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