PC 161 – The Atlantic 1976


Way back in 1975, on a cool autumnal evening in Dempsey Barracks, Sennelager in Germany, I was sitting in my room in the Officers Mess of 39 Medium Regiment Royal Artillery, thinking how the last training exercise had gone. The mess orderly knocked; I had a telephone call, someone called Major Mike May. Hard to believe these days, when communication devices are personal and in your face, or should that be at your ear (?), but the Mess’ telephone was housed in a little cubicle off the main ground floor corridor. Outgoing calls were made via an exchange operator! It was a somewhat airless and dimly lit space, but doubtless privy to countless intimate conversations over the decades. I had sailed with Mike May a few times and this was really our only connection; so I was expecting some sailing-related question, but not: “Would you like to navigate an Army entry in the STA Race next year?”

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The STA (Sail Training Association) was an umbrella organisation for offshore sailing in the UK, but more importantly organised an annual international race for square riggers and sailing ships. (See note 1) I had taken part in its 1969 race from Portsmouth to Skagen in Denmark, so was familiar with its ethos of encouraging youngsters to develop their character through sailing. Additionally in 1974 I had had a fortnight sailing as a Watch Officer on the TS Malcolm Miller, a three-masted schooner. The 1976 race was from Portsmouth, England to Newport, Rhode Island, USA via Tenerife, in The Canaries, and Bermuda. These four legs would be sailed by different crews; we were allotted the Tenerife to Bermuda leg, a distance of just under 3000 nautical miles. Bermuda, an island lying some 600 miles east of the USA state of North Carolina, is 22 miles long but only one mile wide!

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After some crew training in The Baltic we, Mike May as Skipper, me as Navigator and ten other army personnel, flew to Santa Cruz de Tenerife on 21st May 1976 and took over the Nicholson 55ft yacht HMY Sabre.

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Two days later the race to Bermuda started; there must have been about 50 vessels, from huge ‘tall ships’ to lesser mortals like us. Offshore racing is strange; you have a crowded, manic surge across the start line, the skippers set their course and off you go. Most modern yachts can sail just below 40 deg to the wind, the tall ships probably only manage 60 deg; but their speed was much superior to ours, so their passage quite different! I don’t think we saw any other competitors after that first night, such is the vastness of our oceans! It’s a long time ago (!) but I think we organised a watch system of 4 hours on/4 hours off with a ‘dog watch’ to change the routine …… for three weeks.

So ….. days of watch and sail changing, attempting to squeeze another knot out of the yacht and our inexorable progress towards Bermuda. Ripped sails needed mending, gear needed maintaining, bread needed making – or should that be kneading? And with twelve people in a small confined space, the crew needed managing!

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The trade winds are the prevailing pattern of winds found in the tropics, from the east towards the west. Tenerife is some five degrees north of the Tropic of Cancer so we were able to take advantage of these favourable winds, flying the large spinnaker sail almost for two weeks, before a final few days of head winds and heavy seas. Somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic we were becalmed and this gave us all an opportunity to have a swim, although prudence ensured only one crewman was in the sea at any time, the rest maintaining a lookout for sharks!

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…….. and me! (Not thinking how deep the water was!)

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Fresh water was rationed to 1.5 litres per person per day – although we had an extra splash in a whisky at drinks time. The eventual lack of fresh food and the constant exposure to salt water produced some skin issues but otherwise the planned menus worked well.  Sometimes the nights seemed very long …….

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…… and at other times the conditions required much concentration …….

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We checked in with the Race Controllers every day by two-way radio, giving our position and listening to those of the yachts we saw as our competitors! Into our final week and we had head winds which gave us more movement and surprisingly some seasickness!

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No two yachts were the same and there was a handicap system. We navigated by sexton with sun and moon shots, converting our data by way of navigational tables and a Hewlett-Packard calculator the size of a house brick that had some computing ability, to a position on the chart ……. and were very pleased to find the tiny island of Bermuda right on the bow on the 10th June.

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We had arrived in Bermuda at the beginning of the hurricane season, greeted by cloudy and extremely humid weather. The Tall Ships gradually filled up the harbours and small bays and celebrations were numerous and colourful; thousands of young people enjoying a tremendous achievement, crossing one of the great oceans of the world. And if you’ve never tried Planter’s Punch, do so, but do it in the environment for which it was created; doing so back in Germany some weeks later it wasn’t quite the same! But we had done well and somehow managed to win some trophy.

Richard 19th September 2019

PS I even managed to catch up with an ex-school friend who lived there.

Note 1. Founded in 1956, the Sail Training Association (STA) became the Tall Ships Youth Trust. The current Tall Ships’ Races are organised by the Portsmouth-based Sail Training International.

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