Arriving into the Harlingen Haven train station, the kids in front of me who had been asking the train driver to see his driving cabin, screamed “Papa, ein Viermaster!” and were besides themselves. I turned and saw a forest of masts behind me, dressed all over. People streaming by on the promenade above the windows, a swarm on the platform. The couple behind me, he in a black kilt and looking like a street performer, she swooning “now I am getting excited” as they gathered their gear and left the train.

I was here, deep inside the Harlingen Tall Ships Race meeting. Dozens of ships in four classes had collected here to celebrate the tall ships themes for a few days before heading out for the start of their race to Fredrikstad. I got my luggage, already too heavy from collected booty and made my way along the road to an access stair to the promenade, aiming to find my accommodation and get rid of all that stuff. The swarms of people, the flags fluttering, the giant ships: quite a sight.

After finding my digs and noting the address for the meeting the next day, I headed out into the foray. Along the waterfront with the tide receding, up into the harbour. Passing ships that kept getting bigger, I came across the Kruzenshtern, Крузенште́рн which seemed strangely familar: aha, a gift to the Time’s Up galley gallery from our friend Rued, a huge photo poster of the ship with all sail set. For the rest of my time in Harlingen, strapping lads in Russian naval uniforms, often with large round hats and / or expensive looking sunglasses, would cross my path. This looked like the largest ship in harbour, the most organised and structured, and definitely the best uniformed.

Part of the Galley Gallery collection, the Krusschtern ship and some other gems.

Part of the Galley Gallery collection, the Kruzenshtern ship and some other gems.

The Kruzenshtern is one of the last P-ships, a series made in the 1920s by the Germans, taken as prize by the Soviets after the second world war. Originally named Padua, it represents in many senses the pinnacle of tall ship construction. People were already lining up to get on board – I could not get that excited for some reason. Swarms all over huge decks – maybe I should have hardened up and dived in for a look-see at what a real tall ship is like.

It was not until I had walked around the city, found out the names of the local schnapps (Berenburg and Skippers Bitter were the recommendations, but the second seems not to be local, while the first I found uninspired), enjoyed a simple fish soup and arrived at the smaller internal harbour, that things improved. The first boat to attract attention was the Carrina from 1929, a schooner with a strange wishbone construction for the sail above its internal (between the masts) staysail. It almost looked like it had a spritsail as its forward mainsail, between the masts, which I found an interesting speculation. There is evidence, from an article by Colin Palmer as well as an article in Wooden Boat magazine, 1992 (if anyone knows where the PDF can be found online, please put it in the comments!) to suggest that the sprit is the fastest rig on at least catamarans, a thought that felt quite attractive after looking at the Thames and other English cargo barges that operated into the early 20th century.

Things were looking up. This looked like it could be sailed with a small crew, perhaps even alone. Away from the mass discipline of these huge tallships. This vessel was not part of the tallships event, it seemed to be visiting.

I carried on down the zuiderhaven, peering into various boats. There were large old boats run by Christian organisations, the original Colin Archer Norwegian rescue boat, smaller vessels and even a couple of crews from the Scouts and the English Navy on modern boats. It turns out that the Tall Ships race has several categories, somehow the product of old (whatever that means) and new with large (over 40m) and small. Obviously my preference is old with small.

Okay, so it is not what I saw, but this is pretty cute!

One of the larger old vessels seemed to be still raising money, putting on a party with drinks and food every night. They also offered charters and other cruises. This raised some questions: how do these boats survive? Are they all dependent upon rich benefactors who love old culture, covering their costs with donations? Do they do corporate gigs taking out groups for a romantic evening of drinks and food on the open ocean under authentic sail? Is the market glutted? Do they do transport, entertainment or education? Talking to a fellow from the TSC Traditional Sailing Charter Group it appears that business is okay.

TSC operate out of Harlingen and various Baltic ports, mostly in Germany. Their charter season runs from April through October. They no longer do the Tall Ships race, as that is too short and they cannot afford to have the trainees paying so little for the boat. They also have no real motivation to operate in the Mediterranean – prices for berthing and repairs are so high that the extra bit of season – they can start in March instead of April – is not worth it. But their main problem is that there are not enough boats. It is, apparently, impossible to finance the building of new boats. And there are not that many old boats to be had. Maybe there is a market for restoration work…

A host of other activities filled the days: solar powered boat races (they can hydroplane up to 46 km/h!) and crew parades, marching bands and shanty choirs. However my best memories, outside the NSR SAIL meeting (see next post) was sunset at the end of the breakwater, watching a series of boats come in under sail and motor the last bit into the harbour. Small Dutch Botter and other larger boats, it was an eminently pleasant end to a day. That the wind blew away the sound of some band playing Abba ska style on the main stage, only added to my enjoyment.

Harlingen sunset 2014

Sunset. Click to get the full image! How many boats are visible?