Islander pursues European tall ships adventure

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William Acken, 16, who will spend a few days this July as a trainee sailor in the 2022 Tall Ships Races. (Danielle Acken photo)

William Acken is preparing to partake in an adventure aboard an early 20th century sailing ship, traversing the waters off the coast of the Netherlands and Belgium.

The 16-year-old Salt Spring Island resident plans to pack his violin, his sea shanty repertoire, some linen and wool clothing he has fashioned and a leather-bound notebook as he boards the Morgenster and sails from Harlingen, Netherlands to Antwerp, Belgium in the 2022 Tall Ships Races this July 16 to 24.

What he’s leaving behind to go on this journey is equally important, including the need to be connected to the outside world. There is no WiFi aboard the ship. He also isn’t fussed about whether he’ll be sleeping in a hammock or a bunk or other finer details, which is part of the charm of setting off on such an adventure.

From an early age Acken has been interested in the concept of adventures, first through the pages of the likes of Treasure Island and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and later in a single-handed Laser sailing dinghy around Salt Spring Island.

“The whole idea of getting to go on a boat and sailing off into some horizon is something I’ve always really enjoyed,” he said.

Sailing, which Acken has been doing for around five years now, provides some “overly cinematic moments,” including seals swimming alongside his boat, sea lions making surprise appearances, brilliant sunny days on the water, camaraderie and action.

“[These moments happen] enough that you have enough stories to tell when you get back, so it keeps itself mysterious.”

Acken will likely come back with stories galore after his experience partaking in the 2022 Tall Ships Races. The Morgenster is a traditionally rigged Dutch square sail brig built in 1919 originally as a herring lugger for the den Dulk fishing company. It continued being a fishing vessel for 50 years, after which an alleged pirate owned the vessel before it changed hands again. The ship’s hull measures 25 metres high and 38 metres long. Aboard the ship are 36 trainees and 10 permanent crew.

A website dedicated to the ship states that the Morgenster is a “thoroughbred sail training vessel” where the many sails and running rigging makes collaboration on board “a natural necessity.”

The Tall Ships Races began in 1956, the Windseeker website explains, “to promote international friendship and sail training.” The races require at least half of the trainees on board to be aged between 15 and 25 years old. The experience not only involves sailing, but port events, parades, competitions and fireworks are also planned.

Acken will be a trainee alongside other young people from Belgium, Netherlands, U.K., Ireland, Denmark and other nations. Trainees get to partake in all roles aboard, Acken explained, yet he’s most excited about working the ropes of the Morgenster. Joining a crew, away from the online world, is part of the adventure as is travelling to countries where English is not the dominant language.

When he’s not busy skippering, cooking meals for hungry sailors or being on lookout duty, Acken is set on writing some music.

“A lot of my music taste lies in that traditional folk sea shanty area, so it’ll be nice to get to write with the experience that a lot of those older sailors did when they wrote the music,” said Acken.

He has also heard the captain of the Morgenster is a fan of sea shanties.  

Acken is keen to experience the history of the area, in particular pre-industrial times, as well as learning how the vessel operates mechanically.

“What about the boat seems more efficient than modern-day machinery and how we can implement that” is one of the environmental questions he hopes to have answerered aboard the Morgenster. Acken will be commemorating his experience in the “old school” way, writing daily logs in his notebook.

Acken applied for the experience through Sail Training International, where he joined the Dinghy program, which helps trainees raise money for their upcoming experiences. In total, Acken needs to raise circa $9,000 to fund his travels, and he’s around $1,500 short of that goal. He has been reaching out to local businesses for sponsorships and has also started a GoFundMe online fundraiser. Should readers be interested in contributing they can contact Acken at william0james0a@gmail.com.

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