A week on John Laing with the Ocean Youth Trust
Day 1 – Tuesday
I walked through the rain from Southampton Station to the taxi rank and took a ride to Ocean Village. The rain was so persistent that the ocean seemed to be in the village rather than the village in the ocean and I was beginning to wonder if this whole business wasn’t a big mistake. After all, I was about to spend nearly a week in a confined space on a ship with a crowd of people I didn’t know and the weather was awful and, according to the forecast, unlikely to improve. Of course, I know when the Met Office says it will rain, there’s a fifty percent chance that it won’t (and a fifty percent chance that it will), but the greyness all around was undermining my natural optimism. I called at the office and was given a pass number for the gate. Then I made my way down the pontoon to find the John Laing. On the way, I met Lucinda who I learned had also just arrived for the same voyage. Three or four others were already on board and I went below to choose a berth and stow my bags. Then I joined the others in the saloon. The rest of the crew arrived one by one. Then Wolf, the skipper, emerged from his cabin and introduced himself. There would be no sailing today because of the dire weather. I can’t remember much about how we spent the time until bedtime. We were divided into two watches; one under Dave (Tigger) and one under Chris. We were shown round the boat: shown the oilskins and life belts and how to use the heads. We visited the engine room where we were introduced to Sabre Diesel under Chris’s protective care. And then Liz prepared a delicious meal. By the time we went to bed, I was feeling a good deal more cheerful.
Day 2 – Wednesday
Up early the next morning we had breakfast with a huge choice of cereals, plenty of toast (and Marmite) and gallons of tea and coffee. Then we went out to get the boat ready. The rain was still coming down and the forecast was not hopeful. We spent some time learning the ropes (or should that be the sheets) and how to use the winches safely. Then we went to sea under power. Once in the Solent, we got the sails up and the sailing began. The weather turned out better than expected. In fact, we even saw some blue sky and we enjoyed some good sailing during which we were delighted to see the beautiful 1913 gaff pilot cutter, Jolie Brise, winner of the first Fastnet Race in 1925. Later, we headed for the Isle of Wight finishing up in Cowes. In the evening, we graced a local hostelry with our presence before retiring to our beds for the night.
Day 3 – Thursday
We woke to a lovely day with plenty of sunshine and a good wind. By 7.30 a.m. we were getting ready to sail and by 8.00 a.m. we were off. At first, we sailed roughly due west through the Solent and we did some very useful drills, especially putting up and taking down sails and taking in reefs. At mid-morning, we had smashing views of Portsmouth’s spectacular Spinnaker Tower rising 170 metres into the sky. After several hours of sailing, the skipper decided that it wouldn’t be wise to risk sailing round the Needles and so we gybed and headed back east and then south around the Isle of Wight. The idea was to head for Cherbourg. This was an exciting prospect for me because I’ve sailed with the OYC three times before and never made it to France. As the day went on, we enjoyed some superb sailing with the wind occasionally reaching Force 7, but I couldn’t help noticing that, despite plenty of tacking and rapid progress through the water, I was rewarded with a view of the same (undeniably lovely) stretch of coastline of the Isle of Wight every time I looked towards land. I soon learned that Cherbourg was no longer our destination. We were now headed instead for Weymouth. We on Chris’s watch sailed on through the gathering darkness until midnight. I was disappointed that we were no longer heading for foreign shores, but the night sailing made up for it. The stars were so bright and, like the Sundance Kid, several of them were shooting. The sea was inky black with silver highlights and the boat was forging through the water in impressive fashion. It was beautiful just to sit there and take it all in until it was time for Tigger’s watch to take over. Then, after a deep and refreshing sleep that seemed to last for all of five minutes, but was apparently three hours, we were up again for the 3.00 a.m. watch. We eventually reached Weymouth at about four o’clock, as far as I can remember, and moored up alongside a somewhat rugged looking motor vessel. Then, having tidied up the boat, we all went back to bed and didn’t get up again until about 10.00 a.m. for a late breakfast.
Day 4 – Friday
During the rest of the day, we sat and relaxed on deck, explored the town and the beach and worked on the presentations that we were to give later that day. I was detailed to work with Chris on a presentation on estimating the ship’s position. I have always been a little apprehensive about navigation and anything to do with estimating my position. I find it hard enough on land in a car that doesn’t slide sideways (usually), where the road stays where it is and the road signs tell you all that you should need to know. But for me it never seems that easy. My daughter was once a little surprised when she phoned me in my car to ask me where I’d got to – I was about an hour late at the time. I was travelling from Guildford to visit her in Dartford and, at the time she rang, was crossing the Queen Elizabeth Bridge in a southerly direction. On another occasion, I had just emerged from the Dartford Tunnel heading north. I don’t think I could find my way to the shops without satellite navigation. However, the marine navigation actually seemed reasonably easy to understand and I really enjoyed learning the basic principles. The presentations took place in the afternoon and they were informative, but better still, they were entertaining. That evening, we went to a small local pub where we were the only customers! We had a beer or two and some good conversation before returning to John Laing and bed.
Day 5 – Saturday
On Saturday, we sailed back along the south coast in good, strong winds with plenty of sunshine. We were heading for Poole. Along the way, we saw the Jolie Brise again, this time with a white spinnaker up to offset the red mainsail. One of our crew also spotted a lifebelt in the water on our port bow and it wasn’t long before we had hoved to and, using the motor, rescued it from a watery fate. The skipper took the opportunity to turn the incident into a training exercise or demonstration and soon Liz, the bosun, was being dangled over the side just above the surface of the water. Anyone coming up on deck at that moment could have been forgiven for thinking she was the bait on a line in some extreme shark fishing sport. Five minutes later she was safely back on board sitting astride Ben who was made to lie flat on his back to stop the blood from going somewhere or other and being told to keep his hands tucked inside her legs. Anyone coming up on deck at that moment could have been forgiven for thinking…well, for thinking almost anything. It wasn’t long after this that we achieved another major breakthrough as Peter finally embraced the penguin game. His interpretation of the moment when the polar bear arrived on the scene was positively masterful. A little after this, I took a turn at the helm and I don’t think I will ever forget the experience. Standing there with the deck at an angle, looking along seventy feet of boat plunging up and down and through the water and up at those beautiful sails and actually being able to feel the boat through the wheel, well, it was magic. All too soon we arrived in Poole just as the light began to fade and we moored up beside the quay with all the luxury motor cruisers. After tidying up the boat and enjoying another great meal, we made our way to a lively pub for the rest of the evening and we weren’t asked to leave until gone midnight. What a day!
Day 6 – Sunday
On Sunday, it was the big clean up. And I mean big. Every surface was cleaned, inside and out. There was a comprehensive stock taking of food and supplies. Life belts were inflated, clothes were sorted, our baggage was packed. It took a couple of hours. Then we had a last debrief before finally saying goodbye. I am so glad that I went. I had a wonderful time and I’d love to sail again.
Comparisons are odious, but here goes anyway
Forty years or more ago, I sailed with the Ocean Youth Club (as it was then called) as a teenager. Now I have just returned from a sail as a senior citizen (it’s official – I’ve got the bus pass and the free winter fuel payment). The boat then was called the Equinox. I went on three sails altogether, and we were always accompanied by another, smaller boat, but I can’t remember now what it was called. In some ways, the experience was very similar to today, but in others it was completely different. In those days, the emphasis was mainly on turning up and sailing. That isn’t to say that we didn’t, just as young people do today, learn the nautical names for everything and how to put up sails and take them down again. We also learned how to reef the sails, how to tie knots and we had a turn at the helm. However, these jobs were simpler than today and there was less emphasis on health and safety. For example, I don’t remember that we were ever clipped on. There were no winches and we were assigned to the sheets and halliards in pairs to haul away without the benefit of extra leverage. This was quite hard work, but it was more straightforward to learn and there was no risk of fingers being sheered off in the winch. I remember being deeply impressed on one voyage by a girl who was not only warm enough in a tee shirt when we were all clad in jumpers and oilskins, but also strong enough to work the sheets unaided.
We also took turns in the galley. Once I was standing ankle deep in water in the galley cooking pies when the boat went about without warning. As the oven began to slope in the opposite direction, the door opened wide and all the pies slid out and ended up bobbing around in the water at my feet.
Usually, discipline was good, but on one occasion, it lapsed. One of the skippers I sailed with had a ‘thing’ about not using the motor and he was determined to sail out to sea with the tide straight from our berth on the first night without the benefit of the engine. Unfortunately, we got stuck on a sand bank (that’s what I was told anyway) and, despite some work with anchors and rowing boats, we were unable to get free. In the end, we gave up and waded ashore and went to the pub. When we returned to the boat, it was lying on its side and most of us climbed aboard and went to bed. However, two lads who had clearly had more to drink than was wise, were discovered a little later to be floating down stream in a dingy without oars, singing lustily. I have no idea if they had been to bed before this. Anyway, they were eventually rescued and brought back, but the whole business was very noisy and kept us all up. Eventually, in the wee small hours, we got to sleep and, as we slept, the tide turned. As it flooded back, the boat began to return to the vertical and soon our sleep was again interrupted by the sound of bodies plummeting back onto their bunks. The next day, as we eventually sailed off, a keen observer would have noticed that the crew was hardly in the peak of condition. Perhaps not surprisingly, that was the least enjoyable sail I went on. The other two were less eventful, but the sailing was better and the experience was altogether more satisfying. I know one of the skippers once said that he preferred an all-girl crew because, although they were not as strong, they were better disciplined and more obedient. I wonder what he meant.
Having now sailed on John Laing, I can’t imagine these things happening today. The whole operation now is far better managed, far more professional; there is vastly more concern with health and safety, much more to learn and much more structure to the means of learning. There is also more in the way of extra activities as well as sailing.
Looking back on this latest voyage some days later, I can say that I had expected to enjoy the sailing and I wasn’t disappointed. What I had not expected was to be so impressed with the dedication, commitment and ability of the staff. I have nothing but admiration for them; they are wonderful and they are doing a superb job for the young people who sail with them. Thank you Wolf, Caz and Liz.