Finally, it’s all confirmed. On March 16th 2013 I’ll be joining the tall ship TS Pelican Of London in Reo de Janeiro, Brazil and over the following seventy five days I’ll be helping to sail her all the way back to my home city of Liverpool, England. It’s a journey of approximately 7500 miles give or take and to say I’m excited would be something of an understatement! Generally speaking, I don’t like the phrase “once in a lifetime”, it only seems to limit possibilities, but on this occasion I’ll happily make an exception.
Tall ships, especially square riggers, have played a very important part in my life over the last five years. At a time when I was at my lowest the experience of sailing gave me a sense of myself again. It may sound clichéd, but I love the sea and I’m always happiest when I’m on it. I sleep well, eat well and smile constantly, even in the wind and rain! Even the Parkinson’s bothers me less when I’m at sea.
This will be new territory though. It is by far the most ambitious trip I’ve ever undertaken afloat or otherwise. Just what it will hold as an experience, how I’ll react, how it will affect me, I really have no idea. But I guess no one knows how they’ll react to 75 days at sea until they’ve actually done it. All I know is I want to find out.
I’ll be joining the ship on her return from what is an even more epic adventure. She’ll be returning from the Antarctic where she’s going to be acting as the support vessel for a re-enactment of Ernest Shackleton’s ill fated, but ultimately inspiring, expedition of 1915. I did consider trying to wangle my way onto that leg of the trip, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. If I’m totally honest though, as exciting as it would have been, I’m not overly disappointed. All my tall ship experience to date has been in waters around the UK and Northern Europe, mostly the Irish Sea, and I am more than consoled by the thought of how nice it will be to finally go sailing somewhere with blue skies, warm water and favourable winds instead of the grey skies, murderous waves and general discomfort I’ve come to associate with sailing so far!
The ship’s return journey to the UK is divided into three legs and initially I’d calculated that at most I’d only be able to manage two of them. It was either going to be Rio to St Lucia to Bermuda or St Lucia to Bermuda to Liverpool. I know, decisions, decisions! Looking back I have to smile myself! What a dilemma? But I was really struggling to decide! Should I see exotic ports and sights as we follow the Brazilian coast north, crossing the equator before heading up into the Caribbean or should I take on the epic challenge of four weeks far from land and rescue crossing the Atlantic Ocean, a fairly rare achievement these days, which would be crowned at its culmination with the reward of sailing into my home city?
At the time it seemed an impossible choice. So as with all difficult decisions I sought advice down at the Baltic Fleet. I’d been discussing it in great detail with various people over several beers for many hours and not really getting any closer to a decision when Fiona finally piped up with:
“Do the lot.”
“I can’t. What about work, money? I can’t just…”
“Yeah, ‘cos you really love your job! Stop whinging and do it all!”
It’s a rare gift Australians have been given, to speak wisdom in plane words. None of this spiritual nonsense about following your star, being true to yourself, life’s too short blather! They just get right to it!
Around the bar the various heads had begun to nod and in my own head the light had definitely come on. Suddenly my mouth was busy voicing plans while my brain was still marvelling at the prospect.
“I could get the time. I’d have to do some serious saving. It’d mean spending a lot less time in here.”
When Beatles Jim offered to sponsor my beer while I stashed cash away for the trip, I confess I was deeply touched. I knew he wouldn’t, but even so it was a beautiful thought! So, where to start?
I’d already been in touch with Adventure Under Sail, the people who operate the Pelican, to register my interest in taking part a couple of months earlier. They’re great people and I’ve sailed with them many times, twice as watch leader, but they have a lot of volunteers on their books, all very capable people and I was pretty sure that competition for slots would be fierce. When I put my request in for the entire return journey I didn’t actually believe I’d get the whole thing. In fact, it was only when I put the request in that the thought crossed my mind that I might not be able to secure a place at all!
As for work, well, the first they knew of it was the next day when I walked into the office and casually mentioned to my manager, Marion, that I’d like to take seven or eight weeks unpaid leave next year. I thought that would go over like a lead balloon, but the OK came through with surprising, if not slightly disconcerting, ease and speed. It went through so smoothly in fact, that grateful though I was, I couldn’t stop myself from asking her if they were trying to get rid of me!
While I was waiting to hear back from the Pelican guys on which legs of the trip I’d get I decided to check out the insurance angle. This is always a tricky one for me as you may have gathered if you’ve read some of my other blogs. It’s always there, lurking in the background, a monstrous shadow with the power to ruin everything should it choose. On this occasion though, I was reasonably confident it would be OK. I’ve been using a company called Top Sail Insurance for a while now and I have to say they are lovely people. They’ve still got that friendly, helpful, happy to chat touch which most insurance companies these days seem to think is tantamount to commercial suicide. Over time I like to think we’ve built up an understanding about my Parkinson’s which runs along the lines of: they are nice enough to insure me and so, as a gesture of gratitude and good will, I don’t go out and injure or kill myself. It seems to work pretty well. The only potential hiccup was that they’d never covered me for a 75 day trip on the far side of the world and back across an ocean before. When I told them the plan they were reassuringly unperturbed by the details and said they’d be quite happy to insure me as long as I got a doctor’s note. Ah, another appointment to look forward to! I think I’ll save that one until nearer the time. Fortunately, I’ve reached an understanding with my doctor too: she signs the note and hopes I don’t come back!
When an email appeared in my inbox from Adventure Under Sail with the subject “Winter programme volunteer dates” I paused before I opened it. I was reasonably confident I’d get something, but what? When I saw I’d got everything I’d asked for I was ecstatic! I remember sitting there for ages in a happy daze with a jolly video of sailing memories playing in my head and a silly grin on my face!
With all that in place there was only one more person I needed to see before I could go ahead and confirm everything. I had to go and see my mum. Joan is 80 years old and sharp as a tack. There’s not much gets past her. She’s so proud of all the mad things I do, but she worries about me a lot when I do them. To be fair I’m sure we all worry about the people we love, especially when they do potentially dangerous stuff, but at her age I’m eager to save her all the worry I can. That’s why I didn’t tell her about my charity skydive until after it was done. As confident as I was of coming home safe I didn’t want to put her through the strain of having to wait around all day for me to call and say I’d landed safely. When I did tell her she thought it was brilliant. Her friends and neighbours must have seen the video a thousand time now! Still, keeping quiet about disappearing for a day to go skydiving is one thing, disappearing for two and a half months to go sailing is quite another.
As I ran through the trip I could see the concern growing on her face. Like I say, not much gets past her and she knew that what I was talking about would not be without its dangers. But Joan is no stranger to adventure herself. When she was twenty one she sailed out of Liverpool on her own epic voyage headed for New Zealand. And back then when you went to New Zealand you were gone for a very long time. There were no flights home if anything went wrong. She stayed down there for two and a half years and when she came back she saw the world on the way, crossing the Pacific, seeing Fiji and Hawaii, through the Panama Canal and across the USA before making her own transatlantic crossing back to Liverpool. Deep down, as hard as it would be, I never doubted she would smile and say “Go” and when she did I felt better for telling her. Although I know she’d rather I stay home, she can see now exactly how important this is to me and I know that will help her while I’m away and if, heaven forbid, anything should go wrong. Not that it will! Much to the chagrin of my employer and doctor I have every intention of coming home in one piece and alive!
So with Mum’s blessing it’s now all systems go! I’ve confirmed with the ship, confirmed with work and even been down the pub less, much to Beatles Jim’s relief! That’s been tough, but it has meant that I can save more and there’s the added bonus of an ever diminishing beer gut. I’m not saying I’ll have a six pack by the time I hit those Caribbean beaches –unless it’s in a cooler bag – but I think it’s fair to say I’ll be more streamlined. I’m also waiting on a place on a sea survival course, practicing my knots and generally honing my skills. March isn’t far away at all and there’s a lot to do!
Onward to the horizon!