Old Bean’s South Seas Adventures: In which I join the ship and throw a heaving line with gusto

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She’s a beauty!

“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.

Harbour Watch

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.”

Old Bean’s South Seas Adventures: On sailors

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Source: Wiki Commons

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. “

Moby Dick or The Whale, Herman Melville

It had been a “damp, drizzly November in my soul,” and I had indeed grown “grim about the mouth”, and now here I was, poised to take to the sea. I was a man at a crossroads; the ocean beckoned.

I think many of us end up travelling through life on a trajectory, the direction of which we had little choice in or control over. I knew I was on the wrong path but knowing didn’t make it any easier to get off it. Doing a job I didn’t like and wasn’t particularly good at was a confidence-sapping drain. In the end, even though I was sure I wanted to leave, I wasn’t sure I was capable of doing anything else either – we get used to our cages. And then there was the issue of property ownership; how well I remember sitting on a deckchair in my building site of a flat, watching Sarah Beeny explaining how to do up a flat. I even appeared on the TV programme “DIYSOS” – a ridiculous escapade for another post. I had finally finished the renovations and the flat now looked lovely. Could I really give it up – step off that all-important first rung of the property ladder? A steady job and a mortgage are important stepping stones in life, but I needed a breathing space – some thinking time – and a chance to discover for myself what I really wanted from life.

I had what I would euphemistically term, a ‘troubled upbringing’ which caused, and still sometimes causes me, considerable personal difficulty. Those kind of experiences make you feel crap – abuse builds a mental architecture that says, I’m a piece of shit; I can’t trust other people; and the world is a dangerous place. It has profound repercussions and it takes a lot to overcome it, if indeed such a thing is possible.

It might not have looked like it from my grades, but in terms of my mental and emotional health, I had scraped through my A levels, scraped through university, and then spent the next years bumping along the bottom in a series of temporary jobs, finally culminating in an extremely dissatisfying career. As I hit the end of my twenties, I began to deal with what had happened to me and as a result, began to chafe against the constraints of the life I was living. I had tried once before to make a change, leaving a similar job at South West Water to travel the coasts of France, Spain, and Portugal in a van, surfing and working at a vineyard. I had a great time, but ended up right back where I started. I was in my early thirties, stuck behind another desk pretending to be interested in computer code while continually distracted by the paintings that I’d done and brought in to to see what my colleagues thought of them. I remember once when it was my boss’ birthday and we were decorating the office in his honour – I was drawing a caricature of his face in black marker pen on a party ballon when my colleague commented, “that’s the most I’ve seen you concentrate in all the time I’ve known you”. And then there was that poem…

I needed to make a change, I needed a new direction and that is what I sought when I headed for New Zealand – I remember telling myself over and over “just try things – keep on trying new things”. It was a huge decision to sell everything and leave, but I knew I had to do it. I wasn’t running away – I was running towards my future. This was the best decision I have ever made and the one of which I am most proud. I will be forever grateful to Soren’s then owners, Steve and Rosie Randall for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime, and to the crew mates with whom I shared the adventure, for making it such happy and memorable experience. We of the Soren Larsen were a motley crew – be it a thirst for adventure, a career move, or simply for a well-earned holiday, everyone has their reason for turning to the sea, and this was mine.

Next post – Let the good times roll: I join the Soren Larsen and learn the ropes!

Old Bean’s South Seas Adventure: Episode 2 – A Tale of Two Ships…

Lost in Auckland by Robin Falvey

“Auckland is pleasant, the people are pleasant, the salt water pool, ‘Parnell Baths’, is pleasant, but I’m not quite sure what I am doing here.”

To the reluctant traveller, there is nothing quite as soul destroying as wandering the streets of a strange city – especially when there’s no prospect of being able to pack up and go home any time soon. Plus, what with this being New Zealand, there were no castles to visit.

I’m from Brixham in Devon which is – or was – an important fishing port and is now a slightly faded, ever-tacky tourist hotspot. William of Orange landed there when he came over from Holland to take the throne and his seagull-shit streaked statue stands on the quay to this day – a reminder to wear a hat whenever in town.

Seasick, horrified, and shit-splattered: William of Orange statue, Brixham harbour
Photographer: Knut Schlensog

As a teenager working at “Oscars”, one of the many cafes which served the hordes of tourists from “up north”, I was no stranger to the dark side of holidaying. Rainy days were the worst; the cafe would be rammed with half-soaked families, plus animals. I remember the steamy atmosphere, the pungent smell of bacon grease mingled with the sugary waft of cheap cash-and-carry jam and fake cream. Most of all I remember the dirty plates with their half-chewed leftovers that it was my job to clear away and wash up; that plus the bickering, complaining customers, my aching feet, and the sense that holidaying wasn’t necessarily the happy experience it was made out to be.

And then of course there were our own family holidays which mostly took place in rainy North Wales and which mainly involved being lost in the mountains, arriving at tourist attractions after they’d closed, and – yes – bickering over orange squash in steamy, overheated cafes.

But there I was – on holiday – lost and bored to death in Auckland:

“Managed to spend an impressive five hours at the National Maritime Museum – mostly spent looking at boats.”

29th November, 2007

A sight for sore eyes

There she is – the Soren Larsen

After the night porter had ushered me from the museum, I wandered around to Prince’s Wharf, and there they were: two ships – a black one, and a white one. Now here was something worth a second look.

Ship One: Spirit of New Zealand. Trim, taut, her officers in smart blue shirts strutting about with poise and purpose. Safety lines rigged…everywhere.

Ship Two: Soren Larsen. Faded, rust-streaked. Music blaring, a ragged, tattooed bloke with bare feet lounges on the main hatch twiddling a bit of rope. The whiff of tar and other, less identifiable, smells.

Obviously I tried for Ship One.

Scouts at sea

Now I’m sure the Spirit of New Zealand is a fine vessel, but to me, having secured a quick tour from the officer of the watch, a young woman with a slightly military manner, it all felt a bit “scouty” for me. Everything shipshape and Bristol fashion, but a bit…dull? I tried for Ship Two – the man had disappeared but the stack of slightly limp fliers attached to the signboard did advertise a phone number which I wrote down and promptly lost. Next time I visited, the ship was gone, but the fliers remained. When I rang the number, a harassed-sounding chap answered.

“No, sorry, we don’t need any volunteers.” So that was that. Or was it? Because just as I had based my decision to move to New Zealand on a poem and a flow chart, I resolved to pester this chap, Ian – and Rosie, who picked up the phone the next time I rang – on a dream I’d had before leaving for for Heathrow…

Please read this slightly strange poem by a slightly strange man – or the next bit won’t make sense.

Dive in, just bloody dive in! I thought, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. It turned out that the reason the ship was no longer alongside was because part of the rudder assembly had fallen off. The next time I called, Rosie answered and explained that everyone was too busy to talk to me. I waited a couple of days – noted on my next foray into the city, that the ship was back – and rang “one last time”.

“How about if I come down to the ship?”

3rd December 2007

Answer: “Oh God, OK, OK.”

I put the phone down and turned to survey the cluttered lounge of City Garden Lodge backpackers. What a place. A mecca for young yoga enthusiasts, there was a meditation tent in the garden and the kitchen floor was gritty with spilled lentils. And now here was that Spanish chap with the pony tail and the “large aura”. He approached the whiteboard and wrote upon it:

“Yellow electric human”

City Garden Lodge, December 2007

The Germans gravely nodded their approval, a couple of Brits with faux-Kiwi accents emitted wise “uh-huhs” of agreement. I pulled a face and muttered: “What the fuck does that mean?” I had to get on that ship!

South Seas Adventure – your escape from COVID19

The adventure of a lifetime – exclusive access to Old Bean’s Adventure Diary

Join me as, in the autumn of 2007, I arrive in New Zealand and begin to blunder about the city of Auckland; a man without a plan, somehow I land the job of a lifetime – the coveted position of deckhand aboard the aboard the magnificent tall ship Soren Larsen. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a tale of high adventure, considerable drunkenness, wonderful people, seasickness, fear and loathing in the Southern Ocean, plus lashings of Bundaberg ginger beer amid much sweat and toil. May I present…The Soren Larsen Diaries.

From unpromising beginnings

21st November 2007 Auckland New Zealand

“I had long discussions with many people about whether or not to bother coming and in the end, decided that I may as well.”

I will never forget the misery of being stuck in a job I hated. A computer something or other at the NHS in Exeter, not only wasn’t I a very good at it but when, a few years before, I’d done a business degree, I had actually paid someone to do the IT module for me. How I ended up working in the same bloody sector is outside the scope of this series but, somehow, I did and it was a miserable existence.

Me busy renovating my flat

The rot really set in after I was forced to move from one role to a very similar one and took a pay cut along the way. By then, I had bought a flat and was in the middle of gutting and rebuilding it. It was the height of the housing boom and I was an unapologetic capitalist. Faced with the prospect of a drop in income, I resolved to make the money up outside of work. So began a period of frenetic activity: I imported Polish people, bought and sold second hand furniture, acted as an unofficial estate agent, worked on firework displays, and even took up trouser hems. I also began to paint, and sell my work.

At the same time, I was club captain at Dawlish Warren Lifesaving Club where I trained new lifeguards, helped to run volunteer patrols, ran exams at other clubs, and joined in with fundraising activities. While my Poles were in town, I rented my flat to them and slept on a stretcher in the girls’ changing rooms (less smelly than the boys’ ones).

My artwork was selling, I was selling, I was doing so much outside of work that, in the end, something had to give. I asked if I could go part time. “But why?” I remember my boss asking. “Because I don’t have time to come in every day,” I replied. His answer was no.

I had a mortgage to pay, I was unhappy, I felt stuck in a rut. And then, sat on the loo at my parents’ house, I came across a poem that changed my life: The Old Grey Squirrel by Alfred Noyes. It’s about a school boy who dreams of running away to sea but bottles it and becomes an accountant instead:

“For they caught him like a squirrel and they caged him,
now he’s totting up accounts and turning grey.”

The last thing this poor fellow sees before he dies?

“Is the sailormen a-dancing in the moonlight
by the capstan that stands beside the quay.”

The Old Grey Squirrel by Alfred Noyes

As soon as I got home, I went directly to the lifesaving club where there’s a big whiteboard screwed to the wall. On it, I drew a chart of all the possible choices I could make. When I was finished, I wiped away all the things I didn’t fancy doing, and what was left was this:

“Sell everything, and go to New Zealand”

So I did though, as you shall see, I wasn’t sure if it would be worth the effort…