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Tall Ships: Sail of the century as thousands welcome masters of the seas to Belfast

By Ivan Little

Organisers of Belfast's Tall Ships Festival were yesterday hailing it as the biggest show that Northern Ireland had ever hosted, with predictions that upwards of one million people will eventually see the majestic masters of the seas.

And from the moment that the carnival officially laid anchor in Belfast at noon yesterday it was clear that the guesstimates about the pulling power of the Tall Ships probably won't turn out to be a tall story.

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"If this is a quiet Thursday then God help us when Saturday and Sunday roll around," said one policeman as tens of thousands surged like a huge tide of humanity around the Odyssey Arena and the Pollock Dock across the way.

And the buzz they created was the perfect illustration that this weekend Belfast really is in for the maritime of its life.

Down the lough in Holywood at breakfast time it was very much the calm before the storm in the port as curious early-birds caught sight of the last of the 50 Tall Ships easing their way through sleepy waters which were like a millpond under a sunny sky.

Pensioners Mary and Denis Pollock from east Belfast tucked into brunch on their picnic table complete with a gingham tablecloth in a loughside park.

"We thought we might have got to watch more ships but we've seen a few. We didn't fancy pushing our way through the crowds in Belfast," said Denis.

Another man had travelled down on the train from Belfast to marvel at the ships travelling up Belfast Lough "I wish they had their sails up but it's still an amazing sight," said John Turner from Ballysillan.

Just hours earlier, some of the Tall Ships were dwarfed as they swept past the gigantic Royal Princess cruise ship, which was docked in Belfast Harbour.

In a bizarrely surreal scenario, one of the few passengers still on board the cruise liner ignored the elegant craft below him and instead continued to play a violin on his balcony, one of the only occasions when the Tall Ships have played second fiddle to anyone or anything.

Everywhere else Belfast opened its harbour and its welcoming arms to the Tall Ships for the third time in 24 years.

But how different it all was to that first ground-breaking - or wave-making - visit in 1991

Bangor woman Marlene Rainey was in Belfast nearly a quarter-of-a-century ago.

"There were only a few Tall Ships here back then. And they were all able to be accommodated in the Pollock Dock," she said as she joined her friends Sharon McCartney and Vera Milling on a free shuttle bus between the two main Tall Ships venues. "It's a wee bit bigger now."

Indeed it is. And even the festival of 2009 was much smaller than this year's event in which twice as many class A ships and twice as many vessels overall are now lining virtually every available inch of space on the quaysides.

"Having more Tall Ships attracts a plethora of other boats and small ships, so it's quite a spectacle. It's actually like theatre for four days. And Belfast really unites like it rarely gets the chance to do," said one official as the city braces itself for a swift return to the same old tensions over the Twelfth of July.

But it just isn't the scale of the festival that has changed.

The chairman of Belfast Tall Ships 2015 Dr Gerard O'Hare said: "The whole Belfast urban-scape is dramatically different. Back in 1991 there was no Titanic Belfast, no Odyssey, no Obel building and few of the other commercial developments had arrived yet along the docks."

And of course 24 years ago there was no peace and no one would have imagined that a republican would be the Lord Mayor of Belfast.

Yesterday, however, it was Sinn Fein's Arder Carson who declared the Tall Ships Festival open, but at one point there were fears that the conflict of the past had come back to haunt us as a man squared up to the first citizen at the Pollock Dock.

"Are you the Lord Mayor?" he asked him. "Yes," replied Mr Carson and the man said: "Thanks for laying a wreath at the Cenotaph yesterday for the Somme soldiers. Both my grandfathers fought in the First World War. Good on you." Mr Carson told me the sea was in his blood thanks to his father's background in the Merchant Navy.

He said: "I'm not claiming to be Popeye but I do have a wee bit of maritime history in me. And I am really chuffed to see what has been going on in Belfast today and the vibes are really fantastic."

The Lord Mayor had just stepped off an Ecuadorian naval ship, the Bucque Escuela Guayas, which was by far the most popular of all the vessels in Belfast with hundreds of people queuing up for tours.

And if there were any doubts that all the nice girls really do love a sailor, they were well and truly shattered by the near hysterical female response to nine Brazilian sailors from their ship the Cisne Branco who went walkabout around the Odyssey.

"They're really clean and well-turned out. They're gorgeous," said one mature Belfast woman who really ought to have known better.

Captain Denilson Noga, the Brazilian naval attache in London, was impressed by the atmosphere in Belfast. "The people here have been wonderful, very friendly," he said. And the crew said the reaction had made their tiring two month trip across the Atlantic worthwhile.

The Dutch sailors on board their naval ship the Urania also turned the ladies' heads both literally and emotionally. But the Tall Ships and their handsome crew weren't the only attractions.

Everywhere you turned, if you could turn, there were beer tents, food stalls and merchandising outlets and in one huge marquee, TV personality Pamela Ballantine was hosting cookery demonstrations.

Alternating on the stage with her and the province's top chefs like Dean Coppard from Armagh and Ian Orr from Londonderry was a children's storyteller, whose first audiences amounted to just one ice cream scoffing tot in a buggy, but happily the crowds did increase.

Actor Gerard Jordan-Quinn, who starred as a policeman in the hit TV series The Fall, entertained more mature audiences with a theatrical piece about Thomas Patrick Dillon, a crewman who survived the Titanic sinking and another actor from the Kabosh theatre company, Stephen Beggs, performed a short play about the Harland and Wolff vessel's sister ship the Olympic.

One of the first arrivals at the Odyssey to see the Tall Ships was Hazel Burrows from north Belfast. "I was here six years ago in 2009 but there seem to be even more ships this time and I will be back again over the weekend to visit them," she said.

But not everyone was on board with getting on board. Stanley Allister from Carnmoney said: "It's very interesting to see so many of these towering ships. But I haven't gone on any of them. To me they're a bit like the Giant's Causeway, they're worth seeing but not worthy going to see. I would rather walk around them than to go up the gangway."

Joy Craig and her children Paige, James and Alex were much more enthusiastic. "The ships are awesome," said a breathless Paige. "I can't believe they are so big and so beautiful."

Joy said: "It is tremendous that they have so much for the children this year. They are really happy but tired."

At the opening ceremony yesterday afternoon, Dr O'Hare echoed claims from Stormont that the Tall Ships could generate up to £5m for the Northern Irish economy.

Others, however, have estimated that the overall benefit could be three times higher with 40,000 visitors scheduled to come to Belfast.

Dr O'Hare said that as well as the half-million local visitors expected at Belfast Harbour during the festival it's anticipated that a similar number will see the Tall Ships as they journey to the north coast for the start of the race proper from Portrush to Norway.

Knutt Weston, the Norwegian chairman of Sea Training International, who are in charge of the Tall Ship races, made a passionate speech about how well Belfast had risen to the challenge of staging the maritime festival this year and in the past.

But ironically his words about the welcome on and off the water were drowned out from the air - by a PSNI helicopter hovering overhead.

He later told me that Belfast's reputation as a host city in previous years was second to none. "And I can already sense that the festival is going well and that people are having a great time," he said.

Mr Weston said the most important thing about the Tall Ships race for him was its ethos and how it helped to transform the lives of the young people who joined the vessels to learn seafaring skills.

Looking to the future, Mr Weston said there was every chance that the Tall Ships could come back to Belfast. "There is a four-year cycle in these waters," he said. "If people here are interested in the ships returning they are welcome to bid, but I can't promise anything of course."

Given the size of yesterday's crowds and the enthusiasm, it would seem inevitable that Belfast will try to tempt the Tall Ships on a return voyage.

Dr O'Hare said: " I think it is something we will want again. The one thing that Northern Ireland in general and Belfast in particular have proved is that we can run events to a European and indeed global standard.

"We are sending out great pictures across the world and this is about Belfast becoming the modern European city that we want it to be."

Dr O'Hare revealed that he and his predecessor Lord Glentoran, who will visit the festival over the weekend, are hopeful there will be a Tall Ship here on a more permanent basis before too long.

"Both of us are on a campaign to have a sail training Tall Ship for Ireland north and south because we don't have one at the moment," he said.

Race director Paul Bishop said he believed Belfast's maritime heritage had played a pivotal role in making the city so welcoming to the Tall Ships.

"All the ships' crews and the trainees really love Belfast," he added.

Yesterday it was patently obvious that the feeling was mutual.

Belfast Telegraph

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