"I must go down to the seas again,to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by."
THESE words from John Masefield's "Sea Fever" evoke a mood of freshness and freedom, with a vision of tall ships churning through heavy seas and the cries of gulls as they wheel around the bowsprit and the spanker boom. (For landlubbers like me, that means the bow and the stern.) Even those who cannot tell starboard from port, in this industrial age, can catch a whiff of the romanticism of the era of sailing vessels and those who go "down to the sea in ships." And just a short while ago this land-based r omanticism surged into full-blown excitement in my home port as the magnificent vessels of a tall ships race anchored at Pollock Dock here in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For four days the quayside was a blaze of color and a hubbub of activity as more than 2,000 young people from 11 nations mingled with sightseers and visitors to sample the best of Belfast. An estimated half-million people, roughly one-third of Northern Ireland's entire population, queued to see the vessels that were in dock or lining the beautiful coasts of counties Down and Antrim as the ships moved out in an impressive parade of sail for their next port of call, Aberdeen, Scotland. Previously they had come from Cork and in their four days in Belfast, they created a spirit of harmony and hope, the like of which has not been experienced publicly in Belfast for a long time. Thousands of young people and their parents and friends, who had only seen the tall ships on television, were able to walk around the dockland, to gaze in awe at massive vessels like the Polish Dar Mlodziezy or the Russian Sedov, and even to go on board to meet the masters and crew. And all around the dockside ther e was the stir of side-stalls, the music of jazz and rock bands, and all the bustle and laughter of a city and its people enjoying themselves. It was an international setting, and yet it could only have been in Ireland with the long blue ribbon of Belfast's lock contrasting with the rich dark greens of the Ulster hills and that lovely blueish-green horizon that is particularly Irish. And even the tall ships, in all their majesty, were dwarfed by two huge yellow cranes in the Belfast shipyard just behind Pollock Dock. It was a reminder of the city's proud seafaring tradition and its world-famous shipyard, still an international leader, where the legendary and ill-fated Titanic was built some 80 years ago. The international dimension of the tall ships race and the world fame of Belfast's shipbuilding merged symbolically on those soft summer evenings at Pollock Dock. It was such a contrast to the usual gloomy headlines from Northern Ireland. On the final night, tens of thousands thronged every street and vantage point near the docks to watch a spectacular fireworks display. This was a refreshing change from a month or so earlier when bonfires lit up the night sky to celebrate the victory of Protestant King William over Roman Catholic King James in Ireland in 1690. The tall ships was an event everyone could enjoy and which brought the people of the city together to share the best qualities they have in common - a sense of fun, an ability to display wonder, and an infectious enthusiasm and warmth to embrace all kinds of visitors. The crews of the sailing ships were overwhelme d by Ulster's hospitality, and in return they gave us a glimpse of a world beyond the high seas, where people of vision and determination can work hard to learn how to live with their differences. Of course, we are aware of massive changes elsewhere, not least in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, where people are struggling painfully toward a new order. But to see Polish and Russian vessels and their international crews of young people at first hand was to be reminded that there is a big world beyond the weary parochialism of Ulster and its troubles. A letter writer to a local paper put the point well: "It is moments like those at Pollock Dock last week which engender hope by showing what potential exists in all of us if only we demonstrate a little bit of vision and openness." Another wrote: "We watched until the sails disappeared over the horizon, and I must admit I was sad to see them go. Who would have thought that an event like this would bring people of the Province out in their tens of thousands?" One of the evenings I overheard two Belfast men talking, as they joined the international throng. "This could be a great city if there was peace," said one wistfully. The other replied, "It is a great city already, and this is a great way of showing what we can do." These words echoed my own sentiments. It may be difficult for outsiders to appreciate exactly what the tall ships meant to Belfast, but it helped us to share our pride in a city that has had the difficult times everyone knows about, but which also has beautiful moments the world rarely seems to notice. Perhaps it was just a human desire to open our hearts and say to the visitors "Look, folks, we're not all as bad as you thought, and thanks for coming to share your youth and idealism with us." That's certainly how I felt anyway. ONE of the greatest attractions of all was the philosophy behind the tall ships race itself. The most coveted prize is awarded not to the winner of any particular class or leg in the race, not to the smartest-looking ship, but to the vessel that is judged to have contributed most to international friendship. Perhaps the vision of the tall ships and the spirit of Pollock Dock has not disappeared. The visit was the centerpiece of a year-long festival called "Best of Belfast 1991," which aims to show the best of this city to the world and to itself. There have been concerts, community and sporting events, many international gatherings including the superbly colorful Rose Emerald World Rose Convention at Queen's University, and a host of other attractions that continue to give people from all backgrounds an oppo rtunity to celebrate. The festival is continuing to the end of 1991, when Belfast will hand the torch of civic pride to historic Derry in the northwest, which is planning its own year-long festival. I suppose that loving Belfast, for me, is like being deeply attached to someone who has enormous character, but who sometimes lets you down. Yet the bond is still there, and it is wonderful to see the city doing well. The visit of the tall ships made me look into the heart of Belfast, and perhaps into my own heart, in a way that I had not done before. The "Best of Belfast"? Why not, indeed! The tall ships have moved over the horizon, but the magic lingers on.