At the beginning of 2015, I had never sailed a day in my life and had no real inclination to change that fact. Spending long periods of time in a damp, leaky tub really held no appeal for me. Fast forward to December of the same year and I’ve spent 6 months living the salty life, visiting 17 countries and sailing over 6500 nautical miles in the process. It’s been a wild ride!
The adventure began with chills of all kinds in Turkey, shivering incessantly through 6 layers of clothing as the Young Endeavour slid gently through the still waters of the Dardanelles. In the wee small, freezing hours of the 25th of April, we joined the naval flotilla and one by one, accompanied by the haunting sounds of the bugle and a blood red dawn, drifted past Anzac Cove in a silent tribute to the tragedies of 100 years ago. That was the first 12 hours of my 49 day voyage aboard Young Endeavour and the standard of adventure, camaraderie & unforgettable moments didn’t decline in the slightest across all seven weeks.
My next sailing adventure would begin completely by chance a month and a half later in an obscure little town on Scotland’s west coast. A chance meeting with 123 year old Brixham trawler, Leader, and her skipper Ben Wheatley led to a ticket to Norway and a berth in the Tall Ships Races. So I found myself in Kristiansand, strolling along the harbour with masts of every shape & size punctuating the skyline as far as the eye could see. I was transported back to the 1700s during the race when, in the middle of the Skaggerak, a scan of the horizon
was filled with majestic tall ships under a full press of sails as we all tried to capture the last whispers of a dying breeze. 11 days later, I was basking in the accomplishment of a successful North Sea crossing when the ship received an urgent summons for a cook to work on a charter voyage to France. I threw on an apron and found myself in a hurricane of pots, pans and crockery as I tried to keep 17 hungry sailors fed and watered. It may be the hardest job I’ve ever worked.
Halfway through this voyage (just after a particularly taxing meal service), I received the news that my application to sail with the Royal Navy of Oman had been successful. It would prove to be an immensely significant event for me – until this adventure, my contact with Muslim people and Arabs consisted almost exclusively of the saddening reports in news headlines. Any preconceptions I may have had were blown away like desert sand when I landed (3.5 hours late on account of a delayed flight) to find Issa waiting patiently to greet me with a big grin, a firm handshake and a Navy-assisted shortcut through customs. Stepping out of the automatic doors and onto Gulf Country soil for the first time, I was met by two lively characters. The first was the stifling Omani heat (at 4am, it still had enough venom to hit me like a ton of bricks). The second was Abdullah (another Navy personnel who would be responsible for my white knuckle ride down the freeway to the naval base). The Shabab Oman II is a truly majestic sight. From my very first glimpse of her, basking in the warm down light, it was clear that this would be a pretty unique sailing experience. It was such a treat to sail aboard a vessel that has been so cunningly designed. Above decks, she is set up as a traditional triple masted fully rigged ship and no detail has been overlooked (down to the hand-turned hemp rope that is used throughout). Below decks is a study in modern nautical technology and engineering: desalination units producing 26 tons of fresh water daily, climate control air-conditioning throughout, a pimped out galley, washing machines with dryers, satellite TV in the messes... it’s a floating 4 star hotel and that’s without taking into account the incredibly lush quarters for the Captain and VIP guests.
That’s all very well, but it’s the ship’s company that can make or break a voyage and what a gang of shipmates to share it with! The international contingent of Sail Training International was represented by a German, South African, Dutch, Uruguayan, two Hungarians, Welshman, Canadian, Czech and yours truly from Australia. The 10 of us were a constant source of amusement for the locals wherever we went and the menagerie of accents flying around the ship made even the simplest conversation a lively affair. To a man, we heaved ourselves into the workings of the ship with gusto – sweating bullets under the hot sun and revelling in the balmy, but cooler evenings & night watches. Shorts and T-shirts were the standard issue uniform and most of us didn’t deviate from it except for cultural sensitivity on shore leave & to don dress rig upon entering and leaving port.
There are few activities that form stronger bonds of friendship and trust than sailing tall ships – when you’re 50m above the deck working the skysail, getting slammed with 16 mates trying to furl a 1 ton course sail or heaving lines until your fingers cramp and muscles ache, the relationship building process tends to get fast tracked. So it was...not just on on Shabab Oman II but on all of the vessels I was lucky enough to board.
Fast forward a month or so and I was at it again, this time on L'Eclectik, a small French catamaran with the wonderful Rocamora family. Together, we sailed from Malaga in Spain through Portugal to the Canary Islands and were preparing for an Atlantic crossing when a tsunami of homesickness capsized those plans (for me, not the Rocamoras) and sent me spinning back down to Australia.
I'm land-based again now, but every time the salt breeze blows up into Hobart from the D'Entrecasteax Channel and whistles in the rigging of the ships in Sullivan's Cove...something stirs.