Their masts stood stern and proud against a moody sky, with ropes and rigging sketching out an orderly tangle between the slender columns that give these tall ships their name. Some were decked out in jaunty bunting, others sported creamily elegant sails, some flaunted boldly decorated livery. Clipping along in their frothy wash against a backdrop of the metal and glass encrusted towers of the Docklands, the ships seemed incongruous, as if they had somehow sailed in from centuries past like floating tardises, rather than from modern-day Falmouth.The waterborne trip between the London’s mooring points in the Tall Ships Festival was an exhilarating and slightly disorientating journey through time and space. We whizzed briskly from the graceful, historic waterfront of Greenwich to the futuristic O2. Its eight yellow legs spiked out from its taut white dome as ant-sized people hauled themselves to its summit on ropes, like mountaineers clambering up slopes encased in ice. With the jagged fury of Anthony Gormley’s Quantum Cloud sculpture out front, the structure-formerly-known-as The Millennium Dome was the epitome of sci-fi cool. Then it was on through the high tech Thames Barrier, its squat steel gates gleaming like miniature riverine versions of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum and out to the deepwater dock at Woolwich.
As we clipped along, sailing ships and even paddle steamers from days gone by and originating from harbours in a range of countries, including India, Russia, Denmark and The Netherlands, as well as the UK, drifted past. At the same time, planes from the neighbouring City Airport roared above stacked containers on the Thames’ banks, sporting the logos of international companies like China Global Shipping. The reality of the global world we live in was clearly visible in this brief river journey in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. At first glance it seems far-removed from the world in which sailing ships were the only form of trans-oceanic travel. And yet while there has clearly been an enormous leap over the last four or five decades in our speed of travel, our channels of communication and the degree of interconnectivity in which we are enmeshed, international exploration, maritime trade and naval warfare was thriving in Europe as far back as the 1400s – and much earlier than that in other parts of the world. The European ‘Age of Sail’ mostly coincided with the Age of Discovery, spanning the period from the 15th to the 18th centuries*.
So what at first seemed a jarring, if fascinating, juxtaposition of different eras in time may in fact be more symbolic of continuity over the centuries, illustrative of people’s eternal thirst for exploration and exchange across boundaries. Either way, at £5 for an all-day, hop-on hop-off boat ticket, Thames Clipper’s special service between the tall ship sites was London’s biggest bargain last weekend!
* From Wikipedia