Australia: Tall ships and tempest on Sydney Harbour

Had I been around a hundred years ago I would have been standing on the bounds of Sydney Harbour watching Australia’s first Royal Navy Fleet sailing through the heads.

A century later I am standing on the harbour’s bounds as part of the celebration of the International Fleet Review. Today will see the coming together of the biggest fleet of tall ships in the Southern Hemisphere.

I’ve long been a lover of tall ships with their sailing grace, cusps of timber and adventurous sailors. Not wanting to miss the opportunity of joining them in spirit, I hop aboard a train to Milson’s Point where I can wander down the hill to Kirribilli, stand in the lee of the Harbour Bridge, look across to the Opera House and watch the flotilla sail by.

Sydney has barely seen rain for the past few months, but today, on October 3, the weather gods have changed the game plan.

As my train nears The Bridge, not only is rain bleating down, but hail as well.

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Inadequately dressed, I fight my way downhill against the bluster. I could have turned around and caught the warm, misty-windowed train back home, but where’s the fun and adventure in that.

Besides, the Harbour Bridge is a HUGE umbrella. Wrong. As I stand beneath its massive, masculine road span for shelter, I may as well be standing beneath a colander. Not only is the rain horizontally shooting in, it’s falling in long vertical lines from above. People are huddled against the pylons seeking shelter, kids are jumping up and down trying to keep warm. Families who had brought in rubber-backed picnic rugs are wrapped in them like tartan presents.

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There are kids everywhere in plastic ponchos and there’s even a man wearing a folding chair on his head as as rather large sou’wester. Kids huddle under golf umbrellas as if they’re teepees.

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“Makes it rather authentic don’t you think, like being in a squall at sea,” I comment to a lady standing beside me. She looks at me with my dripping hair flailing my face, my umbrella flipping in and out like some kind of purple semaphore. She just shakes her head.

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As I’m waiting for the tall ships to arrive, I think of all the ways I could have stayed dry. An unlimited ferry ride would have seen me zigzagging the harbour in relative comfort. Or what about the giant ferris wheel at Luna Park with its bird’s-eye view.

And then, with the rain pelting and the wind whipping there’s a hoot of joy from a bunch of kids. There’s a flyover of helicopters, and a fire boat shooting plumes of water rounds the bend. Behind it are the first tall ships, the Young Endeavour and the replica of Captain Cook’s HM Bark Endeavour. “Do you think Captain Jack Sparrow’s on board?” an excited boy looks up at me wide-eyed. A canon booms and rocks the shore and kids cheer oblivious to the raging tempest.

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More tall ships appear, some with sails and some without. My soaked admirers and I watch the sixteen proud ships sail under the Harbour Bridge towards their berths at Darling Harbour. The Bark Europa has taken eight months to sail here. On the Soren Larsen men stand tall along the yards and up in the crows nest. It’s blustery on land let alone up where they are.

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It’s romance and reality in this flotilla. Wood and canvas sail beneath the rush of wheels and steel on the bridge above.

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But wait. There’s one more bedraggled ship. It’s the Wreck of the Hesperus. Or is it the tempest-tossed me.

The ibis are waiting for the Wreck of the Hesperus.

The ibis are waiting for the Wreck of the Hesperus.

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