Light winds brought the fleet of two dozen vessels participating in the Tall Ships® 2000 into the fair city of Charleston, SC, the first US port for 11 vessels sailing in a race from Bermuda on Friday June 16. This fleet joined other tall ships coming up from Miami, FL, for a gathering of traditional sail powered vessels in numbers not seen here in 90 years. En route from Bermuda, the winds evaded the generous sail plans, leaving many of these heavy displacement craft listless offshore, forcing organizers to call the race off and prompting crews to start the huge engines inside these sailing giants. Differences in horsepower and waterline made themselves apparent as the ships began to arrive for an event two years in the making, some docking alongside the Maritime Center on the Charleston side of the Cooper River, and others at the Patriot's Point Marina on the Mount Pleasant side. Throughout the celebration, seven ships were open for boarding, and sailors, dreamers, and landlubbers took advantage of the opportunity to get a glimpse at a former time when wind was king.
Hailing from Buenos Aires, The Argentine-flagged La Libertad was the largest of the group, both in length and crew. She docked alongside the passenger terminal usually reserved for cruise ships and made for a truly impressive sight. A fully rigged frigate capable of flying 28,500 feet of sail, measuring 356-feet long, and housing some 352 crew members, La Libertad is the training ship of the Argentine Navy on which naval academy midshipmen do their final training to become officers. Her 45-foot beam and 22-foot draft are testament to the kinds of dimensions we're talking about when we talk about tall ships. The hundreds of lines running in dizzying fashion up and down her spars leave one wondering how many miles of running rigging this ship must have and how crew keep them all straight.
Her history, like that of all the ships in the procession, is a colorful one. Since its commissioning in 1963, this steel ship has made 33 trips to different parts of the world, three of those becoming circumnavigations. In 1966 she set the world record for crossing the North Atlantic under sail, covering 2,058 nm in eight days and three hours. For her stay in Charleston, white uniformed officers entertained guests on the spacious decks during the welcoming party under a full moon, while well-dressed party goers waited in line for their chance to board.
Daylight saw rotating shifts of crew members bring their Argentine soccer skills to light on nearby fields. Crew members could be seen along the waterfront engaged in international phone calls home, while a long line of visitors braved the South Carolina heat and humidity to have a chance to view this ship up close.
Another head turner was the goodwill sailing ambassador of Nova Scotia, the 181-foot gaff topsail schooner Bluenose II. The eight coats of varnish that cover the immaculate mahogany woodwork set this sailing showpiece apart, while a massive set of douglas fir masts towered overhead. Bluenose II has one of the largest working mainsails in the world, measuring 4,150 square feet, and her main boom alone weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 pounds. Bluenose II is a replica of the fishing schooner Bluenose I, a symbol of the seafaring pride of the people of Nova Scotia because she successfully defended the International Fishermen's Trophy from her New England competitors for 18 years starting in 1921. The original, which foundered on a reef off Haiti, has graced the Canadian dime since 1937. Recreated in 1963, this design has logged top speeds of 16 knots under sail.
Some of the ships, such as the 131-foot Harvey Gamage
, also represent non-profit educational organizations. Owned by the Schooner Harvey Gamage Foundation, its Ocean Classroom is offered in partnership with Proctor Academy in New Hampshire and the South Street Seaport Museum in New York. School year voyages explore the Atlantic Eastern Seaboard and Caribbean with a sea-laden curriculum taught en route. Under the eye of seven to 10 crew, the 25 students are also the sailors. During this special summer, Ocean Classroom students participate with trainees from around the world in the events of Tall Ships® 2000, as well as pursue their full classes in marine science, history, applied mathematics, seamanship, navigation, and maritime literature.
The world's largest active wooden sailing vessel, the three-masted, full-rigged ship "HMS" Rose was also on hand, equally conducting adventure education programs open to the general public. Rose, a full-rigged ship, is a replica of an eighteeth century Royal Navy frigate that cruised the coast during the American Revolution. The original Rose was a sixth-rate ship, the smallest class of ship that could be commanded by someone holding the rank of captain. In size, she was about the modern-day equivalent of a destroyer. She would not have participated in major fleet engagements except perhaps to relay messages. The job of the frigate was to operate as a scout ship for the fleet or to patrol the coasts of any belligerent country.
While the idea of plying the seas under free wind power is appealing, it isn't an accurate one. "Our whole budget is based on appearance fees and sail-training fees," said Jan Williams, director of the HMS Rose
Foundation. "When she's moving, it costs anywhere between $65,000 and $75,000 a month.'' Week-long programs on this vessel run scallywag wannabes $950 per week.
Life aboard these sailing classics is far more than just sailing off into the sunset, and probably more workand a little more crampedthan one would think. The crews of these vessels have their work cut out for them on a daily basis in terms of maintenance alone, to say nothing of preparing for long passages and taming the massive loads these giant sail plans generate when underwayand these craft like a good breeze. Then too, the wooden framework makes for tight crew quarters. Looming in the background are the port-to-port deadline, and once in port the eager throngs lined up ready to peer into every nook and cranny. When the ships are racing, at least half of the crew members have to be between ages 15 and 25. One unnamed crewmate on the bottom of the totem pole confessed that the experience was not exactly what she expected it to bea little light on the exhilarating side and a little heavier on the character building.
Despite the minor vestiges of mutiny, these ships under sail are an impressive sight. Standing aboard the docked Bluenose II
, one could see the Harvey Gamage
approaching through the jetties under sail Sunday afternoon, reaching along the Charleston waterfront escorted by buzzing spectator boats. As she sped by, a puff of smoke and a report from her cannon boomed a salute to the Argentine-flagged La Libertad
, and the crew prepared to fire again. Members of the firing squad hurried on deck to reload the cannon, covered their ears, and fired another salute to the crew of the Bluenose II
before jibing, rounding up into the wind, and furling the sails.
Nautical enthusiasm wasn't just for the Tall Ships® Charleston as ashore, 3M's Family Boat Building Day had 20 families assembling a fleet of 12-foot, mahogany plywood and Spanish cedar Charleston Bateaux under a tent designed to protect against both rain and shine. Wooden Boat Appreciation Day also displayed local talent in the medium of wooden dories, canoes, sailing dinghies, and more. A shuttle ferried spectators to the Patriot's Point venue where the UK-flagged 132-foot brigitine Eye of the Wind, the 132-foot schooner Arung Samudera from Indonesia, and the 145-foot Soren Laresen from New Zealand were berthed. The Rose and the Soren Laresen were the first to get underway Monday, June 19, bound for Baltimore, and Tuesday morning saw the mighty La Libertad also depart, leaving some of the higher profiled boats out of the Parade of Sail, scheduled for Wednesday morning. The local Charleston Wednesday night beer-can series also had some smaller vessels plying the waters of Charleston Harbor in tight-quartered maneuvering for a closer glimpse at the remaining vessels.
As the boats left Charleston in their wake, they left visitors captivated with the idea of large ships, their waterlines, sail plans, and the hope that members of this fleet will again call on the port of Charleston in the future.