As the tall ship sailed through Fremantle Heads, the First Mate fired the canon. The crew 'dressed' the ship, hanging from the swaying yards and rigging. The 1850's style Barquentine, STS Leeuwin ll, was home again after five days at sea. Families and friends of the trainees on board lined the wharf. But this was no ordinary crew. It included 26 young people aged between sixteen and twenty-six with physical or intellectual limitations. This was the Leeuwin's Special Challenge Voyage.
Perched on the t'gallant yard, almost 30 meters above the deck, Shane Hey waved in response to the cheers. Shane, who is blind, and his fellow sailors, revelled in the atmosphere. They have achieved a lot in a short time.
During their voyage they have raised the yards, handed and furled the sails and hauled on lines. They have stood watch from 8pm to midnight or midnight to 4am, or steered the ship through the blue waters of the Indian Ocean. They have answered the call for 'all hands on deck', even if it was midnight - and all this on a pitching deck. They have endured cold nights on bow watch until relived of duties, when they could climb, dog-tired, into their bunks for some well-deserved sleep. This voyage was an adventure they would not forget.
The square-rigged sailing ship, STS Leeuwin 2, was built in Western Australia in 1986 in the style of a traditional 1850's 3-masted Barquentine. Below decks there is modern accommodation, a well-equipped galley, showers and toilets. But unlike the 'Lord Nelson', the British square-rigger purposely built to accommodate people with disabilities, the Leeuwin has no special modifications though safety on board is paramount. Once on board, special voyage trainees are treated no differently from more able-bodied participants. The Leeuwin Ocean Adventure Foundation's aim is to 'assist young men and women to meet life's challenges with courage through a shared adventure'. Every voyage provides personal challenges. But it is 'challenge by choice'. Each individual choses how far they want to push themselves.
The Special Challenge voyage, is made possible by the sponsorship of the Variety Club of Western Australia. Once a year the participants gather at the Leeuwin's berth at B Shed on Victoria Quay. There is an air of apprehension. Some of the trainees are dubious about going to sea, afraid to climb aloft, or concerned about the cramped cabins below deck. There are fears about being away from familiar surroundings and being with people they do not know. For a few, just walking along a swaying deck is challenge enough.
Before embarking, Captain Stewart Elston said, 'A voyage like this is a challenge for everyone regardless of their level of ability. The entire voyage crew will be pitting their wits and abilities against the most unpredictable of nature's elements - the ocean.'
Operating with five permanent crew, namely Captain, Mate, Bosun, Engineer and Cook, the working crew consists of forty trainees and volunteers. These are divided into four watch groups of ten members each.
The watches rotate in four hour shifts throughout 24 hours. But when the call goes out to tack or ware ship, it's 'all hands on deck', even if it is midnight.
After standing a night watch, sleep comes easily. For those on the midnight to 4 am watch there is not much time for sleep. The wake up call is at 6.15 am, then it's up on deck for morning exercises followed by breakfast then back on deck for the daily briefing.
Safety issues regarding climbing aloft are covered at the beginning of the voyage, as are abandon ship orders and man overboard simulations. Safety harnesses are worn on deck at all times. The crew is instructed in sail handling, rope work and helm and rudder operation.
The appearance of several 'deck slugs' is not unusual in the first day or two. These unfortunate seasick creatures soon learn which is the leeward side of the vessel.
Every morning it's all hands to cleaning stations. This means mopping floors, hosing and scrubbing the decks, polishing brass or cleaning the heads (toilets).
After five days at sea, the Special Challenge crew, operate as a cohesive team, working and pulling together, handling ropes, making and handing sails, furling, and climbing the rigging. With 16 sails, a displacement of 344 tonnes and an overall length of 55 meters, the Leeuwin 2 is an awe-inspiring sight when under full sail.
For Melissa Smith, the greatest achievement and thrill was taking the helm. Following the Captain's orders she steered the ship through the Parmelia Channel, one of Australia's busiest shipping lanes, a narrow stretch of shallow water running for two kilometres from Gage Roads into Cockburn Sound.
With a huge container vessel in the channel ahead of the Leeuwin and another large vessel looming behind, Melissa followed the Captain's calls and steered the ship into the sheltered waters off Garden Island.
Once in the lee of the island the anchor was dropped.
On the last evening aboard, in the tradition of the old sailing ships, the crew performed a Sod's Opera, an evening of spontaneous entertainment, songs, skits, poems and music. Everyone joined in.
In the morning there was time to dive, jump, or swing from a rope suspended on the end of the yard, into the crystal clear water. For those who didn't swim, the dolphins put on a show of their own.
Whenever the Leeuwin returns home, it is customarty for the crew to climb aloft and 'dress' the ship. As the ship sailed into Fremantle it was obvious from the expressions on the faces of waiting relatives, that it was hard for them to believe their eyes.
Shane Hey's father admitted he couldn't see his son on the ship. "I was looking for him on the deck," he said. But Shane was perched near the top of the main mast, 30 meters above the deck.
As each trainee climbed down the rigging they were applauded. The enormous bond of comradeship, which had developed on the voyage from working as a team, was evident.
What the Special Challenge Voyage crew achieves each year is an inspiration. It is a five-day adventure, filled with fun an excitement.
For these young people, whose disabilities include vision and hearing impairments, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, cancer and Down's syndrome this voyage is a great adventure. But they meet the challenges and achieve their goals.
Before disembarking, the Captain presented each participant with a Certificate of Achievement. "Without you people I could not have sailed this ship," he said. "It was you who sailed the Leeuwin, all of you, and I am proud to have sailed with you."
© M. Muir: This article was published in Link Magazine (South Australia) 2002.
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