Sunday, May 15, 2011

Book now for the experience of a lifetime

Stavros S Niarchos at anchor in Bangor Bay, Northern Ireland
I've just got back from a five-day voyage on the tall ship Stavros S Niarchos. It's one of those things I've always wanted to do, and as I'm currently not working I finally made time to do it. Now I wonder why on earth I never took the opportunity before.

Stavros is a 600-tonne brig, with two masts and around 65 metres long. That makes her small compared to a Nelson-era ship of the line, but much much bigger than anything I have ever sailed before. Helming her up Kilbrannan Sound (between Kintyre and Arran), under sail in brilliant sunshine, has to be one of the top sailing experiences of my life.

And yes, I did climb the rigging - twice, although both times we were still tied on to the dock in Liverpool.

We left Liverpool around 10.30 on Monday morning and did an overnight passage to Bangor in Belfast Lough. At that point there was enough south in the wind to enable us to clear the south of the Isle of Man, but it started to veer in the morning and we couldn't make Carlingford Lough, which was the original destination. You realise the limitations of a square-rigger; with the wind just forward of the beam she's really pinching, and doing only 5 knots or so, where tiny Kalessin would be loving it and flying along at well over six.

I managed to get ashore in the RIB at Bangor, which is my first-ever visit to Northern Ireland. We were only ashore for an hour - just time for a quick walk and even quicker half of Smithwicks.

Working aloft. There is a safety line on the top of the yard and you are clipped on with full harness
From Bangor an exciting passage with lots of wind to Campbeltown on Kintyre. The wind was still veering, so as we came out of the lee of Northern Ireland we were exposed to a F7 and respectable Atlantic waves from the west-north-west. At that point I declined to climb the rigging to take the sails in. I still feel like a wimp for not going but I would have been utterly useless up there. I was also glad not to be out there in Kalessin - you'd want to wait for a really quiet day before crossing that bit of water.

Campbeltown Loch is lovely, very sheltered and wonderful Scottish scenery. Campbeltown itself is quite small, and has a couple of pubs where (according to Captain Liam Keating, our skipper) things can get a bit nasty. The fact that he's a bloody-minded individual from Waterford has, I'm sure, nothing to do with it.

The Davaar light at the entrance to Campbeltown Loch
On Friday morning we left Campbeltown at 0800 with our watch on the bridge. It was the most amazing privilege to be up there, helming for over an hour in my case, as we came through the stunning scenery. I was too busy to take many pictures but here's one taken by someone else (from the land) to give you an idea:
View from the AIS tracker at
We arrived in Greenock exactly on time on Friday afternoon, and I discovered why the RIB has two 50hp outboards - it's so that it can act as an additional bow thruster for tricky mooring exercises. A lot cheaper than hiring a tug.

We were fortunate with this voyage in a number of ways. We covered 251 miles of which 137 were under sail, a higher proportion than usual. I was part of Red watch, a great group of let's say mature individuals, and we bonded very well with the support of our lovely watch leader Jo. We had very squally weather but in between each gusty shower we got warm, bright sunshine. And we sailed through some absolutely stunning scenery.

Red watch. Back row, from left: watch leader Jo, Anthony (who owns a Storm like ours), Margaret and Glyn from Liverpool, John who describes himself as a "washed-up drummer", Ron who used to run Staffordshire county council, Jennifer in front of him, and Les (71) on the right. Kneeling at the front Dave (73) who's also a Scouser, lovely Gillian from Glasgow, Jim (Jennifer's husband) who's currently building a nuclear plant in Abu Dhabi, and me.
If you're in East Anglia, Stavros will be at Great Yarmouth for an open day on 11 June. Or find out more on the Tall Ships website at If you hurry, you can book for Belfast to Cardiff from 21 May for an astonishing £99!

Thank you to the permanent and volunteer crew, the rest of my watch, and in fact everyone on board and in the Tall Ships organisation, for making it such a memorable trip.

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