Written by Jake Taylor
Jake Taylor is the Training Coordinator at Outward Bound Hong Kong, and he has been working in outdoor adventure education since 2006. He is originally from a small town in Georgia located in the southern part of the United States. He is passionate about education and using the outdoors as a medium for personal development and connecting people with the natural world.
Every time that I am beginning a course I find my mind racing. At times I find I am thinking so fast, I am almost not able to process most of what comes up. My mind is pouring over logistic plans, curriculum options, my personal equipment, potential sessions, etc. It can be quite nerve-wracking at times. I have learned that it is a fairly normal routine my mind goes through, so I try to harness it by making lists of what comes to mind. In many cases, this has worked to my advantage by allowing me to better improvise.
Outward Bound Hong Kong is an interesting, diverse, and complex school. In certain activities, they have the ability to run some unique and adventurous courses that few organizations are able to provide around the world. The one I am about to embark is an example of one. Sailing offshore from Hong Kong through the South China Sea to Taiwan. I would compare it to traversing a glacier, which is quite an exciting and dangerous passage, especially with a group of novices. At times it can be very apparent about the dangers and risks, and at other times it can be quite masked, such as a crevasse covered by snowpack.
The ocean can be inviting, it can lull you into a sense of comfort as the ship rocks back and forth with the swell. The wind filling the sails and cooling your skin as it blows past. It can turn to adventure where the winds are blowing off caps as your hair and clothes ripple backwards. The boat climbing over swell and crashing into the next sending spray over the bow. It can turn scary and mean with dark clouds on the horizon that turn the beautiful blues of the ocean deep into oily dark greys. Then it can turn dangerous, where the steering is difficult, and it takes all your effort to stay in place.
The Spirit of Outward Bound has sailed around the world twice against the prevailing winds and currents.
The first day of the course with the group involved ensuring clear expectations were set in regard to safety and leadership for the voyage. The skipper made it quite clear when he told everyone, “the Spirit of Outward Bound has sailed around the world twice against the prevailing winds and currents. She is a strong and sturdy vessel, though she has only one weakness. She can’t do it alone! Remember that you are all crew of this vessel and not passengers.”
Our first day of sail training started with a bit of theory and classroom style explanation before jumping into it. The day prior was filled with course expectations, going over gear, provisioning the ship, moving onboard, and safety drills. No time yet for sailing.
Being on such a large ship, it can be quite difficult for beginner and novice sailors to understand what it is going on. The sheetlines can be about as thick as a normal person’s forearm, and the headsail is larger than most ship’s mainsail. The reaction time of the ship is slower, and it requires a large crew to tack and gybe. At the very least the classroom session helped to provide a basic understanding of the angles the ship can sail to the wind, and how the sails should be set up.
Demonstrating, explaining, assisting, coaching, and supervising was a constant throughout the day. Making sure that people were aware of how to be safe when using winches, releasing lines, and moving around on and below deck. By dinner time, everyone was tired but excited from the progress the crew was making.
The final day of training before departing Hong Kong waters and heading for the open ocean. The morning had a beautiful sunrise off of Ah Kung Wan. The winds were again in our favour to fill the sails, yet not to the point where it was too difficult for the crew.
We continued to practice tacking and gybing while rotating them through the different areas. Running backstays, headsail sheets, mainsheets, helming, staysail sheets, and lookouts. They are all starting to realize the importance of coordination and communication. It makes the sailing more efficient, and if done poorly it can lead to personal injury or damage to the ship.
Throughout the day we made sure that everyone was familiar with what to do for a Man Over Board, Fire, and Abandon Ship. Having been offshore racing with a group of competent sailors, it’s highly important that everyone is familiar with what to do in an emergency. Most people tend to freeze up in high-stress situations, so the constant reminders would hopefully provide them with enough memory to go by in case something did happen.
Later in the afternoon, we brought the ship alongside the jetty at the main Outward Bound base at Tai Mong Tsai Road. We did a final provisioning for the trip, refilled water, and welcomed aboard another Mate and relief Skipper. We also took some well-needed showers before setting off, since there would be minimal water for personal hygiene until we arrived in Taiwan.
We had an early morning departure with a final send-off from some Outward Bound staff at 0700 with the “Blue Peter” waving us farewell from the flagpole. It served as a fitting reminder of the origins of Outward Bound and what it continues to provide for its students. The parting words as we crossed the jetty to the deck of the Spirit were still resounding in my ears, “ships are safe in the harbour, but that is not what ships were made for.”
We had light winds for our departure, so a large portion of the morning and day were motor sailing out of Hong Kong SAR waters. This was fine by me since there are many dangers for coming in and out of port. Hong Kong and the ports along the South China Sea have a lot of traffic from large commercial vessels to pleasure crafts to fishermen. For some reason, ships like to run into each other. That tends to be one of the leading types of accidents for damage and death. I found it strange and disturbing coming across that nugget of information!
At some point, the water changed from having some dark green and blue hues to brilliant blue. Its colour looks so inviting, almost that it would have a wonderful taste to drink. Though I am reminded of the old sailing phrase of, “water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.”
Everyone is starting to get used to the routine of watches as well as being offshore on the boat. There was a bit of sea sickness at the start, and now everyone appears to be getting on with it. It’s still difficult at times for some people to be down below deck for lengthy periods of time unless they’re horizontal in their bunk.
The watches are set up as three groups with five to six people in a watch. There is two staff attached to each watch with the expertise and physical skill spread throughout. The process is three hours on, three hours off, and three hours on standby. The time on is above deck sailing and being on alert, even if that is from 0300-0600. The watch that is off is able to sleep or relax, and they’ll only be called on if there is an emergency. The stand-by watch may be cooking or cleaning and ready to come up to assist if needed. Though usually, they are resting as well.
The stars during the night on the open ocean are such an amazing site.
The stars during the night on the open ocean are such an amazing site. Since there are no hills or mountains around, there is a much more sky to view. For people from Hong Kong, viewing stars this way is an occurrence only a few people get to experience. Especially when you get to use them as navigation aids. Setting up a course and heading, then lining up a constellation on the spreaders coming off the mast!
I have just finished a decent meal of spaghetti and chilli con carne with a vegetable soup. The soup was comprised of a few vegetables that were beginning to turn and whatever else seemed worthwhile to throw in. The combination of lettuce, mushroom, potato, celery, cucumber, and a few other odds and ends turned out to be quite delicious.
During the night the winds picked up and were blowing a lovely 14 to 18 knots. We had some excellent sailing this morning with a SOG of 8-9 knots. The next watch decided that was a bit much and dropped the staysail. After coming back on deck later that day, we were still able to hold 8 knots.
The crew is an interesting variety of people.
The winds have slacked so now we are under motor again. It’s probably one of the most annoying ways to travel on the sea. The engine is loud, and it makes much of the ship vibrate and shake. I hope that people get back to sailing and find that it is in many cases a more appealing way to travel.
The crew is an interesting variety of people, both from those selected by Outward Bound to conduct the course and the student crew. The students range in age from 22 up to 63. They are married, single, with and without children, retired, seeking retirement, etc. All on a sailing expedition to Taiwan with some different tale to tell as to why they decided to embark on this voyage.
Early this morning, when there was enough light to navigate, we began to motor into the harbour at Ang Ping. There are two large commercial shipping channels just outside the harbour, and this is coupled with numerous oyster and fish farms scattered throughout the area. It is not a place to enter into during the night, especially since this our first time coming to this place.
The Taiwanese Coastguard accompanied us in, and upon us mooring alongside the quay, they checked for any stowaways or ill crew. Once we had the green light, we cast our lines once again and headed towards the marina where the Spirit of Outward Bound would wait until the return back to Hong Kong several days later.
Transitioning from a boat to the land is always a funny one. It’s never a long transition, but one that is always memorable.
After our visit from immigration, we gave the boat a deep cleansing and proceeded with a long rest. Since departing and returning to the harbour required another visit to immigration we quickly retired the idea of a short sail. In order to fill the day, we decided to set off on a short walk into the town. It appeared to be quite a busy day for the area. There were many people out and about.
Transitioning from a boat to the land is always a funny one. It’s never a long transition, but one that is always memorable. Your body and balance get used to the swaying motions of the ship. It makes me wonder if the fluid in my ears is slowly losing its swaying motion throughout the transition.
The final morning of any course always has an interesting tone and progression to it. There are excitement and restless energy for the last parts of the course that tends to start high, dip low, and then rise again. This is also coupled with a variety of emotions that tend to well up within the group: sadness, happiness, comradery, gratefulness, regret…My goal is to make sure that upon their departure, they are able to find meaning from their experience that will assist them in their life.
In ending the course too, I found a fitting quote from Isak Dinesen to hopefully express why everyone had joined this expedition and what they may have experienced. Through its vagary, there is a deep truth to it.
Do you know a cure for me?
Why yes, he said, I know a cure for everything. Salt water.
Salt water? I asked him.
Yes, he said, in one form or another, sweat, tears or the salt sea.