My trip on the Jeannie Johnston trip to Dublin
On Thursday, September 18th I went to the Southampton Boat Show, nominally to perform some research into a short story that I was planning to write. Whilst there, I went around the Jeanie Johnston, a replica 19th Century tall ship.
I got chatting to Rob, an Irish man who works on board the ship. During our conversation he told me that they were sailing to Dublin on Saturday, and that there were places still available for trainees. I complained that I did not have any experience, and he said that was fine. It was certainly a tempting offer, and after walking around the show some more I went to the Platform pub and had a pint. My usual hobby I long-distance walking, and the thought of going on board a sailing ship for a short period was certainly intriguing.
Before I could go, I had to get permission. I gave my partner, Sencan, a quick phone call, but she was not at her desk and so I left a message for her. When she phoned back I asked her if she wanted to come. She could not take the time of work, but was keen for me to go. Having got the right answer, I went back to the ship and booked myself in for the trip. Rob and the captain gave me a list of things that I would need - passport (obviously), sunglasses, sun-tan lotion, lots of spare, warm clothes and a good coat. It seemed like a short list for what promised to be a four or five day trip.
I arrived at the ship at about 18.00, after a long bus journey from my home. On my back was an 80-litre rucksack, into which I had packed many changes of clothes. I was one of the first volunteers to arrive, and the bosun's mate, a young Australian woman, took me down to choose a berth. Each berth had two bunks in it, each with a blanket, pillow case and life preserver. On the wall hung waterproofs and harnesses. As the ship was not going to be full I decided to have a berth on my own, and she pointed out one where there was a little leak from the deck above - the top bunk was unusable, but the bottom was fine and dry. I chose this, although later regretted it. It never leaked; indeed, it remained quite dry unlike other bunks, but the berth was filled with a sickly damp smell for the entire journey.
After getting a few things ready I went up onto deck. People were milling around and dinner was being served by the galley. People were eating with their plates resting on the side rail of the ship. I had eaten a large lunch with Sencan and some of her colleagues (it was International Talk Like A Pirate Day, and they were all taking advantage of that. It seemed very apt). I was told that were were going to have to move the ship, so as the sun continued to sink down on the other side of the river we pulled in the mooring lines and motored upstream slightly. I had little idea of what was happening, but helped where and when instructed. A heaving line was thrown out, at the end of which was a Monkey's fist, a knot designed to make the end of the rope heavier. This line was thrown out, and someone on land pulled it, also pulling across the heavier mooring line. When that was attached to a bollard, we on deck had to tighten the lines then wrap them around large wooden posts called Samson Posts.
After we settled in I watched the Waverley come in - the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world that is based up near Glasgow. I had seen this in Scotland, but had no idea that it ever came down to the south coast. Then everyone got ready to go out. Our new berth was in the actual docks area, so we had a long walk to get out and into town. The security guards noted our leaving, and we soon settled in a pub which is adjacent to the cinema that Sencan and I go to. It felt strange being there in such different company. I had four pints, but after the Irish lads went on to a club in town, myself, a couple of the Irish and virtually the entire English contingent went back to the ship. I found that a visit to the undoubted attractions of a strip club did not tempt me when compared to a lie-down in bed.
Woke up this morning to be greeted with beautiful sunny skies. The watch system had not yet started, so I went up for breakfast at about 07.30 - a fry up and porridge. I had a fry-up and waited around. Several people seemed rather hung-over after the previous night - I was glad that I did not go on to the club. People seemed friendly enough, although, like the previous night, I had little idea of what was going on. Overnight the massive cruise ship 'Independence of the Seas' had docked - it was the reason we had to move the previous night. I had seen her before, but from the water I got a true sense of her massive scale.
Eventually we moved off, under engine power rather than sail for this first part of the journey. Soon everyone was assembled on the mid deck for training. We were instructed how to put on our harnesses and adjust them, and one volunteer had to put on an immersion suit, which were situated in various places around the ship. We were also shown all of the emergency exit hatches, which could be climbed through in emergencies. Then we all did the 'up and over'. This involved climbing the main mast up to a platform above the lowest (course) sail, and coming down the other side. I had recently twisted my right ankle, and the injury had been enough to prevent me from doing any walking. Despite this it was easy enough, although stepping on the ropes caused discomfort in my ankles.
What amazed me is exactly how many ropes there are on board the ship. The area around the masts are covered with pins onto which ropes are tied, and large areas of the side of the ship also have them. Each rope on each pin has a specific purpose, none of which I could fathom at first. Every piece of wood appeared to have elegant, flowing shapes, from the handrails to the pegs, the samson posts to the sails themselves. It was clear that a great deal of love had gone into the construction of the ship.
After a safety tour of the ship, we settled on deck. We were divided into watches, and I was put into the main watch - 08.00 to 12.00 in the morning, and 20.00 to 24.00 at night. I was not too displeased by this, as it meant that I would get eight hours in which to sleep at night. The only downside was that I would not get the opportunity to see sunsets and sunrises. As it was not yet midday the main watch was on - so myself, along with two men, Peter and Neil, and a woman, Natasha - were assembled by our watch leader and set to work.
Initially I was on watch on the bows, looking out for any obstructions. Unfortunately there were so many other yachts around in the river that it seemed like an endless task. One yacht came rather near from the port side, and the sail nearly hit our main mast. The manoeuvre was rewarded was a sharp blast on the ship's horn. After the watch I stayed on deck to watch as the day unfurled. It was fascinating to see the coastline that I had walked from the sea - there were familiar places that recognised everywhere. The Isle of Wight was on the port side, and on the starboard was the mainland. We soon passed Hurst Castle, which is built onto a spit that juts into the Solent, and then approached the Needles.
As we went further westwards the number of ships in the channel decreased. We had lunch, then we started assembling to prepare the sails. We unfurled the main sail and top gallant on the main mast, and the top gallant, main and course sails on the foremast. To unfurl them people had to climb up and untie the ropes - called gaskets - that tied them up. Then ropes had to be pulled to fully unfurl them. All of this was pretty much as I expected, but then came something else - we actually had to lift up the heavy wooden beams of the arms in order to tighten the sails. This was hard work, and I was glad that the lowest and heaviest arm, the course, did not have to be lifted.
Then the sails were angled in to wards the wind. Again, I had not been aware that this was necessary, but the ability to angle the sails into the wind obviously makes the sails much more efficient. In all the films I have seen of sailing ships the arms are set at right angles to the deck, and it was intriguing to see them tilted so much.
I stayed awake for our watch at 20.00. The Dorset headland of St Aldhelm's Head was visible in the distance. It was quite pleasing to be able to recognise it - I have walked over those hills twice before. The first watch was fairly boring. I spent some time on the helm, keeping the ship on course, and several hours on the bows, looking out for any lights. It soon got dark, and the chances of seeing anything other than lights were remote until, at last, the moon came up.
I quite enjoyed sitting on the bows as I chatted to my watch-mates. As we looked down into the white, foaming water at the bows I was surprised to see some phosphorescence - sizeable specks of white light that disappeared rearwards towards the ship. Neil and I asked many people about this during the trip, and we got six or seven different answers as to what the phenomenon was. At times there were many of these specks, at others very few.
Before I knew it midnight had come, and the next watch relieved us. But before we could crawl into bed, the sails had to be set. So for half an hour we pulled at more ropes, turning the sails more into the wind. Doing this in the dark added another level of complexity to it, and I was glad that experienced people were around to tell us which ropes needed to be pulled on.
Towards the end of the shift I was starting to feel a little queasy, and eventually this got too much for me. I was sick once over the bows of the ship whilst on watch, and then, about an hour later, from the stern. This was embarrassing for several reasons - firstly, because I was the first person to be sick, and secondly because there was hardly any swell. It slowly dawned on me that I am truly a landlubber!
Eventually we got to go to bed. In my naivety I had expected to sleep to just the sounds of waves lapping against the hull, but instead there was the muffled roar of a generator. By law the generator must be kept on at all times whilst we are at sea, and the noise was surprisingly loud - and my berth was midships, so it must have been worse for the fellows in the stern. The noise was not too bothersome, however, and I soon got used to it. I feel asleep, tired but excited.
The next morning I was still feeling a little queasy, but generally I was in a much better condition. I was a little green behind the gills, but most of the nausea had gone. I managed to wolf down a bowl of porridge, then went on watch for the 08.00 to 12.00 shift. The permanent crew were all doing running repairs to the ship - wrapping thick string around steel ropes to protect them, then covering the string with tar to waterproof it. Maintaining a ship like this is a full-time job, and seeing people do this fiddly task whilst high up in the sails was an impressive sight.
We did a clean below decks, brushing and washing the living areas whilst another watch did the heads. I chose to skip lunch as beans on toast followed by carrot and coriander soup was not too appealing given my somewhat poor constitution. The permanent crew are all tough people, a toughness that is visible even in the relatively calm seas and sunny weather. The seasickness of the previous night convinced me of something that I had assumed before I had set off - that I was, at heart, a landlubber. I still held out some hope that things might improve, and now that I was over the initial illness things would improve.
Seeing Start Point for the entirety of the four-hour morning watch was quite depressing. It hardly seemed that we were moving - because of the tide and the direction of the wind we were only doing one or two knots. After lunch we did better - seven to ten knots. However, Dublin still felt like a long way away.
The crew listened to some racing on a radio - there is a racehorse owner on board, along with his friend, who owns a stables. Of all the crew Jim seems the most archetypal sailor - he has a shock of white hair along with a long white moustache. His eyes look as though they have seen many different sights and lands. The captain is a very pleasant, friendly man, focussed (as is to be expected from someone in such a position) and experienced - he had been at sea for many decades.
I woke up to find that one of the watches had furled the sails overnight. We had just rounded Lands End, and now that the winds were north-easterly we had little chance of making any headway to Dublin by sail. It felt a shame that we were going to motor for the rest of the way, but it was unavoidable. There was a lovely red sunrise as I ate my breakfast whilst on watch - my harness clipped to a safety cable whilst my plate of bacon and eggs rested in my hands.
During the watch we furled the sails. I was still feeling a little queasy so opted not to go up again. Instead I stole occasional glances up at the people working high above me as I kept watch. We saw a couple of ships early on, but after that there was nothing, the sea was more or less deserted. After this there was more cleaning. Jim would wash the decks down with a hose whilst we scrubbed sand into the wood using brushes. Once we were finished Jim would wash the resultant sand off again. It was not hard work, but the short brush handles meant that I had to uncomfortably bend my back to use them.
Being on the helm is fun - you ignore the binnacle and instead stare straight ahead at the red numerals of a digital display. Beside the binnacle were two iron spheres; one painted red, the other green, designed to compensate for the iron in the ship. When taking over the wheel the person leaving says the course they are doing as three individual digits - say 2-4-0, and you repeat it in the same manner, saying that you are taking over. At all times someone had their hands on the wheel. You turn the wheel to the left to lower the course (i.e. turn to port), right to raise (i.e. a turn to starboard). Unfortunately the ship's reaction is not instantaneous and you have to judge turning the wheel carefully to avoid it running away from you.
I found it fairly straightforward; beside the digital display was another instrument showing the amount of rudder applied. You turn the wheel in the relevant direction, then as it starts to approach the desired course you start taking it off - if you leave it to late you will run past the desired course. It would then prove quite easy to remain on that course, until the current changes slightly or a gust of wind causes the course to jump up or down by a few degrees. You then need to bring it back around to the correct heading. It is the sort of simple challenge that I enjoy.
I skipped lunch, and afterwards I started to feel increasingly queasy as the swell started to build up. I went below for a lie down, and the seasickness really struck me. It was like being simultaneously very, very drunk, and very, very hungover. A splitting headache throbbed in time with the sound of the engines, and the ship's swaying induced the nausea. My body would go up, right, left, then finally down, a pattern repeated for hour upon endless hour. I lay in my bunk with my harness on, counting the hours until the start of my watch. When 20.00 came I was in no fit state to walk yet along work, so reluctantly I had to say that I was unfit for duty. It was not something that I enjoyed doing and I would not have minded being up on deck, but my physical condition totally precluded it. Somehow I actually managed to fall asleep after midnight, and actually slept well. Fortunately I did not have to use the bucket that had been kindly provided for me. As I fell asleep the groaning and creaking of the ship's timbers combined with the fierce slapping of the waves against the hull and the throbbing of the engine to form a surprisingly relaxing melody.
By the time I awoke the next morning I felt much better. I got up at around seven, put my harness on and went onto deck. On the way I passed a mirror, and my reflection was very pale - no surprise as I had not eaten anything in a day. There was a neat line of vomit on the railings where people had been sick overnight. The fresh air seemed to help, and soon I was walking around on somewhat uneasy legs. As the morning watch progressed I continued to feel better; Natasha had spent much of the previous night's watch on top of the front deck house suffering from seasickness; I could well sympathise.
Neil reported seeing Dolphins on the port side, but I could not see them from where I was sitting on top of the mooring ropes. I managed to eat half a bowl of porridge, and that helped me through as we washed down the decks once again. For lunch there was soup and home-made sausage rolls. Yet again the ship's cook had done a sterling job.
The Irish coast slowly came into sight, starting off with some wind turbines on a beach. We approached these, and the beach behind was apparently where the film 'Saving Private Ryan' was filmed. As we neared the shore a few blasts of the ship's horn signalled our approach to the captain's house, which was perched on a cliff above the beach. After this we headed slightly further out once more, following the coast northwards.
The evening watch went really well - I thoroughly enjoyed it now that the queasiness had more or less gone. There was more of the phosphorescence as the ship cut through the water, and the night skies were very clear, with three lighthouses visible to the east. I figured that at least a couple of these may have been on the North Wales or Anglesea coast, but could not be sure. The seas were fairly flat and calm (okay, they were very flat and calm), and all my queasiness had disappeared. I went to bed knowing that within twelve hours we would be on dry land, and slightly regretting that fact.
The sea was slightly more choppy when I awoke this morning, and again the same stale smell assaulted my nostrils. I could hear the generator going, but the engines seemed, to my inexpert ears at least, not to be running. After doing my morning ablutions I put my harness on and went up onto deck. We were not anchored or moored, as I had guessed, but were instead going around Dublin Bay in circles. The slow speed accounted for the motion of the ship.
There is a lift bridge on the River Liffey that has to be negotiated for the boat to reach its berth, and that could not open until 10.00. For this reason, the ship had been going in circles at a slow speed since early in the morning. It was surprisingly chilly on deck, and I soon disappeared down below once more to fetch my coat.
Breakfast was served, and after a nice, warming bowl of porridge my watch started. I was on the helm for ten minutes, and then got asked to go on watch with Natasha. I grabbed a quick egg roll, then went forward. There were a number of ships around, and there was a line of squally rain in the distance. Land was visible, and not for the first time I wished that I had a map available to study.
After a while Rob set myself and the others on cleaning the heads. So far on the trip I had managed to escape this duty, but it was only fair that I take my turn. It was not that enjoyable, especially as the swell was making my feel slightly queasy. It was also very warm down in the heads, even though I had taken my coat and harness off. It was a relief when the job was done, and I could wash and head up onto the deck.
I went onto watch, this time with Neil. We were starting to motor into the bay now, and an increasing number of buoys became visible. The captain told us to ignore these, and to concentrate on moving targets. Aside from one motor boat that cut across out bows, there was nothing. I sat back and chatted to Neil as I enjoyed the views. The waters underneath us slowly became darker, then positively oily with pollution being swept downstream.
Slowly we entered the harbour, passing the breakwaters before progressing up the river. The twin chimneys of the Poolbeg power station greeted us - they towered into the sky like monumental Eastern European architecture. More people came onto the bows to join us as we passed various ships being unloaded and loaded. It was certainly not the best way to approach Dublin. A Belfast - Liverpool - Dublin ferry was in port, but the surroundings were hardly plush - a typical port, really.
As we went further upstream we passed a lovely white sailing ship, which someone said was the German Navy sailing ship, with the crew visible in their neat uniforms on deck. As we passed the regular crew tried firing off a spud gun, but did not seem to have much success. There was a roaring sound as the gas ignited, but then nothing. After two attempts they abandoned it.
A cross-river ferry naughtily crossed our bows as we headed upriver, and then we slowly came to a stop in front of the bridge. We hung there for ten minutes as we waited for the bridge to life; a river ferry passed us, heading upstream and under the bridge. It seemed incredibly low against the water from where I was sitting.
Eventually the bridge lifted and we continued upstream. On this side of the bridge the signs of Dublin's revitalisation were visible - many office buildings were under construction, the old mingling surprisingly well with the new. Soon we reached the end of the journey and out mooring right outside the Citi Bank building - the Captain expertly brought us around, whilst the bosun's mate and second officer went round on the little boat ready to tie us up.
People were standing on the quayside watching us come in, and a few were taking photographs. It did not take us long to moor, and I helped send out both of the lines at the bow. After this, I went below for one final wash then started packing.
On deck I had a word with Kendal, our cook for the journey, a man who hails from Portsmouth. The entire food for the trip had cost £200 pounds, and had stretched to feed 24 people over 5 days. That was under £2 per person per day, yet the food had been filling and good.
We all signed off, and then piled into the Jury's Inn hotel just a few yards away from the ship. This was a hotel that was obviously more suited to dealing with businessman than the crew from ships, but there were no complaints as we took over the bar. Someone put some money on the counter, and over the next couple of hours a steady stream of Guinness and food came over to the tables.
After four pints I decided that it would be wise to go and have a little look around the city. Kendal was catching the same flight as me, so we arranged to meet back at the hotel at five. I walked off upriver, passing some of the famous sights of the city. My main task was to get some postcards, and I finally found some in an Irish shop on the main shopping street. This had everything Irish you could imagine for sail, some of it extremely tacky. I chose five postcards, then went to pay. To my surprise the two women serving behind the counter in this most Irish of Irish shops both had Eastern European accents!
I bought a newspaper at another shop, then went for a little look around. My first impression as how compact the city centre was - once past some surprisingly familiar shops (Marks and Spencer, Debenhams) you get cobbled streets with market stalls. The atmosphere was very pleasant. I wandered around for a while, and stopped to look into the window of a bookshop. Inside were many books on Irish matters, particularly republican matters. Nearly opposite was a Sinn Fein shop window. In so many ways this was typical of Dublin - there was so much that was familiar (the architecture, some of the shops, English being spoken), but occasionally you would come across something that obviously identified it as a foreign country (Gaelic speakers, green post boxes). Despite and because of these differences, I liked it.
There were some seats by the River Liffey, and I sat down at these to write the postcards and read the newspaper. I had been out of touch with the news for the last five days, and so I voraciously read the Guardian from cover to cover. Writing the postcards was fun. I had to balance the paper on my knees whilst I wrote them out, and because of the four pints of Guinness my normally-untidy handwriting was very messy. Litter was strewn around this seating area - empty cans, crisp packets and old newspaper - which was a shame, as it was an area that should be a draw to people.
It took me some time to find the General Post Office, which is situated in a beautiful building that is dominated by a Grecian portico. Outside is a large steel monument, the Spire of Dublin, which reaches for nearly 400 feet into the sky. This certainly dominated the landscape, but I was unsure if I liked it - there did not seem to be much context with anything else around it. The General Post Office itself is one of the most famous buildings in Ireland. It was the headquarters of the Easter Rising in 1916, and on display inside is an original copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
As I wandered through the city I found myself at St Mary's Pro-Cathedral, a dominating building. I switched my mobile off and climbed up the steps under the Grecian facade to enter the building. Immediately upon entering the smell of burning wax from candles filled the air, a pleasant smell that was surprisingly relaxing. Rows of elegantly-carved wooden pews stretched out under the high dome, with a semi-circular apse in front. On either side were Doric columns, again well-carved. It was a very imposing and surprisingly large interior. I must have looked slightly incongruous as I stood there with my large, 80-litre rucksack on my back, but no-one made any comment. Only five or six people were sitting in the pews, and I gave a quick prayer before leaving some money in the donation box 'for the poor' and heading out.
It was nearly five, so I walked back to the Jury's Inn, stopping to take a few photographs of the Jeannie Johnston from the other side of the river. Three or four of the lads from the shop were just getting into a taxi - they'd been drinking whilst I was wandering around - it must have been quite a session. Kendal was not there, so I supped another pint of Guinness as I waited. He arrived at about half past fie, looking quite excited. He had another quick pint (I refused - I hate being having too much alcohol in my system on a flight), then we got a taxi. The journey to the airport took about half an hour, whilst Kendal talked incessantly and rather drunkenly about various things. I started to wish that I had decided to spend more time in Dublin, so I could have had more of a look around.
Once at the airport Kendal had a quick cigarette whilst I booked in. After going through various duty free and failing to find anything to buy for Sencan (what can you get a woman who does not particularly like jewellery, does not drink and has no particular wish for the other tat they sell at airports? - answer: chocolate). On the flight back I sat next to a man from the village I live in, who works for a firm that sells and maintains UPS systems. He travels for his job, and I did not envy him the miles that he had to drive and fly. Somehow travelling to Dublin on a tall ship had rather more romance than flying there.
Sencan was waiting for me at the airport, and I realised just how much I had missed her. We hugged, then got a taxi home. Her first question: "Would you do it again?". The answer is not simple. When I go long-distance walking the experience is often and endurance, and only becomes enjoyment once I have finished. It was the same with this trip. When I was leaning over the side being sick, or lying in my bunk as the world turned around me, it was far from a pleasurable trip. But, looking back, it had been fun. The people had been friendly, and the sheer experience of being on a tall ship at sea was sublime. However, we had good weather for the entire trip, and I could imagine what it would be like in rough weather. So the answer, unfortunately, is probably not. But I am glad that I did it, and it is something that I will remember for years.