I am on my way to Vannes, in southern Brittany, western France. It is one of my favourite regions in France since visiting 18 months ago on a wintry voyage. Now it is springtime, the pollen is wreaking havoc on my nose and eyes, and the daylight only seeps away at 22:30. Thanks to a wonderful scheme devised by some generous people, I am on my way to learn how to sail on a 33-metre, tall wooden ship from Spain called Atyla.
As I got off the bus (last person, last stop), the driver a man in his 60s with sunglasses on, approached me. “Est-ce que c’est un ukulélé?” he asked excitedly, gesturing at my little badge-adorned case. “Vous jouez?” Apparently, he played the bass ukulele. We proceeded to have a friendly chat about the merits of the instrument (portable, cheerful, easy to learn) while he vaped. Eventually he realised he was going to be late for his next round and we said au revoir. I left with the warm feeling that I was again in the friendly bit of France, where I could practise the language without being embarrassed, and with the feeling of connection that grows between people who share a love of music.
I was picked up from the pontoon by a little red dinghy full of friendly, scruffy young people, who turned out to be the crew of Atyla. They took me and my big bags back to the ship – which I could see from the shore – and showed me to my sleeping quarters, a small wooden bunk below deck, with curtains for privacy. Everything smelled wonderfully of wood, resin, and grease.
Tall ship [noun.] A sailing ship that has one or more high masts.
I was put through my paces immediately, hauling ropes and scrubbing the deck. The latter I completed with extra enthusiasm, happy that here was a job I could do without any guidance. Everything was overwhelming and new. I knew nothing, so I tried to absorb everything.
It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick’d by the indolent waves…Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
The next few days passed in a bewildering, happy blur. I listened to debates about whether the term “fix” or “make fast” was better to describe the process of securing the end of a rope to hold it in place. On a rare relaxed afternoon one of the crew, a very knowledgeable young man called Vuk, sat with me for hours while I practised tying a knot called the highwayman’s cutaway with his shoelaces. One day, heavy-duty harness on, I climbed up the rigging, legs shaking as I clipped myself in and moved slowly towards the mast. It was windy and exhilarating; from the top we hauled and tied up the sail.
Schooner [noun.] A sailing ship with two or more masts, typically with the foremast smaller than the mainmast.
One evening, there was a band and welcome party for ship crew attending the Semaine du Golfe, the tall ships festival we were participating in. A band played “Dirty Old Town” while the smell of Breton crêpes wafted through the warm air. The Atyla crew danced all evening, playing with children who screeched every time someone tried to pull them in to dance.
Vuk danced ballroom with middle-aged women who are shocked and delighted by his skill, as their male partners stood by, pretending not to look. We drank cheap French wine and spun around like mad sea creatures let loose on the shore for one night only. Which, I suppose, we were.
There is something about the sailor’s life that suits me. I realise I have always liked being issued instructions in the workplace, as long as the chain of responsibility is clear and I understand how my following orders helps the overall project.
Being part of the crew is a bit like being part of a theatre group; there is an immense feeling of togetherness and shared purpose, with everyone doing their bit to make the overall aim come to fruition. I like the apportioned responsibility, having specified tasks I can continually improve upon, and learning from people who know a lot more than I do!
I don’t mind skills mismatches, because then there is always room to learn from one another. I like the practicality of a lot of the tasks, such as hauling and coiling ropes, climbing up rigging, and steering the ship at the wheel. But there is also a clear need for “softer skills” – listening, generosity, emotional resilience – on board. I like the way the women are at least as tough as the men. I like the strong emphasis on fair play, fair contribution, and cleanliness.
I love the feeling of my hair full of salt, my face gritty from sun and salt spray all day, with a bowl of hot soup and bread to look forward to for dinner. I like the way creative people are attracted to sailing, bringing guitars, violas, ukuleles, and harmonicas to sing together in the evenings. I love not having to explain myself or the fact that I live out of a bag. I want to be fluent in the language of the sea.
I came to realise that Atyla is something of an underdog. I’d initially thought it quite large, but it is a small tall ship compared to most of the others that make an appearance at tall ships festivals. It has a tiny, squeaky horn that makes everyone laugh when we use it.
Atyla is part of a charitable foundation with much more affordable trips available than many other ships and has a strong focus on international cooperation, with many different nationalities on board. I was there thanks to its generous scholarship programme for young and inexperienced people, aiming to make sailing accessible.
On my final day in Arradon, Brittany, I woke up and looked out through the porthole to see a circle of brilliant blue. The skies had been grey all week. I ate my breakfast and drank coffee from my allocated mug which shares a number with my bunk, up on deck on the “bridge” of the boat. I couldn’t believe how calm the waters were around us. There was almost no wind, the sea only slightly ruffled and the ship barely moving. The sun was energy, life-giving. I sat there photosynthesising until it was time for chores.
It was “maintenance day”, so we all set about attending to various tasks that needed doing (there is always, always work to do on a ship!). Tony and I were in charge of painting some wooden blocks with layers of varnish to make them stronger, then stringing them up to dry in the sun falling across the deck.
By the end of the day, a little team of us was working on several dozen blocks. Sitting there slowly turning brown, the ship drifting lazily, our assembly line calmly painting and stringing up the blocks, I don’t think it was possible for me to feel a greater satisfaction than I did in that moment.
Before I left Paris in May, having spent a blissful two weeks full of love and friendship in what is my second home in many ways, the owner of Shakespeare and Company, the wonderful Sylvia, made a comment to me that has lingered in my mind. When I explained about my upcoming trip on Atyla, she said that her father and the bookshop’s founder, George, used to refer to the shop as his ship, and the people who kept it going with him as its crew.
I now understand that the sense of camaraderie is very similar, and has an addictive quality. The feeling of working towards something for a greater good, for a community, for an ideal far exceeding the capabilities of any individual but shared by so many, deeply touches the human soul. My months at Shakespeare and Company was some of the happiest and most fulfilling of my life. Sailing and reading are alike: both take you to another world.
Two weeks later, I was back on Atyla. I just couldn’t stay away after the first time. I got back home and booked my next trip.
📚 Reading list
- The North Water by Ian McGuire (2016)
- The Naked Shore of the North Sea by Tom Blass (2016)
- Attention All Shipping: a Journey Round the Shipping Forecast by Charlie Conelly (2004)
- Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
- South Sea Vagabonds by J. W. Wray (1939)
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)