Life on Board Draken Harald Hårfagre

Every ship has a rhythm, or several, that shape the way we live on board. The basic beat of any ship, Draken included, is simple: eat, sleep, work, repeat. It drives the crew, marks the passing of time. Times of day are different for parts of the crew, as we’re divided into three watches to work round the clock, but the beat is the same. It weaves into other patterns of activity to shape the rhythm of life on board.

draken figure head 2As a member of port watch, I’m on duty from noon until 4pm, when we hand over to midship watch, and again from midnight until 4am, after relieving starboard watch. We take turns on the helm, pushing and pulling the tiller to keep the ship on course, and on the lookout. We’ll trim the sail; change the tack; add or take off the bonnet on the foot of the sail. And there’s always little jobs to be done: stitching, whipping, splicing, knotting.

There’s always a lot of activity as we leave port. Mooring lines are coiled, fenders deflated and stowed, stores and personal belongings arranged and rearranged. Preparations for setting sail.  Then the arduous, cooperative effort of raising the yard, kaiing the aft end under the shrouds, dropping the sail, bracing the yard, setting the tack, tightening the sheet. All reversed as we stow the sail. The longwave rhythm marking the ends of a voyage.

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Rocking and rolling in the North Atlantic swell. Photo: Draken Harald Hårfagre, drakenexpeditionamerica.com

The most important pattern on the ship comes out of the galley, the tiny space at the end of the sleeping tent. Here the cook and his assistant prepare three hot meals a day for the 33 members of the crew, plus fika (coffee and cake) in the morning and afternoon. And there’s always a night watch box filled with snacks. We eat well, although the calories are needed to keep warm on north Atlantic nights.

For some, myself included, there’s a different rhythm that marks time on board; the swells and rollers that rock the ship and the sea sickness they bring. I find the first waves of nausea start to roll in 3 or 4 hours after leaving port. The only way of escaping the feeling is to lie flat, preferably face down, with my eyes tightly closed. (But that’s never really an option; it usually coincides with the beginning of the noon to 4pm watch).

Seasickness seems to have different stages. Once the feeling takes root, it’s a battle to keep awake. My eyes are so heavy, I sleep where I am: curled on deck against a knee; propped against the windlass; standing upright in the galley one night, waiting for a kettle to boil. I can’t track the passing of time. Did I sleep for the last hour? Or was I absent for a minute or two?

Suddenly, the sleepiness passes. There’s only one place I have to be now; downwind. Pulling scarves and storm hoods away from my face, I gulp the fresh air, but its not enough. Afterwards, it feels like all the warmth is drained from my body. I shiver, despite layers of wool clothes, until its time to go to bed.

Iceberg1My favourite thing is to be lookout, standing up in the bow watching out over the ocean. I scribble myself notes sometimes: numbers of fulmars, shearwaters and skuas; shapes of clouds bubbling up on the horizon; colour changes in the water. Other times, sea spray and squalls sting your eyes, making it hard to see, or it’s so cold the only way for the watch to keep warm is to “shake it off” with Taylor Swift for fifteen minutes.

The times I love most are the dark, still nights, when I stand by myself at the bow. I forget about the rest of the crew behind me for a few moments and look out at the sea and stars; I am alone on a wide, wild ocean.

And the thoughts running through my head? If a large enough wave breaks into the ship, that’s it. If the lookout doesn’t spot a growler, or a submerged shipping container, we’re done for. That this is for real. And that is a thrilling way to live, on the very edge of danger. Any rational person dwelling on the “what ifs” for too long would pack their kit bag and get off in the next port. So you get on, and pack those thoughts down into the bilges of your mind. You calmly accept this state of affairs.

PelayoRather, we occupy ourselves with the little details. Mundane, inconsequential things: where we sleep in the tent (and which is the best place); the type of chocolate available at fika; planning best times to visit the heads, especially if we’re wearing survival suits. Habits are founded, some even becoming rituals of great significance. It would be impossible to think about starting a night watch without a freshly-frothed vegan-friendly latte, or to end at 4am it without sharing a tin or two of “plane crash” with the rest of Mackerel Club.

What’s hard to explain to people hoping for tales of derring-do on the high seas, is that this ship is our home (albeit with less of the usual home comforts) and the rest of the crew is as close as our family (with all the usual quirks and oddities of every other family). And that means that life at sea is just as grand and electrifying, as silly and strange, and as normal and boring, as life everywhere else.

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