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Zoe Skinner finishing 14-month sail odyssey

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Zoe Skinner at the helm of the sail-training vessel Picton Castle (Photograph supplied)

Bermuda looked like a cloud on the horizon when Zoe Skinner sailed into her home port last week, on board a 150ft sail-training vessel, Picton Castle.

“It was surreal,” the 22-year-old said. “I asked the people with me, ‘do you see that?’ I was not sure if that was really Bermuda. Then we reached the Town Cut and I was on the helm helping bring her in. It was pretty magical.”

Her parents, Amanda and J. P. Skinner, plus other family and friends, were on land, near Town Cut, to welcome her home, after 14 months on the barque. They erected a big sheet reading: “Welcome Home Zoe!”.

Zoe Skinner’s family waiting for her to sail in on the Picton Castle (Photograph supplied)

“I had no idea that was going to happen, but it was a very nice surprise,” Zoe said.

After a few days showing her 40 crewmates around Bermuda, she still has a week left on the ship, sailing to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada, to finish where she started.

The sail-training vessel Spirit of Bermuda inspired her to sign up to travel the world on the Picton Castle.

“I missed a really fantastic opportunity when I was at Saltus Grammar School,” she said. “I could not do the sailing programme on the Spirit of Bermuda because I had something else on.”

After graduating from the University of Surrey in England with a bachelor’s in biochemistry, she thought it was a great time to finally try sailing.

The Picton Castle appealed to her because of its mission to teach people how to sail and reconnect them to the world.

Zoe grew up on the water. Her father runs the Waterstart programme in Ferry Reach, offering young people training in snorkelling, scuba diving and other outdoor activities.

“I got my first dive certificate when I was 11, and I am now certified at the rescue diver level,” she said.

However, she had very little sailing experience other than little single-handed Optimist sailing boats at the Royal Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club in Paget.

On her first day meeting the Picton Castle in Lunenburg, she was thrown right in, with everyone learning names and parts of the ship.

“It was a lot at first, but the people I was sailing with were very special, and the places we went to were amazing,” she said.

As a deck hand, Zoe was required to take the helm, do lookouts, handle general maintenance, such as painting and mending sails, and take the sails in and out.

An introvert, she had to adjust to being with other people all the time.

“You don’t have much in the way of privacy,” she said. “The only privacy is a curtain on your bunk. There is always someone else near by.”

During her time on the Picton Castle, she sailed 30,000 miles. One of her favourite ports was the Galapagos Islands.

“It was pretty wonderful,” she said. “It is very different from Bermuda, but you get to see the tortoises and the marine iguanas and all of the sea lions. There was a lot of wildlife.”

The Picton Castle approaching Bermuda last week (Photograph supplied)

While sailing near the Galapagos Islands, they saw a pod of dolphins so vast that it stretched from their ship into the horizon.

They also sailed to such diverse places as Tahiti, Bali, Reunion, South Africa and the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific, which had a population of only 40.

“The water off of South Africa was pretty cold,” she said. “There was a current coming up from Antarctica.”

The Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of South Africa is known for its strong winds and rough seas, but the Picton Castle had good luck rounding it.

“There was nothing too rough, but it was a worry,” Zoe said.

One of the hardest things about being on the Picton Castle was being away from her friends and family for so long.

Zoe Skinner at work on the tall ship Picton Castle (Photograph supplied)

“The people on the ship become your core support,” she said. “You get very disconnected from the rest of the world.”

Out at sea, there was no wi-fi, so everyone on the Picton Castle rushed to find it when they came into port, to get updates on what was happening at home. They sometimes went 32 days without any contact with the outside world.

Zoe said this was both a curse and a blessing.

“It gave you time to read books and talk to other people,” she said.

At times they encountered heavy weather.

“The ship is very secure and safe, but we do get waves crashing over the decks,” Zoe said. “When there is lightning, we have to wear rubber-soled shoes and we are not allowed to touch the rig or the mast.”

She always felt safe on board, but there were times when she marvelled at the size of the waves hitting the ship.

“At those times you are glad to be on the ship, and not in the ocean,” she said.

Zoe suffered from seasickness for the first three days, and then never felt it again.

She celebrated her 21st and 22nd birthdays on the Picton Castle.

“I turned 21 when we were still in port,” she said. “The next birthday was when we were under way. We were just outside Vanuatu, in the South Pacific. A cake is made for every birthday, which is very special, because it is the only time we get dessert.”

When her time with the Picton Castle is done, she hopes to go back to university to get a master’s in biochemistry and toxicology.

“I always wanted to do something with the natural world,” she said. “A lot of toxicology research is done in the natural world.”

She thought it would be cool to go on another trip like this one, but not right away.

Trips on tall ships such as the Picton Castle, which circumvent the globe, are not cheap, costing around $15,000 for one leg of the trip.

“There are scholarships available for certain people,” Zoe said. “I did not get one, but I know quite a few people who did.”

• The Picton Castle kicks off another voyage in the autumn. For more information, see sailtraininginternational.org/vessel/picton-castle

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Published July 09, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated July 10, 2024 at 8:16 am)

Zoe Skinner finishing 14-month sail odyssey

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