Running away to sea on a tall ship was many a young man’s dream and I was no different, writes Kevin Green.

Climbing the main mast to fix a jammed sheave, I found myself 100 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, and our yacht was nearly midway across this vast empty tract of sea. It was somewhere I’d dreamed of being as a youngster, while listening to the tales from my seafaring family.

The 95-foot schooner had been the largest and most beautiful in the marina, I thought, as I gazed across a sea of masts in the Bay of Gibraltar. So I made my mind up to get aboard whichever way I could, for I’d heard she was Atlantic-bound.

In the 1980s the Gibraltar waterfront was a bustling place of sailors and bluewater yachts. Many had come across the Mediterranean, some through the Suez Canal; for in those days Gulf pirates weren’t so desperate.

The northern yachts had bashed their way south across the wild Bay of Biscay to enjoy the warm weather of the Portuguese Algarve before a final desperate lunge against the prevailing easterly Levanter wind to reach the British port of Gibraltar. So here we all were, in various states of readiness to ‘cross the pond’, ‘go south then starboard when the butter melts’ or, put less colourfully, to sail the Atlantic.



Studying the noticeboards in the marina bars during my search for a crew berth, there was the usual mix of adverts: single-handed desperadoes searching for a girl Friday to whisk offshore, flashy motor cruisers seeking hostesses, scrawled notices from the nearly derelict hulks crowded together at Runway Bay that would drown any careless crewman foolish enough to sign-on; and so on.

A motley list to consider as I gazed out again at the 95-footer with her two masts and elegant hull with raked lines and sweet sheer. Her name was Liberty, a British-built Camper & Nicholson registered in America. I found this out as I gazed at the noticeboard one day where her particulars were listed along with the job vacancy for a Ship’s Engineer.

During the interview the captain and owner Mr Hinkley questioned me about bleeding diesels, rebuilding sheet winches and if I was a felon. To the last question I replied, no I was a Protestant, which caused the tall Mr Hinkley a long bellylaugh and ended with him offering me the job.

It came with tax-free US dollars and a detailed job description to maintain this brigantine schooner. Liberty had the signature tall ship rig – a large square sail for running in the tradewinds. But getting to the trades would require a lot of sailing, which began with us motor-sailing the 35-mile Gibraltar Strait in the west-bound lane.



From the helm I watched the procession of navigation lights to the south of us steaming into the Mediterranean and then the neon haze of Tangier and the twinkle of Cape Spartel lighthouse until the westerly wind came on our beam and we freed the sails.

Our southerly course with Venus rising on the port bow roughly followed the continental shelf’s 200m line. There was little time for more reflection on this scene as my two-hour watch ended and my attention turned to growing list of engineering problems on Liberty.

Built in 1964 she was solid but elderly, so I gradually realised why the owner required a dedicated engineer. In port I’d already serviced the main 280hp GM engine, replaced various belts and parts on the Westerbeke AC generator engine while looking dubiously at the tired Perkins DC generator engine.

But as we sailed south, 15 miles off the Moroccan coast our progress was slowing to five knots because I’d been unable to fold the propeller from the cockpit, so had to delve into Liberty’s cavernous bilges to turn the mechanism manually. Through the quarter-inch steel hull the Atlantic Ocean reverberated outside as I wrestled and cursed at the mechanism until it turned.



By the sixth day our five crew and skipper were working well together. American cook Richard plied us with hamburger bake,

tuna melts and other Yank food while English electrical engineer Barny and I conferred over replacement motors and malfunctioning freezers.

On deck, heaving the heavy fisherman sails required us to help the two deckhands as well, so dull moments were few on Liberty. Then came the shout of ‘land ahoy’ which meant it was time to unroll the chart of the Canary Islands and pay close attention to our Transit Navigator (in 1989 this was an early version of GPS).

A chain of seven large islands that run westward into the tuna melts and other Yank food while English electrical engineer Barny and I conferred over replacement motors and malfunctioning freezers.

On deck, heaving the heavy fisherman sails required us to help the two deckhands as well, so dull moments were few on Liberty. Then came the shout of ‘land ahoy’ which meant it was time to unroll the chart of the Canary Islands and pay close attention to our Transit Navigator (in 1989 this was an early version of GPS).

A chain of seven large islands that run westward into the Atlantic from 60 miles off the southern Moroccan coast, the Canary Islands were home to the indigenous Guanches. They were a dog-loving Berber race related to the nearby Moroccans, until waves of Portuguese and then Spanish invaders overthrew them. One of the islands’ most famous inhabitants was the dictator General Franco who emerged from the 1936 Spanish civil war to rule the country as a fascist military dictator until his death in 1975.

Approaching the most northerly islands, the volcanic Lanzarote, followed by the equally arid Fuerteventura we cruised this archipelago of low-lying sand dunes for a week until putting in at Puerto Rosario for repairs. During the night the bilge alarm had sounded, so I found myself scrambling between the watertight bulkheads to find the leak but thanks to separate bilges Liberty could cope easily with a small leak.

Fuerteventura Island.

Later, oil-stained and weary I showered until the water heater suddenly broke as well. The final straw was the burning-out of the electrical motor on the freezer. Our huge freezer contained dozens of chickens and lamb legs plus much else, so it had to be fixed quickly.

Afterwards, my shore leave was well-earned, and I explored the volcanic black beaches and watched the strong Calima wind off the Sahara propel windsurfers. That same wind allowed us to hoist the square sail and our triangular runner, the raffee, as we sailed south to the busy island of Gran Canaria. The tower blocks of time-share houses shimmered in the heat as we sailed down the east coast, past the busy main port of Las Palmas, until after 10 hours sailing we put in at Puerto de Mogan. We would stay here for two months to refit and take time off before sailing in January 1990 for the Atlantic.

I passed time reading from the extensive 1,000-book onboard library. The fussy Hiscocks sailed very much by the book – I preferred the words of the romantic vagabond Bernard Moitessier – “I am a citizen of the most beautiful nation on earth….In this limitless nation, this nation of wind, light, and peace, there is no other ruler besides the sea.”


Amid the teak panelling and Chippendale furnishings of Liberty’s main saloon, the barometer told us a worrying story as its needle sank. We’d been a sea a few days on our heading of 225o which would put us into the heart of the tradewinds for the crossing of the Atlantic.

Out on deck I was busy battening hatches and tying lines off on their belaying pins until I’d worked towards the bowsprit to double lash the anchor rode. Off the continental shelf, we were in deep water so the 20-foot waves were rolling under us without malice and we were running swiftly at 10 knots in the strong wind under fore and aft sails only.

At the helm, deckhand Jimmy was working the big wooden steering wheel hard, giving a few spokes on each wave as we slid down. But when I looked up from the deck a new horizon of deep blue was behind us – a much larger swell than the rest.

As I stared at this wall of water, I became aware of the stern moving across my view. It seemed a gradual process; with both Jimmy and I not really aware of what was happening. Until suddenly I realised we were broaching, so scrambled up the steepening decks towards the safety of the enclosed cockpit where we both held onto the wheel as Liberty’s long deep keel fought hard to keep us upright.

At that moment I was very glad of her 95-ton displacement as she dug into the face of that Atlantic roller with her majestic bowsprit spearing the ocean. Below decks came the crashing of crockery and gear; while looking astern I felt like we were flying, such was the view before we slid safely down the back of the wave.

Afterwards, sorting out the mess below decks I chanced on my stashed bottle of whisky and broke it out for the crew to celebrate my countryman Robbie Burn’s birthday (25 January) before applying ourselves to the latest of Liberty’s problems – blocked drains and sedimented diesel. Holding 1,800 gallons between two main tanks and day tanks, diesel pumping and maintenance was a major job on Liberty.


The rock and rolling had taken its toll on ship and crew, so when the Cape Verde Islands hove into view we were mightily glad. The horseshoe-shaped chain of islands is named after the Spanish word for green – verde – but unlike the verdant part of the mainland, they are arid and volcanic.

Cape Verde.

They also have a dark history because of the slave trade which the Portuguese ran through this barren archipelago until as late as 1869. In the port of Mindelo on St Vincent island we were watched by many sets of envious eyes as we lay alongside the quay. Predominately mainland Africans blended with Europeans, the Cape Verdeans reflected the maritime tide of humanity that washed over its rocky shores.

This impoverished nation had little, so the sight of a glamorous American yacht proved too tempting. First our clothes and tools went missing but one night a big fellow came aboard and grabbed our outboard motor.

Reaching for our longest winch handle I gave chase along the deck until he hurled the motor at me and fled. Onshore we’d watched football matches, been invited to people’s homes and even been visited by the local pimp and his harem. But by then the nation of Bernard Moitessier was calling strongly to us so we cast off for the final leg of our Atlantic voyage.


Liberty’s elegant bowsprit delved into the Atlantic rollers as we sped west with all plain sail aloft – the triangular raffee flying on top of the square sail yard arm, both fishermen and our fore and afts. Our heading of 280o Grenada in the southern Caribbean.

As crew-of-the-day I cooked Greek moussaka and the skipper made us some rum punch. The days, like the waves, rolled on steadily, until a loud crack came from the main mast – a wire halyard had failed on our fisherman sail – so I was winched to the main masthead to fix a jammed block. From 100 foot up Liberty’s varnished rails glistened in the bright sun and a bare horizon of deep blue lay all around me.

Tiring of our food I fashioned a boardie, one of my old Scottish fishing techniques that takes any snagged fish to the surface when hooked. The following day I found a 12lb Dorado on it so we gorged on raw fish then baked fish that night. Flying fish would cascade aboard during the night and, as the days turned into a week I tried grilling them but their bones became tedious.

Then the wind died and when I turned the ignition nothing happened, so more hours in the confined engine room followed while I bled the fuel system, cleaned the day tanks and re-fuelled until the GM finally sprang into life to push us ever nearer to the fabled Caribbean. I dreamed of rum and the coconuts I would pick from the swaying palms.

In idle moments the skipper had been teaching me astro-navigation, so I shot the midday sun whenever it was out, managing to be only 14 miles away from our Transit GPS position on my most accurate fix. Mary Blewitt’s excellent book was a great help. As we neared land I thought to check the outboard after the Cape Verdean had thrown it at me, and sure enough it didn’t start, so it was stripped and serviced until it sprang into smokey life.

By day 15 we were ready for shore leave, so when the low-lying smudge on the western horizon turned out to be Grenada a big cheer came from us all. We didn’t wait for daybreak to make landfall, instead we spun up the old radar set and ghosted into Prickly Pear Bay beneath its swaying palms as the faint sounds of steel drums echoed across the water.