Anyone who thinks square riggers don’t sail upwind should have seen us as Europa, heeling to some 25 degrees, took the bit in her teeth and attacked the north-westerly wind yesterday afternoon. Gradually we brought in sails, gradually she heeled over, slowly the wind built, and the faster we all went. At midnight, when I went off watch, we were making eight or nine knots with very little effort needed at the helm and about seven sails up. Phosphorescence sparkled in the waves, tiny stars of gold in the black and white wake.
It was not an easy night off watch, especially for those of us sleeping on the ‘uphill’ (windward) side. When I went back on deck at 0800 we were still tearing along with just five sails up. At 0930 I took up my lookout position, at the time on the starboard side of the poop deck. Below me white water foamed away, curling into spreads of ice-blue, palest green and aquamarine before collapsing into the grey, breaking waves. It was raining, though not too hard, spray was showering the decks and the birds had abandoned us to the magnificent sea.
Come 0945 the rain turned the volume up. It was like standing under a hose, with cold water finding its way into every chink. The waves flattened under the onslaught, which moderated after just 10 minutes. The sea had changed, from big rollers with breaking tops to steep little waves throwing spume off like tiny geysers, coming from all over the compass. The expected warm front had found us. Two minutes later the captain took over the helm and set us all to sail handling.
It took us two hours but by the time we were done, we had jibed the biggest staysail (which involves taking it down, heaving the tack over a shroud and putting it back up again) and now had 14 sails up. Miles of rope had been hauled and sweated and coiled. Europa wasn’t heeling any more, though rolling to and fro in the sloppy swell. It was still raining. We were all hungry, tired and soaking wet, but very pleased with ourselves. White watch is far from a well-oiled machine, but it could have been a lot worse.
Now we are off watch and the sun is shining. The birds are back, hunting around us. I have already seen (and failed to photograph) wandering, Tristan and yellow-billed albatrosses, and both white-chinned and spectacled petrels. We still have over 200 miles to go before arriving at Tristan de Cunha, but some of the islands’ unique wildlife is already flying out to greet us.