The Ship of Fools.
Christopher Rudd was a Kent school teacher, grandson of the famous Cape merchant and adventurer Charles Rudd, who also took his pupils out to sea in a dinghy to teach them the art of seamanship. Sadly, he couldn’t take his handful of disabled pupils, a dinghy simply isn’t stable enough.
From that plain statement of fact was born a brilliant idea. Form a charity, raise money, build a ship big enough to safely accommodate wheelchairs, let those with handicaps have the same enjoyment of the sun on their face, the wind in their hair, the exhilaration of racing along under full sail as known by a thousand able bodied youngsters – and not-so-youngsters. Accommodate able bodied paying passengers to be the eyes and ears of those who had none, the legs and arms of those bereft. It was altruism in floating poetic form.
Christopher was well connected through his family background, and the great and the good supported his idea. The Jubilee Trust was formed, grants were collected; the Worshipful Company of this, that, and the other were inveigled into supplying whatever they could; fund-raising dinners attended by those who own cummerbunds to go with their dinner suits, and even those who have to hire them. Eventually the money was raised to build the good ship ‘Lord Nelson’, and in July 1986, Prince Andrew and a still starry eyed Sarah Ferguson, launched her from Vosper Thornycroft’s yard in Woolston, Southampton.
Fast forward almost 30 years, and an equally starry eyed Ms Raccoon was looking for a ‘forward event’ to encourage her to get through the next three months of this drug trial. We live three months at a time nowadays. Something with a hint of adventure to suit her bolshie nature; not too far from medical facilities given that she had only just emerged from hospital; foreign travel and unfamiliar viruses out of the question due to a fragile immune system; bungie jumping and paragliding out of the question thanks to nervous insurance companies (though in the event my onboard insurance covered everything except that attributed to cancer!)
Why! Just look at this brochure! Sun glinting off the foredeck, a magnificent barque glides through crystal clear waters; medical facilities on board, a chance to be a ‘carer’ rather than eternally the ‘patient’. Surely it was tailor made? Even Mr G was persuaded.
It’s not cheap. A tad over £1,000 for 6 days sailing, but apparently having Cancer qualified me for a ‘disabled discount’ of £150 – Hell, there had to be a silver lining in that cloud eventually and I’m a sucker for a bargain; besides, probably my last holiday, so who cares? I paid up. Can’t take it with me and all that. In fact, when I developed new problems that made it difficult to stand on both feet just a couple of weeks before I was due to sail, I did wonder whether I should chicken out and phoned to ask whether it was possible to substitute someone in my place – I was considering offering one of you the chance to go, all paid for of course – but they wouldn’t hear of it. They said I would have a ‘disabled cabin’ with a carer if necessary and a loo, sorry ‘head’, right next door, and not to worry, they could cope with anything…
I can understand it being expensive; apparently it costs £4,000 a day to keep the Lord Nelson circling the world. It does circle endlessly – from pre-arranged Port to pre-arranged Port. It has to be that way because there are endless fund-raising events organised by various charities to send limbless ex-servicemen, the deaf, the blind, etc., etc., on this chance of a lifetime sailing event, so everyone needs to know well in advance exactly where she will be on any given day, so that specialist transport can meet her – and experienced sailors who understand the wind and the tide will appreciate the problems with that approach!
Thus the minimal permanent crew work for two months at a time, with no day off, 24 hours a day, being presented every seven days with yet another useless crew of complete novices with a variety of specialist needs…they deserve a medal, but understandably they get tired, grouchy, and tetchy as the end of their two month relentless tour approaches – especially since they don’t get paid as much as the office staff with their eight hour days and five day weeks – aren’t they out in the sunshine enjoying ‘a jolly at sea’, and it’s ‘all for charity’ after all???? Poor sods. Their contribution towards ‘chariddee’ doesn’t involve the rubber chicken circuit or dinner jackets. It’s much harder work.
So it came to pass that we boarded the good ship ‘Lord Nelson’ at South Quay, noting in passing the massed brass band, bunting and general gaiety aboard the ‘Esmerelda’, flag ship of the Chilean Navy, which was getting a noisy send off next to us, and we reported to our bunks. Which for me, turned out, thanks to a small misunderstanding, not to be a ‘disabled cabin’ (possibly because such a thing didn’t exist, ‘disabled pigeon coop’ with scanty curtain would be nearer the mark) but instead berth number 4 in the port fo’c’sle.
(Could experienced sailors kindly resist the temptation to tell me that this is where the anchor lays noisily against the side and is possibly the worst place to be in a stormy sea – I know that already, thanks. Well, I do now; and if Mr G would be pleased to stop harrumphing I’d be mighty obliged – or telling me he’s never known a ship where the paying passengers ended up in the fo’c’sle instead of midships, where by a curious turn of events the permanent crew are berthed; funny that).
We were shown how to use the lee-cloths to stop us rolling out of our bunks – I assumed that this was something to do with those with far more severe physical difficulties than I; after all, I’ve never fallen out of bed in my life. Then we were issued with some clumping sea boots with what appeared to be lead weights in the soles, and an interesting garment made of bright yellow plastic, consisting of Simon Cowell trousers up to the armpits, with a flap at the front so that gentlemen might relieve themselves, over the side if necessary – but covered by a jacket and hood, firmly fasted top and bottom, and anchored round the middle by a separate chain and carabiner, known as an ‘anchor point’ apparently. Ladies amongst my readers will have noted that this entire ensemble including the sea boots needed to be ‘uncarabined’, detached, removed, stowed, whilst clinging to the wall in the minuscule area known as the ‘head’ if you wished to relieve yourself…I believe the designer was a gentleman.
Not that everyone was dressed as an inflated Paddington Bear, of course. In the rigid hierarchy on board, below the Captain and officers in impressively sparkling white with added scrambled egg, there dwells a species known as ‘volunteer crew’. Bosun’s mate and such like, either ex Royal Navy (22 years, and 78 1/2 trips on the Lord Nelson…) or fanatical sailors. These creatures have raided the Musto ‘essential sailing gear’ shop with a vengeance. Everything ever so slightly faded as befits the ‘did the Hobart to Peru leg last year’ – ‘yeah, did Antigua to God knows where myself, fine Force 9, great fun’. Obviously just like a shooting party – not the done thing to tun up in a brand new Barbour, even if you have to sit at home scraping the sleeves with a cheese grater before you arrive….
These were the crew that actually addressed we ‘oiks’, the higher orders having perfected a hospital consultant’s ability to pass through a ward without having eye contact with a single patient. The volunteer crew don’t get paid, in fact they pay a nominal amount to cover their food, and they specialise in making sure that they don’t annoy anyone above them in the food chain – on the off chance that they may get their hearts desire. A phone call saying ‘pay your own way to Sydney and get yourself home from Hobart at your own expense and you too can have a precious pigeon loft and take responsibility for a boat load of land lubbing lemons as they get tossed across the Tasmanian sea’…Allegedly, spending 22 years in the Royal Navy makes receiving such a phone call – and all in the name of charity – something more precious than gold. Curious.
Below the volunteer crew, is another band of management. The ‘watch leaders’. You can easily tell them apart. The Musto gear is newer. They were once mere oiks, passengers. They’d distinguished themselves on previous voyages by proving reckless enough to climb the main mizzen without an anchor chain; they leapt over the side into the Duty boat with na’er a moments hesitation; they climbed the outer rigging without benefit of lifejacket and declared themselves ‘thrilled’ by the experience. Of such intrepid creatures are ‘watch leaders’ born.
Their reward is the chance, so long as they don’t annoy the volunteer crew above them in the hierarchy, to take charge of six or eight of the passengers. To make sure that albeit 4am, albeit said passenger may have one or more limbs missing, be blind, deaf, or whatever, they will have them on deck correctly dressed as Paddington Bear, weighted down, on the off chance that now might be the moment to go sailing and to persuade them all to shout ‘two-six-heave’ in unison as they pulled on ropes. That the sails were raised for a mere five hours or so in a week of ‘sailing’ as we motored directly nor’nor’west into a wind coming from the nor’nor’west wind on a stormy North Sea never dampened their enthusiasm for the task of having ‘their watch’ on parade and all accounted for. We spent a lot of time in the driving rain and icy wind staring forlornly over the side as the sun rose behind grey clouds over a boiling sea = searching for a mythical freezer cabinet that might appear ‘bobbin’ on the oggin’ alongside and damage our paintwork. T’was thrilling work, and helped to pass the long night hours…
It was, in truth, infinitely better than being in your bunk, or at least attempting to remain in your bunk. (Just pipe down in the back, you experienced sailors, the landlubbers don’t know of which I am about to speak) (I’ve only just learned).
I was on one of the fabled ‘Tall ships’. Tall ships have tall masts. Three of them to be precise. Tall masts have to be thick and heavy to carry the weight of all that sail (if it ever gets put up). Thick heavy tall masts weigh a ton. Several ton. So what you have is something shaped like a bath tub, with three exceedingly heavy weights reaching 100 in the air. Even the non-engineers will have figured the design fault by now – those weights drag it from one side to the other in perpetual motion. Entertaining to watch, damn near impossible, even with weighted boots, to remain upright. The way to counteract this is to put up the sails.
But did we? You’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out.