OPINION: Excelsior at sea is a brilliant way of connecting to the past

On board The Excelsior with, from left, Charlotte Hathaway, Karol Petryka ,Ollie Sherwood and Nye Taylor

On board The Excelsior with, from left, Charlotte Hathaway, Karol Petryka, Ollie Sherwood and Nye Taylor - Credit: Submitted

Norwich resident Peter Offord, whose grandfather F.J Offord, first went to sea on a Lowestoft smack aged 12, signed up for a day's sailing from the town's harbour

Seafarers are superstitious of sailing on a Friday but any misgivings there might have been were quickly allayed as Captain Karol led us ‘guests’ methodically through safety procedures.

We were in Lowestoft harbour and signed up for a day’s sail onboard the fishing smack Excelsior. He took us through man overboard, life jackets, fire, sinking, abandoning ship, engine breakdown, and referred to the numerous onboard pumps.

The first task, after we let go from the jetty, was heaving the bowsprit out by block and tackle, a huge length of timber that added another 20 feet or so to the vessel’s length and we pulled in unison to the bosun’s chant.

This was a straightforward task in port but as we left the harbour and prepared to raise the mainsail and jib we ran into choppy seas and a steep swell. 

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Jokes about the safety measures rang hollow as the stiff northerly breeze hit us, blowing hats off and one man’s glasses fell to bits on the deck as spray came over the bow.

We guests had no experience of sailing a 1921 Lowestoft smack but under orders from the young bosun Ollie (who had eschewed Uni for seafaring) Charlotte the mate and deckhand Nye and directed by the skipper, we quickly learnt.

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Charlotte climbed onto the lurching boom to unfurl the mainsail and once this was up and the vessel steadied, the skipper cut the engine. Excelsior headed into the wind on the port tack and the horizon stretched in a limitless curve as the coastline dropped astern.

We steadied ourselves on the boat’s fixings and had a chance to chat. For a while the pulse of the sea became our pulse.

The crew of The Excelsior

The crew of The Excelsior - Credit: Submitted

There was a retired chartered surveyor among us, a couple from Essex and a father, his son, son-in-law and his friend from Southend.

One guest told me he had experienced an epiphany after being a workaholic and a drinker “because that is what you did after a hard day’s graft”. His eyes had been opened to nature, he said, since he gave up alcohol and he was now planting trees, which rewarded him in a deeper way than his previous existence.

There was something physical and immediate, which raised alertness and gave an opportunity for reflection, working on this centenarian oak vessel.

She was built when ‘Application’ was applying oneself, or a paper form to fill in, not a tiny App on a smartphone. A telephone was a candlestick-like instrument on which an operator was rung who would connect you with: "You’re through now caller". ‘Running gear’ referred to wires, blocks and tackle, not Lycra and trainers.

The multitude of streaming, on-demand platforms and channels in which we are now immersed, connecting us with events from the North Pole to the South Pole, from Patagonia to the Seychelles, from Birmingham, Alabama to Birmingham, UK, did not exist.

Peter Offord on board The Excelsior

Peter Offord on board The Excelsior - Credit: Submitted

We are overflowing with information: floods and New York storms, celebrities’ outfits and outbursts, pandemics, space flights, bat caves, stock market crashes and electric toothbrush adverts; bargains our friends have snapped up are shared on social media, along with pancake recipes and cat memes that gain a thousand hits.

We have search engines so sophisticated they tell you what you want before you know you need it. 

A hundred years ago tweeting was strictly for the birds and Java was a remote island in Indonesia, not a computer programming language.

On Excelsior the fishing was done by nets and not by some hostile entity on the ‘net’ after your money.

Much of our interaction is virtual, connected but separated by a screen, with little time for processing.

Experiences like sailing Excelsior reconnect us with an immersive, more direct physical experience. Action is focused through a sense of purpose and leadership, teamwork and direction; an experience rare in our world of continuous surfing on the digital sea of information.

The Excelsior Trust is a charitable organisation that provides life changing sailing experiences for young and disadvantaged people, schools, and corporate groups as well as unique sailing opportunities for Individuals, all whilst preserving and maintaining one of the UK’s most historic ships www.theexcelsiortrust.co.uk

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