I've never been so scared in my life - not before or since. Not in East Timor, not Adventurous Training, not when I had a serious horse riding wreck requiring major spinal surgery. I mean truly knee weakening, innards loosening, raw fear.
When I applied for a crew position on the STS Young Endeavour I may have neglected to mention that I was an Army Officer Cadet at the Australian Defence Force Academy, not a naval Midshipman, to secure the coveted spot. I managed to squeeze the cruise in before returning from leave one day late to commence my second year at ADFA in early January 1993. I had secured a slot on the cruise departing Hobart, Tasmania, sailing the north coast stopping at Wineglass Bay, Port Arthur and Maria Island before returning to Hobart.
Although I had to get permission from the staff I don't recall ever mentioning the cruise to any of my classmates. I wanted to avoid being talked about, or putting myself in the spotlight. That's a story for another day.
"STS Young Endeavour is an Australian tall ship. Built by Brooke Marine (which became Brooke Yachts during the vessel's construction), Young Endeavour was given to Australia by the British government in 1988, as a gift to celebrate Australian Bicentenary. Although operated and maintained by the Royal Australian Navy, Young Endeavour delivers up to twenty youth development sail training voyages to young Australians aged 16 – 23 each year. Navy personnel staff the ship and the Young Endeavour Youth Scheme coordinate the voyage program.
During each voyage the ship embarks up to 24 young Australians who learn the skills required to sail a square-rigged tall ship; including how to navigate, keep watch, cook in the galley, take the helm and climb the 30 metre mast to work aloft, setting and furling sails. They are encouraged to pursue personal and team goals and challenges in an unfamiliar environment as they learn to sail a square-rigged tall ship.
Near the end of the voyage, youth crew elect a command team who take full responsibility for Young Endeavour for 24 hours, sailing the ship along the Australian coast...
...The ships motto is Carpe Diem, Latin for Seize the Day"
One of the defining moments of my life was sailing back into Hobart at the end of the cruise. I was on the Dog (or Midnight watch) coming in under power and I heard splashing off the bow of the ship. We switched on the mast top floodlights to see a school of dolphins doing all of the tricks you see in the Marine Parks, tail stands, aerial flips, everything. I think I stopped breathing.
I also remember the moment when I was able to assist a fellow crew member from an underprivileged area of Tasmania partially overcome his desperate fear of heights. I was in heaven sitting alone in the crows nest or hanging off the end of the top yard, but he was truly terrified to leave the deck. I can't remember his name but I can still see the triumphant look on his face when he made it to the lowest yard arm. He stood a little taller when he got back on deck.
I found Port Arthur, the Neck and Maria Island to be hauntingly beautiful, and very, very sad.
Sydney/Hobart Yacht Race fans will remember the 1993 New Years race to be infamous for its record of foul weather and capsizes. The STS Young Endeavour from memory had been tasked as a communications centre and safety support vessel for the duration of the race. If I recall my facts correctly she had been required to physically hole a few capsized hulls to ensure they sank properly - removing shipping hazards from a very busy shipping lane. I do remember seeing paint scars on the hull as I walked up the gangplank to board the ship for the first time.
I was raised in country NSW and although I can swim, I'm not nearly up to swimming the English Channel like one of my classmates attempted recently. The only sailing I had done up to that point was on a little plastic dinghy on a school camp where you could fall overboard into knee deep water. I had never left Australia and had never been out of sight of land. I most certainly was not aware of just how powerful large weather patterns can be at sea, and had no idea that the storm pattern that had almost put a stop to the Sydney Hobart was still flexing its muscles in the Bass Strait.
I love sailing and may have made a service transfer to the Navy except for the fact that I get violently seasick. I mean the kind of seasick where you stop thinking you might die and start wishing that you had.
As we sailed out of the mouth of the Derwent River the swells started to rise and so did my lunch, then breakfast, then last nights dinner, and lunch before that. Three metre waves (that's big for a ship that size) were washing over the gunwales and I was on the watch sailing the ship. So no going below to feel sorry for myself. Eventually I was prostrate on the deck, attached to the ship with the safety line, rolling in the gunwales with the swells and just getting wetter. I was too sick to care.
The STS Young Endeavour is brigantine rigged. She has 10 sails. You can see in the picture that the three sails on the front, or main, mast are square shaped. The main sail is a seriously well constructed piece of equipment designed to withstand prolonged heavy weather. It's big, strong, and well maintained.
Imagine - you're almost catatonic with seasickness and you hear an enormous tearing sound unlike any you have ever heard before in your life. You open your eyes and look up to see a piece of the mainsail, which takes around eight people to haul into place by hand, flying off into the distance like a tissue in the wind. You look around and all you can see is black, heaving ocean to every horizon. You look up to the top of the waves. A Jules Verne reader, you know that there might be "miles of ocean" underneath you. What seemed to be a large, robust, well equipped vessel in port, is dwarfed by the forces around you. For a moment you are glad you are sitting down with an empty stomach, because you know your knees wouldn't have held you. You are glad everything else is empty too.
Do I regret it?