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Sailing aboard the Rolls-Royce of the seas

By Susannah Palk for CNN
  • To compete in the annual Tall Ships Race, 50 percent of the crew must be aged between 15 -25
  • Types of traditional ships include barques and full-rigged ships
  • Built in 1927, "Sorlandet" costs $390,000 a month to keep afloat
  • She is the oldest full-rigged ship still sailing the seas

London, England (CNN) -- Conjuring tales of adventure and exploration, an armada of 57 tall ships -- complete with billowing square sails -- has crossed the North Sea.

Majestic relics of a bygone era, the fleet of traditionally rigged vessels are part of the annual Tall Ships Race, which recently finished in the port town of Hartlepool, north-east England.

Covering a distance of 1,600 kilometers, the vessels raced from Belgium to Denmark and then from Norway to the UK, crewed by teams of young cadets, learning to sail in one of the world's busiest shipping areas.

Celebrating amongst the traditional ships was the victorious crew of the 1927 Norwegian vessel, "Sorlandet" -- the world's oldest operational full-rigged ship -- which came first in her class, reaching speeds of up to 13 knots (24 kilometers per hour).

Once regarded as the "Rolls-Royce of the seas," "Sorlandet" is now one of only eight full-rigged vessels sailing the seas today.

She's like with a veteran car, we need to keep her in mint condition all the time
--Captain of the Sorlandet, Gunnar Silverberg Utgaard.
  • Sailing
  • North Sea
  • Hartlepool
  • Norway

At 83 years old, the "Sorlandet" is also one of the most authentic ships to survive and with that comes the need for constant upkeep, as the ship's captain, Gunnar Silverberg Utgaard explained to CNN:

"She's like a [vintage] car, we need to keep her in mint condition all the time. She's been in operation for most of her life, so there are repairs every so often, but at the moment, she's as good as new."

Keeping the "Sorlandet" in pristine condition is no easy feat, involving painstaking restoration and a lot money. According to Per Filip Sommerstedt, CEO of, The Ship Sorlandet, the non-profit foundation that maintains her, it has cost $11.3 million (£7.2 million) over the past five years for major restoration works.

"The kind of pine we need to restore and to replace certain parts of the deck is the most expensive and slow growing material you can buy to cover 325 square feet for the deck. Of course back in the 20's it was one the cheapest woods around."

On top of restoration, it costs almost $390,000 each month to keep her afloat, but the results make for a magnificent ship.

"She has kept much of her old original layout, which means the modern cadets and trainees are down below living like the cadets did 80 years ago, following much of the same routines," Utgaard told CNN.

And with three masts, five miles of rope, and 1,236 square meters of sail, it's often a steep learning curve for the 30 to 50 cadets who support the 15 strong professional crew.

Cadets, often students who pay for the experience, are required to muck in with everything from charting courses and hoisting sails to securing rope and steering the ship.

"It is different from modern ships, you have to actually physically climb up the 35 meter masts, loosen the sails, climb back down and hold the ropes, it requires real team work and a lot of hand power," said Utgaard.

As well as learning the routines, sailing a ship like the Sorlandet requires real seamanship, according to Sommerstedt.

"As captain of a modern vessel you have all kinds of assistant engines and electronic devices that will help you out of every situation.

"But with a ship like 'Sorlandet' -- even without sails -- you can reach speeds of up to six or seven knots, and you are far more vulnerable," he told CNN.

"A captain must know about meteorology and oceanography and be able to gauge the situation without all that technology. You also need to be a good teacher. In a short time you need to pass over a lot of knowledge to newcomers you will rely on," he added.

Despite the challenges inherent in her traditional layout and the thousands of green sailors that have helped sail the "Sorlandet," she has an impeccable safety record.

Utgaard puts this down to maintaining a tight crew and never taking unnecessary risks: "Seriously, the most important thing is knowing your limitations," he told CNN.

Sommerstedt agrees: "On a ship like this, it is so obvious that you can hurt yourself, so all your senses get sharper and that is a part of the sensation of sailing on 'Sorlandet.'"

For Utgaard, the best part of sailing a tall ship is the connection with nature.

"I can be out in the open air," he said. "It's something that you seldom get on modern ships, the bridges are closed in. The open air and the real feeling of sailing I love.

"Too many of these old ships have been permanently laid up in museums and that's not so nice, they belong out here."