I’ve never been to sea in my life, and now I’m looking down the barrel of an 18-month voyage. That’s a hell of a leap. Fortunately, I’ve met a few people who have worked on tall ships and been at sea for months at a time. These people have been incredibly generous with their time and have given me several bits and pieces of advice to make life at sea a little easier. Among the people I’ve spoken to are some former Picton Castle crew members and a fellow academic who sailed for several months on the Jeanie Johnston before she was permanently moored in the River Liffey.
There was no real structure to these interviews. We shot the breeze with me talking about what I imagined the experience will be like, and the old sea-dogs talking about their memories of being on the waves. I’ve tried to condense my scattered notes from these conversations into some nice, readable sections below that you may find helpful.
First, the keyword in your search for a shop to buy sailing equipment is “chandlery”. I did not know this was the name given to a shop that specialised in naval gear and spent ages Googling “Shops that sell sailing stuff”, or something to that effect. You are looking for “Chandleries Near Me”.
Invest in your foul weather gear. During miserable conditions, you want to be as comfortable as you can. This is expensive. Far more expensive than I had originally budgeted. You’re probably going to spend around €800 on a decent off-shore jacket alone.
You want to get a pair of salopettes, a jacket, a hat, and a pair of sea boots. Gil, Helly Hanson and Musto are all mainstays in the “affordable gear” area.
Make sure your sallopets have reinforced knees, and seat. Also try to get a pair that have a zip for going to the bathroom. You don’t want to have to climb out of all your gear every time you need to use the bathroom.
Your off-shore jacket should have reinforced elbows and elastic wrist cuffs to stop water from running down your forearms and into your clothes when working. Something with a high collar is good. If you’re in a squall and can wrap up behind a nice high collar, with a hat over your head then you’ll be about as comfortable as it’s possible to be in those conditions.
For the sea-boots, something with a heel is good as they will grip the the ratlines if you’re going aloft in a storm.
Buy a set of fingerless gloves, but don’t use them. Not unless you have to. Your hands are going to be torn up by working with the ropes. This needs to happen, and the skin on your palms will need to harden. If the pain is unbearable, put on the gloves so you can keep working. But try to avoid using them if you can.
I finished buying most of the gear listed above last weekend. I bought everything from Viking Marine in Dun Laoghaire. The guys in the shop were absolutely lovely, and all the advice they gave matched what other sailors had told me, but the total cost at the end of my spree was almost €1500 after discounts. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to save enough to cover this, but I’m genuinely shocked by how expensive my equipment has been. Probably about three times what I had initially expected. And there’s still more to buy.
Your rigging knife is another important investment. It should have a sheath and should attach to your belt to reduce the risk of dropping it when aloft. The rigging kit made by Capt. Charles Curry Ltd. in Manchester, England comes highly recommended by one of the people I spoke with.
A decent pair of sandals are a good investment – €70/€80/€90. Buy synthetic ones. People swear by Birkenstocks. They’ll be handy for walking around the deck.
Seasickness And Other Ailments
Seasickness is more or less a fact of life for a sea voyage. There are a lucky few who don’t seem to experience it, but most of us will feel pretty queasy when out on the waves. The good news is that this apparently passes after about a week.
Medication does exist to help with seasickness. Two brands of seasickness medication that have been recommended to me are Stugeron and Dramamine. However, I’ve been told that it is important to take these before seasickness sets in. Once you’re seasick, you just have to ride it out.
There are some herbal remedies e.g. ginger, that are supposed to be good for seasickness, but a review of some published literature suggests that any relief is probably little more than a placebo effect. Seasickness wrist-bands are pure bollocks. Just don’t bother with them.
If you are feeling sea sick, some advice I have recieved around diet that I hadn’t heard before:
- East small and snack.
- Avoid eating citrus foods. They’ll burn when you get sick.
- Bananas are good. They taste the same coming up as going down (apparently).
I was told that it is very important to not be idle if you’re seasick. Powering through and working can actually help you to feel better. Obviously you need to judge that for yourself, but I definitely get the ethos that being busy can take your mind of sickness.
Once you get your sea-legs, be careful about going back on land. It will take your body a little while to correct itself to a stationary floor. A friend of mine told me that he was having a shower in a hotel a few hours after disembarking. He suddenly, spontaneously headbutted the wall of the bathroom. He had relaxed too much and his brain tried to correct for a motion that wasn’t there. This too passes.
Working on a tall ship is dangerous. I asked a few sailors what the risk of injury on a ship was like, and they pretty much just laughed at me. You are more or less guaranteed some form of injury while working at sea. In the case of the sailors I spoke to, this ranged from broken bones, to sprains, to pinched fingers and more. Be careful, and keep your wits about you. This is as much for your crewmates’ sake as for your own. There are plenty of stories of severed fingers caused by negligent crewmates not paying attention to those around them.
One common complaint was rashes, and skin sores caused by frequent exposure to the salt in seawater. These are annoying, itchy, and generally make your existence just a bit more hellish.
Three sailors I spoke to recommended Medicated Gold Bond Powder as a remedy for skin sores. However, one woman emphatically warned me that I should not apply it to my underwear, even if I do have a few unfortunately placed sores. It will not be the soothing experience I expect. I suppose the same goes for you.
Shower. For the love of God and your crewmates, shower. You’ll need to wash in seawater, which is harsher than what you would get out of your shower at home. So you may shower less frequently than normal, but you absolutely should be washing yourself, and your clothes.
Normal soap won’t lather in saltwater, but Prell or Joy washing-up liquid will do the job. Make sure you have some to hand.
Speaking of washing, never wash all your underwear at once. All it takes is one wave to sweep the bucket off the deck and you’ve got nothing to wear.
Buy good, strong, heavy-duty clothes pegs for hanging up your clothes to dry. You don’t want them blowing away in a breeze or being swept overboard by a wave.
Don’t bring white underwear.
During meal time, if you’re still hungry after eating you don’t go for seconds unless you’re sure everyone has already been fed. Make sure you aren’t depriving someone else.
Label your stuff.
Never reach into your crewmate’s bunk without their permission. That’s their tiny bit of personal turf on the ship. Respect that.
Ships these days are usually unisex. Sometimes the areas where you’ll bunk and dress are unisex. Be respectful.
It should go without saying, but don’t be a dick. You’re on a small vessel with several other people. There’s little-to-no privacy, no alone time, and no real “getting away from someone”. Tempers may fray, there may be some conflicts, but don’t try to be difficult. Pettiness has no place on a ship.
When you first board the ship and are being shown around, make sure to ask how the heads (toilets) work. The flushing mechanism might not be intuitive. Best to ask before you’ve filled the bowl. Also bear in mind that your watch may be responsible for cleaning the heads.
If you’re part of a crew, you will have some down-time. Bring a music player, some movies on memory sticks, earplugs, etc. I didn’t get a chance to ask anyone this, but I’ve read that electronics, no matter how well tended to, can rust and break at sea due to salt. I think it’s probably a good idea to have some more analogue forms of entertainment for yourself as well.
Chances are you’ll have the chance to go ashore and explore after you pull into port. Bring a pair of hiking boots, and some good bug spray so you can go hiking.
It’s usually pretty hot below decks, irrespective of the climate. Bring a portable fan. It’ll save your brain.
Sometimes if it’s just too hot to sleep below decks, you may want to sleep on deck. Bring a sleeping pad or something that you can lie on.
Make copies of letters you write, just in case something happens to the original. Ask a friend to hold onto the copy. Nothing maudlin here. If your duffel bag gets flooded and everything in it is ruined, at least your letters should be safe in someone else’s bag.
Have a nice outfit that you keep in a plastic bag under your bunk, just in case you’re invited to something fun onshore.