“You’ve got forty-five seconds to convince me to give you a go…”Steve Randall 5th December 2007
Steve Randall – quietly spoken, precise, a lovely fellow… However when, moments earlier, he’d pulled up in a faded green pickup, opened the back, and passed me a box of wine, the thought that occurred to me was that here was a man with ‘Bond villain potential’, and so when he uttered the words above, I realised I needed something good or risk a grisly end to my tall ship aspirations.
I began by highlighting my extensive sailing qualifications – my RYA Dingy Sailing Level 2 certificate. A stern test of seamanship, had I not battled headwinds on the Exeter canal? Did I not know how to tie a bowline, and cove hitch? And surely he must realise that as a captain of lifeguards, I was a fine swimmer – a vital skill for a crewman in a ship such as this.
At some point, Steve held up a palm to stop my blithering and waved me onto the gangplank. Who knows why he offered me a spot? All I can say is that I’m glad he did. What followed was an introduction to acting captain, George and a tour of the ship that was to change my life. I was so excited, my knees shook.
“Shit. What have I let myself in for?”Me, 7th December 2007
I was pleased; I was terrified. I will never forget the sense of awe I felt when first I stood on the deck of the Soren Larsen. I took in the sights and breathed in the smells… the cobweb of rigging, the sheer size and complexity of it all; the height of the masts, the tips of which swayed gently against the clouds. And then there was the smell: tar, linseed oil, blacking, varnish, diesel; a pungent aroma. I remember looking towards the poop deck, the brightly polished gleam of the binnacle and, behind it, the ship’s wheel. We could go anywhere, I thought, and thrilled at the prospect.
I felt awkward to begin with; I wrote in my diary, “The new crew started about two weeks ago and have already gelled. I feel like an outsider. What else can I do apart from grin and say “OK?” or “Alright?” And then grin a bit more? And all the time I’m thinking, do they like me or do they think I’m a prick?” That lasted all of a day. There’s something about tall ship sailing – social barriers cannot resist the fetid stench of the foc’sle, and the shared graft of sailing and maintaining a ship. All these years later, some of this crew – and others who joined later – remain my closest and best friends, and I remember them all with great affection, including some of the voyage crew I was soon to get to know.
To sea…sort of
Say the words ‘evening charter’ to any former Soren, and they’ll probably groan, but it was a good introduction to the ship – manning the vessel for a jaunt around Auckland’s spectacular harbour.
During the afternoon, we cleaned and polished and, after an early dinner, we rigged a bar in the ship’s waist, ready to welcome aboard a rabble of guests enjoying their office Christmas party. I’d like to be able to tell you what it felt like to leave the quay for the first time – the churn of the water from the propeller, the tilt of the decks, the evening breeze on may face – the salty tang – but I can’t because, as we got underway that first time, I stood proud in my brand new Soren Larsen rugby shirt and safety belt, and demonstrated to woozy administrators, how one flushes a sea toilet and then mopped up afterwards. Later, I took turns on the bow, the bar, in the galley, and yes, on the helm. We loosed some of the sails – but I wasn’t called on to help with that and was glad because I was scared of heights. And now we were coming alongside and my task was a weighty one – throwing the heaving line…
At the end of the summer before I left for New Zealand, I’d helped the council hoist yachts from the water for the winter. At one point, I was given the hefty responsibility of chucking a bow line to the beach manager – it did not go well. I’ve never like being ‘looked at’ when I’m trying to perform a task. Maybe it stems from my maths lessons; my teacher, Mrs Jordan was a terror, and when she would lean over me to inspect my workings out, I would freeze. To make matters worse, like fleshy ear defenders, her pendulous breasts would settle over my head and all I could hear as she remonstrated with me for my lousy fractions, was a low vibration coming from her chest. Tasked with throwing that line, I coiled it tightly, and took a mighty swing, let go, and managed somehow to throw it behind me. How they laughed.
And now here I stood on the gently vibrating foredeck of the Soren Larsen, the sozzled passengers scrutinising my every move. I told myself that this time, it would be different. Just this afternoon, unencumbered by breasts, Second Mate Gareth, had shown me how to coil a heaving line properly. I had listened carefully, and practised my action, and so, when the order came to “cast the heaving line”, I heaved with a confidence I did not feel and watched, my heart in my mouth, as the line arced through the evening gloom. No it didn’t go in quite the right direction but yes, it was headed for shore; yes, it did nearly take out a couple of punters at one of the restaurants lining the quay, no, it didn’t kill anyone. The weight at the end – the monkey’s fist – thudded into the tarmac; it bounced, it skidded. It slithered towards the edge of the quay; oh shit, it was going to fall in the water – but no – somehow, it clung to the edge of a bollard just long enough for one of the crew to grab it. Success! I was a sailor at last.
Later, as I lay in the top bunk, in the worst cabin in the ship, the starboard side four berth, my elation at having survived my first stint ‘at sea’, quickly gave way to doubt. Did I really do OK? Could I maintain my 100% record with the heaving line? Would I ever be able to sleep?
Anyone who has experienced the Auckland nightlife from the vantage point of the Soren Larsen will know what I’m talking about. To lie alongside the bars and restaurants, in the basin between Princes’ Wharf and the Maritime museum, is to experience the kind of sound used to torture spies and test SAS recruits. It’s a blasting racket coming from three sides, and the noise is unbelievable. Still, as the cacophony finally began to die down, I must have drifted off because it was then that I was roused for my first night watch.
You do eventually get used to the lack of sleep. When you reach a certain level of fatigue, it plateaus; you can stay alert during your watch, and then fall asleep at the slightest invitation. I don’t think I’ve ever slept either better or less than I did when I was aboard the Soren. However, here I was, on night watch. It’s quite nice actually; when you’re surrounded with people all day; when you live, eat, and sleep in the same space as your crew mates, quiet time is the time when everyone else is sleeping. I read my book, I sat there thinking. I ‘maintained a presence’ like I’d been told, and every half hour, wandered below to sniff for fire but the only smell was the overpowering reek of the fish oil used to coat the anchor chain. Then I returned to the deck to check for any chaffing that may have occurred since the last time I’d looked a few minutes before – the mooring lines, not me – now is not the time for the story of how my bum fell off in the Marquesas. All was secure; all was safe, and so I settled to write profound things in my diary:
“O4:30 hours: My breath smells like a bear’s bottom.”