I am Sailing – A Clipper Training Experience
My head was full of stories of sailing ships and the heroic exploits of their crews as I was offered the chance to take the helm of the Gold Coast. This 68 foot long pedigree racing yacht had only four months previously won the biannual Clipper Round-The-World Race. Tales from history and fiction flowed like a tide through my mind, from the celebrated survival of Shackleton in the southern seas to the comic Caribbean capers of Captain Jack Sparrow.
I am no sailor and technically we were motoring rather than sailing through the dusk darkened waters of Lough Swilly. However such minor details could not dampen my excitement as under the watchful eye of a real sailor I steered the Gold Coast towards its berth for the night at Rathmullan pier. I was enjoying myself so much as we motor-sailed past the location where Wolfe Tone was captured in 1798, and towards the spot made famous by the Flight of the Earls in 1607 that I forgot to feel sick.
The trick was to pick a point on the shore in the direction you wanted to go, preferably a navigation light, pick a point on the boat and keep the two lined up. Easier said than done. It took a while but I got the hang of it. I wondered what would happen if the light I chose happened to be car headlights and I followed it as it drove around the Lough. As it was, I'd say that on the GPS screen the course I steered must have looked like a drunk man's route home. About one kilometre shy of Rathmullan pier the skipper took over as the sky faded red to black.
It was only a few hours since I had stepped aboard the Gold Coast at the marina in Derry and joined 15 crewmates to experience three days training on a racing yacht. Our skipper Ollie, aided by first mate Vicky had gently slipped our moorings and directed the Gold Coast out of its berth, into the Foyle and the receding tide swept us downstream towards the Atlantic and Rathmullan. The third professional crew member, David, kept a close eye on the GPS in the chart room below calling up corrections to the course. With dedicated patience and skill this trio had begun the transformation of an unconnected bunch of people into a crew.
Even a landlubber like me could recognise that this craft was built for speed rather than comfort. If the sleek hull wasn't enough of a clue then the cramped layout below deck dispelled all doubt. The common seating area was barely the size of two large sofas, the galley would fit into a two man tent and there were only two tiny toilets, heads in sailing terminology, into which the crew could take turns to zip in behind a heavy cloth door for a small measure of privacy. Whether your considered the bunks that lined the hull cramped or cosy depended on your state of mind.
Next morning after watching a beautiful wintery December dawn brighten over the dark cone of Inch Island, we set sail for Islay as a bank of fog rolled in and enveloped the postcard scene. It accompanied us to the open sea before dissipating to reveal vast nautical views.
We motored westwards and hoisted the yankee sail as we passed the little island of Inishtrahull whilst I enjoyed a second spell at the helm. The wind was from a northerly direction about force 5 when Ollie asked me to put the motor into neutral. A few seconds later he turned it off.
Fantastic, this was the moment I had been waiting for, we were really sailing and I was at the wheel. The silence was superb, pulsating engine replaced by the natural rolling of the boat. Through the wheel I felt the sails bite as they filled with wind and the sideway lurch as waves slapped the hull.
I was loving this, but felt sorry for the mother watch in the galley preparing lunch as we were now heeled over at a steep angle just like the dramatic pictures of racing yachts you see on TV. I was in a wee dream world of Moonfleet, Treasure Island, Grace O'Malley - pirate queen of Mayo, Colmcille sailing to Iona and St Brendan discovering Americ, all to the theme tune of the Onedin Line. If I drove my car in such a state of mind I would surely crash.
Gannets and fulmars soared expertly by checking out our progress. Judging by the way they wheeled away from us they were disappointed by the lack of discarded fish. The occasional guillemot scooted out of our path in a whirring of short wings as we bore down on their patch. The birds were so at home in the ocean it was a joy to watch. I was slightly disappointed when I had to hand over the helm to a colleague,
Soon a fiery sun was setting over the receding Glens of Antrim to the south of us like an erupting volcano adding yet more basalt to the Antrim Plateau. Rounding the cliffs of Islay's southern coast, Port Ellen gradually appeared dead ahead. I watched the street lights drifting closer as we drew gently alongside the pier to tie up for the night.
The third day of sailing was just living the nautical dream. Wind and tide were perfect for a fast sail southwest back home to Derry through waters where so many ships of the Spanish Armada floundered. With the wind behind us we flew along on an even keel at over 10 knots, not heeled over dramatically like yesterday. This apparently is more efficient as there is less boat in the water to create drag.
I didn’t get a turn at the helm on the return trip, but it was exhilarating sitting near the bow gathering in sails during changes and getting the odd soaking as we ploughed through the swell. Between adjusting sails, Vicky and David had us practising knots as we made for Inishowen Head.
Sails set and knots practiced, my final challenge was to enjoy a mince pie with a lovely cup of tea to warm my hands. The mince pie remained inside me as I worked my way back up to the bow to help pack away the sails for the final time as we sailed briskly past Magilligan Point. We motored into the city and with perfect timing docked as the sun set. Now I have a little nautical tale of my own to tell.