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
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.”
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.
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