New York Times - Ships and Shipping

Friday, 24 August 2012

Tall orders for ship’s best mate

Cork sailor Olivia Van Walleghem tells Jonathan deBurca Butler about the buzz of taking part in the Tall Ships Race in Dublin
WHEN Olivia Van Walleghem answers the phone a loud crackle shoots across the line. The 22-year-old from Bishopstown in Cork is aboard a German tall ship, The Alexander Von Humboldt II and when we speak she is out at sea, ten miles from Dublin; the final destination of an exhilarating but exhausting 10-day journey from Spain. 

"Amazing, it’s been really brilliant," enthuses the UCD law graduate. "We boarded in La Coruna on Sunday 12th and then sailed out on the Monday and anchored. The race started on the Tuesday and we crossed the finish line [just south of Waterford] on Thursday at midnight. We did quite well in the race too. We came second." 

This is the first time since 1998 that the Tall Ships Race has finished in Dublin. Nearly 50 ships arrived in the capital yesterday and will stay in the city for the next four days. The highlight of the festival will be the Parade of Sail at 11am on Sunday, in which all the ships leave together at full mast. This year’s race began at St Malo in France in early July and since then has visited Lisbon, Cadiz, La Coruna and now Dublin. 

The race was founded in 1956 and is organised by Sail Training International whose aim is "the development and education of young people through the sail training experience, regardless of nationality, culture, religion, gender or social background". 

Van Wallegham, who is also a dinghy instructor, has been sailing "small boats and big boats" since the age of eight. Her participation in the race stems from her involvement with Sail Training Ireland’s youth forum which she heads up in Munster. This is not her first time on a tall ship. She was a watch leader on The Asgard on three occasions. Although she is quite an experienced sailor she was still apprehensive about boarding this particular ship. 

"To be honest I was a little bit nervous about going on the boat with mostly Germans," she says. "I wasn’t sure there was going to be any English-speakers but since I’ve got on board they’ve been lovely. It’s been tremendous. The most difficult thing was adapting to the German commands. You have to work in teams but first I had to run around and find out what the English version [of the commands] was. So that was probably the most annoying thing." 

The ship itself is named after a famed German explorer, Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt, and is affectionately known as the Alex. It is a huge vessel, measuring just under 63 metres in length. It uses 25 sails which are made of just over 1,300 square metres of bottle-green canvas. 

Most people would probably find having to climb its 31-metre masts and take down sails in gusty winds petrifying but Van Walleghem laughs it off. For her the thrill of the sail makes up for any discomfort or potential danger. 

"We have two main masts with five sails each and when they’re not being used they have to be wrapped and we have to tie them. So we have to go up the rigging to tie them and to let them down again when we need them. It’s exhilarating. It’s such a big boat and you have great views from up there. More than anything you feel part of it. You feel you’re able to contribute. Having the sails up and going at full speed is the best part of it," she says. "When we crossed the finishing line we were going at 14 knots, we were just flying along and all that from just sail power." 

Of the 80 crew on board the Alex, eight were Irish. Two had won a competition with a well-known cider producer while the others had, as Van Walleghem puts it, got on board by "word of mouth". The rest of the crew were "young and old and all sorts of different nationalities" while some people from the German navy were on board to do extra training. 

The trainees are divided into three watches of four-hour shifts. During the shift a team can be asked to perform any of several tasks. 

"We need to be on deck to help with whatever sails need to be changed or brought up or let down," says Van Walleghem. "You might have to do lookout or you could get a briefing on steering and you’ll be given a course that you have to follow. If you’re not on watch or it’s not all-hands-on-deck then you’re free to sit around or climb the rigging and take pictures." 

Although she did not have to scrub the deck there was one day of galley work which entailed looking after the kitchen area and serving others food. Van Walleghem took it all in her stride, however. 

"Would I do it again?" she asks. "In the morning. None of us want it to end." 

Source: Irish Examiner, Ireland.

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