Cork to the Canaries (By Ruth Little)  

For the past few weeks I have felt like the luckiest woman in Ireland…

or more precisely, the luckiest woman out of Ireland, as I managed to escape both the northern hemisphere winter and the global Covid pandemic in one fell swoop, by jumping on board the Tres Hombres when it pulled into Cork harbour in early November and running away to the sea. This had been a long held dream of mine, and while I had done a lot of recreational sailing and some off-shore cruising around the Irish coast, nothing could have prepared me for work and life on board one of the few commercial sail cargo vessels currently in operation, and a square rigger at that.

With a cargo of craft Irish beer safely stowed, we sailed out of Cork harbour on Friday 13th, out past the familiar landmark of Roche’s Point lighthouse and into the heavy swell of the North Atlantic. The activity of the first days on that leg to Douarnenez in France are largely a blur, as I tried to become familiar with the boat, the crew and the watch system, which alternated between three four-hour night watches and two six-hour day watches. The weather was very heavy with huge sea swells and winds up to 45 knots. I spent all of my time either trying to sleep or on watch. On deck standing aft, clipped to the safety line, often in the pitch dark, in bad weather conditions with sideways rain and howling winds. The ship was extremely impressive, handling everything the weather and the sea could throw at it with aplomb. It was with some relief when we anchored just off Douarnenez in the wee small hours of Tuesday 17th before being towed into the harbour the following day and tied up alongside. I thought what I have I let myself in for.

However, as eaten bread is soon forgotten, so too were the hardships of the first leg and after a good night’s sleep, a hot shower and a few days rest in this pretty harbour town, the boat and crew, myself included, were eager to take to the sea again. A jib which had blown out on the leg from Cork was repaired at the local sailmakers, the cargo of craft beer was unloaded and replaced in the hold with empty barrels, destined to be filled at ports along the way, and less than a week after arriving, on November 23rd, we were only delighted to be towed back through the tidal gates and out to sea, for the next leg down the Bay of Biscay to Baiona in Gallica, Northern Spain.

The winds were favourable and fresh, and the ship flew along to such an extent that we traversed the Bay of Biscay in only 4 days and arrived in Baiona on the evening of the 27th. We arrived in darkness and I will never forget repeatedly and almost silently tacking this tall ship towards the harbour. The winds were light, and the mate steadily and quietly issued the commands for the jibs on the foredeck, the staysail and bobs amidships and the braces for the square sails aft while the crew responded with whispered affirmations as we slowly made the harbour. Once in the shelter of the harbour, we dropped anchor and tied up for the night before being towed onto a pontoon early the next afternoon.

The Tres Hombres stayed in Baiona for four days during which time the cargo hold was loaded with 39 empty barrels, to be filled later and returned to Europe. The covid lockdown in this part of Spain was not as severe as in either France or Ireland and it was possible for the crew to get a meal in a restaurant or a beer in a bar, once the rules regarding group size, social distancing and the curfews were respected. There was also a free day to explore the coast along the old fort or hike among the eucalyptus trees in the hills above the town, or simply have an ice-cream or a coffee in a local café and watch the world go by before the lines were cast, and the ship departed on 01st December.

The next leg of the journey was 1,000 miles south west to the island of Las Palmas in the Canaries. The Tres Hombres sailed due west from Baiona before picking up a strong northerly wind which took us quickly south. We had fine sunny days with huge blue sea swells topped with white horses. There was almost a full moon and the night watches were brightly lit with moonlight and starscapes. There were squalls, and rainbows, one pair of minke whales sighted, the occasional dolphin, one Mahe mahe caught which was eagerly consumed for dinner and pronounced to be delicious. We hoisted sails and trimmed sails and doused sails and hoisted them again. We tore the gallant one morning and the main ripped along the seam one night, both repaired immediately in-situ. We made great progress and now, less than one week later on the morning of the 7th, our destination is in sight.
As the island of Las Palmas looms large on the horizon, we will soon be tied up in the shelter of its harbour, where cargo will be loaded and unloaded, the stocks replenished, and the crew rested. Some of the officers and volunteers on board will depart here as their part on this voyage comes to its end. I will be sad to see them go, as even though our acquaintance has been short it is quite an intense experience. I cannot thank them enough for the many enjoyable hours spent on watch, shooting the breeze, or saying nothing at all. They will be replaced, and a new adventures and friend ships will be made with those arriving on board. I am lucky enough to stay for one more leg, and travel west, across the Atlantic, and while I know the voyages will not be easy, it is a working commercial cargo vessel after all, I do feel very privileged to be part of this enterprise of emission free trading on the only engine-less cargo sailing ship currently operating.

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