Dream boats

Dream boats

Beautiful craft, adventure and the dram. What else is there? Cutty Sark have the perfect recipe, reports Brian Hennigan

Travel 16 Dec 1999 | Interviews | By Brian Hennigan

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Events don't come much bigger than The Cutty Sark Tall Ships' Race. Over five million people are attracted to the ports where the race makes a call. That five million represents the live audience and excludes all those who watch it on TV. This is the world's largest international annual sailing event and the longest running sports sponsorship. Yet for all these facts nothing compares to the sheer scale of it all which is why so many witness it in person.This year's race (in reality a series) started in the French Channel port of St Malo, before heading for Greenock, Scotland then on to Lerwick in the Shetland Isles, finishing in Aalborg in Denmark, a total of 1,380 nautical miles.Greenock is a post-industrial town just south of Glasgow. Like many coastal towns it had applied to be considered as a host port about four years before. Over 80 ships, in a variety of styles and traditions, arrived there for a four-day extravaganza, the likes of which had not been seen on the river Clyde for many a year. Over a mile of waterfront was two or three deep with vessels; a staggering display of colour and craftsmanship. Over 500,000 people poured in to enjoy in the prolonged carnival that followed. For Greenock, this was the crowning achievement of a £60 million redevelopment of the area, with over £2 million being invested in the event itself.But what has all this got to do with whisky? For the blenders of Cutty Sark, an awful lot. Cutty Sark literally means ‘short skirt’ – a term made famous by Scottish poet Robert Burns who gave the name to an attractive but scantily clad young witch in his poem Tam O’Shanter. Cutty Sark whisky was conceived over a lunchtime conversation on 20 March, 1923, between the partners of a London wine merchants, Berry Bros & Co, and the Scottish artist, James McBey. Prohibition had been introduced in the US three years previously, and the partners were planning to design a light blend for the US market. It was McBey who suggested the name, after the famous Dumbarton-built clipper (the fastest ship of her day) which had recently returned to England after many years of serving under the Portuguese flag. He also offered to design the label, which remains the same today right down to the hand-drawn letters and the unique description ‘Scots’ rather than ‘Scotch’ whisky. Only the colour is different: McBey wanted a cream background and the distinctive canary yellow was a printer’s error which was retained.Fast forward to 1972. The attention of the Berry Bros & Rudd directors is drawn to the plight of the Tall Ships' Race, which is in danger of collapse due to a shortage of funds. One can almost picture the directors instinctively recognising the international character of the races and their contribution to worldwide understanding and goodwill among young people. One can also picture the head of marketing looking at some publicity shots, comparing it to their own label and shouting "Snap! Snap!" Since that day, Cutty Sark has been working with the International Sail Training Association (ISTA), under its patron, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, developing the Tall Ships' Race. No one can deny in sponsorship terms the Cutty Sark Tall Ships' Race has few rivals for either scale or depth. All concerned have worked to ensure that, over the years, it has become so much more than a simple "where do we put the logo?" affair. Every year about 3,000 trainees get the opportunity to work and live together in friendly competition with people of all nationalities and backgrounds. The rules of the races remain geared to ensuring a high degree of participation from young people. At least half the crew must be aged between 16 and 25.Furthermore, in terms of attracting the fickle youth market to whisky, there is no doubt that the sea holds a lure of adventure that is difficult to match elsewhere. A particularly high degree of risk can be encountered during a force nine gale. Similarly, from a corporate hospitality point of view, something happens to people's moods on a boat. The sponsors are able to tap into it locally in each port, it creates great conditions in which to hold meetings, greetings and public relations activities. For most people it feels like being taken back to a home you never knew you had. For the nervous few, though, it is like being placed inside a spin dryer.Bobbing around on the Clyde as we did that day in Greenock, it is easy to see why Cutty Sark has worked so hard. After all some 50 per cent of the entire Cutty Sark public relations budget for the year is devoted to guaranteeing its success. Thankfully, there was no wind to ruin our day, otherwise we might have been forced to do some real sailing. No, bobbing is surely what the sea was intended for. Not that this distracted everyone from the serious business of selling whisky.The ship itself, the world's largest brigantine at 61 metres, was built in 1993 at the behest of her owner and captain, Dutchman Willem Sligting. Willem started sailing when he was five, and is now proud to command what is the longest sailing vessel under the Dutch flag. He had planned to go to university, but went instead to the Ivory Coast (an easy mistake to make), returning to work on a barge, then gradually progressing to command the magnificent ship that he himself helped design, specifically for participation in the Tall Ships' Race. It is now used mostly for company charters when team building and similar management training activities take place. This 'corporate bobbing' as it is officially termed, costs about £22,000. Professionally crewed by fellow Dutchmen, the Greenock leg was augmented with American, French, Korean and Uruguayan trainees, who were soon drilled in the names of the numerous sails such as inner jib, gaff top sail and fly by night. The minimum length of ship which can take part is 9.14 metres and, although there is no maximum, the longest competitor to date stretches 150 metres. The ISTA's rating system enables different types of ship to race together, all with an equal chance of winning. The sponsors' impartial assurance comes in the form of the important prize, the Cutty Sark Trophy, which is awarded to those vessels and crew judged to have contributed the most towards international understanding and friendship. Past winners have hailed from countries as disparate as Venezuela and Sweden. It is not altogether clear what type of activity is likely to contribute to winning this particular prize, although acts such as ramming and hostile boarding are unlikely to count in your favour. Given that the judges are the captains and crews of all the vessels, it would probably be advisable to be polite and/or hold lots of parties.Despite the social distractions there is no escaping the awesome fleet of ships with their tall masts, which define the event. They descend on the port overnight, dominating all activity. As a striking visual occasion it is hard to beat. And now that the original 19th century clipper, Cutty Sark, is laid up at Greenwich, the races are able to take the Cutty Sark image around the world. So, through the unique combination of spirited derring-do with the sense of heritage and noble tradition, the race fulfils its aim of communicating to adventurous, upbeat people. For the year 2000, it is bound for Gdansk, Helsinki, Stockholm and Flensburg. If you can, make a date to witness one of the world's greatest sporting spectacles.
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