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An Insider's Guide to The Tall Ships Races

Updated: May 22, 2023

The Tall Ships Races will be returning to Falmouth this summer. With around 40 vessels expected to attend, it promises to be a spectacular event. Chris is semi-retired these days but when he's not managing the cottages here at Middle Colenso Farm, you'll find him on the bridge of a tall ship. Here's his guide to the event.

Tall ships race in Falmouth
Ships of every size during the parade of sail in Falmouth in 2014

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with tall ships for many years and have taken part in three races that started in Falmouth, as well as many others around the world. Most recently, I was in Falmouth on board Pelican of London for the 2014 race. After three days in port, when the ships were open to the general public, we gathered in Carrick Roads prior to the parade of sail. It was a fabulous day and nearly all the ships were able to set an enormous amount of sail, which must have looked an impressive site from the shore.

What is it?

The Tall Ships Race brings together sailing ships and yachts with crews from all over the world.

The first race took place in1956 in Torbay with the aim of creating international friendship and training opportunities for young people. Since then the event has grown and dozens of vessels usually take part. The fleet ranges from small boats with just a handful of crew to four-masted square rigged sailing ships of over 3,000 tones.

Why sail training?

People assume that sail training is all about learning to sail but the ship is just a medium. One of the most important aspects of a tall ships race is the personal development that young people achieve during their time on board. There are times when the crews are pushed hard and they find themselves achieving things they didn’t think possible before they joined.

The young people come from all walks of life and for many of them it's their first time away from home. They take part in the day-to-day running of a complicated machine under the direction of trained officers and crew. Activities include sail handling, steering, navigation, helping in the galley and engine room.

What to expect in Falmouth

Falmouth first hosted the race back in 1966 and 2021 will be sixth time the historic port has welcomed the tall ships fleet.

Ships are scheduled to arrive in Falmouth in the week leading up August 19th and will be moored in Carrick Roads and the inner harbour.

Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, there were won't be an opportunity for members of the public to go on board but there will be a range of onshore activities and hopefully an opportunity to view the ships at close quarters by taking boat trips in the harbour.

On Thursday, August 19th, the vessels, accompanied by a flotilla of local boats, will take part in a spectacular parade of sail before beginning the race to Coruna in Spain.

What happens during a race?

Because the ships are all different sizes there is a handicap system which allows them all to take part competitively. There are three classes of boats: A (the larger square riggers), B (the medium size ships) and C (the yachts) and there are prizes given to the winners in each category.

Some captains can be very competitive but even though we all try and do the best we can, some vessels are better suited to racing than others. The main purpose of the race is for the young people to have an exciting time and feel a sense of achievement when they cross the finishing line.

tall ships in Falmouth
Parade of sail in Falmouth with Pendennis Castle in the background

A Career at Sea

After a disastrous session with the school careers master, when I was given two choices: the church or the sea, I started my career in the merchant navy as a cadet with the British India Steam Navigation Company in 1962 . Having achieved my master mariner’s ticket, I was seconded to the Sail Training Association and I sailed on board the Malcolm Miller for two years.

Having worked on general cargo and educational cruise ships, it was a steep learning curve. I thought a sheet was something you slept in rather than something you had to pull (sheets on sailing vessels are used to trim the sails)! After the secondment I spent the next four years with Princess Cruises before returning to sail training as captain in 1980.

Captain of the Malcolm Miller in 1981

Since then I’ve sailed on tall ships belonging to not-for-profit organisations in the UK, Hong Kong, Australia, Japan and Bermuda. I was the delivery captain for Young Endeavour, Britain’s bicentennial gift to Australia, and later spent over a decade on the Endeavour replica, circumnavigating the globe twice.

During my time on tall ships I’ve had some wonderful experiences including sailing Endeavour round Cape Horn and being welcomed into Kagashima on the Japanese ship Kaisei to the accompaniment of an enormous taiko drum

One of my tall ships races highlights was in1984 when I was captain on the Sir Winston Churchill, one of the Sail Training Association schooners, and our all-girls crew won the Cutty Sark Trophy. It is awarded to the ship which has contributed the most to international understanding and friendship.

I’m now retired and running our three holiday cottages but I still do relief work on board tall ships, most recently being Pelican of London and Ireland's new sail training vessel Grace O'Malley.

Pictures of the 2014 Tall Ships Race courtesy of Falmouth Tall Ships Association.

For up-to-date information about the 2023 Falmouth event visit the website here

If you can bear the poor quality here's a video about the 1982 race. Look out for Chris around the 13-minute mark.

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