To those passionate about sailing, the 150-year-old traditionally rigged Australian ship James Craig offers the ultimate challenge, says Amanda Woolley
My love affair with tall ships began over ten years ago, while I was watching the BBC Hornblower series on television. Despite experience in modern sailing, I couldn’t see how it was possible to manoeuvre a ship with three masts, and several enormous square sails. So I made a model from a plastic microwave dish, three sticks and several squares of paper, and tried blowing it across a children’s paddling pool with a hairdryer. Which didn’t tell me an awful lot! From this unlikely start, a year later I found myself on a wharf in Sydney, preparing to join the volunteer crew of a genuine tall ship, the restored three-masted barque James Craig, originally built in 1874. Arriving on deck, dwarfed by towering 33-m masts and aghast at the number of ropes required to operate 21 sails, I realised I had no idea what I’d let myself in for. I could have turned tail and run back down the gangplank, but for the sight of the varnished timber, the shining brass and the two massive traditional anchors – it was pure Hornblower, and this was real love!
For more than 50 years this splendid ship sailed the oceans, taking cargo from one side of the world to the other, rounding the notorious Cape Horn, where giant albatross soar on the wind above mountainous seas and vast icebergs, and every day brings a new adventure. As steam took over from sail, the Craig had a restful semiretirement in the warm coastal waters of Australia, before being stripped of her mast, rigging and decks, and scuttled into a quiet bay in Tasmania. There she lay at rest for more than 40 years, until she was re-floated and towed first to Hobart, then more than 1,000 km to Sydney in 1981, to begin her transformation into a proud sailing ship once again. For the next 22 years, the enthusiastic volunteers of The Sydney Heritage Fleet, mariners, shipwrights, engineers, yachtsmen, metal workers, carpenters and sail-makers chipped, sanded, welded, riveted, hammered, nailed, varnished and painted, all the while seeking donations for this huge restoration project.
Finally in 2003, the James Craig set sail once more – the only original windjammer in the world that regularly takes passengers to sea, now an icon of Sydney Harbour – crewed entirely by volunteers. One of which is me.
The first thing I learnt was how to get up the mast, the first part of which is simple, and involves climbing up the rope shrouds – just like climbing a rather wobbly ladder. Next comes the part where the shrouds lean backwards out from the mast, and you end up hanging on like a monkey to reach a small platform part of the way up the mast. This is a good opportunity to catch your breath and admire the view, before repeating the performance on ever-narrowing shrouds to reach the cross-trees, and thence the highest sails. Getting up and down is all very well, but figuring out how to actually do anything while you’re up there quite another. The top edges of the huge square sails are attached to horizontal yards; when furled, they are tied there by rope gaskets. These horizontal yards (fortunately) have foot ropes, so the trick is to get yourself out along this highly unstable rope to undo the gaskets, ready for the sail to be pulled down by ropes on the deck. But more of that in a minute. Now time to get back down and join the other deckhands, under the command of a Watch Leader, in setting sails.
Now, about those ropes… which are never referred to as ropes, because there are more than 150 involved in operating the 21 sails, so each one has a name of its own. Now try and remember where they are when you’re in a hurry! “Ready on the starboard fore upper topsail bunts?” (“Err, I hope so, are they over here?” isn’t regarded as a very satisfactory answer.) Somehow, with the help of more experienced hands, after a while it starts to make some kind of sense to a new deckhand. However, the real skill is up on the quarterdeck (at the back of the ship) where the officers give the orders for the setting of sails, depending on the wind, and the intended course of the ship.
So, sails in place, we plunge across the ocean swells, enjoying the salty breeze and watching for dolphins that like to play in our bow wave. Until it’s time to change course. At which point orders are shouted, and deckhands scramble to the braces, sheets (and other ropes with their own names), which are duly let go, or hauled; the helm goes over, more mad activity, and the ship changes course. Massive teamwork but that’s the fun of it – definitely not a hobby for the lover of solitude! Going to sea as part of a 45-man crew; sleeping below decks in an area crammed with hammocks, canvas stretchers and kit bags; eating together at long tables (with raised edges to stop the plates from sliding off in rough conditions); queuing up for the occasional two-minute shower; pleading with the engineers to let you hang your foul-weather gear in the engine room to dry when you finish a four-hour watch on deck in the rain – a sanguine, stoic personality is definitely an advantage!
And those engineers – in a sailing ship? Well, we do have some modern comforts! For modern safety regulations (and insurance), the ship is required to have engines. Craftily concealed in the stern are two 400hp diesel engines, in the charge of our volunteer marine engineers. They also take care of the generator providing power for lighting and pumps, the water supply and sullage. The food? Chief Steward overseas the cook and assistants; the serving of meals; the loading of supplies; the kitchen equipment, cookers, fridges and freezers; and cleaning up – in other words – the housework! Which means we deckhands don’t have to worry about it – we just stand watches on deck in the rain and wind, while they stay warm and dry down below, peeling potatoes (don’t tell them I said that). Now for the important bit – the officers. They are volunteers, along with everyone else on board, including the ship’s doctor. They stand four-hour watches on deck in all weathers (as do the engineer officers) but they get to sleep in the small cabins reserved in the old days for the ship’s officers and a few passengers. And a dining saloon with a beautiful hardwood dining table (but the same food as us!)
So if you have a yen to play Hornblower, come aboard the James Craig at Sydney’s Darling Harbour.
Log on to www.shf.org.au for more details