Tall Ships, Big Lessons
Tall Ships, Big Lessons
As anyone who sails knows, almost anything can happen on the water, especially during long-distance stretches of 500 miles or more. The stakes are especially high for the skipper when they are responsible for the well being of an inexperienced crew. These two risks were compounded by the sheer number of participants during Sail Training International’s annual Tall Ships Races that took place in July and August. The regatta drew 1,800 participants, most of whom had little or no ocean miles under their belts, to sail on one of 55 ships over 2,000 miles in the Atlantic, English Channel, and Irish Sea.
I also got to observe from afar what can go wrong during such a long-distance regatta, which began a few weeks ago at St. Malo, France. A close friend’s son, Francois Guivarch, was sailing on the Etoile Polaire, a German-built, 98-year-old ketch yacht, which local fleet owner Bob Escoffier partially refurbished and now rents.
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The Etoile Polaire was just one design among many at the regatta. The ships ranged from smallish 30-foot sloops to full-rigged boats, such as the 180-foot Lord Nelson, which was also outfitted to accommodate sailors with disabilities.
The main purpose of the Tall Ships Races is to acquaint young people between the ages of 15-18 who have little or no experience with long-distance sailing and racing. It can also serve as an opportunity for youngsters to sail more independently, i.e. without their parents in tow. As fathers and mothers often learn the hard way, your children, no matter how hard you try, are not necessarily going to share your passion. Or if they do, they often will want to race with their friends and leave the old folks on another boat.
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That was the case with Francois. He likes to sail and learned the basics on an Optimist while taking classes, which the local public grade school offers to all of its students. He also learned the ropes while sailing with his father on the Rance River and in the English Channel near St. Malo. But what drew him to the race was the adventure of sailing such a long distance from St. Malo to Lisbon, Portugal, with mostly people his own age.
“I like sailing with my father, okay,” Francois said on the eve of the race. “But I have to admit that sailing with young people is more fun.”
When I visited the Etoile Polaire the day before the start of the race, the first thing that I noticed were the diesel fumes down below. It turned out that whoever had filled the gas tank had let it overflow, filling the ship with fumes that would last for several days. I was nauseous after a few minutes. Not good.
I had a better experience when I met the Etoile Polaire’s French skipper, Bérangère Branchereau. She told me it was the first time that she had skippered a ship like the Etoile Polaire with over a dozen of inexperienced sailors in tow. She said her main goal was “for the kids to have fun,” but the regatta was also a race, and she wanted to motivate the kids as much as she could without pushing them too hard.
“The kids will become used to working on the boat, and will learn how to push themselves, while sharing the chores,” Bérangère said. “It will require a personal commitment from each one of them, because in order to sail a ship like this over long distances, everyone must do their part. It is not a vacation.”