The sea calls to lost souls, to all who feel adrift in their routine-rooted lives, all who tell themselves that one day – one distant but definitely real day – they will succeed in running to the adventure that awaits them beyond the grey horizon. Or haven’t we all at some point stood alone on a beach, our feet crunching on pebbles, our eyes fixed on the diminishing silhouettes of ships against the sky? And what vessel better embodies the promise of the sea than the classic tall ship, an honest-to-goodness living, creaking, wooden hulled, canvas bedecked sailing ship? Because – to quote the authority of J. Sparrow, a.k.a. the sexiest pirate to ever caper across our cinema screens – “what a ship is, is freedom”.
To crew on a tall ship has been a tomboyish dream of mine for almost as long as I can remember. Or rather, it was the most realistic solution to unrealistic, romantic fantasies of living in a different time, of slinging a knapsack of essentials over my shoulder and running away to sea, of being press-ganged by a bunch of burly sailors, or of roaming exotic shores with loveable if scruffy pirates. As a child at Disneyland, I obsessively (or, one might charitably say: loyally) went round and round the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, queuing up for another go as soon as I was spat out of the end. As a teenager, while other girls got to grips with chick flicks or seductive vampires or whatever it is a teenage girl is supposed to read, I worked my way through every single Horatio Hornblower novel. And as a young adult I decided the person from history most worthy of hero-status veneration was a slight, vain, one-armed, one-eyed love-rat with an immortalising death-wish.
All of which means that my expectations were of long gestation and consequently of monstrous size when I clambered up the side of a 110-year-old West Country trading ketch last week and finally plonked my feet on the deck of a genuine, working classic ship.
Though I soon discovered it was I who would be working. The wind that morning was set fair and the captain was determined not to waste it, so before we dozen or so holiday-makers could even say “ahoy” we were being corralled by the crew and exhorted to heave on ropes and let ropes run out, and to heave on other ropes, and to make fast, and to heave on yet more ropes, and to duck swinging booms, and to coil up endless ropes only to belay coiling and heave on the blasted things again as we tacked our way down the Cornish coast. Soon the palms of my hands were burning and my back was aching, and every time I bent down to make a rope fast on a pin the undercurrent of nausea that announced itself as soon as the ship leaned into her stride swelled dangerously upwards.
I did not take to the sea like a fish does to – well, the sea. I have neither the strength nor weight to be a first class rope heaver. When invited to climb the rigging, I got half way up before my legs started shaking so much from fear that I couldn’t climb any higher. When asked to take the helm and keep the ship on a straight course I promptly lost my bearings and veered us first one way, then the other. When asked to plot a course, I did; only it took me so long that by the time I had finished the ship had moved far from the position on which my calculations were based, and I had to start all over again. And when squatting in a rubber dinghy to go ashore, for all that I tried to feel like a marauding pirate or a sneaky smuggler, I felt like what I was: a nervous woman desperately clinging to her handbag, hoping not to get her clothes too wet amid an impromptu and farcical beach landing.
But I loved it. It was exhilarating: to fly along pristine blue waters under a perfect bright blue sky, the prow rising and smacking against the surf as we sought to outpace a sister ship in a race with no finish line. And it was satisfying to work with your hands, to feel a ship come alive, and to perform tasks the essentials of which had been passed down for generations. And above all, the thrill and curiosity of discovering a new place is only felt more keenly when you approach that place from the sea, when you loom up upon an unfamiliar shore and drop anchor in a strange port. Even if the shore is Cornwall, and our purpose in the port was not to trade or to pillage or to map new lands, but simply to buy ice cream on a hot day.
So although I may not have been a natural sailor, my childhood fantasies survive unspoiled, and I returned still daydreaming of a life lived sailing from port to port. Besides, Nelson famously suffered from seasickness. Hornblower stoically battled a fear of heights. And Captain Jack Sparrow shares with me a feeling of being incompletely dressed, unless one is wearing a hat. Perhaps therefore, I may make a sailor after all.