Time out for tall ships

Jul 28, 2022 by Birgit Kaspar
Credit: Photos by Birgit Kaspar

Traditional sailing proves an addictive pastime for one hard-working chief officer.

I grew up in a small village in South Germany, far from the sea. Yet, to the bafflement of my parents, I became fascinated with big sailing ships at an early age. After high school, I had the chance to crew one of these magnificent vessels and spent six weeks sailing the Baltic Sea. That’s where I caught the “tall ships bug,” an unshakeable affliction that pervades the soul.

It is hard to describe to people who have never been on such a ship. It’s the uplifting feeling when the ship gains speed, propelled only by the power of the wind, and the peaceful silence when no engine or generator is running. It’s the tight-knit camaraderie of working together in the yards, despite the weather or time of day, the stories you tell each other during night watch, and the amazing sunrises you enjoy in the early hours of the morning with your first coffee of the day.

I crewed a number of such vessels over the years, eventually sticking with two that became my favorites: the brig Roald Amundsen and the ketch Jonas von Friedrichstadt.

Roald Amundsen, a 164-foot (50m) seagoing vessel, has crossed the Atlantic numerous times, traveling as far as the Cape Verde Islands, Brazil, the Great Lakes, and Iceland. We sail her day and night, following the traditional watch system. Jonas, on the other hand, is a 98-foot (30m) one-season ship that spends summers in the Baltic and some weeks in the tidal flats of the North Sea. With her size and shallow draft, she is great for small harbors, anchoring close to shore, or tying up to just a rock in the Baltic archipelagoes.

All these traditional ships are run by nonprofit organizations and all crew are volunteers — a crazy group of people who spend all their time off working on these vessels, whether maintaining them dockside or sailing them as crew.

Who in their right mind gets up in the middle of the night to climb into the rigging and work with the sails, or stands out on the open bridge for hours in the rain to make sure the right course is maintained, while not getting a dime for doing it? I do, and many others!

Our job is to teach the trainees how to work with the sails, how to stand a watch, how to steer the ship, and all the other aspects of traditional seamanship. It’s so uplifting to watch a group of total strangers merge into a team after just one week. It’s such a pleasure to see managers working side by side with students and retirees, hoisting a yard or setting a sail.

Age, profession, sex and nationality don’t matter on a tall ship; everybody is a member of the same team. And only the team can sail the ship. Every task must be done manually and everyone must pitch in — even climbing up the masts to unfurl and fasten the sails.

You may ask how a person who works in yachting is crazy enough to spend time off on the water. The answer is simple: It’s the people, the cruising grounds, and the fact that everything happens at a more relaxed pace. For me, volunteering on tall ships is the perfect balance to the pressures and stress of yachting life.

I love the Baltic and the North Sea. I love the long, bright evenings of midsummer in Sweden or Finland, and being the lone vessel in a quiet anchorage off the little islands of the northern archipelagoes. I never tire of the colors of the tidal flats during sunset and sunrise, or the thousands of sea birds migrating over the North Sea islands in the spring. And I would hate to miss the barefoot walks on the seabed during low tide.

It is a passion and privilege to share these priceless experiences with friends — because, on a tall ship, that is what we are: strangers who become good friends, comrades who have caught the “bug.”

For opportunities to work  on a traditional tall ship in the U.S., check the Billet Bank at tallshipsamerica.org.