The enduring allure of tall ships

Story highlights

  • Tall ships are large and traditionally-rigged sailing vessels
  • The term "tall ship" reputedly stems from a poem written in 1902
  • Most tall ships today are restored originals or replicas of ships from the late 19th century

They were the transport of choice for explorers and pirates alike, but tall ships are today far from ancient relics of a bygone era.

Their billowing sails, towering masts and long wooden hulls continue to draw enthusiastic crowds at an ever-growing number of classic sailing events around the world, and a new tall ship travel industry has grown to satisfy the adventure-hungry sailing enthusiast with a potent sense of nostalgia.

Indeed, this year's nautical calendar is a testament to the enduring appeal of these beautifully crafted vessels.

Just last month, a fleet of tall ships invaded the Manhattan harbor in a dramatic celebration that marked 200 years since the "War of 1812" -- the three-year conflict between the burgeoning American nation and the British Empire.

A week later the reigning monarch of the British Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II, celebrated her Diamond Jubilee by staging London's largest ever flotilla, a spectacular river pageant featuring more than 1,000 vessels - including hundreds of tall ships.

Maritime enthusiasts who visit London during the Olympics will be able to satiate their seafaring desires by sailing down the river Thames past four key Olympic venues on one of 16 tall ships brought in especially for the event.

Adam and Debbie Purser, founders of "Classic Sailing" charter company

The biggest of them all will be the three-masted "Oosterschelde", a Dutch cargo carrier built in 1918 that was converted into a modern sailing boat in the 1930s.

It is one of many that 63-year-old tall ship entrepreneur Adam Purser has on his books. He started his business, "Classic Sailing," with wife Debbie in 1996 following decades dreaming of a life at sea.

"I've wanted to be a tall ship captain ever since I was a young boy," said Purser, who grew up on the south west coast of England.

"The first time I saw a tall ship was in 1966. A few friends and I had raced out in a dinghy to watch the second ever tall ship race held on the south coast and we got caught in between two (of them)," he said.

"It was like being surrounded by a world of canvas. I guess it got under my skin somehow because I have never forgotten that moment," recalled Purser, who sold his dollhouse business to fund the purchase for the couple's first classic boat.

The Pursers' company, which started as a one-boat charter affair, is now one of the most popular tall ship and classic sailing travel agencies in the world. They specialize in organizing "hands on" sailing trips for people who crave adventure and "dare to step outside their comfort zones and do something thrilling and new."

The couple organize about 450 trips a year; some lasting only a day, others taking their amateur crews on three month-long journeys, crossing several oceans. Business, they say, is booming.

Their fastest selling excursion this year -- taking its passengers from the Canadian island of Newfoundland to Britain via Greenland and Iceland, on a 55 meter-long replica of an old barque (a sailing vessel with three or more masts) called "Lord Nelson" -- sold out in three days. Other popular trips include a two-month voyage from South America to South Africa via Antarctica.

However, the highlight of the Pursers' summer will take place slightly closer to home. In July, the couple will sail seven of their boats to France for the 20th year of the renowned maritime festival "Les Tonnerres de Brest," in Brittany.

"There is no other festival quite like it if you like classic boats," said Purser. "Everywhere you look there are tall ships and the atmosphere is fantastic. There is good food and music and you get to race your ships along a beautiful coastline. I wouldn't miss it for the world," he said.

Read more from Mainsail: Sailing's 'golden era' captured on film

As all tall ship and classic sailing holidays demand some physical work, the recommended lower age limit is set at 11, but there is no upper boundary.

"We have had people in their eighties come and sail with us, but we don't really have a typical customer. Most people find us online because they are sitting at their computers at work dreaming of a different and more adventurous life," said Purser, who believes the popularity of tall ships is linked closely to their ability to evoke a range of emotions in people.

"Sailing on a tall ship is undeniably romantic," he added.

Indeed, the term "tall ship" itself reputedly stems from "Sea-Fever", a poem written in 1902 by English Poet Laureate John Masefield. It reads:

"I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky. And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by."

The solitude of the sea and sky that Masefield describes continues to intoxicate modern-day sailors.

"It's quite telling that many of our customers are solo travelers. For a lot of people, going away on a trip like this is about fulfilling a dream or testing themselves in one way or another," Purser said.

One of these repeat solo sailors is Claire Giles from England, who has been on more than 20 classic sailing trips around Europe.

"The reason I love it so much and keep coming back is because it challenges me as a person and as a woman. The feeling you get from sailing without modern technology is nothing but empowering," said Giles, who is the mother of three young boys.

"I love my family dearly but for me these trips are my escape. They give me a tremendous sense of freedom and adventure and they are my way of re-connecting with myself," said the 47-year-old, who recently got a "discreet little tattoo" of a boat on her shoulder as a symbol of her love for sailing.

Giles, and many of her fellow travelers, are driven by the desire to keep the memory of these enigmatic ships alive.

"You don't want to see these beautiful boats sit in a museum, you want to use them -- otherwise they are just going to rot away. They can and should be used for the purpose they were built for."

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