December, 1978. The Sail Training Schooner Sir Winston Churchill sets out from Cherbourg on a grey morning into Force 8 winds…
No, this is not a tale of shipwreck or nautical derring-do. It’s about being seasick, amongst other things. If this upsets your stomach, abandon blog now and make for the calmer waters where people blog about what they had for breakfast (though breakfast may come up in this blog).
The crew of the Sir Winston Churchill mostly comprised men aged 20-60. There was a small professional crew, but the majority of us were amateurs, some yachtsmen, others just along for the experience. I belonged to the latter category. In those days, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich gave staff the opportunity to get some seafaring experience in the Sail Training Association’s schooners. My girlfriend had already been to sea in their other schooner, the Malcolm Miller. That was in the May sunshine, and she had a great time.
The English Channel was a bit different in December. A small group of us from the NMM travelled down to Southampton, and joined the ship in the docks. The journey over to Cherbourg was trouble-free, and we arrived there in brilliant sunshine. On the way we tried to learn the ropes – literally – and got to know some of our shipmates.
The following morning, we put back out to sea. At first it wasn’t too bad, but as the weather worsened we were told to don safety harnesses. By that stage, the seasickness was beginning to get to me.
Apart from a slight queasiness felt on a North Sea ferry journey, I had never experienced seasickness before. I knew the old saying about it, though: ‘The worst things about seasickness are that for the first half of the time that you’re ill, you’re afraid that you will die; for the second half, you’re afraid that you won’t’.
Sickness I was prepared for, after a fashion, but what I hadn’t expected was the disorientation. My brain whizzed round my head, a kaleidoscope of images and thoughts making concentration impossible. I remember sprawling on the foredeck, utterly at a loss as to how to fasten the safety harness. This simple operation was beyond me, and eventually a kind crew member finally did the thing up.
I think I was ill for almost 24 hours, as we sailed up the Channel and round into the Thames. Although the schooner had her mainsails rigged, the diesel engine was running for most of the time, and the fumes didn’t help. Nor was I the only one to succumb to mal-de-mer. We later worked out that, out of a crew of about 45, fewer than ten had escaped it. Even the cook, an ex-Navy man, was incapacitated, so it must have been bad…
Things got better once we rounded the North Foreland. We sailed up the Thames, eventually passing into the West India Dock, where we helped to put the schooner’s gear into store for the winter.
Though I’m not a recreational sailor, I have sailed a bit since that time, and have been seasick off the east, south and west coasts of Britain. This prompts a thought: if I’m not a sailor, do I have any right to pen a single word about maritime history?
There is a long and honourable tradition of professional sailors writing about ships and the sea. However, I don’t believe that only people who have experienced a particular line of work or way of life are entitled to write about it. Every area of human history should be open for people to study, whether they have a personal link to it or not.
This doesn’t mean that I did not learn anything from my week ‘before the mast’. It taught me some valuable lessons:
– Seasickness does have the potential to kill you: not the throwing-up, but the way in which it makes it difficult to concentrate on even simple tasks. This must have affected many sailors down the ages.
– Sailors rely on their shipmates: quite literally, they are all in the same boat.
– Conversely, the close confinement of shipboard life can provoke acute personal tensions: at the end of the voyage, I heard one person remark that, had there been a second week, one particularly annoying individual (not me!) would have gone overboard with an anchor stuffed in his mouth.
– Amidst all the sickness, the disorientation and so-on, there is still something remarkable about a group of people being able to cross from one side of a stretch of volatile, stormy water to the other and get there safely. This kind of achievement is one of the things that makes maritime history worth studying.
My most abiding memory of the week? Not what you might expect. What I remember most is the sound of the Sir Winston Churchill’s bow crashing into the waves, as she made her way through the dark Channel night.
Blog © Ian Friel 2014; photo © Ian Friel 1978