Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tall Ships Departure

The Tall ships are putting to sea!

And there is no better way to see them go out than to be on the water yourself. Fortunately, I knew a boat owner who was of the same mind.

Tobias is a good buddy of mine from the museum and had just purchased a new motorboat that he was just dying to use (it was so brand-spanking new it even had that ‘new boat smell’).

It was a pretty spiffy little craft built for sport fishing (sold with the model name "The Merry Fisher"). Tobias was still considering different names for it, but Orka was by far his favorite (A refernce to the Orca whale & also the Swedish verb orka meaning 'motivation' or 'will').

So the morning the ships were due to sail, we threw a few groceries and sleeping bags into his shiny new boat and barreled off down Lake Mälaren towards the locks and Stockholm Harbor.

When we burst out into that tall-ship-lined harbor we found that we were a bit early. None of the grand sailing ships along the quays had budged.

But we weren’t the only nut cases out there waiting for the fleet to sail. There were boats loaded with spectators all over the harbor and many of those boats were a sight to see themselves. Lovely motorboats,…

Something that was not a sailboat but not quite a powerboat either…

…a funny little steamer…

…and even a lifeboat from one of the big ships.

Then suddenly, the moment everyone was waiting for—the first Tall Ship underway!

She came cruising down on us under full sail, the morning breeze billowing her canvas like a batch of fresh sourdough rolls emerging from the oven. How gently she glided through the water….

She was the brig Tre Kronor of Stockholm, the local vessel and the very picture of sailing grace and beauty.

I had been following the Tre Kronor since I arrived in Stockholm. She is a newly-built sail-trainer constructed just across the narrow channel from the Vasa Museum on Skeppsholmen (Ships’ Island).

Since she was launched in the summer of 2005, we at the museum have watched the fitting out,...

...seeing her transform from just a stately hull to a truly lovely ship as her masts and rigging went up.

For two years we had watched her being fitted out, a process that doggedly carried on despite cold, rain, and fog.

Then, as the Tall Ships approached Stockholm, the city’s own proud sailing ship was moved out to the tip of Kastellholmen, the most prominent spot in the harbor.

Docked at Kastellholmen, the Tre Kronor stood at the center of the harbor, the focal point in the thicket of rigging that poured into Stockholm.

And my! Did she look grand!

A better proportioned ship never graced any harbor in Europe!

And so how fitting it was that the first ship to get underway was Stockholm’s own Tre Kronor.

She came gliding past as gently and silently as any of the harbor’s swans (actually the swans tend to hiss and wheeze—probably bird flu).

Reader: (gasp)

Reader: (sigh)

And this was just the first ship!

How brilliantly she glowed in the morning sun!

And how proudly she started off the fleet!

Well….we hoped she’d start things off, but Tobias and I—and all the other boaters in the harbor--fell back to waiting. Tre Kronor was just ahead of the game. So we dawdled around a bit longer with a peculiar collection of craft. There was this lovely ketch (clearly still in the process of restoration)…

… and then a fleet of more menacing craft like this torpedo boat…

…and the M 20, a minesweeper that is usually tied up at the Vasa Museum’s pier.

The chap in blue is my friend, colleague, and fellow boat/airplane buff, Fred Hocker. Fred wasted little time before calling me on my mobile to brag about the fancy viewing platform he had scored. To add to his bragging rights, the M20 was the only one of the fleet of naval craft on the harbor actually shooting. The tri-pod mounted ordinance on the foredeck is a top-of-the-line movie camera rolling for an upcoming Hollywood film (watch for a sailing ship movie in 2009).

While Fred and I bantered about boats, Tobias was at the wheel dodging the chaotic flood of traffic plugging the harbor—ferries, torpedo boats, sloops, skiffs, water ski boats, dinghies…..

All just waiting for the big ships to get underway.

Then, alas, the first of the Tall Ships Race participants cast off and headed towards the harbor entrance.

The first pair to make their way out were the Swedish Navy’s two officer-training schooners, Falken and Gladan. They had scarcely cleared the quay before setting sail…

…riding out of the harbor on the morning breeze.

Yeeeoow.....that's a nice rig.

Then followed the rest of the smaller ships….

….the schooners, ketches, and yawls under their red, white, or yellowed canvas sails.

Past the rapidly gathering crowds….

…the cruise ships…

…and out of the harbor amidst a swarm of small craft out to witness the grand parade.

Then we heard the hoarse notes of a sea chantey from the big ship quay.

The crew of the Norwegian bark Statsraad Lehmkuhl were springing into the rigging to the tune of “South Australia.”

Astern of her we sighted a tug coming alongside the Polish full-rigger Dar Mlodziezy.

It was Stockholm’s intrepid little historic tug Fritz coming to lend a hand.

Soon the Lehmkuhl and the Mlodziezy had cast off and were underway astern of the coal-fired steamer Blidösund that was loaded with paying spectators.

Dar Mlodziezy came cruising right past Tobias and I, her crew sprinting around the deck, hauling on lines, and preparing to ‘make sail’.

Gathering speed, the Dar Mlodziezy began to overtake the smaller vessels that had slipped past her.

Meanwhile, an armada of yachts followed the fleet out.

Boats of every description…

…and every era.

I never did find out how many of the little ones were run down during all that confusion and excitement but some were definitely pushing their luck in that overcrowded channel.

Motoring ahead, Tobias brought us up abeam of my personal favorite, the Russian frigate Shtandart.

Her crew was also getting ready to ‘make sail’.

Overtaking a graceful three-masted schooner, a shout from the poop deck threw Shtandart’s crew into action.

Easing the brails and hauling away on the sheets, the fore-course came flopping down.

Then followed the main-course (the sail, not the dinner dish).

One by one, the sails came rolling down from the spars and the Shtandart--bedecked with flags—seemed to almost blot out the sky.


Then Shtandart’s big topsails came tumbling down. It was fascinating to see them beside the split-topsails of the much more modern ship Europa. Split topsails were introduced in the early 1800s and the smaller, lighter sails it created made a sailor’s work aloft much easier. Splitting the topsails also made ‘shortening sail’ for bad weather much easier as a sail could simply be taken in rather than ‘reefed’ down to a smaller size. Hence why the horizontal rows of ‘reef points’ on the Shtandart’s sails do not appear on the Europa’s sails.

Work aloft may be easier with split topsails, but there sure is a lot more of it! The Europa has 23 sails bent on the spars and stays. That is a lot of time climbing in the rig. Lucky fools….

But apparently not everyone was hot about the idea of working in the rig in the soft summer breeze and the Shtandart kept the diesels churning away as she scooted past the true ‘windjammers’ that had already surrendered their progress to Neptune’s whim.

But Neptune is not one to shy from sport and so the wind stiffened and sail matched diesel for speed.

Although the official race was more than a day away, the crowds that had gathered on the shore were well aware of the competitive jockeying in the channel.

Then all attention turned from speed to mass. The moment everyone had been waiting for had come as the first of the giant Russian ‘Babushkas’ hove around the point and came booming down the channel with her lower topsails set--the mighty bark Khruzenshtern.

She was a stunning sight to see as she eased along int he breeze, her crew sprinting about in the rigging unfurling the upper topsails and hoisting the head-sails.

It was most surreal--this giant mountain of a ship gliding by...

...dwarfing every other craft on the water.

...utterly unreal...

...and yet, Holy Smokes! I was there!!
Sometimes life is just so very, very sweet....

And WHAM! we were off. Tobias at the helm with the throttle open and the motor roaring, we practically flew away from the grand fleet...

Tobias took us charging down side channels and off through the thousands of islands off Stockholm on our way to a quiet anchorage on the outer coast, on the very edge of the Baltic and not far from the next day's Tall Ships Race starting line.

As evening fell, we were in another world, far from the bustle and crowds of Stockholm. Out here in the islands, it was still and almost completely quiet save for the lap of the waves and a few chirping birds.

Scouting out the various coves on those countless islands, Tobias found an empty nook that just happened to be one of his favorite spots.

There was a bank of sailboats anchored along the southern edge of the cove (no doubt doing the same as us and getting in position to see the next day's race start).

But the eastern shore was open. So Tobias nosed us in. We dropped an anchor off the stern and I hopped ashore with a line and secured us to a sturdy-ish looking sapling. Home.

Then, having secured all, we took up that old yachtsmans' tradition of having an evening drink on deck (Norrlands Guld if you are serious about it) while watching and criticizing the boat-handling ability and seamanship of every other crew in the harbor. None should be given a rating higher than 'acceptable' unless you really botch your own anchoring.
But I must say, it was mighty nice to be able to sit back and relax with a good friend on a boat anchored in such a wonderful, still, and wild place. What a fantastic escape. No wonder Sweden has one of the highest boat-ownership-per-capita ratings in the world.

After a long dinner the July sun began to sink over the Northwestern horizon (where it would hover for about 4 hrs before coming up again in the Northeast) and so, after standing atop our little islet to take a last look around and a nice, fresh, deep breath, we headed down to our bunks...

...and dreamed of all the wonderful sights of the day...

...and the ones that awaited us tomorrow at the races.