I am back, and this time, the ship was docked in Rouen, Normandy, for the Liberty Tall Ships Festival. It normally takes place every four years, but due to riverbank restorations it’s actually been six years since the previous one. I arrive on the Saturday afternoon and take some time to look around Rouen, an exceptionally pretty Normandy city with the most amazing cathedral I’ve seen since I first clapped eyes on Strasbourg’s a few years ago. Imposing and intricate, it stretches both tall and wide filling the square it sits in, like an overgrown king spilling out of a too-small throne. The city feels busy – I’d had no idea how big it was – and I later hear that the ships festival attracts something close to five million visitors across its 10 days.
I locate Atyla – my floating home for the next seven days – on the side of the Seine, a river that has become so familiar to me. I am so happy to see the members of the crew who were still there!
Atyla is one of the smallest ships taking part in the festival and subsequent regatta, but it is plump and handsome, sitting low in the water with its darkened wood and white lettering clearly visible. Some of the other ships are monstrous and magnificent, the most impressive being of the Russian (STS Mir), Polish, and Mexican (Cuauhtémoc) varieties, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors to their four-masted decks. Atyla, too, has a steady stream of visitors eager to see what life on a boat is like.
I understand the sentiment – that was, and still is, me.
After a busy Saturday night hosting visitors and watching a firework display, Sunday dawns bright and cold, and we sail with the other ships down the River Seine out of Rouen for the tall ships parade, the final and most spectacular event of the festival. We cruise under the enormous Bridge Flaubert, a double-lane concrete drawbridge of sorts.
One by one, each ship peels away from its dock and joins the parade, some with impressive accompanying displays, like Mexico’s white-uniformed crew positioned throughout the dizzyingly tall rigging with their arms outstretched. They are mythical creatures, they look like storks.
These ships are like something out of another century, sometimes literally, and I know all the imagery that races through one’s mind upon seeing them all together: high seas, adventures in far-off lands, pirates. All those books about sailing. Moby-Dick, Robinson Crusoe, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Old Man and the Sea, the Odyssey…
Silver-haired grandparents, little children, parents of all backgrounds taking their babies on an outing – what seems like millions of people watch and wave at us from both sides of the river. Their eyes, we can tell, are shining. People are waving flags, some have picnic blankets, barbecues, and wine for the day ahead. We blast our little Atyla horn and wave back, feeling like the Queen.
We cruise down the river past the industrial outskirts of Rouen (where, I am told, shale is produced in the ugly grey factories we see). Still the people are there to see us. In fact, throughout the entire seven-hour parade, there is barely a stretch of river that doesn’t have at least one party of people on the side, enjoying the view.
Whatever creates the wind, it is quiet today. At one point the sun cracks through the white-grey clouds and something beautiful is released. We climb the rigging to dangle our legs from the wooden platforms and lean over the yard (the horizontal beam attached perpendicularly to the masts which the square sails of a ship hang from). The hot June sun, so welcome on a ship where you are blasted by the elements, warms our tired bodies, and I take a nap later on the ship’s bridge, the wood of the deck holding me in its absorbed heat like a slept-in bed.
We eventually say goodbye to our “day sailors” and cast off into the night near Honfleur. I go to my bunk with a sense of trepidation, knowing that tonight we will be in the open sea and there’s a risk of seasickness. My very first watch is due to start at 4am. At midnight, I am awoken by someone else as they come off their own watch, and immediately feel the nauseating sensation of the ship rolling to and fro – we are out at sea, we are moving!
It takes me hours to sleep again but I am not sick, and the adrenaline is coursing through my veins, emboldening me. I am becoming an animal, my senses sharpened, feeling my surroundings. The rumbling engine comforts me, drowning out the other sounds of the night, until it stops and I know that the sails have been set. We are no longer next to land. We are sailing!
The engine is turned off around 1am so we can anchor near the starting point of the race, which is due to begin the next morning. Somewhere out there, all the other participating ships are also anchored, sheltering their sleeping cargo. Atyla continues to roll on the swell, though there are surface waves of only one metre or so. This windlessness continues and by the time of my watch, the moon is reflected, ghost-like, in an almost flat sea. We drink coffee and eat the biscuits left out for us by the kind cook. I learn about the basics of navigating and taking our position, checking the engine’s vital signs, and steering the vessel using the compass dial.
In the end, we dropped out of the regatta, the captain and crew deciding that there just wasn’t enough wind to make any headway. The first day we set the sails regardless, and drift quietly along on mostly pancake-flat waters. I feel quite lucky that my first days at sea are so calm, though it clearly doesn’t make for good sailing!
A few days later, getting closer to the longest day of the year, our 20:00 to midnight watch begins with someone hearing a splash just off the bow, starboard side. Now in the English Channel (La Manche) between Belgium and the Netherlands, we hadn’t seen any wildlife the whole time. Could it be a dolphin?
We watch, eyeballs darting from starboard to port, stern to bow – and then, suddenly, it is there. The sleek, fat body of what is a very large dolphin (probably a bottlenose, I later found out) arched through the water beside the boat. Twisting and jumping, it stays with us for at least 20 minutes.
As the whole crew rush from the saloon to see it, quickly rushing to snap a photo, it turned on its side to peer at us with a small round eye. We all gaze at it, pleasing to the eye, as it shimmers and curves through the water beside the boat. It’s true what they say about dolphins. They really do seem like they want to make friends.
Later on, as we cruised on calm waters 10 nautical miles off the twinkling Belgian coast, a slice of eerie red slid above the rows of roofs: a huge, Mars-like gibbous moon. For another half an hour it rose, visibly inching higher and losing its bursting colour as it went. First a dolphin, next the moon, and now this? It had to be one of the best watches one could hope for.
Things like this are always happening on a boat. Another morning, the sunrise turned both water and sky into hot oil as we rippled gently towards it. And on my final evening, the longest day of the year on 21st June, I watched from Atyla’s bowsprit net as the setting sun beamed out what I learned are called crepuscular rays just as another tall ship passed the shimmering orange disc.
The world is so big out here. It is a floating house that we are living on and we ride the seas that humans have ridden on since long before time began, before anyone used instruments to navigate. The stars were their compasses and their deities, possessed of a celestial power that beamed through the air and twinkled with faraway promises. Something else called those humans to the water’s edge back then and led them to build floating things to bring them across oceans, sometimes safely, more often not. And they went knowing they would probably never come back. Something led them to find their way by the stars and get closer to the big creatures of the sea. The smell of salt and the chance to talk to dolphins, flying fish, whales when they crossed the sacred boundary between sea and air and flew through the sky waving their fins hello. Welcome to our world.
The Kanak of New Caledonia have been there for 3,000 years. In the Orkney Islands, evidence of human settlements dates back 5,000 years. The oldest human skeleton ever found in the South American continent was burnt to a cinder in a fire in Brazil’s national museum last year. She was 12,000 years old. Indigenous nations have inhabited the island called Australia for 70,000 years. New Zealand was reached by the Maori only 800 years ago. A baby in the long history of human exploration.
The world has grown smaller, parcelled into neater, tighter packages with borders that sting. What’s left for us to wander over is portioned out, the animals forced to inhabit smaller and smaller spaces, to share with humans where they once roamed free. Human minds grow smaller with it, and angry. Angry with the heaviness that lies on them, their vision growing shorter through lack of natural light, their bones getting softer, their muscles flattening to nothing, their minds and stomachs hives of anxious buzzing. The song that calls to them was long ago quashed, they no longer look at the sea and wonder at this body of water that we cannot drink but we can float in. They instead think how many more fish can I catch, is there oil under here, how can we contort this untameable force to keep giving and giving all its resources until it is a wasteland.
Out here under the round, high sky, we don’t see that many animals but there is a single bottlenose dolphin that breaks through the magical layer and dares us to follow it. Again and again, it breaches the surface of the sea, telling us look at me, calling to something ancient in us that delights in its rotund body and smiling features. It is the very image of joy…
One evening, we set up the big screen in the saloon and watched Irving Johnson’s Around Cape Horn, a 40-minute-long narration of one man’s true adventures aboard a huge sailing ship, set against his own original black and white footage. Shot during the treacherous trip, it shows men scurrying up and down 70m-high rigging without harnesses, seas boiling over the edges of the deck during a storm, and sailors doing all manner of jobs around the ship from cutting each other’s hair to sewing new sails.
It made me think of how much I’d learned during my two weeks with Atyla. Even just the language of boats is becoming more familiar to me: yard, pin, foresail, jib, jibe, tack, ease, slack, halyard, bowsprit, bitter end, mainsail. They all have some meaning for me now.
One of the things which has touched me most deeply is the sense of trust you develop as part of a sailing crew. There is something bewitching about night watches in particular, something tender in the way that you are entrusted, even as a trainee like me with no experience, to be part of a guard tasked with protecting everyone else while they slumber below. In the same way you go to sleep after your own watch knowing that you are being safely watched over by a fleet of sea-angels, drinking coffee and plotting our course on deck above.
Now there are decisions to be made, work to be done. This life holds so much promise, so self-contained and all-consuming is it. I feel its danger. I feel it threaten to pull me in. Like many of the people I’ve met here, I sense that the draw is too strong to resist for long. Being out on the open sea is just too rewarding – as one person put it, like heaven and hell (and the state of the weather determines which).
But it is precisely these extremes that make it so addictive – that, the community, and the opportunities for learning. Starting from such a low bar, I was always going to have a lot of information to digest; but the sheerness of the learning curve has astonished, pushed, and delighted me. I hope that my relationship with the sea is just beginning…
Thank you to all those who made my time on Atyla so special. Captain, watch leaders, and everyone in the crew: you know who you are! Particular thanks to Emma, who I didn’t get to meet in person but who interviewed me and offered me the scholarship; my fellow trainees for their moral support; and to every person who demonstrated endless patience in teaching me the basics of sailing. I hope I’ll see you again.