if not completely insane.  To get there I had to climb the ratlines, the big rope-ladder thingies at the side of the mast, climb the futtocks, another ladder thingy that leans completely the wrong way, where’s Health and Safety when you need them?  Then through the lower platform (crow’s nest), up another ratline and out along the yard with my feet swaying in a foot rope.  Quite exciting when first the deck and then the sea pass underneath you.  Incidentally, the guy in the photograph on the left of the yard is registered blind, I’m on the right.  We actually had one young couple who, believe it or not, were jiving stood on the royal yard, the highest yard you can see in the main picture.

We were making such good progress with favourable winds that we moored in Marin in northern Spain and had a welcome wander around and a quiet night’s sleep.  Very welcome.  Life on board was quite enjoyable with 3 square meals a day, most of it in your lap if the ship rolled violently!  I set a personal record of 21 consecutive English breakfasts!  Every 8 days or so I had to do mess duty, preparing and serving meals and drinks.  As this got me off watches I at least got some sleep.  We berthed in La Palma, one of the Canaries Islands, and spent two days with a coach tour and a couple of nice restaurant meals.  Most interesting sight here, from a viewpoint high above the harbour, was to see the Lord Nelson along side a massive cruise liner and everybody thinking “we sailed in the Atlantic in THAT tiny little thing!”  Moving on to our final destination Las Palmas (confusing, isn’t it?) we had the most exciting sailing at night with the bow crashing into the waves and cascading waves over the navigation lights giving the most amazing red and green waves.  The long night watches were fascinating and tiring in equal measure.  On watch for four hours being woken at, typically, midnight or 4am to go on watch under a star lit sky, staring at a black horizon looking for ships or land.  I have lots of memories on those watches. I bought an iPod with this trip in mind and listening to Bat out of Hell by Meatloaf whilst crashing through the waves is a very strong memory.  We arrived in Las Palmas after 21 days and 1983 nautical miles and had, unfortunately, to leave the ship to fly home.  A quite unforgettable experience.  A guy on the Nelson has offered me a place on a Russian tall ship, now there’s a thought.

Norman