Last Wednesday was my birthday, and late on Tuesday evening I got a call from Ali, an old friend I caught up with when Chico and I stayed in his woodland on the walk. “There’s a berth on a tall ship, leaving Milford Haven for Liverpool. Breakfast is at 8am tomorrow, then they’ll teach you to climb the rigging.”
It’s just the sort of phone call I’ve always wanted, so I amassed clothing for all eventualities of temperature and precipitation, cancelled my own birthday party, slept for a few hours, and dashed for Milford as the sun rose.
I’ve never sailed. The idea of it ticks all my boxes – slow travel influenced by external forces, total presence in the moment and the environment, no engines. But it’s always seemed like a whole new language I was hesitant to throw myself into, not to mention quite a lot of yelling about jibs, pitching and rolling, swinging booms, and other chaos.
A benign dictatorship
There wasn’t any chaos – of course a tight ship is actually a mini benign dictatorship, all hands working together with the single aim of moving a big vessel from one place to another. Watches ran through the night, dismantling an ordinary body clock – we slept whenever we could in our blackout bunks, an hour here and there. The midnight-4am watch was cold and magical; we were way out in the Irish Sea under a huge pearl moon, looking for wind. We could see the winking of the St David’s lighthouse on the south edge of Cardigan Bay and then, as the dawn light began to redraw the horizon, just the faintest smudge of a distant Irish mountain.
Then we were released by the next watch, stuffed our faces with night watch apple crumble, and dove into a few hours of sweet oblivion, lulled by the movement of my bones rolling inside my flesh, inside my sleeping bag, as the Pelican of London exhaled into another wave.
Dolphins and puffins
And then it was time to get up, take my turn on galley duty, or join all hands in scrubbing the decks. The 24-hour clock was disassembled and the ebb and flow of tiredness or energy was allied to the momentum of a patchwork of chores, sleeping, eating, and moments of soulfulness as the sun and moon rotated beautifully around our tiny floating world. Dolphins played alongside for ages on my birthday sunset, and small crews of puffins flew gracelessly for land.
I could see how people become sailors – the rhythm of the sea and the precise, simple culture of life onboard, the clear hierarchy, absolute authority of the wheelhouse, charts and bearings, accurate instruction, defined goals and regular achievements. Things are broken and mended, ports are reached and left, people join and depart; the nuances and complications of land and society are distant and meaningless; the ship is all. Some of the permanent crew – all young and full of beans – would spot a ship that they knew had a friend on board, and would radio to say hi. It’s a close community lived in intersecting lines of shipping lanes, plotted courses and occasionally a port-side bar soaked in rum and beer – a brief escape from the confines of the sober ship, but still spent in each other’s company, talking about the sea in a low-ceilinged pub decked out with charts and bits of ship.
I loved it, but my favourite bit of all was crawling out to the end of the bowsprit, 20ft away from the ship, and looking back at the tiny, busy ecosystem. A little critical distance from it, a stolen moment under my own authority – it was as refreshing as a walk in the hills. Even though I was clipped on with a double karabiner and my watch leader was waiting grumpily for me to come back down, I’d found a little freedom. I think I might be too messy and insubordinate for a life on the regimented ocean wave…
Thank you everyone aboard the Pelican – I’d heartily recommend the experience to anyone. www.adventureundersail.com