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Tall Ships Race 2010 Converged on Hartlepool

Image: Tall Ships Race 2010

Image: Tall Ships Race 2010


“I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”

John Masefield’s poem about the sea and sailing gave the name to the annual celebration races involving many of the great sail-driven ships of the world. In 1956 a London lawyer named Bernard Morgan gathered together a team of people to say farewell to square-riggers and other large sailing vessels which by then were going out of fashion. Twenty ships raced from Torbay in Devon to Lisbon. The public’s imagination was caught by the spectacle and from the increased interest brought about by that event an organisation called Sailing Training International came into being. An annual event was started in which ships raced on the first leg of a three-stage journey, cruised the second in company, and raced the third. For each event four ports, usually European, are chosen for the start and finish of each leg. The ships taking part have to be training vessels with 50% of the crews taking part aged between 15-25. There is therefore plenty of opportunity for them to test their skills under pressure and to engage in social and cultural activities while in the ports since the Tall Ships Races take place over four or five weeks.

The 2010 event participants started in Antwerp, Belgium, raced to Aalborg, Denmark, then cruised together to Kristiansand, Norway, and finally raced to the last port, Hartlepool in the north east of England. I visited Hartlepool for the day when the ships were leaving after the races had been completed and all other events finished. The advantage was that they would put out to sea within a short space of time before parading along the nearby coast with full sails set and departing for their own new destinations. As it turned out the weather was at first beautiful but by the time they were leaving the heavens opened with a series of very heavy downpours. Even so thousands of people had gathered and braved the rains to watch them go. 67 ships took part in either the Tall Ships Races or a Regatta the next day, or both. They came mainly from European countries with two others, one from Indonesia and one from Oman.

Image: Hartlepool Museum


I last visited Hartlepool several years ago – in the mid 1980s – when it was making moves to recreate economic activity round the docks. HMS Warrior had been moved to Gray’s Shipyard in 1981 at the start of six years’ restoration (Warrior was the British warship to outdo all other warships – especially those of France – which commenced service in 1851, being later downgraded and finally used as an oil terminal pontoon).

The new Hartlepool, on show for the Tall Ships Race, is much smarter – undeniably – but in many areas looks like every other town with its retail shopping sheds and entertainment complexes. The place that is definitely Hartlepool is the docks – you can’t muck around with wharves and water too easily. Even here, however, the new life blood being drip fed into the waiting patient is from the same group as for every other run-down British dockyard – T for Tourism.

Hartlepool has its new museum down in the docks. With the Tall Ships Race event it has enjoyed some major attention this year, hopefully to the benefit of all concerned. It’s an interesting overall concept, being a mix of a reconstructed eighteenth century harbourside around one of the old docks. In the centre is the world’s second oldest warship still afloat, HMS Trincomalee (oldest? The USS Constitution, now in Charlestown, Massachusetts). HMS Trincomalee was built in 1817 in Bombay and was a classic Napoleonic-era frigate. From 1903 to 1986 it was a training ship, ending its service as such moored unmoving in Portsmouth Harbour. After restoration it took its new position in Hartlepool.

The web site for the museum (www.hartlepoolsmaritimeexperience.com) uses the phrase “superb recreation of an eighteenth-century seaport”. It is and it isn’t. The ship, quayside, mix of buildings and general dockside furnishings are good. They give a fair sense of that time and place. For the Tall Ships days there were people dressed in appropriate costume walking at ease around the dock. Two men dressed for the part were demonstrating the firing of muskets and cannon and two others were showing how rope was made in those days. But – and it’s a big but – it was all too smart, too clean, too prosperous and good old days. Where were the working sailors, the cut-purse thieves, the maimed sailors reduced to begging? Where was the smell of sewage and the evidence of disease? Nowhere. The buildings were just right – one of everything in tip-top condition, well maintained and daily cleansed. Some of these elements could be found in the museum galleries, where the use of large cut-out figures (some with 3D items attached for realism) personifies some of the characters in Hartlepool’s story.

Image: Hartlepool Museum

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