Out­side the square

Fresh off the plane from Bri­tain, land­lub­ber Robin Falvey rel­ishes his ex­pe­ri­ence crew­ing the tall ship Soren Larsen

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat -

ASQUARE-RIGGED sail­ing ship is al­ways worth a look. I wan­der up Princes Wharf on Auck­land’s water­front to where the tall ship Soren Larsen lies along­side. I ex­pect to see the nau­ti­cal equiv­a­lent of a vin­tage car, pol­ished and gleam­ing, not a smear of dirt or a drip of oil, a mu­seum piece. Its spot­less decks and shin­ing brass are cer­tainly im­pres­sive, but Soren Larsen’s weath­ered spars and rust-streaked bright work speak of heavy weather and ocean voy­ag­ing.

Well-scrubbed and buffed it may be, but slightly faded and with patches of peel­ing var­nish, the Soren Larsen reeks of tar and ad­ven­ture. Con­structed of 300 tonnes of solid oak, it was built in Den­mark in 1947 as a Baltic trader and for many years plied cold and stormy north­ern seas. Even­tu­ally, it was re­stored and rigged as a 19th-cen­tury bri­g­an­tine and first came to Aus­tralian wa­ters via the Cape of Good Hope, lead­ing the First Fleet re-en­act­ment of 1988.

Soren Larsen con­tin­ues to be one of the most il­lus­tri­ous tall ships afloat and has been sail­ing out of New Zealand for more than 20 years, has rounded Cape Horn and reg­u­larly vis­its re­mote Pa­cific is­lands that see few vis­i­tors.

A ute draws up on the dock and the ship’s scruffy, bare­foot crew form a chain to un­load boxes. I am newly ar­rived in NZ from Eng­land and al­ready in­spired by the in­fec­tious can-do south­ern hemi­sphere at­ti­tude, so I ask for a job. The driver looks me up and down and hands me a box. There is a spot as a vol­un­teer helper on board and to my de­light I am given a trial.

Next to those salty dogs I feel pale, soft and un­tested the first night sit­ting with the crew in the foc’sle, with six bunks crammed into an area the size of a small sin­gle bed­room. Be­neath the floor are the an­chor chains that have been soaked in fish oil to stop them rust­ing. I am in a stink­ing 19th-cen­tury time warp, but it is a friendly place to be. The wine bot­tle is passed around; all is well.

Life aboard ship is re­laxed and in­for­mal but there is a clear hi­er­ar­chy. There is dis­cus­sion but the cap­tain and his of­fi­cers make the de­ci­sions. A deck­hand is man­power to en­able the skip­per to sail and main­tain the ves­sel. I am told when to sleep and when to wake; my ev­ery action is dic­tated by an­other. Life is there­fore sim­ple; all I have to do is work hard, learn and look for­ward to eat­ing five times a day.

I learn to sail by help­ing to in­struct groups of up to 22 pay­ing crew; peo­ple of all ages and from all walks of life join the ship for five-day ad­ven­tures in the Hau­raki Gulf and the Bay of Is­lands.

I soon re­alise that the thread­bare ap­pear­ance of the crew owes more to hard work than to any­thing else. I strug­gle to meet their ex­act­ing stan­dards, some­times re­do­ing the same bit of sewing or lash­ing sev­eral times be­fore it passes as fit for pur­pose.

As soon as I pick up new skills, they are ce­mented in place by the ne­ces­sity of pass­ing knowl­edge on to the pay­ing crew, who are in­volved in the run­ning of the ship right from the beginning.

Life at sea is so­cia­ble. We make our own en­ter­tain­ment and fin­ish the voy­age with a party: mu­si­cal in­stru­ments are played, po­ems re­cited and sto­ries and jokes hap­pily told. It’s not only the rig­ging that harks back to a by­gone era. Peo­ple say we have lost the art of con­ver­sa­tion, but that is not the case here. Take away the gad­gets and the pres­sures of mod­ern life and we soon re­vert to a friend­lier, more com­mu­nal state of be­ing.

When I am then of­fered the chance to voy­age to Easter Is­land and on to Pit­cairn and Tahiti, I can’t be­lieve my luck. I ex­pe­ri­ence mixed emo­tions as we leave Auck­land on the first leg of the epic jour­ney. The great cir­cle route will take us to Easter Is­land and more than 6400km of blue wa­ter sail­ing.

It’s amaz­ing how quickly a new crew bonds. It is won­der­ful to see bar­ri­ers of age, so­cial sta­tus and phys­i­cal abil­ity fall away, re­placed by the unity of pur­pose that char­ac­terises tall ship sail­ing.

The ship al­ways comes first, so we treat our watches se­ri­ously and are on deck 10 min­utes be­fore the hour so that the off-go­ing watch can get be­low to the com­fort of their bunks. We no­tice each other’s body lan­guage, can tell when some­one is feel­ing cold or tired or needs a break. We live in close quar­ters and be­come more con­sid­er­ate, more tol­er­ant. We take turns at the helm and on the bow, watch­ing for other ships and signs of float­ing de­bris.

We all get tired, work­ing four hours on, eight hours off, with main­te­nance and clean­ing for per­ma­nent crew dur­ing the off watches. But wet, cold and sleep­less­ness are as noth­ing com­pared with the splen­dour of the South­ern Ocean. The swells are like rolling hills, glis­ten­ing with clear sil­ver-blue sun­light. Al­ba­trosses wheel over­head and at times it is so im­pos­si­bly beau­ti­ful that I tin­gle head to toe.

But two weeks into our voy­age Cap­tain Barry has bad news. A huge storm sys­tem has de­vel­oped deep in the South­ern Ocean and is rat­tling north at speed. Ex­pert weather rout­ing from the NZ Met Ser­vice keeps us well away from the most vi­o­lent parts of the storm but a week later it is de­cided Easter Is­land is too far a stretch for our re­serves. So putting safety first, we al­ter course and head north to Tahiti. We have won­der­ful down­wind sail­ing the whole way as day by day the air and sea warm.

Off come our jack­ets and sea boots and we fish for tuna from which my Ja­panese crew mate, Maho, pre­pares the fresh­est sashimi I have tasted. Ev­ery morn­ing we clear fly­ing fish from the deck and sight­ings of whales and dol­phins keep our spir­its high.

At Tahiti, we pick up a new pay­ing crew and set sail to ex­plore the is­lands of French Poly­ne­sia. Deep-ocean sail­ing is not for every­one and with the new crew I sense a change in at­mos­phere; the long ocean trek is over. We are in the trop­ics. It is time to let our hair down and let the good times roll.

Arriving at a des­ti­na­tion by tall ship is spe­cial. To the is­lan­ders we are not just an­other cruise ship dis­gorg­ing a horde of va­ca­tion­ers; we are in­vited into peo­ple’s homes and leave laden with gifts of fruit for the ship. Some­times a chance meet­ing with a group of mu­si­cians leads to an in­vi­ta­tion to join us on the ship to play and share a meal with us. We are able to see be­yond the glossy im­ages of brochures and gain an in­sight into the lives of the lo­cals.

Of­ten we drop an­chor and within min­utes are en­gaged in con­ver­sa­tion by fish­er­men pass­ing in their open boats who stop to sell us their catches. Mak­ing the best of our rusty school­boy French, deals are struck, pur­chases made and beers passed down to the thirsty men who of­ten spend 12 or more hours un­der the scorch­ing sun hand lin­ing from their lit­tle boats.

We swim, snorkel and sail from is­land to is­land, from the mes­meris­ing turquoise wa­ters of the low­ly­ing coral atolls of the Tuamo­tos to the tow­er­ing dra­matic peaks of the re­mote Mar­que­sas.

It is an idyl­lic time of hard work and fun, and it is over far too soon. I have mem­o­ries to trea­sure of eat­ing freshly baked bread at 4am, washed down with a tot of rum or three, swap­ping jokes and sto­ries, learn­ing to nav­i­gate and of sleep­ing on deck be­neath a canopy of stars.


All pay­ing crew must com­plete a med­i­cal form and, if older than 70, must sup­ply a doc­tor’s let­ter con­firm­ing that they are fit to sail. The next South Pa­cific Sail Train­ing pro­gram is from Noumea to Auck­land, Novem­ber 9-29. More: www.soren­larsen.co.nz.

Pic­ture: Robin Falvey

Ocean trekker: Built in Den­mark in 1947 out of solid oak, the 300-tonne Soren Larsen has been trans­formed from a Baltic trader to South Pa­cific wan­derer

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