Historic ships to sail through North Atlantic waters
The Amerigo Vespucci sails past Fort Monroe at the entrance to Hampton Roads during OpSail 2000 in Norfolk, Virginia. | AP
QUEBEC, CANADA – As the story goes, the training ship Amerigo Vespucci was sailing in the Mediterranean in 1962 when the U.S. aircraft carrier Independence spotted it and radioed: “Who are you?” Came the reply: “School ship Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian Navy.” The Independence answered: “You are the most beautiful ship in the world.”
Tall ships sometimes come with tall tales, and whether that one is true may be lost to history. What’s not in dispute is that the venerable three-masted frigate is a handsome piece of work and just one of dozens of majestic ships that will be sailing North Atlantic waters this summer, visiting ports along the Saint Lawrence River for weeks and gathering en masse in Quebec City July 18-23.
It’s a beauty pageant from the age of sail, a spectacle that brings to mind the parade of “cathedrals of the sea” in New York harbor for America’s bicentennial in 1976.
Early planning may pay off because hotel rooms are likely to be hard to come by close to the event.
The gathering will bring a wallop of European seafaring history to a city already steeped in it. Stone-walled Old Quebec, with its cobbled streets, commanding cliffs and fortifications from the British-French struggle over New France, is the only place the entire fleet of more than 40 ships will rendezvous. The event is a highlight of Canada’s 150th birthday, which is also being celebrated with free entry to all national parks for the year and festivals of every flavor.
Even in normal times, Quebec City vibrantly lives up to its claim, “So Europe, so close,” and it knows how to party.
During the tall ship festivities, the waterfront will be alive with music, street performers and visitors clambering aboard the ships for free tours. Also free: arena performances by the Spanish troupe Xarxa Teatre, a parade of more than 3,000 sailors and even more fireworks than Quebec City usually puts on during the summer.
The bulk of the fleet will be engaged in a five-month-long trans-Atlantic race from Britain to North America to France. Joining them in Quebec City will be more tall ships, based in Boston and the Great Lakes.
Among superstars of Rendez-vous 2017: the U.S. Coast Guard’s Eagle, a cutter built by Nazi Germany and seized by the U.S. as a war prize. It’s the sixth Coast Guard ship to be named Eagle in a line dating to 1792. Germany’s graceful Alexander von Humboldt II, distinguished by 24 green sails, is also on tap. So are El Galeon, replica of the Spanish galleons that for three centuries linked Asia, the Americas and Spain; the reconstructed War of 1812 warship Niagara; the 1928-built Picton Castle barque; and the Peruvian Navy’s four-masted BAP Union.
Both the Eagle and Amerigo Vespucci, built in 1931, were among the 16 or so tall ships that sailed into New York harbor with a vast array of spectator vessels on July 4, 1976. Both returned for the Statue of Liberty centennial in 1986 and the millennium celebrations of 2000.
From Gaspesie inland, the Saint Lawrence provides plenty of opportunities to see scattered contingents of the fleet under sail and at anchor. July 7 and July 9 are the dates to see the fleet under sail from the cliffs of Land’s End in Forillon National Park. The communities of Rimouski, Gaspe, Sept-Iles and Tadoussac, as well as Iles de la Madeleine, are among the prime locations that have activities planned while some of the ships are in port.
Those on the wide river’s south shore are almost guaranteed a backdrop of spectacular sunsets in clear weather.
As well, the racing ships among them are stopping for several days at a time at ports marking each leg of the competition, which begins April 13-16 in the London borough of Royal Greenwich, Britain, and ends Aug. 31-Sept. 3 in Le Havre, France.
Their schedule: April 29-May 1, Sines, Portugal; June 1-5, Bermuda; June 17-22, Boston; and more than 30 Canadian ports, June 30-Aug. 20.
As for the main rendezvous point, Paule Bergeron, speaking for Quebec City Tourism, says the city’s hotels could well be full for the event. With flexible hotel cancellation policies the norms, she said, “you can hardly go wrong by booking early.”