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A North Atlantic Passage

Chart across the Atlantic

There appears to be a new way of preparing arm muscles for the hills. Not only are climbing walls available, we also have an Editor who is extremely versatile at arm bending: hence this account of off-shore sailing He might justify such an inclusion in a mountaineering journal by reminding us of mountaineers who were just as happy at sea. One of my old heroes, Bill Tilman, was just such a person. More recently, in 1991, Bonington and Knox-Johnston teamed up to sail and climb in Greenland.

On Friday 13 May 1994 I took a single ticket from Heathrow to New York, changing aircraft in Iceland. After a were night in a YMCA hostel and a bus journey to Boston I joined the square rigger "Eye of the Wind" as a member of 18 trainee crew, outnumbering the permanent crew of 9. My cabin mate, an Irish American from land-locked Iowa, was writing a historical book about a group of American Fenians who sailed the Atlantic in 1867 to support an Irish rebellion in a Brigantine nearly identical in size and rigging to the 'Eye'.

The purists say that the 'Eye of the Wind' is the only surviving true brigantine sailing today, but, in the first few days after joining, these arguments were lost on all the trainees, most of whom were male and female sponsored Scots in the age bracket 17-21 years old. We had a top priority to learn details of the 9 'square' sails, the 5 'fore-and-aft' sails and the position, name and function of the 130 odd items of running rigging that control those sails, so that they could be handled at night (no upper deck lights) and in all weathers.

Hands aloft to put main course into gaskets

We sailed from Boston on 18 May but saw the last of the coast of America soon after raising the anchor in Provincetown Harbour on 20 May. Planned visits to Halifax and St John were cancelled: the former because of adverse winds and the latter because of pack ice. Flying by great circle from Iceland I had seen this ice, growlers and bergs, so it was of no surprise to hear in Boston that 'Eastern America had suffered its worst winter for 100 years in 1993-94'. Taking in and setting square sails requires crew members aloft on the yards, handling the gaskets: a painful activity for some of the trainees who were sick when balanced on the footropes. Not pleasant either for those who to happened to be down wind. Back on deck there was often something to hold one's attention. Although it was 4 days before we sighted our first ship, whales were about, including one monster only 30 m or so off the port beam that probably tipped the bathroom scales at well over 100 tonnes - roughly half the displacement of the 'Eye of the Wind'.

Porpoises were frequently in company and on one occasion shark. Fortunately the latter was not during the solitary short time when we were becalmed in the middle of the Gulf Stream (but still moving over the ground at 2 knots) with a sea temperature of 23° C and "hands to bathe" was called.

Bird life was interesting as hardly a day passed when nothing was observed. My impression was that by day there were petrels about with puffins taking over as we got closer to Europe. At night there were usually gannets flying round the vessel looking ghostly in the loom of the navigation lights and, occasionally, in the light created by bow wave phosphorescence. Once a very tired yellow breasted finch us as an aircraft carrier before continuing its long haul to ...? On a couple of occasions we sadly foul hooked birds with our solitary fishing line which handsomely justified its use by the couple of tuna fish. One of these provided a delicious supper that evening for the entire ship's company, plus enough left over next day to eat cold with salad.

Although the Eye of the Wind is a very old lady - born 1911 in Germany - and above the upper deck very traditional (except all the rope is either wire or hawser-laid nylon), below she has very modern gear. A deep freeze and refrigerators provide fresh type food for the entire Passage, a single variable pitch screw and 230HP Gardner engine can take the vessel in and out of harbour and two generators provide electrical energy. A small osmosis plant supplemented the fresh water carried in ship's tanks. Modern depth sounding equipment, radar, satellite navigation (the GPS system continuously accurate to less than 100m error and also reading true course and speed) and a weather fax, supplement the time-honoured sextant, Walker Log, lead line and the eyeball.

Furling the fore topgallant

Life on board was run broadly on Merchant Service lines adapted to allow for the large number of trainees. For someone with 30 years of Royal Navy experience this language was more comprehensible than that of some the younger Scots. The Merchant Navy watch system was worked; unlike the last of the Cape Homers, we had the luxury of 1 in 3. Where possible, major sail changes were delayed till the change of the watch when two thirds of the Ship's Company were on deck. In general only 3 of the watch had specific duties at any one time, the helmsman, the lookout and the weather recorder. For statistical purposes for the weather bureau many weather details were taken during the N. Atlantic passage. In order to avoid ice the ship's course was adjusted to sail nearly as far south as a latitude of 40°N when 5 days out. For a day or two we sailed in thick fog with the wet and dry bulb deck thermometer registering 100% humidity. Everything dripped; the sails, the rigging, clothes, bedding, bunks, and occasionally, alas, the trainees. In one particular hour during this period the sea temperature fell from 13°C to 5°C: we concluded that ice was not far away. Another weather detail of interest was passing close, but not too close, to a major disturbance. A dramatic enormous waterspout was sighted some 8 miles ahead, then avoided. It looked like a steep sided dark cylinder vertically placed between the sea and the clouds: very different in appearance from the sloping rays of a low altitude sun that we have all seen and what the sailors of old called 'the back stays of the sun'.

The Mate arranged to run a fun sweepstake for distance covered during one of the weeks of the crossing. Being an old sea dog, my guesstimate was very technically worked out as 1106.0 nautical miles by using my late wife's birthdate, years married, and so on. I lost the competition by 4.0 miles only but an average of 158.0 nautical miles/day gave an indication of a fast passage. We did see a faster vessel under sail (on the 8th day out we were passed 2.5 nautical miles to the south by one of the Whitbread Yachts!).

Our first sight of Europe was the coast of Ireland to the north of the Fastnet Rock. On arrival at Cork we had covered the 3038.0 nautical miles from Provincetown in under 21 days out - an average speed of 6.3 knots and lucky we were to have had, in the main, soldiers' winds. From Cork we anchored off the Scilly Isles and then sheltered off the east coast of Lundy Island during a Force 7 SW wind while waiting for the appropriate tide to take us up to Gloucester for a D.I.Y. dry docking prior to the start of the Tall Ships Race at Weymouth where I left.

So what did this trainee learn from his 2 months on board such a beautiful, comfortable, well-found old lady? He got a small insight into a way of life that was normal for so many of our ancestors. Prior to May 1994 if anyone spoke of a Main Course he would immediately have had a vision of something akin to 'Roast Beef and Two'. Not any more. Main Course in the future will bring back memories of being at the end of the main course yard, at night, blowing, the vessel rolling and pitching, and trying to remember the correct way to trice up the main course into its gaskets.

John Graham

(pictures scanned from Xerox copy)

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