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Sailing Lady of Avenel back to Scotland 

It's hard to say who had suffered more from the 18 months enforced 'lay up' - me or the sailing ship Lady of Avenel.

While I've been isolating in a Glasgow flat or a Cullivoe croft writing music, gaining new skills in music production, and finishing a music degree, the ship has been sitting in fresh water in Heybridge Basin, awaiting a crew to get her back in sailing condition. 

There's an old saying that 'ships and sailors rot in  port', and while I would argue that my own time hasn't been too badly spent, I have rarely seen a ship in greater need of salt water.

Lady of Avenel locking out of her lay-up berth in Heybridge Basin, near Maldon, May 27th 2021
 

Five weeks in Maldon disappeared in a bit of a blur - somewhere among it all we cleaned every surface above and below decks; stripped back hideously flaking deckhouse roof paint; prepped and painted topsides, deckhouse sides and deck house roof; sent up and bent on ten sails, and rigged haliards, buntlines, clewlines and sheets. There was welding - plates set in at deck level where the old steel was thin; replacement futtock bars aloft; and machinery and batteries were overhauled.

My hands - more used recently to handling a fiddle or guitar than hempex ropes and diesel filters - cracked, split and ached along with muscles unused to shipboard life since 2019. The all-consuming nature of ship life took over, and we hit our stride. Life rafts arrived, blocks and boxes and equipment, a new galley stove, were loaded aboard and secured in place.

With an excellent team assembling, our target of being sea-ready by June 12th - unthinkable just a few weeks earlier - began to appear doable, and by departure-eve, even the sudden need for an emergency replacement fridge for the galley couldn't slow us down.

 

The high tide at Maldon is a strange thing, to a Shetlander. For 16 hours a day, the ship sat in a 'mud-berth', with a trickle of water 'nae mair as a burn' ran past our port side. Egrets,Canada Geese and Shalders called out as they waded and browsed the thick brown mud.

Two hours before high water, there would still be little sign of any change, so far up the river Blackwater. Then, so quickly you can watch its advance, the tide appears, streaming in, filling up the river. Eventually, with a squelch and a shake, the 'Lady' would free herself from the mud, floating proudly for a brief while until the water ran out once more and she settled back into the groove she had work in the mud.

Maldon Creek - the tide just beginning to rise.

 

On June 12th, High Water was at 1445; and by 1330, we felt as ready as we could be, having frantically sent ashore anything we didn't want to bring to Scotland, and, very hopefully, getting aboard any last thing we thought we might need. Last-minute runs to chart suppliers, tobacco shops, and concernsa about what else we may not have. A ship that hasn't been to sea for 18 months, and has been a construction site for the past 5 weeks, is a hard thing to get sea-ready.

But with Jim's powerful workboat on the port bow pulling, and his right hand man Dave in another boat pushing on starboard, after a long struggle with the mud the ship pulled out into the channel. Past Maldon we steamed, the Saturday heat-wave meaning the pub, the river banks and the Blackwater were all filled with people - sailing dinghies, walking dogs, drinking pints in the sun. Out the river, past the 'Ross Revenge' - the ship that once hosted Radio Caroline - and towards the open sea.

Mate Carol Anderson, happy as the rest of us to be heading out to sea

 

We paused at Brightlingsea, anchoring overnight in the Pyefleet anchorage to allow secure and inspect all round. There's no better feeling than leaving the land behind on a ship - getting back in to the sea state of mind once more, where the complications - and assistance - of the land are outside your sphere of existence, and the ship can live independently as she is designed to do.

With anchors and hoisting gear working well, the ship stowed for sea and the propeller thoroughly inspected, we continued on our way the following morning. The bottom end of the North Sea is a maze of sand banks, gas rigs, wind farms and cardinal buoys, and we picked our way through these, sometimes under sail, sometimes under engines.

A day of this took us blessedly clear, and we diverged with the British coast, steering a line to pass close by Rattray Head, off Peterhead. The wind, calm for the first night (See below!) did what a forecast almost too good to be true suggested, and filled in force 5 from the south-west; the sky remained clear, and soon we were leaping up the North Sea at speeds up to 9 knots.

'Sailor's delight' - calms before a fair wind in the North Sea.

Our crew was gelling very well; Aodh and Nessie (Carol's shipboard name!) worked hard on the unfinished jobs, painting hatches and decks; Tom, our carpenter, and Andy, regular volunteer, fixer of anything, and de-facto ship's entertainer, with the help of Millie, got stuck into the rigging. Sean, a maritime historian, experimented with sextant corrections and told us arcane stories of maritime lore. Donal, in addition to the 12-4 watch took charge of the galley and provisions, keeping the saloon stowed as it should be, and ensuring the food was consistently excellent.

With music too - Carol and Donal both being excellent fiddlers, and me on guitar, we were able to finish the work day and go into the night watches with a few tunes on deck. Never was such a fortunate crew!

By the 17th, we had reached Wick, where we were joined by Jasmine and Harry; a quick pint ashore, our only rain of the voyage so far fell during the night; and with the sky clearing and the new joiners and a large order of stores onboard, we were on our way once more.

 

We had joked in Maldon that the inevitable list of unfinished jobs was the 'Pentland Firth' list; however, flat calm conditions in the Firth found us painting decks, varnishing the helm console and rigging conduit on cables aloft. A favourable tide saw us motor past Dunnet Head on the longest day of the year, and by the early hours we were coming up on Cape Wrath.

The following day we dropped an anchor in stunning Achmelvich Bay. The wind was forecast to fill in from the North West, and we were making good time so we may as well anchor somewhere nice and wait for it!

Achmelvich ahead! Plus some sure indications that we have reached the West Coast.

Sure enough, the forecast was as good as its word; and we set sail from Achmelvich Bay with a beautiful North-West breeze to carry us down the Minch. The Shiants were our destination; and we anchored in the bay there, our view criss-crossed by the flight paths of puffins and the fetor of guano filling our nostrils!

Lady of Avenel anchored at the Shiant Islands...

...criss-crossed by puffins!

The fair winds were forecast to hold for one more day; we decided not to waste them, and set off at 0800; 14 hours of full sail took us down the Minch towards South Uist. And of course, for tunes on the way, what else could we play?

 

At Lochboisdale, anchored by evening, we were joined onboard for tunes by Anna-Wendy Stevenson and Simon Bradley; the following morning we moved to the new harbour and loaded bunkers. By afternoon we were on our way to Barra.

 

And what better end to a trip for a musical sailing ship like Lady of Avenel than to make acquaintance with another boatload of musical sailors? In Barra we were tied up just along the pontoon from the 'Lady Flow', a sailing boat with a difference: Marieke Huysmans-Berthou has adapted this vessel to feature a piano that raises from the aft deck, and has sailed from the South of France through the West of Ireland and now Scotland, giving concerts to audiences ashore.

https://pianocean.wordpress.com/

There was time for once last session in Barra before our crew dispersed! This has been a real reminder of how good sea-life can be when a good crew comes together; and a real affirmation of how integral music is to that life. And in a time when Covid is still succesfully putting a cap on all things musical, to sail for two weeks has been a very welcome respite.

Bring on Sessions and Sail!  Here's Harry Bird leading a rendition of the old shanty 'Santiana' on our farewell night aboard in Barra:

 

 

 

 

 

Soren Larsen voyage #7 - Galápagos 

This January has thrown up a few highlights; the incredible concerts being unveiled every day by Celtic Connections has to be among the best of them. I'm spending much of every day with a world-class concert coming through my speakers in my own house. And what a fantastic way of bringing people together - shared experience is one of the finest things about going to a concert; and it's warming to know that so many of my friends are also watching these shows.

The weather is another source of variety - Cullivoe has been stunningly beautiful at times. On more nights than not, there have been starry skies; frosty ground that crunches underfoot, and the immense background rumble of waves breaking.

Especially at night, when it's this quiet, I can hear so much - the deepest sound is the steady sub-bass of swells landing on rocks over a mile away to the north-west; the more regular bass sounds thump from the closer headlands to the north, near Breckon; and the steady, slow beat and hiss of breakers on the Unst shore, Brough, and the Papil and Kellister beaches within sight of the house competes a complex sound picture.

With the absence of light, I can see so much more; on more than one night the aurora and the stars have lit my path along the road through Cullivoe.

So despite the anxiety that living through a pandemic induces, and the steady worry of the loss of livelihood, there is a lot to take in and to be inspired by. Today I'm looking back again at my first Pacific voyage aboard the tallship Søren Larsen, rejoining the story here as the ship approached Galápagos.

Stay safe and well,

Barry

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

 

 

On another windless day - it was easy to see how ships got stuck in the 'doldrums', this equatorial region where the wind is virtually absent, for weeks on end in the pre-engine days - we continued to motor over the glassy-smooth surface of the Pacific, rolling over the lazily undulating ocean swells; a fierce tropical sun overhead and our destination now the Galápagos Islands.

On the afternoon of 13th February, two days after departing Coco Island, I had the afternoon watch when we sighted our first other ship since departing Panamá; what appeared to be a tune fishing vessel at eight miles distance, right ahead.

Of course, we were on a collision course, and as I made an alteration of course to starboard, I saw a helicopter lift from the deck of the other ship. Six pairs of binoculars, mine included, followed the small chopper as it rose, crossed our track - then took a dip by the bow, and plunged into the Pacific with a great plume of spray.

I increased Søren Larsen's engine to full ahead and, giving the helmsman a course to steer for the crash position, dashed down the companionway to fetch Captain Jim. We prepared our rescue boat for launching, got medical gear on deck and ready.

As we made best speed, we watched the tuna fishing vessel, faster and closer than us, reach the crash postion and stop; a crane swung out from her deck. When they at last answered the VHF they informed us that the two helicopter crew had been recovered and were fine; they had the wreckage in tow; no medical assistance required.

The 'Taurus Tuna', Callsign YYEK out of Venezuela, was two miles away and steaming east, away from us, at 14 knots by the time we reached the spot; leaving no sign that this strange incident had ever happened.

 

We resumed our south-westerly course, and three days later crossed the equator just before sunset, whence an elaborately dressed creature known as the 'Bilge Monster', bearing a vague resemblance to Terri, appeared on deck. Draped in seaweed, lank hair hanging in shades of blue, red and green, she brought the message that the Søren Larsen’s crew had not been forgotten about, and that Neptune himself would visit as soon as the vessel departed the Galapagos.

She subjected our crew to a series of tests to establish who were 'Shellbacks' - mariners who had already crossed the equator - and who were 'Pollywogs', and thus making their first equator crossing, and required to pay ther dues to King Neptune.

(Note: The term 'Pollywog' derives from the Middle-English word 'pollywig' or 'pollwygge', meaning 'Tadpole'. The term 'Shellback' is a more recent one, indicating mariners who had been at sea long enough to have shells growing on their backs.)

The Bilge Monster assured us that all dues would be paid as soon as the ship was at seaonce more on leaving Galápagos; I was glad I had brought my certificate from my own first crossing, five years earlier, aboard a tanker in the Indian Ocean. Today's crossing meant I had traversed 'the line' in all three oceans - Indian, Atlantic and Pacific - surely well on my way to being a shellback!

~ ~ ~

 

On 16th February, as I took the six-hourly meteorological observations that we sent back to the New Zealand met service, I noted that the sea temperature had dropped by 5 degrees, indicating that we were now feeling the effects of the cooler Peru, or Humboldt, current.

 

This current sweeps up the west coast of South America in a huge upwelling flow of cool, nutrient rich water, feeding the enormous anchovy and sardine shoals off Chile and Peru, the source of one of the world’s largest commercial fisheries.  From there it continues north until it washes past the Galápagos, bringing life to the marine ecosystem of the islands, and maintaining the sea temperature at a relatively cool twenty-one degrees Celsius for most of the year. 

Meanwhile, the warm El Niño current flows west out of the Gulf of Panamá, meeting the cooler water and normally brushing the islands in December when the Peru Current is at its weakest, bringing warmer temperatures and rain to the area. 

It is this combination of warm and cold currents that give Galápagos its unique and vibrant ecosystem; it is also this dependence on the currents that renders the wildlife of the islands so prone to disruption when they do not behave as normal.

 

The sea and air took on a different look and feel; the sea became less clear, greener, and more opaque; and the horizon gained a wan, washed-out look that would remain throughout our time around Galapagos.  The air was filled with Frigate birds and Boobies; a pod of porpoises swam languidly across our bow; there were dolphins jumping.  There were even a few seals, so far out to sea. 

Jim took us closer in to the island of Genovesa and I manned the mast, keeping look out from hugh above as he eased the ship into this volcanic crater lagoon, with all hands on deck far below reaching for cameras and binoculars, eager for a glimpse of some more Galapagos wildlife.  The steep, arid sides of the island sloped down to the sea but, with no viable anchorage, we continued on our way to Puerto Ayura on the island of Santa Cruz, another eighty miles to the south-west.

 

The varying currents also gave the islands one of their earlier names - 'Las Islas Encantadas'. Making slow speeds due to the absence of winds in the region, the first Spanish sailors who sighted the islands were at the mercy of the currents; navigating by dead reckoning, the perception was that the islands were found in a different position every time, and thus enchanted.

A combination of superstition and the difficulty of navigating helped keep the islands uninhabited until the twentieth century.  Galápagos is one of the few places on earth to have apparently no indigenous human population. The earliest reports we have of the islands come from passing visits by mariners including Alexander Selkirk, DeFoe’s real-life Robinson Crusoe, in 1708; and his once-buccaneer captain William Dampier, on several occasions during the early 18th century. 

American whaling vessels regularly stopped here during the early 19th century, stacking live tortoises upside-down in their holds to eat later, and putting goats ashore for a future food source; and of course, in the 1830s, Charles Darwin, naturalist, arrived aboard the British survey ship 'Beagle'. 

People from South America, or possibly Polynesia, had reached the islands before their European discovery, evidenced by the small coconut plantations and pottery remains left here; however these people do not appear to have remained in the islands. 

European settlers began to trickle in after the Panama Canal was constructed in 1914 – a group of Norwegians, a few German families.  But it was only in the latter part of the 20th Century that a significant population began to grow, supporting the fishing, tourism, and farming industries.  Now the population is 30,000 and growing; and this increase, together with ever-rising visitor numbers, puts a strain on the unique and fragile ecosystem.

 

We anchored in Academy Bay; here our voyage crew left us for five days. They had been signed up on a five-day tour into the National Park, where only licensed tour operators may enter; Søren Larsen would not be sailing into those areas. Instead, with the ship half-empty, it was a good opportunity to push on with some of the endless maintenance that a wooden sailing ship demands.

It was also an opportunity for what I later would call 'crew maintenance' - ensuring the crew remained in good condition by giving them a couple of days of leave! So, while half the full-time crew had their shore leave, and with only Captain Jim, Engineer Pete, Lucy, Jima, Sally Anne and me on board, we worked our way through first mate Sal's job list.

I always enjoyed these days with a smaller crew; life was more informal, and it seemed to me that we got a lot done with just a few of us working on our tasks without distraction, enjoying our work, taking our breaks when convenient instead of at formal smoko times.

Barefoot and bare-shouldered we worked in the rig tarring shrouds or varnishing yards, or on the deck-house roof repairing boats. Puffy altocumulus drifted across the pastel-cyan sky; dry brush and dark rocks lined the low headlands that enclosed the bay. Behind the jetty and the little town, indistinct mountains rose into the haze.

This was no peaceful anchorage, however; ships came and went constantly, day and night, unloading pallets of goods and 4 wheel drive vehicles onto flat barges, taking alarmingly large angles of heel as their cargoes were hoisted and swung out over the side by creaking derricks. More than once a rusty-looking vessel anchored uncomfortably close to us; we rigged a second anchor from Søren Larsen's stern, hoping this would keep us clear of any close-quarters situations as ships swung in the night.

In all life was pleasant but we ached to get over to the shore, so close, and begin exploring!
 

~ ~ ~

 

Dropped off at the jetty for two days leave, we were immediately amongst the dozens of scaly black marine iguanas that basked and swam around the rocks. I was startled by a noise from behind  – a “Hawwwk… ptoo!” that sounded like a man clearing the back of his throat noisily, and spitting.  I turned around, but no-one was there. 

I watched as another of the iguanas turn its head to the side and gobbed a mouthful of white foam onto the rocks with the same hawking sound.  These amazing creatures drink sea water, absorbing the fresh water from it, and spitting out the brine that remains.

Galápagos Penguins splashed on the surface as they swam across the bay; the iguanas roamed the rocks showing little fear of us, all within a few metres of the busy pier where the lighters and forklift trucks continued to offload cargo from the ships.

Lucy and I found some bicycles for hire and cycled up the mountainside to Bella Vista, enjoying the view over the harbour and across the sea to Isabella Island. The air has an unusual quality here, probably due to the cold seas that surround the islands, giving every view the appearance of a watercolour painting; the sky a washed out light blue merging barely-perceptibly into the light blue sea.  Puffy high clouds drift lazily.  The terrain was dry, light green brush growing from a faded chocolate-coloured soil; the bleaching sun beat down, hot through the haze but the wind, blowing lightly, was cool and soft.

At the Darwin Research Station we met a very old tortoise that had known Charles Darwin himself; and 'Lonesome George', the last of his species of Pinta Island Tortoises, now sadly deceased.

The next morning we cycled to the beach at Tortuga Bay, a mile-long beach two miles west of Puerto Ayura. The sand was marked only with the tracks of two marine iguanas; the gently breaking waves were cool enough to shock the growing heat of the day from our skin. It was the perfect place to relax for a few hours before returning to our ship.

Relaxing with friends, Tortuga Bay.

 

Back onboard, our voyage crew returned filled with stories of wildlife and adventures from their five days in the national park. We raised our anchor in the morning and sailed the forty miles to the rocky anchorage at Puerto Villamil, on Isabella island.

Here, the Galápagos cormorants and blue-footed boobies stood on the rocks; Galápagos sea lions basked in the sun on cabin tops and decks of the half-dozen small local craft; we never did discover how they were able to haul their bodies up the three metres of vertical topside to get there.

Our time in these islands was almost done; but we had one last mission here. We were lower on fresh water than we would have preferred when setting out on a 2,000 mile passage to Easter Island (with no likelihood of loading water at the other end, either). Captain Jim had been informed that the only way to take on water was to load from one of the fire trucks that served the islands' main airport, on the island of Baltra.

On our last chaotic morning here, Jim maneouvred Søren Larsen through the little channel to the Baltra ferry pier. With little room to spare on either side, and even less clearance under our keel, we moored between an anchor and a single stern line to the shore, and with all the fire hoses we could muster, succeeded in filling our water tanks with fresh, clean and drinkable, but slightly rubber-tainted water. This process was not helped by having to leave the berth mid-way through to allow the ferry to berth; and it was evening before we were ready to sail. The firemen were amused however at this break from routine, and swapped t-shirts with some of us as a souvenir of the experience!

With our water tanks finally full and our departure paperwork signed, we slipped our lines and carefully motored clear of the little channel and, with Santa Cruz rising to port, Isabella to Starboard, headed out to sea.

 

A marine iguana on the rocks at Tortuga Bay

 

Tortoises at the Darwin Research Station, Puerto Ayura

 

 

Stowing the gaff topsail, 25 metres above the deck, involves a degree of contortion!

 

 

Lyrics with English Translation - 'Whaar Tide Meets Tide' 

As promised at my Celtic on Campus concert (https://youtu.be/4qyJqXsPvXM)... here's the Shetland lyrics, and the English translation! 

Hope you enjoyed the song. 

Barry 

 

 

Whaar Tide Meets Tide  

Barry Nisbet  

 

Skrime da Noup abön Charlie’s Holm,  

Whaar da affrug casts strings o foam;  

And da skarfs beat da Flugga on da helicks by da shore,  

Hear der mantin cry whaar tide meets tide.  

 

(Ch.) Whaar tide meets tide, da skorie glides,  

Da selkie hunts and da solan dives.  

Whaar wi a mortal peester du might hear a neesik rise,  

By da banks o Noss whaar tide meets tide.  

 

Harsk gyos speak o different days,  

When haagless swells beat alang da craigs  

An saat spray carries lik shask apo da gale,  

An aa-baest cruggs for life whaar tide meets tide.  

 

(Ch.) Whaar tide meets tide, da skorie glides  

Da selkie hunts and da solan dives,  

Whaar da bonxie laavs, wi plunder in her mind,  

By da banks o Noss whaar tide meets tide.  

 

(Br.) Da peewit fins a girsy böl;  

Da teetick hwenks fae daal tae croft tae helli-möld.  

Da tystie sees da tide go doon, da tide come up  

And a dratsi braks da tang wi a crooner ta maet her pups…  

 

(Ch.) Whaar tide meets tide, da skorie glides  

Da selkie hunts and da solan dives  

Apo dee grandfaider’s meid du casts oot dee line  

BY da banks o Noss whaar tide meets tide  

By da banks o Noss whaar tide meets tide  

By da banks o Noss whaar tide meets tide. 

 

 

Where Tide Meets Tide (translation into English)  

Barry Nisbet  

See the Noup above Charlie’s Holm,  

Where the backwash makes strands of foam;  

And the cormorants ‘beat da Flugga’ (an arm-spreading motion used by fishermen to keep warm)  on the flat rocks by the shore,  

Hear their stammering cry where tide meets tide.  

 

(Ch.) Where tide meets tide, the young gull glides,  

The seal hunts and the gannet dives.  

Where with a great exhalation you might hear a porpoise surface,  

By the cliffs of Noss where tide meets tide.  

 

Harsh clefts in the rock tell of different days,  

When boundless, remorseless swells break against the cliffs  

And salt spray carries like mist on the gale,  

And every creature huddles against the weather for its life where tide meets tide.  

 

(Ch.) Where tide meets tide, the young gull glides,  

The seal hunts and the gannet dives.  

Where the arctic skua hovers threateningly with plunder in her mind,  

By the cliffs of Noss where tide meets tide.  

 

(Br.) The lapwing finds a grassy nest;  

The meadow pipit makes flitty, birdlike movements from dale to croft to human burial ground.  

The guillemot sees the tide come down, the tide come up  

And an otter breaks through the seaweed with a gurnard to feed her pups…  

 

(Ch.) Where tide meets tide, the young gull glides,  

The seal hunts and the gannet dives.  

On your grandfather’s fishing spot you cast out your line  

By the cliffs of Noss where tide meets tide  

By the cliffs of Noss where tide meets tide  

By the cliffs of Noss where tide meets tide

 

Søren Lasen voyage #6 - to Cocos Island; and Captain Jim Cottier 

The arrival in the post of Jim Cottier's memoir (Thank you Geoff Saunders!) just before Christmas brought back memories of stories, both lived with and heard from Captain Jim. As soon as the book arrived I put down the one I was reading - Wiliam Dampier's 'Memoirs of a Buccaneer'. (I do occasionally read something that's not the memoir of a swashbuckling seafarer, honest...)

 

It was in Panamá that I first met Jim - in fact, it was 25 metres above the turquoise waters of Balboa Bay, where I was hanging off the end of the upper topsail yard, engrossed in renewing an earring lashing. I was startled from my work by a voice from the crosstree platform to my right, with a question about the lead on the topgallant sheet.

Our new captain was white bearded, slightly gaunt of face, with keen grey eyes and a gold ring in his left ear; energetic and clearly with an intimate knowledge of Søren Larsen's rig, having spotted that the sheets had been rigged the wrong side of the clewline back in England. I'd heard many stories about Jim in my 3 months on board - he was married to Terri, our purser, after all; a master mariner who had gone to sea at age 15; a one time hippy; expert navigator and shanty singer. I had been looking forward to meeting Jim.

So began one of the most epic legs of our journey so far. Our new crew joined - along with several who had been with us since Curacao, this group would be with us for three months, covering over 6,000 nautical miles. Fortuately, this crew turned out tio be equal to the voyage - a singular, enthusiastic and fascinating group, all of whom I still count as friends for life.

 

The wind was blowing lightly from the south that evening as we sailed; with no engines running, and a main sail half-set, we shortened up the anchor, braced the yards to starboard, and set the lower topsail.  With a backed outer jib helping to pull the bow round to port, we heaved the anchor the rest of the way up on the windlass.  The ship turned, slowly, slowly; the 10 crew stationed in the waist heaved the yards round to port; and as the lower topsail began to fill, the foredeck team set the upper topsail and course with a ruffle of canvas, and Soren Larsen’s 300 tonnes begun to gather some headway. 

Soon, the sun lowering over the Pacific horizon, we sailed slowly south into the Gulf of Panama and turned to the west, and I found it easy to imagine I was among the first group of adventurers to discover this ocean, to leave a wake shimmering behind in the darkening indigo sea or to cut the golden watery road that lay ahead, empty and inviting.

 

TWO nights out we found the doldrums.  The swell rolled up from the south in long, gentle three metre high hills as we motored west at 6 knots, the 1949 B+W Alpha engine clunking away pleasantly.  The sea lay so smooth that the reflections of the individual stars that filled the sky could be seen in its surface, and my midnight-to-four watch stood around by the wheel, silently gazing up at the heavens, or out at the sharp, black horizon. 

The area between Panama and the Galapagos is notorious for calms, and was avoided by sailors in the past because of this.  We had expected to do a considerable amount of motoring during this part of the journey, and had loaded extra drums of fuel on deck in preparation.  But Søren Larsen’s hull, designed for sailing, slips easily through the water when there is no wind, taking little driving; and the engine burns less than 20 litres of diesel per hour.

By day, my 12-4 watch was the hottest part of the day, a time when many of the other watchkeepers take a sleep in preparation for their own night watches, We would often therefore have the ship to ourselves, and wearing sun hats and sun cream, drinking plenty of water, stand our watch in the hot sun, which this close to the equator the sun is almost directly overhead, and bleached blond sunlight would dance off every wavelet of pure blue sea.  The wooden deck grew hot, and the watch would regularly wet it down with sea buckets to prevent the timber drying out and cracking, the salt water feeling blissfully cool on our bare feet.

 

Five days after leaving Panama we sighted Coco Island, approaching as the grey smudge turned to green and became a high, cliff-sided island. Wterfalls appeared, then forests, then plunging valleys; and eventually, we approached the east end of the island and motored into Chatham Bay.

Crystal clear water meant we could see our anchor chain running out ahead and down to the sandy seabed 30 metres below; as we pulled the chain taut and gently brought up to the anchor, I watched a variety of fish float around by the side of our ship. Suddenly they disappeared, and the reason why became apparent - the unmistakeable form of a hammerhead shark! Soon we had five of these creatures swimming around us, and Terri and Troy were excitedly planning a dive for the following day.

This isolated outpost of Costa Rica feels very primal with thick green jungle that cloaks the precipitous slopes, and untamed waterfalls that cascade off its cliffs, casting their own rainbows before dissipating into clouds of steam.  The island is uninhabited, except for a few Costa Rican rangers stationed here.  European pirates were reputed to have buried treasure on the island in the 19th century; prior to this, Polynesian or South American seafarers visited to create the coconut plantations that give the island its name, but did not stay; otherwise, Coco Island may have always been uninhabited.

 

Lucy, Jima and Sally Anne and I climbed the steep, long hill from the small boat landing, enjoying our half-day of shore leave.  Sweat soon soaked our clothes as we followed the narrow path that ascended through thick forest.  The sun was fierce and the air humid; but it felt good to use our legs after days aboard the ship, and we managed a rapid pace, keeping an eye open for treasure chests laying by the path side.

We walked along the ridge, spying the speck of white that was the ship far below.  Half an hour along the well-marked path took us to the ranger station, a simple white-painted plywood building built on stilts.

The rangers had knocked off for the day, and were unwilling to take us anywhere; but Jima, Kevin and I were desperate to see - and swim beneath - one of the island's waterfalls. Certain that we could find our own way, we set off through the jungle  - and within half an hour had found the deep pool into which cascaded a heavy waterfall. We swam and splashed under the torrent, and the weight of the water hammering on my shoulders was about as much as I could bear - nature's perfect massage!

On the way back, however we lost the path, and decided to follow the stream instead. It took longer than expected and soon we were running, leaping from rock to rock, wading through the fast flowing water, getting worried about the time. Finally, beginning to worry that we had taken the wrong path altogether, we ran straight out into the clearing by the ranger station, panting and laughing, with just enough time to spare to run over the ridge in the evening heat , to slip and slide down the path on the other side, and to catch the launch back to Søren Larsen.

 

That same evening we were on our way once again, the doldrums still persisting, the same three-metre swell rolling in as we motored south west now, towards our next destination - the Galapagos Islands.

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on the Garvellachs, and Highlands and Islands history 

One of my favourite anchorages in the Inner Hebrides is Eilean an Naoimh, at the south-west end of the Garvellachs, an uninhabited grop of islands between Shuna and Mull.

It calls for a smooth sea and a fair forecast, and is completely open to the south west; but in the right conditions, there is just enough room between the rocks on both sides for the Lady of Avenel to swing round her anchor, and I have spent peaceful nights anchored here in summer 2018 and 2019.

                                           Lady of Avenel anchored at Eileach an Naoimh, summer 2018


It was on this island that Saint Brendan the Navigator built his monastery, in 542 AD; we were able to go ashore and visit the 'beehive' style monks houses from that era that still stand here.

Even more evocative, I found, was to look across to the Scottish Mainland - the mountains and hills stretching out in a blue haze behind the smooth sea - and consider how it would have looked to Brendan and the monks, knowing that over there were hundreds of glens populated by tribes of Picts who may have been hostile to a new religion brought by strangers. These new ideas got their toehold on the islands first - here, then Iona and Tiree.

In those days, and before, culture, language and religion spread through this region by sea, reaching the islands first before spreading inland; one of the principal sea highways ran north-south taking in Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, the West of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland.

Norway to the North East, and Brittany and Galicia to the south were extensions of this highway too - and, when viewed this way, the West of Scotland and the Islands begin to look very much at the centre of things, rather than on the edge.

I was reminded of these thoughts yesterday while taking part in the Residency week on the University of the Highlands and Islands Applied Music course. We read a very interesting blog piece by Professor Hugh Cheape: https://idruhi.wordpress.com/2020/07/02/the-road-to-tobha-mor/ that suggests using the conventional map 'turned upside-down' to best appreciate the spread of this culture, while asking how we can 'bury the concept of periphery' when talking of the relevance of the heritage of the Highlands and Islands.

All very interesting but most of all it makes me look forward to a time when we can once more play music, sail, and explore more of these fascinating anchorages.

Best wishes to all of you.

Barry

 

Søren Larsen voyage #5 - through the Panamá Canal and to the Pacific 

Hi friends,

It's a pleasure to be writing from Shetland, there's nowhere like home, especially after 7 months of covid-enforced exile. And I've decided to continue the story of my first voyage aboard Søren Larsen today, and take us through the Panamá Canal from Limon Bay to Balboa on the Pacific side.

Stay safe and best wishes,

Barry

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

5am - and darkness surrounded Søren Larsen, save for the anchor lights of ships.  The peace of the night gave way to excited whispers that grew in volume as more and more people appeared on deck.  Suddenly there was a hiss of air, and a bang, and the main engine thumped into life; the whispers grew to murmurs, and I noticed a faint band of twilight above the eastern horizon.  All hands had been called  to prepare for today's passage through the Panamá Canal. 

I had no trouble finding crew to help raise the anchor.  Windlass-driver, chain-flaker, messenger, bell-ringer, cable-washer; we had the lot in place before I had asked.  We headed forward and took the cover off the windlass motor.  Rob wound the handle, flicked the decompression lever and the single-cylinder Lister engine kicked in.  Mary at the top of the forward companionway reported that Troy was ready below decks; she would relay communications to me as he ensured the anchor chain was stowed in neat flakes in the locker below.  Charlie arrived with the deck hose ready to blast the Limon Bay mud back into the sea as the cable came in; Monica was in position by the ship’s bell ready to ring off the shackles.

Soon the anchor was home, the cable locker was secured, and Søren Larsen was steaming towards the pilot station with a dim grey light beginning to reveal the silhouettes of the ships behind the anchor lights that surrounded us. 

At the boarding area, Lucy swung the gate open as the launch drew alongside us, and the pilot stepped across onto Søren Larsen’s deck.

“One-Eight-Zero, Captain!” he shouted as he strode aft.  “Full ahead!” 

The pilot was a small man with a serious expression and sunglasses on before dawn. By the wheel, as we motored towards the canal approaches, he explained his strategy to Colin.      

“We will head for the Gatun Locks first.  The lock master will tell me when we are clear to enter the lock. We will be sharing the lock with a larger ship.  The canal have agreed that you will not use the mules; your line handlers are good, sir?”  Colin nodded. 

Larger ships passing through the Panama Canal are dragged through the locks by mechanical locomotives known as ‘mules’.  Søren Larsen’s timber hull could easily be damaged by the forces these mules can exert, so we had requested to handle our lines manually.  This meant that our crew would have to be very sharp, taking in slack promptly as the ship rose with the water level. 

I arranged the eight crew designated to me at the aft mooring stations: four on port, and four on starboard, an experienced hand at the front on each line to ensure they were handled safely.

(Here's the port team: Crispin, Rob, Chris - and Andrew looking very ready with his moustache neatly trimmed!)

Soon, we were motoring into the first of the Gatun Locks. Four Panamá Canal line handlers threw their heaving lines to our deck; we made them fast to our mooring lines, and they were heaved up and looped over the bollards on the lock sides. The lock gate closed behind us, the water started to rush in, and soon our mooring teams were heaving in slack hand over hand. 

Once we reached the height of the lock walls we were able to view the countryside beyond; but before there was time to rest, the gates opened and we motored into a second lock where this was repeated. There was a third lock, and our line handlers began to sweat, grinning through the exertion and the growing heat of the tropical day.  Emerging from this third lock, we motored out and into the Gatun Lakes, the man-made lake that forms the central part of the Panama Canal.  

The canal route follows a buoyed channel for 24 miles through the Gatun Lakes, with vivid green rainforest growing densely right down to the water’s edge and beyond; the tops of trees that were growing before the valleys were flooded still protrude from beneath the water, giving the lake a slightly unnatural feel.  The rainforest is crucial to the canal’s existence however, and is strictly protected; without the trees, the water would soon dry up and drain away, and the sea route would be lost. 

Past small islands, bursting with tree life (actually the remnants of hills, poking their summits through the surface) we glided along, through the mud-brown water of the lakes. I climbed to the topgallant yard; the view was superb, the red and green buoys dotted out our path ahead, dense canopy cloaked the countryside in deep, primal green.

                                       The view from the topgallant yard as Søre Larsen forges through the green waters of the Gatun Lakes

 

Lunchtime came; the crew were fed in shifts, taking turns to steer, keep lookout, and watch the shipping traffic move through the lakes.  The wind picked up steadily until soon we had thirty knots blowing from the east. 

The passage became tense as we approached the Pedro Miguel locks; the strong wind was reducing our options, making it difficult to slow down, and our pilot became engaged in a heated conversation over his VHF radio. 

“ETA at the lock is 5 minutes” he called in initially to the Pedro Miguel lock master; the reply came back that the lock gate could not be opened for 10 minutes. 

“I am making minimum speed” our pilot replied, “You must open the gate now!” 

“I cannot open it!  The lock is not yet full!” was the reply.  

We were still making 4 knots toward the closed gate, unable to reduce speed any further.  A 30,000 tonne bulk carrier, the 'Crimson Galaxy', was following us, a little over two hundred metres astern, and would be sharing our lock; Colin looked worried.  

We breathed again when we saw the gate begin to open, just in time to admit us.  As we tied up at the far end of the lock, the bulker moved in, dragged by the bright yellow mules until her huge flared bow towered over us at almost the height of our lower topsail yard. 

                                        The bulk carrier 'Crimson Galaxy' approaches from astern in Pedro Miguel locks.

 

Our line handling teams had an easier job now that we were dropping down through the locks; easing out steadily was easier than heaving up slack, keeping our ship central in the lock as the water level fell.  We passed through the two locks at Pedro Miguel, and into the three-stage drop at Miraflores.  The midday heat was fading into evening, there were only three more locks to negotiate, and the Pacific Ocean was tantalisingly close.  But this tense day had one more piece of drama for us. 

“We have to be quick, leaving this lock” the pilot explained to Colin in the last lock.  “There is a current, where the fresh water in the lock mixes with the sea.  I am going to keep ahead of this current.”  I saw Colin nod uncertainly, however when the lock gates opened and our lines were let go, and we begun to move ahead, the ship took a slew to port. 

“Hard-a-starboard” the pilot ordered the helmsman.  Still the ship turned to port.  “Half ahead the engine.  Full ahead…!”  But it was no good – the swing was uncheckable.  

The width of the Panama Canal is only slightly more the waterline length of Søren Larsen; I felt the ship judder as her stem hit the left side of the canal.  Luckily the canal sides were low, and the vulnerable jibboom, bowsprit and head rig extended far over the concrete and grass; the sturdy stem, built from a massive piece of solid Danish oak fifty years previously took the brunt of the collision. 

Nothing happened for a second or two, then Colin’s voice boomed, “Get some bloody lines ashore!” 

The shocked-looking canal linesmen took our lines, we made fast, and Colin manoeuvred using the lines to straighten the ship up.  Sally returned aft from a hasty inspection, reporting no damage.  “Just a bit of chipped paint...."

Round the next bend to port, we saw the Bridge of the Americas crossing the canal, the sea widening to a glittering horizon underneath.  We slowed just before the bridge to allow a pilot boat to come alongside; our pilot stepped off and we pointed the bow for the bridge, passing under and gaining our admission to the Pacific Ocean. 

                                        The Bridge of the Americas, gateway to the Pacific

 

We anchored by 1800 off the Balboa Yacht Club, and as the last sunlight faded all hands enjoyed a well-earned drink after a long day; I felt that Captain Colin’s glass of rum must have tasted sweet after the trials of the canal.

Music studies resume! ...and a bike trip through the Trossachs. 

Hi friends, I hope you're well and managing to navigate a route through these uncertain times.

Today I seem to have found my way into the Press and Journal, among other newspapers… all connected to the course I am studying, a BA in Applied Music with the University of the Highlands and Islands, and a fascinating opportunity I was given recently to work with and learn from Score Draw Music and OnMusic over in Belfast.

This week is the first back at the studies - and right now I'm very glad to have this outlet, source of inspiration and motivation, as well as some exciting projects to focus on through the autumn and winter.

I found myself in 2016 playing enough music to feel it was a viable means of supporting myself. Wanting to give this new direction the best chance I could, and having promised myself since age 16 that I would one day properly dedicate some significant time to my music, I looked for courses. The UHI one quickly became the obvious choice - I was often touring in the UK and Europe with Wire and Wool and Tildon Krautz, and was envisioning some tall ship skippering aboard Lady of Avenel; (Sessions and Sail was an idea yet to fully take form!). The distance learning arrangement of the course meant I could log into lectures and work on coursework whether I was in Shetland, at sea or abroad, and I could incorporate many of my musical activities into my coursework.

I'm now starting my 4th year and I haven't regretted a moment of it, even if my direction has continued to evolve. Being a full-time student has motivated me to give music the time and energy that I wanted to dedicate to it, introduced me to a host of great people and musicians, and taught me loads about what I want to get out of music and life.

 - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

To help me get back in the studying frame of mind, last weekend was an opportunity to do some cycling - starting out in Balloch, I made my way along the Rob Roy trail, reaching Killin by beer o clock on Sunday...

I learned the following from the trip:

(1). Taking off on a bicycle laden with tent, sleeping bag, waterproofs, camping stove and food is great fun!

(2). Mountain bike trails are great fun.

(3). (1) and (2) together can be pretty tough!

I've named my slightly rickety bike 'La Poderosa' after Ernesto and Alberto's questionable mount; but what a brilliant way to explore Scotland, and I can't wait to go off and do some more.

I'm hoping to have a lot of new music to reveal to you in the near future, both related to and independent from my studies; I'll also return soon to the next section of the Søren Larsen tale.

Till then, take care, don't panic, much love,

Barry

Søren Larsen voyage #4 - towards the Panamá Canal 

Dear friends! 

It's now September, and it still feels as though we’re making life up as we go along – there’s still no sailing, no gigs, and it seems to be a case of adapting day to day, finding a way to survive and then rewriting it all as the situation changes.  

I’m used to having a sense of purpose, generally having several projects on the go, a mix of musical and maritime, at all times; and I’m struggling a bit with having these taken away.  

In lieu of any sailing adventures or such excitement this year, it’s been nice to recall some of my past voyages in this blog. I’m going to try to up my output to a weekly post – let’s say every Wednesday!  

It’s also been good to have a musical focus so I’m planning to keep the weekly videos coming on Youtube. If there’s any requests – or if anyone wants to collaborate on a video or on some music – get in touch. Otherwise it’s really encouraging when folk subscribe to my Youtube channel!  

Anyhow, here’s the next instalment of my Søren Larsen voyage account!  

Cheers, Barry  

- - - - - - - - - -  

Sailing through the Caribbean was about as good as it sounds. The north-east trade winds drove us west to the Venezuelan islands of Margarita and Los Roques.  

In Margarita eight of us piled into an impossibly battered Dodge and were driven up dusty roads to La Ascunción, a 16th Century Spanish town in the dry interior of the island. We were back aboard the ship by the time the Sunday night parties kicked off, and the sounds of Latin beats were still drifting across the water to our anchorage as I kept my 2-4am watch.  

Terri and Jim were both veterans of the last time the ship had come this way, and told a hair-raising story of their visit to Los Roques. With the 1992 coup recent and the 1993 elections happening, partisan armed police had arrested the ship and held the crew at gunpoint; the story of their midnight escape might be better told by Jim Pearson, if we can persuade him…  

Bearing this story in mind, we made a careful, short stop at these stunning islands and were thankful to see no armed police, sailing on by nightfall.  

Bonaire, our next stop, is a Dutch colony, and seemed very ordered and neat after the Venezuelan islands; we did our best to remedy this.  

The ship was safely tied alongside the pier; the water sheltered, the wind still, and I had a night clear of the watch bill. Knocking off at 6pm, I walked up the pier and got as far as the first pub, where Daphne and Dave, just back from a jaunt round the island, called me over for a drink. Soon, Sally Anne, Jim and Troy arrived; there was a round of rums. A brief chat at the bar with the crew of a large motor yacht, all dressed in matching polo shirts, made us glad to be tall-ship sailors on a ‘proper voyage’.  

More crew members arrived; more rums were bought. Nick was telling hilarious stories; our First Mate Sal, his sister, chipped in with a few of her own. Soon we were all there, with the exception of Captain Colin, who had taken the evening watch; and Lucy and Andrew, who both had watches in the early hours. Nine full-time crew, 22 voyage crew, and a liberal supply of rum.  

There’s not much better after weeks at sea than a good crew in a bar ashore on a night off in a secure harbour; we’d already bonded through rough weather, long days and night watches so we enjoyed ours, talking of other voyages and ships, places we’d travelled or wanted to, laughing with the bar staff, telling stories and doing our best to exhaust the rum supply.  

We left the pier under sail at 0700 the next morning, doing our best to wake the whole town with our shanty as we hoisted the main sail fifty metres off the pier, our ship already gathering way towards Curaçao. By the time we rounded the south of Klein Bonaire, we were under full sail and any hangovers were left far behind.  

At Curaçao we loaded stores, embarked a new voyage crew and set off on our passage west for the Panamá Canal. Motoring past the pastel buildings of Punda, through the floating Emmasbrug bridge and back out into the open sea, we found a rising trade wind and, soon, a rising sea.  

By 25th January we were hurtling along at ten knots, deep blue waves the colour of precious stones rearing up astern, foam-tipped and chasing us as thirty knots of wind filled our sails. Flying fish skitted off to both sides as our bow ploughed into the seas ahead with a constant surge of white foam.  The morning skies were clear, dotted with small fluffy cumulus clouds that would develop and grow to become huge, towering cumulonimbus by afternoon.  

Afternoon squalls became part of our daily routine. When the imposing clouds approached from windward, their undersides dark and heavy with rain, we would call for extra hands on deck to shorten sail. The rain made a menacing hiss before it arrived, a growing, definite line of white on the sea surface; we raced round the deck, hauling on topgallant clews and buntlines, upper topsail and outer jib downhauls, securing the lines around the deck as the wind increased with a rush and the torrent poured over us, tropical rain drenching our hair and shorts.  

This superb sail took us to Colón, on the Atlantic side of the Panamá Canal, well ahead of schedule; we covered the 725 miles from Curaçao in just over five days. As we drew closer to the port, the traffic grew more and more dense as container ships, tankers and cargo ships of all sizes converged from ports in Europe, Africa and the Americas, all queuing to use this slender gateway to the Pacific.   

We picked our way through the multitude of anchored vessels to our designated spot in Limón Bay and dropped an anchor. Here we would sit for the next three days.

Tall Ships, Music - and Eye of the Wind. 

I joined Søren Larsen with a fiddle, having had a familiar decision to make - which instrument to bring to a ship. The fiddle usually won - it's common to find a guitar already on board a ship, but much less often a fiddle! But it always felt a shame to have to make such a compromise.

I was pleased to find that there was a decent ship's guitar aboard Søren, and was soon even more pleased to find that she was a ship full of music. From the first week aboard, in Cornwall in the pouring rain, Terri often taught us a variety of shanties as we gathered on deck after a long day's work: 'Paddy, lay back'; 'Spanish Ladies'; Tony Goodenugh's 'Pump Shanty; Fielding + Dyer's 'Whale Song'.

During a window of calm weather on our passage to Madeira, we gathered the crew on the foredeck and played tunes and sang songs. John, one of our guests who was a master mariner and pilot at Seaham Harbour proved to have an excellent voice, treating us to songs such as 'Skibbereen' and 'What will I do with my Herrin's Head'. Lucy, our sailmaker, played tin whistle; and I was able to supply some guitar backing and a few tunes on the fiddle.With a moody night sky above us, we sailed towards a dark horizon, enjoying the music and the respite.

On the Atlantic crossing, the heavy mainsail was lowered and raised several times, as well as the only-slightly-less heavy upper topsail. Terri was our shantyman, and led the song; the remaining crew on the peak and throat haliards roaring the chorus line. It was good to hear shanties as they are meant to be sung - by a ship's crew while working hard. Sixteen voices in stereo - eight on port, eight on starboard - singing while hoisting three-quarters of a tonne of douglas fir and canvas up the mast by hand is a fine thing to witness, and it doesn't matter if the pitching isn't perfect!

 - - - - -

A combination of music and sailing had taken us to the Caribbean, where Bequia island felt like paradise. Steel bands played by the waterfront at the Frangipani; and the path led over the saddle of the island, through soft scented trees to the isolated beach at Spring Bay; walking back in the dark, glowing fireflies hung laziily under the trees.

In the Windward Islands we crossed paths with an old friend - the brigantine 'Eye of the Wind'. (Pictured).

Eye of the Wind and Søren Larsen had history together - they had sailed in company around Cape Horn in 1993. The following year, when I was sixteen and a slightly frustrated and aimless sixth-year student at the Anderson High School in Shetland, an opportunity was advertised for youths aged sixteen in Scotland to be sponsored to join her for an Atlantic crossing. I applied immediately, and got the place.

I had all the highers I needed, or so I thought; and was just killing time at school, looking likely to fail Geography and sixth year studies Chemistry. So it was with great pleasure that I asked my teachers to sign my leaver's form, slipping in the fact at the end that I was leaving to sail across the Atlantic.

The six-week voyage from Boston, Massachusetts to Gloucester, England changed the way I saw life completely.

I was a keen trainee who could not get enough of climbing. Day or night, when there was aloft work to be done, I wanted to be first up the mast. We kept watches, fished, and steered; the 25-day crossing had its share of boredom, of course, but I was positive and happy to be onboard. The crew spoke about the world and travel in ways that seemed new, and yet made perfect sense; and they seemed to respect my own comments and opinions. From Captain Tony 'Tiger' Timbs, who seemed to me upstanding and wise, and yet humble and open, to base-jumping Australian engineer John; ex-Soviet solder Igor to deck hand Marian who could beat a sail into shape while 40 feet above a rolling deck more effectively than any male sailor I knew, I was inspired. I learned a huge amount about the ship, the sea, and the weather; but most of all, I think I learned how it felt to be part of a team I could really believe in. I had my horizons widened, and believed there could be a place for me in that world.

The following six years on oil tankers were tough, and I often wonder if I would have stuck it out had I not had that experience aboard Eye of the Wind. So it was emotional to see her now.

We spent Christmas Day together anchored off beach at Bequia; raced between the islands, swapping crews by day, and stories in the evenings; and ranged through the Windward Islands from Saint Vincent to Grenada. We became good friends with the crew of the 'Eye', and it was a sad parting when we went our separate ways; they cruised past, raising sail as they headed south towards Trinidad, exchanging three cheers with our crew; we would raise our own anchor that evening and head west, towards the Western Caribbean and the Panamá Canal.

                                         Søren Larsen, anchored off Granada.

 

 

 

 

Søren Larsen voyage #2 

The sail from England to the Canaries had been, for me, a case of holding on tight, trying to learn everything I needed to know as second mate in a short space of time, hoping it would be enough if anything went wrong.

As we set out across the Atlantic, the frantic pace of learning seemeed to slow down a little, and I had time to get a handle on the ship, my duties, and the crew, who were already beginning to feel like friends for life.

In four days alongside in Tenerife, we had changed over several of the sails, stowing the newer canvas below decks and bending on older sails that would bear the more benign winds (but harsher ultraviolet) that we would experience as we approached the tropics. This work had given me a much better knowledge of the rig, knowledge that I would be thankful of when once more at sea, on watch, and trying to visualise every force, chafe point and potential weak spot.

Some sort of routine became possible now as we motored south trying to pick up the Trade WInds - the steady easterlies that have brought ships from Europe and West Africa for hundreds of years.

I was growing to love the 12-4 watch, traditional domain of the second mate. Waking at 1000 was something I found very palatable; with decks already scrubbed, and breakfast cleared away, there were two hours to work on maintenance jobs. With the weather improving, this often involved painting or varnishing or - the job the crew all clamoured for - working in the rig with the Bosun.

Then, after some lunch, four hours of watch. Navigation under motor was something I was very familiar with; and I was becoming much more comfortable with being in charge of up to 650 square metres of sail. This was the time of day when most of the other watchkeepers went below for their afternoon rest, which lent a wonderful feeling of autonomy. With two of the deck crew, and eight of our voyage crew guests, we kept lookout for other ships; rotated everyone through half-hour stints on the wheel, giving guidance on steering a 300-tonne ship where necessary; made hourly rounds throughout the ship; and tended the steadying sails, all the while looking out for that favourable breeze that would signal that we'd found the trade winds.

After watch there would be another hour or two of maintenance work; then, after dinner, we would go below for a rest; we would be woken shortly before midnight for watch once more and, on a good night, our watch of eleven would have the decks to ourselves again, exchanging stories, taking turns on the wheel and lookout, and watching our track creep across the chart. The approach of 4am - and blessed bedtime - would be heralded by the smell of fresh bread that two of our watch would bake every night for the cooks to serve the following day.

Four days of calms were followed by twenty days of trade winds; we tended our sails, kept watch, ate bread at 4am, got used to being barefoot 24 hours a day, played cards, gave lectures on navigation and meteorology, sang shanties and, a few days before Christmas, raised the Grenadines, dropping anchor in Admiralty Bay, Bequia.

This proximity to an island seemed wonderfully exotic after three weeks in our own self-contained world.  I sat on the hatch with Terri, our purser, an experienced sailor and our de facto shantyman, as she pointed out several landmarks on shore that she knew well.  “That’s the Frangipani Bar over there,” she said.  “It only truly sinks in that you’ve arrived in the Caribbean when you drink your first rum in the Frangipani”.  I looked forward to the Frangipani and an evening ashore, but for now a glass of rum with my shipmates on the deck of Søren Larsen seemed like an arrival in itself.