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The Tall Ship Stavros S. Niarchos

Oh my goodness, what an adventure!

Back in January 2001 (so long ago already) I decided, for my annual holiday, to become part of a working crew on board the Stavros S. Niarchos, a British Brig square rigged Tall Ship. A twelve day voyage away from the stresses of running a restaurant. She has since been re-named Sunset but then she was operated by Tall Ships Youth Trust.

Their mission is: "to enable young people aged 12-25 to fulfil their life potential through genuinely life changing adventures at sea. What's more, our extensive Adult Voyage programme, for ages 18-80, helps fund our youth development work."

Being a novice traveller this was going to be quite an adventure, no support from husband or children, just me to fit in with the crew on board a Tall Ship.

The outward journey to Accerife went well. I found the flight exciting and interesting. There was a guide to see us all safely to the coach, allowing me the first glimpse of my fellow crew members.

First impressions of the ship were a little disappointing, she had the beautiful masts, but not a wooden hull as I had been expecting, rather a metal one.

We all went aboard and found our way to our designated sleeping quarters. There were four to six of us in each and the 'beds' were hammocks that were fastened into the wall at the edges and with ropes fixing the ends and a curtain you could draw for privacy.

We were given training sessions to tie knots, easy enough, but then it was up the ratlines; rope ladder; over a platform; another rope ladder and a last platform that you had to pull yourself onto. My legs were all of a wobble by the time I was safely back on deck.

Ironically the first shift on board for my designated White Watch was … part of the mess team, so laying up tables and washing up! Nothing new to learn there then.

We left the harbour late afternoon, most people busily taking seasick tablets; I hadn't even considered this. The first night in my hammock with the ship rolling did make me rather queasy, but I managed not to be ill by firstly slowing my breathing and secondly not being able to remember where the 'heads' were! The strategy proved successful as I remained free of seasickness all voyage. I had time for a shower in the morning before duties and that cheered me up no end, as you had to dodge from side to side to catch the slanting flows of water.

The work during our watches varied from cleaning the 'heads' (toilets) to scrubbing the decks; helping the chef with meal preparation; on look out; climbing the rigging to set sails to steering the ship. The night watches were fascinating as the skies were as they should be, covered with bright stars un-obscured by human activities. On several wonderful occasions I saw dolphins swimming fast with phosphor streaming all around them.

One particularly memorable time for me came as I was at the helm. The sails were full, the compass steady and my, more experienced, buddy giving me cautious praise. Next thing we both knew, the ship was being hit by a rogue wave that threw us totally off balance. I managed to hang on, which was a mistake as the ship therefore swung around! The captain flew out of her cabin (one of only a handful of female captains at the time) bawling at us as the ship rolled alarmingly. My buddy explained what happened as I managed to get the ship back on course. We were brought blocks that fitted into the deck so that we could brace our feet.

We anchored in Agadir and were given a tour of such places as a driving school and a carpet warehouse. We were recalled to re-moor the ship as a bad swell had grown and the ropes were under strain, we saw bits of the harbour wall falling off. Back on land we caught the bus to a restaurant serving Morrocan food which I found very tasty and not at all spicy. We were all enjoying ourselves whilst being entertained by belly dancers and acrobats when a call came through for us all to return immediately to the ship. When we arrived the sound from her was extremely alarming, the ropes were literally screaming with strain, I'd never heard such a sound. We were ordered below decks and left the full time crew members to deal with the ropes which could easily decapitate anyone if they snapped. Safely out onto a roiling sea, we anchored for the night.

Our next trip ashore was to Marrakesh, a four hour bus ride through the High Atlas Mountains, very red sandstone contrasting with all the almond trees which were in glorious pink blossom.

Marrakesh appeared all pink and pale orange, the different quarters being easily distinguished. We were told the Muslim buildings had no windows facing the street, whilst the Jewish buildings had balconies with shops underneath.

The days were slipping by very quickly and I had yet to summon the courage to climb to the very top of the very tallest mast. I had been out on the bowsprit, which was fun. The sea raced beneath our feet and, most of the time, soaked us to our thighs as well. We were securely fastened to a running line I hasten to add. When one of my new found friends, a lady of 70 managed to climb to the top, I knew it was now or never. I asked another member of our team if I could follow her up, I had watched her climb with such grace and ease. So, step by step up I went, out onto the ratlines and lent over to manage the sails with the others. I was very pleased with myself and couldn't understand everyone laughing when I descended. Turned out I had an extremely serious face all the while, which certainly did look a sight when I saw it in a photo someone had kindly taken. This same older lady went on to 'buddy' in a Tall Ship kitted out for ease of use by people with a disability, including in wheelchairs. They didn't have to miss out on the exhilaration of being high in the rigging either as there was a winch system to raise them up whilst still in their wheelchairs.

Along with others I took my Competent Crew practical sailing course certificate, part of which was rowing a small dingy. I was doing just fine until I was mobbed by the others swimming around and pushing the boat all ways, I felt like the Swallows and Amazons repelling boarders. We also had to swim in the ocean, what a sensation of very cold and very, very deep.

I thoroughly recommend anyone of any age or ability who wish for a little bit of adventure in their lives to have a go. I might just save my pennies and experience another one myself.

As the Trust says:

"Our adult adventure holidays have the knack of thrilling the young and not-so-young alike, from 18 to 80, with no prior sailing experience necessary. You will meet like minded people and be integral to the vessel’s crew. Each challenge will be tackled together as a team, whether you’re on a Day Sail in the Solent or on a Transatlantic Crossing."

It certainly felt very strange to return to dry land, even after such a short voyage.

A few stats: Stavros S Niarchos is 1,162 square meters (12,510 square feet). We sailed 837 nautical miles, under sail 462.02 nautical miles.

Contributed by Rosemary

(Published 20th Dec 2018)

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