Sailing aboard a square-rigger – the stuff tales are spun from

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever 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.

I like to think of myself as a nautical writer. I’ve read millions of words about the sea, have sailed dinghies and yachts, and come from an area that has Stockholm Tar in its blood. Still, I had come to the conclusion that it didn’t matter how much I thought I knew about sailing the glorious square-rigged vessels that criss-crossed the Earth in their thousands; if I had never sailed on one myself, I was faking it.

For that reason, I booked a day sail aboard the Tall Ships Youth Trust brig Stavros S Niarchos. I don’t mean to suggest that one day pottering about the Solent suddenly makes me Joseph Conrad, but you have to start somewhere. It’s an experience I hope to repeat, as I only scratched the surface, but it was fascinating, enjoyable and gave me a little of that insight I was looking for.

Arriving at Dock Gate 10, Berth 104 at 8.15 in the morning revealed the flattest of flat calms, a beautiful sunrise and a white fogbank sitting on the water by the cruise terminal – it was certainly fuel for the imagination, if unlikely to offer much to the sails. And the Stavros, alongside, waiting calmly. The rig that looked so delicate behind the vast fruit storage sheds now revealed itself to be made up of tree-trunk-like masts and yards, supported by miles of rope.

Misty morning in Southampton

As every one of the 36 day crew arrived, we were handed oilskins, shown our berth and a hook to hang our stuff on, and shown how to put on the harness we would need to wear whenever working on deck or going aloft. It gave a little of the flavour of setting off on a longer voyage, and even though I only saw bunk Blue 4 once that day, one of my watch did actually take advantage and go for a kip at one point. I got the feeling that at least one of Blue Watch had found a ‘damp, drizzly November in his soul’ and chose to escape the land for a day’s grappling with Neptune’s realm.

The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.

So… ‘up and over’. After a lengthy and entirely necessary briefing and an equally necessary mug of tea (the first of many), and while still alongside, the first highlight of the day. High being the operative part. This was when we had the chance to climb the rigging to the ‘top’, the platform approximately a third of the way up each mast (only whalers have ‘crows nests’, don’t you know), and down the other side.

Stavros S Niarchos rig

Shrouds and ratbars
The shrouds and ‘ratbars’ to climb the rigging, to the right – note the ‘jacob’s ladder’ to help you reach the first platform

Heights and me have had a complicated relationship over the years. I can happily walk along a narrow ridge or along the top of a sheer drop the best part of a thousand feet down while hill walking, with not a qualm. Put me on anything that moves, or gives a sense that there isn’t much beneath – a cablecar, say – and I cease to function. My heart rate runs away, my breathing follows, I grip whatever seems most solid and refuse to let go. As I climbed onto the bulwark, and onto the ratbars (the lower rigging has solid rungs rather than rope ratlines) I wondered which it would be today.

The second. The shrouds, the lines that hold the mast up and double as the vertical part of the ‘ladder’ to climb the rigging, had been ‘served, parcelled and wormed’ in the traditional way (more on that anon) before being covered in a thick coating of black tar, and this made them resemble thick iron bars. As soon as my weight went onto the rigging and it began to vibrate beneath me, the illusion was shattered. The fear started to climb and I had to push myself to put one foot on the next ratbar, one hand around the shroud – definitely just a rope – and keep moving. I reasoned that if I kept moving steadily and reasonably rapidly, focussing on what I was doing rather than what was I doing?? I would be OK. Rather than the traditional ‘futtock shrouds’ to climb the last bit onto the platform, which would mean almost hanging upside down, mercifully the Stavros has a ‘jacob’s ladder’ which is solid and only slightly backward leaning. Still, at this point I had to stop to clip my harness onto the lifeline, and despite the volunteer there to help, inside I was beginning to panic. Not looking down was very good advice, but it’s hard to ignore the peripheral vision hinting at the absence between me and the hard deck.

Of course, being seen to be afraid is worse than the fear itself so I did the best I could to appear together. It obviously wasn’t fooling Claire, who earlier had helped me fit my harness, who advised me to ‘chill’ on getting to the top, chatted with me to keep the fear at bay and appealed to my ego by telling Phil, the volunteer on the other side of the platform that I was a nautical novelist – a fact that was beginning to seem a little ludicrous. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, write about it, it seems. Still, it helped, and even though there wasn’t much room to squeeze behind the mast to cross the platform, making the long drop below pretty hard to ignore, I had largely recovered myself by now. The climb down was still spiced by a little vertigo, but no more than to make the fairly short distance interesting.

Back on the blessed solidity of the deck, the first real task for us newly pressed lubbers was bracing the yards, the spars that carry the square sails. The angle of the yards to the axis of the vessel determines where it can sail in relation to the wind. For the sake of we landsmen, these positions were reduced to three – braced sharp to port, sharp to starboard and square. I say this was done for the sake of the green day crew, but it seems that most of the time the Stavros generally manages to sail perfectly well with the yards in one of these three positions. In fact, one of the volunteer crew told me that the Stavros hardly ever has to wear ship and virtually never tacks (i.e. turning through the angle of the wind with the wind behind or ahead respectively). Fore-and-aft rigged vessels, even large ones, can tack easily and even gybing (the fore-and-aft equivalent of wearing ship) holds few fears unless conditions are really rough.

This was another surprise, as someone who has only done ‘fore-and-aft’ sailing before. A fore-and-aft sail isn’t all that tolerant to being at the wrong angle. As it operates less like a wing and more like a parachute, the square sail can, it seems, get away with far less adjustment than a fore-and-aft sail. The Stavros, apparently, can sail huge distances without needing to touch the rig, let alone have to perform complex manoeuvres. You can apparently plan a voyage taking the changes in wind direction into account so you can go a long, long way without changing the set of the rig.

Lower topsail
The lower topsail now set (though it is aback here, the wind having changed direction)

Anyway, I digress… As with everything on the Stavros, the practice needed a lot more choreography than the theory suggests. Because of the way the yards braces are led to the deck, the team operating the lower yards ends up standing in a completely different place to those operating the upper yards. In fact, those moving the upper yards on the foremast are standing by the mainmast and vice versa. I was with the group hauling on the fore topgallant and royal yards, and we had to try and move the yards in concert with the lower yards which were much heavier and required larger teams of people to haul them round. On more than one occasion I found myself looking at the wrong set of yards and wondering why they weren’t moving as I expected.

At the time I wondered if the process was slightly complicated by the layout of the Stavros, with its large deck houses meaning that each team of people hauling or easing the braces (obviously as one side pulls in, the other side has to ease off) can’t see each other. On more traditional sailing vessels, with a continuous deck, everyone would be in view of everyone else. But actually I wonder if this would make matters worse. The average landsman or ordinary seaman needs to know only that he has to pull when told (‘haul away!’) and stop when told (‘well!’). Everything else is a distraction. Without those deck houses, you’d just have more to confuse you.

Another thing that surprised me about this is that while the large, steel lower yards needed a good number of people to move their considerable mass, the two upper yards – topgallant and royal – could be braced around perfectly possibly by one person. These are no mere twigs – they have to bear the weight of a heavy canvas sail, and crewmembers standing on the footropes to take sail in, yet they are easily moved. Similarly, the buntlines and clewlines on the larger sails, which gather them up ready for furling, can each be managed by a single person. (There is one clewline to haul up both corners and three buntlines to gather up the middle).

A heavier job was hoisting the staysail/jib, the triangular sails that stretch diagonally between the bowsprit and the foremast.

The Stavros is about as large as a brig can get – any bigger and you’d need three masts – so I would imagine that the same would be true of even medium-sized vessels in the age of sail.  Stavros S Niarchos is 133ft, 32ft on the beam, and 15ft draught. Bracing the yards and setting the sails (particularly those with yards that have to be hauled up to set the sails) took a lot of effort and I’d be surprised if anyone wasn’t out of breath by the time the few sails we had set were ready to draw.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

…And here we ran into another problem in the life of the square-rig sailor. We had expected a North Westerly wind (such wind as there was, ranging from barely a breath to a pretty light breeze) and set the yards and staysails accordingly. We motored up the Western Solent so we could turn round and run back towards Southampton Water. By the time we had, the wind had swung round considerably, and was now blowing roughly from the South East. Our sails were now aback. Had we been sailing properly, we’d have needed more backbreaking work to brace the yards round to the other side, and even then would not have been able to navigate the narrow Solent without tacking – a manoeuvre beyond our crew of newbies in the few hours we had available.
But the wind being so light, we could motor without taking the sails in again, so we at least felt a little like a tall ship of old harnessing the elements. There wasn’t the opportunity to feel how the ship took to a sea powered by the wind alone, but there’s always that next trip.

The afternoon was occupied with three activities which the three watches could undertake in rotation. Climbing out onto the bowsprit (you’d need to do this to loose the jibs so they could be raised, for example), going to the bridge and taking a ‘trick’ at the wheel, and going aloft again, this time out onto one of the yards.

The bowsprit was fun, and not nearly high enough for my vertigo to kick in. On most parts of the brig where there’s a risk of falling, there are wire safety lines which you can clip your harness to, and the same was the case on the bowsprit. It was a different angle to see the vessel from, but there was a slight sense of how precarious it might become when a large ‘gin palace’ roared past and we sailed into her wake. The vessel began to pitch gently, but the movement at the bowsprit felt considerable and in any kind of sea, it must be challenging indeed.

Watch leader
Waiting to go out on the bowsprit. Blue Watch’s leader, Emma, in the white-quartered shirt

On the bowsprit
Out on the bowsprit

I wasn’t expecting the most difficult bit to be steering. It turns out I am an awful helmsman, or at least I need a lot more time to get to grips with it. When given a course to steer, I simply could not make the Stavros settle onto it. Felicity, ‘Flis’, the First Officer managed to hide her annoyance well but it must be frustrating to order ‘Zero Four Five’ and never hear ‘Zero Four Five on’ to indicate that the vessel is now on the course you ordered before the next course change came. The problem I found was that there was zero feel. The wheel has to be geared so low that one person can operate it, which means that it doesn’t give any feedback. You only have the rudder indicator (and 19th century ships wouldn’t even have had that) and the compass card to tell you what’s happening. Add in the lag before the Stavros responds to rudder movements, and the lag before the compass card responds to the Stavros, it’s a recipe for getting things wrong.

That made another thing clear; why sailing vessels needed a quartermaster – effectively an expert in steering – to direct the man, or men, on the wheel itself.

At the wheel
At the helm; harder than it looks

Then it was time to go aloft again. I was a little more used to it this time, but it was still nerve-wracking. The worst bit was that the yard being braced sharp up meant there was now a large gap between the top of the shrouds and the yard – a good four feet or so to traverse with only a footrope between me and the deck. Fortunately Claire was there again to help keep me occupied, pointing out good handholds which I proceeded to shout out the names of in the hope that this would keep my brain away from the 40 foot drop.

Then I was onto the yard, clipped on, and shuffling out along the footrope to join my watchmates. I had brought my DSLR with me, and had to fight to get it over my arm while still keeping a good hold on the yard. It didn’t feel too precarious until someone else shifted position and the footrope moved alarmingly. I had to remind myself that this was virtually a dead calm with no sea running and virtually no wind. This was as stable as the position would get. And it was the lowest, fattest yard. What on earth must it feel line on the Royal yard during high winds and a rough sea?

View from yard
The view from the forecourse yard – the grey stripe at the bottom-left is the furled sail

Forecourse yard
Blue Watch on the forecourse yard

“And pray, what in sea language is meant by a ship?”
“She must have three square-rigged masts, sir,” they told him kindly, “and a bowsprit; and the masts must be in three – lower, top and topgallant – for we never call a polacre a ship.”

Chatting with a watchmate during a period of relative inactivity, we compared sailing the Stavros to a fore-and-aft rigged yacht, even a large one. He told me he had sailed the Trust’s Challenger yachts on a number of occasions, including long voyages. He thought that once everything was set up on a square-rigged vessel, it seemed there would be periods with relatively little to do – time to read a book, perhaps, or just enjoy the surroundings. On the Challengers – a 72ft bermudan cutter designed for round-the-world sailing – there was never any down time. Even with a crew of 18, you were either on watch and handling the boat, or off watch and sleeping.

I suggested that there were so many functions involved in each manoeuvre on a square rigger that it made each relatively small change surprisingly labour-intensive and complex. This meant there were a lot of things to learn. Even pulling on a rope is far from straightforward.

My watchmate observed that he thought there would be less opportunity for voyage crews to become autonomous, as there is with the Challenger yachts. Even after a relatively short period of time, it seems, a new crew aboard one of those can virtually sail it themselves with very little input required from the trained volunteer and permanent sailors. This emphatically isn’t the case with the Stavros. You could learn all of the functions to be performed, all of the ways each order needs to be broken down to achieve the result you want, and you’d still be years from being safely allowed to get on with it without expert supervision.

A few things were quickly becoming apparent. The first, why the hierarchical structures aboard a square rigger are so important. The chain of command is almost tangible. Each order means a host of component orders cascading throughout the craft, filtering down to the individual teams of ‘manual labour’ pulling on lines. Initiative during the working of the ship could be positively dangerous. No room for freelancing while bracing the yards round or hoisting headsails.

Furling the sail
The regular and volunteer crew furling the main course

Yes, square rig sailing is far more different to the kind most people do than I had envisaged. It even makes you think differently about planning courses and setting up the vessel’s rig to avoid tough, complicated work at inopportune moments. I can see how in the days of sail, a poor skipper, or navigation officer (traditionally the 2nd officer), or bosun (in charge of the minutiae of hull and rig) or just bad luck with the weather could make life hellish for those on board.

It’s something they embrace on the Stavros. Although she is a modern vessel with all the safety features and practicalities the current maritime environment demands, the rig is as close to traditional as it can be. The lines and cables are modern fibre, but one that has been developed to look and feel like hemp rope. The standing rigging (the bits that don’t move, just holding things up statically) are, as I mentioned before, ‘wormed, parcelled and served’ – a traditional process to weatherproof it involving filling the grooves in the cable with smaller line, covering in thin strips of cloth, then winding around the cable in a tight coil with twine. It’s then tarred and sometimes even painted. One of the crew told me how on a longer voyage she was sent aloft during quieter spells with a bucket of tallow – tallow! – to grease the wheels of blocks (Stavros uses wooden blocks) and generally slather anything that needed a bit more protection from the weather.

Worming, parcelling and serving
Worming, parcelling and serving on the Stavros’ standing rigging

That hint of loneliness, that soul of the sea… abandons her at the turn of the first bend above. The salt, acrid flavour is gone out of the air, together with a sense of unlimited space opening free beyond the threshold of sandbanks.

It was time to head home again, and get the crowd of lubbers out of the way while the real work was done, so we were herded into the mess room again for tea and biscuits, and a talk on the work of the Trust. One thing that was becoming apparent was just how slickly the day was run, and with a crew that apart from the small number of standing officers, was made up of volunteers from a large pool who might well never have sailed together before. The timetable gave each of us plenty of attention and lots of things to do, a flavour of the way a ship like the Stavros functions, and a wonderful experience – while being able to do the real work, like navigating, negotiating the Solent traffic, manoeuvring to and from the dock, without tripping over day voyagers. This is a very professional operation – they run a tight ship.

They’re not the only ones. Throughout the day we passed the Tenacious, another square-rigged sail training vessel, and, tied up near the cruise terminal, the Lord Nelson, which only looked so battered and scruffy because it’s just come back from a circumnavigation of the globe. These are real, working vessels and their crews take things seriously.

Lord Nelson tall ship
The sail training vessel Lord Nelson, wearing her scuffs and rust proudly following a round-the-world voyage

So I’d like to offer my very profound and enthusiastic thanks to the crew of the Stavros S Niarchos on sailing SSN 669 – you were, to a man and woman, helpful, welcoming, patient and lovely. When can I come back?

The end of the day for the Stavros S Niarchos
The end of the day for the Stavros S Niarchos

Find out more at the Tall Ships Youth Trust website


2 Comments Add yours

  1. stephenmark1 says:

    Excellent stuff! Very credibly evoked picture of what it must have been like to sail one of these vessels – and a great day out!

  2. Daisydown says:

    A really super account of life at sea, albeit a nurturing one. Don’t like the height of that rigging…. it looks fantastic. I have a painting of Stavros on my piano, my daughter went on one of the longer sailings. Great read.

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