“If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it.” –Jonathan Winters

Diana spent Christmas of 2011 in the Canary Islands aboard the barque Tenacious.

The word “tenacious” is defined as: persistent; stubborn; not easily pulled asunder; tough.  Sometimes I say that “tenacious” is my middle name, so I felt a certain kinship with this ship before I ever stepped aboard.  The tall ship Tenacious is a 65-meter-long barque that, along with her sister-ship the Lord Nelson, was purpose-designed and built to allow people of all physical abilities to sail side by side.

It had been a long journey already.  I had flown from Los Angeles to Philadelphia to Madrid to Tenerife and had changed planes in each of those airports.  The island of Tenerife, my final destination, is in the Spanish territory of the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean off from the southwest coast of Africa.

Since I didn’t speak any Spanish, and most people on the islands spoke no English, we managed to communicate through sign language (pointing, mostly) and the few Spanish words I’d picked up while living in Los Angeles.

The Tenacious, a British ship with an English-speaking crew, would embark on her cruise to La Gomera and La Palma from the city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife.  I arrived the day before the ship’s departure, so I stayed overnight in a pleasant little hotel called the Pelicor, that rose like a tower in a narrow space wedged between two buildings not too far from the harbor. 

My “joining instructions” via email had been rather vague, so I was concerned about how to find the ship.  I had been told to “join the ship between 16:00-18:00” in Santa Cruz.  There was no address, no berth number and no landmarks.

 The email further stated, “Please be aware that it is important that you join the ship at your specified time as there is a legally required safety briefing and introduction to your watch that lasts approximately 2 hours and must take place before each voyage.  Many ports are tidal so the ship has a tight timescale for leaving port.  Time and tide wait for no man!!!!”

 When I got to my room several floors up in the tower, I was pleasantly surprised to find a large patio that overlooked the water.  In the distance, I could see three masts that rose from a ship at the wharf.  “That must be the Tenacious,” I thought, for it was the only barque there.

 After a catnap, I ventured out with the intention of walking down to the wharf to see the ship.  It was nearly an impossible task.  There were construction barriers everywhere and no apparent pathway to get around them.  I returned to my room.

 The next morning, I checked out of the hotel and tried to communicate with the front desk clerk that I needed a taxi to take me to the ship.  He understood “taxi” but nothing else.  Fortunately, a woman who worked in the back office spoke English.  She called a cab for me and had them tell the driver I needed to go to the wharf.

 Of course, the cabbie did not speak any English.  I was concerned we might head back to the airport, but we drove around all of the construction and out onto a causeway that ran parallel to the wharf.  The driver kept asking me in Spanish where he should go (I figured out that much).  I saw the three masts and pointed them out to him.  As we pulled onto the wharf, I still wasn’t sure it was the right ship and shrugged when the driver glanced at me for approval.  Then I saw the words on the side: Tenacious.  I smiled and gave the driver two thumbs up.  We both had a good laugh before I climbed out of the cab and retrieved my bags.

 Onboard the ship, the First Mate showed me to my berth where I stashed my duffle bags and made up my bed.  This would be where I would sleep for the next several nights.

Once all the voyage crew arrived, we had our safety talk and then broke up into our watch groups.  Part of the watch schedule included galley (kitchen) duty.  Mine was on day one.  While initially I had thought how awful it was to have to peel potatoes, serve lunch and dinner, and wash dishes on the very first day of our sail, I realized later how fortunate I actually was.  I didn’t have to do this on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

Every day at 10:00 am while we were under sail, we had “happy hour.”  It’s not what one might think.  It was one hour of cleaning heads (bathrooms), mopping floors, polishing brass and any other tasks that needed to be accomplished.  The Bosun’s Mate was a real taskmaster.  He made sure no one shirked their duties. 

For our hard work, we were rewarded with delicious food, including mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks at “smokers”, which Americans might call a coffee break.

In the afternoon of day one, we motored out of the harbor and then set sails.  We headed north, still under engine power, until we rounded the northern tip of Tenerife and caught the winds on the west side of the island.  That’s when we cut our engine and were actually sailing.

Since the Canaries are volcanic islands, much of the scenery along the way from Tenerife south to La Gomera reminded me of the coast of New Zealand with its black, craggy edifice.  We made swift progress under wind power as we sailed to La Gomera.  The island is the second smallest of the seven Canary Islands and was the last port-of-call for Christopher Columbus before he crossed the Atlantic in 1492.

After only a few hours, we struck sail and motored around a causeway into the deep waters of the port of San Sebastián, where the sheer cliffs of this mountainous island rose straight up out of the water.  We dropped anchor there, and some of the crew jumped into the water for a swim.

Then we took the small boat into the wharf and wandered around the little town where colorful buildings lined the narrow cobbled streets and little boys played soccer.  Many of the gift shops were, surprisingly, owned by Germans who spoke English.

That evening as the sun began to set, the German brig Roald Amundsen motored into the port and anchored near us.  It was a beautiful sight to see, silhouetted in the fiery sunset.

The next morning was Christmas Eve.  We weighed anchor and set sail for Santa Cruz de La Palma, the largest of the western Canary Islands.  As we came into the harbor, we could see the remains of a volcanic cauldron that had collapsed into the water many years ago.

Our sister-ship the Lord Nelson was already there waiting to greet us.  As we glided toward the wharf, “Nellie’s” crew fondly pelted us with water balloons.

Mark, one of our voyage crew who was blind from birth, got hit square in the eye, and water splattered all over him.  He exclaimed, “What was that?!”  We explained it to him and joked about telling our attackers that Mark had been blinded by the balloon.  Then one of the standing crew said, no, we should tell them that Mark was blind and now he can see!  We all had a good laugh over that.  Mark was a good sport, and I think he enjoyed the camaraderie.

We had a full house at the wharf that night, as we prepared for our Christmas Eve feast — a cruise ship and three tall ships: Lord Nelson; Roald Amundsen and the German sail-training barque Alexander von Humbolt II.

After much anticipation, we gathered below in the ship’s salon, stuffed ourselves with traditional British holiday fare and washed it down with some very nice Rioja wine.

When the feasting was done, the carols began.  This was a highlight for me, as I had been a singer in my younger years and had done a lot of choral and solo work.  We sang traditional Christmas tunes, and I soloed on “Silent Night.”  Later, we invited some of the German crew from the Roald Amundsen to come over for drinks, and we sang Christmas carols in German.

 On Christmas morning, we rose early, grabbed sack lunches and boarded a bus for a tour of an extinct volcano on the other side of the island.

I sat with one of the voyage crew from England, a young man who, at the age of 24, had had a stroke.  Doctors had told him that he would never walk again.  Yet now, at the age of 27, he was walking, and not only walking, but climbing the rigging of a tall ship with minimal assistance.  Though he had difficulty speaking, he was able to communicate, and his spirit and strength of character shone through.  He was truly inspiring.  I’m astounded at how powerful the mind can be in overcoming life’s obstacles.

Christmas night, the crew of the Lord Nelson invited us over for drinks in their salon.  As the night wore on, we began to discover that the “Nellie” crew had confiscated a number of items from our ship, including our ship’s bell.  We retrieved what we could and exacted some retaliation in the form of borrowing a few of their items.

The next morning, as we were taking the official voyage photos, the crews called a truce and all items were returned to their rightful owners.  Of course, it was all done in good-jest.

When it was time to depart for Tenerife, we bid farewell to our new friends and cast off from the dock.  I helped to haul in the dock lines, the biggest ones I’ve ever handled.  They were slick with tallow to prevent chafing on the hawse.  What a greasy mess.  But it made my hands soft.

The harbor pilot escorted us out of the harbor, and we set sail for Tenerife.  We planned to be there by the next morning, so we needed to sail all night.

My watch group had watch on the bridge that evening until about 10:00.  It was an exhilarating experience, sailing at night.  We stood on the bridge and surveyed the black water before us that was interrupted only by the white spray of waves tossing in the sea.  We did bow-watch, took turns steering the ship, and monitored wind, temperature, depth and barometer.

After our watch, I went below to take a shower before retiring to my berth.  What a unique experience, trying to balance in the shower as the ship rolled side to side.  It’s all in the timing.

Sleeping under sail was also a first for me.  The ship rocked like a baby’s cradle.  Good thing I had secured my lee cloth to keep from rolling out of my bunk.  My berth was on the hull side, and I could hear the water rush past as I drifted off to sleep.

When I awoke, it was daylight, and we were close to Tenerife.  As we motored into the harbor at Santa Cruz, we laid out the dock lines on the bow and readied for docking.  I operated the capstan that controlled the lines as we tied up to the wharf.

After that, we stripped our bunks, packed our bags, retrieved our passports from the purser and were off to our former lives, yet changed in many ways unknown and untold. 

I stayed on another day in Tenerife to play tourist.  Then I flew in reverse direction from Tenerife to Madrid toPhiladelphia and home to Los Angeles.  It’s a Christmas I’ll cherish forever. 

The Jubilee Sailing Trust (JST), a registered charity in England, owns and operates the Lord Nelson and Tenacious, the only two square-rigged tall ships in the world that have been purpose-designed and built to allow disabled crew to sail alongside able-bodied crew.  For more information on how you can sail on these ships, visit the JST website at http://www.jst.org.uk/.