We long for the road less traveled, but what happens when we abandon the road altogether? Exchange traversing land for sea and you will find a new world. Become one with the roll of the waves. Watch land fade from view. Live in close quarters with strangers and place your faith in them—as they do in you—to guide your vessel together, working as one.
This is my first time sailing a tall ship. Expert hands guide me and the rest of an enthusiastic but inexperienced crew through the motions of mastering the sails. The Bark Europa becomes another beast when she unfurls, 26 sails hauled free and set to the breeze. Suddenly she has wings. We glide, a constant easy breath of wind guiding us south from Fredrikstad on our nine-day voyage to Amsterdam. After an afternoon of training—literally learning the ropes—my hands are already rough with the promise of calluses I look forward to earning.
We sleep six to a cabin, in close quarters, stacked in bunks with barely room to stand between them. My coffin-like bed houses immersion suits above my head: a stark reminder of the danger all face when going to sea. I settle into my bed gladly and allow the sea to sway me to sleep, Neptune rocking my crib.
The next morning the air is fresh, the sea dark as ink spill. The decks are awash with water pumped up from the sea, while red-eyed deckhands swab the floor clean. The crew of a tall ship is always awake, working in shifts to ensure our passage through the night. You sleep while others work hard to maintain course. We have been split into three watches on a rotating four-hour shift pattern. Sleeping aboard a ship like this can prove challenging; constant interruptions as bunkmates come in and out, something one must adapt to when joining a crew that works all hours.
When I rise on the second day, I find we are traveling through a narrow strip of water. Denmark is to starboard, Sweden to port. Land flanks either side, a strip of green above the waterline guiding us to today's destination: Copenhagen.
I take the helm with Jozef who is alive with daring stories of his voyages at sea as a merchant sailor. But these stories are of ships powered by motor. The reason he is here, the reason we are all here, is for the majesty the sails. Under strong winds and currents, steering Europa can prove to be a difficult job, the wheel wrestling against the course. Those forging the course must keep a large compass in sight, following the bearings called out to us by the Captain who masterminds the route from the wheelhouse.
Copenhagen comes into view after lunch. We dock in the center of the city, smugly sailing past touring cruise ships which are relegated to the outskirts. My legs have already adapted to the undulation of waves under the keel, making the cobbled streets feel as though they sway. Copenhagen is elegance and color, a bright sun beating down on easy, relaxed people. After exploring the city, we remain moored for the night, share wine and songs on deck, and watch a perfect moon rise, striking the sea with pale fire.
Europa is skeletal without sails. Her humming motor takes us away from Copenhagen, backed by the sound of the hull softly cutting through water, curling fresh ripples into the blue. By midday land is far from view and the sea has lost its glossy sheen. Now it is curdled with flecks of cream; we are passing through a stretch of blue algae. A worrying sight, indicative of rising sea temperatures.
The first mate calls for us to set all sails. Two dozen men and women scrabble to haul and ease every rope on the ship, putting into practice all we have learned on board.
Two, six, heave! Halyards are raised, sails are dropped and staysails are set. It takes twenty minutes and every available hand. When the canvas fills with air, both ship and crew are lifted. The wind coaxes Europa to recline onto her starboard side, setting the deck at an angle. The motor ceases and now the steady slap of waves on the hull takes precedence. The main mast reaches up over 100 feet, holding sails that billow gratefully, pressing us on faster. The Captain proclaims the Baltics to be the best sailing. We hit six knots and she is stable, barely moving against the waves. We glide.
© Jozef Toman
Tonight my crew is covering dog shift: midnight to four a.m. The night is cool and cloudy. There will be no moon or stars for us. Off portside we see the lights of Germany. The rest is black. Black sea and sky, studded by a line of light from the shipping lane that leads to the keel canal. I stand sentry with Afina. She has come on this trip in memory of her wife, who longed to sail aboard Europa before her death. The journey is a beautiful way to honor her memory. We share a comfortable silence, watching the moon come clear of cloud to light up the dark.
When I come up on deck the next morning, the crew are bracing, swinging the ship's vast arms around by coordinated hauling and easing of ropes. We must all work as one to drive Europa on. Ease the buntlines, release the clews, raise the halyard and haul on the sheets. The process requires ten ropes to be eased and hauled for each of the dozen square sails.
We arrive at the Keel canal later, greeted by traffic lights, a lock, and passport control. Endless sea becomes a narrow road of water, only 150 meters wide and framed on either side by trees and buildings. At dawn we emerge from the canal and are released to the North Sea. The conditions here are changeable. Precautionary ropes are set along the main deck, there to cling to in the event of a storm.
When we are ordered to take the sails away, I climb the rigging of the main mast, up past the mainsail, the topsails, the topgallant and up to the royal. I imagined platforms and crow's nests, but the 100-foot route up has only ladders and bars of metal to perch on. It's a long way up. I step out onto the yardarm, bare feet balanced on a rope which runs along its underside. Looking up and out at the water feels like flying. Both sea and sky seem so much bigger here, as if the horizon has been pushed further back. The water reflects bright sun, turning it silver as we slide through the sea, unfurling curls of white-crested water that caress Europa's length.
We are in a busy patch here, crossing lanes of sea traffic. We use the motor again to cut across lines of cargo ships. The captain lies to the coastguard to allow us this shortcut; any motor vessels must get in lane with the rest. 'But we are sailing!' he professes and we are allowed to continue.
When rain hits, the ship performs a slow canter. The crew cling on and stumble as we traverse, sea spray battering on the deck as we swab her clean, the taste of salt filling the air.
My hands have torn raw under damp ropes. But it's worth it. A perfect morning, swinging like a pendulum in the company of gulls who surf the hull's updraft. From the upper decks it's possible to get a clearer sense of how Europa—minute in the surrounding seas—is a battering ram and the sails are the force that propels us on, further west and deeper to sea.
The rough waves don't seem to abate, the prow corkscrewing as it rises and falls and many are overcome with sickness. Everyone has their wave, I'm told. Given the wrong frequency and pattern of waves, even the most seasoned sailor will fall prey to illness. There are three steps to seasickness: first you are afraid you will be sick, then you are afraid you will die, and lastly you will be afraid that you will not die. I'm happy that, as yet, Europa hasn't stumbled into "my wave."
We push through rough seas by motor for three hours and succeed only in travelling backwards by half a mile. By the afternoon things are a little calmer. A few pallid faces restore color.
I sleep after supper, getting a couple of hours rest before the midnight watch. I find the shift work challenging and this trip has compelled me to break my five-year abstinence from caffeine. I drink coffee gladly as we approach four a.m., wishing for bed. Many crew members will take to sea for months at a time, heroic in their ability to go without sleep as they work these challenging shifts, never getting the full eight hours I so long for.
We motor west before swinging the ship southeast, spreading her canvas wings to take in the wind as we head to our final destination: Amsterdam. The ship leans to starboard at what must be a 45-degree angle. Below deck portholes disappear under the surface of the water, making them look like washing machines. In the open air we need to take care; the deck is a steep slope leading to fast, blue water.
The Netherlands is Europa's home; she was first built as a light ship in Hamburg 1911, but took on her spirit when she was converted for sailing here in 1986. Our Captain is determined to show her off in full glory and his ever-wide smile broadens as we enter the North Sea canal, sweeping between the busy water. Everyone is on deck to greet the sight of encroaching land.
The canal is 25km long, dug out by hand during 1865—1876. The workers lived in squalid conditions, being housed in huts built from twigs, driftwood, sod, and straw. Disease, fights, and alcohol abuse were rampant. It is hard to imagine now with its tranquil waters and busy banks. As we follow its length the ship's permanent crew members grow visibly excited at the prospect of this final stop, as they do with every voyage. You long to be at sea, they tell me, but you are always glad when you can get off the ship. I understand. Their work is as challenging and courageous as it is beautiful.
Europa settles herself against the dock in Amsterdam, tied in place, tamed and ready to rest. There is a reluctance to disembark. We are a changed crew. Diverse in our origins, our ages and languages, but united by our command of the ship. The sea has kept us in check and reminded us of the power of nature. Europa has taught us camaraderie, shown us adventure, and revealed to us a new world.
We step off the gangway, two feet back on land, leaving behind the permanent crew who will take Europa back to the rolling foam, back to the blue. There is no doubt that she has left a piece of herself in each of us who has traveled with her. We depart with a rush of sea in our souls and a sailor's longing to return to that blue expanse.
This year has brought change to us all. The pandemic is forcing many of us to abandon plans and to adapt to a new world. From the comfort of my now overly familiar home, I hear news of a ship stranded in a South American port. Her brave crew are forced to sail directly home to the Netherlands: an ocean journey of 80 days and over 10,000 miles powered only by sail and without stopping for fresh provisions. A voyage like this has probably not been attempted since the introduction of steam engines in the 19th century.
It is an astounding feat, but I can well believe it. I know this ship. I know her crew. This time last year I was fortunate enough to live briefly alongside these resilient sailors and get a glimpse into their sea-bound world...
Jodie Bond is a novelist and an award-winning radio writer with a passion for sharing the world with audiences. Her debut novel, The Vagabond King, was published by Parthian Books as part of a three-book deal.
Photos by the author except where indicated.
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