Stephen W Starling
Writer and Photographer

Blog

Tall Ship Trainee - Shark Bay, WA, Australia

Sunday, May 01, 2016

The Leeuwin II strains her anchor chain. A stiff breeze snatches at the square sails furled on her yards and whistles through the shrouds that steady her three tall masts. The outgoing tide courses against the sleek lines of her narrow hull pulling her seaward. The Leeuwin II longs to be unleashed, to set sail, to voyage out onto the open ocean.
I am eager to set sail too, to begin a voyage to bring the ship 450 miles from the sheltered waters of Shark Bay, out west into the Indian Ocean beyond the Abrolhos Islands, then south to her port of Fremantle in Western Australia. Seven days non-stop sailing on the high seas where tall swells surge and strong winds sweep across thousands miles of ocean all the way from Africa.

This is no pleasure cruise: I have signed on to work my passage as a trainee crewmember. A novice who knows nothing of tall ships but is ready to learn mariners’ skills from a century ago. Most on board are raw recruits, who, like me aspire to become instructors, watch leaders, and deck officers on future voyages.

On hand to coach the raw recruits are five professional officers and six volunteer watch-leaders making up a total ships company of 36 - ten below full complement and way under full competence. Although inexperienced and shorthanded, we are expected to bring the Leeuwin II back to her homeport on time, in one piece, and without injury or incident.

And we trainees are soon put to work; hauling on halyards to raise the sails, swinging on braces to turn the square sail yards, and pulling on the preventer to back the mainsail to turn our ship onto the wind.

A bell sounds up for‘ad, a winch whines, and a rusty ribbon of chain clatters into the locker as the anchor comes up. The stiff breeze speeding across Shark Bay fills the foresails, the bow swings, the mainsail stiffens, the sheets strain, and we are under way. With imperceptible effort, 344 tonnes of ship and 36 souls are borne out to sea.

There is no time to savor the sensation as I volunteer to unfurl a sail. I have only been on board two hours, yet I am climbing a flimsy ladder of ropes towards the top of the mast, 25 metres above the deck below. It is scary. The ropes sway as the ship rolls. I cling on, crushing the encrusted salt crystals on the rigging, my face so close to the shrouds I can smell the tar. I ask myself “What am I doing here?” – at sixty-five years of age, shuffling out onto the tip of a yardarm, balancing precariously on a footrope, clutching at folds of sail, as the whole rig rolls through thirty degrees. I reassure myself that my safety harness clipped to the steel securing line will hold me if I slip, but I am pray it will not be put to the test.

Four team members from Green Watch squad follow me, climbing with equal trepidation, clambering at awkward angles around jutting platforms, then tentatively stepping onto a swinging foot rope. Our Watch Leader, Craig chivies us out along the swaying spar like a sheep dog herding livestock. He barks instructions:

“Loose the gaskets”

I have no idea what that means or what I am supposed to do, so I watch Craig and follow his lead. What I am supposed to be doing is loosening lashings to unfurl the Upper Topsail. Spaced out along the yard fellow trainees cling on desperately with one hand while their fingers of the other struggle to free tight knots. On a command, in unison we roll the packed canvas off the yardarm and a sail the size of a cinema screen falls and fills with wind.

The crumpled canvas straightens and stretches, sheets groan taking the strain, rigging creaks as it stiffens, and our ship surges forward. The sheer-line of her bow slices into the still blue waters shedding streaks of white in her wake.

The Leeuwin II, which means Lioness in Dutch, is unleashed. Unfettered, our Lioness leaps into her element, she does what tall ships are designed to do, as centuries of square-riggers have done before, she runs before the wind.

Acres of canvas catch the breeze, our ship leans on the wind, she gathers speed, her sleek hull ploughs a foaming furrow, as her bow aims beyond the sheltered bay towards the unbounded ocean.

My fear fades as I am captured by the allure of a tall sailing ship. Now excited with anticipation I hang on high in the rigging, eyes peering out towards where the tranquil turquoise of the bay blends into the rolling swell of an indigo ocean, wondering what adventures await me out there on the waves and wind.


 to be continued . . .                                                                                                                              © Stephen W Starling

 An extract from “Tall Ship Trainee; An Ocean Adventure on the Sail Training Ship Leeuwin II”, one of a collection of square rigger sailing stories that will be published in 2017. 
  You too can sail on the Leeuwin II; contact the Leeuwin Ocean Adventure Foundation, B Berth, Victoria Quay, Fremantle, WA 6160, Australia, call +61 8 9430 4105, or visit www.sailleeuwin.com

 


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