A friend showed me an advert for HM Bark Endeavour, Brighton to Jersey.
The chance to sail such an historic vessel was too good to miss. I applied and to my delight, was accepted as crew.
The delight was tempered with a certain amount of trepidation because of my height phobia. Six feet up a ladder makes my knees tremble. Even though I’d previously sailed boats with sticks pointing skywards, I’d never had to climb one of them. Previous problems aloft had been solved by skipper’s privilege.
As I boarded Endeavour I looked up and thought "gawd what have I done?" We were sorted into mast crews and I drew the foremast. Well that’s alright then, it’s only eighty feet up compared to the mainmast’s ninety. We were issued safety harnesses and then told we couldn’t clip on until we’d already climbed the mast and were out on the yardarm. How wonderful. There’s a platform on the mast called the fighting top and two ways of getting there. The first is to climb the ratlines until they join the mast and then swing upside down on the futtocks and climb over the edge of the ‘top. The Royal Navy in their wisdom also provided two holes in the ’top called lubberholes so you can climb from the mast and go through these. Lubber that I am, no way was I hanging from the futtocks.
Once on the ‘top, I was told to step onto the yardarm first because I was tallest. Me? Why? Because the footrope is only attached to either end of the yard and needed a tall person to balance on it and still reach the yard. Out I went and could finally clip on my harness but my feet were balanced on a single rope and nothing but my nipples to hang on with. Meanwhile there was a long discussion about who was coming out next. Precarious dangling doesn’t improve serenity.
“For fucks sake someone else get on this fucking rope right now.”
They did. Two others came out and the footrope lifted enough for the yard to come waist height, I could finally feel comfortable. Lots of untying bits of string with jolly jack-tar nautical names, the sail dropped, the deck crew pulled on more strings and we were sailing. That had been the fore course, lowest of the sails.
Next, up to the topsail and that was where I froze. My knees were vibrating so much, I thought I’d shake everyone else off the footrope. Luckily I had Richard Woodman next to me. A ship’s captain and marine novelist, he realised my problem and his calm, authoritative voice settled me. From that moment I relaxed and could soon swing about the rigging like a little monkey, although I never pushed my luck by visiting the top of the mainmast. Thank you Richard.
The original crew would have numbered about 90. This trip we had 56 so canvas was reduced at night but even then, a good session at the helm saw the old girl sailing along at 14 knots. Remembering that 1940’s steamships in convoy couldn’t manage much more than eight knots.
Sleeping in a hammock is something I’ll never accomplish, having nearly broken a wrist trying to get into it. I spent my off watch sleeping on a very hard deck. Arriving at Jersey we fired a cannon and prepared to drop anchor. One of the regular crew forgot to release the exterior line securing it and his language was even more colourful than mine. Of course as I was nearest, the blame was mine and rather than waste more time listening to a load of colonial verbal, I hopped over the side, balanced on the anchor and released the bloody thing myself.
A two inch thick hawser fed through a turning block between anchor and capstan. The block shattered with a loud retort and the hawser whipped across the deck like a bow string. Unfortunately someone was standing in its way and a severely injured crewman was airlifted to a Jersey hospital.
My height phobia was just that and the deck of an 18th C. ship was proven just as hazardous.
Would I do it all again? Not even for a threesome with Penny Cruz and Charlize Theron.