Sail a tall ship to adventure

By Lew Toulmin

by Lew Toulmin

(First of two parts)

Cruise ships are wonderful, but there is one thing that is better: sailing a real tall ship.

What’s the attraction? Well, how about true adventure, real sailing, living the history that most people just see on TV, visiting exotic places, seeing things that many folks ashore don’t even know exist, meeting fascinating people and really getting to know them, and working together as a crew. It just doesn’t get any better.

This month I’ll tell you a little about what to expect on a tall ship sailing vacation abroad, and next month I’ll list some of the most interesting tall ships around the world that are available for your sailing pleasure.

Gamut of sailing options

Tall ships vary widely in the range of sailing intensity and the work required of their passengers. At one extreme are “sailing cruise ships” like the Windjammer fleet of Caribbean party boats, the beautiful Sea Cloud, the Star Clipper automated tall ships and foreign naval sail training ships. These ships do not require or really expect paying passengers to help out with the sailing.

At the other extreme are vessels like the Picton Castle, which circles the globe under sail every two years and on which the passengers are the crew. When a passenger asks the the captain of the Picton Castle, “Do we really have to go aloft in a storm at night and furl the sails?,” his answer is a very firm, “Oh, yes.”

Most tall ships fall somewhere in between these extremes and will tailor their demands to the individual passengers’ needs, interests and physical abilities.

Tall ships usually divide the people on board into professional crew (PCs, or the paid staff) and voyage crew (VCs, the paying but participating passengers). The PCs stay on the vessel for months or years and are professionally trained and certified. The VCs usually stay aboard for a few days, a week or several weeks and pay for their experience, generally at a rate of $90 to $200 per person per day. (This is quite a bargain, considering it includes transport [but not airfare], meals, training, adventure and most shore excursions.)

VCs need not have any previous sailing experience. They should be in reasonably good physical condition. Ages range from 17 to 75. VCs help raise and lower the sails, assist in weighing anchor, stand watches (usually four hours on and eight off), learn to steer the vessel, undertake “safety rounds” (inspecting the bilge, checking lines for chafe, logging the weather, etc.) and may go aloft if they feel up to it.

Accommodations for passengers or VCs vary widely aboard tall ships. The magnificent Sea Cloud, formerly owned by heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, has cabins fit for a billionaire. Many vessels, like Soren Larsen, have very small cabins with two or three berths. Some vessels, like HMS Bounty and Picton Castle, accommodate most VCs in 3-sided “pilot” berths with privacy curtains; these berths are arranged around an open dining or lounge area.

The most extreme vessels, like the Endeavour replica, utilize hammocks similar to those used in the Royal Navy 200 years ago, with space of about 22 inches in width per person! Bathrooms are generally shared, except on the “sailing cruise ships,” and hot water is not always available or may be rationed. Food is usually “family style” and is generally plentiful and hearty but not distinguished.

Rewards of tall ship sailing

“So why would I want to do this?” you’re saying.

Well, some of the amazing things I have seen aboard tall ships include. . .

• isolated islands with exotic cultures, little touched by Western civilization;

• a huge meteor that raced all the way across the night sky, then broke into five pieces, each with its own long trail of glory;

• four satellites passing overhead in 10 minutes;

• huge humpback whales spouting just a few feet away, and

• a school of porpoises at night, racing around our vessel in a phosphorescent sea, leaving underwater trails over 100 feet long that glowed for over 10 seconds.

Here are some of the things I still hope to see at sea: St. Elmo’s fire, a waterspout, sun-dogs (illusory suns to the right and left of the real sun, seen in Arctic waters), the green flash and the even rarer blue flash. (My wife, Susan, claims she saw a green flash in the same sunset where I saw nothing. Hmmm. But even she does not claim a blue flash.)

Some of the fascinating characters I have met on tall ships include the following:

• The 59-year-old Irish bosun of the Irish tall ship Jeannie Johnston, who had run with the bulls at Pamplona over 50 times. (Yes, that is possible. He ran each day of the 9-day festival on many occasions.) His greatest achievements were, he said, “breaking into the heavily guarded Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, but I was too drunk to remember how” and “spending five dollars for every dollar I’ve made.”

• A young Australian lad who sailed aboard two tall ships then went on to crew aboard HMS Rose, the ship used in making the Russell Crowe movie “Master and Commander.” He got a part in the movie, met several movie stars and earned his prized A.B. ticket (able-bodied seaman certification, issued by the U.S. Coast Guard for crewing 180 days under sail and passing an exam), all before his 19th birthday.

• Captain Bill Pinkney, 67 years old, the only black American to sail solo around the world via Cape Horn and only the fourth American to achieve this feat. He went on to retrace the infamous “Middle Passage” slave route in a ship for a PBS special, helped build the Amistad re-creation and then captained her for several years.

• A young professional crewwoman named Karen aboard Amistad. She thrived in the ship’s forecastle, a tiny, tossing space 13 feet by 12 feet by 9 feet, which she shared as the only female with eight male deckhands. Of all the crew, she was the toughest and the best seaman, although she had only one year of total sea time — less than any of the men.

• A 57-year-old retired oilman from California who had sailed as a VC in every ocean, aboard 10 different tall ships. He had even rounded Cape Horn as a VC in the tall ship Europa, in a re-creation of Richard Henry Dana’s voyage in “Two Years Before the Mast.” As he said, “Most tourists don’t even know this kind of vacation exists. But it’s unforgettable.”

Tall ship info sources

Next month I will list some of the most interesting tall ships around the world. In the meantime, I suggest you contact the American Sail Training Association, or ASTA (240 Thames St., Newport, RI 02840; phone 401/846-1775 or visit www.tallships.sail, and obtain their excellent $18 book, “Sail Tall Ships!” It lists over 300 tall ships from around the globe and for each gives a picture; the ship’s history; its rig and dimensions; its sailing program; its Coast Guard (or other) certification, and contact information.

Another useful contact is Sail Training International (www.sail, a charitable institution which organizes international tall ship events and races.

Happy sails to you!