For a while on Thursday I had the overwhelming urge to dig out my old striped Brittany fisherman’s T-shirt, buy a kitbag, fill it with who-knows-what, have an anchor tattooed on my bicep and head up to Santa Cruz to stowaway on a sailing ship…an Argentinean one to be exact.
The Tall Ships were in town and their arrival time-warped the dock back a century or so. I’ve seen old sailing ships before and I remember being surprised at how small they were. As we stood on the bridge outside of the African Market and looked over the Noría district, the old skyline was dwarfed by wooden masts and a veritable spiders’ web of rigging; these ships were not quite like any I’d seen before.
I’d been hoping to take some photographs of the armada sailing into Santa Cruz harbour with their sails billowing in their morning sunshine; however, a) all the ships were berthed by the time we arrived on Thursday morning at around 10.00 and b) there wasn’t any sunshine anyway.
The eleven ships which had completed the first leg of the Atlantic Challenge 2009 were an eclectic bunch ranging from a relatively small ketch (the British Rona II) to a football pitch sized monster of the seas (the Russian Kruzernshtern) which even made the huge Argentinean ‘Libertad’ and Romanian ‘Mircea’ which were berthed nearby seem little more than big yachts. The Cabildo building in the background looked more like its Pueblo Chico version than the real thing.
The buzz of getting up close to these giants of the ocean soon banished any regrets at not seeing the ships arrive and watching the sailors go about the daily business of maintaining their vessels made me realise that not a lot had changed in a hundred years.
One sailor hung from a rope swing underneath a prow touching up the paintwork, passing a paint pot fashioned from a water bottle cut in two to his mate perched precariously on the anchor by means of a grappling hook at the end of a rope.
A long line of sailors stretching from the dockside into the galley passed crates of tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and sacks of potatoes between one another; it could have been a scene straight out of Mutiny on the Bounty. It was fascinating to watch.
It was also interesting to note what supplies were being taken on board each ship. Where the Argentinean sailors stocked up with a supermarket storeroom of fresh fruit and vegetables, as I passed one of the smaller British ships I noticed they were loading up tins of corned beef and packets of shredded wheat. At the Russian ship, immaculately dressed young sailors with dinner plate hats filed up the gangplank with Mercadona carrier bags filled with six packs of beer.
There was a real feeling of purpose and community, of sharing and friendship which united mariners from 10 different nations. It was compelling to witness and as I wandered amongst the members of this unique sea going community of modern day adventurers I heard the strains of a sea shanty in my head and the tug of an ozone laden breeze on my sleeve.
The appearance of some of the Argentinean crew was the crowning moment which almost had me reaching for a quill and saying “forget the shilling I’ll sign up for nothing”.
A row of female sailors dressed in the traditional naval summer white uniform a la Demi Moore in ‘A Few Good Men’ sashayed down the quay toward their ship. At that moment I realised why so many young men ran away to sea.
A shout from above broke the spell and I looked up to see a line of men strung out along a sail on the uppermost spar on the tallest mast. They stood suspended 100 metres above the ground, on what looked like the thinnest of ropes. That 1920s picture of construction workers high above New York sprang into my mind and I suddenly felt a bit dizzy.
A life on the ocean wave might have had a romantic appeal to it; a life swinging about on a slippery mast high above it didn’t.
My imagination might run off to sea, but my legs are definitely staying firmly on dry land.