Somewhere during the month of April last year, the non-profit association Caribbean Sail Training received a request from friends who asked about the sail training possibilities on the vessel Wylde Swan. Their son Sander, a fresh graduate of Milton Peters College, wanted to take a sabbatical year and do sail training on one of the Tall Ships. Link to full article.
As the Dutch-registered Wylde Swan was already successfully running courses with students for several years and had planned to depart from Holland in October, it was logic that this ship was the first choice. When additional information was received from CST, Sander’s parents decided while on vacation to walk up to Wylde Swan’s offices in Holland to find out more and explore all the possibilities.
The initial plan and possibility was to depart on October 14 in Harlingen and sail to Tenerife in the Canary Islands – an adventure together with 11 other students from the Netherlands. Because the vessel’s schedule after that voyage was a departure from Tenerife with 31 trainees/students to Marigot, St. Martin, as destination, and Sander would be home at that point, Caribbean Sail Training asked the Wylde Swan organization if the young St. Maartener could eventually remain on board in the Canaries and sail all the way across the Atlantic to the Caribbean.
Arrangements were made and it was agreed that Sander could stay on board for the complete voyage! The vessel arrived safely in the Baie de Marigot on January 14. “When I stepped on board in Holland, I started thinking for a few minutes, ‘Will this really be fun?’ ‘Is this something for me?’ ‘What have I done?!’ But minutes later, I realised already that it was a super idea to participate in this adventure,” Sander shared during WEEKender’s interview with him.
You knew from previous sail trips with your parents that you would not become seasick, so I guess that helped also to look forward to the sailing?
Yes, I guess that it is in any case an advantage if you don’t feel seasick. Quite some others did get seasick, but after a few days later; they were fine. I could only assume and hope that I was not going to be seasick, because I was never before on other boats; but this was of course a question mark as it was a different ship and we would sail in the open ocean. I feel lucky. It is annoying mainly for yourself when you are sick.
When you embarked in the Netherlands, you knew nobody on the ship – no crew, no students. Was it not strange to come on board a vessel while you had no clue who the crew and other kids would be?
Well, on the second part of the trip, they had set up a WhatsApp group with the students; and as I was also in that group, I had already communicated with many of them before they came on board. But for the first trip, I was not in the WhatsApp group or anything else, so I indeed knew nobody. That said, it is nice to chat; but when you see people for the first time, it often turns out to be someone that you could not imagine is the same person as the one you were chatting with on WhatsApp anyway.
Was it not difficult to be within that group as the outsider? I mean, all the other youngsters are school students from Holland, and you being the only one from far away in the Caribbean.
No, because when I came, we had just experienced this terrible Hurricane Irma and they all wanted to know the stories and see the pictures; [smiling] most of them wanted actually to learn about the Caribbean and hear the nice stories more than the disaster ones. So I guess it was easy for me as I was a little popular in the beginning [smiling wider]. I think I was very quickly accepted in the group, maybe quicker than some of the kids from Holland in their own groups, because I was the “outsider” from the Caribbean.
Was there anything during the entire adventure from which you can say, “This was something I really never expected” – for example, whales, dolphins, plastic in the ocean, close encounters with other vessels, storms?
Not really. We saw a whale twice; but where I live on the hill in Oyster Pond, we sometimes see whales far out in the sea; so for me that was not so exciting. We saw many dolphins – and it was a surprise to see so many. I expected of course to see dolphins on this voyage; but we saw them almost every day. So I’m quite happy to know that there are still so many swimming around in the ocean. My biggest surprise was actually that I made so many good friends during those trips. I’m really amazed that in such a relatively short period of time, you make more friends than you would normally have in years. And it was not just me, everyone said that. Another good surprise was that we did not see much plastic; which does not mean that there is not a lot in the sea – but not during our trip.
What was your most important activity on board?
On the first leg to the Canary Islands, I was studying a lot for my boat licence and also working on deck. From Tenerife to the Caribbean, it was more working on deck, sails, etc. After a while, I was able to help and instruct the new trainees as I was already working for a while on the ship and knew more than the new ones. So I did a lot of sail trimming, watches, navigation and more, but also painting and other jobs; in fact, everything you need to do while working on a vessel. Also at night during the shifts, I had to do deck controls, check the engine room and more.
As a trainee, you receive the responsibility of the deck and the real person, who is responsible, checks you a few times; but when they trust you, it is up to the trainee. You learn quickly to take your responsibilities on board! They prepare you for the “Ship’s Takeover,” which is the moment when you have to apply for a certain job on board by giving a letter to the captain and crew with your intentions – a kind of resume if you will. They will then look into everything, also how you have been working on the ship during the past weeks, and see if they want to give you the job you applied for. It is during the last week of a trip.
You can apply to be a cook, deckhand, waiter, first mate, engineer and even captain for a few days. You have to indicate also a second or even a third choice in case they have several candidates applying for the same position. Of course, everyone wants to become the captain! If they agree with your choice, it is like receiving the ultimate award.
Could you apply to become cook if you had never done that before?
No [smiles]. I don’t think it’s a good idea to have someone cooking on board, who has never done that! If you are interested in a particular job, you could do “internships” and learn what you needed to know. You have to go through checklists and other things. It is not so that you can for example sit all the time inside the ship and then during the last week and the “Ship’s Takeover” become sail trimmer.
So if you wanted to do navigation, for example, you could learn that, you could be in the kitchen, work on deck, do the sails and more. During the regular watches, you could also ask any questions to the crew, trying to learn what you wanted to know. I did a lot of navigation, plotting charts, calculating routes and courses, checking the instruments, weather, wind and more. The other kids had mostly school class in the morning, but as I was not really part of that program, I followed it only from time to time and worked on deck or in the pilothouse for the rest of the time. But I still did a lot together with all of them: biology and so and also the general studies.
Have you been cooking also?
Well, if you applied for the job as cook for the “Ship’s Takeover”, you had to cook and prove that you were good. I applied for cook during the first “Ship’s Takeover” when we approached the Canary Islands – so yes I cooked [smiles]. On the second trip, I was helping often in the kitchen during Happy Hour and to prepare the dinner, but not as cook. I became Captain during the “Ship’s Takeover”.
Wow! How was that?!
[Proudly] Well, it was incredible. It was a great feeling because I arrived on board doing all the little jobs and learning all the time; and at the end of the trip, to be the captain of the Wylde Swan was a feeling I cannot describe. The “real” captain of course supervises you – and by the way, Captain Tony and all the crew are such wonderful people – but they really let you do your thing.
I was captain from Guadeloupe to St. Martin; and when we departed Guadeloupe, we got notice that another captain fromWylde Swan was actually sailing on a mega yacht schooner Elena of London and would meet us at sea around Antigua. So we decided to wait for that encounter and I had to sail in such a way that he could catch up with us, doing some gybes and tacking. The crew was not aware of the situation so they were asking: ‘Why are you sailing so and so?’ But when I explained that a vessel was coming from behind and trying to catch up with us, they understood more or less what I was doing. It was not in the planning when we left Guadeloupe and it was a little hectic, but it worked out.
Luckily, I learned good sail manoeuvres while sailing with my parents and friends! When Fosse came sailing close to us with the beautiful classic yacht, the trainees were having fun and yelling, “Make the canons ready!” Nobody expected that Fosse and his crew had a real cannon on board and would fire that off right next to us. It was a very loud BOEM!! Everybody jumped in the air. Nobody expected that. It was hilarious.
Was the only job to steer the boat when you were appointed Captain?
No, it was the real captain’s job. It was not only steering and navigating, it was communicating with the complete crew, giving instructions to the first mate and others and making decisions. For example, the cook still had to do some things on shore in Guadeloupe when we left, so I had to make sure there was a tender available and ready with crew to pick him up and come back to the ship while we were sailing already. You have to check and arrange the garbage disposal and other things. Plan your route, check the winds and instruct which sails you want to set up and more.
During the watch at night, you do the watch together with the real captain; the first mate with the real first mate; the engineer with the real engineer; so you’re in fact not on your own, but if you don’t do anything wrong, they will let you do it your way. I still cannot believe what an unforgettable experience those people give the youngsters! No wonder everyone is so happy with the Wylde Swan experience!
What’s next, Captain?
[Smiles] Aww… I’m not a real captain as yet! I don’t know. Due to my sailing with the family, I was already infected with the sail virus of course; so I will definitely go to Holland in the spring to check out some study possibilities in the maritime world. Other than that, I will do my STCW’2010 at the Maritime School of the West Indies in St. Martin and maybe a few other courses; and if possible, I’ll sail again for a few weeks on a sail training vessel in the Caribbean. My dad used to be a captain on tankers and other ships, which is not really what I see myself doing. But he is a maritime surveyor now, so maybe I will study and sail for some years and do the same; you never know.