The occasion was fraught with dignity and elegance. Of course. How else would the tall ships—those lovely old vessels with skyscraping masts and billowing acres of sail—approach the start of a race from Bermuda to Newport, R.I.? After all, the event had been conceived largely as a ceremonial, a pretty furbelow for the American Bicentennial. Eighteen tall ships from 14 nations moved majestically toward the line.
Then the starter's warning cannon boomed over Hamilton Harbor and, suddenly, what had been a serene 19th century parlor painting turned to glorious chaos. The skippers of these beautiful behemoths began sailing as if they were so many kids in so many dinghies. More than half the fleet bunched up at the windward end of the starting line. There, amid a washday mass of windblown sails and a seemingly impenetrable thicket of masts, the ships both great and small crossed bowsprits, tacked slow-motion through each other's courses, underwent innumerable harrowing near-collisions. Crewmen cursed. Spectators shrieked. The grand green-sailed Libertad of Argentina, all 345 feet of her, glided inexorably through the thickest of the fray, just missing several competitors. Then she and the Spanish Juan Sebastian de Elcano came together in a bizarre, very gra-a-a-dual crash. Elcano lost 60 feet off the top of her 180-foot foremast and was forced to quit the race, sails tattered and rigging tangled and her skipper furious. Libertad had her mainsail ripped, her mizzen torn, but she went on. In the next exuberant minutes at least five other boats were also in collisions—three tall ships and two of the 70-plus smaller vessels also in the race.
By nightfall the melee was far behind and the fleet was stretched over miles of ocean. A day out, the wind died, the sea turned to a glassy calm, the race came to a dead stop. After four windless days, the race was declared over, the Gorch Fock of West Germany was named the winner (though a protest was filed) and the fleet headed for Newport under power. After a week there the tall ships would head toward another memorable scene: New York on the Fourth of July. They were to parade through the Harbor and up the Hudson River, and the incredible expectation was that five million people would watch the gallant beauties massed for probably the last time ever.