Run Away to Sea!
Tall Ships Accept Able Volunteers for Ocean Adventures
Hands to the halyard! Haul away! We pulled hand over hand until the sail filled and we were sailing!
Last June I signed aboard the traditional sailing ship, Kaskelot, owned by Square Sail of Cornwall, England, as a volunteer in exchange for room, board, and a modest stipend. In the summer, we toured the harbor festivals of Britain and France; in autumn, we sailed to Malta for a film shoot. The experience immersed me in shipboard traditions and British culture: flying the colors, tea time as an institution, and food with names like bubble n squeak.
All thats required to sign aboard is a willingness to learn. While ageism and sexism once restricted who could sail tall ships, our crew of 14 included five women and at least one deckhand over 40. Our nationalities included Irish, Welsh, Swedish, American, and Canadian sailors.
The work requires moderate physical fitness. If you are afraid of heights or susceptible to motion sickness, I suggest a day sail as a passenger or visiting maritime museums. Each sail change we climbed into the rig, up to 90 feet above the deck, and the height accentuated the roll of the ship.
Deckhands must bring appropriate clothing: rubber boots and foul-weather gear, multiple layers of capilene undergarments, and fleece clothing. Even in July I wore my long underwear when sailing the Irish Sea. Sailors are supposed to carry a riggers knife on a lanyard (string tied to the belt), but a folding pocketknife is acceptable. The ship supplied safety harnesses to be worn aloft and crew uniforms of teeshirts or sweatshirts.
Daily Life on a Sailing Ship
The schedule at sea is for 24 hours a day. The mate assigned each deckhand to one of three teams called watches and we took turns to work four hours and then rest for eight. An odd number of work shifts each day meant our watch rotated through three different daily schedules.
Each shift relieved the previous watch exactly on time. While the mate briefed the captain, one of us took over steering the 150-foot ship, one replaced the lookout, and the others began working on tasks such as polishing the brass or swabbing the decks. We rotated through the positions to relieve monotony and stress.
Food set the mood aboard ship, because the crew socialized at mealtimes and good food kept us content: bubble n squeak (cabbage and mashed potatoes for breakfast), toad-in-the-hole (sausage baked into a chewy bread), and pasties (traditional Cornish pastry round potatoes and meat).In port, the crew worked from eight to five. A deckhand raised the colors (flags) at exactly 0800. We focused on projects difficult to complete at sea like painting the sides of the ship. At ten and three oclock each day we stopped for tea. The British are serious, even fanatical, about tea preparation. The mate informed me how to properly stir the steeping tea: Twice clockwise and thrice counter-clockwise. I enjoyed these breaks to snack on biscuits (cookies), relax, and talk. After work we were at liberty, except on our assigned evening to do night shift when we stayed aboard to ensure the safety of the ship and repel boarders. When possible, the captain gave us one day off each week to explore the port in which we were docked.
People on Board
Although the British speak English, I found their speech almost impossible to understand for the first week. Sometimes constant interactions in cramped quarters overwhelmed me. The crew lived in two co-ed cabins, each of us assigned a bunk with a curtain and some shelves. Privacy was minimal and avoiding a crewmate impossible. Issues have to be resolved or conflicts can get heated.
Aboard ship, the chain of command insures safety and assigns responsibility. Crews change with the seasons and only a few stay to become officers. Sometimes the people drawn to these positions are megalomaniacs but there are also the caring, patient, and knowledgeable ones who may become mentors and friends.
The romance of running away to sea often overshadows the hard work and trying conditions of life aboard. But if the sea calls you, I recommend sailing a tall ship. If you are inexperienced, avoid an ocean crossing for your first voyage. There will be moments of fear and days of boredom, but chances are the experience will be a powerful connection with yourself, your crewmates, and the ocean.
Signing On to a Sailing Ship
Many of the following resources for would-be yachties, include job boards, position descriptions, crew house addresses, and forums—yet some are for those who are very interested in volunteering and working with tall ships:
Sail Training International
Tall Ships America
Laurel Seaborn lives
to experience new places.