The Tall Ships Races are ... as the name says, competitive events for sailing ships classified as "tall ships". The annual event features a number of races along a set route and interim stops in large harbours along the way. Which, usually, results a a huge celebration of maritime heritage. In Ireland, both Dublin and Waterford were chosen as host ports during recent years.
What is the History Behind the Tall Ships Races?
Sailing ships always competed with each other - the famous tea clippers for the fastest delivery, the warships for best position and merchantmen with pirates for everything. But these were bitter rivalries, often to the death, not sporting events.
Races (and also festivals) for tall ships really took off in the 1950s - when the commercial use of the ships declined and sail training became an almost nostalgic occupation, often a mere pastime. The (novel) idea of an international race for sail training ships, was first discussed and a "Sail Training International Race Committee" formed around 1953. A first race between Torbay (UK) and Lisbon (Portugal) was planned for 1956. To mark the end of the era of sailing ships.
Instead, the first race with just twenty ships can be credited with re-igniting a passion for tall ships worldwide. Since then, new ships have been commissioned and today around a hundred take part in the Tall Ships Races. Some with a long history - some war booty taken off Germany in 1945 still is under sail in 2012.
The Tall Ships Races in Europe seem to be the most interesting events in the calendar and attract most participants. They are also very popular events in the host ports - with open ship days, sail parades and loads of entertainment for crews as well as landlubbers.
Weren't There the Cutty Sark Races Once ...?
Yes, true - but these had only a very weak relation to the tea clipper of the same name (open for visitors in Greenwich, London, these days). For three decades, between 1973 and 2003, the races were sponsored by Cutty Sark, a brand of whisky. During those days, the races were known by the brand name. Following that, the event was sponsored by Antwerp in Belgium (a collaborative effort of the city, province and port). Since 2010 the races are sponsored by the city of Szczecin in Poland.
Where and When are the Tall Ships Races Taking Place?
The main event, the European race, takes place over several weeks in the summer months of each year and involves a number of host ports with the racing done between them (the start and finish is at sea, not in the harbour).
The most recent races stopping over at Irish ports were 2005 as well as 2011 in Waterford, 2012 in Dublin, and in 2015 when the Tall Ships Races started at Belfast.
Following the Dublin 2012 festivities, a new race was started for the first time ... the Irish Sea Tall Ships Regatta, also organised by Sail Training International. It remains to be seen how this will fare in future.
Who Participates in the Tall Ships Races?
Tall ships ... but there is a technical definition: Monohull vessel of more than 9.14m length at the waterline. As the focus in on training, at least 50% of any crew has to be between 15 and 25 years old.
Four classes of tall ships are recognized:
- Class A - all square-rigged vessels (barque, barquentine, brig, brigantine or ship rigged) and all other vessels more than 40 metres Length Overall (LOA).
- Class B - traditionally rigged vessels (i.e. gaff rigged sloops, ketches, yawls and schooners) with an LOA of less than 40 metres.
- Class C - modern rigged vessels (i.e. Bermudan rigged sloops, ketches, yawls and schooners) with an LOA of less than 40 metres and not carrying spinnaker-like sails.
- Class D - as Class C, but carrying spinnaker-like sails.
What to Expect in the Host Ports?
Generally a very organised chaos and festive mayhem of the nicest kind - the event usually is a combination of a huge carnival with a fun-fair and food festival thrown in, rounded off by cultural events of all kinds. Stars of the show are the tall ships, however, which will be moored in the harbour for the duration.
Can You Actually Go on the Tall Ships?
Yes and no - depending on what you want to do.
Most ships in Class A and B will be open for visitors at certain times and a ship visit can take all sorts of shapes, from a quick look around to climbing in the rigging (a Health & Safety nightmare, usually only provided by the most exotic of visitors). There may be on-board entertainment as well. And souvenirs.
Some of the larger ships will also take passengers with them at times ... enquire well beforehand if you are interested.
Can You See the Tall Ships Racing?
Again, the answer is "Yes and No!" The races proper are held in open waters between the host ports, the best chance of spotting them is at the start line ... they are all there then and will go off to a flying start. Or not - in Waterford 2005 wind was non-existent and fog took away visibility.
Before the race, the ships usually assemble via a "Parade of Sail", sailing from the harbour to the start line. This may be your best bet for vessel-spotting. Or, if you have a bit of spare time, you might observe the ships coming into the host port. Local knowledge and monitoring of marine radio helps to find the best observation post and time.
Are There any Irish Tall Ships?
Yes, there are ... though participation in the Tall Ships Races is sketchy. Currently registered are the following:
- Aifric - Class D, built in 2002, home port Kinsale (Cork)
- Assarain II - Class D, built in 1989, home port Kinsale (Cork)
- Celtic Mist - Class C, built in 1974, home port Kilrush (Clare) - this used to be the private yacht of former (and somehow disgraced) Taoiseach Charles Haughey, now registered as a research vessel for the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group
- Creidne - Class D, built in 1967, training vessel of the Irish Naval Service
- Cypraea - Class C, built in 2011, based in West Cork
- Dunbrody - Class A, built in 2001, home port New Ross (Wexford, currently not seaworthy)
- Ilen - Class B, built in 1920, based in West Cork
- Jeanie Johnston - Class A, built in 2000, home port Tralee (Kerry) - this ship is moored in the Dublin Docklands (currently not seaworthy)
- Spirit of Oysterhaven - Class C, built in 1972, home port Oysterhaven (Cork)