This summer, tall ships are plying the Great Lakes, offering millions of people on-board tours and the spectacle of the Parades of Sail. But most people don’t sail, and certainly not on tall ships. Most have no idea how a sailboat sails. So, what is the fascination with these ships? The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Todd Jarrell has spent several years sailing the world on the tall ships, and he offers some personal perspective:
This summer the tall ships are plying the Great Lakes offering millions of people on-board tours and the spectacle of the Parades of Sail. But most people don’t sail, and certainly not on tall ships. Most have no idea how a sailboat sails. So, what is the fascination with these ships? What is it that they come to see? Writer and adventurer Todd Jarrell has spent several years sailing the world on the tall ships, and he offers some personal perspective.
With their canvas palisades and pennants flying, today’s tall ships are every bit as grand and romantic as their ancestors, perhaps more so for their rarity. One’s imagination follows them to sea; envisioning sun-drenched decks and star spangled night watches.
One sees the crews lay aloft on towering masts to loose billowing sails as deckhands work in concert below. One expects the cobwebs of a sedentary life or the stresses of the workaday world to be swept away on the freshening breeze. Truly, it is difficult to find in our world of instantaneous gratification, more fitting symbols of a straightforward way of life.
To the novice the attraction to a tall ship is a kind of infatuation, a friendship, but to some it becomes a love, founded in sweat and bound in mutual trust. The sailor’s term, “One hand for yourself and one hand for the ship,” describes this symbiosis: each does their part to keep both above the waves.
The wind ships, once mankind’s most vital vehicles, were the far-ranging satellites of the Age of Discovery. It was the tall ships that carried the conquerors, colonists and zealots, as they crossed the hemispheres, their chart lines stitching the known world to the new.
Their determination is humbling – however suspect their motives may be – as many sailed for glory, certain Providence was at their side, and with the promise of riches before them like a golden carrot at the end of every jib boom. They claimed the riches and real estate – even the souls – of lands they considered “new” and “undiscovered.”
Religions, foods and philosophies all were carried to a world that was, like a child, only beginning to comprehend its own size, shape and cultural complexities.
Today the tall ships are icons of that adventurous time and, worldwide, festivals swarm with those who bask in their grandeur. Strolling the decks of their own imaginations people visit a common heritage, seeking a sense of connectedness, a tangible link to their histories and ancestors for surely all were touched by the ships – the pilgrims, the immigrants, the natives, the slaves. The masts and yards tower and sprout as upturned roots of a collective family tree.
The mission of the ships has forever changed; the heart of the fleet no longer beats to the drum of war but pulses still in the veins of the adventurer. By one sea skipper’s estimation, more people have in the last forty years orbited earth in space than have circumnavigated in a traditional tall ship. But the arcane arts of the sea are still preserved in sail-training programs for young men and women and it is an undeniably expansive experience – if not an easy one.
Witnessed from shore, the stately vessels set out to sea with ease, but from on deck, one appreciates fully the learning curve of the tall ship trainee – a curve as near vertical as the masts themselves. Here one sees the blistered hands and homesickness, the dismal days spent in wet weather gear and the bleariness of crew for whom a good night’s sleep seems the stuff of a long ago life. Here are 4am wake up calls to crawl from a warm rack to work on a dark, rolling deck in a stinging cold rain – and much worse.
Far from the familiar, trainees must plumb themselves for unknown depths of character.
The distance many journey cannot be calculated in nautical miles, nor by latitude and longitude, for the vanishing point of well-developed confidence and curiosity is far beyond measure.
So when the crowds call on these vessels, when they line the shores awaiting the whimsy wind to carry the ships past, it has nothing to do with blockbuster entertainment or bang for the buck. Rather it’s that people somehow sense that here is found a promising future in the past.