Nick Quirke answered the call for some adventurous hands-on schooner training, with no experience necessary to sail around 3,500 miles from Cape Verde to Rotterdam.

I have always wanted to sail on a tall ship; to experience night watches on the high seas, to make sail changes, to helm. Although I’ve done all these things in my yacht, Ensemble, I wanted to know how it would be done on a schooner.

I was also influenced by Patrick O’Brian and his stories of Aubrey and Maturin. The glorious tales of the fight at sea against Napoleon, the details of the rigging and ship to ship combat inspired my inner romantic.

So, when I saw the possibility of sailing aboard Oosterschelde, a topmast schooner, in what was advertised as a hands-on adventure with training, no experience necessary, I thought why not?

 Lessons from the skipper using the deck as a chalkboard

Lessons from the skipper using the deck as a chalkboard. Photo: Nick Quirke

The ship, named after the Oosterschelde river in the south of the Netherlands, is a former freight schooner. It was built in 1917, starting life as a sail-driven general cargo and bulk goods carrier including salted herring and bananas.

In 1988 it was bought by a private owner and the Rotterdam Sailing Ship Foundation was established to raise the funds for the restoration, returning her to her former glory as a schooner. It has three masts, all gaff rigged with topsails for the main and schooner sails and two topsails (upper and lower).

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Sailing from Cape Verde to Horta

There were to be two legs to the voyage: from the island of Sal, part of the Republic of Cape Verde, to Horta, on the island of Faial in the Azores; then Horta to Rotterdam. A total distance of around 3,500 miles.

I flew to Sal and after a few days in a local hotel, I boarded the Oosterschelde with other trainees in Palmira, Sal, and we were shown our cabins.

Nick Quirke aboard the schooner

Nick Quirke sails out of Lymington in his yacht Ensemble, but ventures further afield in tall ships. He has recently been sailing around Chile. Photo: Nick Quirke

The first two days we had light duties, in that there were no watches, but we did start the training. This commenced with a safety drill and some sail setting.

However, several people were feeling under the weather (including yours truly) and it was a matter of helping where we could.

The second day we had a talk on weather systems, including Coriolis forces, from the skipper, who used the main deck as his blackboard. We sailed as much as possible with mizzen, main and schooner hoisted and the two topsails (upper or gallant and lower).

Compared to a yacht, there were a lot of lines to learn to sail the schooner.

Compared to a yacht, there were a lot of lines to learn to sail the schooner. Photo: Nick Quirke

After two days we had a watch system of four hours on and eight hours off every 12 hours. I started with 2000 to midnight (and 0800 to 1200), then every few days
we rotated by four hours so the watch was midnight until 0400 and so on.

When we motor-sailed, watches were stopped. It was not obvious how this would work but we got used to it and slept when we were free. In the end it was enjoyable, especially when there were no clouds to obscure the stars and the moon had set.

An epic view of Mount Pico as the crew leave the Azores.

An epic view of Mount Pico as the crew leave the Azores. Photo: Nick Quirke

It was a surprise to me how difficult it was to helm Oosterschelde compared to a yacht. We were given a course to steer by compass on the binnacle, but the ship was slow to respond to the wheel, meaning it was easy to over-correct.

Although there were no other boats until we got nearer to Horta, we did have company in the form of pods of dolphins, whales, and Portuguese men of war. The wake often showed luminescence, so we also had company at night.

Training by starlight

I soon got to know the crew and the volunteer trainee crew. It was a northern European affair: Dutch, German, Swiss, Austrian and English trainees, whilst the skipper was Dutch and crew were Dutch and German. The lingua franca was English although I learnt a little Dutch.

Among the trainees were experts in celestial navigation and the night sky and we had informal talks on both. I identified Mercury for the first time, and extended my knowledge of the night sky beyond the big dipper.

We were also introduced to the mystery of sextant use, with a number of us bringing the noon sun down to the horizon.

The crew on arrival in Rotterdam.

The crew on arrival in Rotterdam. Photo: Nick Quirke

The ages of the crew and trainees ranged from 75 to 17, with the 17-year-old demonstrating an amazing authority when teaching the trainees how to raise and lower sails. The 75-year-olds were the experts at celestial navigation and star spotting.

Meals were communal, taken in the saloon with mostly Dutch cooking and Indonesian food a speciality.

The seats were anchored to the floor to prevent them overturning when the inclination of the ship reached 20°. It was an art form to be able to get from the serving hatch to the chair and then stay in it. A talent that we developed out of necessity!

We had time in Horta to have dinner at Peters sports bar, kindly bought for all of us by Maarten, and to explore the island of Faial including the 2km-wide caldera of the volcano that was last active in 1957-58.

Colourful Horta town.

Colourful Horta town. Photo: Nick Quirke

After Faial, we sailed east towards the European mainland making the northern Spanish coast and the dreaded Bay of Biscay which, contrary to expectations, was completely calm. We sailed without incident to Ushant, where we took the inner channel.

The fine weather stayed with us through the English channel where it was cold but bright.

We went past the Isle of Wight at night, seeing the ships at anchor in the eastern approaches, and stopping at Dungeness, where we anchored for one night before arriving at Rotterdam and the end of the voyage.

I was sad to leave Oosterschelde in Rotterdam; we had all got to know and like each other, crew and trainees alike. She was well run as a ship and the crew had worked extremely hard to make it a very pleasant adventure.

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