Europa at sea © Rederij Bark Europa

We have arrived in Quebec City in time for the Tall Ship Rendez-Vous 2017, one of several North American stops for a fleet of gracious sailing vessels. 

On board Lord Nelson, on a humid morning before the crowds arrive, I meet the young captain. My goodness he’s young. Diane, with Yorkshire directness, asks him how old he is. “Thirty-two,” he replies. Nancy, the volunteer cook’s assistant says in an aside: “He’s young enough to be my son.” Mine too.

In any event, Captain Richard Cruse carries himself like a seasoned sailor and he’s been on ships since he switched careers. He wanted to be a pilot, but along came 9/11 and he switched to ships – slower, safer and less likely to be slammed into tall buildings. He’s worked his way up, via merchant and cruise ships, through The Jubilee Sailing Trust until his present post was reached two years ago. He’s not the youngest tall ship captain on the seas, he believes, but just about.

Lord Nelson arrives in Quebec City

The Lord Nelson has arrived in Quebec City for the gathering of 18 large vessels and more than two dozen other smaller sailing ships. In mid-July they attract hordes of visitors. Then they set sail for Halifax and another gathering of tall ships from Saturday July 29 to Tuesday August 1. If you missed Quebec City, hurry to Halifax for a sight worth seeing. Then some of the ships sail south, while others race across the Atlantic to the finish line at the Eddystone Lighthouse off the English coast, before docking at Le Havre, France.

The Lord Nelson’s crew are busily cleaning the deck and doing some last-minute tidying as we arrive ahead of the crowds. She is at the end of a 48-day voyage across the Atlantic, via the Faroes, Iceland and the Straight of Belle Isle, between Labrador and Newfoundland. On the next leg, she will sail down river to Sidney and Lunenburg, NS, and St John, NB, before heading home to London in September. Her home port is in Southampton, tucked in behind the Isle of Wight, but she has circumnavigated the world.

With Captain Richard Cruse on Lord Nelson

The Lord Nelson and her sister ship Tenacious have a unique role in the world of tall ships. They are all equipped to handle people with physical disabilities. Each is accompanied by an able-bodied helper and all are registered as “voyage crew.” With subsidies and sponsorships they can travel for about £120 a day, but fares vary. Each helps crew the ship in accordance with their abilities. The blind and visually impaired can steer the ship with the help of a talking compass. People in wheelchairs can ascend the mast in a bosun’s chair, at least to the “fighting top,” about 11 metres above the water, though not to her full mast height of 34 metres.

Launched in 1985, the ship is 54.7 metres long including her bowsprit and although a good size to accommodate her 37 fare-paying trainees and nine professional crew, the cabins are small and simple. The able-bodied crew sleep in berths in the communal forecastle and the crew with disabilities sleep in tiny two bunk spaces along the sides of the ship, one up, one down, with their helper. The bunks vibrate in case of alarm for hearing impaired crew. The washrooms – heads in sailor speak – are wheelchair ready with sinks that adjust and roll-in showers. At the wheel, there are tie down spots for wheelchairs and an adjustable chair for those who can’t stand for long. The captain himself decries the use of the chair, claiming that the helmsperson needs to literally “stand their watch,” but makes allowances for his crew. Each contributes according to their strengths, in handling the ship’s dozen sails. “If you see a tall ship sailing with more sails than that,” says Captain Cruse, “She’s just showing off for a photo opportunity.”

Europa berths in Quebec City’s old port

If sailing on a tall ship is on your bucket list and age or infirmities have left you feeling it is too late to experience, then this is the ship for you. Crew can join up for a short or long leg, depending on their spirit of adventure and their pocketbook, and although she’s fully booked for most of this year, there’s always next year to look forward to.

Diane with Captain Klass Gaastra on Europa

Europa is quite a different sort of tall ship. Diane sailed with Captain Klass Gaastra almost 20 years ago from Bermuda to Virginia and he’s still at the helm, so this was a reunion of sorts for them, when we visited aboard in Quebec City. While Diane visited with the Captain, cook Marianne Van Der Stay and Sirius, the ship’s dog (named after the Dog Star, of course), I spoke with handsome First Mate Jelte Hibma, a veteran of 30 months. He was taking a break from the endless paperwork demanded by Canadian ports’ bureaucracy in the ship’s library, where charts for all her upcoming voyages are stored, and fee-paying trainees can take a break from their watch schedule. Depending on the trip the professional crew numbers between 14 and 18, and there can be more than 40 trainees on board. Accommodation is still basic on the 44.5 metre long ship, but a big step up from Lord Nelson, with four to six trainees sharing a cabin and the professionals given their own tiny spaces.

Europa started life in 1911 as a light vessel and after many adventures was recommissioned in 1994 as a barque (or bark) rigged tall ship. Lunenburg has a fine reputation as a sailing ship yard – Bluenose II, also present in Quebec, was built there after all – and Europa will be putting in for some maintenance. Then she’s off to South America with stops in El Salvador and Uruguay before settling in for a winter (their summer) in Antarctica. Based in Ushuaia, capital of Tierra del Fuego, and the southernmost city in the world, she will run several three week-long voyages to the ice shelf for adventurous souls. Then she will sail with the wind across the Southern Ocean, via Montevideo and the Falkland Islands, to Cape Town and eventually home to the Netherlands. First mate Jelte offers me a post card of the sailing ship off Table Mountain. “Of course, we use them all,” he says, contradicting the Lord Nelson’s captain, “And with all 31 sails flying we make a fine sight.” The Dutch, one must remember, were once masters of all the oceans, long before the Royal Navy achieved dominance under Nelson during the Napoleonic Wars.

The ship’s bell on Alex II

Some of the trainees, he says, will stay on board for as long as two or three months, but most stay for a leg lasting from about six days to two weeks. Cost of a 15-day voyage in the Southern Ocean works out to about $1,665 (Canadian, that is).

The next day we have a chance to speak with Captain Michael Vosgerau on the Alexander Von Humboldt II, the newest ship in harbour, built in 2011. Second Mate Bernd-Jürgen Fulkowski shows me around the ship and speaks of the comfortable accommodations and the blessings of air conditioning when in the Caribbean. All the professional crew and trainees are fee paying volunteers. They work the 24 sails (four staysails, eight square sails and three mizzen sails, for those who are interested) mostly in German, but to accommodate the international nature of the crew in several other languages as well, including English, which most Germans speak fluently. On this leg of the voyage there are sailors from 10 nations on board, including Canada, the US and Australia. On the last leg, they picked up trainees originally from Malaya and Nepal, though living in Canada.

The original Alex was built in 1906 and also served as a lightship, but she was decommissioned in 1985 and is now a floating museum and hotel in Bremen. The shipyard she was built in traditionally rigged their ships with green sails, so the tradition continues on Alex II. A previous sponsorship from Beck beer was a convenient excuse to keep the green sail legend alive and she has become known throughout the world as the ‘tall ship with the green sails.’ Her hull is a vibrant matching green as well. We see her with some of her green sails rigged on the final day as the Parade of Tall Ships leaves the docks and process down river. There’s not a breath of air, so the sails only serve to show off the ships’ graces. The crew of 80 stand along the railings to wave farewell.

Alex II shows off her green sails

The Captain tells me there are still some problems with their website, which only works in German, inhibiting their efforts to market the ship outside German speaking countries. He remarks that prices are surprisingly constant across the fleet with daily fees around €120. Students get a 2/3rds discount and there are other incentives for those who want to work towards becoming permanent crew. It is after all a school vessel. Trainees can become Ordinary Seamen and part of the core crew in about 30 days, and many of the professional crew come back again and again. Second Mate Bernd-Jürgen has sailed aboard many times during vacations from his day job and will leave the ship in Halifax, as will the Captain.

Halifax will be the last opportunity to visit aboard, before the race across the ocean. A last check on their website showed one berth remaining for the trip, but if it’s taken there’s always the Baltic ports to join where they will sail next.

Quebec City was a wonderful four-day opportunity to visit the tall ships and the final parade a marvellous farewell. Many of the ships will be seen again in Halifax. The organizers are linked with Sail Training International which coordinates the efforts of many ships in the fleet, though not all. Berths are available on ships of all sizes and from many ports around the world. Log on to sail into adventure and may you have fair winds.

Europa sails past Table Mountain off South Africa © Rederij Bark Europa


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