All the Fyn of the sailing fair
A classic regatta in Denmark celebrates old wooden vessels
IN days of yore, survivors of Viking raids recalled the fearful sight of square-rigged longships bearing down on them like ‘‘dragons flying in the air’’, filled with terrifying heathens.
Times have changed. Now their seafaring descendants engage in pitched battles with water bombs and oranges. The exchange of friendly fire is the traditional conclusion to an annual regatta, the Classic Fyn Rundt, around the Danish island of Fyn that brings together some of the most beautiful old wooden sailing ships afloat.
It is not so much a race as a week-long celebration of the country’s nautical heritage in which a procession of classic schooners, Baltic traders and fishing boats jostle to be the first in a different port every night to join festivities on shore. The only motor vessel in the 30-strong fleet is a freighter carrying prodigious quantities of beer and a marquee for drinking, singing and dancing to jazz bands.
Landlubbers are welcome to join in the fun by signing up on any of the boats, whether or not they want to help with crewing. All that is required is a sense of adventure and a waterproof jacket.
Which is how I find myself standing on the deck of Yukon, a gaff-rigged fishing cutter built of oak in 1930 to trawl the North Sea as far as Aberdeen.
When its fishing days were over, it was rescued from the bottom of a harbour near Copenhagen by David Nash, an Australian shipwright and sea gypsy who had previously sailed to Tahiti on an old trading ketch. ‘‘She was a sorry sight but the dream was strong,’’ he says.
After seven years of restoration, Yukon emerged to participate in the regatta with David at the helm, ably assisted by his wife and first mate Ea, a Greenlandborn social worker whom he had met and fallen overboard for at the previous year’s event. ‘‘Denmark is good for two things,’’ he says, ‘ ‘ beautiful women and beautiful boats, and I’ve got one of each. I’m a lucky guy.’’
Having spent a few years cruising around Scotland in an old wooden sloop, I am familiar with the elation of catching the wind on foam-flecked waves. But nothing prepares me for the sight of dozens of schooners, ketches and cutters sprinting over the Fyn Rundt start line, all sails set and pennants flying in a glorious kaleidoscope of maritime history.
Our bold skipper is in his element. ‘‘Come on, wind,’’ he cries as we heel into a freshening breeze, leaving a trail of foam in our wake. This is the half-serious bit when helmsmen use every tactic to increase speed, tucking in behind another ship to take advantage of smooth water off its stern, then creeping to windward to ‘ ‘ steal’’ its wind and forge ahead. ‘ ‘ Nothing like a bit of dinghy racing in old fishing boats,’’ David says happily.
The rest of us join in if we like, raising and lowering sails at his command and occasionally put- ting the kettle on. As the race progresses we sight Havgassen, a former eel-catching ketch with an interesting crew. Every one of them, apart from the captain, is either blind or partially sighted. The disabilities are no handicap, because Havgassen eventually finishes second overall in its class.
Our first port of call is Bogense, a small market town with a medieval central square and a long, narrow harbour teeming with sightseers strolling on the quays, admiring our ships and listening to jazz bands.
This is where a Fair Play competition gets under way, which consists of games devised to be as silly as possible. One year a Viking double-axe throwing competition was won by a blind man guided by a remarkably brave woman calling: ‘‘This way, over here.’’
When the crowds and bands have gone, an illusion creeps into the harbour with the night. Murmurs of conversation drift across the decks until the early hours, laughter and snatches of song mingle with the creaking of timbers, and it is as if we have slipped back in time into the pages of, say, a Joseph Conrad novel.
Most passengers are content to eat and sleep aboard the ships, enjoying hearty home-cooked fare and cosy berths, but evenings offer the chance to explore harbour towns where cobblestone squares and medieval buildings are sprinkled with candlelit pubs and restaurants that entice thirsty seadogs.
‘‘There is a feeling for the sea in Denmark,’’ says Anker Lauritsen, chairman of the race association. ‘‘We have a small population and a big coastline, so the sea is never far away. People understand the importance of our maritime heritage. These ships are telling a history, and we like it that way.’’
And the ships around us all have their stories to tell. In World War II, the gaff-rigged schooner Brita Leth rescued 169 Jews from the clutches of the Gestapo in Denmark and sailed them to safety in neutral Sweden.
Its present skipper, a kindly and big-bearded man who renovated the vessel in the 1970s and now sails with youngsters with social and drug problems, sums up the ethos of the fleet: ‘ ‘ All of these ships are founded on individual dreams.’’
The last I heard, Yukon was bound for New Caledonia from Tonga on a world cruise. The dreams live on.
A competitor in the Classic Fyn Rundt, an annual regatta
The race is a week-long celebration of nautical heritage