The idea of an international race for sail training ships, manned by crews drawn from cadets and seamen under training, was first discussed informally in 1953. Retired London Solicitor, Bernard Morgan, had the dream of seeing a Brotherhood of the Sea, which would bring together the youth of the world’s seafaring people in friendly competition. He believed this would be a fitting way to mark what was considered to be the end of the age of sail. The idea found particular favour with the Portuguese Ambassador to the UK, Dr Pedro Theotónio Pereira, who believed that a race could foster good relations and understanding between young people of different countries.
The more Morgan and Pereira talked about the idea, the more sympathetic ears they found, firing the imaginations of many, including in Britain Earl Mountbatten, the First Sea Lord, and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh. The Sail Training International Race Committee was established and plans were made for a race between Torbay in the UK and Lisbon in Portugal in July 1956.
Twenty vessels took part in that first race, divided into two classes, those over 100 tons and those under.
The over 100 tons were: Moyana (UK), Christian Radich (Norway), Ruyam (Turkey), Falken (Sweden), Maybe (Netherlands), Gladan (Sweden), Flying Clipper (Sweden), Creole (UK), Sørlandet (Norway), Georg Stage (Denmark), Sagres (Portugal), Mercator (Belgium).
The ships under 100 tons were: Artica II (Italy), Juana (Argentina), Sereine (France), Marabu (UK), Bellatrix (Portugal), Theodora (UK), Provident (UK) and Berenice (UK).
The Argentinean yacht Juana was the first across the finishing line, but on corrected time – racing systems were around even then – the British Moyana was the winner overall, beating the Norwegian Christian Radich into second place.
Disaster struck on the way back to Southampton, however, when Moyana got into difficulties in a storm and sank. All 23 officers and crew were taken off safely and they even had the presence of mind to take their winning trophy off with them!
That first race was only planned to be a one-off, but it attracted such huge press coverage, particularly in the countries of the vessels taking part, that the Committee decided to repeat the event in 1958 and thereafter every second year. So the Sail Training International Race Committee became a permanent body, changing over the years through its incarnations as STA, ISTA and finally back to its roots as Sail Training International today.
The race series typically attracts 70-100 sail training vessels, providing an opportunity for the young trainee crews to mix with their contemporaries from other nations and visit new communities. The Tall Ships Races are held every summer in European waters, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean.
The Races usually comprise four ports with a race between port one and two, a social Cruise-in-Company between Ports two and three and a second race between ports three and four. Each port organises a programme of social, sports and cultural events and activities for the trainee crews. The final day in port includes a crew parade through the streets and a prize-giving. The arrival of the ships, berthing, undocking and the Parade of Sail are all handled by each port’s harbourmaster, while a system of volunteer liaison officers, organised by local people, look after each vessel and its crew.