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Sailor returns from Cape Horn with tall tales

Former resident spends four months traveling the seas on tall ship

By: Viola Pruss

  |  Posted: Saturday, May 03, 2014 06:00 am

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  • WIND POWERED – Last October, former St. Albert resident Juanita McGarrigle embarked on a four-month journey on the tall ship Europa, which sailed from New Zealand to South America and into Antarctic waters. The highlight of the trip was the six-week journey around Cape Horn.
    WIND POWERED – Last October, former St. Albert resident Juanita McGarrigle embarked on a four-month journey on the tall ship Europa, which sailed from New Zealand to South America and into Antarctic waters. The highlight of the trip was the six-week journey around Cape Horn.
    Supplied photo
  • DOWN SOUTH – Juanita McGarrigle holds up a greeting for the school where she teaches in China during a stop on Antarctica.
    DOWN SOUTH – Juanita McGarrigle holds up a greeting for the school where she teaches in China during a stop on Antarctica.
  • HANG ON! – A big wave washes over the deck of the Europa, which encountered four-metre high waves during its most recent voyage.
    HANG ON! – A big wave washes over the deck of the Europa, which encountered four-metre high waves during its most recent voyage.
  • SUNDOWN – Sailor Juanita McGarrigle says she was constantly amazed by the brilliant sunsets she experienced during her four-month sea voyage.
    SUNDOWN – Sailor Juanita McGarrigle says she was constantly amazed by the brilliant sunsets she experienced during her four-month sea voyage.

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Four-metre waves crashing into the side of her ship could not deter Juanita McGarrigle from sailing through the slim passage that is Cape Horn.

But the stench of more than 50 wet boots, socks and clothes piled into an airtight space for weeks was another story, she says.

In late October, the former St. Albert resident went on a four-month journey, sailing from New Zealand to South America and into Antarctic waters on the tall ship Europa.

The highlight of her trip was her six-week journey through Cape Horn – one of the roughest seas known to sailors, she says.

“Going around Cape Horn is similar to climbing Mount Everest for sailors,” she says. “Not many people do it. It’s the pinnacle for sailors … the only more dangerous passage of waters is the North Sea.”

Part of the crew

Born in Ireland, McGarrigle immigrated to Canada with her family in 1981. They settled in St. Albert, where she went to school and later studied at the University of Alberta before taking a teaching position for theatre and music at Elmer S. Gish School.

She later moved her career abroad – to South America, the Middle East, Turkey and Indonesia. Eventually she landed a job at the Shanghai American School in China, which granted her the leave as part of its motto: Live your dreams.

McGarrigle says she met the captain of the Europa and his crew of 14 on a trip to Ireland in 2005. That summer she got herself hired on the tall ship and has sailed with the crew ever since – teaching schedule permitting – as a guide and purser for the guests.

That job includes everything from helping more than 40 crew members get settled on board, serving as a conduit between the crew and guests, and looking after their hydration and hygiene, she says.

“There were a few occasions where I had to be very polite with the guests and bring up the whole idea of ‘have you run out of shampoo or soap,’” she laughs.

But after weeks on rough seas, with no laundry facilities other than a sink and nowhere but indoors to hang clothes, the stench is expected, she says.

Cape Horn Society

It took the crew five weeks to pass through the narrow passage at the southern tip of Chile, she says. Afterwards, they all went out and got their ears pierced with a golden ring.

“The rule in sailor lore is that I have my gold earring and I have it in the ear of the direction I faced as a passed Cape Horn,” she says.

The ring is part of becoming a member of the International Association of Cape Horners, she explains. Becoming a member required her to sail for 3,000 nautical miles on wind power without anchoring, be actively involved in sailing the ship, and to go from 50 degrees latitude west to 50 degrees latitude east.

Now that the task is complete, she’s allowed to eat with one foot on the table, get a tattoo of a fully rigged ship and spit into the wind, she says.

“I don’t know why anyone would do that,” she says of the latter.

Screaming at seals

While McGarrigle went on this journey mainly to sail around Cape Horn, it was not her only adventure on the trip, she says. She also visited Antarctica, where she saw numerous species of seals, whales and penguins.

That often led to unusual encounters.

“My job was to guide the guests through the different areas (of Antarctica),” she says. “And the fur seals were in mating season and so they are kind of aggressive. So you have to be bigger and louder and more aggressive than them.”

As a guide for the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, McGarrigle had to be very careful about interacting with wildlife. But in the case of fur seals, the rules were to scare them away.

That meant leaning over them, screaming at them and – if all else failed – tapping them on the nose. She did this about 20 times per landing, with the seal’s head only inches from her own, she says.

“That’s a steep learning curve.”

Future plans

By the end of her journey, McGarrigle had spent more than 100 days on the Europa, with a few breaks on dry land to explore the countries and landscapes.

Much of her fascination with travelling on a tall ship is the exposure to the elements and the sense of adventure, she says. But it’s also the conversation and connection that forms with other people that draws her back every year.

Now that she has returned to Shanghai, she doesn’t feel sad that her journey is over, she says. Rather, it inspired her to take on new and other dreams that she didn’t have time for before.

And one day, she’ll return to the Europa for a year, she says.

“After four months, there were times where I was absolutely exhausted,” she says. “But at the same time, I am seeing things, doing things and learning things and being constantly amazed by the sunsets and amazed by the stars and the sea.”


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