It’s noon on Friday, the 22nd of January and the Tres Hombres rolls gently at anchor in Carlisle Bay, just off Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados.
It’s a typical Caribbean scene with white sandy beaches, palm trees, blue skies, azure seas and yachts bobbing at anchor.
However, this year everything is different, it is just so much quieter, the beaches are almost empty, the yachts are fewer in number, there is no music to be heard from the shore at night and the famous annual round island sailing race, that was scheduled to take place yesterday, has been canceled. With no shore leave possible owing to the on-going pandemic, it’s all hands on deck aboard the Tres, and consequently this may be one of the busiest spots in the Caribbean!
The ship is alive to the sounds of scraping, sanding, hammering, sawing and drilling as every surface is cleaned or oiled or painted as part of an on-going schedule of maintenance and repair. I take a break from my work and stand to absorb the scenes, the Caribbean surroundings and the crew on deck busily working away, and I remind myself again that my time on board will soon come to an end as I return to my normal life.
It’s hard to believe that this little wooden ship has been my home for almost three months, and while the time has flown by, it also feels like I have always been here. It will be sad to leave, having traversed more than 6,000 nautical miles of ocean from the southern coast of Ireland, to Brittany, Spain and the Canaries and finally across the Atlantic ocean to the Caribbean. The experience has been immense, from the initial challenging conditions of huge seas and gale force 8 winds off Ireland right down to the “barefoot leg” where shoes and clothes were shed at an alarming rate as we journeyed south and then west across the Atlantic.
The highlights are innumerable, from being towed through the narrow tidal gates in to the harbor at Douarnenez, to tacking silently under the cover of darkness into Baiona, or visiting the observatory at dusk on the top of La Palma and witnessing the clouds fill the valleys below. The transatlantic leg was full of warm fresh days with brisk following trade winds and waves topped with white caps. There were flying fish and falling stars, magnificent sunrises and fabulous sunsets.
The captain always needed more sails and we hoisted everything we had. Mostly we flew along, averaging 7.4 knots, however we were becalmed for a few hours on the afternoon of New Years Eve and jumped overboard to swim in waters 4km deep, hundreds of miles from shore.
We celebrated Christmas, and New Years Eve on board, and toasted old friends and absent friends and new ones. We arrived at St. Annes in Martinique on 4th January, the captain having predicted exactly the date and time of arrival! We took the boat onto the pontoon at marina in Le Marin a few days later to unload barrels and sailed her off like a boss on a fine Sunday morning. There was a leisurely two weeks in Martinique where the watches were filled with bilge pumping and deck washes and splicing and stitching and whipping and sanding and painting as usual, and on the days off we swam and snorkeled and hiked and saw turtles hatching on the beach, and became acquainted with Ti Punch and Planteur cocktails and other creole delights.
But undoubtedly the star of the show was the Tres Hombres herself. The most magical experience of all was just being on a square rig ship under sail and realizing that with some angled spars and squares of canvas and you can travel the world. I’ll forever remember standing at the wheel at night, with a sky full of stars and
16 sails set, running fast down the wind with the sound of the ocean swashing by. It’s like magic. I understand now, the opening sentiment of John Mansfield’s poem Sea Fever when he states “I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky. And all I ask is all tall ship and a star to steer her by”. Indeed. It really is a magical experience.
But in the meantime, there is another week on the Tres to look forward to, with this crew under the Caribbean sun. Today’s labors will be rewarded with a fine meal, a beer, some music and plunges into the sea from a swing hung from the course yard. Tomorrow with anchors aweigh and we run North West with the trade winds towards Martinique, where the boat will be loaded with barrels of rum, which will be swum out to the ship from the shore in what has become an annual Tres Hombres tradition. And then my time with the ship will be up and I must return to Northern Europe and the end of winter and hopefully the beginning of the end of the pandemic, realizing exactly how lucky I was, not only to having escaped it for three months, but for the absolute privilege of doing so on board the Tres Hombres. In the meantime the ship will continue, collecting and delivering cargo, north to the Dominican Republic and then east, back across the Atlantic with a full cargo hold. I will watch her progress from afar, but proud of even my small contribution as part of this enterprise of emission free trading on the most beautiful sail cargo ship in the world.