In 2015 I was fortunate to be selected to receive a scholarship from the NSW SES Volunteers Association to travel on the Young Endeavour as part of the World Voyage. It was an experience that I will never forget, and gave me the opportunity to put to use many of the skills I have learnt as a NSW SES volunteer, but also to undertake a significant challenge with other young people from across Australia.

I was ecstatic when I learned I would be travelling on the Young Endeavour. It was something I had always wanted to do, but missed out before I turned 23. I set myself the goal of learning how to sail. It would be a great skill to have - and I didn’t think it could possibly be too hard. I also wanted to make friends with people from across Australia and do something challenging - for me that meant facing the inevitable seasickness while sailing a ship across 2000 nautical miles of sea.

In early April I flew from Australia to Cadiz, an ancient port city located on a thin island in the south west of Spain. I arrived on Friday afternoon, and we joined the ship late on Saturday, so I had about 24 hours to look around the city. After dropping my bags off at the hotel, I set out to find some local cuisine for dinner. The sun was still high in the sky, the beach was full of people enjoying the Easter weekend and Spanish tourists were filling the coffee shops overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Many of the restaurants didn’t open until after 8pm - a very late dining culture compared to Australia.

On Saturday, I was awake at 3am excited and ready to join the Young Endeavour. The sun didn’t rise until after 8am, and even then the main street of Cadiz felt like a ghost town. After spending a day visiting the sights and enjoying the warm European sun, I met the 23 other members of the youth crew and stepped on board the Young Endeavour. Instantly I felt part of something amazing. The crew were very welcoming and made me feel right at home in our small cabins, where I would spend the next 21 days living closely alongside the other crew. After we were shown our bunks, known in nautical terms as ‘racks’, we were split into three watches - red, blue and white. These watch teams of eight would work closely together in shifts, manning the helm, keeping lookouts, setting sails and undertaking hourly checks of the engine room. I was part of white watch, and joined seven other people who had varied and interesting backgrounds - including a locksmith from Darwin, a chef from the Gold Coast, a Turkish student from Auckland and a teacher from Canberra.

We enjoyed a welcome BBQ on the deck, with introductions from Captain Gav, Sailmaster Kenny and the rest of the Australian Navy crew, many of whom had sailed the ship all the way from Sydney. They recalled the passage across the roaring forties and around Cape Horn, which ended up being far calmer than expected. In fact so far in their trip the swell had been relatively calm.

Prior to sailing out of port, we had a couple of days in Spain to visit the local sights and also to learn the basics of the ship. On Sunday we travelled to Vejer, a whitewashed village about an hour down the coast where there was rumoured to be a bull run - and after witnessing several people being chased and gored by a bull, it is probably the only time I’ll ever go to one. Tapas for lunch and a visit to a local beach and seaside carnival rounded out the afternoon before we returned to the ship.

Sailing day had arrived. The morning was spent covering important safety information, including the location of the fire extinguishers, the number of people who could fit in each lifeboat and even the details of snack packs stored in each lifeboat - so at least I knew where to find food if I didn’t like what the chef was serving. Before setting off in the afternoon, we completed our first climbs up the foremast. It was fantastic being up high and looking out across the port. The vertical rescue training I did back at Kiama Unit certainly prepared me for being up high, although not many cliffs tend to sway as much as the ship, an extra challenge for us.

During the day, the wind began to pick up, the sea became choppy and the crew poured over weather maps and charts of Spain, plotting the course to our next destination. Two tugboats hooked on at 4pm and began towing us out of the harbour, underneath the new impressive La Pepa bridge and out into open waters.

The next 36 hours were the most challenging of the entire trip. Winds whirled around the masts and sea spray smashed the sides of ship. The bowsprit at the front disappeared as the blue green water covered the deck, and everyone on it. White watch had the 12am to 4am watch on the first night, so I decided to head to my rack to catch some sleep before our watch started. Just before 11:30am I was shaken awake by Corey, another youthie who was struggling to stand up and carrying a handful of sick bags, to let me know it was time to wake up and head to the bridge for watch. Seasickness hit me almost immediately as I walked towards the ladder. It felt like my head was spinning and lying on the ground was the only way I was going to survive. I scrambled up on to the deck, feeling like I’d eaten some poisoned tapas back on shore. The deck was littered with sick youth crew, harnessed to the side of the boat to prevent them slipping into the sea, most looking like they were barely alive. The ship crashed through more waves, and with each crash I had to reach for the sick bags.

My first watch wasn’t so successful. During the four hour watch I never managed to reach the bridge, instead clinging to the deck and trying to be positive. When I returned to my rack at 4am, I felt right at home with 5 other seasick sailers, our lee sheets set to prevent us falling out on the floor (although I learnt about the purpose of lee sheets the hard way). The waves were so strong and the boat rolling at such a high lean that no one managed to sleep well. Some of the girls were too sick to leave the deck and stayed in the same place for over 30 hours.

Late on Tuesday night, the Captain decided to sail back to the nearest port as the weather was becoming too severe. We had travelled only 11 nautical miles, so returned to Cadiz to refuel and wait out the storm. Everyone was relieved, and after 36 hours without eating, everyone was grateful for Chef Aaron’s amazing buffet spread. Seasickness was finally over and we could return below deck without being smacked into the walls.

Cadiz was great. A few more days of tapas, a visit to the Tavira Tower for a spectacular view of the city and the never ending search for free WiFi so we could send back stories of how we survived what felt a scene from The Perfect Storm. On Friday morning, Captain Gav assured us the weather had abated and we were setting sail. We said farewell to our Spanish pilot and sailed out of the port, bound for the Straits of Gibraltar.

As we sailed back into the Atlantic Ocean, seasickness returned but this time we were ready. One observation I noted was the way that seasickness tore through everyone, making them almost incapable of functioning. Captain Gav often read inspirational quotes to begin each day, and he mentioned how our response to challenging situations defines our character. Those who pushed through seasickness and did their best to help others had a much more rewarding experience than those who were consumed by their illness. It was worth waking up early to see the Straits of Gibraltar with the lights of Morocco on one side, and Spain on the other.

The seasickness lasted for days, and daily activities were cancelled so everyone could manage enough rest - the rocking of the boat made sleeping very difficult. As the weather slowly began to improve, the weary youth crew surfaced more often - especially when one of the staff piped news of dolphins on the port side of the ship. The animals skipped along the water beside us making for a great photo opportunity. 

Every morning, the crew would announce the start of Happy Hour, when it’s all hands on deck to clean the ship. The cabins, cafe and bathrooms along with every cavity in between would need a scrub every morning to prevent the spread of germs. We did our best to make it fun however, with music and mop dancing a regular occurrence. At the completion of Happy Hour, Captain Kenny would don his white glove and walk around the ship, checking cable ducts, door tracks and stairwells for any sign of dirt - which we would then have to re-clean.

We continued to make slow progress along the Mediterranean and by this stage we were running out of time to reach Malta. The crew announced that we would be heading directly to Turkey, and while we would miss Malta, we would instead travel close to Italy and through Greece. As we moved closer to the coast of Italy, the weather calmed down and the seas became much more bearable. More dolphins swam close to the ship, and we were fortunate to see an owl land in the rigging - something none of the crew had seen before.

I was blown away by the number of ships on the Mediterranean. Every couple of hours another gigantic container ship would cruise past, stacked high with coloured steel boxes. Many ships sail from Europe, down the Suez canal to Asia or across the Mediterranean to the United Kingdom and America. It bothered me however, the amount of rubbish and pollution we saw in the water. Surely by slowing the rate we consume products, we could reduce the need for plastics and products that end up polluting the natural environment? Spending time on this boat, without a phone or internet connection, was a great way to appreciate the world.

As the sun rose on day 14, we spotted land for the first time in weeks. It was a great sight - towering mountains rising out of the ocean, we were almost in Italy! A few of us climbed up the foremast for a closer look, it was one of the most memorable vistas of the trip. The wind changed direction and we set the large square sails at the front of the ship, giving us enough force to shut off the engines for a couple of hours and move at around 8 knots under sail.

We reached the Strait of Messina the following afternoon. Mainland Italy in the north and the city of Messina on the coast of the Island of Sicily in the south. The crew worked hard to navigate through the narrow passage, with tidal currents and a natural whirlpool adding to the challenge. The sun was shining brightly with light winds, perfect for sailing. I was starting to run low on clothes by this stage of the trip, so took advantage of the weather conditions and hand washed a load, before hanging the clothes out to dry at the front of the ship. After a couple of hours of mast climbing and then a skipping contest on the main deck, the wind picked up and I returned to find half my clothes had been ripped from their pegs and flown into the sea. Learnt my lesson!

The next two days involved crossing the Ionian Sea to reach Greece. Captain Gav announced the start of Command Day, an opportunity for the 24 youth crew to take over the running of the ship. While we had manned the helm and kept lookouts since leaving Cadiz, Command Day would involve minimal guidance from staff as we worked to navigate and set sails as necessary. We held elections and Caitlin was selected as Captain for the 24 hour period, while I was elected to be one of the ship’s engineers. As a team of 24, we managed to make good speed in favourable conditions, averaging 10 knots all the way over to Greece. As as engineer, I completed regular thorough checks of the engine room, checked fuel levels and ensured we had enough hot water - cold showers would almost be worse than a leaky ship.

Command Day pushed a lot of people to their limits, with many staying up all night to help set sails and ensure the ship was heading in the right direction. It was a great experience however, and gave everyone exposure to teamwork and leadership skills. Not everyone can be Captain, and this exercise demonstrated the importance of reliable team players, who may not lead a team but without their commitment would make sailing the boat much more difficult. Command Day made me realise the value of my experience as a NSW SES volunteer - I’ve been a part of, and lead teams in difficult situations previously, and Young Endeavour helped to reinforce these leadership and teamwork skills.

Shortly after Command Day was over, we reached the entrance to the Corinth Canal, a 6km long, 21m wide channel connecting us to the Aegean sea. Built back in 1983 as shortcut for ships, the canal was an impressive feat of engineering, and an amazing opportunity to sail in a tall ship. White limestone cliffs covered each side of the canal and the water was a rich aqua blue colour. Local residents waved to us from the bridges and along the shore, replying as we yelled “Aussie aussie aussie!”

The sun set on another fantastic day on the Young Endeavour. With only a couple of days to go until we arrived in Turkey, I made the most of the calm weather and climbed up the mast several times to get a better view and also enjoy the lights of Greece during the night. We sailed past Athens around lunchtime and were able to see the pantheon and olympic stadium. Later that night we enjoyed some stargazing, far from any city and away from light pollution. I learnt to use a sextant and figure out some basic navigation techniques using the stars.

Only one day of sailing left, and another storm was brewing on the horizon. The calm conditions we had experienced since Italy were over and choppy swell had returned. We furled all the sails and battled strong headwinds during the night, to arrive in Turkey the following morning. Çanakkale was a great city, surrounded by picturesque green hills covered in Turkish flags and monuments. We spent the day enjoying the sun, cleaning the ship and tidying all the sails, undertaking what’s known as a harbour furl. 24 of us, all up on the foremast at the same time, unravelling and refolding all the large square sails to ensure the ship appeared clean and tidy. We were attached to a buoy just off the coast of Çanakkale, alongside navy ships from Turkey, the United Kingdom and Australia. On one night we did hear that Prince Harry was staying on HMS Bulwark next to us, although sadly he didn’t pop over to say hi.

The following day we visited the battlefields at Gallipoli. It was an emotional experience seeing the graves of soldiers who had barely reached 17 and 18 before being killed in World War I. These men gave their lives for the mission and being in Gallipoli made me realise the significance of their commitment. The landscape of ANZAC Cove was extremely rugged and difficult, not to mention the weather icy cold overnight. We visited cemeteries, the Lone Pine Memorial and ANZAC Cove as well as the Turkish and New Zealand memorials. Many of the youth crew had family members who were buried on the Gallipoli peninsula and the set out to find the names of their relatives in each memorial, while hundreds of other Australians laid wreaths and flowers in preparation of ANZAC Day. 

During ANZAC Day, we woke at 5am to the first sign of the sun beginning to rise over the Gallipoli peninsula. The dawn service was just beginning and we were a few kilometres off the coast following HMAS Anzac and other military ships. It was very special to be in ANZAC Cove for the centenary along with so many other young Australians who had relatives involved in World War I. As the sun rose, we sailed past ANZAC Cove, listening to the service on ABC Radio. The steep terrain of Gallipoli was clearly visible and my thoughts were with those who landed here exactly 100 years ago. After the service was complete, we sailed back to Çanakkale, packed our bags and said goodbye to the crew for the long bus ride to Istanbul, where our trip came to an end. 

It was an amazing three weeks sailing across the length of the Mediterranean. Most of the crew had never sailed before, but we worked together as a team, conquered sea sickness and learnt how to sail a tall ship. Without team work, the voyage would have been very different. Every member of the crew had to put in a great effort, and spending time together onboard getting to know each other helped the team function as we became more familiar with each member’s strengths.

During the trip, and in my travels around Turkey following the Young Endeavour, I met so many people from a diverse range of backgrounds and cultures. As Australians we are very fortunate to live in a secular country where we aren’t prosecuted for our beliefs, or censured for our opinions. We should make the most of this opportunity and help those who are less fortunate. The trip also highlighted some of the struggles people in North Africa and the Middle East are facing, with news of hundreds of refugees drowning in the same stretch of the Mediterranean Sea. They flee war torn countries to board leaky vessels in search of a better life, while we complain about the cost of petrol for our cars, or the style of PPE for SES. It’s always worth remembering how fortunate we are, and not to sweat it over the small setbacks.

Things in life will be difficult. During the voyage, we often thought we had reached calm waters only to have a gust of wind lift the swell and we were sailing back into seasickness territory. How we manage ourselves during these difficult times demonstrates our strength of character. By being flexible, resilient and working together we can solve the most challenging of problems. There are a lot of things in life we can’t control - the weather is one of them.

Andrew McCullough