Tall Sailing Ships Captivate Sydney
“I must down to the seas again,
to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship
and a star to steer her by.”
WHEN John Masefield, England’s 20th-century poet laureate, wrote those words in his ballad “Sea-Fever,” he may not have envisioned the thrilling effect tall ships can have on spectators. But the sight of sailing ships certainly impressed beyond expectation local Sydney-siders and their throngs of visitors. It was Australia Day, January 26, 1988, and Sydney Harbour was ablaze with sail to herald the beginning of celebrations for Australia’s bicentenary.
Spectator craft choked the waterways, and an estimated two million pedestrians lined the harbor foreshore. But why such exceptional interest in a group of large sailing ships? Because it was part of a reenactment of the voyage to Australia of the First Fleet from Portsmouth, England, 200 years ago. The 11 sailing ships of that fleet left England on May 13, 1787, and arrived in Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788.
Original Voyage a Navigational Triumph
In his book Australian Discovery and Colonisation, Samuel Bennett gives fascinating details on that First Fleet. He writes: “The Isle of Wight [England] was appointed as a rendezvous for the fleet, consisting of eleven sail. . . . The garrison consisted of 200 marines, . . . forty of whom were allowed to take their wives and families, 81 free persons and 696 convicts. The founders of the colony therefore consisted of one free person to every two prisoners. . . . The prisoners were mostly young persons from the agricultural districts of England. . . . Very few had been convicted of serious crimes. Out of the whole six hundred and ninety-six, only fifty-five were sentenced for longer periods than seven years, and the sentences of a large number would expire within two or three years after their landing.”
It is not clear exactly how many lost their lives on the long voyage from England to Australia. The figure varies from a low 14 to about 50. One writer reflects that to have more than a thousand people crammed into 11 tiny ships to sail halfway around the world on a voyage of more than eight months with so few deaths and not one ship lost was an epic achievement of navigation and organization.
The Reenactment Begins
So on May 13, 1987, 11 sailing ships again left Portsmouth, England, exactly as the First Fleet did 200 years earlier. Four ships had been chartered for the day to keep the total number accurate at 11 vessels for the official start of the reenactment. The seven ships that sailed south toward Australia were joined by two more at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, and a final two joined the fleet in Sydney. This meant that the full complement of 11 square-riggers was on hand for the entry into Sydney Harbour.
The sea route chosen duplicated the original eight-month voyage: Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, and then on to Sydney. This time, however, two extra stops were made, one at Port Louis, Mauritius, and one at Fremantle, Western Australia. Their final rendezvous was Botany Bay, just south of Sydney Harbour. From here the regrouped fleet sailed in convoy into the resplendent harbor on Tuesday morning, January 26, 1988.
Similar yet Different
Whereas the appearance and size of the ships in the reenactment were as close as possible to the originals, in many respects there were dramatic differences. The 20th-century replicas were extremely comfortable, some even luxurious. They had engines as well as sails for getting in and out of ports, and they were well-equipped with generators, deep freezers, washing machines, dryers, showers, and even water makers.
What a contrast this was to the plight of the convicts crammed into dark, fetid quarters two centuries earlier! Most were chained and allowed on deck only during daylight hours in good weather. At all other times, they were confined to the holds that were like prison decks. The bunks were wooden planks set in tiers 3 feet [0.9 m] apart; they were 7 feet 6 inches [2.3 m] long by 6 feet [1.8 m] wide. Each bunk was shared by five persons!
Other Tall Ships Add to the Spectacle
The square-riggers of the reenactment fleet were relatively small. The largest was only 159 feet [48 m] in length and displaced just 530 tons. So to add to the spectacle, other countries were invited to send tall sailing ships to share in the celebrations. The response was overwhelming. Some 200 such ships came to Sydney, ranging from a modest 13 tons up to Japan’s giant bark Nippon Maru, 361 feet [110 m] in length, with a mast height of 165 feet [50 m] and displacing 4,729 tons. The romantic sailing ships came from such diverse countries as Poland, Oman, India, Uruguay, Spain, the United States, and the Netherlands.
Many of the visiting vessels assembled at Hobart in the island state of Tasmania for a 620-nautical-mile [1,150 km] ocean race to Sydney, where they were then on hand to line up in the harbor and welcome the convoy of 11 ships of the First Fleet reenactment as they sailed from nearby Botany Bay.
This, then, was the impressive spectacle that greeted the thousands of enthusiastic onlookers on that sparkling 26th day of January 1988. It heralded the first 200 years of European settlement for the wide, brown, sunburned country of Australia—now home for some 16 million people.
[Full-page picture on page 17]