Sailing on a Tall Ship on the high seas is right up there with the greatest travel adventures in the world.
When I was offered the chance to join a historic ship, I leapt at the opportunity. My journey would be on the Williams II, an impressive vessel based in Blyth harbour, Northumberland.
As the day of the trip grew closer, I started to lose my nerve and feel a little terrified about spending four hours on a ship heading out to the North Sea in what can best be described as “mixed weather conditions”.
But after a few minutes, I’d forgotten completely about whether there would be rough seas or if I’d fall in and die horribly, having been hit by a freak wave.
Taking the Plunge
I have to be honest that this isn’t the first time I’ve been sailing and at least I have some experience of conditions on a boat. I know my ‘port’ from ‘starboard’, and can tie a few basic knots including a clove hitch and OXO.
But I’ve also been out in bad weather, notably on a yacht trip to Loch Ness which felt more like a James Bond powerboat ride in 35 mph winds and lashing rain. Nevertheless, a tall ship is a very different beast.
I was a little nervous reporting for duty but soon felt much calmer when our brilliant captain and crew took us through the safety briefing. It’s only natural to feel a few first time nerves, I guess.
Within minutes, our group of recruits from the North East branch of the Old Gaffers Association had been transformed into a sea-worthy team. If nothing else, we looked the part to sail on the North Sea, even if we didn’t look like glamorous extras for a Duran Duran video.
Ready for Action
Although I looked like Donald Duck in my yellow hooded jacket and waterproof skins, I felt safe and cosy. Wearing a lanyard which could be tied onto the netting, in case the boat heaved over suddenly, also helped my confidence.
I’d already downed a couple of sea sickness tablets but the boat also offered a selection donated by survivors of earlier trips. Kitted out in our gear, we were chomping at the bit to get out to sea and get a slice of the action.
As the ship motored out of the harbour down the channel, there was a sense of excitement and adventure. The sun was shining and my fellow team members were feeling a real buzz. Even the sailing virgins were looking less worried.
As we left the piers behind, it was time for the serious job of getting the sails up and doing some proper sailing up the Northumberland coast to Newbiggin-by-the-Sea.
Wrongly, I thought the crew would be doing all the work but soon it emerged that those who felt up to the task would be helping with sailing of the boat. A brief moment of panic hit me, but then I rallied and joined in with everyone else.
I declined the job of steering the ship but volunteered for rope wrangling and watching out or lobster pots. It can be a major hazard if the pots get tangled up in your propeller.
“Lobster pot to the starboard side,” was a frequent cry as we started to sail properly and picked up speed to 8 knots.
By now the mizzen sail had been raised and even those with fears about volunteering were getting in on the action. Others enjoyed the sea views and made themselves a cup of tea or coffee whilst they learned the ropes.
The sea state was slight to modest – but even when it did get a little bumpier, the Williams was as solid as a chunk of rock. At 90 tonnes in weight that’s probably no surprise.
The gentle movement of the boat did not faze me, and I felt very relaxed about being out at sea as we moved further away from land. By now, I was helping to coil the ropes and watched in awe as the crew went about the more complicated duties.
One of my fellow passengers was learning how to steer the boat, and felt very happy ‘driving’ this historic ship under the guidance of our skipper, Liz, an ex-RAF sergeant and sailing expert.
Most of us took a turn on the wheel which I wasn’t expecting before the trip. What a fabulous opportunity to win ‘bragging rights’ when back home on dry land.
At the other end of the deck, one of the crew, Cammy, was showing a few brave souls how to get inside the ship’s netting at the bowsprit (the pointy front stick of the boat, for the uninitiated). She was also climbing around the ship like a trapeze artist with a fantastic sense of balance – and a safety line.
I wasn’t surprised when my adventurous mate was first to volunteer to leap over the wooden beams to get into the netting. What courage she had to go first!
“Wow – what an amazing view. I just want to stay here,” was her reaction to hanging in the hammock-style netting. Other passengers followed and enjoyed the experience of having the best ‘seats’ and panoramic views on the boat.
I decided to watch from a safe distance because I was worried that I’d get stuck getting out of the nets because of my back problems. What if I got jammed and couldn’t be extracted?
Not everyone took the trip into the netting – but this journey is very much about doing what you feel able to do within your comfort zone.
In retrospect, I should have given it a try because the crew were there to ensure it was an easy ‘leap in’ and a quick ‘bound out’. Those who tried it loved the sense of dangling over the high seas.. and several folk were even talking about volunteering to train up as crew members in the future.
Wet and Wild
One thing I’ve learned from previous sailing trips is that there’s always scope for a bit of ‘jeopardy’ and adventure, often caused by unpredictable weather on a boat.
As we admired the striking “Couple” statue off the Newbiggin coastline, and spotted the fins of a passing pod of dolphins, the weather started to turn very windy and wet.
This was around the mid-point of the trip when we were about to change direction and alter the configuration of the sails. As a strong gust of wind hit the front sail, it almost shredded and was left flaying around and billowing ominously with shackles clanging around.
The crew were straight on the case and fixed the problem after a short time, but it’s a reminder that you always have to be prepared to deal with changing weather conditions – and have a Plan B in your head.
By now it was getting very wet and some of the crew and guests were deploying the waterproof trousers and full-on wet weather kit. Crew member Mike looked resplendent in his bright red, all-in-one full weather suit and wellies.
Just a few minutes earlier we’d been relaxing in our summer deck shoes, trainers and T-shirts – but this is the North East coast of England not the Mediterranean. Expect four seasons in one day.
I also deployed extra layers of kit as it was getting quite cold compared with the warm weather when we’d set off from Blyth a couple of hours earlier.
On reflection, I should’ve worn a peaked cap rather than the floppy, wide brimmed hat which was in danger of blowing off despite its string ties. The wind was now howling, and some folk headed below deck for cover.
Down below, it’s very sheltered and there’s even a kitchen, sitting area and dining space although no port holes to see outside. It felt like being in a cosy cocoon… with central heating (when it works). There’s also overnight accommodation and bunk beds for longer trips.
I kept popping my head up to see what was happening on deck but opted to keep dry in the main cabin, only to emerge fully when we were within sight of Blyth.
As we approached the piers, the Old Gaffers group kept down below to let the crew get on with the tricky task of berthing the ship in ‘full-on’ 30 mile an hour winds.
Orders were shouted over the howling gale, ropes were thrown, and mooring lines were secured in an impressive collective effort. I’m just pleased that the guests on board didn’t have to volunteer for that tricky job.
We were back on dry land, and the four and a half hour trip had flown by. We were wet and windswept but the smiles on people’s faces told a story of a great sea adventure.
I surprised myself and felt much more comfortable on this sailing ship than any other I’ve ever been on in the past.
The Williams is always looking for volunteer crew members, although I doubt that I’d make the grade despite their expert training. Then again, never say never… perhaps they could knock me into shape?
A trip on the Williams is a tremendous experience which I’d strongly recommend to anyone looking for an exhilarating trip off the beautiful Northumberland coast.
A huge thank you to the crew, Blyth Tall Ship and the Old Gaffers Association North East for making our day so memorable.
Getting On Board – Practical Tips
The Williams II is based at Commissioners’ Quay on Blyth waterfront in south east Northumberland. There’s a Facebook group with regular updates about events and trips.
Trips are available to individuals and groups but I’d advise booking well ahead as there are only 10-12 places on board. There’s a variety of options if you’re interested in joining an expedition, day trip or long distance adventure.
There’s no need to pack dozens of different outfits to suit all weather conditions (as I’d done) because the kit is provided for you, from hefty waterproof jackets and trousers to the essential safety gear and life jackets.
There are places to store your bags and kit. I’d suggest leaving everything inside the saloon except for your safely secured mobile phone.
A day trip along the coast takes around four hours with an introductory safety briefing before you leave the port.
No prior sailing experience is needed to take the Williams trip but common sense is necessary. Do wear sensible outdoor clothing and footwear under the kit which is provided… and take sun protection cream, if it’s a warm day. It’s easy to get burnt in windy weather.
Bear in mind that it can be several degrees cooler at sea than on land so take a few layers of clothing with you.
Facilities on board – Overnight accommodation, kitchen, dining area – and two boat toilets which are strange beasts, but they do the job!
Discover Maritime Heritage
After you’ve taken a journey on the Williams, why not take a self-guided walking tour of Blyth quayside to discover its rich maritime history?
Nearly 200 years ago, Antarctica was discovered by another ship called the Williams which was built and owned by Captain William Smith from Blyth. There are plaques to commemorate this polar exploration achievement.
After many incredible voyages of discovery, the boat was eventually sold to a coal merchant in Hartlepool before being scrapped in 1882.
To celebrate its exploration achievements, the Williams Expedition bought and refitted a similar vessel which was built in 1914 in Denmark. They named it Williams II – and this is the ship that we travelled on for our adventure.
Take A Tour of Blyth Harbour
Look out for the unusual historic lighthouse which is actually a couple of hundred metres inland from the quayside behind a row of terraced houses.
Nearby is the Rocket House, once used to launch flares and act as a watch house. As you reach the harbour front, you’ll see the old coal staithes from Commissioners’ Quay where there’s a wooden walkway along their length.
The Blyth Boat House and Heritage Centre is well worth a visit and runs open days. A team of skilled crafts people are building a new wooden boat called the Zulu which is an impressive sight. The shed also runs training courses in traditional boat building skills.
Photo And Video Credits
Photographs are by Tammy Tour Guide, Des and Anthea O’Meara, and Denise Wilson.
Drone footage courtesy of Michael Bailey Photography and Creative
Videos by Tammy Tour Guide – and archive video is courtesy of Tyne Tees TV.
Categories: north east england, Northumberland, Sailing, Travel, UK
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