Most of my friends and family thought I was crazy when I told them for my vacation I was going on an old sailing ship as a trainee in the cold, unforgiving waters of the Baltic Sea in northern Europe. “You have to do what?” they would ask, amazed. “And you’re paying for this?” Okay maybe “working vacation” would be a better way to describe sailing aboard Statsraad Lehmkuhl on a leg of the Tall Ships Races. I couldn’t wait to get started, though, on my trip-of-a-lifetime, first ever, tall ship sailing vacation!
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Tall Ship Sailing Cruise – One for the Bucket List!
Finding the Best European Tall Ship Sailing Vacation
I’ve always been interested in the age of sail and tall ships in particular. I love climbing aboard and exploring all the different deck levels, seeing how life aboard must have been like in the old days, and imagining climbing the rigging and working the sails.
I never thought I’d find a way on board an actual sailing ship, and had given up hope long ago. I’d done plenty of searching but could only find ships that take on trainees between the ages of 15 and 25. Not fair! I thought.
However, then we were in Bergen one winter and I was naturally drawn to the large three-masted barque tied up to the quay in the old harbor. The Stadtsraad Lehmkuhl was in for the winter for repairs and restocking. I was just hoping for a tour aboard when I walked into the small kiosk near the ship’s mooring but was surprised to find that she takes trainees of all ages during normal sailings. I was so excited I booked my summer voyage that evening when we got back to our hotel.
Sail on A Tall Ship as Crew in Europe
Fast forward to summer and I find myself walking through the Turku Tall Ships Festival in Finland looking for my ship, gear slung heavily across my back and shoulders. A real sailor, right? Well, not really. But heading off to sea anyway, hoping that the crew aboard would give me all the training I would need.
I found the ship with out too much trouble and climbed up the gangway. “Trainee Vail reporting for sea duty!” It turns out that most of the ships rent themselves out during these festivals as event venues. Mine was hosting the Turku business leaders with a champagne brunch. I was asked to stow my gear below and leave the ship for a few hours.
I grabbed a hammock off the stack in the sleeping quarters, slung it between two hooks near a port hole, stashed my bags in closet, and went out to explore the hundreds of tall ships and sail boats in attendance for the festival.
I found the ship with out too much trouble and climbed up the gangway. “Trainee Vail reporting for sea duty!” It turns out that most of the ships rent themselves out during these festivals as event venues. Mine was hosting the Turku business leaders with a champagne brunch.
I was asked to stow my gear below and leave the ship for a few hours. I grabbed a hammock off the stack in the sleeping quarters, slung it between two hooks near a port hole, stashed my bags in closet, and went out to explore the hundreds of tall ships and sail boats in attendance for the festival.
On Board The Tall Ship Statsraad Lehmkuhl
Later, back aboard, those of us who had arrived the day before departure enjoyed a simple dinner of salads, salmon, boiled potatoes, and green beans served buffet style in the galley.
Later we were back up on deck for the spectacular fireworks show but eventually I found myself next to my hammock, wondering just how I was going to get from the floor, up into the swinging thing hanging close to the ceiling and at least five feet up in the air.
This is where I realized how smart I was, without knowing it of course, to hang my hammock near the wall. Using a ledge on the wall I was able to pull myself up with some difficulty and into the hammock. This takes more than a little bit of upper body strength and agility, but I never saw anyone aboard that couldn’t manage it without some struggling. Regardless, it was comfortable and I was quickly asleep.
All Aboard and Out To Sea
The next morning I woke to the hammocks jostling by more trainees coming aboard, the smell of breakfast wafting in from the adjacent galley, and the shouts of commands on the deck above and the first preparations were being made to ready the ship for departure.
I clumsily spun out of the hammock, plopped onto the floor, gathered a few things and took a shower, tidied up my sleeping area, and went in for some breakfast. The typical breakfast aboard was porridge, cold cuts (meat and cheese), vegetables (tomatoes and cucumbers), yoghurt, cereal, and smoked salmon. All of it delicious and washed down with plenty of tea or coffee.
The Rhythm Of The Sailing Watches
Up on deck we were separated into three watches of about 25 trainees in each group. These would be my companions for the next several days and we quickly made acquaintances. We were an international crew with some form Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark,Germany, France, Spain, Turkey, and the USA.
We had three crew members assigned to our watch who would instruct us in the fine art of heaving on lines and coiling down ropes. During the watch we were responsible for working the sails, holding various watches like fire watch and lookout, and taking the helm to steer the vessel.
Watches lasted for four hours and ours was the midnight watch so we were on duty from midnight to 4 A.M. then off for eight hours and back on from noon to 4:00 P.M. I quickly settled into the rhythm of the watches and soon fell in love with watching the sun rise shortly before my watch had ended.
Tall Ship Sail Training
Early on in the voyage we were fitted for harnesses and instructed on climbing the rigging. This is what I had been waiting for! Finally I got to climb up the masts and work the sails. This is hard work and more than a little frightening as you find yourself climbing through the last set of rope ladders that hang out at an angle near the top of the mast stages.
You get used to it, though, and soon dangling 30 or 40 feet above the deck or the open water feels natural enough. Besides, there’s too much physical activity to spend too much time thinking about it. We spent the day in training as we were sailing out of port and getting to the race course.
The Tall Ships Race Is On
The weather was beautiful for most of our leg of the race, too beautiful if you ask me! Finally it did begin to rain and blow with gale force winds and the deck was pitching up to 25 degrees. This makes it pretty hard to eat and drink, but sleeping wasn’t a problem thanks to the swinging hammocks.
Sea sickness was rampant, so most trainees are advised to bring along dramamine but luckily that wasn’t a problem for me. The crew was completely exhilarated with the weather, we were finally moving at a good speed, close to 15 knots!
It was exciting to hear the different ships positions coming through the radio and at some point in time on the second night we crossed the finish the line!
The next day and half were spent sailing off the coast of Lithuania. We had arrived too early to go into port so we spent the time climbing in the rigging, coiling the ropes as neatly as we could, and getting the ship ready to show off in port.
Our sister ship came alongside and we dropped anchor and had a barbecue. There was time for swimming, but I decided to pass on taking a dip in the cold Baltic ocean. Soon, our week at sea was over and we motored into the harbor amid the cheers of thousands upon thousands of festival goers.
Are You Interested in Joining the Tall Ships Races?
There are only a few ships that take on trainees of any ages, and those berths can fill up fast. So if you are older than 25 you should make your reservations as soon as possible.
If you’re in between 15 and 25, there’s not as much of a rush and you have plenty of choices. You can find your spot on board on the Sail On Board website or go with my recommendation and sail on the Norwegian ship Stadtsraad Lehmkuhl.
You can also find a spot on board at the last minute by showing up at one of the port festivals during the race. There are almost always berths available (at least for 15-25 year olds) at the Sail On Board kiosk at the festivals.
What To Expect During The Tall Ships Races
Tall Ship races are not pleasure cruises. The crew is in it to win it and every effort is made to coax every bit of speed the ship can possible achieve.
Depending on the wind speed and direction there could be hours on end where you have time to idle along the rail watching the ocean go by without ever touching a rope or sail. Other times you’re at it for hours, trimming sails, tacking, recoiling ropes, hauling on lines, and running to and fro. Personally, I like the activity much more than the idle time.
Preparing for Life Aboard In A Tall Ships Adventure
Find a berth and make your reservations as early as possible. Then increase your exercise routine focusing on upper body strength (push ups, pull ups, weight training). Check your passport and visa requirements for the ports you will be visiting.
This is one area where the authorities look closely at Schengen arrival and departures so all of your paperwork needs to be in order. Your ship should send you a handbook to study, but really, you don’t need to stress too much about not knowing anything before you get on board.
What To Bring On A Working Sailing Vacation
Space on a sailing ship is limited so think carefully about what you will bring. Of course, there are essentials that will take up space regardless. You need real rain gear that will keep you dry and warm.
I brought a rain jacket, overalls, and rubber boots and was happy to have dry feet at the end of my watch. Otherwise, you should also bring a hat, sunglasses, sunblock, and a camera. On my ship the hammock was provided but nothing else so a sleeping bag and small pillow were a must.
Leave your rolling luggage behind, there’s nowhere to stow it on a tall ship. Instead pack everything into collapsible duffel bags (waterproof if possible, but not necessary). It doesn’t get too cold below deck but a good mummy type sleeping bag makes the hammock much more comfortable.