There are those opportunities in life that just drop on your head out of nowhere and you know that you have to take them. So in summer 2018, I got the chance to go on a sailing trip on board of a tall ship, a brig called Fryderyk Chopin. The whole adventure lasted seven days – from 4 July until 11 July 2018. It started in a Swedish city of Gothenburg that we left on 5th July 2018. We took a straight course to Aberdeen in Scotland and reached the shore on 8 July 2018. After staying in Aberdeen for 24 h, we sailed forward to our final destination – Sunderland in England and finished right on time on 11 July 2018. It might seem like a short trip, but time passes differently when you are at sea. For me, it was probably the most challenging and enjoyable adventure of this summer. I cannot put everything in words, but I will try my best to paint a picture of what it means to be a novice sailor on a sailing ship crossing the North Sea.
Before the trip…
Sailing has been something I wanted to try since I can remember. I love the sea and I love being on boats, so I figured that I will love being on a real boat at open sea. Little did I know things won’t be so simple and easy as I first imagined.
After signing up for this adventure (which already required giving consent that I fully understand what am I getting myself into… yeah, right!) and getting approved for the trip, I was a bit surprised to receive two-page long instructions with a list of items that I should bring with me. It was also annoying that we were not allowed to take suitcases on board which made the whole packing and traveling thing a bit of a different experience. I’m now used to traveling light (for a girl!), but what do you do when there are 7 days ahead of you and an additional A4 list of things (some pretty bulky) to cram into a sports bag or something. Well, for starters – you do not ignore the list! I needed pretty much everything they suggested – from sunscreen to rubber boots and warm clothes – being at sea requires stuff (unless you’re the Captain… then you’re fine with shorts and a T-shirt the whole trip… don’t ask, it’s a mystery)!
I do a bit of hiking occasionally, but I’m not into winter sports; therefore, finding things like skiing jacket and trousers on the list with a remark ‘very important!’ was a bit discouraging. If you can afford it and you’ll use it again, I’ll advise investing in a good gear for winter hiking or sailing (warm and waterproof is the key). If not, you can follow my lead and find some second-hand items that’ll do the job and buy other essentials just because there is no way around it.
The things I was really happy about on my trip: good leather gloves for working the ropes (I bought new ones in a shop that specializes in all kinds of outdoorsy gear… never regretted!), skiing jacket and two pairs of skiing trousers (nights are super cold at sea…), thermal underwear (the best thing in the world!), rubber-soled sneakers (great for climbing and not slipping on a wet deck), rubber boots (because at some point all your other shoes will be wet…), sunglasses (that don’t randomly fall of your nose), and sun protector for my face (well, because of all the sun…).
The reality check
The first wave of reality check hit me as soon as I stepped on the deck of Fryderyk Chopin. Everything seemed fairly primitive and small, but I should have known better – the main idea was to provide us with a genuine experience on the sea. Fairly soon we were assigned our cabins, divided into watches and introduced to the galley (kitchen) and cleaning duties. The restrictions on suitcases became clear as soon as I stepped into our cabin. There was one square meter of floor space, three bunk beds stacked one on top of each other against the wall (each about a half meter wide) and three tall but narrow lockers. If anyone of us three girls would have had a suitcase, our floorspace would have been reduced to nothing (and that’s no small thing when all of us had to get into our gear at the same time with the ship bouncing up and down on the waves).
Shortly after settling in, we went for our first round of training. The ship was not leaving the port before we all had understood the safety measures and tested our strength in sailing duties. The first instructions were given by the first mate who is probably the most silent person I have ever heard speaking (but it just taught us to be quiet and pay attention). Afterward, we were given our safety harnesses and sorted into watches for our first round of ‘real’ training. I was in the first watch (the best watch ever, of course!) and we kicked our training off by climbing the mast and getting the general idea of how to manage the sails. That was the moment I realized I really, really should have gone to the gym or something before this trip. But it didn’t stop me from climbing the mast (just got a bit scared at one moment is all…). One might think that climbing the mast is the most difficult thing, but no… it’s the ropes. The next step in training was to learn the names of all the sails and ropes. Damn (I really want to use the more rude word here…), there are so many ropes… Admittedly, one learns this stuff on the job when you are required to ease or pull them day in and day out. By the end of our little trip, I would say that I could identify the correct ropes fairly quickly. Finally, we had to learn how to save ourselves in case the ship goes down. So we lowered and decked our dingy a couple of times, but I doubt it would work out very well in an emergency situation (everyone being panicky and all).
Most importantly, I think we all figured out that we need to listen and rely on our watch leader and all higher ranking officers on board, because those guys simply knew what they were doing, could at times move at the speed of light both horizontally and vertically (at least some of them… ) and basically were in charge of keeping us safe. At sea, discipline and clear hierarchy was the key to survival. One could not simply decide to ignore an alarm or watch duties because we had to work as a team and know where each member was. If someone could not be found on board, there’s only one other place the person could be and that basically meant death. Stopping a ship of that size and finding someone in time was close to impossible.
We set sail as soon as all of us had gone through the training (and some of us had decided to jump ship for one reason or the other). It was a sunny July day and nothing seemed better than to be at sea where no one from the outside world can reach you and no other problems besides survival existed. It’s liberating in a way, especially for an introvert. While the weather was nice, we had more training on pulling and easing the ropes to change the angle of the sails. We did it over and over again to get to an acceptable speed and decent coordination. It all made sense in a little while…
The ship is a closed ecosystem with a small community on board and the rumors travel fast. The rumor had it that we were approaching stormy waters in the middle of the North Sea. My cabin mates were already puking their guts out (and at some point seeing someone vomiting is your new normal). The tiredness of rough sleeping conditions was also slowly setting in (especially after our first night watch), but I thought I was holding on alright and quite enjoying myself. We had also discovered an illegal passenger – a pigeon – that refused to leave the ship and shat all over the deck until the Captain gave the order to contain the vandal in one location until we reach the shore (needless to say that some people were more upset about the mistreatment of an animal than others).
As our trip progressed, the sea got rougher, the waves higher and the lack of dry clothes more pressing. I remember standing at the front of the ship holding a rope and a wave of water just washing over the deck soaking me up to my knees and all I could do was laugh about it. We were at sea and it was a beast that wanted to show off its strength, and it was magnificent. I don’t think I have ever seen anything so powerful and beautiful at the same time. And I knew we could all die or I could die if I didn’t follow the safety protocol. It was all very simple.
As soon as we hit the stormy waters we were also introduced to sailing alarms that could go off at any time of day. We switched to sleeping half ready because getting dressed on a ship where you cannot even stand straight was a challenge in itself. We knew that the end of your shift didn’t mean the end of your sailing duties. And although there was no competition among watches, we still wanted to be the ones that are on the deck first just to make your watch leader proud (and we did…. especially, the girls). Once the wind reached the strength equal to 9 on the Beaufort Scale, I also got seasick (I was really disappointed in myself… but my consolation was that I was one of the last ones to give in to this torture). Let’s say that for about 6 hours my sailing experience had become pure hell. The rule for the watches was that one had to be on the deck at a specific time unless nearly dying. Somehow I made it there (after making the mistake of trying to sleep downstairs). I was totally exhausted, got myself completely soaked through in no time (it made no sense to change clothes even if I would have been physically capable of doing so), but I made it through and started to feel slightly better (together with my cabin girls… I’d say that nothing bonds together like joint puking, but it sounds weird).
The stormy weather was also the time when I declined climbing the mast because I simply would not trust my skill or strength. There were very few people that risked it, but they had had prior sailing experience. I did get a chance to practice my climbing skills a couple times in calmer waters. I learned how to pack in the sails the first time around and was teaching my watch mate the second time (and we got thumbs up from our watch leaders). It’s hard work, but it was totally worth it. The view was magnificent. I think the last time I was up the mast, we spent more than an hour packing or trying to pack the sails (it turns out that sometimes it’s not you… sometimes someone else has not eased the ropes sufficiently). I only could wish that I had the guts to climb all the way up… but one has to be realistic about these things.
Besides pulling the ropes and climbing the mast, we also had to learn to navigate. The boring part of the navigational watch is watching the horizon. Trust me, sometimes (especially in calm waters) you simply don’t know if you are imagining things or they are really there because it’s 3 o’clock at night. But if you’re puking your guts out anyway, why not do something useful while you’re at it.
A lot more interesting (and stressful) part was the steering. Once in a while, everyone in the watch would get a turn at the wheel for one hour (and trust me, one hour is more than enough). It seemed like a no big deal when other people were doing it, but it’s a lot more tiring than I expected (again, probably needed to hit that gym before the trip… ). And you become obsessed with hitting the right numbers on your navigational devices (which almost never happens… at least not when the officers are looking). I also discovered how it is possible to get yourself into extra steering duty… when in calm waters (like totally calm), simply suggest that we might start going in circles to make it more fun in the hearing distance of the Captain. The next thing you know, you are by the steering wheel boredom slightly forgotten.
Anyhow, after more than 24 h in stormy waters everything calmed down considerably (even too much for my liking). We safely reached our first stop in Scotland – Aberdeen (I had no clue we would go to Scotland on this trip… my first time ever!!!). There we spent about 24 h in the port (everyone could finally take a shower without falling over or hurting oneself). I had my kitchen duties which I didn’t enjoy much, but it was part of the experience. I did enjoy the gloomy Scottish city which was exactly how I imagined it should be. I hope I get to go back to Scotland sometime (Outlander fans will understand my meaning and excitement).
After Aberdeen, we sailed to Sunderland – our final destination. Our watch ended up with one sleepless night due to late departure followed (almost immediately) by our watch duties. That just meant that after breakfast (can’t skip the food) we simply passed out not caring about our other activities on the ship (except the sailing alarms… that one could still wake me up immediately at any point in time). It was interesting to arrive in a port that was already full of other tall ships and a lot of people cheering and greeting the sailors. Fryderyk Chopin was supposed to participate in the Tall Ships Races as soon as they got rid of us. But before that, we all got our sailing certificates with the outline of our achievements and I was pleased to be named the best bunt-line easer.
Back on dry land, I started to make my way homeward by going to Doncaster and staying overnight in a very British bed & breakfast. I cannot explain the joy of having a nice shower and a double bed all to myself. I don’t think I slept so good in my life! My body was completely bruised (I think it took me nearly two weeks to get rid of the bruises on my legs) and my hands were damaged despite wearing gloves at all times. But I was happy that I’ve had this experience which kinda helped put some things in a different perspective, I guess. Straight after finishing the trip, I thought I wouldn’t want to do it again… Now, I would probably sign up for one more round. We need to escape our modern world sometimes and I don’t think there’s a better way if you love the sea!
P.S. All the photos used for the post are my own or those of my sailing buddies.