“Don’t get keelhauled, and don’t get sick,” were parting words that echoed in my ears as I scrambled up the gangway to my new home for the next 10 days: Jubilee Sailing Trust’s handsome tall ship Tenacious, perky and fresh after having just completed an epic voyage from foggy England to sunny Sydney. I had no intention of doing either – rather, I was hoping for a swashbuckling passage under a blue sky with a stiff breeze in the sails. But I think I might have jinxed it.
Gaining fairly sturdy sea legs wasn’t the only thing I mastered during the mid-winter passage from Sydney to Melbourne – like my other, predominantly British, crewmates I was part of a four-team watch that helped keep Tenacious on the straight and narrow, a task that requires round-the-clock, hands-on effort. While that’s nothing new to the offshore boating fraternity, it’s worth mentioning that among our motley crew of varying ages and abilities were three wheelchair users and others living with a disability, including multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and high-functioning learning disabilities.
Tenacious is a 65m, wooden-hulled, square-rigged tall ship and everyone aboard has a job to do, with some tasks shouldered by voyage crew (such as me) and others by the eight-strong permanent crew. The whole ship is kitted out with special equipment that enables everyone to partake in the joys of sailing – no matter their physical condition or sailing prowess.
It’s very reassuring that a medic is aboard every journey, too, and our Medical Pursar, Ronan Ging was on hand at all times … including while I nursed an awful bout of seasickness on our first night underway. Apparently, typing a blog at sea doesn’t agree with my constitution.
Our departure from Sydney on Monday morning was spectacular. I’d never sailed under Sydney Harbour Bridge or out through The Heads and didn’t dream I’d do so aboard such a striking vessel. To top it off, Captain Darren Naggs treated us to a whale-watching tour just outside the harbour, where a mother and her calf frolicked and slapped their flukes as if to bid us farewell.
For all I know, they could also have been warning us of the looming conditions. Soon after turning right, all hope of a stop at Eden for a day were dashed when Bass Strait’s forecast of a strong westerly, accompanied by squalls, changed our leisurely cruise into a sprint to get ahead of the worst weather. Not even the northerly breeze and the speed gained by hitchhiking on the East Australian Current were enough to make the run down the East Coast under sail – alas, SV Tenacious was dubbed MY Tenacious for most of the voyage.
A series of safety briefings by First Mate Fliss Green included the evacuation drill and demonstrated how to safely hoist wheelchair users up the stairs using a pulley system and muscle power. Throughout the journey, the permanent crew held all manner of training sessions, including use of the lines and their sheets. Tenacious is a three-masted barque with 13,100sq ft of sail, so that’s a lot of lines and sheets. By the third call for ‘all hands to the lines’, I knew what manning the braces meant and which one was the royal. Mind you, there are no self-tailing winches here – it’s all done by hand and the lines are coiled on pins.
I was surprised how quickly we all settled into the ship’s routine, even those on their first tall-ship adventure. Guided by experienced watch leaders, we helmed, kept lookout, handled sails and completed safety rounds to check all’s well above and below decks. In rotation, one member of each watch completed mess duty and got to sleep through the night on their allocated day, making it a favourite activity for some.
And happy hour, I soon found out, wasn’t what you’d expect. It’s code for scrubbing the ship from top to bottom … with a smile on your dial.
BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES
The turn into Bass Strait isn’t something to take lightly, as old salt and Tall Ships Victoria President Peter Harris explained in the hours leading to the event. I have the feeling that our British and American voyage mates didn’t quite believe his and Aussie Pete’s cautioning, even while the professional crew skilfully prepared the ship for what might lay ahead.
While those on Afternoon and First Dog watches on Day 3 enjoyed the dolphins escorting us, those on Last Dog wondered where they’d gone while observing a change in the sea state. Then, during the Middle watch (midnight to 4am) while most crew were snug in their bunks, a sudden flurry of action above and a succession of loud bangs against the hull announced we’d turned the corner. Without warning, I found myself hurled into my lee cloth … and decided to head above a little earlier than my upcoming morning watch (4am to 8am).
While the weather event was brief, it was fierce enough to rattle the crew and mess with the main top staysail, sending the Bosun, Dave Balaam, up the yards to repair the damage at first light. The wind shift from north-west to west and increase in wind speed from 10 to 30 knots gave us a taste of what was to come as we changed the course to head for Refuge Cove on Wilsons Promontory’s eastern shore.
Needless to say, the ride there was a little bumpy and the frequent squalls didn’t add to anyone’s comfort. Staring across the surging sea in the dead of night, with the driving wind and rain chilling me to the bone through five layers of winter clothing and wet-weather gear, certainly stopped my head from churning over the mundane stuff that might otherwise keep me awake at 3am.
After three days enjoying the rock ‘n’ roll aboard, it was time to test our land legs. We had arrived at Refuge Cove late in the evening on Wednesday, with our first night at anchor a welcome change. Next morning, despite the intermittent rain and relentless wind, most crew eagerly boarded the dinghies that shuttled us to a nearby beach.
Later that afternoon, we pulled anchor. Tenacious’s arrival at Williamstown, in Melbourne, had been brought forward by a day to Sunday. Battling against the westerly all the way had slowed us down as well, so a quick course to Flinders, at the entry to Westernport, was charted.
By late afternoon, we were alongside Phillip Island. A quick check whether an anchorage there would provide better shelter didn’t work out … the strong swell might be great for the local surf beaches, but not so much for boats seeking shelter. With more dolphins and seals keeping us company, Tenacious motored on to the shelter of Flinders, where we arrived at sunset to enjoy dinner and a fun trivia night spiked by roaring laughter and great comradery.
SAILING, AT LAST!
My watch was on duty from midnight to 4am on Saturday morning, but I was up again at the crack of dawn when the first sounds of the ship being prepared for sailing could be heard.
In glorious sunshine and a blustery force-5 westerly on the starboard bow, we set five square sails and two staysails and finally got what we’d come for – SV Tenacious was sailing and it felt amazing.
Our heading was almost due-south to make the most of the breeze and without taking us too far off course from Port Phillip Bay’s entry, where we would take a pilot aboard at 6am on Sunday for the last leg of the adventure. Until we had to sneak back north under motor, though, everyone was on deck to enjoy the sailing … even when Bass Strait returned to its usual cold, grey self and sent some spray aboard to surprise those who got too close to the action.
My last Morning watch, from 4am to 8am on Sunday, saw us motoring along the Surf Coast and keeping watch over a few container ships also in the queue to enter the bay. Our pilot, Captain Marcus De Fina, was quickly aboard and before long we were making our way through the notorious Rip (which was on its best behaviour) and heading toward Tenacious’s new home berth at Williamstown. As the sun rose, more and more vessels came to greet us … a moving and heart-warming experience that had everyone on deck waving back at the enthusiastic welcoming flotilla and the Channel 7 News helicopter circling above.
Tenacious arrived at the Seaworks Maritime Precinct’s pier to the cheers of a large crowd and several news teams. According to our crew, who were aboard when Tenacious arrived in Sydney, Melbourne’s welcome was by far the larger and more boisterous.
The following welcome speeches by JST Australia’s chairman Harry Cator and several local dignitaries, together with the joys of meeting so many wonderful people eager to chat with the Tenacious crew, are a happy blur, as the experience was simply overwhelming.
We still had two nights aboard after our arrival, so good use was made of the local eateries and watering holes. Duty still called, though, with reduced watches and Tenacious given a good scrub during a last happy hour.
Since we were finally at a calm berth, it was also time for the assisted climbs to the crow’s nest. While able-bodied and experienced crew could go aloft at different times during the voyage, wheelchair users and those needing assistance had to wait until now.
If you’re not practised in climbing up a mast on a tall ship, let me advise you to not look down on your way up – especially if you have vertigo as I do. The thrilling view from around a third of the way up a near-40m mast is a rare treat I’d never hoped to experience and is generally also out of reach for people with limited mobility or in a wheelchair. That’s not so aboard Tenacious.
The logistics of hoisting a wheelie (the name our wheel-based crew gave themselves) aloft is pretty straightforward: strap them in, attach the sling and hooks to the wheelchair, and apply muscle-power on the lines to heave them up. The Tenacious crew have the system down pat and enthusiastically gave everyone a go.
Our youngest wheelie, 20-year-old Otis Horne, didn’t let the confinement he feels while being hoisted stop him from relishing the sensational view from the crow’s nest … a view, he says, that he just can’t get enough of, having also experienced it while aboard sistership Lord Nelson during its visit to New Zealand in 2013. The grins on wheelie Pete Carr and Alex Holding’s faces said as much.
Possibly an even greater test for the crew was helping me overcome the challenges of vertigo. After putting an assisted climb off for hours, I gave it a go. Safely strapped into a safety harness with an additional safety line attached just in case I did fall, I was accompanied by Second Mate Marianne Clapton, who told me where the footholds were once we got close to the top. The experience was a thrill, literally, and the view from above seriously awesome.
Equally awesome was seeing Helen Guggiari manage the climb with only the same assistance as I’d had. Hailing from London, Helen was on her umpteenth voyage and had previously enjoyed numerous climbs. What made this one so special was her progressing multiple sclerosis. It was a joy to share the moment with her, and witnessing her gumption and determination (and that of the supporting crew) was a highlight of the trip.
If you’d like to hop aboard Tenacious for a tour or experience the thrill of sailing a tall ship, check the upcoming tour dates, voyages and day sails on JST’s website at: jst.org.uk/Australia.
I call these flapjacks cariad bore da – Welsh for good morning darling, which is how Micah Hendrickx offered this very sustaining slice on a particularly cold and bumpy day in Bass Strait. They’re super-easy to make … which is great when you’re in a galley that’s tossing and turning and the crew wants a treat for smoko.
500g golden syrup
500g sugar (Micah uses brown sugar, but use any sugar you like)
1kg ‘and a bit’ rolled oats (quantity depends on how absorbent the oats are and how soft/firm you like your flapjacks)
Glacé cherries, raisins, or any crystallised/glacé fruit (optional)
Chocolate, melted (optional)
Preheat the oven to 180°C.
Melt the golden syrup, butter and sugar in a large pan, stirring continually – do not allow to boil. Remove from the heat and stir in the oats and optional fruit.
Spread onto an oven tray or large baking dish and smooth the top. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until there’s a bit of golden crust around the edges.
Cool to room temperature. Slice into bars.
If the flapjacks are too soft, dip them in some melted chocolate to help keep the mixture together … and to add extra energy for your hungry crew.