The first annual Belfast Maritime Festival on the weekend 1st/2nd July laid the foundations for Belfast’s hosting of the Finish of the 2009 Tall Ships Race.
Liverpool’s own Class A1 Square-rigger ZEBU attended the Festival, along with the Square Sail vessels EARL OF PEMBROKE and KASKELOT, Jubilee Sailing Trust’s TENACIOUS, Ireland’s JEANNIE JOHNSTONE, DE GALLANT from Holland, the GRAND TURK and Penzance-registered Baltic Trader RUTH. Liverpool-based traditional naval tender SNOWBIRD accompanied ZEBU. The German Frigate BRANDENBERG and HMS RAMSEY added a modern grey funnel presence, BRANDENBERG hosting the ‘suits-and-speeches’ Reception on Friday night.
ZEBU, crewed by a cross-section of the Mersey Heritage Trust volunteers from teens to 80s who have rebuilt and re-rigged her in recent years, attracted considerable attention. The featured vessel on the Festival website and described in the Belfast Telegraph as “the mighty ZEBU”, she was inundated by media within an hour of her arrival in the Lagan on the morning of 28th June; by the evening we had provided a multiplicity of radio broadcasts, press and TV shoots and hosted the BBC Evening News, all enhancing the good Festival publicity organised by Belfast City Hall. As a result tens of thousands of visitors flooded through the Festival; about 4500 visitors came on board ZEBU alone.
The Lagan River proved an attractive and practical Tall Ships display venue. Recent developments like the Odyssey Leisure Centre and striking new buildings which reflect traditional dockland architecture have turned a disused waterside into an attractive backdrop for High Canvas a stroll away from the City Centre.
Each Tall Ship was escorted in by pilot boats with a push-tug standing by to help her berth, and was allocated a shore-power generator, freshwater mains supply and security personnel. The City took out sections of the River Promenade railings to provide access to each Ship, working with them to establish an effective visitor flow system deploying a few crowd barriers and well-briefed stewards.
Two Music Festivals and a Continental Market were organised to coincide with the Tall Ships visit. Saturday Night featured hot-air balloon and fireworks displays from the Harland & Wolff site where TITANIC, OLYMPIC and NOMADIC were built. ZEBU, enjoying the grandstand view of the show from her own pontoon in adjacent Abercorn Basin, hosted the Captains and Crews party which featured a magnificent traditional music session from Liverpool-based Celtic-jazz fusion duo ‘White Lightning’ with musicians and singers from other Tall Ships jamming along; Wapping Brewery sent over real ales brewed at Liverpool’s Baltic Fleet. (The ZEBU musicians also put in live radio & TV spots, including a rendition of “The Green Fields of France” for the Battle of the Somme Commemorations which, as presenter Candy Devine said, “left not a dry eye in Northern Ireland.”)
Belfast Maritime Festival 2006 was an excellent opening gambit in the complex task of preparing to host a full Tall Ships Race. Yet to come are practicalities like pontoonage for smaller vessels, showers for their crews and large-scale crew entertaining, but the assiduous care taken by Belfast to get every detail right on their first Festival bodes well for the future, and Belfast has immediately become a must-attend Festival for Tall Ships on the Irish Sea summer circuit.
Susan Hanley-Place MBE
Hon. Master of ZEBU, Community Flagship of Liverpool.