TALL STO­RIES

Barry Oliver rolls up his sleeves and sets sail on Syd­ney Har­bour aboard the James Craig

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

IT’S a busy scene that greets us at Syd­ney’s Pyr­mont, near Dar­ling Har­bour, as we ar­rive for our trip on the tall ship James Craig. There are brave souls way above us clam­ber­ing on the rig­ging; oth­ers are car­ry­ing sup­plies on board. The decks are a buzz of ac­tiv­ity. Nau­ti­cal types, all whiskers and crusty caps, are locked in se­ri­ous con­ver­sa­tion (catch­ing up on the ship­ping news, per­haps). Strangely, some of those still on dry land have orange lifebelts slung care­lessly around their necks. Well, you can’t be too care­ful. On board, a fid­dle player adds a jaunty note to the pro­ceed­ings.

It’s im­pos­si­ble — for me at least — not to think of The Onedin Line, a television favourite of my youth, in which the cap­tain of the ti­tle sailed the high seas in a sim­i­larly ma­jes­tic ship, fend­ing off skul­dug­gery or mutiny at ev­ery port.

Cap­tain James Onedin would have slot­ted in per­fectly here, anx­iously pac­ing the James Craig’s wooden deck. The tall ship — a bar­que to those in the know — makes a splen­did sight in the morn­ing sun. At 70m and 1500 tonnes, it dwarfs the Bounty, its Wharf 7 neigh­bour.

You’d never guess that the James Craig, built in Sun­der­land, Eng­land, in 1874, was beached and aban­doned in Tas­ma­nia for 40 years be­fore be­ing res­cued by Syd­ney Her­itage Fleet in 1972. Restora­tion work, all done by vol­un­teers, was com­pleted in 1997. Now the ship sails ev­ery other week­end, giv­ing pas­sen­gers the chance to ex­pe­ri­ence the grandeur of a tall ship un­der sail. You can also, if so in­clined, help with the work, though climb­ing the rig­ging is left to the crew, thank good­ness.

A tug helps get us on our way be­fore we squeeze un­der Syd­ney Har­bour Bridge. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room to spare: the mast is 34m above the deck but I’m as­sured there’s a good 10m clear­ance. As soon as we’re through the heads, a rope is waved in my di­rec­tion and I join a line of half a dozen pas­sen­gers who anx­iously await in­struc­tions.

‘‘ Ready on the hal­yard,’’ says a voice from some­where. Is that us? ‘‘ Haul away.’’ The rolling deck makes it dif­fi­cult to keep our foot­ing (it would be far eas­ier, if point­less, on dry land). But even­tu­ally the sail flaps into ac­tion, with a lit­tle help from crew on the rig­ging, and we’re told to clap hands. Not ap­plaud­ing our­selves, it just makes sure we’ve let go of the rope.

With 57 pas­sen­gers and 50 vol­un­teers from Syd­ney Her­itage Fleet crew­ing, at least there are plenty of hands to clap and share the load. All we need is a good breeze. Un­for­tu­nately, it’s not hap­pen­ing; there’s barely a puff and, with the en­gines off, we limp along, al­most be­calmed. It at least gives me time to try to re­call lines from The Rime of the An­cient Mariner , where the ship is be­calmed af­ter one of the crew kills an al­ba­tross. I last stud­ied Co­leridge’s lengthy poem at school, but be­ing at sea can do funny things to your mind.

Life on board a ship de­mands a to­tally new lan­guage. ‘‘ Pre­pare the royal,’’ some­one calls. Are we about to have a re­gal visit? Hands to the hal­yard; ease the pin; hands to the main braces; two points on a port tack; haul tight on all yards. I hear three bells, but what does it mean? Aban­don ship? This is no place for a land­lub­ber, even though we are in sight of Syd­ney.

The cap­tain’s alert of a whale off the port side grabs ev­ery­one’s at­ten­tion; it’s just a mat­ter of work­ing out which side that is. We’re re­warded with the spec­ta­cle of a hump­back breach­ing out of the wa­ter.

Good spot­ting by the cap­tain, Peter Cole, who is a busi­ness an­a­lyst when he’s not in com­mand of a tall ship. This is just a hobby for him, he says, though I’m re­as­sured by the fact he was once an of­fi­cer on a sub­ma­rine (I hope he’ll keep us above wa­ter to­day). I ex­pect him to tell me the James Craig is dif­fi­cult to han­dle, as it’s not ex­actly fit­ted with to­day’s tech­nol­ogy, but he says mat­ter of factly that it’s just like any other sail­ing ship.

As well as be­ing a sea­wor­thy ves­sel, the ship is a float­ing mu­seum and pas­sen­gers join tours of in­spec­tion that give an idea of how life on board would have been for the crew more than 100 years ago. It doesn’t look like fun, with straw mat­tresses known as don­key’s break­fasts (they had to sup­ply their own), cramped sleep­ing quar­ters with no pri­vacy and a ra­tion of lime juice and sugar to keep away scurvy.

In con­trast, in the cap­tain’s quar­ters there is a dou­ble bed and en­suite plus tub (sea­wa­ter was heated as fresh wa­ter was so pre­cious).

We’re told the great grand­son of the first mas­ter is a mem­ber of the Syd­ney Her­itage Fleet.

The ship cost £1370 when new, prob­a­bly a fair whack in 1874. Only about 25 per cent is orig­i­nal: the rest has been re­stored as close as pos­si­ble to how it once was. The deck is made up of 1000m of plank­ing and 50,000 riv­ets were used to fix the iron plates that form the ship’s hull.

We’re promised a nor’easter later in the day — it’s a six-hour sail — but it doesn’t seem likely and we con­tinue to daw­dle, though judg­ing by the amount of ac­tion with the sails you’d think there is a gale hap­pen­ing. Or­ders are barked, the crew jump. But it’s not all tech­ni­cal. One group is told to tighten a sail by three grunts (it’s an ef­fort). Then two more are called for.

Things calm down as the crew busy them­selves with drills: an in­jured pas­sen­ger, man over­board. The lifeboat is launched and we all crane our necks to take in the scene, se­cretly hop­ing some­thing will go hor­ri­bly wrong. It doesn’t, though the lifeboat, with two crew, takes a cou­ple of hefty whacks on the side of the ship. Was that in the script?

Then it’s back to sail­ing, ex­cept the wind is still nonex­is­tent. There’s a bit of a fuss about our course. Some­one in a smart blue uni­form loudly or­ders a course of 360, then quickly changes it to 010.

Land­lub­ber or not, that sounds a big dif­fer­ence to me and the wheel — from sis­ter ship Jessie Craig — spins sev­eral rev­o­lu­tions.

One of the vol­un­teers, an el­derly man with Big Daddy on his hat, tries to ex­plain how the ship’s bell is used to sig­nal the crew, but I’m lost be­fore he has reached three bells.

We may not be go­ing fast — some­one claims we’re ac­tu­ally go­ing back­wards — but we at­tract a lot of at­ten­tion. Pass­ing boats pause along­side, some­times a lit­tle too close for com­fort, to take pho­to­graphs.

As we re­turn past the Opera House, there’s a flurry of nav­i­ga­tional ac­tiv­ity be­fore we meet up with our tug: steady as she goes, both en­gines dead slow ahead. That sort of stuff. The per­son who’s steer­ing has to rely on re­ports from Rus­sell, a mar­riage cel­e­brant in his other life, who looks a pic­ture in blue jacket, brass but­tons and cap as he is­sues or­ders into a two-way ra­dio.

We ar­rive back bang on time, which is some­thing nau­ti­cal types would be justly proud of. I’m just thank­ful I wasn’t sea­sick, which was my big­gest fear. Barry Oliver was a guest of Syd­ney Her­itage Fleet.

Check­list

The James Craig sails out of Pyr­mont’s Wharf 7 ev­ery other week­end. Win­ter price is $150, which in­cludes lunch and morn­ing and af­ter­noon tea. The ship is open for guided tours at the wharf be­tween 10am and 4pm on other days. More: (02) 9298 3888; www.syd­ney­her­itage­fleet.com.au.

An­cient mariner: The James Craig sails into Syd­ney Har­bour at the end of an­other sea­far­ing ad­ven­ture

Take a bow: Dol­phins keep abreast of the bar­que James Craig

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