When I was little, my thoughts on potential future jobs were, to say the least, very changeable. I wanted to be (in random order) a scuba diver, circus artist, full-time dog-walker, letter carrier, children’s book writer, medieval outlaw, archeologist, and the first to reach Peter Pan’s Neverland by bike. Among other things, that is. Whatever took my fancy at a particular moment was to be my future occupation. So when I became engrossed in a television series about the adventures of an 18th-century midshipman, and saw a mind-blowing full shot of said midshipman standing bold and lonely in the highest top of a sailing frigate, gazing at the endless mass of deep blue surrounding him, my fickle mind was (for the umpteenth time) set. I wanted to be Horatio Hornblower!
This spring, some fifteen years after the afore-mentioned epiphany, while visiting a Dutch shipbuilding-site I stumbled upon an amazingly authentic replica of an 18th century Russian frigate. Excited beyond words I bounced on board for a two-hour sailing trip. And for two magnificent hours I was a Dutch Hornblower on that Russian Shtandart. It did not matter that I was a complete lubber, that I could barely discern port from starboard, and that I harboured the ridiculous misconception that I could somehow sink the ship by pulling the wrong rope (“Pull this rope, this one, you mean? You sure it’s not the plug…?”). The crew, which consisted of Russian and Dutch volunteers, patiently instructed me and answered all my questions. My childhood dream of sailing on a frigate had come true…but on one significant point. Climbing the rigging and standing in the very top of Shtandart’s thirty meter high mainmast was, due to insurance and safety regulations, out of the question for me. Imagine my vexation! Dutchie Hornblower defeated by sodding red tape! Despite that little hitch, I was in extremely high spirits when I got home that evening, and my now 27-year-old mind was once again set: I wanted to sail with Shtandart, not for 2 hours, but for several days!
My chance came only a few weeks later. There was an opportunity to join the crew as Shtandart sailed from Lelystad, the Netherlands, to Hamburg, Germany. Understanding that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I took a week off from my letter-carrying-duties (yes, at least one of my dream jobs realised…), and boarded the ship on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I was excited, eager, completely devoid of maritime knowledge, and nervous as hell. My nervousness increased when I appeared to be the only Dutch-speaking member of the crew, the other nine (seven men, two girls) were all experienced, sea-faring Russians whose grasp of the English language ranged from ‘pretty good’ to ‘almost zero’. That evening, before I fell asleep in my hammock (a hammock!), I caught myself thinking: what on earth have I gotten myself into?
However, by the time we set sail early the next morning, and waved onlookers at the quayside goodbye, my nerves and second thoughts had vanished completely. The sun was shining, the wind blowing mildly, and I was doing whatever the crew asked me to do. I helped them swab the deck, they taught me how to properly belay and coil a rope, explained the four-hour-watch-system to me, and attempted to teach me difficult Russian words. Barely half an hour after we left Lelystad, they decided that “Esther” was far too awkward a name to pronounce, and I was christened “Pipi”, after Pipi Longstocking, whose Russian counterpart I apparently resembled. I was immediately at peace with my nickname. After all, they could have called me “pimple-face” just as well…
Later that afternoon I did what I had wanted to do ever since I was a twelve-year-old Hornblower enthusiast: I put on my climbing belt, and started to climb the rigging of the mainmast. I went up, and up, and up, until I reached the main topgallant mast. There I was, lying on my belly over the yardarm, surrounded by an endless mass of grey-blue water, the wind tugging at my hair.
Some thirty meters beneath me, the waves gently rocked the ship, and while I surrendered to the see-saw movements of the yard, and attempted to help Alex in securing the stubborn sail, I felt extremely, abundantly, incredibly happy. When my feet touched the deck again some thirty minutes later, the adrenaline rushed through my body, and I spent the rest of that marvellous day grinning like an idiot.
It would require a small book to relate everything that happened during that four-day journey to Hamburg. The captain and crew members were wonderful. Despite my naval stupidity (“please tell me once more: is port left or right?”), my ‘weird’ eating habits (“Pipi, you no like porridge?!”) and my determination to take pictures on the most inconvenient moments and places, they accepted and treated me as one of their own. With my “watch-buddies” I had lovely philosophical chats on Life, Death, Sailing, and Benny Hill. They told me Russian jokes, tried to convert me to snacking sunflower seeds (they failed), revealed the secret of their truly wonderful tea (add fresh pieces of ginger to the pot), and offered me a handkerchief when I indicated that a breathtaking sunrise nearly moved me to tears. That Sascha’s hankie was pretty dirty, snotty and crumbled, did not matter.
What impressed me just as much as climbing the rigging, was standing at the helm. The captain very kindly allowed me to take the helm, apparently having more faith in my navigation skills than I myself had. It took some time for me to get the hang of it (steering a 35-meter-long frigate was quite different from driving my parent’s Ford Fiesta), but I soon developed some ‘feeling’ for the ship. It is nearly impossible to describe what it feels like to be at the helm of such a massive vessel, to feel how it slowly obeys when you change directions and responds to even the slightest turn of the helm.
What more can I add? Shall I describe the magical, otherwordly atmosphere you encounter when you are on deck during the night? The pitch-dark sky, sprinkled with stars, the creaking of the ship, the sea lapping at the wood, the flickering lights on the buoys? Shall I expand on how Kyriell (vegetarian) and me (not very fond of meat either) made breakfast, lunch and dinner, the rest of the crew vainly searching for chunks of meat in their food, and the captain grumbling: “Whoever teamed you two up for kitchen duty, should be punished”? How, after three days at sea, my legs preferred staggering to walking in a straight line once I stepped ashore again? (Redemption for Jack Sparrow: the man’s not drunk, merely land-sick!)
Alas, I lack space, time and energy to write down every memorable thing that happened during my four-day adventure on Shtandart.
After my voyage to Hamburg I became a volunteer. Whenever the ship visits the Netherlands, I try to make time to sail with her or lend the crew a hand with whatever needs to be done. Unlike the majority of volunteers, I am no born sailor. I love the mainland too much to spend more than a few days on board. Yet, in spite of my inherent landlubber-ness, every now and then I am caught by that irrepressible desire to be Horatio Hornblower and stand in the top of the mainmast. Even if it is only for a day, an hour, a minute; who says childhood dreams cannot come true?