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Plain Sailing: Paul Humphreys Spends a Week on Board the Blyth Tall Ship

Published 4 April 2019
ORE Catapult Blyth Tall Ship Williams II STEM offshore wind
The Williams II docked at Chatham

As a Controls Engineer with the Catapult’s Test & Validation team in Blyth, Paul Humphreys is used to handling some of the most cutting-edge kit in the offshore renewables industry.

So when the opportunity arose to embark on the trip of a lifetime while getting to grips with the offshore technology of yesteryear, the decision to apply was easy.

“Of course, I jumped at the chance,” says Paul, who has just returned home after a week on board the Blyth Tall Ship, the Williams II, as it circumnavigates Great Britain. “I didn’t have any previous background in sailing, but the opportunity to do something so far out of the ordinary, and to test myself at the same time – I couldn’t pass it up.”

The team behind the Tall Ship has spent three years restoring and refitting the historic vessel, which was built in 1914 in Denmark. It carries on the legacy of Blyth’s original tall ship, which was helmed by the mariner William Smith in the early 1800s. Along with his crew, made up of sailors from Blyth and the north-east, Smith discovered Antarctica on a voyage to South America in 1819. Two hundred years on, the Williams Expedition project is keeping Smith’s legacy alive by providing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) training to young people in Blyth and the surrounding area, and giving them opportunities to take part in inspiring experiences while learning new skills.

ORE Catapult Blyth Tall Ship Williams II STEM offshore wind
Paul (third from left) and the crew of the Williams II prepare to set sail from Blyth on the first leg of its journey around Great Britain.

In preparation for a voyage to the Arctic Circle later in 2019, the ship is currently circumnavigating Great Britain on a training and selection mission. Paul joined up with the Williams II on a sunny Saturday in late March as it set off from Blyth at 6am. With a crash-course in knots and the minutiae of life onboard a hundred-year-old wooden ship going on below deck, the ship hugged the Northumberland coast as it headed south towards Lowestoft, its first port.

“There was plenty of excitement and high jinks that first night,” says Paul, “but that soon subsided as we were up at 5am to head to Harwich.” With its mooring space occupied by a luxury yacht the Williams II dropped anchor in the River Stour and the inexperienced crew were introduced to anchor watch, taking two-hour turns to monitor the ship’s position as gale force seven winds approached. “Thankfully my first anchor watch passed without incident,” says Paul, “and I was able to climb back into my bunk just after 3am.”

After a week of reefing and repairing sails, cleaning toilets, navigating via instruments and making vital decisions at short notice, the crew reached Chatham and the end of Paul’s stint on board. “Visiting historic docks, sailing through an eerily foggy Thames Estuary, and getting a taste of life at sea – these were unforgettable experiences,” says Paul. “It was enlightening, it was educational, it was exhausting. But I would recommend it to anyone, and I’m looking forward to sailing again. As long as I don’t have to go on anchor watch.”

Strategy Analyst Kacper Stefaniak and WES Prize winner Lorna Bennet will also join the crew of the Williams II over the coming weeks – we’ll keep you updated with their experiences as they keep the Catapult flag flying around the UK.