It happened by chance. We had already planned our yearly trip to Sweden and we had purchased the plane tickets when one of my friends on Facebook posted a flyer for Sail Training International’s big event. The tall ships were going to be racing from Amsterdam to Norway and then along the Norwegian coast before returning to The Netherlands. The biggest port of call in Norway, Fredrikstad, was an old fortified town that I had wanted to see for some time, and, more importantly, the ships would be there while we were in Sweden. We quickly put together a plan to visit. When I told Maria’s dad about the event he got excited. He told his friends about it and before long the trip had grown from just Maria and I to include her dad, and four of his closest friends – It was shaping up to be a grand road trip!
When the time came, our little caravan of three cars set off from Enköping and headed west. We stopped for lunch and coffee at a lakeside restaurant and then we continued. We crossed over into Norway without slowing down and then we turned south. About five hours after we set off we pulled into the modern city of Fredrikstad and went in search of our hotel. We got our first glimpse of the tall ships as we crossed over the town’s iconic bridge – My excitement was building! We found the hotel and got checked in and then we took the luggage up to the room. Due to the cost of the hotel we had gotten a room with three beds and we were sharing with Maria’s dad. When we opened the door we all started laughing. The room was tiny with two twin beds and a plush rollaway bed shoved in the corner – Not exactly what we were expecting for the price we were paying, but we knew that Norway was a lot more expensive than we were used to. The room did have a nice balcony that faced the river and we could see the tops of the masts stretching off to the east where the medieval walled city was.
About an hour after we arrived we set off into the cool evening and headed to the waterfront. After a few blocks we saw the first of the massive ships tied up to the riverside quay. To our right there was a sea of masts from the smaller sailing vessels tied three wide to the quay on both sides of the narrow channel that bisected modern Fredrikstad. To our left, the channel was lined with the larger ships. Barkentines, schooners, barks, fully rigged ships – It was a beautiful sight! The masts and yards and rigging of the different ships merged into an abstract pattern that was difficult to make sense of. I explained the differences between the ships and the types of rigging as we walked along the crowded waterfront. For my companions it was a learning experience and they were all very interested. For me it was an exciting stroll through the world of tall ships and there were many familiar ships in the line up. Some of them, like the Oosterschelde, were ships that I had tried to sail on, and many of them were ones that my sailing friends had talked fondly of.
We had walked about half way through the main group of the larger ships when we reached the ship that meant the most to me – The bark Europa. The Europa was the ship that I had sailed on across the Southern Ocean. Seeing her brought back fond memories for me. It had been my home for nearly two months as we sailed from South America to Antarctica and onward to Africa. On that voyage we experienced exceptional whale sightings, huge icebergs, including a smaller one that we actually ran into on a dark night, giant storms, exotic ports of call, including South Georgia and Tristan da Cunha, the latter being considered the most remote inhabited island in the world, and countless amazing wildlife sightings. More importantly, I learned how to sail a tall ship on her deck. I learned the ropes, as the saying goes, while standing watch at all hours of the day and night, climbing aloft in fine weather and in rough, stormy conditions, and spending hours at the helm trying to figure out the secret of steering a straight course – I was not the best helmsman on board as was painfully obvious on the plots of my courses, which, on one occasion, showed a distinct loop in the ship’s path! The camaraderie and the teamwork and the excitement we all experienced on the Europa led to several lasting friendships and boosted my confidence in ways I didn’t know possible – It was one of the best experiences of my life!
Sail Training International holds The Tall Ship Races as a way to introduce young people to the art of sailing on tall ships and to keep the skills alive. That same camaraderie and confidence that I experienced on the Europa could be seen on the faces of all the participating sailors, whether they were experienced hands with saltwater flowing through their veins, or first timers still learning the ropes. I did my best to explain the ins and outs of sailing the Europa to my companions while we stood on the quay. I was impressed by how much I had retained. It had been seven years yet I could still name all of the different lines and explain their purpose. I remembered it all as if I had sailed in the day before! I spent a little time talking to a crewmember that was passing out brochures on the quay. She was very familiar with the voyage I had been on, since one of my roommates on board had published an excellent book about it. Several of the photos on display were directly from the book, which made it all the more real.
It was getting late, so, despite the urge to continue exploring, we decided to turn around and find some dinner. We spent the evening eating tacos and walking around the area near the hotel. Once we returned to the hotel we watched some of the World Cup action in the lobby and then we headed up to our rooms.
We spent the next day exploring all that Fredrikstad and the wonderful tall ships had to offer. It was a beautiful day and the crowds were out in force. We walked back along the quay, pausing again at the Europa to say hi to Captain Klaas, who was the Captain on my voyage, and then we continued until we reached the massive Russian ships Kruzenshtern and Mir. We paused there to admire the staggering size of the two ships, which were tied beam to beam making them look even bigger. The Kruzenshtern was a famous ship. It had started its life back in 1926 as the last of the famous Flying P-Line ships out of Hamburg. In those days it was called the Padua and it still holds the record for a tall ship voyage from Hamburg to Australia, via Cape Horn. The ship was transferred to Russia at the end of World War II as part of Germany’s war reparations and is the last of the Flying P-Line ships still in service. At over 140 meters in length, the ship was more than twice the size of the Europa, which was hard to get my mind around. We spent a half hour exploring the Kruzenshtern. Its four masts rose high above our heads and the tangle of the rigging was difficult to decipher. One of my favorite films was a black and white film that showed one of the other Flying P-Line ships, the Peking, rounding Cape Horn in a gale and I knew that the Kruzenshtern had seen similar conditions on its roundings. The ships and the sailors of the era were tough and it was amazing to be walking on the deck of one that was still sailing! We spent a few more minutes exploring the Mir, which was a beautiful full-rigged ship that had been built in the 1980s and then we continued along the waterfront.
Once we had seen all we could take in we split up and went in search of lunch. Maria and I went to a cute little sidewalk café near the waterfront and we enjoyed some coffee and sandwiches while we planned the remainder of our day. After lunch we decided to take one of the free water taxis across to Gamlebyen, to explore the old portion of the city and its famous fortress walls. We spent a few hours walking on the lovely green, earthen walls and along the water-filled motes. There were a lot of trees and the shade they provided was a nice break from the hot sun. Within the star shaped earthworks the old town was completely preserved. There were no modern buildings and all of the roads were cobblestone. We took our time exploring the ancient streets. We stopped for fika in a café located on an amazing little alley and we sat sipping our coffee while we watched the people go by. Eventually we made our way back to the river. There we got some stunning views of the ships and some of the more picturesque buildings in Old Town. When we got back on the water taxi we decided to take advantage of its route and we stayed on board for several stops so that we could see the ships from the water, which was amazing, and then we headed back to the hotel to find the others.
We all gathered for dinner at the hotel restaurant. It was the last evening that the ships would be in Fredrikstad and there was a big party planned. At dinner we sat at a table next to the headlining singer, who was well known to most of my companions and led to a bit of excitement. After dinner we all headed back to the river and took another ride on the water taxi. We were rewarded with grand views of the ships as the sun set on our tall ship experience. We didn’t have tickets to the big event, which was being held at Gamlebyen, so the rest of the group decided to watch the fireworks from the hotel. I wanted to try and get some pictures of the fireworks with the ships, so I headed to a prominent bridge over the river and positioned myself with the Europa in the foreground. There was a line of professional photographers beside me and we all talked about the ships while we waited. When the show started we all snapped away as we tried to capture the magic of watching a fireworks show over a gathering of majestic tall ships in one of Scandinavia’s best preserved medieval towns – It was a spectacular way to end my time with the tall ships!
Maria and I took one last walk the following morning. We passed Captain Klaas two more times as he walked the ship’s dog and then we set our sights on our return to Sweden. We all decided that we would drive out to the end of the group of rocky islands we were on in hopes of getting a glimpse of the ships under sail as they left the river, but things didn’t work out the way we had hoped. The weather conditions were too bad for any of the ships to leave. We waited for an hour before a passer by told us about the delay. Despite missing the ships, I had a wonderful morning sitting in some of the most spectacular coastal scenery I have ever seen. We passed back through Fredrikstad and then we started our journey back home. We paused for lunch in one of Sweden’s most picturesque coastal villages. The town was called Fjällbacka, which was where one of the people in our group had grown up. We stretched our legs for a while there as we climbed up through a narrow canyon that had beautiful views of the town and the water and then we walked through town, pausing for ice cream at one of the shops along the way. When we left Fjällbacka we turned away from the coast and set our sights on Enköping and home.
Seeing so many tall ships gathered in one place had always been a dream of mine. Fredrikstad was the perfect setting for such a gathering. The old buildings looked a lot like they must have looked during the age of sail when tall ships ruled the oceans and it wasn’t difficult to imagine that we had traveled back in time to see it. It was a wonderful walk down memory lane with the Europa and I left excited for my next voyage on a tall ship – When and where and on which ship, only time will tell…