Sailing in Sydney

I took the lift to the viewing platform at the top of the tower which sprouts from the Westfield centre and looked out across the city and over the harbour to the Heads. It was Sydney Regatta week and an abundance of yachts was sailing in the bay with spinnakers puffed up with wind, a swirl of blue and pink, purple and green.

I would be out there myself the next day.

Sailing on an America’s Cup Yacht had been on my bucket list since the summer of the previous year when I crewed on a boat in the Round the Island Race. I was not even sure whether it was possible, and had no expectation of making it happen on this trip.

But then I found out by chance about an outfit which ran voyages out of Darling Harbour in a pair of IACC yachts from the nineties.

The Darling Harbour Yacht Club invested US $10m in its challenge in 1992, when the International America’s Cup Class standard was adopted. Its boat, AUS 21, came sixth, out of nine, in the Louis Vuitton Cup races to decide which of the challengers would face the defending team.

The other one, AUS 40, was built for the Antibes Yacht Club as a challenger in the 1995 Cup with the flag number FRA 40. But it was not finished in time and, in the end, the nearest it got to the  America’s Cup was as a training boat for the Swiss challenger in 2000.

I was on the older boat with the better backstory. Nothing about AUS 21 looked dated, even if it was two decades past its prime by then. It was all Kevlar, carbon fibre and alloy, everything pared right down to save weight; everything streamlined. It made the yacht I had raced on the year before seem as clumsy and well-padded as a cross-Channel ferry. But then so did our place in the results table.

I had been sort of working then, even if I was doing it for fun and paying for the privilege: I had an appointed station and had to stay there and do as I was told.

This was different. Some of the passengers wanted no more than to laze on the deck and top up their tans and that was fine; but you could get involved if you wanted to. It would have frustrated me just to watch. I manned one of the grinders, as they call the winches which tension the sheets (that is, ropes) which trim the sails and regulate speed. It is a good upper body workout.

We raised the mainsail as we slipped out of the harbour and motored round Millers Point. The staysail went up as we passed beneath the Harbour Bridge.

Then cruising towards the Heads, making 8 knots according to the digital display. The yacht could do about 18 with a good wind behind it. Then heeled right over with everyone up on the rail. Then tacking across the harbour. Throwing my weight into the grinder. Sliding over to starboard. Heads down as the boom crashes across the deck.

We were out for around two hours then headed back, lowered the sails and motored under the Bridge. I watched a group slowly make its way up the arch.

I would be up there myself the next day.

©  Richard Senior 2020*

*Except America’s Cup images via Pixabay:

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Slow Boat to Amsterdam: a Sailing Diary

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In the summer of 2012, I worked a passage from Stavanger to Amsterdam on the Dutch tall ship, Wylde Swan. I kept this diary, of sorts, with the idea of writing it up into a feature, which never happened: 

Thursday, 30th August

Arrive in Stavanger in the late afternoon. Blustery day. Call up the number and they come to collect me in the tender and take me out to the ship, which is moored off a small island. Dutch skipper, German mate, Danish engineer, German cook.

The Swan was originally a steamship, built in 1920, on a German flag. It was a herring boat, built for speed. A Dutch outfit bought the hulk in the Noughties and refitted it as a two-mast topsail schooner – biggest in the world, apparently.

More of the crew arrive in the evening, two Dutch, one British (but born in the Netherlands).


Friday, 31st August

Bright and sunny in the morning. Not sailing until evening so get the tender into Stavanger, look round, take photos, get lunch.

Back to the ship. Three more crew aboard, one German, two Dutch.

Sail around 5pm.

I’m on the 1pm-8pm and 1am-6am watch, so I’m on straight away. Weigh anchor. Slip out of harbour. Stop alongside another ship for the last crew member (Norwegian) to jump aboard. Get a couple of stay sails up. South, south, south…

Can’t sleep. Read until midnight. Shaken awake at 12.30. Back to work.


Saturday, 1st September

Still heading south. Up on the roof at 4am sweating a sail down, gathering and tying. Trimming and tidying; hauling ropes and cranking winches.

Sailing ships are incredibly noisy things: banging and clanking, creaking and groaning. The wind howls across the deck, slapping hard against the sails. It means I can shout and swear when I repeatedly make a mess of coiling a sheet, and nobody hears me.

The sun is coming up and I want to stay and watch it, but I want to sleep more. It comes easily this time.

Ship pitching heavily when my next watch starts at 1pm. A few of the crew are seasick. But it’s a dull watch. Not much to do. A couple of sails up, a tack, but mostly pootling along on the motor. Cloudy and cold but no rain.

I stare out to sea for hours. It sounds dull but it’s more peaceful than anything I can remember. No rushing, no deadlines, no shouty emails.


Sunday, 2nd September 

The work always seems to be in the early morning watch. Strong wind across the deck. Ship heeled right over. Deck soaked. Hard to stay upright. A few involuntary sit-downs. Stretch the safety net across the leeward side so no one goes overboard. Stay sails back up. Exhausting first two hours then quiet after that. Quiet and cold.

Only me and the watch leader still standing. Everyone else on the watch is seasick. I can understand it. The ship rolls and pitches and suddenly the horizon rears up at a 30 degree angle. But thankfully I don’t get seasick.

We reach Danish waters around midnight, down the coastline, past the oilfields. Rigs lit up like Harrods at Christmas. The computer shows tankers all around us but none is in sight. The watch leader shows me how to fill in the log and I do it next time.

Still cloudy at lunchtime. The last watch put up the jibs and top sail. It looks more like a tall ship should now. No mainsail though. It takes 10 men to raise it. They call it “the Bastard“.

Two thirds of the way down the Danish coast by 2pm, heading for Germany. I belatedly hoist down the courtesy Norwegian flag. We forgot about it until now. Don’t suppose it matters.

There was talk of being in Amsterdam tonight but the skipper thinks lunchtime tomorrow at best. We take it for granted now that we can be anywhere in Europe in two hours, and anywhere in the world within the day (more or less). Everyone travelled like this until a couple of generations ago. It used to take a couple of months, I think, to get to Australia.

Another quiet afternoon. Ship porpoising gently. Cruising at around 6 knots. A cruise ship going north is about the only thing I see for an hour. Not even any gulls here. The mate has resorted to cleaning the ship. Must be bored.

And then it starts drizzling.

Slight change of course to break the monotony. Re-trim. Swing on the grinder. Make a mess of coiling the sheet again. How hard can it be for fuck’s sake?


Monday, 3rd September

The 1-6 watch is hard. Just as you start to get properly to sleep, some bastard wakes you up and makes you crawl from your bunk and put waterproofs on.

We are in Dutch waters now, I think. Tracking 190 degrees. Cruising at 7 knots. Busy waters here. Tankers all along the horizon.

A quiet watch. Some trimming of sails, nothing too exciting. Music and tomfoolery on the quarter deck.

Dutch coast in sight at 10 30. Sun out too. The last watch has pulled the sails down. Just motoring all the way now: into Ijmuiden, through the locks and down the canal to Amsterdam. Due in early afternoon

Sunbathing on the half deck until my watch starts; sunbathing a while longer as well. Nothing much to do.

On the outskirts of Amsterdam we monkey out on the nets round the bowsprit and pack the sail. Six of us wrestle with the bloody thing to wrap it into a sausage, get it onto the bowsprit and tie a daisy chain round it. People on the bank whip out phones to photograph us and that feels good.

We arrive around 3pm, throw fenders over the side and moor up. Climb the rigging – like something out of a movie – to lower and tie up the topsails.

 Grab my bag, say goodbyes and wander towards Dam Square.

© Richard Senior 2016