Thirty-three years ago, Yorkshire GP Sally Anderson took part in an adventure of a lifetime on the tall ship Zebu. Now she is supporting a major project to restore it to its former glory. Chris Burn reports.
In her early twenties and coming towards the end of her university degree, medical student Sally Anderson spotted an article in The Yorkshire Post that was to change her life. The item was searching for two people to participate in Operation Raleigh, a scheme encouraging young people to set sail on ships around the world to develop leadership skills and build self-confidence through a combination of adventure and community service.
She decided to apply and was accepted for a place on board the tall ship Zebu, with sponsorship coming from The Yorkshire Post. Her trip involved flying out to Australia for a three-month mission on board the ship as they worked on excavating the wreck of another ship called Zanoni, which had been used on the East India trading route and sunk close to the coast of Adelaide in 1867.
Its ruins were not discovered until 1983, with the Operation Raleigh mission taking place a couple of years later to explore the rare and valuable archeological resource.
“The basic idea was to provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for young people to do something completely different, take them out of their normal environment with a view to gaining experience and different skills,” Sally, who is originally from Scarborough, explains.
Sally, who was 24 at the time of the trip, says it was an unforgettable experience.
“Although I was qualified as a doctor, I wasn’t there as a doctor,” she says. “The idea was you had to be of a reasonable standard for scuba diving. I had to get trained up and the only available session was down in Poole in Dorset. My first proper dive was with a wobbegong shark next to me.
“I went from training in Poole and the next thing I’m in South Australia excavating a wreck by a shark. It was a pretty dramatic change.”
After one month working on Zanoni, the trip also involved sailing to Melbourne, Hobart, Tasmania and up to Sydney on-board the Zebu.
“We didn’t have safety harnesses, we were just young kids going on the rigging, just climbing up. That is just not allowed these days but we just got on and did it. I don’t think there were any injuries or accidents.
“It was just an amazing experience. The friendships I forged during that three-month trip were lifelong.”
Sally ended up living in Adelaide for a couple of years after being offered a job in a hospital. Before returning to the UK after her visa expired, she took part in another Operation Raleigh mission, this time working as a doctor on a trip to Central America.
While the group had gone to Guyana to do health population studies, their adventures included canoeing expeditions.
“It was like Robinson Crusoe,” Sally recalls. “They had some really big, bright blue tropical butterflies, there were mango trees everywhere and piranhas in the river. It was really exciting stuff.”
After the trip, Sally moved back to England and became a GP in Driffield and started a family, going on to have three children.
She says that as the years passed she put her time with Operation Raleigh to the back of her mind, but her interest in Zebu was reignited by an extraordinary coincidence 30 years on from her voyage on it as she took her children to Liverpool for the weekend to visit The Beatles museum in 2015.
As part of the trip, the family went down to Albert Dock where they saw a partially-sunk ship in the water.
“I said that ship is something like the one I travelled around the world on, which was called the Zebu,” she explains. “A man working at a ticket office said ‘That isn’t like your ship, that is actually your ship’.
“It was awful. I was absolutely heartbroken. I felt like it was my ship.”
Six weeks after she sank, Zebu was raised from the water and in January 2017, the ship came under new ownership, husband and wife Gerrith and Suzi Borrett.
In October 2017, the couple secured a grant of £99,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund for feasibility work on their aim of starting an ambitious new chapter for Zebu to turn the vessel into a unique floating museum which will travel around the British coastline to engage with local schools, colleges, universities and the general public.
An application for a much-larger grant from the HLF is just about to be submitted and the couple hope if that is successful, they will be in a position to begin sea trials in spring 2020.
To celebrate the progress so far and the history of the ship, Sally is among the invited guests who will be attending a special pirate-themed party on board Zebu in Liverpool later this month to mark the ship’s 80th birthday.
The ships’s fascinating history began when it was built in Sweden in 1938 and was originally used as a trading vessel.
Research is taking place into reports that during the war years the ship had a role in supporting the Polish Home Army but is still best known for its link to Operation Raleigh in the 1980s when it visited 41 countries as thousands of young volunteers took part in expeditions across the world.
Like Sally, Suzi says she has been enchanted by Zebu since her and her husband, a qualified captain, were given the chance to take the ship on 18 months ago.
“She is a very infectious ship,” she says. “We first saw her a couple of years ago in the Albert Dock before she sank and thought what an amazing little ship. It is amazing she has ended up in our hands.
“It is a passion we have about sailing and what sailing can do and how it can change lives.
“When you walk on the ship, you can just feel the history and feel the whole 80 years just climb out of the woodwork.
“Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund North-West and of course all the people who play the lottery, we have an opportunity to do something special with Zebu.”
Suzi says as the project progresses, she hopes more former Operation Raleigh volunteers will come forward to assist and help tell their stories.
For her part, Sally says she is delighted to be part of Zebu’s story once again.
“It is not every day you get invited to a pirate party - not in my line of work anyway,” she says.
And the GP has a special hope she hopes she will able to fulfil as and when the ship sets sail once again after learning an unusual musical instrument in recent years.
“I have expressed an interest in helping Zebu in whatever way I can,” she says.
“My ambition is to sit on the crow’s nest of the Zebu and play my musical instrument, a Shakuhachi, which is a Japanese bamboo flute.”
For more information about the project, visit www.tallshipzebu.org or search ‘Tall Ship Zebu’ on Facebook.
Royal connection to Operation Raleigh
Explorer and former Army officer Colonel John Blashford-Snell and Prince Charles helped start the Operation Raleigh programme.
The pair established its forerunner, Operation Drake, in 1978, to focus on getting young people involved in scientific exploration. Operation Raleigh began in 1984 and ran for four years, involving two renovated ships - Zebu nad Sir Walter Raleigh - and carrying almost 4,000 volunteers in global expeditions.
Land-based expeditions were set up and in 1992, Operation Raleigh became Raleigh International to reflect the charity’s growing diversity in its work.
More than 40,000 people have now been part of a Raleigh programme helping communities across the world.