Sail Amsterdam 2015: Tall ships and crews parade

Sorry: they’ve left. You’ll have to wait five years. On the other hand, if you were among the millions and millions of visitors and those living around the event area: wasn’t it smashing and fantastic? This time, Sail Amsterdam attracted even more visitors than in previous years. Small wonder: the ships are lovely to watch and visit.


The sail-in is always special. Tall and small ships voyage from the seaport of IJmuiden to Amsterdam harbour through a canal. Each time there are more ships to watch. This time, the sail-in was 12 kilometers long!

Once the ships come within reach of one of Amsterdam’s old forts, salutes are fired from historic cannons by volunteers in traditional costumes to welcome the ships to Amsterdam. A tradition which dates from the time that sailing the world was far more dangerous and everybody was relieved that another ship had returned safely to the port.

After the impressive sail-in, what is left of the Amsterdam harbour right behind Amsterdam Central Station, manages to look slightly as it must have been – before steam ships arrived on the scene. Filled with sailing vessels with a variety of masts and sails from all over the world, including ferries crossing from one side to the other side and small historic sloops, fishing vessels and cargo ships, used locally and regionally.

These often have round-bilged keels to facilitate sailing over shallows, or right up on the beach at high tide. Once beached, the day’s catch could be off-loaded to the women and children. These would sort the fish, put them in baskets and walk to markets. It might be a kilometers long walk to  earn a pittance.

What would the admirals and captains, now long dead, have said about the turn-out? Crews were still polishing and cleaning the tall ships, while these had already docked along the many quays. Thursday, it was the crews’ turn to parade – through town. The outfits of volunteers and ordinary sailors would surely have raised eyebrows, for these turn out wearing fancy dress and worse. All the cadets and staff of the naval ships were of course wearing spot-less uniforms.

Are you a fan and do you have a favourite ship? There are so many to choose from. There were the tall ships, but also very small traditional barges and even a Dutch naval submarine to be visited. If you’re a romantic and willing to close your eyes to the harsh reality of life on board, there were plenty ships to fall in love with.

All of them are unique. Many have a long and impressive history. Some barely survived to sail again and kind of commemorate the many ships which no longer exist. Once steam engines were invented, it did not take long for sailing ships to lose out against this competition and many ended tugged to their destruction like in the famous “Temeraire” painting by Turner.

An example is the Santa Maria Manuela, a Portuguese beauty. Difficult to believe all that remained of her was apparently a hulk. Like other ships taking part in this event, she had practically to be rebuilt from scratch. Another beauty is the Esmeralda. You may think all these ships are old? Well, construction on this one actually started in 1946. The Atyla was actually built in the 1980s.

Quite a few other ships are replicas, like the “Half Moon” (see also the book review “Half Moon”) and the “Kamper Kogge”. Other ships started life by another name, like the “Bel Espoir” and the “Kruzenstern”. Like many other tall ships, the latter one is used as a naval training ship.

The Dutch tv-crew covering Sail Amsterdam 2015 each day, were guests on board the oldest ship taking part: the Swedish Göteborg. Each evening, various people were interviewed on its deck. They ranged from ordinary crew members from various countries and ships, to the only female Dutch ship builder (whose favourite was the historic sailing vessel “ARC Gloria” with its very musical crew), several captains, winners of around-the-world sailing contests, explorers, documentary makers and many more.

Each evening, the guests interviewed on board of the Göteborg gave a fascinating insight into present-day and historic life on board the tall ships. Several of the people interviewed mentioned how small and insignificant they felt, in the middle of an ocean with weather like hurricanes or typhoons “in the neighbourhood”.

A historian described the iron discipline which reigned aboard. She went through an impressive list of punishments. Captains who were too cruel could of course face a mutiny as the one which took place on board the Bounty. Or they were simply put on board the ship’s sloop and cut adrift – never to be heard of again: the fate of Henry Hudson and his son.

Another historians discussed what the voyages meant to those left behind. Long voyages ensured the wives of those on board sailing ships had more freedom as well as responsibilities. With a husband off for several months, years, or perhaps forever, women became the head of the household and had to make sure their families survived. A company like the Dutch VOC might pay some money, but nothing would be paid if a sailor died. And with one in five ships lost and one in three sailors never to return (see book reviews “Half Moon” and “Longitude”) – life was not only precarious for those out at sea.

According to the historian an absent husband meant “these women led a fairly modern life. They were in charge and with an absent husband, they had a chance to develop their talents, start a business, get into trade.” Interesting point of view: did these tall ships have a hand in creating more equal lives, independent females, foster feminism? Perhaps a bit far-fetched. But what is still too often forgotten: women were aboard ships. Not only as passengers, prostitutes, or as banished convicts or slave cargo. They could be part of the crew.

Though most of the ships are now training ships for naval cadets, some cater to secondary school children who will complete their school-year on board, while also learning all about sailing and being a team member. Other tall ships offer cruises for adults, where those who sign on become part of the crew manning the ship. Such cruises visit far-away places like Antarctica and other remote spots – with less impact on nature than many a modern vessel.

But … what if you missed out on this event? The bad news is, that the next Sail Amsterdam will take place in 2020. The good news is, that there are other ports and towns hosting similar events, like Bremerhaven. You may also be interested in tall ships regattas and other nautical races. Or you might enjoy a visit to a tall ship which has now been turned into a museum, like the well-known Cutty Sark. Or have a look on Youtube for impressions of Sail Amsterdam 2015. As for a short bio and specifications of tall ships which took part: try the official Sail Amsterdam website.

Bremerhaven Sail
Greenwich Museums: Cutty Sark
North sea tall ship regatta 2016

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