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