A tall ship and a star to steer her by: Michael Fathers reports from Liverpool

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The Independent Online
I AM STANDING on the Albert Dock in Liverpool looking west down the River Mersey towards the Irish Sea as the sun comes up. In front of me are the great buildings that everyone who crossed the Atlantic saw last when their ship pulled out from England.

The sun picks up the twin towers of the Royal Liver Building with its two liver birds on top. In front is the Cunard building, a huge granite pile, built to last like the firm's ships and with neat, clean lines and no waste space. In front again is the Liverpool Port Authority building, an edifice built on a scale similar to St Paul's cathedral in London.

I say to the guard on the dock that the view reminds me of the Bund in Shanghai, he says he doesn't know about Shanghai but there is a Chinatown in Liverpool across from Chevasse Park.

At the pier beside these buildings where the transatlantic liners docked a four-masted Spanish brigantine, the Juan Sebastian de Elcano, lies. Its rigging is garlanded with bunting, its crew swab the decks. A reception and dance were held on board two nights ago. On Friday the King and Queen of Spain paid it a visit. Yesterday its crew marched through the streets of Liverpool to St George's Hall, another great relic from Liverpool's former prosperous status as the Empire's second city.

For the past week Liverpool has been host to 76 of the world's biggest sailing ships. They come from everywhere. They sailed across the Atlantic from North America on the last leg of the Grand Regatta Columbus to mark the 500th anniversary of old Christopher's discovery. They began three months ago in Cadiz.

The fleet sails down the Mersey today, does a huge figure of eight and disperses, each vessel heading into the open sea for its home port. For most of those who will be watching the river parade, it will be as if the past on land and sea has come together.

'You could say the whole of the north of England is one big nostalgia area,' a 38-year-old unemployed engineer called Bill told me. 'We have more listed buildings in Liverpool than anywhere else and every other one is a museum or art gallery.'

He might had added, but didn't, that the great shipping and trading firms that occupied the buildings along the Mersey have all moved on. Cunard left its building several years ago, hanging on, I suspect, only for nostalgia because the Atlantic trade is no more.

It is the nostalgia factor that seems to bring out the crowds. And what crowds. They were six deep by early afternoon around the Albert Dock. They came from all over the North and as far as Wales.

Janice and Philip Power from Wigan were rooting around the Albert Dock with me before heading across the water to the Vittoria Docks in Birkenhead where the biggest of the tall ships were tied up. 'It's the technology and the romance of sail, isn't it?' they said. If there was a phrase which I came to loathe during the day it was 'the romance of sail'.

'It's a once in a lifetime thing,' Tom and Jane from Chester said. 'We came for the kids. It's a bit of romance. Where else could you see so many ships? And the setting. Lovely, isn't it?'

I got romance and nostalgia again from Mr Chapman of Preston, Mr Twist of Liverpool, Mrs Higgins from Cheshire, Mr Hinley from Shropshire, Mr and Mrs Jones from Birmingham and so on and so on. After a while I gave up asking until I met Juliette, 24, and Ruth, 31, of Liverpool.

Juliette was in a pair of tight shorts. She was eating an ice cream and told me she was one of only two women motorcycle couriers in Liverpool. She also told me she was a lesbian, but she wasn't sure if Ruth was one. Ruth didn't offer to tell me and I didn't ask.

They both said they came for the uniforms. They were old softies really and admitted the ships were truly beautiful. But they found the commemoration of Christopher Columbus's landing in the new world 'quite revolting'.

Ruth said he was a murderer and wondered why there were not blacks on the dockside. I hoped they stayed on for the march past. They would have seen some among the crew of the Portuguese and Argentinian ships.

Across the river at Vittoria Docks, the Russians were living up to Liverpool's reputation as a great trading city. Some of the crew had set up stalls on the docks selling their military medals, home-made trinkets and braid from their uniforms. People were buying.

The Poles, another great trading nation fallen on hard times, merely announced when they arrived after crossing the Atlantic that they were running short of food. First they wanted tinned food. After a few days the appeal went out for fresh meat and veg.

The generous Liverpudlians coughed up without question. The ships had brought glamour back to their city.

'It's just like the war years. I don't think I've seen so many foreign sailors in town since then,' Mrs O'Shaughnessy from the Wirral said as we queued for an ice cream. 'It's so nostalgic, isn't it, and so romantic.' she added.

(Photograph omitted)