The allure of the tall ships

Michael Clugston June 18 1984

The allure of the tall ships

Michael Clugston June 18 1984

The allure of the tall ships


Michael Clugston

The tall ships slip over the horizons of a troubled world, time travellers from a near-forgotten age of grace. Their compelling charm is a rich mixture of beauty and romance tempered by their vulnerability to wind and water, the very elements they were built

to exploit. That vulnerability was pointedly acknowledged last week when a 47vessel fleet slipped into Halifax Harbor, its flags at half-mast in tribute to the British barque Marques, lost with 19 hands on June 3 in a heavy wind off Bermuda. But the beauty and romance of the tall ships persist—as does the world’s love affair with them. They are a remnant of nautical history, dramatic reminders of the age of sail which passed with the invention of the steam engine. The phenomenon of the tall ships has generated steadily increasing public interest and moneymaking capability in the 28 years since their first

modern-day assembly for an Englandto-Portugal race. And by July 11, when this year’s fleet begins its race back across the Atlantic, more than three million Canadians and tourists will have turned out in Halifax, Quebec City and other communities for a firsthand look at them, while millions more will have seen the ships on television.

Crewed by young sailors, the tall

ships raced from Bermuda to Halifax last week, the final leg of a contest that began on April 17 in the ancient French port of St. Malo. In 1534 explorer Jacques Cartier sailed from St. Malo on his voyage of discovery to the St. Lawrence River, and it was to celebrate the 450th anniversary of his historic voyage that Quebec authorities invited the tall ships to retrace the explorer’s route this year. The courtesy call at Halifax and a scheduled excursion by part of the fleet to Lake Ontario on July 6 flowed out of the Quebec initiative.

Unlike many international events, including the Olympics, which are virtual-

ly suffocated by political and security worries, the tall ships gatherings, like the one in Bermuda earlier this month, are huge jamborees of goodwill. They take place without identity badges, barbed wire or armed guards. They usually begin with a race for an inexpensive trophy and then continue with a “cruise in company”—a sail of a day or more during which crewmen change vessels and travel with sailors from other countries. In harbor the crews socialize, sing shanties and attend barbecues. Said race director John Hamilton of Britain’s Sail Training Association (STA): “I call it a fresh-air-and-cocoa situation. We try to get young people in before their political ideas harden.” Soviet skipper Victor Gusev of the Leningrad-based ketch Flora agreed. Gusev, whose 50-foot vessel is registered to the Baltic Shipping Co.’s yacht club, declared, “It’s not politics, it’s racing for friendship.” Over strong coffee below deck he produced snapshots of English sea cadets who sailed aboard Flora in 1982 and added, “We are one family of sailors and yachtsmen.”

From Halifax, from which the fleet was scheduled to depart on June 13, many crew members will switch vessels for the cruise to Quebec City, where most will stay between June 25 and 30 (some of the smaller vessels will proceed to Montreal and Toronto). After a leisurely run back down the St. Lawrence the main fleet will divide at Sydney, N.S., and the European ships will race for Liverpool, just ahead of the Atlantic hurricane season.

Although organizers always try to attract as many of the world’s approximately 300 oceangoing square-riggers and schooners as possible to the gatherings, the majority of the vessels visiting Canadian waters this year are not tall ships at all but ketches, yawls and sloops. Still, almost all are sail-training vessels, which may participate in official tall ships events if they are longer than 30 feet and if at least half their crew is between 16 and 25. The rules are laid down by the Gosport, Englandbased STA, which organizes the races.

Progress, and the age of science, overtook the original clipper ships, squareriggers and other large sailing vessels with their striking geometry of curved surfaces and ruler-sharp lines. But the beautiful old craft was not entirely abandoned. In many countries, especially in Europe and South America, navies,

coast guards and sea cadet units either retained and restored the square-riggers or built new ones as training vessels.

The current public fascination with the windjammers began after a retired London solicitor, Bernard Morgan, decided to try to bring young sailors of different countries together in a friendly rivalry to create what he called a “brotherhood of the sea.” Morgan, fondly described by Hamilton as a naive dreamer, gained the support of Earl Mountbatten, then the First Sea Lord of the British Admiralty, who was killed in 1979 when an IRA-planted bomb exploded aboard his fishing boat, The Shadow V, off Mullaghmore, Ireland.

Mountbatten encouraged

the establishment of a committee to organize a race involving 20 vessels, from Torbay, England, to Lisbon in July, 1956. The race proved popular with sailors and the public alike, and the committee evolved into STA, set up to organize races every other year in European waters.

The tall ships’ impact on the North American public reached its peak in 1976, when more than 200 sailing vessels paraded through New York harbor to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial. The grand fleet, including 18 of the world’s largest sailing ships, was awesome and its reception overwhelming. “Our preparation with the coast guard was like the plans for the invasion of Normandy in thoroughness,” declared John Fullerton, a New

York director of Operation Sail ’76 (Opsail). “There was not one untoward incident, although we had 30,000 spectator craft and seven million people streaming into the city to watch.”

After New York the tall ships became big business. Quebec City organizers expect a $100-million windfall from the 1.6 million people expected to attend this year’s spectacle. Halifax expected about 300,000 people—including 30,000 from out of the province—to see the ships. Even in Bermuda the tall ships still triggered excitement and income earlier this month, despite two previous visits. Said Tony Marsh, the island’s deputy tourism director: “We know a lot of visitors are here just because of the tall ships.”

This year there were only three of the biggest, class “A” vessels in Bermuda, but, tied at the wharf, they dominated Front Street in Hamilton, with its pastel storefronts and oleander bushes covered in blossoms. On the wharf uniformed seamen from the Polish

full-rigger Dar Mlodziezy flirted with passing girls. At the same time, young sailors with rings in their ears and kerchiefs on their heads cheerfully slapped down coats of Swedish tar to waterproof the rails of the doomed Marques, while tourists in $270-a-night rooms at the nearby Princess Hotel sipped their drinks and watched from verandahs. At a reception on board the Canadian square-rigger Belle Blonde, owned by

retired Lt.-Cmdr. Claude Lacerte of Trois Rivières, Que., a Polish first mate greeted a Danish captain in English, declaring, “My enemy, I will beat you to Halifax.” Even though they were competitors, they quickly took out notebooks and compared strategies for the race.

For their part, Nova Scotians, with their own renowned seagoing tradition, will likely cast a more knowing eye than most Canadians on the assembled ships.

Claude Darrach, who gives his age as “well over 75,” sailed on the original Bluenose for all but two of its famous races for the International Fisherman’s Trophy between 1921 and 1938. According to Darrach, the commercial exploitation of the ships—especially of the Bluenose II—threatened to obliterate a noble history of hard work and hardwon honors. Said the former crewman: “Everything is the Bluenose now—it is on your shirt, money, everywhere. Five hundred of us raced then on many fine

schooners, but all that is being lost.” Bluenose lí does not race officially because the provincial government wants to avoid tarnishing “the fame and the laurels” of its namesake by risking a loss. But the schooner accompanies the tall ships parades of sail to promote Nova Scotia tourism, and it is making the trip to Quebec. At least some members of the Bluenose II crew were unhappy because their ship was not allowed to race back from Bermuda. That kind of

restraint goes against the sailor’s instinct. Indeed, racing was commonplace in the age of sail, whether for financial reasons or simply for fun. Clipper ships raced their prized cargoes of tea from the Orient to England for cash prizes. And North Atlantic fishermen raced home because the first fish unloaded would be the freshest and bring the highest price. Bluenose n, 143 feet long and carrying 11,690 square feet of canvas, is known to be extremely fast. When he was asked in Bermuda if he would race the tall ships back to Halifax “unofficially,” Capt. Don Barr was noncommittal: “We are going to go to Halifax and we are going to sail as quickly as we can.” In the event, because of unusually heavy seas, Bluenose II made part of the journey under power.

The original Bluenose, depicted on the

Canadian 10-cent piece, was launched at Lunenberg, N.S., in 1921, a working ship that fished the Grand Banks off Newfoundland in summer and raced in the fall against Canadian and U.S. challengers for the International Fisherman’s Trophy. The Bluenose was not quite as invincible as the modern myth surrounding it. Although she never lost the trophy, she lost several heats, and in 1930 Bluenose lost two races to the U.S. schooner Gertrude L. Thebaud. In 1942 Bluenose was sold and, after an ignominious period of service as a Caribbean freighter, foundered on a coral reef off Haiti in January, 1946. At the time the Halifax Herald declared: “Her passing is a national sorrow; the ignominy of her death, a national shame.” Oland’s Brewery commissioned the building of Bluenose lí in 1963 and donated it to the province in 1971.

For Graham McBride, a curatorial assistant at Halifax’s Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, the highlight of the tall ships’ visit was the anticipated arrival of what for him is the jewel of the fleet—the 342-foot-long Soviet fourmasted barque Krusenshtern, a 3,184tonner built in 1924 to carry nitrate from Chile to Germany. “She’s an authentic, old-fashioned commercial sailing ship,” said McBride, 50. “Her complicated rigging is overpowering in comparison to the others, which were purpose-built for sail trailing.”

But many of the sail trainers have style, too. The towering U.S. Coast Guard training ship Eagle, 295 feet of gleaming white paint and bristling skyworks of masts and yards, flies a gargantuan U.S. flag the size of a mainsail. Equally spectacular, the 270-foot

Venezuelan barque Simon Bolivar usually enters harbors with crewmen standing in neat rows along the bowsprit and along the high, wooden yards —and flying the skull-and-crossbones.

The crews aboard the tall ships are a special breed. Ninety feet above Hamilton harbor in Bermuda, seaman Matthew Gardener, 22, a native of Mersea Island, England, leaned over the main royal yard of the Ciudad de Incas, now owned by England’s China Clipper Society, built in 1858 to carry nuts and spices between Cuba and Spain. “It’s strikingly beautiful from up here at sea in any boat, on this one especially,” Gardener told a white-knuckled visitor. “In heavy wind it is hard work up here.” You have to hang on like a monkey. But sometimes it’s good to do things that scare you.”

Those sentiments are firmly held in sail-training circles. Aboard Our

Svanen (Swan), one of only two Canadian-owned square-riggers taking part in the tall ships races, the crew refuses to tolerate fear or lack of resolve. Said Capt. Douglas Havers of Victoria, who, with his wife, Margaret, owns the 118foot-long Our Svanen: “You take a 16year-old on our upper yard in the dark in 70-m.p.h. winds, in the rain, pulling in a sail, and if he can overcome the fear of doing that then nothing will ever really bother him again in his life. That is what sail training is all about.” For the past

four years Canadian Armed Forces cadets have sailed in Our Svanen, a 62year-old Danish-built barkentine. Havers and his wife bought it in 1969 when it was a tired grain carrier and restored it as an authentic barkentine with square sails on only the foremost of three masts. The other Canadian square-rigger in this year’s fleet is Belle Blonde, a former light ship that Claude Lacerte bought and stepped with two masts to convert it into a brigantine.

Said Lacerte: “I’ve been excited about coming to Quebec City for two years.” The main problem facing the STA and the tall ships is their own success. Demand for the ships threatens to dilute future pageants. The mass appeal of the tall ships will likely grow. As slow and awkward as many of them are to sail, as dangerous to work on and as irritatingly susceptible to the erosions of water and wind, their very survival seems to be a wonder in the technological age. A wonder, too, is the stamina of some of the

sailors. By the time Gusev, 49, returns home to Leningrad, he will have sailed more than 8,000 miles and lived for five months in cramped quarters with six other men. “People ask me how can I stand to do this for such a long time,” he said, looking around the Flora’s tiny galley. “It is interesting for us. We are seamen and want to be in Canada as guests for this celebration.” Perhaps Bernard Morgan’s dream of a “brotherhood of the sea” was not naive at all. ►