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1998, Tall Ships Race to Portugal

Tall ships race

The 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.

The gales 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 northern Spain.

Our own 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.

"Anything happened?" I ask my cabin mate, as he returns from his watch.

"Well, 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.

This had 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.

The main 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.

There were 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.

The captain 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.

Rough weather, 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 while sailing.

But the 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.

Watching 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.

The life can be harsh and, just as in the days when clippers raced each other home with tea from India, people do fall.

Except for 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.

Anyone on 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.

There is 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.

"Every 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.

"Never 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.

"I have enormous respect for people who do the round-the-world yachting races but I would never do it."

Once beyond 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."

©Financial Times

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