Lock-down leads to break-out. I hadn’t heard from Graham Diamond in years. But a pre-coronavirus DBOGA talk in Poolbeg Yacht Club in January by Peter Lyons and Stu Spence of Strangford Lough about racing the latter’s 34ft 1910-built Vilia as the smallest boat in the 1991 Cork-Belfast Tall Ships Race had jogged memories of doing the same race aboard the restored 1921-vintage 77ft Lowestoft trawler ketch Excelsior.
And now Graham Diamond, watch leader and ace ship’s cook on the same vessel for the season of 1991 under the command of Rob Bassi of Belfast, has been in touch out of the blue from Trinidad. He’s been Caribbean-based since 1992, and earns a crust doing – among other things - yacht deliveries, the last one before the clamp-down being a New York to Trinidad hop starting in November with a Frers 38, which sounds a very attractive type and size of boat, whatever about the time of year for sailing from New York to Trinidad.
However, these days the only deliveries anyone is concerned about on either side of the Atlantic are from the few neighbourhood core supplier still allowed to operate, while online trade is rampant. But in cyber-space, people are sailing everywhere with shipmates old and new in boats of all types and sizes, and thanks to the September/October 1991 Afloat, we can wallow in the report of the doings of the Tall Ships in the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Races of 1991, for in those somehow sweetly innocent days, nobody thought it all odd that a booze company should be very actively sponsoring sport for young people.
Looking back, the 1990s were probably peak time for the Tall Ships and Sail Training movement. Certainly, the enthusiasm in Cork and Belfast was infectious, and something like 90 vessels of all shapes and sizes – including some very big ones – took part.
For the life of me I can’t remember how I came to be aboard Excelsior. But in those pre-internet-dominant days, I was churning out the merchandisable nautical verbiage for at least half a dozen regularly-printed publications, and the machinery consumption was one Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter worked to death about every eighteen months. The first sign of typewriter mortality would come when the carriage – having been flicked across at the end of a line – simply continued to fly across the room, trailing typing ribbon behind it.
This meant there always had to be a replacement typewriter in the work-room cupboard, but at least regular deadlines and specific publication dates punctuated the working week, and you could plan to go off and do things on the sea with ships large and small.
Consequently, on this gentle July morning, I found myself ambling (with rolling gait, of course) along the crowded, sailing-ship-packed quays of Cork with the kit-bag over the shoulder (I’m not making this up), wondering did I dare ask people to call me Ishmael. And after heaving the gear aboard Excelsior and barely having time to savour her Stockholm tar aroma of authenticity, we were away for the high seas, and on towards the low and high life of Belfast, with Ireland’s own Captain Tom McCarthy and Asgard II as flagship.
As it happened, our crew on Excelsior seemed mostly to be from some posh English girls school, all with names like Annabelle or Fiona or Sally, nice gels whose strongest oath within earshot of the afterguard was “Oh Gosh”. Maybe they swore like troopers among themselves, but they were perfectly charming when serving up the superb food which Graham somehow found the time to create in the workmanlike galley, and on deck they were gallant at every task set, quickly learning that a proper tackle led from the rail is the only way to control a tiller which extends from here to the middle of next week.
Unfortunately, in order to preserve the back numbers of Afloat and its direct predecessors, I’ve had them neatly but rather tightly bound in one volume for each year. This has certainly kept them together, but we can’t get a full scan of the pages without breaking the binding, so you’ll have to guess some of what’s in this almost-three-decades-ago account from Afloat Magazine, Sept/Oct 1991.
Sufficient to say that while Excelsior was a flyer on a reach, too much of that race was dead downwind for her to be at her best, and though we came zooming past the South Rock in the final stages in a rising sou’easter going like a train, it wasn’t enough to get us into the frame. But as the Massachusetts whaling skipper said after going clean round the world without seeing so much as one whale, let alone catching any, at least we had one helluva fine sail….
Afterwards, having helped the citizens of Belfast to drink their hospitable town dry, the fleet raced on west of Scotland and eventually to the finale in Delfzijl in The Netherlands where – after all the routine prizes had been given out – the high point came with the mystery award of the Cutty Sark Trophy for the ship and crew which had best embodied the ideals and spirit of the Tall Ships Movement. It went to Captain Tom McCarthy and Asgard II. Things just don’t get better than that.