Coast KZN

24 Aug 2018

Natural beauty of the age of sail

Terry Hutson (the Mercury) Picture: The Polish sailing training ship Dar Mlodziezy. The ship with 250 crew, cadets and passengers called at Cape Town last week while on a round-the-world cruise to commemorate the centenary of Poland achieving its independence. (Photo: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency-ANA)

The arrival of a Polish three-masted sailing training ship bearing a difficult-to-pronounce name created more than a stir in Cape Town last week.

Dar Mlodziezy, which according to Wikipedia means “Gift of the Youth”, is on a round-the world voyage travelling from west to east. Cape Town was her only South African call and even then it was of short duration, with the ship arriving last Wednesday and sailing on Friday bound for Madagascar and Mauritius.

The purpose of the cruise is to mark the hundred years since Poland achieved its independence in 1918 and on board was a complement of 250 people including 60 cadets.

The cruise will end next March when the ship returns to her Polish home port of Gydnia.

Sailing ships are not generally large vessels. Dar Mlodziezy is one of the bigger ones at 108m in length overall and 12m wide, giving her a long thin pencil-like shape suited for cutting through the water. Her sail plan is that of a full-rigged ship with a sail area of just over 3 000 square metres (32 500 sq ft in the old parlance).

As with most sailing ships today, especially those built in the early 1980s, she comes with main engines for those times when sail is not enough. This gives her a feasible speed of 12 knots with her engines and/or a maximum of 16 knots under full sail.

Dar Mlodziezy was built at the Gdansk Shipyard in Poland, where they build good, strong ships. She was the first of a series of six similar ships – the others being for the former Soviet merchant fleet which now sail under the Russian flag. Dar Mlodziezy was commissioned in 1982.

Her working crew numbers 40 together with up to 136 cadets – less than half of the cadets are on this particular voyage. The ship has already completed a circumference voyage in 1987-88.

While in Cape Town, the Polish community made sure she and her crew were welcome and commemorations were held not only for Poland’s independence centennial but also to mark the hundred years since the birth of former President Nelson Mandela.

Visits by sailing ships, even modern vessels built of steel and wood, are rare in South Africa – though Cape Town, being close to the tip of Africa, sees more than any other port.

Mention was made of the size of sailing ships. Thanks to Hollywood and the movies, as well as clever photography, one is left with the impression of them being really huge ships, whereas some, such as HMS Victory which was planned in the mid-1700s as a “large” 104-gun ship, was only 69m long with a beam of 15m.

The well-known tea clippers, those greyhounds of the mid-19th Century that would race to be the first back in Europe with tea loaded in China, were also not huge ships – the Cutty Sark, which is best-known, was also 69m in length but with a narrow beam of less than 11m, similar to the Polish vessel.

What always seems amazing, however, is the size, or perhaps that should be lack of size, of the East Indiamen and other types that sailed our coast and of which so many came to grief hereabouts.

All of these were in the region of between 35m and 55m long yet these ships which could take three months and more to do the voyage from England or Holland to South Africa carried hundreds of passengers and crew together with livestock and cargo including household furniture.

Where did they put everyone?

The Arniston, after which the small village in the Southern Cape is named, was just 55m long yet was carrying 378 people when she was wrecked in 1815; but maybe the most amazing was the Portuguese ship Sao Joao, which famously came to her end near Port Edward.

The carrack was said to have been the largest ship then in service with Portugal or any European nation. Carracks did not reach beyond 45m in length but Sao Joao was carrying an unbelievable 600 people on board, including ranks from the noblemen and their wives and family to servants and slaves and a rich cargo of pepper, porcelain, beads, tapestries and various other items.

The ship was returning to Portugal when she went aground on the rocks of the southern KZN coast in 1552.

The survivors numbering about 500 set off along the beaches to walk to Delagoa Bay (Maputo) in search of another ship, but only 21 survived the journey.

To provide some perspective, the tugs you see in our harbours have an overall length of around 30m, give or take a metre, depending on which tug.

In the Durban Maritime Museum is a former steam tug, JR More, which is a mammoth 53m long as she was designed for salvage work in addition to harbour tugging.

So the arrival of a 108m-long sailing ship like Dar Mlodziezy was certainly worth a second look if only because of her sheer size but also the natural beauty of these ships of the age of sail.