Liverpool bids farewell as Columbus armada sets sail: Oliver Gillie reports on a spectacular day of nostalgia as 73 ships leave for home

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THE WIND came from the West - not favourable for sailing vessels leaving the Mersey, but everything else was perfect yesterday for the departure of the tall ships. The sun was bright, the sky clear with picture-book clouds, and the breeze was steady.

The flagship of the 73-strong fleet, the Juan Sebastian de Elcarno, was the first to shake out her sails at 2pm as the tide began to ebb. Rigged as a barquentine, she was able to set most of her canvas. As she set off, a fire ship saluted her with pumps spraying arcs of water into the air, and when she passed New Brighton, heading for the open sea, she was greeted by cannon from Fort Perch Rock, followed by another salute from HMS Brazen.

Following the Juan Sebastian came Mir, from St Petersburg, a full- rigged ship carrying only four small stay-sails. Without her engines or a tug she would never have left the Mersey.

More than a million sightseers watched from areas including the Albert Dock and the promenade at New Brighton, areas rebuilt by the Merseyside Development Corporation who, together with the local authorities, have sponsored the return of the tall ships. The corporation engineered a day of pure nostalgia; Spitfires, Hurricanes and a Catalina sea plane flew past, adding wartime memories to the romance of sail.

The Libertad, another full- rigged ship unable to use the wind to advantage, passed by at 3pm. She had all her 10 stay-sails set, and her spanker at the stern, but her square sails remained furled. Only the Alexander von Humboldt, a German barque, managed to get her square sails set. She attempted a tack across the channel from Birkenhead towards Liverpool and found herself set on a collision course with the large Colombian three-master, Arc Gloria, which was under engine. Sail has right of way but even so Alexander von Humboldt appeared for a moment to be courting disaster.

It has been many years since the Mersey has seen so many ships or the city so many sailors. Tugs stood by to see the tall ships safely out of the channel. The tide, about six knots, together with a force 4-5 wind, was more than some seemed to be prepared for. It caught the Russian barque Sedov, the largest sailing ship still afloat, 417ft (127m) long, carrying towards a cruise liner anchored at the side of the channel before a late turn to port took her back on course.

Nevertheless, it was a parade of glory which recapitulated the history of man on the oceans. The Russian Kruzenshtern was among the fleet, a genuine old windjammer built in 1926 and now used to train fishery officers in the CIS. The Kruzenshtern, a majestic 374ft (114m) long, is painted in black and white rectangles to resemble the gun ports of a man-of- war - an old ruse used by merchantmen.

Alongside her the tiny Boa Esperanza, just 85ft (26m) long, a Portuguese lateen-rigged vessel of the type used by Columbus, bobbed like a top-heavy cork.

Dozens of smaller ketches and sloops accompanied the fleet, as it headed north-west up the channel before turning sharply south, once past the Liverpool bar. The Grand Regatta Columbus ended as the fleet dispersed to their home ports, masts and spars decorating the horizon.

(Photograph omitted)