Heritage Sailing on Leader
In days of yore - when were they? - a lad of spirit would run away to sea, escaping a life of the plough or the ledger. The sea has always promised freedom and adventure, even if the reality for some was drudgery and danger. The lure of the sea is still there, and for romantics it takes a particular form. The wave cry, the wind cry, aren't enough until they are met by a wooden hull cutting the water and a manila rope the air.
In consequence there seems to have grown up a wealth of organisations catering for the demand for traditional sailing, and which simultaneously work hard to conserve the world's maritime heritage. In that way, they not only satisfy the romantics' yearnings, but share their enthusiasm for history and the sea with future generations. The Trinity Sailing Foundation, based in South Devon, is just such an organisation. It's a non-profit charity dedicated to these tasks, which since 1999 has been able to bring together and conserve in their rightful home three wonderful examples of the old Brixham trawling fleet. And they put them to good use too, maybe not in the fishing trade but still working for a living every day.
This year someone at Trinity Sailing had the bright idea of linking their work with another less tangible piece of British heritage, folk song. Not only is there a vast repertoire of British songs about the sea, but the shanty in particular was an essential tool for working the great tall ships throughout the nineteenth century and later. What could be more natural than to put them together?
So it was that my mate Kevin and I, as notorious shanty singers, got an invitation to join the sailing trawler Leader for a folk music week in the Scottish islands. We jumped at the chance. Leader is a fine vessel. She was built in 1892 at the Galmpton yard of W.A.Gibbs, just round the corner from her home port. She is 105 feet from stem to the tip of her bowsprit and displaces 100 tons. She has the deep narrow lines that were needed for speed and power and powerful gaff sails in a ketch rig to drive her along. She's been through a few viccissitudes since her fishing days ended after World War II, but you wouldn't know that to see her now, equipped and sailing just as she did in her glory days. But with added albeit cosy comfort down below.
Now then, in her trawling days Leader would have been worked by just four men and a boy. This week in July, she had the benefit of a crew of five and the enthusiastic input of twelve guests, Kevin and myself included. And it could only leave you in admiration for the the immense skill and endurance of our forefathers. There are no shortcuts in sailing Leader ( save the modern engine when time is at a premium): no roller-reefing, no self-steering, no modern winches. It's all manual labour, working as a team to pull on the ropes, from the staysail to the hefty mainsail, and to manage the tricky tasks of tying alongside a jetty or anchoring. We were hauling and tailing and making fast, and easing and sweating, and even pumping too - though fortunately Leader doesn't require too much of that. And we quickly had to learn about gaskets and lizards and slips and bits. But in our passages we could sit and drink coffee and take in the mountains and islands and the occasional porpoise cruising by. No such luxury for the five trawler men of old, who had to manage the heavy trawling gear and ready the catch for market too. It was a man's life.
Yet three of our crew were women; and on board the neighbouring Bessie Ellen in Oban was a similar preponderance, including the skipper as well. These days, it seems, it's not only the lads who contract sea fever. Our three lasses had left behind teaching, marine biology and fine arts to follow an ancient trade and earn their tickets. They seemed unflappable and confident, just getting on with their jobs in that unshowy way that competent women often have. You felt safe in their hands, and would be glad to see more like them. Of course, the old Broadside ballads are full of women running off to sea, for all sorts of reasons: fortunately they need disguise themselves as men no longer.
And so we sailed up the Firth of Mull and out to the windswept isle of Coll and back: four days idling along in light airs and bright sun, and two more in grey seas and blustery squalls. Our skipper Ben found us some delightful anchorages, and we spent one raucous evening in the backroom of the Mish Nish Hotel in Tobermory, for let's not forget the musical heritage in this. In fact, most nights after dinner we went from South Australia via Valparaiso and New York Girls and back to Polly on the Shore, buoyed up by some great fiddle playing from Ian, one of our guests. And in a nod to popularity, we sailed the Sloop John B a few times too. But them nineteenth century shellbacks must have had big lungs - sweating a mainsail halyard while singing lustily proved a step too far for most of us!
On our final morning, the deck glistened in another squall and gradually through the mist Oban took on name and form and colour too. We tied up at the North Quay and were back in the modern world.
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