All the Fyn of the sailing fair

A clas­sic re­gatta in Den­mark cel­e­brates old wooden ves­sels

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - GAVIN BELL

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.

PIC­TURES: GAVIN BELL

A com­peti­tor in the Clas­sic Fyn Rundt, an an­nual re­gatta

The race is a week-long cel­e­bra­tion of nau­ti­cal her­itage

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