London was the starting base for that year’s Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race which took the entrants out of the Thames, and across the bottom of the North Sea to Hamburg. From there, on Race 2, the ships went to the nearby port of Cuxhaven, up along the west coast of Denmark, and around the Skaw down to Malmo in the south of Sweden; many of them then voyaged on a cruise-in-company to Travemunde.
Prior to the start of the race from London, 122 sailing ships of all shapes and sizes, were moored along the Thames south of Butler’s Wharf, in the Pool of London, off Tower Bridge, and in the old docks further down the river. Many big ships were present, including the largest square riggers in the world – Kruzensbtern, Mir, Sedov, Alexander Von Humboldt, and many others.
The forest of masts was a sight not seen in the capital for decades and one that is unlikely to be seen ever again; a few miles down river, a new bridge under construction will prevent the larger vessels from navigating to the upper reaches and the heart of the city.
At Rouen, the major outport for Paris on the River Seine, 22 full rigged ships, barques and brigantines, as well as a host of smaller training vessels, were moored along the quay walls in the center of this famous cathedral city, 75 miles (120 km) from the sea. Les Voiles de fa Liberte (‘Sails of Uberty’) had come to help celebrate France’s most
important anniversary to date, its Bicentennial.
These great ships, some of which had slipped away from London to take part, made a magnificent sight and by the time they sailed majestically down the Seine for Honfleur, more than 3 million people had traveled to Rouen to see them.
The sight of a full rigged ship with all canvas set tramping across the ocean is one thing. To be able to see them close up, and to be allowed on board when they are open to the public, is another: their rigs are huge, swathed in ropes and lines that seem to come from all angles.
Despite modern technology, many of these vessels still use old-fashioned hemp ropes and Stockholm tar, a black gummy liquid extracted from pine trees which is used to coat rigging, yards, and the hulls of some wooden ships to
keep out the weather.
The tar’s antiseptic, sweet smell permeates the air, wafting over the fleet as a pleasing reminder of voyages made in the dim and distant past.
The Cutty Sark Tall Ships Races began in July 1956, when a fleet of 21 sailing ships from 11 countries raced each other from Torbay, England to Lisbon, Portugal. Most of these vessels were at one time engaged in trading and had recently been converted for sail training, but their future seemed uncertain and the purpose for gathering them together for this event was to celebrate the passing of the age of sail.
Two years later, reinforced by the success of the first event, these ships, joined by a number of others, sailed again. The organizers, The Sailing Training-Ship International Race Committee, recognized that there was indeed a future in adventure training under sail.
As race succeeded race, it was clear that these events had more to do with providing adventure and the widening of horizons for young people than paying homage to the past. New square rigged ships were specially built (Gorch Fock in 1958, for example) and continue to be built today to provide the opportunity of going to sea for limited
The idea is not so much to teach youngsters how to sail a ship, although that is inevitably the case where ships are owned and operated by the various navies; but more to encourage international understanding, to provide the opportunity for youngsters to develop confidence in their own abilities, and nurture team spirit, in an environment free of the constraints of shore-side life.