Canada

Down to the Sea

As the tall ships arrive in Halifax, the city throws a celebration like no other

John DeMont July 31 2000
Canada

Down to the Sea

As the tall ships arrive in Halifax, the city throws a celebration like no other

John DeMont July 31 2000

Down to the Sea

Canada

John DeMont

As the tall ships arrive in Halifax, the city throws a celebration like no other

Dan Wildeman, a 20-year-old from Victoriaville, Que., seemed a little disoriented on the Halifax waterfront last week. Two months ago, aftero all, he had been in Bermuda with no purpose other than visiting a cousin. Then, one day in June, the Roald Amundsen, a gorgeous, 41-metre-long German brig, pulled into the harbour after completing the Cadiz, Spain-Bermuda leg of the The Tall Ships Race of the Century. “It looked like a museum piece,” he remembers thinking at the time. “I mean, what is the practical use of a square-rigger today?” To find out, he signed up as a deckhand. Six weeks later, Wildeman has a sun-darkened face and work-hardened

hands. What’s more, the skeptic now gushes about the beauty of sails snapping in the wind and the importance of holding onto ancient seafaring traditions. And he intended to be on board when the Roald Amundsen departed for Amsterdam early this week, bound for the race finish line and then the ship’s home port of Wolgast, Germany. “I’m a convert,” he concedes.

It was hard not to be, as the first ships emerged like square-sailed phantoms from the early morning fog outside Halifax harbour last week. By the time the 79th ship made berth, a big sun burned in a cloudless sky and it seemed for one glorious moment like the great days of sail had returned

to the Halifax waterfront. Even for this seafaring city, it was a sight: the countless miles of canvas, the hundreds of masts jutting skyward, the immense decks—many as long as a football field—lined up along the docks. The armada, from some 20 different countries and said to be the largest collection of sailing ships in Halifax harbour since the mid19th century when Nova Scotia was still a shipbuilding power, dazzled the crowds who flocked to the waterfront to see the race’s only Canadian port of call. And the docks and streets of Halifax, already bursting with summer life, throbbed with music, raucous good times and the exotic voices of sailors from other countries loose in a foreign city.

Most of the celebrants were there for nostalgia as much as a party. “Its like going back in time,” said Ernie Oberaz, a retiree from Sudbury, Ont., as he disembarked from a tour of the Kaiwo Maru, a 95-metre-long Japanese barque. To Judy Proud, 40, a homemaker and mother of two from Moncton, N.B., the great masted ships symbolize escape from the

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rigours of modern life. “Who,” she asked, “hasn’t from time to time wanted to forget about the kids and the responsibilities and run away to sea?” Sergey Timoshkov, chief officer aboard Mir, a 95-metre-long Russian vessel, can appreciate that sentiment. Now 41, he has been sailing for 23 years. Last week, in broken English, he enthusiastically talked about the joys of being under sail on the open ocean. “Spend just a day on a boat like this and you will remember it all your life,” he said.

No wonder Ben Lodeman, the captain of the Roald Amundsen, seemed so invigorated to be in the company of so many other sailors. In Germany, his homeland, the skills required to handle the towering vessels are almost extina. “It is a case of taking the last ideas of those who know and passing them on to the last people who want to know,” he said. Last week, though, as a stiff breeze blew off the water, he was happy to be with the others amid the giant masts in Halifax harbour, listening to the sound of lapping water and creaking wood, imagining a time when sail still ruled. ES!