It’s not rare for people to confuse our magazine with a publication that is about boats, which is of course completely understandable. To be honest until we started Boat Magazine (which is about the culture of cities – not boats, or yachts, or sailing), I was totally unaware of the vast population of boaties out there in the world. I have learned about this, however, by watching our Twitter follower count rise with the addition of marinas, boat publications, sailing clubs, and boat obsessives and subsequently fall when they realize we tweet more about places and food and people than we do about their favorite pastime. And so, when I was invited by the Portuguese National Tourist Office and the Lisbon Tourist Office to visit Lisbon over the weekend of the Tall Ships Race 2012, I thought it might be another mistake.
Thankfully an email admitting that they’d sent the invitation to the wrong person never turned up and when I arrived in Lisbon to cover the Tall Ships Race, I realized why. The culture and life of Lisbon cannot be separated from the water, even boats. In the back of my head names of ancient explorers all linked to Portugal rang out; Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus and with the city and adjacent towns stretching out along the Tagus River down to the Atlantic Ocean, it’s the along the edge of Lisbon, where it meets the water, that the city’s heart beats.
Straight off the plane, an easy 2.5 hour flight from London, I got caught up in the chaos of a parade. The young crews of all the ships, donned in their uniforms (or in fancy dress in the case of the British), held signs that bore the name of their ship and home country. They were noisily plowing through the streets of Lisbon proud of the gorgeous vessels they arrived on and no doubt of the feat it is to sail them. While most of their enthusiasm was probably down to the fact that half of the crew on each ship is required to be between the ages of 15 and 25 years old, I’m sure it was further encouraged by the sun-drenched backdrop that is gorgeous Lisbon and the party atmosphere that starts to bubble up as the sun goes down.
The main endeavor of the Tall Ships Race is to encourage youth to get out on the water and catch the sailing fever. The races happen yearly and are put on by Sail Training International, an organization that brings people together ‘regardless of nationality, culture, religion, gender, or social background’ all united in their love and curiosity of boats and the open water. They have members and branches all over the world and are very clear about the fact that anyone can join the race whether it’s your first time on a boat, or you’re already an avid sailor, whether you aim to make a career out of it or just a holiday. They are all about bringing people together and what better place than on some of the biggest, most beautiful works of art I’ve ever seen?
After sailing from Saint Malo, France the vessels stopped over in Lisbon for the weekend. Anchored in Santa Apolónia Port, it felt like the majority of Lisbon wandered down the hills of the city to see the enormous ships. Most of them were open for the public to wander around on and you could get lost on the different decks, staring up at the enormous sails, and the seemingly endless expanse of ropes and fixtures. I know next to nothing about boats but standing on some of those ships is as close as I’ve come to wanting to learn. If it weren’t for my being plagued with seasickness, I’d have bought my way onto the second leg of the race from Lisbon to Cadiz, Spain. The ships were magical, like something I would have read about in a storybook as a child or seen in a beautiful but haunting photograph of a sunken one that’s believed to have a hidden treasure buried with it. They were like huge, yet intricate works of art, romantic and daunting all at once.
On the final day of their rest in Lisbon, I was lucky enough to go out on the river in a small boat and watch up close as the crew members lowered the sails and directed the bow of these gorgeous vessels towards Cadiz, Spain. It was genuinely breathtaking and based on the crowd of people that lined the edge of Lisbon, it was an exciting moment for the city, as well.
Sagres III was obviously the favorite ship, an intimidating but elegant three-masted white beauty that belongs to Portugal. The tallest mast rises 42 metres above the deck and has 22 inconceivably huge sails. It was surreal to watch the crew unfurl them revealing the red Cross of Christ on each one, evoking the pride and glory of the Age of Discovery which Portugal was front and center of. Like standing in front of any monument or statue that stands for the achievement of a nation, it was an amazing experience.
I watched as the huge ships left the Tagus River and disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean. A few hours later on my flight back to London, I wondered if it’s a general characteristic of Lisbon to suck you into its sunny tangled streets, give you a little taste of something you are in danger of becoming obsessed with (for some it’s the pastries, for me it was boats), and leave you just a bit in awe of the country that usually sits in the shadows of its neighbors.
TAP Portugal, British Airways, and EasyJet all fly regularly to Lisbon. See individual websites for details.
Words and photos by Erin Spens