NMMC exhibition commemorates the last commercial windjammer Cape Horn voyage

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The crew at the wheel of Passat - Holger Thesleff

The crew at the wheel of windjammer Passat (photograph by third officer Holger Thesleff supplied by NMMC)

King Neptune and his court onboard Passat - Holger Thesleff Passat sailing from Falmouth - July 1939

King Neptune and his court onboard Passat (photo taken by Holger Thesleff and supplied by the NMMC); Passat sailing from Falmouth in July 1939

National Maritime Museum Cornwall curators are celebrating the final days of commercial square-rigged sailing ships with an autumn exhibition timed to mark 60 years since the last windjammer cargo ship taking part in a ‘grain race’ rounded Cape Horn.

In the early 20th century the British public gambled on which ship carrying grain from Australia to Europe would make the fastest trip of the year in what were called the grain races. At the time, this was one of only a few trade routes that remained viable for the world’s big sailing vessels.

The exhibition, which is to appear at 12 museums across the globe during 2009, includes a range of original objects from the ships, stunning photographs and a detailed account of that final voyage. The NMMC’s exhibition will also include the photographs by Geoffrey Robertshaw, who recorded life on board the windjammers during journeys between Australia and Falmouth. His personal logbooks, photographs and personal possessions have kindly been lent to the NMMC by Elvin Carter of Devoran.

Farewell to Sails opens on 1 September and runs until the 26 November at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth.

On Monday 7 September Elvin Carter will be giving an illustrated lecture at the Maritime Museum about Geoffrey Robertshaw’s remarkable life aboard the windjammers.

PS… If you haven’t read it, Eric Newby’s book The Last Great Grain Race describes one of these voyages superbly.

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Sir Robin reflects 40 years after winning the Golden Globe

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Sir Robin Knox-Johnston

Today is the 40th anniversary of the day Sir Robin Knox-Johnston sailed his Colin Archer-style boat (designed by Billy Atkin, I believe) Suhaili into Falmouth Harbour and became the first man to circumnavigate the world solo and without stopping.

It was a breathtaking achievement in an era with few of the technical sailing, navigation, communication and safety aids available to ocean sailors today. Although the world knew little about it, Sir Robin had eventful voyage – by the time he passed the Cape of Good Hope he was already in the lead, but a knockdown shifted Suhaili’s coach roof, her water tanks were polluted and her radio was out of action, and later he had problems with his automatic steering.

But despite these difficulties Sir Robin and Suhaili continued and completed the journey to win the Sunday Times newspaper’s Golden Globe Award. There’s a famous story that when she sailed into Falmouth Harbour on 22nd April 1969 to be greeted by Customs officials with the traditional demand of ‘Where from?’ the single-word answer from her skipper was ‘Falmouth’.

Although not at all a conventional racing yacht and not in fact the boat Sir Robin originally intended to use for the circumnavigation, in many ways she could have been made for the job. Built from teak, she is said to be a strong, resilient boat built to a design highly respected for its seaworthiness.

I asked Sir Robin for his reflections on the Golden Globe after 40 years. Here’s his most interesting reply:

‘It’s hard to put the Golden Globe into perspective. I was the outsider, the one the Sunday Times said was most unlikely to succeed, so they did not give me a radio or contract as with the others. It was this attitude which meant it became impossible for me to find sponsorship.

‘Thus I knew little of the others’ plans, and to be honest, was not bothered as I had enough on my plate getting myself and Suhaili ready. The fact that my radio broke down meant that there was no news of me after I departed New Zealand until I was passing the Azores, so attention was on the others.

‘My re-appearance caused surprise to the organisers who by this time were focused on the race to be first between Donald Crowhurst and  Nigel Tetley and I am not sure it was very welcome. Certainly their representative in Falmouth on my arrival was more interested in asking me to attend Tetley’s arrival celebrations, to the extent he never congratulated me.

‘But that did not bother me, I was pleased to be back with family and loyal friends and began to think about what I would do next. My intention was to return to sea but this became unattractive as British India Steam Navigation Company, for whom I was an employee, had disappeared. At 30 years of age, and in those days, you did not retire, you could not afford to.’

Even at this distance in time, the lack of mental flexibility and insensitivity shown by the Sunday Times people seems breathtaking, but Sir Robin’s seems to have risen gracefully above such trifling matters.

See Sir Robin’s website and the National Maritime Museum Cornwall’s online exhibition, and hear him this morning on BBC Radio 4.

Also see Ben Crawshaw’s The Invisible Workshop piece here and the Bursledon Blog’s story about seeing Suhaili, Lively Lady and Gypsy Moth IV racing together in the Solent – it must have seemed strange to see this trio with crews on board instead of a lone figure.

In fact, many of the boating and sailing weblogs are making a bit of day of it, at the suggestion of Messing About in Boats.

Also, while I don’t know what Sir Robin would say about it, there’s also this intriguing new book describing the Golden Globe race and its effects on the lives of the entrants A Race Too Far.

National Register of Historic Vessels to include foreign builds and 33ft vessels

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Inclusion criteria for the National Register of Historic Vessels change from the 1st April this year to include vessels built abroad but with strong UK associations.

The size requirement is also reduced from 40 to 33ft overall.

The latest National Historic Ships e-News explains the changes, which stem from concerns that important vessels have been excluded including the Bombay-built HMS Trincomalee and more recently HMS Stalker.

The rule on length has been changed to fill a gap that existed between the National Register of Historic Vessels and the National Maritime Museum’s National Small Boat Register.

If you’re wondering whether your boat may qualify, length overall is defined as the length between the forward and aft extremities of the hull: spars and projections are not included.

Other criteria for including a vessel remain unchanged: the craft must have been launched more than 50 years ago, it should be currently lying in British waters and must be substantially intact.

PS I’ve just heard from NMMC trustee George Hogg that all the 33ft and over currently on the NSBR will be retained on it until the NRHV site is up and running again.