In the early morning of a warm August day The Sir Winston Churchill, a 300 ton fore and aft schooner, slipped its moorings in Falmouth harbour and headed out into the straits preparatory to the start of the 1966 Tall Ships Race. The finish line was to be The Skaw of Denmark – the northernmost point around which shipping passed from the North Sea into the Baltic.
As an 18 year old this was to be my second time on board having been one of the 36 crew members the previous year in a voyage that took in little more than the English Channel and in what turned out to be mostly force 8 weather. Our first night aboard being bunked below the foremast has remained etched on my memory as something akin to being in a hell in which a thousand drummers banged incessantly against the hull but by the end of the week we hardly noticed the noise or the incessant pitching. The only problem came when we went ashore and found that it was difficult to walk in a straight line and maintain a balance that had become inured to the constant pitch and wallow of the deck.
As a “seasoned” hand I was chosen to be a Watch Leader of the twelve man Foremast crew in this Tall Ships Race. Our duties were to ensure the sails and rigging were set precisely to ensure maximum drive forward for the ship. In the picture above you can see the boat is fully rigged fore and aft with three main sails and four foresails all deployed. There were also square sails on the fore mast which were only ever set when the wind was directly abaft the ship. The standard speed was 10 – 15 knots (12-17mph) in a good breeze.
By the time the start line had been passed we were quickly into a routine that involved 4 hours on watch for each of the three 12 man Watches – right through the 24 hours. So as to avoid the same crew doing the midnight to 4 am watch every night the afternoon watches (4 pm to 6 pm and 6 pm to 8 pm) were split into what are known as “dog watches” – just 2 hours in length. Thus a watch that had done 4 am to 8 am rested until 4 pm did a 2 hour stint until 6 pm and their next “on duty” time was the midnight to 4 am watch . The weather wasn’t particularly exciting for the first couple of days with light winds giving very little assistance. The only saving grace was that our direct competitors, the Falken and Gladen of the Swedish navy, were also suffering from the light winds. It was in this manner that we passed by Dover, rounded the Kent coast and headed out to the east of the Dogger Bank and into the North Sea.
I had been on watch for the midnight to 4 am stint this particular morning but by 9 am decided that I couldn’t sleep any longer and headed to the chart room to catch up on some navigational course work that was expected of those who intended to follow on their experience by joining either the Merchant or Royal Navy. I had been in the chart room for about half an hour when I noticed that the pencils and rulers on the desk were beginning to slide over to the starboard side where they rested against the raised ledge of the desk. Having become used to the movement of the ship over a number of days I thought little of it and carried on running my eye over the charts and the proposed run to the Skaw. It was only when I heard the call over the tannoy from the Master “All Hands on Deck” that I realised the ship was now at an angle to the perpendicular which I had never experienced before. With difficulty I climbed the ladders and stepped out on to the main deck. What I saw and experienced at that moment has remained seared in my mind for the past 53 years.
The wind had increased considerably and was now coming from a roughly west-nor-west direction, the clouds that had covered the sky for our journey up the English Channel were completely gone and the sun shone unhindered from a bright blue sky. All fore and aft sails had been set and were straining, fully bellowed, against the push of the wind. The pitch of the main deck was such that the gunwales of the starboard side were now under the rush of water that sped along the boat. I had come up next to the steersman who was staring at the speed dial just to the right of the compass binnacle. “Look!” he shouted exuberantly, pointing at the dial. I clung to the binnacle and peered at the dial. 28 knots – 32mph. It was at that moment, that very moment, with the gunwales awash, the bright sky bluer than I can ever recall it being, the edges of the sails thrumming against the push of the wind and the 300 tons of this beautiful sailing ship furrowing through the North Sea so fast and so straight, I underwent what Abraham Maslow, the late American psychologist, has defined as a “peak experience” and which he described thus: “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect”.
How this event relates to the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, his poem The Windhover and our understanding of “inscape”, “instress” and “peak experiences” I will attempt to explain in the sequel.
Buy ‘A Coin for the Hangman’, Ralph Spurrier (Roger Ackroyd)