In November 2016 I applied for a crew place on the Transatlantic Tall Ships Race. Fast forward to April and I was nervously boarding a flight to Portugal with my 22 other ship mates. Trying to ready myself for an adventure I knew I’d never forget and with my camera and my journal, how could I.
Words & Photography by: Sophia White
Location: The Atlantic Ocean
I boarded Rona II, my home for the next five weeks, in Sines, Portugal. She’s a 68ft Ketch, built in 1991 for the Rona Sailing Project, a sail training charity I’ve been a part of since I was a teenager. She may not be the biggest boat in the regatta’s fleet but she’s hard working and resilient. However, that doesn’t leave much room for luxury below deck. The crew sleep in either the main saloon or the fore peak cabin. Our bunks are packed tightly in threes against the hull of the ship, with one bunk forming a coffin tucked behind two other stacked bunk beds. Unfortunately, I pulled the short straw with the beds, good thing I sleep like a corpse anyway. The Gally, the ship's kitchen, is small and practical, although I never got used to an oven that tilts, and I've got the marks on my arms to prove it.
The fleet of Tall Ships was small in comparison to other races, but not all boats are up for a race across the Atlantic. Before heading to the start line we took part in a parade of sail, a grand spectacle where every boat sails closely together, flags flying and sails hoisted, with their crews lined up chanting and cheering in friendly competition. At the end of the parade two boats, one with a starboard green flag the other with a port red flag formed the ends of an invisible start line. As the vessels all lined up, steadily approaching the markers, the radio channel buzzed and came to life. “The second leg of the 2017 Rendez-vous Regatta will start at 19:00 hours, in ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one”. Fog horns rang out across the waves as together the ships raced for Las Palmas, Gran Canaria.
As you’d expect, we were all geared up for our first night racing. My watch had the shift until midnight which meant we got to live the first sunset sail. There’s something so momentous about the first of everything isn’t there? By 10pm the fleet had dispersed across the ocean and there wasn’t another ship for miles. I was at the helm, steering a south west course and using one of the thousands of stars speckling the night sky as my guide. I was wondering how many sailors throughout time have looked at this star and tried to sail to it when suddenly there was an almighty crack. The sound of blocks falling and a gusty whoosh as the main sail collapsed and hung over the side. Shocked, we all moved rapidly and within seconds we’d had hauled the entire sail back on board out of the waters reach. It was easy to see from the tattered bit of rope remaining from the head of the sail that there was something very sharp sticking out at the top of the mast. Our race tactics had to change, without a mainsail we had only our head sails to get us to Gran Canaria, where hopefully we would find help.
The journey south to Las Palmas was slow. The weather was not in our favour; the wind was almost non-existent and the sun beat down unbearably. For days the ocean was a mirror reflecting only our poor fortune in this race so far. Despite being becalmed, life on the boat was a never ending list of tasks. The mood of my journal reflects the three-day rota system: 48 hours of fours on watch and four hours of watch and then 24 hours of “Mother Watch”. During this watch, you looked after the rest of the crew and the boat. There was always food to cook, dishes to wash and the heads (the ship's toilets) could always do with a clean. Below decks, it was hot and sticky and the air barely circulated, I guess that’s what you expect from a water tight ship. I found these days a struggle but the crew got me through it. In our watches we were teams, or, by the end of the trip at least, we were like little families. Everyone pulled their weight, taking it in turns do jobs and get dinner cooked and then cleaned down quickly so that together we could enjoy some free time. The aft deck, the area on the back of the boat that didn’t contain any working ropes, was used as out lounge area. We called it the beach. When the sea was calm we would hang our legs over and reach our pointed feet down desperately trying to dip a toe in the water. Once or twice turtles actually swam past the boat.
The Canary Islands are beautiful volcanic fortresses best viewed from the sea, in my opinion. We sailed past Lanzarote, through the gap above Fuerteventura and onto Gran Canaria. The sunset that evening was as dramatic as the landscape. We reached Gran Canaria on Sunday 7th May. The race was called to a finish, positions were logged and everyone was allowed to motor into Las Palmas.
Our 48 hour lay over in Gran Canaria was a whirlwind. Riggers went up, electricians went down, race committee members ran to and fro and 500 pieces of fresh fruit and veg arrived looking for a home on board. For ten days at sea, we were guaranteed a fresh piece of fruit. After that, we were doomed to tins.
On Tuesday 9th May we left Las Palmas. As all the ships arrived at different times it meant that Rona II headed out to the Atlantic alone leaving the majority of the fleet at port. Sailing past the Canary Islands it didn’t cross my mind that these undulating volcanic hills would be the last piece of land we would see for over 3,000 nautical miles, not until it was far, far, behind.
In my day to day life, I despair at routine. Despite working in an office, no two days are ever the same when you live in London. My calendar is packed with drinks, dinner, exhibitions, films, bike-rides, walks, gigs, trips to see my parents, trips to see my boyfriend's parents, the list goes on. Don’t get me wrong, I love my life but it’s definitely not for the idle at heart. My biggest worry before flying out was the mundaneness of it all… days on end at sea, with the same people, in the same boat. I need not have worried. The watch rota may have meant routine was inescapable, but when you’re racing against the weather and the waves… no two watches are ever the same.
The midnight till 4 am watch is known as the Graveyard shift. Woken up at 23:45, I would clamber out of my coffin, over my friend Georgie asleep next to me and start getting ready for 4 hours on deck. I’d wake the rest of the crew and someone would light the hob in the Gally for hot drinks. The kettle took an age to boil and we wouldn’t usually get them until almost half 12. Depending on the weather I’d put on some oil skins (thick waterproof sailing overalls), even if it wasn’t wet they were useful for keeping warm. The cool ocean breeze that passed after midnight could carry most of your body heat with it. Once everyone was in the cockpit the watches had to hand over, passing updates on sail changes, potential weather forecasts and patterns in the direction of the wind. Fortunately, most nights were clear and we had an infinite view of the stars. It was being in the middle of a universal snow globe. Helming was much easier steering towards a bright night sky. Although the stars were forever fading in and out of existence which caused our course to suffer slightly. To keep everyone awake we would play games like “What’s Yours Like” and “I Went To The Shop and I Bought”, we would sing and, my favourite past time of all, make up stories. A lot of those magical graveyard shifts were never spent on Rona II at all, but on a yellow pirate ship called Sea Custard.
Eventually, you began to lose track of the days. The only reason it was Monday was that we had Tuna pasta bake for lunch, and that’s what we had on Mondays. The weather was forever teasing us with the promise of a good head wind, sometimes we got it but sometimes we landed ourselves in a windless patch of water. When this happened we would have the largest lightest spinnaker up trying to catch a breath, and the whole crew sat on the edge of the boat to keel her over just a little. It was surprisingly tiring.
We were tracking the positions of the other boats which came in on the boats satellite phone. Some had gone south for the trade wins whilst others had followed a similar tack as ours and made a bee line for Bermuda. Once again the weather man was not on our side. A huge window of low pressure engulfed an area 600 miles long south of Bermuda. It was predicted to take 13 days to sail through and our flight back to the UK was in 12 days. The story was the same for crews on other ships and so with a heavy heart it was decided to end at 19:00 on Saturday. From there we motored. It may have felt like cheating, but now that we weren’t racing we let ourselves have a bit of fun. With the ocean as smooth as a layer of silk and not a breeze to be felt, the boat could stop dead in the water. “Can we go swimming skipper?” we asked. The skipper walked around the deck, looking into the water, “I can’t see any, but if anyone sees a Portuguese man-o-war, everyone gets back on board”. Wobbly we balanced on the side of the boat, holding hands looking out into the blue horizon separating the cobalt sea from the turquoise sky. Just as we were about to jump in two whales breached in the distance. What a way to end the race!
I was at the helm of the ship when we first spotted Bermuda two days later. The shadows of the horizon often played tricks on the mind at sea, fooling eyes into thinking they saw something solid between the waves. I helmed the course for Bermuda, using the white dashes of clouds in the sky as the guide. Unusually a white mound seemed to rise from the edge of the sea. I called for out to the rest of the crew.
“Is it a cruise ship?”,
“Looks like a cruise ship”,
“It’s a big cruise ship if it is”.
The skipper joined us on deck, “That, ladies, is Bermuda”. For the first time in 19 days, this was no trick, “Land Ahoy!”. We arrived just 2 hours later.
It was worth travelling 4000 nautical miles to arrive as the pirates would have done 400 years ago. I imagine those pirates would be very surprised to visit the island now. Multicoloured houses with glowing white roofs peer out between Bermuda Cedar trees, yachts line the harbours and American tourists wave ships in. The week in Bermuda was paradise. Every day I packed my duffel bag ready for a day exploring this new land. We walked to beautiful beaches, explored little coves, jumped into watery caves and swam after turtles and parrot fish. After weeks being above the ocean, it was glorious to finally be in it.