Captain, John Davis with Cath Downie of Kingscliff, NSW, Robyn Elkington of Manly and Graham Dix of Maryborough aboard the South Passage.
Captain, John Davis with Cath Downie of Kingscliff, NSW, Robyn Elkington of Manly and Graham Dix of Maryborough aboard the South Passage. nicky.norman

Hearty senior salts pass on the joy of sailing to students

SMOOTH sailing and a fair wind," crackled the hearty voice of John Davis over the short-wave radio.

"We're about 16 nautical miles off Cairns pushing 14 knots and the kids are loving it."

The 75-year-old skipper of the tall ship South Passage was doing what he loves best - taking students on a high-seas sailing adventure and giving orders (politely) to his crew which often includes 'senior salts' up to 80 years of age.

John is one of three skippers that, at different times, captain the 30.5m gaff-rigged schooner along Australia's coast - he's the oldest.

"The wind in your face and the salt in your hair - there's nothing like it," said John, who is encouraging seniors and new retirees to join the crew and experience the thrill of the open sea.

Designed specifically for teenagers to experience adventure under sail, more than 40,000 young voyagers have sailed on South Passage since her launch in 1993.

"SHE is sailed in the traditional way," John said. "Everything is done manually - there are no winches or mechanical aids. Sails are raised and lowered by hand and every activity requires a number of people working together as a team."

South Passage - Adventure under Sail is a non-profit organisation run by volunteers.

Many have a background in sailing and all have a desire to make a difference in the lives of young people who sail with them.

"We receive no government funding and rely on voyage fees and community support to enable our unique youth development programs to operate," John said.

"Our vision for the South Passage is that it will grow and develop young people through adventure under sail."

With its crew of grey mariners, the South Passage sails up and down the east coast, stopping off in ports along the way.

Queensland's only adventure tall ship, designed and dedicated to youth, the South Passage has been operating for more than 20 years in waters between Wollongong and Cairns.

"A lot of the crew are seniors who after their working life are looking to satisfy a need to do something different, adventurous and meaningful," John said.

"Most of our non-professional volunteer crew are trained to operate the ship under the guidance of a qualified master and mate and senior, highly experienced watch leaders."

The South Passage is alcohol-free and cigarettes are also banned.

"That's not to say we're strictly teetotallers; we enjoy socialising after a voyage and meet other members up and down the coast to exchange ideas and experiences and make new friends that last for years," John said.

Apart from an annual membership fee and the purchase of the ship's T-shirt, everything else is free once you get yourself to the ship.

One woman who knows every part of the tall-ship from stern to bow and from futtock shrouds on the top mast to the crew's quarters, is Robyn Elkington of Manly, who has enjoyed sailing ever since she was 10 years old.

Now turning 70, Robyn gained her love of sailing from her father who took out the family trailer-sailer almost every weekend.

For almost 60 years she has worked and sailed on many boats including the 50m Dutch three-masted bark Europa.

Built in 1911, the Europa has travelled the oceans following the trade winds since 1994, powered by canvas.

"Jim, your seniors' readers should try it - sailing the sea brings you to life like no other way," Robyn told me.

"Our crews, ranging from over 50s up to 70s and 80s, become more active.

"In fact, when we're all aboard and under sail, you just can't pick their ages."

Robyn is confined to quarters at the moment and is recovering for an eye corneal graft.

"I suppose I could put on a black patch and board the South Passage as a pirate," she laughed. "Wouldn't that be fun?"

Call the South Passage team on 3893 3777 and hop aboard.

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