I’ve always had quite a fondness for working ports and harbours, and how the concrete quays and non-descript marinas are transformed for a few days every year when the port hosts a maritime festival, lifeboat gala day, or traditional boat show.
Railings are decked with bunting; boats cram into the harbour, showing their dressed overall flags; stalls demonstrating traditional maritime crafts, or hawking food and drink line the quaysides; and from somewhere, shanty singers assemble. The air is filled with the scent of Stockholm tar and smoked seafood, and the sound of fiddles and accordions.
Every May, the Belgian coastal resort and port of Ostend celebrates the maritime heritage of the North Sea, hosting traditional and classic sailing vessels from around Europe at the Oostende Voor Anker maritime festival (Ostend at Anchor in English).
The festival takes place each year from a Thursday to a Sunday towards the end of May, depending on the tides, with vessels arriving into port in the preceding days. From class A square riggers to the traditional barges that plied the coastal and inland waterways of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, over 150 vessels participate in the festival.
A large part of Oostende Voor Anker celebrates traditional craftsmanship, with a festival village filled with venues to find out more about boat-building and sail making. A variety of stalls also sell local goods and produce, including what every sailor needs, a vast selection of striped Breton shirts. I may even have picked up a souvenir or two as I browsed through.
As well as open ship tours, demonstrations and stalls, the festival also features things like walking theatre performances, musical concerts, food and cookery demonstrations, arts installations, and nautical themed talks.
My festival tips for Oostende Voor Anker
Avoid taking a car if you’re travelling from out of town. Ostend has excellent rail and coach connections to Antwerp, Brussels, and beyond, and the station is close to the festival area. The Belgian Coastal Tram is another travel alternative.
Wear shoes suitable for walking, as it’s likely you’ll do much more than you anticipate! High heels can cause damage to the decking timbers on ships, and you may be asked to remove unsuitable shoes if you take a deck tour.
Pick up a festival guide as soon as you can. It will have an event map and programme of activities to help you plan your day and find your way around.
Bring cash as some vendors won’t accept card payment.
Book your local accommodation early, as the festival is very popular.
Spring has been a transitional time for me over the past few years. My seasonal ranger contract on the Isle of Wight ends, as the overwintering birds I work on start their migration journey to the high Arctic, and I find something new to keep me occupied through the following months.
Where I’ve been:
After packing up my life on the Isle of Wight, and dropping things into storage, I flew out to Bilbao in northern Spain. I’d been selected to join the crew of the sail training tall ship Atyla as a watchleader, spending a couple of months on board as we sailed around Europe.
The first couple of weeks were dedicated to finishing winter maintenance, fitting and testing equipment that had been in storage, and provisioning for our upcoming voyages. We also completed extensive training, familiarisation with systems on board, and how to lead sailing evolutions with trainees, and also in teamwork and leading personal development activities.
Sanding and painting, splicing and whipping, tensioning the rig, caulking the deck; maintenance on a wooden ship is neverending.
Learning happens when you leave your comfort zone. Adventure pushes you to the edge of the danger zone, where the biggest lessons are learned.
Atyla runs coaching for trainees, so alongside working together to sail a ship, they tackle sessions on critical thinking, international collaboration, and environmental responsibility. Despite my initial reticence about taking part*, the coaching sessions were excellent, and it was awesome to witness the transformative effects on our trainees.
*I don’t have emotions.
As well as exploring Bilbao, our voyages took up across the Bay of Biscay (twice), around Brittany, through the channel to Belgium, then around the British and Irish Isles. We attended several maritime festivals, in Ostend and Calais, and a tall ships regatta from Liverpool to Dublin and Bordeaux. The final event was the Fête le Vin in Bordeaux, which ended with one of the most spectacular fireworks displays I’ve ever seen.
Sailing alongside other tall ships is awesome. On shore, you’re too far from the action, or the ships are tied up alongside and has a very different feel, and on board you’re just too close to everything, and perspective is limited. We spent a windless couple of days in the Irish Sea, drifting back and forwards by other vessels, then absolutely rocketed from Waterford, Ireland, across the Celtic Sea and into Biscay, towards Bordeaux.
What I’ve done:
Spring is the start of beach cleaning season, as winter storms have washed extra material up on the coast and people become more willing to spend a couple of hours outdoors picking up litter. With a couple of friends I organised a few small events on the Isle of Wight, filled several sacks with waste, met some brilliant people, and even discovered a new part of the island.
At the end of March I undertook a Day Skipper practical course, spending a week sailing around in the Solent in the pouring rain on a 36′ sailing yacht. I think we had only one dry day, where we spent several hours beating closehauled towards Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, getting nowhere beyond Newtown. But I passed the course, and am now the proud owner of an International Certificate of Competence, the basic level of qualification to charter my own yacht.
Racing cruise ships down the Western Solent. Very little chance of winning.
Chartwork and navigation is key part of the Day Skipper syllabus.
Before departing for Spain, I headed to Bristol for a training weekend with the team from Explorers Connect for an expedition leadership course. The sessions covered the theory of planning and organising an expedition, safety management and risk assessment, provisioning and sourcing equipment. It’s certainly given me plenty to think about for the rest of the year.
And finally, at the end of this season, I had an interview for a very exciting job to work in a place I’ve always wanted to visit. And to match the nature of the job, a very exciting interview process, involving several team building challenges, scenarios and exercises. Ultimately, I wasn’t successful this time, but I left with fantastic feedback from the team, and feel inspired to apply for the same job again in the future. Fingers crossed that next time it will be mine. Until then, I might just keep on messing about on boats.
My Spring Love List
What I read:We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen. An epic saga centred on the Danish port of Marstal, spanning several generations, two world wars, and circumnavigating the globe. I’ve had the book for ages, and been recommended it by so many people, so finally finding the time to read it has been so satisfying.
What I listened to: Black Hands, a true-crime podcast from New Zealand that delves into the murder of several members of a Dunedin family, and the subsequent trial that rocked the city of Dunedin. Like Serial, but a bit more fush and chups.
Film: A Plastic Ocean. A challenging but essential watch, highlighting the threats to the health of the ocean posed by microplastics. In this year alone every person on the planet will consume 136 kg of single-use plastic. How can a disposable product be made from an indestructible material?
Equipment: I’ve practically lived in my Helly Hansen sailing jacket and salopettes during my Day Skipper course, and to cross the Bay of Biscay. They’ve been pretty indispensable in keeping me warm and dry through wet nightwatches on Atyla.
Treats:Wine! There’s been plenty of good red wine this season; after work with a plate of pintxos in Bilbao, celebrating with the rest of the crew in Liverpool and Dublin, and while watching the most amazing fireworks at the Fête le Vin in Bordeaux. Though this Belgian waffle in Ostend was pretty awesome too.
Thanks for following the voyages of These Vagabond Shoes. I hope some of the things I’ve worked on over the winter are making a difference on the blog, and you enjoy what you find here.
You can also keep up to date with my adventures (or meanderings and rambling thoughts as it’s mainly been recently) on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Let me know in the comments about what you’ve been up to this spring or your plans for the season ahead. I’d love to hear from you.