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The tall ships

Jacek Palkiewicz on the tall ships

Jacek Palkiewicz • Official website of the explorer and traveler

Joseph Conrad's tall ships

Journey on training tall ships.

Yourney's year: 2007 (and previous years)

Author: Jacek Palkiewicz

The boom of the two F-14s shattered the peaceful atmosphere on board the Amerigo Vespucci, where a group of men were quietly chatting about their houses and boats, the wind, and their families. The sunset was casting a glow of eastern mystery over the mosques and minarets of Istanbul, while at the mouth of the Bosporus, a huge American aircraft carrier was cruising majestically.

The contrast between the two vessels was obvious. On the one hand, white sails fanned by the breeze, on the other, nuclear propulsion. The sailing boat also showed the mark of its owner's care and attention. It was freshly painted black (with two white stripes and gold trimmings which were painted over every year). The aircraft carrier, meanwhile, was gun-metal grey and carried no trace of human intervention on its gleaming exterior.

This notable difference between the two ships might prompt a know-it-all to ask: "What sense is there in having a sailing boat in the navy nowadays?"

On the officer cadet's training vessel Vespucci, they find this hilarious because without men you cannot sail any kind of ship.

"You must know how to sense the sea's moods. If you haven't felt a seabreeze in your face, or struggled to stay upright in a gale, or been showered by spray as you handled the wheel, you aren't ready to sail a larger boat by computer. On a ship like this, you learn how to react quickly to the unexpected and become well trained enough not to fear the forces of nature," Dalmazio Sauro explained to me with the enthusiasm of a true sailor.

The Titanic was sailing quietly when it struck an iceberg and sank. The Andrea Doria went to the bottom, despite being equipped with the last word in modern naval technology, after its collision with the Stockholm had left a gaping wound in its side.

Modern instruments have succeeded in eliminating much of the fatigue and many of the risks associated with sailing a large ship. It still remains true, however, that sailing is a man's job and that one cannot be a good captain if he is not first a skilled sailor.

You learn sailor's skills by living on board a ship for weeks or months at a time until the boat no longer hides any secrets from you. The wind can drive your boat onto a shoal of rocks, and the waves can fill the hull with water, or flick men from the bridge with ridiculous ease. It has happened often enough in the past. The sea bottom is a unique museum exhibiting galleys, triremes, junks, clippers, oil tankers and aircraft carriers. Often they dragged their crews down with them, no matter how well versed in the art of seamanship they were.

Despite its risks, the sea has always held a special fascination for me. Sailing ships, in particular, has been one of my passions. As Alan Villiers, one of the last men to sail round Cape Horn, once said: "a crossing in a sailing boat is a battle."

I have walked in square rigged vessels, where boys grow into men, learning discipline and teamwork. Their characters are formed in an indelible manner. From then on, they will remain sailors even if they stay on land for the rest of their lives. I too have known what working long, exhausting days while suffering from cold, sleeplessness, seasickness and fear means. After a while, you loathe the sea and the billowing white pyramid of the sails, which have always held me in thrall. Yet when the storm has died down and a radiant dawn fills the horizon, a new feeling takes precedence. One feels that life is starting anew, and one is filled with pride for having overcome a great test. Until next time, everything is forgotten.

It is tempting to identify yourself with the heroes of Conrad's incomparable novels. Conrad deliberately neglected the struggles, fear and sacrifices in a sailor's life and chose to describe only its more romantic aspects.

Life on the Vespucci is not much different from the ships described by Conrad. There are simple wood tables, nails, tow, tar, canvas, masks and rigging. When there is wind, you set sail and go away with God and the rising wind. There are many dangers: shoals, currents, fog, torn sails, broken pumps, the difficulty of laying your hands on the halyard or main brace in the dark, and life boats carried away by the fury of the sea.

Even at night there is no break. Whenever one of the Vespucci's exhausted students stretches out on their hammock, chilled to the bone and seminauseous from the ship's pitching and tossing, he never knows whether there will be a whistle from the coxswain to call him on deck. His eyes bleary with lack of sleep, he doesn't even realize that he is climbing the ratline in the dark. It seems like the height of folly to go up there, but he goes all the same. Once he reaches the yardarm of the mast, he and his mates are caught between two worlds. Above him lighting is flashing and thunder rumbling in the dense clouds, below the sea is hurling great mountains of water to and fro. The wind is playing a thousand different tunes on the taunt ropes of the rigging.

He hears one of his shipmates call out his name: "Corrado, help!" A sail is flapping violently, on a dangerously inclined yardarm, obstructing the cadet's work. They need to take the sail in hastily or else the canvas, which is stiff as steel metal, will rip itself to shreds.

"Help me reef the sail!"

At that moment, all of Corrado's life revolves around the reefing point, a coil of cable which must be wrapped round the sail to fasten it to the yardarm. The young cadet forgets everything else as he battles against the canvas. He has got to help his shipmates, despite the precariousness of his position on the narrow gangway, with his chest pressed against the yard. At any moment they might be plucked from the mast and tossed into the sea by the wind, but neither of them pauses to think about this danger. They carry on fighting against the thrashing white mass until their bare hands are running red with blood. It takes strong nerves, strong arms and much courage to reef in that sail.

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