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Bonzer Words!: Tall Ships Race - Northern Waters, 1978

Rodney Gascoyne describes a tall ships race in which he took part as a member of the crew of the “Sir Winston Churchill”.

Rodney writes for Bonzer! magazine. Please do visit www.bonzer.org.au

The tall ships race, held every two years, provides a gathering of sailing ships normally engaged in sail training of youngsters aged 16 to 25, in their native waters.

The aim is to promote international understanding, friendship and goodwill amongst young people taking part.

Other than prizes for the winning ships, there is the “Cutty Sark Tall Ships Trophy”, awarded to the ship judged to have done the most towards international understanding during the race.

This year the trophy was won by the Swedish Navy’s training ketch “Gladen”, which stood by to assist the German boat “Meteor”, after its forestay broke. “Gladen” remained until another ship arrived to tow “Meteor” to port, and then continued the race.

The most spectacular ships are the square-riggers. They have three or four masts with sails on yards, going from side to side of the ship. The modern sailing rig is fore and aft sails carried on one, two or more masts. There were five square riggers in the race: the Russian Fisheries 4 masted training ship “Kruzenstern”; the Norwegian training barque “Christian Radich”; the Danish square rigged “Georg Stage”; the Polish training ship “Dar Pomorza”; and the German Navy barque “Gorch Fock”.

These formed Class A. The remaining 35 ships were divided into Class B1 and B2. Class B1 do not carry spinnakers whereas B2 boats do. “Sir Winston Churchill” and “Gladen”, our rivals, were the main ships in Class B1. “Sir Winston Churchill” is a three-masted, topsail schooner, owned by the Sail Training Association of London. This year the main race was from Gottenburg, in Sweden, round the Fair Isle off Scotland and then back to the Oslofjord, a distance of 840 nautical miles.

The start was a sight to remember. The ‘line’ was ten miles out at sea, between the bridges of a ferry and the Swedish Navy's destroyer “Wisborg”, where the King of Sweden started the race. Almost every local small boat and many from neighbouring countries, estimated as 50,000 to 60,000 spectator boats, buzzed around the start area! With little wind by the start, it became a steady drift across the line. Unfortunately both “Sir Winston Churchill” and “Gladen” were just over when the gun fired, as were eight others, and so we all had to re-cross the line.

Light winds continued for two days but we kept well up with the fleet, using natural currents running anti-clockwise around the Skagerrak, and northwards along the west coast of Norway. Most of them used the straight-line direction and thus made less overall progress. Level with Stavanger, we headed WNW. Shortly afterwards, the wind freshened from the north and we sped off at about 11 knots, closed hauled on a starboard tack. As we were the most northerly ship at noon on the second day, we expected to forge ahead but five other ships were ahead of us by noon the next day. “Gladen” rounded Fair Isle at 1430, we at 1830.

The wind dropped again, near the Isle, but picked up that night and we headed ‘home’ on a ‘broad reach’. We were going over 12 knots and from noon to noon the fifth day we covered 230 nautical miles! As we approached Denmark the winds dropped again. For two more days we drifted along using the currents again rather than a direct course.

Using 2.5-knot currents proved wise. The seventh day had us only 40 miles from the finish when a light breeze came up and at 1354 we crossed the ‘line’ at Lille Faerder Lighthouse at the entrance to Oslofjord. To our surprise we found we were the first of our class to finish and “Gladen” was half an hour behind. When the results were tabulated, “Sir Winston Churchill” was fifth and “Gladen” fourth on corrected time, after our far heavier handicap was applied.

Afterwards, the ships gathered at Horten, half way up the fjord, preparing for the “Parade of Sail”. On the chosen day we set course again, in line astern, with the Class A ships first followed by “Sir Winston Churchill” and the remaining ships. Unfortunately, the weather was very poor and we could often not see both sides of the fjord at once. The gloom lifted just as we passed the Royal Yacht “Norge” where the King of Norway took the salute. Although many local boats did turn out, nothing like the expected audience showed up. This was a shame; the days before and following the parade were both sunny and clear. It will be remembered for ages by those taking part on the water.


© Rodney Gascoyne

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