>Crewing on a tall ship: 5 handy tips

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In 1802, Matthew Flinders explored and charted the coastline of Terra Australis in the leaking and rotten-timbered sailing ship the Investigator.

In March of that year, when Flinders and the French explorer Nicholas Baudin almost literally bumped into each other in Encounter Bay, South Australia.

Flinders and Baudin’s chance meeting in early 1802 gave the name to a historical re-enactment and program of festivities in that very bay exactly 200 years later, aptly named Encounter 2002.

Early in 2002, as a volunteer crew on Melbourne’s tall ship Enterprize, I was an active participant in the re-enactment of Flinders’ exploration of the coast of South Australia. This was my first foray into crewing on a tall ship for fourteen continuous days, at times out of sight of land, as we planned to follow faithfully in Flinders’ footsteps.

On the 16th March 2002, I joined the rest of the crew in Wallaroo, a quiet seaside town, nestled half way down the west coast of Yorke Peninsula. Wallaroo did not figure significantly in Flinders’ explorations on 1802. Two hundred years later it remained quietly, yet pleasantly unimportant.

On this first day of our journey we were stretching our legs from the two-hour train-trip from Adelaide, anxious to be off on our epic adventure. Slinging our bags over our shoulders, we took a left turn out of the train station and headed down towards the sea.

Tip number 1: join a tall ship as crew and you will become a vital member of a very special team: and you will work hard, maybe harder than you have ever worked in your life.

The hot southern sun glowered down from an eye-achingly blue sky. We trudged silently down the main street, towards the place that would be our nautical home from home.

The smells of the sea wafted up the street towards us in waves of sharp saltiness, stronger than the smell of bakeries, stock feed depots and petrol stations that we passed on the way. We knew we were going to leave those sights and smells behind for an altogether simpler olfactory menu of canvas, oiled wood, wholesome food, and occasionally, diesel.

Finally stepping from the land out onto the pier, getting closer to the Enterprize, we all took in the squat bulk of her from her topmast down. We welcomed the sight of her great broad counter stern, and getting closer still, the three-metre tiller hewn from a single piece of redgum, so thick a human hand could not encircle the narrowest part of it.

Tip Number 2: Tall ships, no matter if it’s a ‘small’ coastal trading vessel, or a four-masted barquentine, are big, and heavy, and they will crush you if you make a mistake. A block swinging across on an out of control spar can break bones if anyone is in the way.


Enterprize is a faithful copy of the ship purported to have been instrumental in the settling of Melbourne. The original sailed from Tasmania in 1835, bringing settlers, goods and supplies, to settle the new Victorian colony on the southern bank of the Yarra River, near the intersection of present-day William and Flinders Streets.

Made entirely of recycled Australian timber, the ‘modern’ Enterprize has sails of flax, and lines and rigging of hemp protected with stockholm tar. Under a hot sun, stockholm tar slowly melts, coating the hands of the crew. We knew we had two weeks ahead of us, vainly fighting the tar filling the cracks in our weathered hands, smudging our forearms and jeans, and occasionally getting in the corners of eyes as we wiped sweat from our brows.

Standing next to her, the pier under our feet was the last finger of land we would set foot on for a while. Slowly bobbing up and down to an incoming swell, her mooring lines were taught and creaking. The rubber air-filled fenders that protected her woodwork from the cement piers, and protected the piers from her 65 ton bulk, were as big as beer barrels, quietly huuuumphing and whooomphing as the ship’s bulk squeezed them against the pier, setting up a sotto voce conversation between her and us.

The massive booms of the main and mizzen, each at least seven metres long and as thick as a grown man’s waist gently rocked in their rope cradles to the barely perceptible swell coming into the bay.

Tip number 3: You will learn to ‘hand, reef, and steer’: that is, to lay aloft and safely and competently handle a very large sail, to reef the sail, and to steer the vessel.

The next morning, after taking on a hundred litres of fresh water, the call came out from the Bosun:

“Cast off all lines! Make ready to get underway!”

Half an hour later we had cut all ties to the land, the diesel auxiliary was silent, and we were quietly mooching along under full sail 10 nautical miles from Wallaroo. The massive girth of Enterprize was healing ever so gently to the push of 15 knots of breeze, with a bubbling and chuckling bow wave that was clearly audible, even through the 3-inch thick timber of her hull.

After a restorative two-hour sleep in the early afternoon, unfolding myself from my cot, I came on deck to look out and see that we were passing Wardang Island, off Port Victoria.

“Stand by to change course sou’ sou’east!”

With that, we slowly turned for Port Victoria. Ghosting along to the massive Port Victoria pier, at the last minute all sail was doused, the auxiliary diesel roared to life, and the impish and excitable first mate fired the brass cannon.

Long past it’s between the war-years heyday, when four-masted barquentines from around the world would anchor in the bay to take on phosphate or wheat, the wharf at Port Victoria still had a weighty and substantial presence.

Towering over the water, a thick patina of nitro phosphate fertiliser dust covered every surface and light pole to the height of a man’s head.

The next day we sailed out and headed south for Port Turton, which was nestled on the top of the boot of Yorke Peninsula. The wind had picked up to 20 knots, the waves were choppy and bouncy, and a growing swell lifted us along. The sea gets occasionally confused off this part of the coast of Yorke Peninsula. The ocean is deeper, as the continental shelf drops precipitously away. The sea is an ominously deep and dark shade of blues and greens. It is a shipwreck coast.

Tip number 4: you will learn to face some new fears, and to take calculated risks.

The prevailing swell that tumbles up from the Southern Ocean bends around this protuberance of the peninsula, like a giant hand from a giant arm, sweeping under sailing vessels bobbing like apocryphal corks on water.

Flinders made this observation as he passed through:

At sunset, the land was seen…and the wind favouring us a little we made a stretch for it. A fire upon the shore served as a mark to steer by; and on approaching it at 10 o’clock, the anchor was let go in 6 fathoms, upon a bottom of course sand and small stones; the weather being fine and moderate off the land.

After three days at sea, we were hardening up. Replete with the previous night’s feast of crabs and beer and not much else, the next morning the tabernacle in the bow slowly raised the anchor, and we were under way once more.

A new course was set 295° west-nor’-west to take us out of the bay, to sling us around, out and down, towards Investigator Strait, the deceptively hazardous channel of deep water between the mainland and Kangaroo Island to the south.

Drawing a tangential line from the bottom tip of the cape in the west to the eastern tip of Kangaroo Island, our first heading set us on a south-easterly course to graze past the Althorpe Island sector light.

The last smells of the day dissipated. The warm odour of the wooden deck and the pungency of the sticky stockholm tar, enlivened by the sun’s heat, slowly faded into the air of the night. The chicken stew that was brought up from below in a single baking dish that we all took turns dipping into, passing a few spoons around to save on washing up, sat forlornly on the coach house roof.

Two hours after nightfall we were rolling along under full sail, the prevailing westerlies coming across our stern quarter. We were on an easting course, 100° on the compass card, heading for American River on the west coast of Kangaroo Island.

The dark of the night came on, and on we sailed, all sails set. Filled with wind, the sails pulled on the lines, setting up a pattern of creaking and cracking and clancking in the blocks and tackles.

Another crewmember and I had been allocated the midnight to 2 AM watch. While the rest of the crew slept we kept her alive and boiling along, the westerly swell lifting her up from the stern, gently rocking her as it passed metronomically underneath. It was soporific, but neither my crewmate, nor I, nor the Enterprize, was going to sleep just yet.

Apart from a white masthead light, and the red and green of the port and starboard navigation lights, the only light in the dark was the green glow of the compass card, gyroscopically wallowing in its binnacle, just in front of the massive redgum tiller. The inky black sea tumbled past.

We looked out to the night, and the Milky Way seemed close enough to touch. We were silently awed by the spectacle of simply so many stars so close in the night sky. Three shooting stars punctuated the hours and minutes of the watch. The single square topsail was set above us, a large black rhomboid, stretched taut in each corner under the strain of the following wind, as the ship rocked and rolled to the swell.

Tip number 5: If you are a crewman on a tall ship, there is absolutely no doubt you will be richer for the experience. Life will definitely never be the same.

We passed in the night the very coast that Flinders gazed out upon in the day. He wrote in his log:

Neither smokes, nor other marks of inhabitants had as yet been perceived upon the southern land, although we had passed along seventy miles of its coast. It was too late to go on shore this evening; but every glass on the ship was pointed there, to see what could be discovered.

The next morning, after a short sleep, I was back on deck as the sun rose in the overcast gloom of the east. Numb with sleep deprivation I showered, and was given time off to sit on the cover of the hold and read a book in the warming sun.

We anchored in the mouth of American River, so named for the number of trading visitors from that land who tried to make a fortune in the sealing industry.

Flinders had this to say about his visit two centuries ago:

The whole ship’s company was employed this afternoon, in skinning and cleaning the…(many)…kangaroos…(shot earlier that day); and a delightful regale they afforded, after four months privation from almost any fresh provisions. In gratitude for so seasonable a supply, I named this southern land Kangaroo Island.

Matthew Flinders’ quotes taken from: A Voyage to Terra Australis

Enterprize will be at the inaugural Melbourne Wooden Boat Festival, 19-21 February 2010.

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