Tall Ships Race to Portugal
wind was gusting to force eight, the first mate
up to his waist in water as he clung to the bowsprit
securing the sails. It was a real Biscay blow,
short enough to smile about afterwards, but fierce
enough to remind us all that the sea and the weather
make powerful adversaries.
had wrought sufficient damage to force the withdrawal
of some of the 88 traditional sailing boats competing
in the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Races out of Falmouth.
We saw one yacht, its mast buckled and rigging
broken, motoring for the haven of La Coruna in
damage was mostly repairable, but the giant rip
in one of the square sails would have to wait
until Lisbon, the finishing port of the 740-mile
first race of this year's series which ends in
Dublin later this month. The wind had whipped
up in the small hours for the past three nights.
On every occasion I had been off watch, sleeping
blissfully in my bunk.
happened?" I ask my cabin mate, as he returns
from his watch.
first we blew one of the square sails, then we
pulled down the flyer which had been holed, the
sheets snapped on another sail and one of the
lower shrouds snapped. Oh, and the main-sheet
block has broken. Apart from that, it's been a
quiet night," he says. That's the lottery
of the watch system. Some get all the excitement;
others get all the sleep.
not been billed as a snooze cruise. Furling the
square sails of a tall ship is hard labour needing
many hands, which leads to cramped conditions
below. It was with some surprise, therefore, when
shown my cabin on the Netherlands-based Swan Fan
Makkum, the world's largest brigantine, that I
found it had an en suite shower and lavatory with
wardrobe, washbasin and matching duvet and pillow.
sail is hoisted on an electric winch, the square
sails are furled from the deck using a pulley
system and the boat is steered by autohelm. Willem
Sligting, the captain, had commissioned a boat
capable of winning the event, but he wanted to
win in style.
occasional jobs. If you stood around on deck long
enough, someone would ask you to hold the end
of a rope and sooner or later they would ask you
to haul on it. But when tacking gave way to downwind
sailing the demands became less strenuous.
was gentle on his trainee crew, half of which,
according to the race rules, had to consist of
young people between the ages of 16 and 25. "We
run a three watch system, four hours on and eight
hours off, but if you don't want to get up for
your watch, that's OK," he says. Widespread
sea sickness in the first 48 hours ensures many
are obliged for the dispensation.
however, need not equate with rough living. The
boat, built five years ago at a cost of £1.5m,
has a spacious dining room with a ballroom-style
staircase to the lounge and library with wicker
chairs, flower displays, television and hi-fi.
There is beer on tap in a bar which Berry Brothers
& Rudd, owner of the race sponsor, has stocked
with its wines and Cutty Sark whisky. To ensure
the race did not become a booze-and-snooze cruise,
drinking was limited to an evening happy hour
most effective weapon in the on-board armoury,
hidden in the bowels of the ship, is Rini Hoogendijk,
the cook, who is able to combine the abilities
of a cordon bleu chef with those of an acrobat,
creating and serving imaginative dishes while
the boat, at times, is heeled over as much as
30 degrees. A 10lb line-caught tuna is promptly
converted into steaks and sushi.
Kruzenshtern and Mir, the great Russian four-masted
ships, heading towards the starting line in Falmouth
with sailors standing on the spars, you can understand
why tall ships racing is seen by some countries
as an ideal form of training for naval ratings.
can be harsh and, just as in the days when clippers
raced each other home with tea from India, people
the occasional jammed sail or repair, there is
little need to climb the Swan Fan Makkum's 120ft
high mast. But it had to be done, if only to experience
the view from the top platform. Half-way up I
felt like a fly on a spider's web, wide-eyed and
desperate, but the fear subsided surprisingly
quickly. There is plenty to cling to. A sweep
of the seas revealed a pagoda of sail on the horizon
as a fellow competitor drew closer.
the bridge of a cargo ship heading northwards
west of Portugal, France and Spain could have
been forgiven for assuming they had fallen into
some kind of time warp. The sea was dotted with
sails, tiers of billowing canvas.
nothing like the sight of a tall ship in full
sail to put the swash into buckle. The only thing
missing was the odd cannonball across the bows.
Our own flying Dutchman was sailed by a core crew
bred on a strong naval tradition that caused a
number of historical embarrassments to the British.
There was none so audacious as Michael de Ruyter,
the 17th century Dutch admiral whose squadron
sailed up the Medway in 1667, cutting the defensive
chain draped across the estuary and delivering
double broadsides to the British ships moored
on either side of the river before turning and
sailing back unhampered.
Dutch boy learns this at school," says Sligting.
Today, the competition is more friendly but the
urge to win is just as strong. With two days remaining
in the first race, and only Mir among the large
boats ahead of us, Sligting, acting on "local
knowledge", sails in towards the coast and
loses the wind. Kruzenshtern and one or two others
well out at sea, cruise past us in the night.
mind," says Sligting, who, at 41, has been
sailing traditional ships for the past 20 years.
As the wind begins to whiten the tops of the waves
once more, a contented smile returns. "The
most exciting part about sailing big ships is
that the whole machinery comes to life. You can't
stop it. There is no brake, no clutch, no gearbox.
You have to work together with it," he says.
have enormous respect for people who do the round-the-world
yachting races but I would never do it."
the finishing line, the happy hours become happy
days with cocktails on deck and food fit for the
gods. The captain is a happy man. With a deep
sigh of satisfaction, he says: "This is sailing
how the good lord meant it to be."