9th September 2001
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Sailing spicy seas

By Nilika de Silva
Three hundred years ago, their visits would not have been infrequent. For Galle was a regular port of call for the Dutch sailing ships of those seafaring days. For the crew of a small ship on a re-enactment voyage, some things have changed; there's modern technology in the form of computers on board, but the mighty ocean still holds the same perils it did for the seafarers of old.

Through tempestuous waters, the Duyfken sailed into Galle Port last Tuesday, two days behind schedule, two of its 16 crew members having been injured on the high seas. The Duyfken (Little Dove), a replica of the 17th century Dutch sailing ships was making a historic stop on its chartered course, following the ancient route used by spice traders in centuries past. 

The original Duyfken was the first recorded ship to visit Australia in 1606, predating Captain Cook's arrival in the Endeavour by almost 170 years. The present Duyfken's voyage was also launched to mark the 400th anniversary of the setting up of the United East India Company which pioneered the Dutch spice trade. 

The Duyfken left the Australian port of Sydney on May 5 on a 12-month voyage that would cover a distance of 18,200 nautical miles, to begin its 'spice-trading voyage' from Jakarta in July. Galle was its first stop, after more than 30 days at sea.

So what does it feel like to be on the high seas, in a 24-metre replica of a 17th century ship? What does it feel like to be one of 16 crew members who guided this wooden vessel with six sails on its first leg from Jakarta to Colombo? 

The Sunday Times went on board to meet the captain and crew of the Duyfken, a team 'selected to blend highly experienced square-rigged sailors and specialist skills with raw enthusiasm'. The crew appeared to be enjoying themselves engaged in pursuits they loved. Anchored in the Galle Port last week, they were busy with those familiar tasks, handling the ropes, seeing to general maintenance (two sails damaged during the voyage required hand sewing) and preparing the vessel for the next leg of its journey which will take them to Mauritius. 

Heading the expedition is Australian Glenn Williams, a veteran who counts 28 years at sea. He embarked on the voyage "because life is to be lived and I am a lousy spectator". Working previously in the oil industry on a supply vessel, Captain Williams said he had been generously given time off to engage in this historic adventure. 

"Out there on the high seas your world shrinks," he said, describing to a land lubber the texture of life on the waves. "For myself, it's an adventure."

Life on a small ship can be somewhat difficult, considering the length of the voyage. "It gets incredibly hot on board," he said, provoking my immediate question, what about water? "Well, each crew member gets two litres of fresh water extra and they can do whatever they like with it." The Duyfken carries 2 1/2 thousand litres of fresh water and has a desalinating unit on board. 

The ship is equipped with a neat little kitchen and a cook who turns out the meals using supplies to their maximum benefit, but there is no freezer on board, which limits their diets. 

Crew members said certain staples, pasta, for instance, are regular items on the menu. Fresh vegetables are served up for two weeks after the ship leaves a port but in the days that follow the menus turn predictable, pasta and beans, and canned foods. 

Space being in short supply on a 24-metre vessel, each crew member is allowed one trunk full of clothing and other personal belongings. The cabin is chock-a-block, packed full of bunks and hammocks to make sleeping arrangements possible for all. 

The Captain's quarters, however, are in a class of their own, perhaps indicating why mutiny in the ranks was a common occurrence in olden days. And what does he do for relaxation out on the high seas? "Read historical novels, Philosophy, etc," he says. 

While one injured crew member will be sent back to Australia for a month's recovery (she was in a hotel recuperating), young Christine Henschien (24) was awaiting the doctor's verdict on the injury to her spine, hoping she would be allowed to remain on board. Christine was hurt when she slipped on deck and had spent a few days being confined to her bunk. 

The ship's crew, six women and ten men, which includes a ship's carpenter, engineer in training, historian and deckhands, in addition to the chief officer and second mate had got together a week prior to the voyage. They were selected on applications sent in along with resumes, past experience and references. They were drawn from many different backgrounds, Australian, Dutch, New Zealand, English and American. 

Three of the crew members had never really sailed before and six had done only small coastal trips on private yachts. A new crew member joined them in Galle.

The captain was emphatic that as sailors the men and women were equally good on board. Everyone worked 12 hours a day out at sea. 

However, with only 14 crew members possibly setting sail from Galle, the Captain's Log entry read: "We are going to be short handed for the next leg." 

So they will be hoping for calmer seas ahead. The winds can be totally extreme, picking up from a speed of 10-15 knots and going up to 30 to 40 knots. "Just before the Equator there were many storms," said Christine who finished High School a couple of years ago. Christine who initially was studying to become a nurse, said that since that didn't work out she had come to Australia for a couple of years. "When I wanted to go back I saw this ship was going to sail to Holland, so I joined it in Jakarta." 

For leisure, crew members read books and listen to music CDs etc. Three laptop computers on board allow for e-mailing and other activities. Two of the computers are for the ship's work, e-mail, satellite communications, ship's log etc. Modern navigator equipment such as Radar GPS is also available on board. The third computer is used by a crew member who writes articles for a youth group. 

The Duyfken was scheduled to leave Galle on Saturday, sailing to Mauruitius, Cape Town, St. Helena, Ascension Island, and the Azores before heading back to the Netherlands, next year, hopefully in time for Queen Beatrix's birthday on April 3.


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