I saw three ships…

Fiona Mathieson

In September 1998 my subscription copy of Sailing Today arrived in the post, what I didn’t know then was that it would change my life. The magazine contained an article about a company called Square Sails shipyard based in Charlestown, Cornwall who run a fleet of 3 wooden square rigged ships. I was intrigued to read that they were also planning to run a training course in traditional skills and seamanship. I decided to ring and find out more, I spoke to Marketing manager Chris Wilson who promised to send me further details as soon as these became available. The details arrived in November and in December I visited Charlestown for the first time.

On a cold but bright day in December I met Chris Wilson and George Fairhurst the course director who gave me a guided tour of the 3 ships and the workshops. Afterwards I adjourned to the pub to make my decision over lunch. I then returned to the office and signed up. The course was due to start in February 1999.



I arrived in Charlestown on Saturday 13th February and was allocated a berth on Phoenix, the smallest of the fleet, an 112ft brig. Spent the weekend settling in.

Monday 15th February, first day of the course, had a welcome meeting with the staff and owner Robin Davies and began getting to know the other 15 trainees.

The next day the course began in earnest with a lesson in the historical differences of the ships and our first lesson in splicing and serving. The rest of the week continued with daily clean-up, deck wash, rig climbing practice and beginning to bend on Phoenix’s sails the weather was against us with heavy rain “stopping play” on more than one occasion. We then retreated to the sail loft for a lesson from Alf in the types of rigs and sails. At the end of the second week we were ferried off to Falmouth for our RYA Sea survival course. I found this to be an interesting day and one that I can recommend to every one who takes to the sea. It reinforced for me the well-known adage that you never get into a life raft unless you can step up into one. At the weekend we attended our RYA Powerboat level 2 course. During the course we practised in 4 different types of powered craft, a displacement boat with inboard diesel, a small RIB with wheel steering, a punt with a 6hp outboard and the best fun of all a 140hp inboard jet powered RIB, which did 30 knots. We performed varying manoeuvres including coming alongside, MOB drill, figures of eight, picking up moorings and high speed turns. A thoroughly enjoyable and worthwhile weekend.

March began with the first of many tests, both written and practical. It was a busy month and at times frustrating as the work preparing the boats for the season began to slowly take precedence over course work. We had sail furling practice and learnt how to do round and flat seizings for tensioning the rig but we also had to do a lot of scrubbing, sanding and painting. At the end of the month Phoenix left for the annual slipping at Polruan this was a hard but rewarding week. We learnt how to caulk and pitch seams and apply tingles and the week ended on Good Friday with a big antifouling session and a long evening in the local pub. We left the slip at 5.30 the next morning and feeling rough from the previous nights celebrations, I felt relieved when we finally locked back into Charlestown. On Easter Monday the rest of the trainees joined Phoenix for 3 days of sail training. We set sail and practiced tacking, wearing and MOB drills, and then anchored at Mevagissey overnight. The next day we had more drills but also more wind with a NW 6 setting in by the afternoon, it was then that we had our first go at reefing the topsails at sea, a few of us found this scary as the sea was quite bumpy. We went alongside in Falmouth for the night. The third and final day was a recap of the past 2 days, fortunately the wind had abated and all sail was set as we headed back to Charlestown.


The next week that followed was a busy one for myself and the 4 other trainees that were to go on Phoenix’s first trip of the season, to Padstow for the “Fish-n-ships festival”. We departed Charlestown on the 13th April and anchored the first night in the Helford River. The next morning the wind strengthened and a call for “all hands” was made to furl the topsails, as we did so a squall came through with large hailstones and I felt the surge of adrenaline as I climbed aloft. A few of our voyage crew began to suffer the mal-de-mer and I helped them to their bunks. After attempting to round the Lizard and not getting anywhere our skipper George decided to return to Falmouth. The next morning saw an improvement in conditions but the wind was on the nose and we were motoring, it was my first time around Land’s End so I was happy to be on the helm as we rounded the Runnelstone that evening. We arrived in Padstow at 6.30 in the morning and worked until lunchtime then went into harbour watches. It was an enjoyable and not too taxing weekend with Phoenix being open to the public and the crew taking turns to be in attendance at the evening functions. We departed Padstow on the Monday morning; the conditions were good at first but then began to deteriorate with the wind becoming SE 6-7. I was helping in the galley, which was fast turning into a war zone as Phoenix rolled and pitched about. In the evening we anchored in St Ives until the early hours when the wind veered southerly and our weather window became open. The sea was still sloppy and we were motoring, the forecast was for a SW 8-9 so we headed for Penzance. The vessel’s owner Robin was fretting as all 3 of his ships were in the western approaches with a severe gale forecast. We made it safely into Penzance; the Earl of Pembroke was not so lucky as she broke her jib boom as they entered a choppy Charlestown harbour after returning from a film trip to Morocco. The third vessel Kaskelot was sheltering behind Lundy on her way to dry dock in Milford Haven. We remained in Penzance for two days where we prepared to leave for the next charter to the French coast. On board for this charter we had the author Sam Llewelyn and yachting photographer Ian Dalgleish. We left with a NW 4-5, which gave us nice sailing and a chance for the photographers to go to work. We arrived the next day in Cameret, which is a pretty French town with nice bars. We left the next morning for Douarnenez and after arrival there we had a trip laid on for us to the maritime museum, which contained some interesting craft. Departed Douarnenez Sunday 25th and motored back to the Fal River and up to Malpas, a very nice peaceful spot. The next day we were back in Charlestown.

The next voyage on Phoenix was to be the pilgrim voyage to La Coruna, which was due to leave in 8 days. We had been told that 4 trainees would be able to go on the voyage but we then heard that it had been cut to two. We all wondered who that would be. We weren’t told until the day of departure, which left us all feeling rather cheated. Unfortunately I wasn’t one of the chosen ones so moved over to my new home the Earl of Pembroke. The next couple of weeks were spent learning navigation and canvas work. On the 23rd May Kaskelot left for a trip to France with most of the trainees on board. I stayed behind with 2 others to help rig the Earl’s new jib boom and mizzen topmast. At the end of the week we had one days filming withPhoenix to shoot a final sequence to the film “Shaka-Zulu” which the Earl had been filming in Morocco. The following week George announced to us the crew lists for the next big trips aboard Phoenix and Kaskelot. Luckily I was chosen to go to Ireland on Phoenix.


Plagued by headwinds

Plagued by headwinds

We departed for southeast Ireland on Monday 7th June. The passage to Dunmore East was plagued by head winds. We were however visited by Dolphins. When we arrived in Dunmore the first thought on everyone’s mind was a pint of Guinness the first of many consumed that week. The next morning we departed for the short sail round to Kilmore Quay. The welcome we received was wonderful, this was partly due to local crew member John Murphy having organised this section of the voyage. We were also to meet up with the Irish lads who sailed the Earl of Pembroke to Morocco. The atmosphere over the next few days was one that I will remember for a long time. The local pubs were a treat with Irish music and Guinness flowing merrily. Whilst staying in Kilmore, John had organised for us a trip to see the Dunbrody, which unfortunately has now run out of money before nearing completion. It was very sad to see such a well-constructed project possibly set to become a museum piece. Whilst we were at Kilmore Phoenix had been open to the public every day with many curious locals coming to visit. We finally left Kilmore on Monday 14th with a fabulous send off from the local people. We were bound for Dun Laoghaire, a passage with little wind and thick fog, we anchored off to wait for a berth to become available and finally got alongside by early evening. This was a fleeting visit, as we had to leave the next morning, I remained on board as I was on watch duty. We left Dun Laoghaire with a wind that finally gave us good sailing a SW 4-5 with Phoenix making 8 knots. I had been struck down by a flu-like virus and wasn’t feeling my best. We were on passage for Liverpool to attend the Mersey River Festival.

When we arrived in the river we had to set sail for a photo shoot in front of the Liver building, we then berthed in the Albert Dock alongside a pub. During the festival we were kept busy as Phoenix was open to the public and we had shanty singing groups on board. We were due to leave Monday but the wind blew hard and Topsy our skipper decided not to leave until Tuesday. We departed the Albert Dock at 0600 following out two German naval vessels and headed for Port St. Mary, Isle of Man. We had new charter guests on board and they seemed to be enjoying this extra treat, en-route to Whitehaven. We called in at Peel the next day then left for a windless passage with the sea like glass arriving at Whitehaven in time for tea. The next day began with maintenance in the morning followed by a tour of Jennings Brewery in the afternoon, where an attempt was made to drink it dry, but; failed when the bar closed. The Festival drew a big crowd and many people trod the decks of Phoenix yet again. Two friends from the Royal Northumberland Yacht Club at Blyth appeared and a night on the tiles was arranged. The fireworks were a total wash out and we all got thoroughly soaked to the skin as we dashed from pub to pub. The next day left me nursing a hangover. I was off until suppertime as my mother and partner Simon were coming over from Newcastle for the day. After they had gone preparations were made for leaving, as we had to lock out at midnight. Topsy had hoped that we would be able to go back to Ireland, but as the weather was threatening to change we had to head straight for Charlestown. This was a pleasant but tiring passage with a mixture of good sailing and head winds. We finally, locked back in on Thursday 1st July.

We arrived back to a hectic Charlestown with filming taking place for “Longitude”- a film based on the Dava Sobel novel. I had to move onto Kaskelot the next day, as I was to be going on her voyage to Rouen. The next couple of days were very tiring and not very rewarding as the few of us who were not involved in the filming found that we still had to do a lot of connected work and I didn’t manage to get any time off before our departure four days later.




Kaskelot departed for Rouen on the 5th July. As it was a bigger crew we were in 3 watches, which gave you a bit more time for rest than a 2-watch system. Kaskelot is a 3 masted barque and at 153ft long is Square Sails’ largest vessel. The wind was WNW 3-4 when we left so we set all squares and nearly all the fore and aft sails. I spent the next couple of days suffering from information overload as I began to get used to yet another pin-rail. The sailing was good and the wind remained constant and steady. We arrived at the entrance to the Seine and anchored to await our pilot. I was on watch 0400-0800 the next morning and when I arrived on deck the pilot was on board and there was thick fog as we travelled up the river. I was placed on bow watch until we began to furl all the sails. We arrived alongside our berth at 1700. Kaskelot was to be in Rouen for 10 days for L’Armada Du Siecle, which was a large, tall, ships gathering. We were to host 3 on board functions per day so it was lucky that we had 2 French native crew members to act as interpreters. The crew were divided into 2 harbour watches and we worked 8 hours on, 8 hours off throughout the festival. The night watch was divided so that we each had to do 1 hour 40 minutes.

The Festival was very busy and the weather scorching hot. Some of the caterers were kind to us and supplied wine for our meals. On Bastille day two more trainees arrived with marketing manager Chris Wilson, that night there was a big corporate party on board which went on until the small hours. The rest of the week proved tiring and everyone was relieved when the day of the “Parade de Armada” arrived. All the vessels were given a number and tugs were towing many of the larger ships away from their berths. We departed around 10.00 when our pilot arrived. It was to be a parade of motor as the wind was on the nose as we went down the river. The banks were lined with thousands of people and we had French festival organisers on board for the parade. At Le Havre we picked up 8 charterers for the trip to St. Malo. A busy passage with lots of setting and furling of sails the engine began to have problems and a new part was needed and as we had passengers on board our skipper John Bates decided that we would take a tow into St. Malo. We locked in at 1700 on Tuesday 20th July and we were to stay there for the next couple of days whilst the engine part arrived. It was my first visit to St. Malo and I found it to be quite a picturesque town. On one of my wanders I found Royalist the Sea Cadet Corps brig, which had been the first square rigged vessel that I’d ever sailed on. I bumped in to some of the crew and chatted about my latest endeavours with Square Sails.


The next morning we left St. Malo and set sail for Liverpool where we were to be filming David Copperfield for the BBC. After Liverpool it was then back to Charlestown before Kaskelotwas off to Plymouth for the Eclipse. Three other trainees and I left Kaskelot at anchor outside Charlestown and moved back onto the Earl of Pembroke to help prepare her for an eclipse charter in St. Austell bay. This was a busy week and on the day of the eclipse it was cloudy and we only managed to get a glimpse of the event but the darkness was an eerie and memorable experience. At the end of the week I left Charlestown for a fortnight’s holiday.


Upon my return from my break I learned that the course was terminating at the end of September and the exams would be taking place on the 29th. There were many reasons behind the courses early termination one of them being that several of the male trainees were getting the opportunity to spend 3 months in Turkey filming Jason and the Argonauts. I was disappointed that the course was finishing early but we were allowed to remain in Charlestown until the filming of Pandemonium. I’m pleased to say that I passed all the exams and I finally left Charlestown on the 22nd October.

You may well ask, was it worth it? On the whole I would say yes. I learnt a lot and was at times stretched both physically and mentally but that’s what challenges are all about I think that’s why most of us go sailing because the sea is the most unpredictable beast and two days are never the same. I only wish to say thank you Sailing Today and thank you Square Sail.

Square Sail’s website can be found at <www.square-sail.com>