Tall Ships Race – 800 miles in 6 days
7 to 19 July 1996
Onboard: Sam Coles (Skipper), Barrie Smith (Mate), Paul Streetly, Angie Weyers, Rebecca Hollingworth, Natasha Barker, Rupert Jennings, Harry Walker, Sarah Allen, Tom Griffiths
To some, Sunday 7th July was just another Sunday, but for me it was D-Day, that is, Departure Day for my epic mariner’s journey which began late in the evening at Gatwick at 23:15. Over the tannoy, flight 8170 was announced for passengers to go to the departure lounge where I met another three of the outgoing crew. We sat in the aircraft for 20 minutes as one young crew member, who had became lost in the airport terminal, took a ceremonial bow as he finally found his flight and came on board. We landed at 15:30 local time at Rostock. Our charter flight had been made up of Tall Ships’ crews, so there was baggage scramble for sailing bags when the luggage trolleys were thrown haphazardly off in the car park, causing the temporary loss of one of our own.
Four buses took everybody on the half-hour journey to Rostock harbour. It was dawn by the time we got off the bus, and we had to find Marabu among the hundreds of boats moored at the harbour. Fortunately we bumped into Dudley, a member of Sussex Yacht Club who pointed us in the right direction. Sam, the skipper and some of the crew were up, and greeted us on board. Exhausted by travelling we fell into our bunks, but only three hours later had to be up and ready for a skippers’ meeting at 0915. This important meeting included information about courses for the Race, radio procedure and the meteorological report. We found out that the forecast was for north-westerly winds Force 7/8, gusting Force 9/10 – a nice blow! The race was therefore to be postponed for 24 hours – there were sighs of relief all round the meeting.
So the next day was spent preparing for the race; victualling, issuing T-shirts for the crew to wear, and collecting the shopping in the Mirror dinghy. We also rearranged the position of the boats rafted out in preparation for the gale, so that the inner boat didn’t become damaged from the pressure from the others alongside. Dropping our bow and kedge anchor kept us off the other boats, although the local police later accidentally crushed our plastic kedge anchor ball with their powerboat!
The rest of the day was spent in Rostock; a typical northeastern German port, important for handling cargo and shipbuilding. The greyness of the surroundings was livened up by a big funfair on the harbour front. In the evening Sam and I were invited to a party on another yacht Espirit where we met the captain of Shebab Oman and we were entertained with wine and beer. Our crew had to rescue us later on because we had arranged to go out for an evening meal, but the hostesses of Espirit just kept filling our glasses!
Taking advantage of our extra time in harbour, we got up late on Tuesday morning. Four of us took the train 12 miles north to Warnemunde at the mouth of the Warnow River. Warnemunde is on the Baltic coast and the entrance to Rostock. The large square-riggers that were to take part in the Race were moored here and we took the opportunity to look round the Russian ship Sedov and several other large boats. In the evening we ate on board Marabu, the meal cooked by Paul-the-Chef.
On Wednesday we slipped moorings at midday, and joined the Parade of Sail. All the boats joined in the parade from Rostock to Warnemunde. Claxton horns and whistles sounded all round, ships were dressed overall in flags; all making an exit in style! Five hours later the race started at a start position about 30 miles from Rostock in lively conditions. We now anticipated being at sea for six days and possibly not see land until nearing the Gulf of Finland. We started our watchkeeping in groups of three with three hours on, six hours off.
By the following day, the wind had eased considerably and was behind us so we were able to put up the spinnaker. By the time we reached the Danish island of Bornholme off the coast of Sweden, the crew was verbally enticing the wind to fill the spinnaker with some well-chosen words. This seemed to be successful, and by now the conditions had become easy downwind sailing.
By Friday, the wind decreased further and sails came up and down to catch as much wind as possible. The coloured jib topsail had been put up and taken down so many times it became known as the ‘Dutch ensign’, mimicking the flag of the Dutch navy. Extensive radio communication began between race control and all ships due to us reporting a large wooden box floating on the water, a hazard to other vessels (via the yacht Urania, a Dutch navy sailing ketch). Keeping radio communication with Urania was important in this race as the race communications ship had appallingly bad VHF capability.
We sailed in almost constant daylight as each day did not become dark until about midnight. Three hours later dawn arrived. That first night, sailing under a crescent moon, we could clearly see Venus in the red sky. It was beginning to become foggy. The fog lifted on Saturday by which time we were about halfway through the race. From radio communications with race control we were reported to be 68th overall and 19th in class. We are now doing 4.5 knots with 10 knots of wind, with nearly all the sails up.
On Sunday, all the boats started to come together off the coast of Estonia, near the Tallinn Head lighthouse as we entered the Gulf of Finland. On Monday we passed the finish line at 03:11. local time. The finishing line was a 5-mile line due south from Ostrov Rodsher, a group of rocks, 10 miles southwest of the island of Ostrov Gogland. After nearly 700 miles it seemed an anticlimax to have no brass bands or signal guns to mark our finish! However, we celebrated with the Cutty Sark Tall Ships’ whisky. Our position in the race was 59/111 and our class position 19/35. Our average speed throughout the race had been 7 knots. However we still had over 100 miles to go to get to St Petersburg. In the afternoon we anchored in the bay of the Russian island Ostrov Moshchnyy for shelter from the wind. All the crew went for a swim and a wash in the cold waters of the Baltic, except for myself and Angie who could not be tempted into sea temperatures of 14 degrees.
Anchor up we set off for the island of Kronstadt, a big Russian naval base. Sam was looking behind me, over my shoulder. From his expression I had the feeling that something was happening... as I looked behind me, Sam shouted, 'Don’t look behind!' as a green wall of water as high as the mizzen mast was chasing me. I gripped the wheel and waited as the back of the boat lifted up and we were on top of the wave doing 10.2 knots. The wind was blowing Force 7 and a large swell was with us. Another wave soaked me at the wheel, breaking into the cockpit and doghouse and not amusing the Skipper. I changed, and later discovered that my wet trousers, socks and shoes had been ceremoniously hoisted up the mast, along with the flags (was somebody helping me to get them dry?).
When we were approaching Kronstadt, the barquentine Shebab Oman overtook us. They called us up on the radio and invited us to moor up alongside them for the night because we had to anchor in the harbour outside the naval base. They were very generous: we got beautifully fresh water from made from their own purifying plant on board, they gave us diesel, a box of apples, two chickens and a box of beer which went down well with the crew as our supplies were getting short. In the morning they saw us off on our way with freshly fried egg sandwiches.
We cast off on Tuesday at 06:00 hours. We and other ships motored in convoy to St Petersburg. A Russian pilot was on board Shebab Oman. We put up all our flags and bunting and celebrated the entry into St Petersburg. We moored up alongside Urania, the Dutch ketch who kept us company in the latter part of the race (we had also played cat and mouse for position with them). Russian beaurocracy followed with the authorities and we first met our Russian liaison officer, Leonid. Natasha was our Russian-speaking crew member. We decided to have a shower in the naval college, a quick walk around the town and market, before having supper. Later, Paul and myself went for a walk and a drink with some of the crew from Urania and had to run back across the Lieutenant Schmitt Bridge as all the bridges were raised at 01:30 and not lowered again until 04:30.
Three days shore leave to explore St. Petersburg followed. The city is the second largest city in Russia, built on a complex system of waterways. I went on a bus tour with some of the crew of Urania. The bus stopped at one end of the Peter and Paul Fortress and we walked through the little roadways. We were taken to see a boat being built, a full scale copy of the Standart in the centre of St Petersburg in a shipyard. This ship was the first frigate of Russia’s Baltic fleet, built according to the blueprint of Tsar Peter I, her first captain. We also saw the cruiser Aurora, the cruiser that fired the signal gun to mark the beginning of the 1917 Russian Revolution – the blank shot fired was the start of great change and upheaval in this country.
St Petersburg has museums and art galleries in abundance; Leonid took us to visit the Hermitage, which includes the Winter Palace and contains great art treasures and collections. We also climbed to the top of St Isaac’s church for a panoramic view of St Petersburg. It is an open city full of heritage and recognised as the cultural capital of Russia, but it is also a city where, behind its rich façade, there is great hardship and the people are very poor. Our meals cost more than the average Russian earns in a week, the prices in the shops seem cheap to us but must be out of the range of an ordinary Russian wage earner. There was a prolific presence of the Russian police and Russian military on the streets. One Tall Ships’ crew was arrested on the underground, for fare dodging. Our Tall Ships’ enamelled broaches allowed us to have free transport, but the Russian underground was not informed of this, and it took some time for their liaison officer to confirm that this was the case.
On Thursday we had a party on board Marabu in the early evening for crews of other boats, Urania, Ocean Scout, Spirit of Boadicea, and Black Horse while Sam was at the Captain’s reception. When he returned Tom and Sam put on lifejackets and went off in the Mirror to carry on the party at Black Horse, and arrived back some hours later with Sam having taken a dive and was soaked to the skin – he is now Chief Tester of Marabu’s lifejackets.
On the last night we took our liaison out and missed the last underground train. Two only just managed to catch the bus, being caught by the lifting bridges. We were taken by bus to the airport and had a long wait getting through customs at St Petersburg airport, which allowed one person through at a time, causing a two-hour wait. We flew to Luton Airport, and four of our crew, including myself, came back to Brighton by train. My Tall Ships’ experience had been a truly memorable one. Now our long journey was over!