What it's like to crew a tall ship

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Crew on board tall shipSail Training International

Tucked away in a few ports around the world, the last of their kind and so little advertised that it’s easy to miss them altogether, are tall ships that offer berths to ordinary people. These are working sailing vessels, but for parts of the year, usually in summer, anyone can book a berth aboard, and they specialise in teaching people how to sail.

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This is real sailing – you will be climbing the rigging, setting sails and scrubbing decks all the way – and what they offer is something that not many places can any more: adventure. And as long as you are able to stay out on deck for a four-hour watch and you can hurry away if somebody gets too enthusiastic with the deck hose (and it is so much fun to get enthusiastic with the deck hose), you are welcome aboard.

I came across Pelican, a beautiful square-rigger, after the second lockdown. I was miserable, and I wanted to do some work with other real humans, so I got in touch with a ship owner and volunteered to help with the vessel’s refit.

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Then I did it again, and spent a stupendously happy three weeks in a boiler suit painting things and fixing holes in the deck. Maintenance on sailing ships is constant, so if you love DIY and you want to do something that doesn’t involve a desk and does involve some of the funniest, most interesting human beings you could hope to meet, it is always worth volunteering.

Finally, last summer, I did a two-week voyage from Glasgow to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides.

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One of the most satisfying things in the world is walking along a dockside with your backpack, aiming for the pirate ship. My first day was in Glasgow, where Pelican was moored on a part of the Clyde with a huge 13ft tidal range.

Natasha Pulley

It’s a lot of fun to get on one of these ships when it isn’t level with the dock. When the range is so big, it’s impossible to set up a proper gangway, so what you have to do is holler, get someone onboard to take your bag off you and climb down. It feels like an achievement to land on the deck after that, and it sets a lovely salty tone for the rest of the voyage. The greeting I got was amazing. It’s not a myth that crew feel like family – if your family is enormous and full of glorious, crazy people who make a living sailing through the Arctic and express their fondness for you by attacking you with a wet flannel.

What follows, whichever ship you join, is two days of intensive training. Everyone is fitted with a safety harness and shown how to climb the rigging. Everyone is taught how to helm the ship and use a ship’s wheel and compass. Everyone takes part in a full fire drill, is shown how to put on a life jacket (it is too loose if the second mate can punch the bottom of it up into your chin) and how to get into an immersion suit (there is no dignified way). Everyone is taught the right knots to tie aloft, for life lines, and for everything else. I loved every second.

It’s usually six people to a cabin so, after lockdown, it was heaven: there is never a moment when you can be lonely – and I’ve never slept so well. Each cabin has a smart little bathroom on Pelican, which feels like total luxury in comparison with more traditional ships. When water aboard is low, it might only be a shower every three days – but you get used to it so quickly, it seems amazing that you used to care so much about wearing a fresh shirt every day on land.

Tall ship sailing – Valery Vasilevskiy/Sail Training International

Once the voyage starts, living is strictly structured. The watch system is four hours on, eight hours off, four hours on. This means being woken up in the night to go up on deck in the Atlantic.It’s the coldest I have ever been, but it is also uplifting to see the summer dawn over the water at four in the morning.

I won’t lie: seasickness is a consideration. I get it badly. The bright side is that people are very understanding and will tell you maddening, distracting riddles. There is one about somebody being found dead in a desert holding a drinking straw that annoyed me for a full hour.

Don’t let the watch system put you off: you get a break twice a week. Every few days, the ship comes in to a harbour. One of our early stops was Staffa, a tiny and unpopulated island formed of incredible, eerie natural black rock columns. Tucked among them is Fingal’s Cave, and across the other side of the island is – drum roll – a puffin colony. With no people permanently on the island, the puffins tend to be cheerful around humans, and I sat about 2ft away from some for hours. After staring at my kitchen table for most of 2020 and 2021, it was medical-grade magic.

Island of Boreray in the Saint Kilda archipelago, Outer Hebrides – Chris Gomersall / Alamy Stock Photo

The landscapes of the Outer Hebrides are a good enough reason to do a tall ship voyage in Scotland. But, honestly, it doesn’t matter where you go. What sets tall ships apart from other holidays are the people on board. This particular voyage of Pelican’s was chartered by a nature conservation team called Darwin 200, who were filming a documentary about Britain’s lesser-known islands. Then there was an artist who produced charcoal sketches of the places we visited; there were the permanent staff, all seasoned sailors with the most unbelievable stories about life at sea; and there were people like me who just wanted to sail, from students to retired people in their late 60s. It is a tiny taste of a life that is almost lost. Try it. It’s the best thing in the world.

How to book your place on a tall ship

There are lots of ships to choose from. At the more luxurious end of the spectrum is the Dutch ship Oosterschelde, which has a piano and a bar in its beautiful saloon. For a grittier experience, there is the Spanish galleon, Atyla, which has engines but only just, and very little electricity. Search for the right voyage for you at sailtraininginternational.org/find-your-adventure. Berths are usually priced at about £90-£110 per night. Full board is included. From 2023-2025, the company that chartered Pelican for my voyage will be doing a “Darwin 200” world voyage, following the course of the HMS Beagle. Berths will be available aboard for 27 separate voyage legs, across the world (darwin200.com)

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