Tilly was not a member of the household when I went on a tall ship sailing holiday in the Caribbean. Actually, not a lot of it was holiday, as you’ll see.
High-level training while still in port
JUST say two words – pipe-cot – and I’m likely to run away screaming.
In case you don’t know, a pipe-cot is a type of bunk or hammock on a ship and consists of a piece of canvas slung between two scaffold poles.
It was my bed for the ten days and nights I spent on the square-rigged Stavros S Niarchos, one of the Tall Ships Youth Trust’s training ships.
My pipe-cot was neither easy to get into nor out of, but its shape ensured that I wasn’t thrown out of it when the going got seriously rough.
As a member of the voyage crew on a trip that started and ended at Bridgetown, Barbados, I had already gleaned from the literature that it wouldn’t be like any ordinary holiday on a cruise liner.
From the moment we arrived on board and were shown our cabins (designed for up to eight people, but mercifully there were only three in ours), this was certainly a trip with a difference.
We spent the first hour or so forming a human chain to load the ship with stores from a truck parked on the quayside.
Someone was heard to mutter: “That truck couldn’t be much further away if it tried.”
From frozen chickens to boxes of ginger biscuits, cartons of fruit juice and frozen joints of beef, it all had to be brought on board and stowed.
Once that task was completed, we were supplied with waterproof jackets and harnesses, divided into one of three watches – there were eight of us in White Watch – and I was rapidly reduced to a jabbering idiot, unable to remember where I was meant to be and when, forgetting who was who, and incapable of remembering more than one knot.
I completely funked climbing up to the yards, but others shot up, as to the manner born.
I had no problems with scrubbing, cleaning, disinfecting heads (lavatories) and showers but it wasn’t much fun when you had already been on watch from midnight until 4am and had had about three hours’ sleep.
Putting the psychological games to one side, with watch leaders adopting the “good cop, bad cop” persona on the odd occasion, arriving at each of the islands we visited was wonderful.
On going ashore it was always tempting to drop to my knees and kiss the ground.
The real problems became overwhelming when we headed out 140 miles into the Atlantic so that Stavros could approach Bridgetown under sail.
She effectively demonstrated rock ’n’ roll, with disastrous effects on me and on about a dozen others.
As you suffer 36 hours feeling like death in your pipe-cot and longing for the agony to be over, you have to remind yourself that, by suffering, you are also doing a little good.
A proportion of the money you have paid to be bullied, trained, teased, cajoled and exhausted goes towards enabling disadvantaged young people aged between 16 and 25 to have the same experience.
Would they thank me?
I think most probably would, as long as they didn’t suffer from seasickness and didn’t mind doing as they were told.
The whole experience is designed to be character-building, to help people of any age to forge new friendships, to work as a team, to endure physical and mental tests.
It was all that, and more.
What can be better than approaching Caribbean islands from the sea, exploring tropical forests on foot with a local guide, watching humming birds, swimming at the foot of a waterfall, eating grapefruit straight from the tree, seeing exotic flowers in their natural habitat?
Our route took us to Bequia, one of the islands of St Vincent and the Grenadines, to St Lucia, Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) and to Terre de Haut, one of the French Isles des Saintes, near Guadeloupe.
We swam in sapphire blue sea from the side of the ship but I have to confess that I had to be hauled back on board in a canvas sling pulled by two strong males because I didn’t fancy my chances at grabbing the rope ladder.
There were dolphins, flying fish and, on Bequia, a small reserve where we saw the work done by a local enthusiast in conserving the endangered population of hawksbill turtles.
There was the surreal sight of metre-long, grey iguanas fighting on scrub land at the edge of the town on Terre de Haut.
And I wasn’t bitten by any mosquitoes during the whole trip.
It’s not the sort of holiday where you can expect to sit about on deck with a book when you are not on watch because you are more than likely to be detailed to help the boatswain with some routine task like chipping off old paint or polishing the ship’s bell.
Or it could be your turn on mess duty, handing out bowls of porridge (very popular, even in temperatures of 30 degrees), plates laden with full English breakfasts, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and so on.
Food was wholesome, generous and traditional and the atmosphere in the galley was always cheerful, no matter what disaster had befallen the soup as Stavros swung and lurched.
The permanent crew, augmented by the volunteer crew of people with suitable experience and skill to supervise us, were heroic.
How they kept patience with such a motley band of paying “guests” was indeed admirable.
Sadly I was not the only one who proved that pressure bands, anti-seasickness pills of various kinds, staying in the open air in the middle of the ship, and eating ginger are completely useless.
Cries of “two six heave” as we hauled on ropes took on a new meaning once I had my head over the vomit pot.
However, for every two people who said “never again”, there were another dozen who couldn’t wait to book their next voyage on Stavros.
Beaches of fine silver sand, the 18th century Shirley fort on Dominica, trees laden with bananas, drinks with new friends and the star-spangled night sky remain highlights of a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
No, I wouldn’t do it again (ever) but I’m glad I did it once.
View of the bay off Isles des Saintes
3. A turtle in the reserve on Bequia
4. Carob tree on Dominica
5. Cabrits Garrison, Dominica.