Monday 13 May 2013

Living the dream: Sail a tall ship

We all have dreams. So do I. Mine is about freedom.

This freedom comes in many guises, perhaps not always fully understood when the opportunity to break free knocks. My dream is about freedom and it is vested in sailing. Specifically longer voyages. On day sails you get this freedom in very small doses. I have a healthy dislike of bureaucracy, of which I get an overdose every day. This adds to my stress levels no end. So, dear reader, you will understand my addiction to sailing, where I have the freedom of choice and the time to enjoy it.

And I am an addict, so longer voyages are quite in order.

I have written before about the silence and the quietness surrounding one on a voyage. The lack of noise and air pollution that you find at sea. And the peace.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to talk to people who do exactly this for a living. Long voyages. See the world. And to top it all, these people do it aboard classic tall ships. Ships built before the first World War, which make them around a hundred years old.

Three of the Dutch Tall Ships visited Cape Town on a circumnavigation.

All of them have satellite communications equipment on board. But no 24/7 internet connection. The communications run via the HF radio or satellite telephone, so email once a day is what you get. The communications are mainly used for weather updates and communications back to the office.

The Tecla, the smallest of the three, is a lugger-rigged ketch of 197 gross tonnes. Their facebook page quotes as follows:

“The Tecla was build as a fishing vessel in the Netherlands back in 1915. in 1935 she retired and got her first engine, she was then christened Tecla and sold to Denmark. In 2006 the family Bouwman & Sluik bought the Tecla, a ship that makes dreams come true.”

I had a long conversation with Jet, the first mate and cook on board. They sailed from Brazil across the Atlantic to Cape Town with only four people on 

board. On a ship like this, four people means long working hours. For this voyage the crew was divided into two watches and worked shifts of six hours on, six hours off.

There is no auto-helm and the crew on watch has to steer the ship manually. There is also no deck house, so you are standing there on the aft deck exposed to the wind and weather, steering the ship. And Jet, as the cook on board, has to double up on feeding the hungry sailors.

We discussed the vagaries of cooking on board the vessel. This ship is quite small as a ship, but very big in normal yachting terms. This means they have a decent size freezer and other refrigeration to allow for catering on a long voyage for up to twelve people. They have three meals a day, which means that the cook is quite busy. The small size of the vessel means also that the cook is exposed to pots flying off the hob in bad weather. Quite similar to a small yacht, in fact.

We discussed the diet on such long passages. Here is where local knowledge of your destination comes in handy.

Dry food is ordered via the ships agents, so not a big problem there. The fresh stuff is bought at local markets, where Jet specifically looks for food that has not been in cold storage. Food that had been in cold storage goes off faster than fresh food.

Chalk up some points for being a yachtie or sea salt: You are automatically forced to eat decent, unprocessed food!

The galley on board is perhaps, in terms of scale, smaller that the galley on a 12m size yacht. Yes it is bigger, but the galley on a small yacht proportionally takes up more space than on a larger vessel.
Oosterschelde galley. A very busy place.

We looked at the galley on the Oosterschelde, which needs to cater for up to 120 people on day sails. The galley on the Ooterschelde has the size of your average suburban house kitchen, measuring perhaps two and a half by four meters or thereabouts. Not big. The hob has six burners/plates, that's it. Industrial size, yes. But not overly so. There is an oven, of course. A small work area and a sink completes the layout.

And the space is cramped.

There is standing headroom in the galley, but I shall have to bend almost double getting provisions from the storage in the bilges below. There is always a compromise on board. Win some, lose some.

The cook told us that she operates mostly alone in the galley, sometimes with an assistant cook, depending on the number of people on board. When there is a lot of people aboard, she will arrange help from the deck side to add hands to the two people in the galley.

Peeling potatoes? Yes, that is where the passengers get to help a little. It helps with the boredom of being idle.

Of course, the Oosterschelde is quite big, 42m long (50m including the bowsprit) and 7.5m wide. So there is a little space.

And the saloon has an old world charm second to none. My friend Tasso and I sat in a little poop deck like a mezzanine deck aft of the saloon. Green carpets, dark brown solid wood, varnished. Green leather upholstery. An upright piano bolted down in one corner of the saloon. The sun shining mildly through the windows.

As we sat down, our immediate thoughts were of coffee and a cigar. You sit there and begin to get an idea of the peace to be had on a voyage, sitting there, reading a book. I could live like that. Quite easily, in fact.

The wheelhouse on the Oosterschelde.
Navigation only, the wheel is outside.
Oosterschelde wheel. Outside.

The Bark Europa is more or less the same size as the Oosterschelde, 50 m overall length, including the bowsprit. This ship has a bigger galley yet, as the full crew complement for a long voyage numbers 25. But the galley is still quite small, as can be seen from the photo on their web site. Here one has three meals a day prepared in the galley, baking bread and biscuits at night. Very busy indeed.

Freshly baked bread. Fresh, unprocessed vegetables, fruit and eggs. Fresh fish from the ocean. Frozen meat, no cattle or chicken farm on board.

And hard work. Hard work for all. Somebody has to make the experience happen. It may just as well be everyone on board.

This is the dream, then.

Freedom. Freedom, especially from bureaucracy.

Experience the taste of fresh food, prepared properly.

Running repairs.
And the reward: no telephone calls, no internet. No Facebook, Twitter or other social media. Yes they have some entertainment in the form of DVD players and so on. For the die-hards.

Read a classic book. Or even two. Write your memoirs. Write a blog with sensible and proper content, you have lots of time.

Chill out, you are going to the ends of the earth slowly.
And feel what freedom is all about.

I'd sacrifice a lot to skipper a ship like one of these...

Somebody has to make it happen.

Authored by Johan Zietsman

Last updated on 2013-05-14

The bar in the saloon, schooner Oosterschelde.

Saloon, schooner Oosterschelde


  1. Loved the pics! These folks are really living the dream......

    1. Thanks Rene,
      This is special for a lot of people I would guess.

  2. I love this post, and I will never again complain about my to small kitchen.

  3. Beautiful boats and beautifully written by a man who knows what he is talking about. Lovely tale of far away places and good, solid, common sense organisation. Thanks Ziets, I envy you, would have loved to have been a fly on your shoulder on that visit!

    1. Thanks Chris. Perhaps, sooner than we think, we may be doing something like this. Who knows. But I am working on this dream too.

  4. Johan,
    Thanks for this (really true) story.
    I am one of the lucky ones who sailed to Antarctica on the Europa and now I participate the Oosterschelde from Perth to Antarctica.
    What you said about stress and freedom is completely true. Once you sailed with a ship like these you know excactly why.

    Arno van Lent

    1. Thanks Arno,
      I would give my eye teeth to be a part of these voyages. The old world charm and peace get to you fast on these ships!