Celebrations, Solitude and the Sea

Written by Celia Timms
(A highly commended runner-up entry in the Travel and Water Writing Competition.)

Sea: Lord Nelson in full sail
Lord Nelson in full sail

There was no option but to add 32nd December to our calendar.

Consequently, we decided that the oldest crew member would ring out the Old Year on the 31st and the youngest would ring in the New Year the following midnight. And of course, we would have a party on both evenings. The honours fell to Bob, mid-70s, and Meg, aged 18 years. The reason for the double celebration – we were traversing several time zones as we sailed the Southern Ocean on Lord Nelson from New Zealand around Cape Horn to Patagonia, Chile.

So why make the journey by tall ship rather than plane? Why struggle from our cramped bunks at midnight only to crawl back again at 4.30am, up for breakfast at 8am, scrubbing decks two hours later and back on watch at 4pm? Half the 40 volunteer crew were aged over 60 and retired so could have spent our days with family and friends not a bunch of strangers, walking through green glades not being tossed on a blue-grey sea, sitting by a fire not feeling the chill of the Antarctic wind drill through our bones.

Lord Nelson visiting Chatham Island, New Zealand
Lord Nelson visiting Chatham Island, New Zealand

Because, believe me, these were halcyon days. The seascape, ever changeable, entertained us with tangos of colour, light and mood. The sky was hued every shade – dawn-pink, noon-blue, sunset-sepia then night-navy. When stormy, it ominously glowed green and mauve. Clouds of all shapes, sizes and reflected colours emerged, transformed and dispersed. Many hours were spent looking skywards and imagining dinosaurs, mythical monsters or Micky Mouse in the clouds.

On one incomparable day we found ourselves at the end of the rainbow revelling, not a crock of gold, but in a fantasy of beauty. There had been a sudden, squalling storm with a violently twisting wind, high waves and vicious hail. Then, as the sun emerged, the sky was swept with a massive rainbow arcing down to the far horizon. Reflected in the water, it swung back towards the ship and continued dazzling in all its multi-colours onto the water-speckled deck.

'The sky was hued every shade'
‘The sky was hued every shade’

The sea was always a source of entertainment, changing from translucent glass sheet to a titanic swell. While helming, we would give ourselves the thrill of fear, turning around to see a veritable mountain of water, skyscraper high, looming over the stern. At other times massive, white-foam waves would smash over the deck while the ship pitched and bucked as if trying to escape a bridle. At night, the waters became ominously dark and forbidding but then we could look up at the sky, speckled with stars or sporting its silver medal, the moon.

For 48 days aboard our ship, the Lord Nelson, we were completely alone. There was no land, no ships, no planes, no seaweed, no fish, no sea mammals, no birds except the occasional albatross, no internet, no email, no television, no radio – so what did we do? There was always the little matter of keeping the ship sailing, helming, keeping watch (just in case), climbing aloft to tie up or release the square sails, hauling on ropes to alter the angle of the sails, helping with catering as well as eating, drinking, reading, day-dreaming and sleeping.

Crew working aloft on the sails
Crew working aloft on the sails

Beyond these routine occupations there was a host of fun activities. Most of us were yearning for the ‘Archers’ so we composed our own version, ‘Horatio and Chardonnay’, whose misadventures were read to us every evening by the Captain. We produced a weekly newspaper and enjoyed singing sea shanties and reciting poetry, as well as celebrating special occasions including Christmas and Burns Night.

There were quizzes, games and competitions such as ‘live Cluedo’. For this we drew paper strips detailing the name of our victim, our weapon and the location of our dastardly deed. Murdering a fellow crew member required careful planning, especially when the Captain was the intended victim! If killed before having the chance to commit our murder, we gave our assassin our victim/place/weapon information. This game was played over several days until only one victorious crew member survived.

And talking of survival, eventually we rounded Cape Horn safely and found shelter in Patagonia’s Beagle Channel.

Sailing for so many days may not be for everyone in terms of time, cost and endurance but there are shorter tall ship voyages around Britain or the Mediterranean. Being aboard a huge ship, moving through the water powered by mere wind and sail, is a majestic experience and an adventure worthy of every synonym for ‘superlative’.

The voyage was organised by the Jubilee Sailing Trust, a non-profit organisation.

POSTED 22nd March 2016 by STE Web Editor STEVE HANSON on behalf of CELIA TIMMS. The photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged.