Take a good look at her!
The curves. The canvas. The tempting lines.
The salt, whispering from the crevasses in the weathered wood. The wind, the memory of which is trapped into the folds of the harbour
She is Tres Hombres, Tres for the crew. Trusty, steady, free.
What most might not realize is that she is so much more than an engine-free sailing cargo ship. Sure,
carrying rum, wine, gin, chocolate, and coffee, Tres sounds badass enough.
Her true power, however, lies in bending time and transforming space.
She navigates dimensions and realities with the same grace and ease that she does the waves.
Those stepping aboard soon feel the simultaneous pull of the gravity in one direction, and complete
freedom from it in another. Like surfing a wave on a humongous windsurf board.
In the one sense, the seeming downgrade in lifestyle conveniences common in what
we agree to call the developed world comes crashing down like saltwater splashing
you from behind while you’re scrubbing the pan after the dinner, in the dark, in the cold seawater,
while the world around you rocks back and forth.
Never stable, never entirely clean, all the while clad in layers of slightly damp “warm” clothes.
You know, The Reality.
The Reality of realizing that no other life form we know has showers with hot water switched
on with a turn of a valve. Or a bed that could fit six people, but only one sleeps in it.
The Reality of weightlessness in space and time, head up, gaze tracing the neuro-net
between the stars, back to the immediacy of compass and steering,
when the line between where the ship ends and you begin, blurs, like the horizon
stitching the ocean and the sky. The ship becomes the means through which
you become a complete, inseparable part of the entire world, galaxy, universe.
It is indeed, a transporting vessel, true that.
The Reality that despite our nature and nurture, we are all more similar
than we are different, that deep down we all crave love, understanding, and belonging.
Tres is capable of doing just that. It doesn’t matter where you step on and off.
Remember, she bends time and space. Where and when doesn’t matter.
Sixteen of us started this journey together in Den Helder, four stepping off in Douarnenez,
more joining in Baiona, and so on. Already it feels like parting with family.
Speaking of which, a few days in, with the watch routine setting in, the friendly bickering
between the crew sparkled here and there, adding to the whole family vibe,
no less than grinding more coffee beans than needed (and with a hand grinder no less!)
so that the other watch doesn’t have to do it;
or taking the load off the cook’s shoulders for a day, or taking one for the team scrubbing the toilet,
or rushing to cast off the correct line when in the heat of the moment
a less experienced one mixes them. That’s love and respect.
When you trust someone else – a complete stranger in the case of Tres – to have your back,
to keep watch while you sleep, bake the sourdough bread that you kneaded and put into the pans,
you cede the sole control of the situation, thus becoming part of something larger than yourself.
That’s your belonging.
When you and your crew member dangle bent over a swaying yard, folding the unyielding sail
desperately and fruitlessly trying to convince it to furl
(“Argh – for satan!” – a classic Danish sail coaxing spell),
hear the same response from the sail: “I’m just not meant to furl, hon”, that’s understanding.
And there you have it.
It’s around lunch time, the Tres Hombres is moored in the marina at Le Marin, Martinique.
We have just crossed the Atlantic ocean, and here we are unloading wine we have brought from France, and some empty barrels to be filled with rum. My job for the morning was the ship’s laundry, and I have just returned with a mountain of fresh sheets. As I hang them up to dry in the carribean sun, my crew mates are milling around, carrying out maintenance on the ship to the sound of some roots reggae. Behind me I hear some French welcomes and a visitor being helped onboard. I turn around to offer a smile and am taken a little aback. She is standing on the wooden deck, gazing at the scene, wiping tears away from her eyes.
When living on this ship it is easy to become a little blind. At sea for the crossing, for almost three weeks the ship, sea and the sky was the whole world. It seemed natural that the hull is made of wood, that the foremast hosts four squaresails, that the bow is adorned with carved oak flames, that there’s no engine. It became normal to spend a moment whilst at the helm to notice a new detail in the intricate, dreamlike wood carving behind my head. The fact we were often travelling at 10 knots in the shade of 16 filled sails made sense.
In port however, thanks to our visitors, I was given the gift of seeing the ship again as if for the first time. It reminded me that this boat, its form, its rig, its occupation, its logic are not so commonplace. That the beauty I have been surrounded with since starting to work on the Tres Hombres is not so easily found. The ship emanates the hours of work and love that go into it daily.
It turns out that our visitor had timed her visit very well. Just as she had finished looking around and chatting with some of the crew, others were emptying out the moscatel from one of the barrels, left in there to stop it drying out during the voyage. Together we enjoyed a hearty lunch and a glass of wine from Baiona, as more and more visitors were drawn to this magical ship.
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.
The departure from Baiona went smooth.
The harbor puller dinghy was not ready when we were, so I decided to go on our own propeller device with the anchor ready as a plan B.
Mikael turned the ship around in the harbor and pushed the transom to get some forward speed for maneuverability.
The bay of Baiona looked gorgeous in the warm colors of the sunset. The Dinghy was brought on board at twilight moving phosphorescent plankton when all sails were set.
The open sea welcomed us another time and gave us room to proceed. Night breeze took an hour to come and we could ride fast down the south.
The nights are bright with the moon going along. This is the down wind jibing cruise. A bit rolling though.
Here we come La Palma, for your rum and the bananas…