A still, calm River Thames, on a crisp spring morning. Then, just coming into view on the horizon are 30 tall ships in all their magnificent glory.
That was the sight that welcomed visitors to the nation’s capital during April, as Royal Greenwich played host to the start of the Rendez-Vous Tall Ships Regatta 2017, celebrating 150 years of the Canadian Confederation with its own Tall Ships Regatta.
The history of tall ships is a long and interesting one. Dating back to the 1500s – when international trade and naval warfare were dominated by sailing vessels – through the legendary story of the Bounty and on to the modern day, these magnifi cent vessels have captured the hearts and minds of seafarers and storytellers.
Now in the modern age, the ships are more for aesthetic pleasure than for function. Yet the sight of them on the water is still something that can turn even the coldest heart into a reminiscing romantic.
Gracing the Thames on those April mornings, the ships welcomed guests onto their decks for visits and tours before disembarking five days later for their round-trip. It’s a journey that saw them leave the UK and travel via Portugal and the Canary Islands to Bermuda. From there, it was onto the US coast before the Regatta made its way up to Canada and back across the ocean for its fi nal stop at Le Havre in France.
But before they did set sail, the ships gave London the opportunity to remind the world of its role in the sector and showcase how important Greenwich has been, over the years, to the UK’s long and proud maritime heritage.
‘Greenwich is the maritime heart of London and, at one time, the world,’ explained Laurens Winkel, the Amsterdam-born director of Sail Greenwich.
‘We started with a small group of tall ships coming to Greenwich in 2012 for the Olympics. We returned in 2014 and this year we’ve had 30 tall ships in London over the weekend. The biggest one – the Christian Radich from Norway – was almost 90m long, and we had the beautiful fourmast tall ship Santa Maria Manuela here. We also had several class C and D tall ships – which are basically big yachts – that can sail worldwide. Every now and again the tall ships circus – as I like to call it – comes into town, so it’s very special.
‘I think the romance of the faraway lands; seeing the horizon across the sea and the exploring is what makes tall ships so exciting. People come to see more than just the ships though,’ he added. ‘They are beautiful to look at, but in the past we’ve seen that when people visit they want to talk to the crew about their experiences. They say “yes I’m impressed by the rigging, but how do you live on here – tell me your stories”.’
This year’s event follows on from the success of the 2014 Tall Ships Regatta, which attracted more than 1m visitors. During the five days the vessels were in Greenwich – having arrived from countries including the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Poland – a range of activities were on offer for the ship-loving members of the public to get involved in.
One organisation responsible for those activities, and which had been heavily involved in this year’s event, is Dartford-based National Maritime.
‘National Maritime is the official partner for the event, and organising the shore-side events was National Maritime’s role,’ said chief executive Peter Green.
‘We first got involved when the tall ships were here in 2014. We worked in partnership with the Royal Borough of Greenwich and it was so successful. Three years ago, we had 1.1m visitors. People love coming along to be entertained, shop and learn a little, and our role is to engage with them – which can only be a good thing.
‘We have two priorities,’ Peter added. ‘One is, how do we regenerate our coast communities, and events like this reconnect maritime communities. We’ve always believed that the maritime sector is wider than what you see. It’s more than just a port or a ship; it’s about getting that message across. It’s also smack bang in the middle of the maritime cluster here in London, so that works for us also.’
This year’s regatta took place slightly earlier than in previous years, to coincide with the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Canadian Confederation – the act that saw the British colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick united into the Canada we know today.
And while not all vessels in London were making the trip across the Atlantic Ocean, they were all playing their roles and taking on at least the fi rst sections of the Rendez-Vous Tall Ships Regatta 2017 with their fellow vessels. ‘Greenwich is the starting port of the trans-Atlantic race to Canada, where all sizes of tall ships participate,’ Laurens explained. ‘From the 30 here a proportion of them will take part the full race. Others will take part in smaller sections of the race.
‘Normally I like to run this event in summer, but because of this race to Canada we ran it over Easter. It’s very weather dependent when it comes to numbers attending. When it’s dry it’s good so we’ve been lucky this year.
‘We’re very proud to be the start of this race. We had a lot of Canadian influences at the event as well – including some performances – so there is a Canadian taste to it. We just wanted to create a great environment where people could come to Greenwich and enjoy their day.’
As part of the festival, the Royal Borough of Greenwich, in partnership with National Maritime’s Jobs in Maritime, recruited 50 sail trainees to embark on some of the magnificent tall ships visiting London.
Trainees got to spend 15 nights aboard a voyage to Sines in Portugal – the birthplace of the famous explorer Vasco de Gama – and take part in the running of the vessel; including steering, charting the course and climbing the rigging.
It’s hoped the experience will prove to be more than a once-in-a-lifetime trip for those aspiring seafarers and spark their imaginations about the prospects of a life at sea.
‘The sail trainees will have been sponsored by a number of partners and they will go into Sines in Portugal, where they will be dropped off – and fly home – before some of the ships go to Quebec in Canada,’ said Peter.
‘It’s a great initiative that gives them an unbelievable experience on the sea and hopefully makes them think it could be something they want to do in the long-term.’
‘The reason for the existence of tall ships right now is that they are the best platform for sail training,’ added Laurens. ‘It gets young people out of their comfort zones. They climb the rigging; they don’t have their telephones or social media. They meet new people and it’s a life changing experience. They do the night shifts and learn the discipline needed onboard the tall ships. All of that is what we call sail training.
‘These tall ships play such a key role and it’s great that Greenwich Council and National Maritime make it possible for people, who otherwise don’t have the money or opportunities to take part in these experiences, to be part of it.
‘It’s also very important for the ships. The ships look nice but it takes a lot of love, energy and money every year to keep them looking beautiful. If you have a 100-year-old ship then it’s a lot of work.
‘The most important thing, though, is that we capture their imaginations and make them enjoy being out on the water.’