Admittedly the title suggests an epic story of one man’s lengthy and arduous battle with the force of nature that covers two thirds of our planet; I do apologise for such deception but the title works better than one that more accurately describes the trip, such as “My Short, Fun and Memorable Time on an Adventure Holiday”. Okay, now my conscience is clear, I can continue with my tale.
Call me Kyle; at the time I was 19, starting my second year of university in a fortnight and I am waking up at 5 am to make the trip to Manchester airport. I have spent the night at my cousin’s house as we are both off on our sailing adventure, in much the same fashion we had spent most our teen years, together. If anyone was to look at us they would not guess our lineage to be even remotely similar. My cousin, Matty, was a thick limbed, long haired, long bearded, ginger, Viking of a man; I was a tall, athletic, dark-haired, olive skinned Mediterranean-looking fellow. (see below: as you can see, the only thing we have in common is a mutual fascination for the top-left corner of our respective picture borders)
I say was, we still are.
Despite the ungodly hour we still both leapt out of our respective beds and in to our outfits we had prepared. In the knowledge we were about to embark on a 5 day journey aboard a veritable pirate ship we figured “Hey! Let’s dress like pirates! Surely some of the crew will be dressed in such attire!” How wrong we were, but that’s a story for much later in the day and at this point we were still naive to the infinitely less creatively dressed the rest of the crew would be.
I had decided to have my hair braided by a friend of mine the day before, secure in the knowledge I would never be able to achieve those braids myself! I’m not sure why I pulled such a face, I blame it on the rum!
Shortly after transforming ourselves in to modern day pirates – Not of the Somalian variety, but rather the ones that sound oddly similar to farmers, “Arrrr,” – We were on an event-free early morning trip to the airport.
When the pair of us arrived at Manchester airport we caused a small stir, the massive ginger man wielding a skull and crossbones flag and his pirate cousin, turns out we were not an everyday occurrence; although we may have been mistaken as the world’s loneliest stag party.
Check-in went without issue, although when it came to being scanned for offensive weapons etc the airport officials took a disliking to Matty; they performed everything short of playing hide the phalanges. The official that stopped me was adequately stumped when he asked me to remove my shoes only to quickly realise I was not wearing any, clearly I was a poor pirate; essentially I could not find appropriate pirate boots and so I decided to go barefoot which, in hindsight, did save me time at the airport.
Finally on the plane, or at least something akin to an elastic band powered aircraft. After the kind airport men wound the propellers the correct amount of times to set us off on our 45 minute flight to Belfast we were on our way! My cousin and I watched England disappear behind us and embarked on our first flight together; the leg room was almost sufficient, the in-flight entertainment was the speed at which the hostesses could hand out snacks whilst the plane was in the air which incidentally was shorter than a train ride from Chester to Liverpool.
Now… We thought the hushed reaction in Manchester airport was going to be the most stir we would cause on our trip, Belfast airport was poised and ready to prove us indecipherably incorrect.
Admittedly our initial arrival was uneventful, we picked up our luggage and made our way to the entrance area of the airport to wait for the rest of our 40-strong crew and the team leaders of the adventure holiday.
The relatively odd morning we had already experienced became slightly surreal at that moment, the first instance was a member from the café seeing us and running off in a little hurry; then an entourage of café workers came down the escalators towards us, apparently the first worker had – mistakenly – told her colleagues that Johnny Depp was in the airport. As it happens the majority of the ladies were quite disappointed once they got close enough for their poor eyesight to focus on me and realise I was a mere man and no Johnny Depp, although one lady did take a shining to me and told me that I am much better looking than Johnny Depp so clearly there was an issue with her eyesight even Specsavers would have an issue resolving!
Once the clamour of the café workers had subsided the two of us continued to wait for our fellow sailors, beginning to realise the 5 am wake up may have been overkill. Eventually we noticed a number of people come in to the airport turn around and leave. After a while of standing on our own we noticed a crowd of people with backpacks lingering outside – this was before a lingering person with a backpack would be a suspicious sight at an airport – my cousin and I, inquisitive beings that we were, decided to investigate; turns out they were the sailing crew who had, each in turn, walked in to the airport thought we were the team leaders and instantly thought twice about the whole trip unsure about sailing with these nutters in fancy dress.
After a short introduction the others felt a little more secure in the knowledge that we were just regular nutters in fancy dress and won’t actually be the ones in charge of the ship they will be sailing for almost a week. The actual, appropriately dressed, team leaders arrived soon after that and we jumped in the coach to take us to the port in which our ship was anchored.
My first steps on our ship, Stavros S. Niarcos, were awe-filled; the complexity of the rigging and size of the masts seemed daunting. The first message our crew heard from the captain was an announcement over the speaker system, “We have been boarded by pirates,”
The first hour aboard the tall ship were spent making obligatory introductions by the team leaders and the amateur crew, I guarantee none of the names or stories told during this time made it in to anyone’s long term memory; if the others aboard the ship were anything like me they didn’t remember most people’s names until days later.
We progressed to discussing the myriad rules of health and safety aboard the ship; one of which was no bare feet so I had to dig out my hiking boots which, to my dismay, did not go with my pirate outfit one bit! Our next lesson took place 30ft in the air, on the mast, we were taught how to unfurl and repack the sails; luckily we were allowed harnesses that I imagine were not a commonplace amongst the residents of Tortuga. My hat was blown off on my way out on to the yard; it did luckily, and inexplicably, not end up in the water.
Next we were split in to the three watches required to man the ship 24 hours a day, I was split from my cousin which meant I had to begrudgingly socialise with other people; turns out, it’s not that bad! Before long darkness was drawing in and we were let loose on the streets of Belfast for the evening, everyone bar the poor people on that night’s watch that is.
So there we were, a group of 30ish strangers – one of which was dressed as a pirate – milling about a city we didn’t know. Someone, the exact person it was escapes my memory now, mentioned they had heard of Belfast having the oldest bar in Ireland – Now, I never bothered checking the validity of the statement but a destination was good enough for me – So we made our way down a tiny alleyway, via some shops for some unknown reason, to said bar. We piled in and filled the small back-alley pub, as I reached the door the bouncer looked me up and down, “Hi,” I said in my friendly English manner. “Would you like some black eyes to go with that outfit,” He replied in the true peace-seeker fashion of the doorman community. “Err, no. Thanks,” Was my, admittedly predictable, reply as I hurried inside.
Whilst I had not verified the claim of this pub being the oldest in Ireland, I could not deny it was indeed old; it was difficult to surmise whether the patrons were actually older than the bar, they looked as if they may have sat in this alley drinking hundreds of years ago and the pub was actually built up around them. We had our orders to be back at the ship before midnight and so we departed before the pub called last orders. On the walk back I learned that two of the crew were actually from my hometown of Chester, trialling the holiday experience for a youth club. It took me a couple of days to learn what they looked like as their faces were hidden deep in the cowls of Adidas hoodies, they were a friendly pair…
The two watches arrived back from their trip in to Belfast a couple of pints heavier, the jovial mockery of the watch that had remained behind to look after the ship was cut short when it was announced that at 2am my watch, Blue Watch, would be on duty. So between 2am and 10am I was sat on the boarding plank with a girl from my watch called Philippa, she was aboard with her sister Lucy and the pair of them were a couple of hilarious Welsh girls. The time flew by as we shared stories and before I knew it the sun was rising and the ship began to stir as the crew awoke for breakfast.
The crew was split in to three watches, each had to share a 1/3 of the 24 hour day in which they would primarily be in control of the ship, course plotting, sailing, working in the mess and cleaning the deck. The mess work and deck scrubbing was on a rota basis and each member of the crew would spend one of their 8 hours watch performing each of these tasks during the 5 day journey. Lucky for me, as I was on the early morning watch, I was free to do as I liked as the ship set sail out of Belfast; I’ve never been much of a sleeper and I was far too excited to go below decks. The sun was shining the sea was vast and blue and we were leaving port under sail, fantastic! The initial day went by without a problem and as my next watch drew closer I decided to get some shut eye for the first time in 40 hours; I fell asleep soundly and deeply, rocked in my bunk by the steady swell of the waves.
I dreamt I was asleep in the hull of a ship, surprisingly, as it climbed huge waves and my hammock-style bed swung with each crest mounted. As the alarm sounded to begin my watch I woke to find my dream a reality, the Irish Sea had suddenly sprung to life whilst I slept. I came above deck dressed in a full wax coated jumpsuit, the bow of the ship rose and plummeted with an inner-ear distressing rhythm. I found the Red Watch at the helm, looking a pale shade of green and dying to get to their bunks.
The night went by without any issues, other than the terrible sea-sickness suffered by much of my watch. My most memorable moment from that night was standing alone at the bow staring off in to the black nothingness in front of me as the ship climbed and fell on each swelling wave below; it gave me a new respect for the men and women that would have sailed ships much like the one I was on without GPS, back up engines, powerful search lights, safety harnesses, life jackets, life rafts or the RNLI. If you were to lose your footing and fall in to the icy blackness the likelihood of being noticed and found, even with all of the safety available today, is quite small. I stood for some time, lost in my morbid fascination.
Morning came quickly and I found myself reluctant to go below deck and find my bunk, breakfast was calling and my stomach had learned that the sea air gives a man an appetite. I sat down in the mess hall, the central structure on the deck of the ship, most of the crew stared at their food as if it was poison; their stomachs had succumb to the dizzying rhythm of the active sea. I however devoured three courses, and my cousin’s. I found out that morning how common sea sickness was, and how debilitating it could be; what once was a crew of 40 excited 16-25 year olds eager for adventure were now slothful, unenthusiastic young people with pale faces.
I emerged from the mess hall as the ship continued to ride the waves, the August sun was once again shining and the fresh sea air was welcomed by my city-boy lungs. I found my cousin leaning over the side, painting a streaky yellow pattern off the starboard railing, he was not alone in his efforts to change the colour of the ship. I patted him on the back, he gave me a weak smile before turning back to face the waves and feed the fishes.
There was little to do during the day whilst the rest of my watch slept, but it didn’t matter. I milled about the ship, helped Green Watch set the sails and looked out over the open sea for hours; it was a pirate’s life for me I thought.
At some point in the afternoon my cousin, eyes mainly fixed on the water, shouted me over; we were sailing through a huge school of jellyfish that went on for miles, the sea below our ship was dense with them. The sea soon calmed and finally the crew returned to being more jovial, pinkish-coloured hominids and I decided it was time to get a couple of hours sleep.
The next morning I was on mess duty which meant I was relieved from any kind of watch, but I had to be up early to help prepare the crew’s breakfast. It was one of the less exciting days on the ship consisting of cooking then serving breakfast, lunch and dinner and cleaning up after everyone.
The second night at sea was the coldest, we were sailing North parallel to the West coast of England; it was getting below zero and the rain was relentless. My watch huddled at our duties in various layers of clothing wrapped in thick wax-coated overalls, which was all well and good for our bodies but our faces were turning blue. My job for the majority of that night was manning port side, keeping an eye out for any other ships whilst making sure we kept our bearing on the portside compass. All assuming my nose didn’t turn black and fall off in the process.
The following morning I was eager to get in to my bed for the first time, frozen and exhausted I climbed in to my bunk and fell asleep quickly. I only managed a few hours sleep and soon I was awake and feeling revitalised, I lay there for a while but I knew I wouldn’t drift off – Too afraid to miss something.
As it happened, I had missed something; dolphins leaping in front of the ship. The day wasn’t a total loss though as later on I spotted a pair of basking sharks lazily drifting by our port side. (Not my picture, but you get the idea)
Our watch was on the rota to man the ship that afternoon, I don’t fully remember how they moved the times around, I assume the watches pulled double shifts sometimes otherwise we would have been on the graveyard shift for the whole trip. That afternoon a distress signal came over the ship radio, a Russian tanker had run aground on the South West coast of Scotland, we were nearby and the captain volunteered to help. Now, just as you were thinking this memoir was about to get interesting, remember we were sailing with an amateur crew and not the only ship in the sea; predictably a rescue vessel beat us to it and we returned to our plotted course, sorry.
I slept quite well that night, the first time I was able to sleep at a regular time in the whole trip. I was woken up early by the monotonous buzzing of the alarm on the bunk above mine, he was supposed to get up for mess duty but seemed reluctant to budge, after some time enduring the noise and poking the bottom of his bunk I resolved to turn his alarm off and go to the mess hall myself. The day dragged by, stuck in the mess hall looking out the port holes at the sun, on the plus side I did miss the deck scrubbing duty.
Late in the day I was on a break when the captain decided to surprise the crew with a man overboard exercise; this comprised of throwing a buoy in to the water, sounding the man overboard alarm and watching us scramble to remember what to do. Coherent thought made it through the panic and a few of us made it to the aft of the ship to point at the object growing tiny in the distance, the aim was to have a constant eye on the direction it was floating; it was amazing how quickly an object drifts to the horizon in that instance and how easily your eyes lose sight of it. The captain and boson dropped a life boat in the water and sped off after the orange floatation device, before long they returned home victorious and the buoy would live to be thrown in another day.
In the evening we approached the South West coast of Scotland to begin our tour up the shoreline, Lester greeted the country with a traditional tune played on the bow of the ship.
The following morning we paid a visit to Tobermory, the town in which the children’s TV show Balamory used to be filmed; we briefly sailed in to the harbour to sing the Balamory theme tune through the ships speakers and sail away again. Just because.
We spent the day following the coast North with the aim of docking in Oban for the night. Taking in the sights as we went.
Eventually we arrived at Oban and it was the first time we had set foot on land since Belfast, I had not missed the boring steadiness of terra firma; but it was a beautiful town.
We arrived late afternoon; me and Matty decided to explore, we had barely spoken to each other for the whole trip which was odd considering we hadn’t been more than 40ft from one another for the past few days. We headed for McCraig’s Tower:
Apparently the monument was built as a lasting reminder of McCraig’s family, and at the time was used to create jobs in the area. The plans were far more grandiose including a museum, art gallery and central tower but the death of John Stuart McCraig (The architect and financer of the project) brought the idea to an end leaving only the outer walls complete.
It was a short hike up the cliff side behind Oban, but the view was worth it.
Oban harbour with the Stavros S. Niarcos docked behind a pub, the very same pub that appears in the next pictures.
We spent the night in Oban and brought some life to another very quiet pub.
We were warned, no one was to get drunk. Needless to say, people got drunk.
The following morning we had an hour or so to explore Oban before we set off for our final port, Glasgow. Matty and I went to the whiskey distillery to buy our grandparents some Oban whiskey, some of which I am certain still resides in their cupboard, before returning aboard our ship ready to set sail.
Glasgow was a short trip up the coast, but on the way one of the team leaders fell ill, a kidney infection or something of the sort, it escapes me now exactly what was wrong but he was speedily whisked away by some RNLI folk and we were soon back on course.
En route it became apparent that there would be a talent show on the docks in Glasgow with the watches competing against each other, I was asleep for the few hours it had taken my watch to come up with our apparent talent; The boys in the watch were to dress up in drag and sing and dance to a song by a girl band. Sadly I have no surviving photographs or videos of the event, nor do I recall what the song was. But for your imagination we had oranges stuffed down wax-coated overalls in a most provocative fashion whilst we strutted and shook to the beat in front of the rest of the crew, we did not win and nor did we maintain our dignity; our only saving grace is we performed this monstrosity on the final night of the trip and not the first.
We spent that night out in Glasgow; I dug out my pirate outfit and had my hair re-braided by one of the ladies on the crew. Little did we know that Scotland were playing football against England that night and they lost, so the small group I was with had decided the less we spoke the better; we did not fancy someone taking a disliking to us because of our English accents. As it happened the people of Glasgow were welcoming and hilarious, from what I could tell; it was difficult to understand a lot of what they said and it got steadily more difficult as that night went on. I found Matty later that night and we made our way back to the docks and aboard our ship. Beer helped me sleep soundly that night.
In the morning it was time to say our goodbyes, we all exchanged phone numbers, added each other on various social networking groups and swore to meet up again, we never did.
If you have made it this far through then I guess it can’t have been that bad! It is the first time I have attempted to write a factual story and I am quite conscious about it being a touch boring so I am looking for comments, did it drag too much? Should I have left bits out? Embellished to actually make the events interesting? Any feedback would be most welcome, thank you for reading.