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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.



Søren Larsen voyage, #1 

With all my sailing now sadly cancelled for this year, I may as well, as promised, begin to tell more of the story of my first trip aboard the Søren Larsen.

On passage from the Mediterranean to the Falklands as 3rd Mate on an oil tanker - the Maersk Gannet -  I had hand-written thirty-six letters applying for work aboard various tall ships. I also applied to Strathclyde Uni to study a BA in Applied Music; I was clearly pretty keen to leave the tankers behind one way or the other! I stashed all the letters in my luggage, ready to post when I next reached shore.

In one real fork-in-the-road week, when back home on leave, I was turned down for the uni course, offered a job aboard the brigantine Soren Larsen, then called by Strathclyde to say there was a place for me on the course after all. By this time I had accepted the sailing job, so the decision was made!

I boarded Søren Larsen in Charlestown, Cornwall in September 2000, and was soon in the thick of the refit. Working with the engineer, I helped strip the old B+W Alpha engine right down while the deck crew prepared the main mast for removal. I was amazed how much work got done in a month - a new main topmast made from douglas fir; new galvanised steel shrouds and stays made up for mainmast and topmast, all parcelled, served and tarred; both anchors off; the windlass lifted ashore.

The work days got longer and our one-day-off a week disappeared as departure day approached.

It was the wettest month on record in Cornwall, and when it wasn't raining, water dripped and ran off the stone harbour walls. Even in my bunk, with the wooden deck 18 inches above my nose, the sound of the dripping rain above permeated my dreams; but, rain or no rain, it felt wonderful to be aboard this ship. The long days, and the occasional pint of Conish Ale, soon forged us into a team and I looked forward to going to sea with my new shipmates.

Somehow we got the work complete in time; our first voyage-crew group of paying guests joined us with a terrible forecast in the offing - a proper equinoctial storm system with force 10 southerlies. We sheltered it out in Falmouth Harbour, sailing at first light once the front had passed and the wind swung round to the north.

The passage south went by in a blur, with little sleep and the steepest learning curve I have ever gone through. Night watches especially were an experience, barreling along before the wind in five metre swells with swathes of rain and spray coursing across us as I and the six others on my watch huddled by the wheel.

I would 'wake' for watch, if you could call lying in a dark bunk in the heaving forecastle, lifting off the bunk weightless over some of the larger swells, holding on tight as we rolled, and going over in my head every scenario I could consider that may go wrong, sleeping. It was generally a relief to be called just before midnight and to stagger up into the blackness on deck, trying not to spill a coffee, and be given a concise but reassuring handover by Tony, the Captain and owner of Søren Larsen.

Four days of tumbling crashing waves and following gales gave way at last to calms, sei whales, sunsets and the chance to spread a bit more canvas; a further week of varied north-atlantic conditions, and one more gale, brought us to an anchorage at Funchal, Madeira.

The daylight was a little too bright for my eyes as I looked up at the mountain; tired but inspired, I felt like an initiation ceremony was over.


Søren Larsen at Madeira, November 2000.



Isolating at home 

Horizons have closed in yet further; we have not left the flat for a week as our flatmate, a care home worker, has tested positive for Covid-19. She is recovering and no-one else has any symptoms, so we're hopeful that we can contain it.

We have segregated the flat; my space is the kitchen, where thankfully I am able to compose and record music as well as doing my best to keep life varied for all of us through food, whilst trying to live as cheaply as possible. We have found out exactly who can come through with deliveries - local butchers, good; wholesale food suppliers, good; Southside self-isolation supporters group, massive thumbs-up! All the major supermarkets - not so good.

And of course this week I should have been sailing out of Oban aboard the tall ship Lady of Avenel with the Sessions and Sail voyage. When this is all over we will all be dying for some outdoor time, as well as tunes and music in good company.

I hope everyone is staying well and staying optimistic; take care.





Sailing to the Pacific 

I was recently sent this picture by my good friend and shipmate Jim Anderson from Fremantle, and it's taken me right back to sailing the Pacific!

I've always made this site primarily about my music, but it's nice to tell a story now and again. Especially right now, when all this being cooped up is really making me - and no doubt others - dream about travel and widening our horizons once again.

I signed on the tall ship Soren Larsen as 2nd Mate in September 2000 - I'd guess the pic above will be from 2000 or early 2001. I'd been working at sea as a cadet and 3rd/2nd mate aboard oil tankers, but my heart wasn't in it. I was looking for two things - music, and adventure. I recall night watches on the deck of a tanker when my head would be bursting with musical ideas that I was desperate to put together, and the agony of having no outlet for them. I was also driven mad sailing past shores that fascinated me; I promised myself that soon I would travel properly; and that I would give the music a chance.

So, I resigned from Maersk Tankers in July 2000; my last tanker was based at Ascension Island, where I learned the stories that later inspired me to write the song Comfortless Cove.

By September I was aboard Soren Larsen in Charlestown, Cornwall, preparing for a 13-month trip to New Zealand; intimidated by the ship and the challenge, but more excited than I'd ever been when starting out on anything. Here she is - the Soren Larsen. Maybe I'll tell more of this story if it's interesting...

Stay well,


Desert Wind - Live Video. Missing going out! 

I've recorded a little live video this afternoon - at home, performing the song 'Desert Wind'. I'm really missing playing music in company, and playing gigs; but sending some of these songs out there helps. I hope it helps you through this as well!

I wrote Desert Wind a couple of years ago, it's based on my travels in Australia and South East Asia. It was inspired by all sorts of reflective, mystical thoughts about the experiences we have, and where they go... 

It was also an attempt to describe the wind that blew over the Australian desert - there was something that seemed very strange about it to me, maybe it was just so different from the wind I know well, a wind that always has something to say about the sea. The sound of that wind seemed to capture somehow the concept I was trying to get across! 

I hope you enjoy the song. 

I am also considering, inspired by friends who are doing the same thing, to tell some of the stories from my travels, both by sea and by land. Let me know if you'd like to hear some of these! 

Take care of each other, and stay healthy! With love, 






Music, Skype conversations, Isolation - sound familiar? 

It would be interesting to hear people's take on isolation, and how it's changed your lifestyle. I bet a lot of it would be very familiar to many of us. Feel free to add a comment on how you're living or how you're getting by!

For me, I'm trying to put this strange time to good use, mostly through writing and composing music; I'm fortunate in that I have a recording set-up in the flat here. (As soon as I produce something I'm happy with, you'll be the first to know!) But, working at my desk with a microphone, a keyboard, a guitar and a fiddle availale to me - well, it could be worse.

Exercise is important; it seems very clinical now - I'm aware that I'm going out for the good of my physical and mental health, and try to make sure I do it once a day. My bike is my saviour, and there is a great feeling of freedom in cycling through streets and parks of Glasgow (At a suitable distance from others of course!)I'm concerned about anyone who's struggling financially right now - I seem to be scraping by despite all gigs and work being cancelled, and am hopeful that I'll be able to claim a living through the job protection scheme until I can get back to work. So I'm one of the lucky ones. Those working in the health service I thin kof particularly - a hard job at the best of times.

It's really nice to be able to keep up with family through Skype or online platforms. My folks, brother and sister in law in Shetland; Sister and her partner in London. We're chatting, having drinks together and playing quizzes; but we're also really hoping we get to see each other again very soon. Till then, this is the best contact we get.


I hope everyone's surviving and remaining healthy; please take care and look after yourselves.


Emotional day in isolation 

It's been an emotional day, having made the final decision to cancel the first of Sessions and Sail's voyages this year. April's trip in Shetland will not be going ahead.

I'm hoping everyone out there is doing OK in these strange, isolated times.

Another emotional moment at 8pm as we hung out the window to bang pots and pans, and the only sound across our silenced city was thousands of others doing the same. A huge welling of emotion and support for the incredible nurses, doctors and NHS staff, and a reminder that all across town - and all across the UK, and the world - there are others isolated in their own spaces, feeling, thinking and fearing the same things that we are.

...A picture of a foredeck session from last July; hopefully we'll have some blue skies, music and good company to look forward to soon.


SEX! And now that we've got your attention... 

Dozens of birds are singing outside, and it feels a bit like spring -  there's blue skies at last, although I'm sure they're normally criss-crossed with contrails - I don't see any today.

This Corona virus is hitting almost every aspect of life, hard - I worry about friends in the airline industry, who may lose their jobs; I worry about friends in the NHS who will likely be overwhelmed with extra work very soon. My musician and self-employed friends have seen their entire income dry up over the space of a few days.

In a way this emergency seems like a wake-up call; we in the first world have desperately and increasingly needed to change our ways for a while now. The planet has been burning up and we've continued to increase carbon emissions; we've been caught up with bickering over issues that really don't matter; we've been falling out and being uncivil to each other on social media. We've been driven by this bickering into electing leaders who really aren't up to the job. We've been letting health services run down, and we've been creating an economy of zero-hours and self-employment where many of us have no safety net should the work dry up.

Perhaps this health scare will draw our attention and give us the opportunity to do something about these problems, a bit like the old advert that said 'SEX! ...and now that we've got your attention, the local council elections will take place on Monday....'

Because what's really important is becoming crystal clear. Family, and their continued good health. Community, and the support it can offer. Friends and people who will stand by us. Unity in the face of adversity.

I'm seeing the same thing, happening all over the world. People singing on Italian balconies. People in Wuhan vlogging about their experiences. People in Glasgow forming community groups to provide resilience. Volunteers and donations everywhere. It's really tough, and this is the only way through it.

I for one am facing having a lot more free time, and a lot less money, than anticipated. I'll get by; and the time can be well spent - simple pleasures, and if necessary helping others who may need it.

This river is a kilometre from my flat, and if the birds are singing here, they'll be really going for it down there - I'm going for a walk. 

Stay safe and stay healthy!



Big changes of plans - for all of us I guess. 

Not quite the trip we'd planned... I was all set to head to Lisbon for a long weekend with my sister and brother. Train tickets all the way there to avoid flight shame!

But by 0400 on Thursday morning, en route to St Pancras Station, it was beginning to seem like a really bad idea. Watching the world fall apart on twitter and on news websites. I decided it was irresponsible and foolish to carry on.

We've all lost several hundreds of pounds worth of tickets and reservations but as things have panned out the past three days, it was the right decision.

It's becoming clear that 2020 is not going to be about success, but about survival. Watching the gigs and events get cancelled one by one, chalking off almost all March's income. Wondering how deeply I can cut my wage and survive. Considerations I'm sure all self-employed people are having right now; and I'm aware I'm far from the worst off. Hoping friends are going to be OK. We're going to need our communities like never before.

Washing hands every chance - carrying a bar of soap around with me in case there's none available! I think the avoiding crowds, avoiding contact, and frequent hand-washing is essential - slowing the spread of this virus so much as possible to give the health service breathing space to deal with it when it hits fully.

I'll be back in Glasgow this evening and my lapel emoji says it all!

Wishing health and safety to everyone; we will get through this.