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.

Draken Harald Hårfagre: A Beginner’s Guide to the World’s Largest Viking Ship

I was a crew member on Draken Harald Hårfagre as the ship made a historic crossing of the North Atlantic ocean, from Norway to Canada, in the late spring and early summer of this year. This is the first in a series of several posts with my thoughts and observations from the voyage.

Draken leaving the Greenland coast for the Labrador Sea. Photo: Draken Harald Hårfagre, drakenexpeditionamerica.com

I’m going to start off by thinking about the end of that journey (or more specifically, the end of my part of the ship’s journey), and how the crew has gone through something of a transition over the last month. From being explorers in the more remote reaches of the North Atlantic, seeing only each other for days on end, we turned into storytellers and presenters, meeting hundreds, if not thousands, of people a day at events in various ports in Canada and the US.

If you do visit the ship, (or already have) I hope you’ll forgive us. It’s not an easy task to distill the experiences we had during the expedition into short soundbites that fit into a whistle-stop tour of the ship. Nor the years of construction work, project management and planning that led up to the voyage. At best all we can do is give you some of the most interesting facts and figures, and just the briefest hint of what life on board an open ship was like.

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Draken moored by Hvalsey Kirk, which dates from the Norse settlement of Greenland.

So, to start my expedition journal, here are a few things that you really need to know about Draken Harald Hårfagre, the world’s largest viking ship built in modern times

The Name.

I always try to introduce Draken by her full name, Draken Harald Hårfagre, with my best attempt at the Norwegian pronounciation. It’s that Scandinavian letter å, sounding a bit like –owh-, that doesn’t exist in English, that makes it a bit of a mouthful for many of the crew. Not Arild though, this is how it should sound.

The translation is much easier; Draken means dragon, referring to the dragon’s head mounted on the bow, showing the world that this ship that would have belonged to a powerful and important chieftain or king. Having looked at the figurehead mainly from the back for months, it’s crossed my mind that our dragon might look a little giraffe-like (it’s the ears, I think). I don’t think I’m the only one in the crew that’s had that thought.

And the second part of the name, Harald Hårfagre (who is referred to as Harald fair-hair or fine-hair in English, depending on the translation), is to honour of the first king of a united Norway, who hailed from the area around Haugesund – Draken’s home port.

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The dragon figurehead breathing smoke into the clouds.

Not a Replica.

Describing Draken is tricky. The ship has often been called a “replica” in the media, but this has a very precise meaning in maritime archaeology, referring to vessels built from scratch as an exact copy of another known vessel. Within that definition there are several different categories: true replicas, hull replicas, operational replicas; none of which really describe our ship. Calling it a “reconstruction” can also be a bit problematic; this term is used to describe historic ships that have been repaired or rebuilt with new material to return to a known earlier condition.

Draken was built in Haugesund between 2010 and 2012 from entirely new materials, drawing inspiration from a number of sources, to create a representation of what an ocean-going ship from around 1000CE may have looked like. Accounts from the Norse sagas, archaeological findings, and the living tradition of wooden boat building in Norway informed the design and construction process. Many of the lines reference the Gokstad ship, one of the best-preserved examples of Viking-age shipbuilding, on display in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. A best-fit way of describing Draken is as an “operational hypothesis”, but that loses a bit of the romance and sense of adventure around her.

Did you row?

Probably the most asked question when we meet people. And I’m sorry to spoil the perception, but the answer is very little. And then only for showing off whilst lots of people are watching. It’s really hard work to shift a ship weighing around 90 tonnes, y’know?

Draken was built to be rowed with 25 pairs of oars, with two oarsmen on each oar. That’s 100 people! We just haven’t got the space for them all while we sail, or for the 50 oars they would need. We’re only able to carry between 12 and 14 oars with all the changes that were needed for sailing, and have one oarsman on each, so it would be a much harder, slower job than it was before.  And it can be dangerous in anything more than flat water: “catching a crab” could pin you to the deck and cause an injury. 

Sailing is far faster and a more efficient way of travelling long distances, and well, I’m sure if you asked most of the crew, we’d say it was much more fun too. We’ve got a great big, beautiful, silk sail, and it’s a shame not to use it as much as we can.

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Catching the sunset in the silk sail.

The Crew.

A full crew on Draken is 33 people, give or take, although we were a smaller crew heading up the St. Lawrence, and will probably be again at the end of the summer. During the ocean crossing, 13 of us were women, and the proportions have evened out even more during the last few weeks in the Great Lakes. If you’ve been on board, you can probably imagine the amount of space each person has to themselves.

Not everyone in the crew is Norwegian, or even Scandinavian. I’m from Scotland, and there has been at least 14 different nationalities making up the crew at various points in the journey. Countries as different as Russia and the US, Spain and Sweden, and even Switzerland have been represented. Add to that a wide range of ages, from the youngest at 18 to somewhere in the mid-60s. We’re a bit of a mixed bunch really.

How do you sleep/ eat/ wash/ do other things on board?

The simple answer is that you just do it. The things that you need to do, you find a way to get on and do them. Or you decide that they can’t be done on the ship, and wait until you get ashore. There’s a lot of challenges when it comes to the business of living on an open ship: being so tired, but finding it difficult to sleep with the noise, stuffiness and movement; feeling terribly seasick but knowing that you need to eat and drink; looking after personal hygiene with no washing facilities; finding an escape from the rest of your watch for five minutes. There’s no quick way I can sum up all my thoughts about all that, so I’ll try to cover it in other posts.

What was the voyage like?

The hardest question of all. How do you sum up two months of an expedition into areas little travelled by others; challenging weather conditions and nerve-racking sea states; close encounters with icebergs, into a short conversation with someone you’ve just met? How do you explain to people that haven’t been part of a sailing crew about living in each other’s pockets; how day-to-day things happens in expedition conditions; silly in-jokes; about blowing off steam when you get into port? That now you’re back in civilisation, with a comfortable bed, good coffee, and a reliable internet connection, you really miss it all?

I usually say the words “cold” and “wet”, which at least are true. And now, as I’m able to make more sense of everything that happened, I can also add “one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done”.

Leaving the Faroe Islands at dusk. Photo: Draken Harald Hårfagre, drakenexpeditionamerica.com

In Search of Martians… in Surrey.

For a few hours in October 1938, the world was gripped by mass panic. The stoic voice of the wireless set narrated events apparently unfolding on the edge of a small New Jersey township; flares in the night sky, falling stars, strange objects filled with otherworldly creatures, intent on our destruction. The beginning of our human battle for survival; the eve of the war.

The Woking Martian by Warofdreams via Wikimedia Commons

The immediacy and horror of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of H. G Wells’ The War of The Worlds, transposed to the USA, captured the imagination of many at the time, but it isn’t only adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel. The original story is set in the leafy suburban towns surrounding late-Victorian London, like Woking where Wells lived in 1895 and explored the nearby countryside on his bicycle.

Much closer to the closer to the original story, although with the flourish and excess of 1970s prog-rock, and by far my favourite version, is the musical by Jeff Wayne, with the solemn voice of Richard Burton narrating the story. If you’ve never heard it, I insist you treat yourself to all of its epic awesomeness.

The double cassette of the album was our family “car tape”, the soundtrack of many childhood road trips through the Scottish highlands with our caravan in tow. Just hearing the opening chords now evokes memories of empty roads skirting the sides of sea lochs and crossing the flanks of mountains, to end at vast beaches where my sister and I had the whole summer to explore. I think of picnics of dairylea sandwiches, monster munch crisps, and um-bongo juice boxes by the side of the road, and the adventure of being outdoors.

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The frozen heathland of Horsell Common, near the town of Woking. A surprising location for the first extra-terrestrial invasion of our Earth.

So this small corner of Surrey heathland, near the commuter town of Woking, has a bit of a special draw for me. It’s here, on Horsell Common, that cylinders fired from the surface of Mars in flares of luminous green gas first fall to earth, landing…

not far from the sand pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and half away.

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The site of the impact, where they found …a cylinder, thirty yards across, glowing hot…. And with faint sounds of movement coming from within.

The sandpits are a wide bowl in the heath, edges scalloped from years of quarrying rather than an extra-terrestrial impact. On the crisp January day that I visited, the shallow pond in the centre was frozen, and footprints are set fast in the icy orange sand. Like a child, I have to plant my footprints in the spot where the Martians landed, before continuing onto the heath. “The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one.

The open heathland rolls away into dark pine woodland, frosted heather and bracken a patchwork of green, brown and gold, framed by the reddish trunks of the Scots pine and paths marked out in the burnt orange of fallen needles and sand. Silver birches, with papery white bark, catch glittering dew drops on their dark ruby twigs, flashes of light in darker corners. Bright yellow gorse flowers among the mass of spines are a reminder of the mild weather that makes this frozen day an exception this winter. Its a landscape to be viewed leisurely, at different scales, both close-up and in sweeping views into the distance.

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Through the trees to the heath on Horsell Common.

Lowland heath, like Horsell and other nearby areas in the Thames Basin, is not a remote forbidding planet where no living thing could survive, but a rare and vital habitat. Globally there are more hectares of tropical rainforest, and like rainforest, the diverse botany of lowland heath makes a rich environment for insects and spiders, lizards and snakes, which in turn support a range of birds, just as rare as Martians might be. In the summer heathland is used by ground-nesting species, like curlew, woodlark, and nightjar, which are extremely vulnerable to disturbance from walkers.

Much of the remaining areas of lowland heathland are found in densely-populated, highly urban landscapes like South East England and much of the Netherlands, where pressure on them for leisure and recreation is high. Careful management by organisations like the Horsell Common Preservation Society and Thames Basin Heaths Partnership work to balance the pressure of visitors against the conservation of the habitat.

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Enjoying the frosty view with a hot chocolate at Heather Farm, Horsell Common.

We stay as long as cold toes can take, before heading to nearby Heather Farm, an area of wetland regeneration adjacent to the common, that was until very recently the site of a massive mushroom farm. Reedbed-fringed lakes and scrapes are found where there was once concrete hard-standing and a series of corrugated tin hangars filled with fungi. Even better is the new café by the water’s edge, where birdwatching can be done with a mug of hot chocolate to hand.

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…yet across the gulf of space minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely they drew their plans against us.

Why Walking is the Best Way to Explore

There truly is no better way of exploring places than on foot. Walking heightens the senses like no other form of transport can, giving a genuine understanding of the world around you. Much of what I’ve discovered on my travels I’ve learned through my feet, walking through cities, coasts and countryside.

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Taking a break by the river on a walk across Knoydart, with Luinne Bheinn in the background.

Walking feeds the senses

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Walking the city streets, rain or shine. Photo Credit: Rodrigo Soldon 2 via creative commons

Moving at a slower pace, in, rather than through, your surroundings, enhances your awareness of the small sensations of a place. The reverberation of sounds from near and far, a sudden bright splash of colour or a sharp waft of smell, even the gentle movement of air, translate into the types of experience all travellers relish. Stumbling upon a pavement café with excellent coffee and cake, or a street food vendor dishing up a local delicacy. Catching a glimpse of the flyer for live music at at a hip venue, some distinctive local architecture, or the intriguing piece of street art, laden with political meaning. A fresh breeze round a corner showing the direction to the harbour, with the promise of freshly-caught seafood and a chilled glass of wine as you watch fishermen go about their business.

Then the intangibles of the place that confirm its geography: salt-loaded air, the shriek of gulls, sparkling crystals in the grey granite walls of my home town, catching the low sun of a northern autumn day. The lapping of water, the leafy shadows across the path, blossom on the trees, weather changes, birdsong. Noticing everything as an ardent naturalist to pin down the season, the latitude and longitude, the reason for being in this place, here and now.

Walking makes connections

Cities, in the main, are designed to be walked. Possibilities open up beyond bus routes and tube stations, and walkers invent their own ways to go, building new links between A and B. With many people now spending a majority of time indoors, at home, in the office, in shops, hotels, bars, galleries, a number of disconnected interiors, walking inhabits the spaces in between. It gives a sense of moving through the whole world, not just a modest part.

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Photo Credit: -LucaM- Photography via creative commons

On foot, landmarks take on additional relevance, as travellers look for focal points in the landscape, building their individual maps and orientating themselves by experience. Coming and going, getting to know places, you seed them with a crop of stories and associations. Relating personal geography to maps provides bearing to locations in both space and time, revealing hidden histories through street names, districts, parks, trail marks, and creating new possibilities for exploration.

Walking is good for body and soul

Walking is the most accessible form of physical activity, requiring no special training or equipment. Almost everyone can do it, anywhere, and at any time. Those new to idea of exploring places on foot can start slowly, building up gradually as they gain confidence, whilst others more comfortable with distance and direction will know where and when they can push their limits. And like all physical exertion, especially that taking place outdoors, in the fresh air, the surge of chemicals within your physiology focuses the mind, and leaves the body relaxed.

High on the Hardangervidda in Norway, taking in the views.
High on the Hardangervidda in Norway, taking in the views.

Walking is free, and freeing

A mainstay item of the budget traveller’s itinerary, walking is magnificently free of charge. But more than this, the degree of self-reliance, the little bit of imagination, and the sense of adventure necessary to walk out and explore, gives you freedom. Freedom from schedules and timetables, freedom from the usual daily routine; the luxury of time and space. Freedom to think.

That great ideas and thoughts are formed whilst walking, especially whilst walking alone, is a concept many writers adhered to, from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to travel writer Bruce Chatwin to criminal mastermind Agatha Christie. New places offer up new thoughts, new alternatives. The frequent punctuation of a city, imparting countless grains of ideas, giving way to longer, more uninterrupted thoughts in open landscapes, stretching all the way to the horizon.

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Off on a winter walk through frozen fields.

And then myself, the buoyant rhythm of arms swinging in time with legs that only comes from long miles, is a meditation on living in the moment, of being aware of here and now. As a child, roaming freely in my surroundings, the opportunity to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back, was what developed my sense of adventure, my imagination, and my independence. I relish the opportunity to go out of my way, beyond the boundaries of what I know, then find my way back those few extra miles, on a new trail or by the needle of a compass; to lose myself for a time, though I know where I am. Then to round a corner or crest a ridge and return to the start, to the familiar, and see it as if I have never seen this place before.

Looking Back on My Adventures: 2015 Travel Review

As the old year ends and the new begins, we’re drawn to reflect on happenings from the past 12 months, and start to ponder possibilities for the future.  It’s an odd position for me, as I’ve had an unpredictable employment situation for the past few years, working short-term “filler jobs” whilst I tried to get back into conservation.  Things that made planning tricky, if not an impossibility.

However, 2015 was the year where I learned to embrace the challenge that a complete lack of structure offered, and to jump at any opportunities that turned up.  These are some of the highlights of my adventures.

I visited lots of nature reserves and national parks across Britain, and beyond, and indulged my love of the natural world.  I got a job, just for the summer, as a Ranger in the idyllic New Forest National Park.  Then when that seasonal contract ended I got another, just for the winter, as a Ranger watching migrating birds visiting the coast of the Isle of Wight.

I did a lot of walking this year.  I walked most of the way across Bermuda on the Old Railway Trail.  Then hiked to the volcanic summit of the island of Faial in the Azores.  And I completed over 100 km across Scotland too, taking in a couple of mountains on the way, on the TGO Challenge.   (I had to withdraw halfway to go for an interview, but I did get the job, so it was worthwhile).  I got to know the more out of the way parts of the places I visited, learning their secrets and hidden histories.

I sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, from Bermuda to England, via the Azores, on a tall ship.  I moved house, twice.  Three times if you count living on the ship, as I stayed on after my voyage to do maintenance work.   I joined the crew of another boat for a while too.  I caught up with old friends all over the place, and made lots of new friends along the way.

One thing that really didn’t keep up with the momentum was this blog.  Oops!  Ideas for improvements dragged on without ever happening, and several weeks without communications didn’t help either (I have a fat handwritten journal from my sailing voyages beyond the realms of wifi).  So my big resolution for 2016 is to get writing and really make an effort with making this blog brilliant.

And, as for the rest of the year? Well, I know my current job will end at the end of March, and most likely there will be another house move on the cards.  And there’s a couple of things in the pipeline for the summer, fingers crossed.  But although I don’t know exactly what’s to come in 2016,  I know I’m more than ready for it.

The final thing left to say is a massive thank you to all that read my blog.  These Vagabond Shoes started life as a journal of my travels for family and friends, but since then it’s continued to grow, and my adventures have been read by more people than I ever though.  Thank you so much for the support, and I hope you stick with me to share the stories that the future has in store.

All the best for 2016,

Vicky xxx

 

A Vagabond March

Where I’ve Been

Lord Nelson tied up alongside the quay in Hamilton, Bermuda.
Lord Nelson tied up alongside the quay in Hamilton, Bermuda.

Well, this month’s update is a little bit of a cheat as I wrote it all at the very beginning of the month. I’m actually somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean right now, all being well, on board Lord Nelson, and cut off from all communications. We’ll see once I reach shore whether this is a good thing or I’ve died from lack of wifi. I expect there will be all kinds of things to keep me occupied on board; one thing I’m really keen to learn during the voyage is how to tie knots. Proper sailing knots, and some of the fancy ones too. I had a great teacher on Draken, Gerry, who showed me some of the knots and splices used most often, but I have to admit I didn’t practice too much, and now I’ve forgotten everything except a bowline.

Before I set sail though, I had a fantastic week exploring Bermuda. Even though its early in the season, I had a week of beautiful weather for enjoying the famous pink sand beaches, swimming in the sea, and hiking some of the nature trails around the island. I visited the UNESCO World Heritage site at St George’s, to find out about the island’s close connections to the UK and North America, the impressive Crystal Cave, and, in the name of research, the Swizzle Inn, home of one of the island’s signature cocktails. Look out for more about my Bermuda adventure once I get back to the UK.

Highlights

I booked a stand-up paddleboard lesson with Glenn at Island Winds, Bermuda. After sorting my balance, and a little bit of coaching for my technique, we explored the coast of Somerset Island, between Daniel’s Head and Kings Point, looking out for turtles and tropic birds. The clarity of the water is so deceptive when it comes to working out the depth underneath your board; fish swim by huge corals in water that looks knee-deep, but is really 3 or 4 metres.

I’ve Been Reading

I’ve loaded my kindle up with a couple of classic seafaring books for my voyage; Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum, Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana and The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin, in keeping with my adventure.

I’ve also been engrossed in A Writer’s World, by travel writer and historian Jan Morris. She claims it to be her last book, and it’s a reflection of the world during the half-century between 1950 and 2000, the changes, developments, and threats perceived over that period, twined into a memoir of her career. The writing is engaging and witty, capturing the character of the locations she visits in a blend of reportage and anecdote, and I hope I can begin to write half as well as she can. 

I also wanted to share this post from BBC Travel that gives you a reason to smile, as they give you 50 Reasons to #LoveTheWorld.  An here’s another…

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Fort St. Catherine at the northern tip of Bermuda

 

Coming Up Next Month

There’s still a couple of weeks before I wash up back on British shores (with a kitbag filled with laundry), so I’ll certainly be appreciating the comforts of home once I get back there. With the TGO Challenge looming in May, I’ll have to find my land legs again and get out on some training walks. I’ll need to start carrying a heavier load in my pack and practice pitching my tent at the end of the day. A camping weekend in Wiltshire or Hampshire might be on the cards.

Thanks for following These Vagabond Shoes. There’s not much happening on my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter just now, but soon I’ll have plenty of updates from my sailing experience to share with you.

Blue skies, x

5 Seafaring Tales for a Sailing Holiday

Lord Nelson tied up alongside the quay in Hamilton, Bermuda.
Lord Nelson tied up alongside the quay in Hamilton, Bermuda.

I’m all at sea this month, quite literally, as I sail from Bermuda back to Britain on the STS Lord Nelson. On board we keep a watch system, with four teams working a rota to keep the ship sailing and carry out the tasks essential for everyone to live together in such close confines. Our down time, plus the lack of distractions, gives plenty of time to get lost in a good book. So, here are my recommendations for seafaring tales to take on a sailing trip. Continue reading

Crossing the Ocean on a Tall Ship: What’s in Store for Me?

I’m about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, joining the crew of a tall ship to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. I’m in Bermuda right now, and in a few days time I’ll meet my ship, the Lord Nelson, and set off on a 31-day transatlantic voyage back to the UK. Although I’ve sailed before, the thought of crossing an ocean under sail leaves me feeling rather nervous (fantastically excited, but still quite nervous!).

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Lord Nelson under sail. Photo from Jubilee Sailing Trust.

When I visited the Adventure Travel and Outdoor Show in London at the start of February, I met adventure traveller Tori Howse, founder of Another World Adventures, who made a similar trip in 2011. So, I asked her a few questions to get an insight into what will be in store for me on board Lord Nelson, and what it will be like to sail across the ocean.

Tell me about your trip.

I sailed on the Bark Europa in October 2011, making a 27-day Atlantic crossing from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to Salvador de Bahia in Brazil. I then spent 3 days in Salvador, but decided that I wasn’t finished with tall ship life, so I go back on board for another 18 days down to Uruguay.

 

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Bark Europa under sail. Photo Credit: Another World Adventures

Why did you decide to do it?

Sailing across the ocean had been on my ‘bucket list’ for a while. I’d done a little sailing before and loved being on the water, but it was a travel piece by a journalist who had sailed on the Europa before that really inspired me to do the transatlantic crossing. I just thought it sounded so romantic and exciting, and as a passionate environmentalist, I liked the idea of getting to South America without flying. I cut out the article and had it pinned on my wall at home for a couple of years before I decided to make it the starting point for my sabbatical in 2011.

What did you expect beforehand? Did it live up to expectations?

I was hoping to learn some new skills, meet interesting people and just disconnect from the world for a bit. I knew it would push me out of my comfort zone and I was interested to see how I would react.

The reality was it surpassed all expectations and remains without doubt one of the best travel experiences of my life.

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Don’t look down! The view from the rigging. Photo Credit: Another World Adventures

From the moment I stepped on board I was surrounded by a wonderful bunch of people from all walks of life, some of whom would become close friends and one my future business partner! The ship is beautiful, with traditional rigging, comfortable cabins, delicious food and space to relax. The professional crew of Europa are mainly Dutch, and are an incredible bunch; helpful, relaxed, and loads of fun, so you quickly gel as a team.

Before I joined the ship, I had been worried that I might get bored – but there was never a chance! Working a 24hr watch system meant I got to experience sailing the ship at all times of the day and night. From helming the ship to steer a correct course through a storm at night, to climbing up the mast to help set or strike the sails with amazing 360 views of the ocean, everyday was different. From the deck we saw the constantly changing sea and sky, watched wildlife including whales, dolphins and albatrosses, and at night experienced the sky lit up with millions of stars. We had a film night on board one night, and watched a film set at sea, sitting on the deck… at sea! It was surreal, and brilliant. My highlight was the day we turned the ship into the wind to slow her right down, and jumped overboard to swim with 3km of ocean beneath us!

Sail Shadow credit Another World Adventures
Sheets, lines and shadows on the sail. Photo Credit: Another World Adventures

Apart from the experiences and memories, the crossing also gave me some precious time to reflect and take stock. The lack of internet and phone signal was a wonderful chance to switch off and truly be present in the moment, with no ‘to do’ list. My world shrank to the boundaries of the ship, with no outside news or distractions. It was something that I had rarely experienced before and was very liberating.

Do you have any advice for people thinking about doing a trip like this?

My advice would be don’t put it off – just go! You won’t regret it. Go with an open mind, a willingness to learn and make new friends, and you’ll have an incredible time.

Packing: what did you take that was indispensable, and what do you wish you’d brought?

My main tip would be to remember that you’re going to encounter all kinds of weather, so take layers. Even if it’s hot and sunny in the day, it might get cold when you’re on watch at night. Other things I found indispensable were:

  • a sun hat and sun glasses
  • books to read, then swap with others
  • cards or a small board game (perfect to keep you awake on a late night watch break)
  • small torch (for finding your way back to your bunk after a night watch
  • a journal to write down all your amazing experiences
  • iPod and headphones (because nothing is better than watching the sun go down or rise over the ocean whilst listening to your favourite track)
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Europa at sunset. Photo Credit: Another World Adventures

Finally, what did the experience mean for you?

For me it was life-changing. On board I made a life-long friend, and together we set up a travel company, Another World Adventures, to help more people find epic adventures. I often think that the best experiences in life start with an active decision to do something out of your comfort zone, and for me it was one of the best ones I ever made.

The Caldera Clifftop Hike on Santorini

Santorini1Santorini was once a single island, rising in the centre to a beautiful cone-shaped peak (like Fujiyama in Japan, or Taranaki/Mount Egmont in New Zealand). Along with Crete, it was at the heart of the Minoan civilisation; a culture that dominated the eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze age, until a cataclysmic volcanic eruption about 3,500 years ago.

SantoriniHike2The cone of the volcano burst open, spewing smoke and ash high into the atmosphere. The explosion would probably have been heard as far away as Scandinavia and Central Africa, Gibraltar and the Persian Gulf. The mass of rock thrown skyward formed a vast caldera, into which the sea flooded. Giant waves generated by the blast swept across the Mediterranean, as the fragments of the island were buried under a white-hot blanket of dust and debris.

Today, Thera, the largest island of the Santorini archipelago, is a remnant of that catastrophe. Sheer cliffs, banded with charcoal grey, rose pink and rust brown strata, rise from indigo water on the eastern side of the drowned crater, catching that famous sunset in their curves. A hiking trail snakes along the rim of the caldera between the island’s capital, Fira, and the picture-perfect village of Oia, on the northern tip of the island.

SantoriniHike1We started the hike early to beat the heat of the day (As a pale-skinned Scot, I wilt in midday sunshine). With dawn creeping up the sky, the sounds of the waking island filled the air. Crowing roosters, barking dogs, and the tolling of church bells more rhythmic than melodic. The sunrise washed over us as we made the short climb through the winding lanes of Fira, spilling down into the caldera as we reached the rim.

Far below, water taxis cast off from the harbour, heading out to meet the first cruise ship to arrive into the caldera. Donkeys mustered at the bottom of cliff, ready to transport passengers up the seemingly endless zig-zag trail. Cleaners and handymen buzzed around rooftop terraces and infinity pools, preparing for the day ahead, but heading away from the centre of Fira, things quietened down considerably.

SantoriniHike3We took a diversion in the village of Imerovigli to walk out to Skaros Rock, a fin of rock protruding out from the caldera rim, topped with a reddish rocky chunk that wouldn’t look out of place alongside the mesas of Monument Valley. It once boasted a fortified citadel, long destroyed by earthquakes that accompanied eruptions in the centre of the caldera. All that remains is the tiny chapel of Agios Ioannis Apokefalistheis, clinging to the side of the cliff a hundred metres or so below.

Rejoining the main trail, we passed a number of exclusive hotels and apartments heading out of the village, barely spotting any other people. The exception was an Asian woman in a gorgeous and elaborate bridal gown, choreographing her photoshoot against the backdrop of the view. I don’t think her groom/cameraman was going to be allowed to to feature in any of the shots.

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SantoriniHike6Leaving Imerovigli, we were joined by a dog taking himself for walkies, who we named “Sausages”. He seemed particularly nonchalant about that development, and eventually left us to pursue a female dog taking a walk in the other direction.

Once out of the villages, the trail snaked through the cinders along the caldera rim. Scrubby bushes lined the route, providing shelter for lizards that scarpered out of the way as we passed by, before returning to bask in the sunshine. It wasn’t until we reached the chapel above Oia that we met others on the trail; two birdwatchers engrossed in watching a merlin (a small hawk) search for prey on the hillside. They’d picked a great spot, with a panoramic view of the sugar-cube houses of Oia arranged haphazardly along the spine of the island, framed by the blue Aegean. The island of Therasia mirrored Oia, with a snowdrift of white buildings spilling across terraces of rock.

SantoriniHike7From this point, the trail drops steadily into Oia, where it runs into the main “street” and on through winding lanes to the remains of Kasteli Agios Nikolaos at the end of the village. We stopped into a café for a long, leisurely brunch with a couple of frappés (the real Greek coffee!) before exploring the village, soaking up the gorgeous sea-views and people-watching, whilst trying to identify the easy listening covers of popular music of the café soundtrack. Amongst the constant flow of tourists (identifiable from their leisurely walking pace), we spotted another two Asian brides, marching purposefully between vantage points to capture shots with the best backdrop.

 

What to see in Oia

  • The most famous photographs of Oia seem to be taken from Kasteli Agios Nikolaos at the end of the village, where you have a panoramic view across the village, including the famous windmills, and over to the island of Therasia.
  • The picturesque port of Amoudi, at the bottom of 300 steps below Oia, is the place to go for fresh fish, and even to take a dip in the clear water.
  • Atlantis Books. I know I find I hard to walk past a bookshop, but this is a real delight. It stocks books in Greek, English, German, Spanish, French, from fiction to philosophy.
  • Beautiful Asian women in wedding dresses. I don’t know if it’s a thing, or my visit coincided with a magazine photoshoot, but I spotted at least 6 different brides in places around the village.

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Important information

Depending on exact start and finish points, the trail is 10 to 12km in length, with the hike taking around 3 hours, depending on fitness, how relaxed you make your pace, and how often you stop to stare with amazement at the stunning panoramic view.

SantoriniHike5The trail is pretty obvious, so you don’t need a map, although if you don’t look ahead at some points it’s possible to make a wrong turn and end up on edge of a busy winding road. The ground underfoot is uneven, and the trail rises and falls as it winds along the clifftop, so suitable footwear is recommended (volcanic cinders and sandals don’t work well together). There is little escape from the sun on the route, so carry plenty of water and remember sunblock and all that sort of thing (as I try not to sound too much like your mum).

SantoriniHike8The hike can be done either direction, but if you’re hiking in the afternoon, consider walking from Fira to Oia, arriving in time for the sunset. Just bear in mind this is a popular destination and you may have to share your spot with a crowd. However, sunset views are just as impressive everywhere on the caldera edge.

Buses for the return journey depart regularly from the square in Oia, and are cheap (1.60euros).SantoriniHike11

A Vagabond January

To help meet my goal of being more focused on work, and in the rest of my life, I’ve been noting down little achievements in my journal. But without taking time to revisit what I’ve done and reflect on milestones I’ve passed, I’ll never maintain the momentum I had at the start of the year. So each month I’m aiming to publish a review of what I’ve been up to.

Where I’ve Been

I kicked off my #30NightsOut challenge to spend more time outdoors in 2015 with a Hogmanay camping trip with a few friends to White Horse Hill in Oxfordshire. Huddled round the campfire, we celebrated the New Year with a feast of ribs, corn on the cob and sweet potatoes roasted on the fire, and washed down with a few glasses of bubbly. We were able to watch several firework displays from our vantage point, until wind and drizzle forced us to bed in the wee hours. Grotty weather put paid to our plans to climb the hill in the morning, so we retreated home to the comfort of pyjamas, duvets and endless cups of tea.

I’ve entered the 2015 TGO Challenge, a demanding backpack across Scotland from coast-to-coast, that will take place in May. The Bear (my bf) and I are going to hike for approximately 14 days, so we’ve been out on several training walks in the countryside of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

I’m not really one for sitting about, as you might gather, so while I’m looking for work, I’ve got myself involved in a project with the Ocean Youth Trust based in Southampton. I’m working with a team over the winter to refit their sail training vessel, John Laing, a 22metre-long ketch custom-built to be able to sail anywhere in the world. So far, my jobs have been rather dusty as we strip back old paint, ready for a fresh coat.

Highlights

After a hard day of sanding on John Laing, I escaped out to the pretty village of Lymington in the heart of the New Forest for a walk across the wintry heathland. The pale silvery sunset looked like it might promise some snow, but all we got was a crisp hard frost that turned the heather crunchy.

News

I visited the Adventure Travel Show in London on the 18th January. It was exciting to browse the stands and see travel options available, but the most inspiring part of the day was listening to talks from people like Benedict Allen and Ann Daniels. I was particularly inspired by a talk by Russ Malkin about filming his travels, and really want to try some of his tips for myself.  Just need to get a camera…

I’ve Been Reading

I’m a massive bookworm. Getting stuck into a good read is just one of life’s pleasures, and I particularly love books that explore a topic in exquisite detail. Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland is a spell-binding examination of the connection between forests and fairytales, and how both have shaped the culture and experience of Northern Europeans like myself. Each chapter ends with Maitland’s retelling of a familiar tale.

As a lighter diversion, I also read Sihpromatum: I Grew My Boobs in China by Savannah Grace, which I picked up as a Kindle freebie. A self-published memoir written for young-adults, this is a coming-of-age tale that charts Grace’s transition from a whiny, self-centred teen to a young adult with a wide-eyed wonder about the world.

I’ve also spent a lot of my usual reading time this month listening to the BBC podcast of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Quite frankly, big books feel a little daunting to me (perhaps from the time I dozed off and dropped the hardback copy of A Game of Thrones on my face, giving myself a black eye), but the hour long chunks of the story have been perfect, and I can lie back on the sofa and daydream of the drama and romance of Tsarist Russia without worrying about injury.

Best of the Blogs

This month I shared an account of the time I set out on a trip to explore Oslo, and only managed to spend time in the hotel before flying out again. Visiting Scandinavia at this time of year is likely to mean snow and freezing temperatures, but these tips for making the best out of winter travel curated by Turnipseed Travel will inspire you to get out into the cold. Closer to home, I enjoyed following the bloggers that took part in the #blogmanay experience, in particular these stunning pictures of Glencoe by Finding The Universe. But if getting knee-deep in snow really isn’t your thing the naughty guide to winter in London by Girl vs Globe might be more up your street.

My Most Popular Instagram

IMG_3651v1This shot of the Parthenon, at the top of the Acropolis, is a flashback to my time in Athens for the TBEX Conference in October last year.

Coming Up Next Month

I’ll be obsessing over maps in February, as I put together my route across Scotland for the TGO Challenge, and send it off for approval from the event co-ordinators on the 14th. I’ll also be out for some more long training walks and to test some of the equipment I’m planning on carrying.

I’ve got a short-break to the Peak District planned for the start of the month, which is bound to include more hiking. Depending on conditions, I might also be tempted to spend a night under canvas for my #30NightsOut challenge, although I’m keeping my fingers crossed for snow and the excuse to find a good pub with a roaring fire at the end of the day.

That’s it for this month. Thank you for following These Vagabond Shoes. For real-time updates from my adventures, you can follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.