The excitement and thoughts of a new Challenge Wales volunteer – life on the [quiet] seas

This is a guest post by one of Challenge Wales’ new volunteers, Alan, who helped sail Challenge Wales from Cardiff to Gosport, Hampshire on a five-day voyage. Although quite a long blog post, it captures some really great insights into being a crew member and some of those memorable moments!

Since becoming a Challenge Wales volunteer I have been fortunate to have crewed on day sails but, apart from an overnight stay in Portishead Marina, I have had no experience of a longer residential youth voyage.

Imagine my excitement on learning I was to help crew a youth voyage to Gosport ready for the Round the Island Race, in June 2014. Excitement mixed with niggly doubts, I must admit, as I had never:
• Slept on board for more than one night – could I sleep? Could I get into and out of a top bunk without treading on the bloke below?
• Had any experience of watch-keeping – could I handle it?
• Sailed at night – what would it be like?
All will be revealed later!

Setting Sail; I joined the boat on Saturday morning to meet up with many crew members I had been with before as well as a couple of new ones. Our guests arrived later, students from Cardiff University (where I had worked before retirement) all of whom looking forward to their Competent Crew training. We slipped our mooring (from Penarth Marina, Cardiff Bay) and headed through the Barrage into the Bristol Channel.

Once in the Channel the sails and sheets were brought up from the locker and the students helped attach the two headsails and learned their first knot – the bowline: used to attach the sheets to the sails. Then followed the fun experience of “sweating” the sails up, pulling on the halyards to raise first the mainsail followed by the yankee and then the staysail. As there was not much wind and we had a schedule to keep, the engine was started and we began motoring.

Helming Challenge Wales

Helming Challenge Wales

As we proceeded down-channel the familiar sights from my previous one-day trips disappeared astern and new vistas appeared. The North Devon coast slipped quietly by and how beautiful it was. We picked up some wind at last and began sailing towards our first planned stop at Lundy Island where we aimed to anchor overnight. After lowering the anchor (another first for me) and eating a hearty meal the students were taken ashore in the dinghy to explore. As we still had a distance to cover and the wind forecast was less than encouraging the Skipper planned an early start so into our bunks we went. I was able to tick-off two of my worries: I could get into and out of the top bunk without stamping on a fellow crew member and I could sleep (Phew!)

Early start and a mining heritage; Up disgustingly early Sunday morning, up anchor and away we went but – no wind, so on went the engine again. We were split into watches and began standing watches at noon: 4 hours on and 4 hours off until 20:00 when we went to 3 hour watches. My first night watch would be the 23:00 to 02:00. The North Cornwall coast was incredible to see, rugged , studded with the chimneys and ruins of the once-great Tin-Mining industry. We passed Geevor, the last mine to close, which seemed to have some development going on around it, though sadly, not tin-extraction related. Further along the coast we passed the Levant Mine with its engine houses stepping down the cliff towards the sea. And so on we went towards the Lizard and the Longships where we would “turn the corner” into the English Channel and head East.

Myself and another volunteer crew member, who had recently passed our Day Skipper Theory exam, decide to try to fix our position using a hand bearing compass. What seemed easy in the classroom was considerably harder on a moving deck with the compass swinging from one bearing to another. OK, we didn’t fix our position as being in the middle of Cornwall but it was apparent that more practice was required.

The audience at the Minack open-air theatre must have been surprised when a large sailing yacht appeared and headed for them with lots of people waving at them from the deck. They waved back at us as we turned away and headed back out to sea. It would have been apt if they were playing The Tempest, but that was scheduled for later this summer. We certainly could have done with some wind, but perhaps not that much!

Little wind and magical moon-lit seas; Our plan was to sail through the night, heading for Dartmouth which we planned to reach later the following day. After another splendid meal cooked by our guests (who did the bulk of the cooking throughout the trip with help from crew members) I slipped into my bunk for a short break before getting up for my first night watch. Up on deck we bade goodnight to the other watch and settled down to work, taking turns on the helm and keeping a good lookout for other ships.
The wind was still poor so we were still motoring. Spotting and interpreting ships lights which I had learned on my Day Skipper course for real was interesting: two steaming lights with a green light = power vessel >50 m in length starboard-side to. Tick.

The moon rose, slightly less than full. The clouds drifted away leaving it to fully illuminate an empty sea. When my turn on the helm came it was fascinating. The sea was very smooth, almost glassy, with the moon-path leading up to the bright moon slowly mounting the sky. A sea-haze blurred the horizon and, with the moon’s pearly light illuminating everything, it was both eerie and magical: a sight I will never forget. Our watch finished at 02:00 so back into the bunk for a quick snooze before rising again for the 05:00 watch on Monday morning. On deck again with the horizon lightening as sunrise approached. Some of the watch-below stayed on deck in order to catch the sunrise. The oncoming watch relieved us, we had breakfast and headed for our bunks.

Ahoy Dartmouth; Lying in my bunk as the boat pitched and rolled was a revelation: the feeling of increased weight as the boat climbed a wave followed by a slightly weightless feeling as she went down the other side. When the boat tacked I was auto-rolled onto my other side as the boat heeled under the press of sail. Sleep was broken every time we tacked by the thumping of sheets and the grinding of the winches on the deck above. As I lay there checking my watch to see if it was time to get up for my next watch I heard the engine start. “Oh dear” thought I, “the wind has dropped, better see what’s occurring”. I popped my head out of the companionway and was shocked to see we were about to enter Dartmouth! I hurried to put on my life-jacket and came on deck to join everybody else to calls of “And who worried he wouldn’t sleep!”. Honest, I wasn’t asleep all the time, especially as the watch on-deck tacked and tacked again and again, enough that someone watching our AIS track texted one of the crew to ask if we were lost! But the legend has been born about the bloke who almost slept through the arrival at Dartmouth.

Entering the River Dart, by sea for [personally] the first time was fascinating. One of the students was on the helm and was told to stop sight-seeing and concentrate on helming, but I couldn’t blame him! We moored to a buoy until 17:00 after which we tied up to the Town Quay. A steam-driven paddle steamer berthed at the same quay as us and I now regret, given my steam engine interest, not blagging my way aboard to look at the engines.

Getting wet on way to Weymouth; Up early Tuesday for the next leg to Weymouth. We had good wind but initially had a head-sea. While getting stuff out of the sail locker near the bow I had a submarine experience as the boat dug her bow into a big wave and I was inundated.  One of the crew was in the sail locker below me and I still remember the look in their eyes as a huge waterfall poured over her! Thanks to good waterproofs I only got some water down my neck and wet socks where the water had gone up inside my overtrousers and down my boots. During our passage past Lulworth Cove we were “encouraged” to clear the area ASAP by the Range Safety Boat, which had come haring out of Weymouth, as the Army wanted to do a shoot and we were in the way! We rounded Portland Bill, avoiding the nasty broken water always present there and headed towards Weymouth, passing the Portland naval base to port. We tied up against the quay and then proceeded to haul most of the students one at a time the full height of the 95’ mast. This experience they all enjoyed and one of the personal challenges that is undertaken.

Mast climbing on Challenge Wales

Mast climbing on Challenge Wales

I had promised the Skipper an ice-cream so a group of us headed into Weymouth along the quayside which still has embedded in it the railway lines over which the boat-trains used to be hauled by Class 03 shunting engines. Again, something seen in photos now seen in real life, minus the trains which stopped in 1999. We found some very tasty ice-cream and sat overlooking the beach where some of our students had braved the still-cool sea and gone for a dip. Back to the boat for dinner as well as the sight of the big, new lifeboat noisily setting out on a “shout” from its berth across the way.

Wednesday morning dawned, my last full day on the boat as I would be leaving the following morning. I would miss the Round the Island race; gutted is too mild a term for what I felt. Determined to make the most of my last day I prepared to throw myself into the working of the boat only to be told to sit down and get my knees brown (very pale they were as they don’t get out much) as the students would be working the boat that day to see how well they had learned what had been taught over the last few days.

Hoisting the mainsail on Challenge Wales

Hoisting the mainsail on Challenge Wales

Into the Solent we sailed, passing the Needles, Alum Bay and other well-known landmarks, the wind dying gradually all the time. I was amazed by how busy the Solent was, ferries, hovercraft, container ships, yachts and all sorts all mingling together. An excellent demonstration of the COLREGS in action!!

Engine on, we headed to our berth in the Haslar Marina with the students lowering the sails, helping to flake the mainsail and making a good attempt at flaking and bagging the headsails.

After we tied up we bade farewell to our student friends. Over the previous 5 days we had grown to like, respect and admire them.  All had gained their Competent Crew qualification and we applauded them as their certificates were handed out. After they left we had showers in the excellent facilities in the converted lightship across the pontoon from us. The same lightship also had personal re-hydration facilities of which most of us took advantage.
The end of a voyage; Some of us were leaving the boat the following day so a table had been booked at a local restaurant.  We had a great time swapping stories and jokes, reinforcing the bonds formed on our voyage. A great way to release some of the inevitable tension associated with looking after people who may have not been to sea before. All too soon, it seemed, we had to return to the boat, sleep beckoned.
Next day we said goodbye to some of the crew and I stayed on to help clean the boat ready for the next guests before taking the ferry to Portsmouth Harbour station to catch my train back to The World.
Funny moments:
• Seeing a big grey boat with a large phased-array radar and a big bedstead air-search radar, we passed the monocular around for all to have a look. When it reached one of our crew-mates we heard a yell of “It’s got a gun! It’s got a gun on the front!” Cue general merriment and falling-about as we pointed out that warships usually did carry a gun
• A helpful crew-mate offering to tie the bow rope of a yacht berthing behind us. Neat job until someone pointed out the many feet of bow rope still draped over the guard rail. Hasty removal of bow rope but unfortunately then dropped in the water. Oops!
• Coming on deck to find us entering Dartmouth when I thought we were still out in the Channel
Magic moments:
• Seeing the Devon and Cornwall coasts from the sea for the first time. So beautiful.
• Helming by moonlight – gliding across a calm sea bathed in the pearly light of the moon
• Working with the students as they learned so many new things. Helping them learn their knots (and learning new ones myself) and passing on what skills and knowledge I have gained myself in my short time on Challenge Wales
• Seeing the “lightbulb moment” when a student “got” how to tie a knot and the glee with which they did it again and again to prove it.
• Watching the change in the students during the voyage – the development of skills and confidence, people coming out of their shells and friendships developing. That’s what Challenge Wales is all about.

Looking back, the trip was one of the adventures of my life. By the end I had exorcised the concerns I had before I set out. It was a great boost to my self-confidence and kindled the desire to do it again. I learned a lot and consolidated knowledge already gained. Many thanks to all the crew onboard for their help, support, guidance and patience during the my first youth trip. I hope I was able to help them in return. Thanks also to the students who made the trip worthwhile!

Challenge Wales works with young people aged 12 – 25 years helping them to develop life skills to help improve their employment prospects however, our volunteers also benefit from the experience and can bring their own life experiences to a voyage….meaning every voyage is different… and that’s before we throw in the weather! Challenge Wales is always looking for people like Alun, or you, to become a volunteer, so if you are over 18 and looking to work with young people and a charity then look no further than Wales’ Tall Ship; Challenge Wales

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