What's It Like to Sail Around the World?

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March 12 2014 8:58 AM

What's It Like to Sail Around the World?

Aboard the Picton Castle

Courtesy of Kate Addison/Picton Castle

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Kate Addison, sailor, accountant, and hopeless wanderer:


I sail as a purser aboard Barque Picton Castle, a traditional square-rigged sail training ship best known for her global circumnavigations; it takes us about year to sail around the world. And what better way to spend a year? 

Trainees don’t need any sailing experience to apply—they just have to be ready for the physical and social demands of living and working in a small ship crossing big oceans. It’s hard work and not for the faint of heart or self-important.

In the words of Richard Henry Dana in Two Years Before the Mast, “The beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the commonplace, and the solemn with the ludicrous.” But the beauty truly is incredible, and I’ve never met a sailor who didn’t have a sense of the sublime.

The Picton Castle's sails

Courtesy of Kate Addison/Picton Castle

Picture a night on the open ocean: The ship marks the center of a great circle of unbroken horizon, her sails rising high up above the decks making a pale pyramid that quiver and creak softly as the warm trade winds fill the sails and tug at the manilla rigging. The hull gently rises and falls on the broad Pacific swell. The stars are bright here, well away from the polluting lights of land, and they become gradually familiar over long ocean passages as they process slowly across the heavens night after night, watch after watch. Maybe there are dolphins playing in the bow wave. Maybe there are shooting stars. You will probably have some time to sit with your shipmates on the quarterdeck, telling stories and learning from one another and the professional sailors. Maybe it’s your turn on the helm, steering the ship using a compass, stars, and the wind to keep your course straight and true. Maybe the mate on watch will call for a sail to be set, trimmed, or taken in, and you’ll know which lines to rush to and haul away until you hear the order: “That’s well, make fast.”

Finally, morning comes. The dark gradually becomes less dense until the first gleams of light rise above the horizon. The pinks and gold that glow across the sky are as awe-inspiring as any cathedral. Take a minute to look around, to breath the salt air, and feel the sense of wonder and contentment.

And then sun’s up and it’s time for deck wash, fresh water rinse, hands to braces, trim the yards, tidy the scullery, set up for breakfast, wake the watch below, final ship check. All’s well. And the 4-8 watch are mustered and stood down, with eight hours to snooze, chat, study, play guitar, and generally do as they please before mustering again for their evening watch.

Sailing is closer to real life than anything else I’ve ever experienced. Everything become simple; nothing is meaningless. We have ample supplies of everything, but nothing to waste. Fresh water, electricity, food, sandpaper, time. So we are careful with all of these things and develop a sense of what is necessary and what is not. The crew members are not consumers, nor passengers, but an integral part of the ship herself. They run up aloft to loose the top-sails, stand lookout, keep the ship clean. They learn to stitch sails by hand, and all of our cotton canvas sails are made aboard during our voyages. They can learn elements of rigging, ship maintenance, and engineering, as well as the basic sailors skills of how to “hand, reef, and steer.”

The islands and ports we visit are incredible in their diversity. We call at some of the most beautiful, interesting, and remote places on the planet, and the welcome and generosity we receive from the local people all around the world is consistently astonishing.

From the mythical islands of the Galapagos and the laid-back gorgeousness of Aitutaki to the chic and bustling international hub that is Cape Town, we really do call at some of the best places in the world.

But for me, life is just better at sea.

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