Old ship, new mis­sion

CAUGHT UP IN THE IN­DIAN OCEAN TSUNAMI OF BOXING DAY 2014, SHANE GRANGER AND HIS RE­STORED SHIP VEGA FOUND NEW PUR­POSE IN HU­MAN­I­TAR­IAN RE­LIEF

Yachting World - - Contents -

Caught up in the In­dian Ocean tsunami of Boxing Day 2014, Shane Granger finds a new pur­pose for his his­toric freighter

Pull up a coil of line, maties and have a sit while I re­count the tale of a brave lit­tle sail­ing vessel called Vega. We all knows red sails in the sun­set set fly­ing from the tall masts of a classic wooden ship never fail to evoke fan­tasies of es­cape from to­day’s ac­cel­er­ated world back to a time of dis­cov­ery, ad­ven­ture, ex­otic des­ti­na­tions, and the ro­mance of wooden ves­sels reach­ing out to far hori­zons in search of the mys­te­ri­ous un­known and con­trast of cul­tures that make travel so stim­u­lat­ing.

That dream be­came a re­al­ity back in 2001 for my mate Meggi Ma­coun and me when we dis­cov­ered the tra­di­tional wooden sail­ing vessel Vega in the Ca­nary Is­lands, where she’d been lan­guish­ing on the hard for five years.

At the time I had thou­sands of sea miles in my wake, mostly alone on a small square-rigged brig­an­tine I sal­vaged from a beach in West Africa – a vessel I once sin­gle-hand­edly sailed across the At­lantic with­out an en­gine or func­tion­ing rud­der.

Al­though Meggi fre­quently ex­plored the wilds of East Africa alone in an age­ing Land Rover named Kippy, her only sail­ing ex­pe­ri­ence con­sisted of three out­ings on a Bo­sun dingy. For her the prospect of life on a 100-year-old boat was both thrilling and in­tim­i­dat­ing.

I will never for­get our first night on Vega. It started rain­ing and ev­ery deck seam leaked. We cov­ered our bunk with a tent of plas­tic bags and wound up hav­ing break­fast un­der the sky­light, since that was the only dry place on board. Not the most aus­pi­cious be­gin­ning for our new nau­ti­cal life­style.

In early 1890 ce­ment fac­tory owner Jo­han Carls­son com­mis­sioned a sail pow­ered cargo boat to ser­vice small vil­lages along the coast of Swe­den. He named that boat Vega, af­ter his el­dest daugh­ter. At that time Swe­den and Nor­way were one coun­try so Mr Carls­son looked to the ship­builders of Nor­way for his new­est jacht (jacht be­ing the generic name for small sail pow­ered cargo boats).

Out­stand­ing among Nor­we­gian ships of the time were those of Har­dan­ger­fjord, where a tra­di­tion of strong, swift sail­ing ves­sels had been well es­tab­lished since the 1400s. The finest Har­dan­ger jachts of the day were de­signed and built by Ola H Ner­hus.

Ac­cord­ing to Lars Ner­hus, great-grand­son of Ola Ner­hus and him­self a boat­builder: “By 1891 Ola had an un­ri­valled rep­u­ta­tion for strong, well-formed ships and qual­ity work­man­ship. He was the de­signer and sur­veyor for most prom­i­nent yards in this part of Nor­way.”

His­toric vessel

From the be­gin­ning, Vega was con­ceived to carry heavy, con­cen­trated loads and be cer­ti­fied for trade in the Arc­tic, tasks most wooden boats shunned.

Vega’s in­tended cargo de­manded a strong, full-bod­ied vessel with ex­cep­tional load bear­ing ca­pac­ity, yet due to tax, har­bour and pi­lot reg­u­la­tions Carls­son spec­i­fied she be a bit short of 60ft (19m) be­tween per­pen­dic­u­lars and still be rated at 55 tonnes to meet the de­mands of his ce­ment trade.

Sim­i­lar reg­u­la­tions meant for the first few years of her life, Vega was rigged as a gaff cut­ter, rather than the well proven two-masted gal­le­ass with its more ver­sa­tile sail area and smaller crew.

Faced with the age-old co­nun­drum of how to make a small boat carry the same as a larger one, Ola Ner­hus did such a splen­did job cre­at­ing Vega that she won an award for de­sign in­no­va­tions at the Oslo ex­hi­bi­tion of 1898.

Our sur­veyor once com­mented: ‘Vega’s frames are more rem­i­nis­cent of an 1800’s man of war than a mer­chant ship.’ Those frame sets con­sist of be­tween four and six grown oak ribs tightly trun­nelled and bolted to­gether with only enough room be­tween for ven­ti­la­tion.

With 60ft (18.75 m) on deck, a beam of 16ft (5m), draught of 8ft (2.5m) and her 20ft (6m) bowsprit, once

‘IT STARTED RAIN­ING AND EV­ERY DECK SEAM LEAKED’

you fac­tor in the mizzen boom and dingy davits Vega has an over­all length of 78ft (24m), but those num­bers fail to con­sider the fat belly, buff bow, and wide tran­som Ola Ner­hus em­ployed to in­crease cargo ca­pac­ity. Thanks to him, Vega has an amaz­ing amount of in­te­rior space.

Some 126 years later, Vega is among the se­lect few of­fi­cially clas­si­fied his­toric ves­sels, and a long way from the di­lap­i­dated state in which we dis­cov­ered her.

At first, we had our hands full mak­ing Vega sea­wor­thy and live­able. The rig­ging was a mess and her in­te­rior looked like a cross be­tween Afghan goat shed and African chicken coop – with the chick­ens win­ning. Ne­glect is a boat’s worst en­emy, me hardies, and Vega had suf­fered inat­ten­tion for years. Blocks were frozen and most sys­tems no longer func­tioned. On launch­ing, two weeks passed be­fore the plank­ing swelled to seal her hull prop­erly. While wait­ing, we worked from dawn to dusk on long ne­glected main­te­nance.

Down be­low, Vega was a hodge podge of wasted space and a potato farmer’s idea of cab­ins. In those days, cross­ing the sa­loon at sea was fright­en­ing. With­out proper hand­holds we were soon cov­ered with bruises from sharp cor­ners. There were no port­holes, the sky­lights could not open, and there was no nat­u­ral light­ing or ven­ti­la­tion in the cab­ins.

The first time we took her sail­ing, Vega did her best reach­ing and run­ning, but as we hauled closer to the wind she fal­tered then lee­way in­creased un­til we were prac­ti­cally go­ing side­ways.

Know­ing an old salt like Ner­hus would never have

‘WE HAD OUR HANDS FULL MAK­ING VEGA SEA­WOR­THY AND LIVE­ABLE’

al­lowed such a rad­i­cal im­bal­ance, I spent hours tak­ing mea­sure­ments and scratch­ing my head un­til in­tu­ition and com­plex cal­cu­la­tions ex­posed the prob­lem. I should have looked in the bilge first, where there are two eas­ily dis­tin­guish­able mast steps – one for cut­ter rig and 1.3m for­ward an­other for ketch rig. Vega’s pre­vi­ous owner had re­verted her to a cut­ter by re­mov­ing the mizzen mast with­out repo­si­tion­ing the main­mast.

It is never a good idea to jump into ma­jor re­fit­ting with­out buck­ets of fore­thought. Things that might not look right at first are of­ten that way for a rea­son. Bear­ing this in mind, we de­cided to wait and watch, learn­ing all of Vega’s lit­tle ways be­fore mak­ing changes.

Sail­ing from the Ca­nary Is­lands via Cape Verde, Sal­vador de Bahia, and Cape Town to Dur­ban gave a deep in­sight into both the strong, seakindly qual­i­ties and de­fi­cien­cies of Vega. Al­though our wait and learn logic was sound, so many prob­lems emerged dur­ing those voy­ages that long-term plan­ning of­ten had to be set aside in favour of ‘right now’ so­lu­tions ac­com­plished in Dur­ban.

From South Africa we set our course for south-east Asia and a full restora­tion.

I shall never for­get that voy­age. South-west of the Sey­chelle Is­lands we were caught in the night­mare of Cy­clone Garfillo. Ripping through an omi­nous sky blacker than the in­side of the devil’s back pocket, a sear­ing billion volts of light­ning il­lu­mi­nated ragged clouds scud­ding along not much higher than the ship’s mast. An ex­plo­sive crash of thun­der, so close it was painful, set my ears ring­ing. Through half-closed eyes, burn­ing from the con­stant on­slaught of wind-driven salt wa­ter, I strug­gled to main­tain our head­ing on the dimly lit com­pass, while down be­low our two vol­un­teer crew mem­bers spewed their guts out.

This was not your com­mon storm that blows a lit­tle, rains a lot, and then slinks off to pester some­one else. We were trapped in a full-blown In­dian Ocean cy­clone. Many large ships and fish­ing boats were lost in that tem­pest, yet thanks to her proven North Sea her­itage, Vega sur­vived.

At the height of the storm our hy­draulic steer­ing arm shat­tered, forc­ing us to steer with the emer­gency tiller un­til, bat­tered but not beaten, Vega and her ex­hausted crew limped into the Sey­chelles for re­pairs. Hav­ing been sternly chas­tised by Nep­tune, the re­main­der of that voy­age to Asia was al­most bor­ing.

In Malaysia we set about re­vert­ing Vega to a gaff ketch with the pos­si­bil­ity of set­ting 4500ft2 (450m2) in 12 eas­ily man­aged sails – if you count the square run­ning sail and two raf­fees. When we hoisted the mizzen main for the first time, Vega bal­anced beau­ti­fully then hauled to wind­ward like a happy dol­phin. Al­though she will never win races the old girl is seakindly, sta­ble and de­pend­able.

On the cusp of liv­ing our dream, we had no idea what to do next. Tie Vega to a pier and she will die in a year. Like Meggi and me, Vega must keep busy to stay in shape. We needed a new pur­pose that in­cluded con­stantly mov­ing, see­ing in­ter­est­ing places, and adding mean­ing to our nau­ti­cal ex­is­tence.

A hu­man dis­as­ter

The af­ter­noon of 26 De­cem­ber 2004 changed our lives for­ever. While we en­joyed sun­shine and a gen­tle breeze, deadly waves, over 30ft (10m) high, thun­dered ashore killing 100,000 peo­ple within min­utes on the is­land of Su­ma­tra.

Vega slammed against the pier, her moor­ing lines scream­ing against the bitts when those tsunami waves struck Langkawi, cre­at­ing rag­ing cur­rents and whirlpools as the tide re­peat­edly vac­il­lated from ex­treme high to low. Chaos and con­fu­sion reigned while we fought to dou­ble our moor­ing lines and keep fend­ers in place against a ca­coph­ony of bang­ing hal­yards, tor­mented moor­ing lines, and sailors fight­ing to save their boats. Two hours later the sea was again calm.

As the cost in hu­man suf­fer­ing be­came ap­par­ent, no one cared if you were Chris­tian or Mus­lim, Chi­nese or Euro­pean or even pur­ple with bright green stripes. We were all peo­ple, and some ur­gently needed food and med­i­cal sup­plies. The prob­lem was how to de­liver and dis­trib­ute that sup­port.

Since Vega could trans­port enough cargo to make the 1,000-mile voy­age worth­while, she be­came the fo­cus of an ad hoc re­lief op­er­a­tion. Soon 25 tonnes of do­nated sup­plies ar­rived for de­liv­ery to the is­land of Pu­lau Weh.

The trip from Langkawi to Su­ma­tra was slow and of­ten fright­en­ing. Ev­ery­thing that could float, and many things not meant to, were adrift, in­clud­ing whole trees, over­turned fish­ing boats, and even the com­plete roof of a Thai house sport­ing sev­eral for­lorn chick­ens and a duck sit­ting on top.

Those long, moon­less nights, darker than the halls of doom, when the risk of a se­ri­ous col­li­sion haunted my ev­ery thought, were the most nerve-rack­ing part of our jour­ney.

On ar­rival we dis­cov­ered the worst af­fected vil­lages were on the west coast. To reach them meant tran­sit­ing north­ern Su­ma­tra, a right nasty place fa­mous for rip tides, tidal bores, stand­ing waves, whirlpools, and strong cur­rents.

With the skip­per’s knees fairly knock­ing, we set out on that mo­men­tous jour­ney around Su­ma­tra, off-load­ing sup­plies at ru­ined vil­lages along the way.

The re­turn trip was un­for­get­table. Al­though the boat had no trou­ble, her crew suf­fered like stuffed toys in a wash­ing ma­chine. Later, we held a con­test to see who had the most colour­ful bruises.

Dur­ing that voy­age we re­alised that, al­though un­able to carry com­mer­cial cargo, Vega is per­fect for trans­port­ing sup­plies to re­mote is­lands.

As our re­fit pro­gressed, so did the vi­sion of Vega’s hu­man­i­tar­ian mis­sion. We now sail thou­sands of

miles yearly de­liv­er­ing tons of do­nated ed­u­ca­tional and med­i­cal sup­plies to iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties.

Know­ing our hard work saves lives and im­proves the fu­ture for for­got­ten peo­ple who dream of sim­ple things like bet­ter tools to farm or fish with, bet­ter schools for their chil­dren, or bet­ter healthcare is am­ple re­ward.

On­go­ing mis­sion

Un­ham­pered by po­lit­i­cal or re­li­gious agen­das, we are not out to change the world, but we can make a real dif­fer­ence for a few by pro­vid­ing the tools and sup­plies peo­ple need to achieve bet­ter pub­lic healthcare, ed­u­ca­tion, and com­mu­nity devel­op­ment. When the weather is rough, wet and cold I con­sole my­self by re­mem­ber­ing the warm feel­ing deep in­side when we hand over our sup­plies to those who re­ally need them. Ev­ery item we load has been re­quested by some­one who needs it to do his or her job.

When we be­gan, our is­lands had high ma­ter­nal and na­tal mor­tal­ity rates. At the time an is­land mid­wife kit con­sisted of her kitchen knife and piece of co­conut string. Many women died from in­fec­tion or bleed­ing, and ba­bies were suf­fo­cat­ing be­cause mid­wives did not have the equip­ment, sup­plies, and train­ing they needed.

We now sup­port 122 mid­wives and re-supply/up­grade those kits with phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals and other ex­pend­ables. The re­sults have been a de­cline of ma­ter­nal and na­tal mor­tal­ity by over 50%.

Of­ten us­ing lo­cal ma­te­ri­als and vol­un­teer labour, vil­lages build a school, ta­bles and chairs. The teach­ers are vol­un­teers who take time off from farm­ing or fish­ing to teach.

Prob­lems arise when school sup­plies and teach­ing aids are needed. On some is­lands there are no shops, so buy­ing those sup­plies is im­pos­si­ble. On larger is­lands, where en­tire fam­i­lies are sur­viv­ing on one dol­lar a day or less, the cost of a sin­gle pen­cil poses prob­lems. That is where we come in by de­liv­er­ing Kits-4-kids, teach­ing aids and ad­min­is­tra­tive sup­plies. We also pro­vide in­cen­tives to en­cour­age vol­un­teer teach­ers.

Kits-4-kids is a sim­ple pro­gramme whereby in­di­vid­ual stu­dents in wealthy schools pre­pare back­packs stuffed with school sup­plies, a small toy or stuffed an­i­mal, a note about them­selves, where they live, and a pho­to­graph. Last year we dis­trib­uted over 1,000 Kits-4-kids bags to stu­dents in the poor­est schools.

Vega is a small ‘Mom and Pop’ char­ity op­er­at­ing on mi­cro­scopic bud­gets. Sev­eral times we have been stranded with empty pock­ets look­ing for our next fuel top up or some im­por­tant spare part needed to con­tinue our mis­sion, and then I came to know real heart-rend­ing fear. Not a fear of storms or big waves, but the cold, hon­est dread of fail­ing friends who de­pend on us as their link to the out­side world.

But it is not all squalls and fish­ing boats try­ing to run us over, al­ways on my watch it seems. We visit idyl­lic trop­i­cal is­lands where no one ever goes and meet in­ter­est­ing new friends, see hun­dreds of dol­phins jump­ing and play­ing in front of the boat, and whales, of­ten with ba­bies, swim­ming along­side!

In the mid­dle of the ocean thun­der­ing along at eight or nine knots on a 126-year-old sail­ing boat, watch­ing the bow sprit raise and fall as we forge our way into the sun­rise is an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence! I have never felt so alive.

Most peo­ple these days watch tele­vi­sion, go to movies, and even cre­ate vir­tual ad­ven­tures on­line look­ing for a sec­ond­hand re­al­ity that will never re­place be­ing sur­rounded by the raw au­then­tic­ity of na­ture. We see the sun­rises and sun­sets, and I can­not even de­scribe what it is like to look up and see a vel­vet black sky blaz­ing with stars, the Milky Way so close I am of­ten tempted to reach up and smear it across the fir­ma­ment with my palm or take up fin­ger paint­ing with stars.

Meggi and I vol­un­teer our­selves and Vega, which is all we have. The real he­roes in this story are our friends who pro­vide the sup­plies to de­liver to some of the most re­mote is­lands imag­in­able. We ac­tively en­cour­age other boat own­ers to fol­low in our wake by cre­at­ing their own mis­sion. There are is­land com­mu­ni­ties around the world in need and we are al­ways happy to share our 15 years of ex­pe­ri­ence.

If you would like to join the Vega team or cre­ate your own mis­sion, sim­ply Google ‘His­toric Vessel Vega’ to find us and see what oth­ers say about our yearly mis­sion.

Shane Granger and Meggi Ma­coun set sail on a voy­age of dis­cov­ery on the 100-year-old Nor­we­gian Arc­tic freighter Vega

Main: view from the end of Vega’s 60ft bowsprit Right: fit­tings and gear have been beau­ti­fully re­stored

Above: Vega’s thor­oughly mod­ern switch panel and nav sta­tion.Left: Vega sails the In­dian Ocean with vol­un­teer crew

Vega is homely be­low decks and tra­di­tional and work­man­like above

Built for fer­ry­ing ce­ment around the Arc­tic coasts,Vega now ships ed­u­ca­tional and med­i­cal sup­plies to iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties

Red sails in thesun­set: Vega in the In­dian Ocean

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