For decades, Jolie Brise has been sailed and maintained by pupils from Dauntsey's School. Clare McComb finds out about their most recent passage - 10,000 miles across the Atlantic and back
When Jolie Brise and the students of Dauntsey’s School in landlocked Wiltshire go transatlantic, the planning starts very early on, and for good reason.
The tall ship’s long-time skipper Toby Marris knows only too well how different individual crossings can be.
In 2009, during the last leg of the Tall Ships Atlantic Challenge, Jolie Brise lost her topmast in 55 knots of wind, mid-ocean.
They had broken the topmast before, in the Mediterranean, but that was in fairly placid waters; this North Atlantic storm was very different.
Coming down a large breaking wave touching 15 knots on the surf, the helm lost control, they gybed, the mainsail preventer pulled the deck fitting out and the boom whipped through the backstay, popping 40ft of topmast off.
No one panicked, instructions were given – the Dauntsey’s students got stuck in. That mess of rigging took nearly 14 hours to sort out, after which Jolie Brise continued her race, without the topmast.
For Toby, in 2009, the topmast was a situational problem, not a danger. He knows his ship.
In the eight years since, technology has moved on massively. In 2009, he and mate Adam Seager worked with the computer screen in layers of cling film, trying to plot different routes with chinagraph over the GRIB files and weather information sent to them from Chris Tibbs, giving them different scenarios on each layer.
Now Adrena, PredictWind and the B&G plotter learn Jolie Brise’s polars and crunch the algorithms.
Choices and decisions are made with much more information. Through Iridium Go and Fleet broadband, they have global internet access, although some of it can cost an arm and a leg.
I caught up with Toby, as he made preparations ahead of the Rendez-Vous 2017 Tall Ships Regatta, racing from Europe to Canada and back as part of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations.
They had taken delivery of a new wardrobe of sails from Mark Flew – all spanking new, as was the standing rigging. The lifejackets had been replaced, fitted with PLBs, state-of-the-art B&G electronics installed, everything set and ready for whatever the sea was going to throw at them.
Toby said he thought Jolie Brise looked ‘as good now as the day she was launched,’ and more than ready for the regatta.
The ship previously raced across the Atlantic during the 2000 Tall Ships Race, and was the overall winner.
Learning on the job
The Rendez-Vous 2017 Tall Ships Regatta started in Greenwich and ended at Le Havre, with different legs between Sines in Portugal, Bermuda (where they saw the America’s Cup teams on the water), Boston, the Gulf of St Lawrence ports, Quebec, Halifax and finally, back to Le Havre.
Jolie Brise carried different crews for each leg, with no one sailing the whole odyssey.
The opening race to Sines involved young people from Greenwich and Teignmouth, some of whom had minimal sailing experience.
Other legs carried adults, some of them Dauntsey’s parents, some long- term Jolie Brise crew, some just people who had applied to give it a go. Many crew members were self-funded; others were sponsored by different ports and organisations, including the Jolie Brise Wetherspoon’s in Teignmouth.
Toby skippered the passage back from Nova Scotia to Le Havre with a crew made up entirely of current Dauntsey’s students.
One of the joys when working with Jolie Brise is watching how young people grow and develop over the experience. I can vouch for this myself, having visited when they finally berthed at Le Havre.
If Toby spoke, everyone listened instantly and carefully, then carried out complex tasks with efficiency and calm. During downtime they were relaxed and friendly, joking with their skipper as much as amongst themselves – in effect, they seemed a perfect crew.
Interviewing a couple of them later, I was equally impressed. They had bonded so well as a team that they still keep in touch, despite some having now left school for university.
One student described the strangeness of a midnight till 0400 watch, so dark and so far from land. When it was rough, he felt completely safe while knowing he was taking on forces far outside his control.
If Toby and Adam both came on deck in their wet-weather gear at the same time, that always seemed much more serious, and they knew to follow instructions minutely. It is possible to feel scared and safe at the same time.
On a rough night, with waves crashing over the bow or blasting up through the scuppers, ice-cold water running down their necks, they were still smiling.
The only break in good humour came after an uncooked cake hit the floor – a rogue wave had hit them beam on without warning. A girl using the heads, who’d opened the porthole, screamed the loudest as 15 gallons of Atlantic water landed on her.
They got used to the mast’s sudden groans, loud enough to wake the exhausted, and the bunks that dripped, and water slapping the hull so close, with just an inch or two of wood between them and the wildness outside.
Toby watched his crew as they transformed into ‘exceptional, confident and fantastic sailors’; he was proud of them and they of themselves.
But this is what racing for a month aboard Jolie Brise does: the point is, the boat cannot sail without their input. This buck stops with them. There is no one else. It makes an unforgettable experience for everyone, but for some it’s transformational.
As part of the regatta’s itinerary, vessels visited smaller ports as ambassadors for the sail training experience and Jolie Brise docked at Gaspé, along the southern shore of the St Lawrence river.
Three or four days in one place can be quite wearing for teenagers, so the local sailing club offered to let them crew on their boats, as part of their regular Wednesday racing.
Everyone decided they’d rather enter Jolie Brise herself, which raised a few eyebrows.
Two of the crew told me what happened next: ‘Of course at the start it was obvious that she was the biggest there by quite a way, and we set off with 180º wind shifts left, right and centre. Not having a huge crew it made things quite difficult, but quite fun. We managed second place across the start line, then jogged around the course a few times, changing positions a lot while a local boat held the lead until the final downwind leg.
‘There was only 6 or 7 knots of breeze towards the end. The lead boat gybed astern of us and we only won by about 3ft, standing out on the bowsprit to see who crossed first. It was very exciting. They cheered us, of course, but were a bit surprised that a 104-year- old boat could still beat all their modern boats.’
Toby said the return to La Havre was very different from the outward legs. ‘You’ve got the Grand Banks, Flemish Cap, Atlantic depressions building up behind you and all that. Going over it’s very warm; you meet the trade winds and can just zip along. Coming back, you hit the Labrador Current which is freezing cold and if you look at the “Great Circle” track, it would take you into the southern limits of the ice coming down from the Arctic, except for the Sail Training International waypoint which stops us going too far north.
‘It can be a really tough trip, but safety is planned into every detail. In these days, when some schools won’t risk going skiing, Dauntsey’s is able to take a group of 16 and 17 year olds racing a centenarian eastbound across the northern North Atlantic. We’re proud of that.’
The racing element is always deadly serious because they have Jolie Brise’s reputation to uphold.
She is an icon, the only winner of three Fastnet races since the inaugural in 1925, possessor of not one but two Blue Water Medals, collecting Tall Ships trophies regularly year by year – not just individual legs.
In 2000, she won the whole Tall Ships Transatlantic Regatta. This year, the homeward leg started in very light airs and Jolie Brise is magical in those conditions.
She was the penultimate Le Havre pilot cutter before steam-driven boats took over, with all those generations of experience culminating in a design which was superbly suited for two things – to get to the incoming ships first as they arrived from the west, and to weather any sea, while waiting for them in open waters. There was no fee for the pilot that came second. That’s why she is fast.
In Toby’s experience, she outperforms boats that she really shouldn’t, but he says that sometimes you get a racing car, like a classic Ferrari, which is perfectly balanced – and Jolie Brise, with her very deep keel and her huge rig, has that degree of design perfection.
During the race, when the wind picked up and came aft, the big square riggers lifted their heads and were away.
Jolie Brise had pulled out over 100 miles in the light airs on some of her competitors but as they downloaded daily positions, the crew knew they would be overhauled eventually. Were they dispirited? No. Did they change anything? Absolutely not. ‘You never know what will happen’ was the mood, and they stuck with it.
When racing, either Toby or Adam are on call at all times, not to run the ship or the watches because the students can do that, but to keep her trimmed perfectly and squeeze every inch of speed out of the conditions.
If necessary, everyone sleeps on deck, on the windward side if it’s heavy going and to leeward in light airs. People forget that nine students can weigh about a ton, and moving them around makes a huge difference.
Talking to Toby, I felt the whole of sail training is lucky to have him. He is chair of the Tall Ships Council, which includes all the many-masted giants as well as the smaller vessels.
A lot of admin and advocacy goes on behind the scenes. People don’t realise that when regulations governing commercial boats are laid down internationally, old-fashioned and heritage craft can find it very hard to conform as they don’t have the physical flexibility to change.
Behind this skipper, with his 23 years in charge and his mate of 15 years, Adam Seager, I can sense their predecessors: hard-core sailors like George Martin and Bobby Somerset, not forgetting Bill Parish who rescued her for Dauntsey’s School.
They’re men of determination, vision and a deep love of the sea.
Jolie Brise has sailed through the decades, leaving her mark on history.
Today she is as fine and fast as ever, and in Toby’s hands, inspiring a new generation of young people to step up and take the helm.