Deckhand Diary: South to Antarctica
In September 2014 I was offered a place as deckhand on Dutch barque Europa. Initially I thought the 3 months slot would be to sail the ship from Portugal to South America, but when the contract came through it was all the way from Lisbon to Antarctica via Canaries, Cape Verde, Brazil, the Chilean Fjords and Cape Horn. I had been to Antarctica twice on the ship as paying guest crew, but this was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.
The romance and the reality were somewhat different, but I can definitely say I worked my passage.
In the first 24 hours I fed 50 pillow cases and sheets through the 2 washing machines and tumble driers, and died my shorts pink in a torrential rain squall. The guests were in three watches but the two watch crew rota was for 6 hours on, 6 hours off, 6 on, 6 off. Every time you stumbled up on deck your ship mates would say good morning….even at 2000hrs
As a charter skipper and sailor who has sailed over 60 000 miles on traditional boats – usually in charge of something - it was hard to be the ‘newbie’ deckhand, and I made loads of mistakes. I constantly forgot that the galley rules the waves. Even if you were aloft finishing off a particularly awkward bit of serving or leatherwork, you had to ‘down tools’ to all serve food at lunchtime.
In the tropics we all wanted to replace buntline blocks on the royal yard, but there was plenty of less attractive work to do too. Between Cape Verde and Salvador, the guest crew stood lookout under the stars with a suite of 30 sails above them. The mate or Captain kept a wary eye out for squalls on the radar. Only a ships bell away, his deckhands were sweating buckets below decks - baking bread, cleaning floors or completely re painting the focastle between vicious bits of machinery as the ship rolled her way across the Atlantic.
The deckhands from all wished for squalls at night, so we could leap heroically out of our domestic drudgery and ‘hand’ the most vulnerable sails – Jib topsail, skysails, stunsails, royal and t’gallant staysails and sometimes even the royals too. The guests on watch at night would generally rush to help at deck level but few could make the quick adjustment from deckhouse scrabble games to climbing the rig at night to furl sails. My favourite was stowing the skysails as it involved a tricky bit of climbing, without any ratlines or ladders, and stowing sails in pitch black as the highest deck lights were 20ft below. My head torch became a permanent fashion accessory, just in case of an impossible tangle, but we all took care to stow sail gaskets simply so the next poor sod could furl quickly.
If I could sum up maintenance work on a square rigger whilst crossing oceans it would be: “An opportunity to work in some of the most uncomfortable and precarious positions possible, with the best views in the world.”
In the tropics we had violin and guitar players and crew were allowed a free beer after every watch. In Salvador our time ashore was dominated by the Brazilian election frenzy. The best sailing was down the Argentinian coast as the Roaring 40’s kicked in, albatrosses came to join us and we brought down the stunsail booms and skysail masts and yards
The voyage from Punta Arenas in Chile allowed the ship to sail the Magellan Strait, Cockburn and Beagle channels and it was calm enough (just) to land on the Island of Cape Horn. On board I gave a lecture on Drake, Magellan, Van Schouten and the first Round the World explorers. Now we had three wildlife guides on board so the lecture programme started to get a bit competitive.
Once in the Antarctic Peninsula and islands - being there as deckhand instead of a guest was both awesome and frustrating as we had many duties below decks too. Our main outdoor job was prepping the ships zodiacs for 1-3 landings a day. We all wanted to drive zodiacs amongst the icebergs, squadrons of penguins and back flipping fur seals. The responsibility of keeping people safe, dry and warm in that environment was huge, and there were some scary moments. In a short article it is difficult to explain the amount of teamwork and effort behind the scenes that allows mere mortals to explore this wilderness safely on a 102 year old sailing ship. I can feel another St Mawes Sailing Club Slide Show coming on….
Debbie Purser is the skipper and operations manager of pilot cutter ‘Eve of St Mawes’, co-founder of Portscatho based Classic Sailing and very occasionally manages to race with the Evelyn Syndicate. Classic Sailing works with Bark Europa to sell their voyages in Antarctica and around the world.
For more information ring Adam or Debbie Purser on 01872 580022 www.classic-sailing.co.uk