One from the Archive – Sail Ipswich ’97

This weekend over 20 years ago, Ipswich held one of the largest Maritime Festivals it or the East Coast has ever seen. Sail Ipswich ‘97 saw over 30,000 visitors and welcomed over 300 vessels to the Wet Dock. In 1998 the organiser Mark Grimwade who today is one of our Trustees wrote a piece about the event. After finding it on a floppy disk, yes they still exist! We have uploaded it all for you to read about and to find out why Mark now refuses tea from sailors!


Twice, since taking early retirement a few years ago, I accepted a cup of tea from a sailing friend – and both times it has led to an inordinate amount of hard graft!

The first time – in 1994 and nothing to do with this tale – I called on a yacht broker friend in Woodbridge for a ‘cup and a chat’, only to emerge as the new owner of the 40ft German Frers designed ‘retired’ ocean racer “Wizard of Paget”. She currently stands in our garden, undergoing a complete rebuild, but that’s another story. The second time – in the spring of 1995 – was a ‘cuppa’ with Cruising Association member, Maggie Lamb, aboard my 1930, 43ft wooden yawl “Vetiver” whilst fitting out alongside her, also wooden “Maid of Wyvern” at Neptune Marina in Ipswich’s historic Wet Dock.

The sun shone on the Dock’s tranquil waters … “What a perfect site for a Festival of Classic Boats” Maggie said. “Why not?” I replied, sipping that fateful tea again. Maggie became ‘Chair’ and took on organising most of the ‘Shipside’ whilst I agreed to tackle the ‘Shoreside’ (little knowing what was in store!) 1997 then seemed a suitably distant date.

Mark on board Vetiver in the Wet Dock c1960s – Mark Grimwade Collection – IMT Image Archive

The Ipswich Maritime Trust was very keen on the idea and wished to raise funds for a Maritime Heritage Centre – so we had a Charity under who’s patronage the Festival would be run. Next came such essential matters as:

Obtaining permission to a Festival in the Dock, funding and timing.

  • The first was simple, or so it seemed! The owners of the Port of Ipswich told us we could go ahead but mentioned that the Government planned to ‘privatise’ the port between then and 1997 – our ‘date’. So, we “booked” the Dock there and then just to establish our claim.
  • Secondly, we visited Contship Containerlines who’s H.Q is a beautifully restored maltings on the Ipswich Dockside. “Yes, we’ll back you” they said – and they did, very generously in both financial and practical ways.
  • Timing was the easy bit. A Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race was due to start in Aberdeen in July ’97. By tradition, the Shotley Classic Boat Festival took place just down the Orwell during the last week of June every year, as does the Pin Mill Sailing Club Barge Match. Thanks to a fiends far-sighted tidal computer program we were able to choose the weekend of June 27th-28th 1997 to give us suitable tides and the promise of capturing many of the above vessels.

Nearly 2 years to go … and a great deal of ‘brainstorming’ took place to produce a formula which would appeal to the public, possible sponsors and the participants.

We thought ‘BIG’ (as is Ipswich Wet Dock). The next year was spent contacting likely vessels which plan their itineraries well ahead, ‘putting the word around’ by every means possible and generally preparing ourselves for the fray.

Sail Ipswich ’97 – Various Vessels moored on Common Quay in the Wet Dock – Mark Grimwade Collection – IMT Image Archive

In late 1996 , when plans were progressing extremely well, what could be described as a bombshell dropped onto the “Sail Ipswich” doormat in the form of a letter from the (then) owners of the Port telling us that, as they would not be the owners of the port at the date of the festival, they couldn’t, after all, to give their permission for it to take place – so we’d better cancel it forthwith!

After 1 ½ years work on the project it’s better that the reader doesn’t’ imagine the organiser’s language! “Where do we go from here?”.

Well, first to Contship (our core sponsor) who pointed out that,  as a new owner would be running the port at the time of the Festival, we might as well carry on with the probability that they (whoever ‘they’ turned out to be) should welcome our Festival as “The Biggest Port warming Party of All Time”- and so it proved!

Then to The Old Gaffers Association (including C.A. Member Brian Hammett), organisers of the Shotley Classic Boat Festival, who most helpfully adjusted their dates to accommodate us, and said they wouldn’t take kindly to our cancelling at that late stage.

And finally, several of the vessels which had already agreed to attended told us they were “jolly well coming anyway”!

So, no argument! It’s December ’96 and back to Plan “A”, now with only 6 months to go!

Money and/or more sponsors were of prime importance as the Ipswich Maritime Trust (on whose shoulders the financial responsibility ultimately lay) had imposed the severe but sensible constraint that no more was to be spent or committed than was to hand! Also, we needed more shore sites around the 1 ½ mile perimeter of the Wet Dock on which to base the shanty singers, exhibitors and other ‘happenings’ – all without permission from whoever would own the Port in June 1997.

We had an inverted and growing (pear-shaped?) pyramid on our hands! Despite all this, it began to take shape as the potential of the festival became apparent and offers of help of all kinds started to come in.

We were very strapped for cash as fundraising for a ‘currently unauthorised event’ was somewhat difficult. We adopted the motto: “Non illigitime carborundum”! (“Don’t let the b****rds grind you down”) and carried on regardless.

Ipswich Borough Council began their involvement by arranging for Chinese Dragon Boat Racing to take place in the Dock during the Festival.

Sail Ipswich ’97 – Dragon Boat Racing – Mark Grimwade Collection – IMT Image Archive

The Royal Marine Display Team said they would bring their full ‘show’ together with a Boat/Flight simulator.

Peters, the local ice-cream manufacturer, agreed to celebrate their centenary by funding a massive firework display. ‘La Belle Poule’ and ‘Etoile’ – that beautiful pair of French Navy Goeletters – said they would come as did the Polish Barquentine ‘Pogoria’. Fred Olsen gave a holiday cruise as the ‘star’ raffle prize.

Maggie Lamb was also organising an associated exhibition of ‘Quilting on a Maritime Theme’ in an empty church nearby whilst Ipswich Borough Council agreed to divert 18 local mayors from the Town’s Charter celebrations to attend our opening ceremony and to lay on for skippers’ and mates’ a reception at the Town Hall.

A phone call from Essex promised “over 200 Morris Dancers” (which was more than kept!) and shanty singers agreed to come from as far afield as Friesland and Cornwall.

Scandinavian Seaways gave free passage to a Danish ropemaker complete with his rope walk and family, who powered it!

3 months to go… and privatisation of the Port slowly proceeded. In Mid-March ’97 it was announced that Associated British Ports (ABP) was the successful bidder. Immediately, a small Sail Ipswich ‘posse’ visited their H.Q. in London. Probably the last thing ABP wanted, with a new Port to cope with, was a group of ‘Yotties’ worrying them about an imminent festival in their new Port!

However, they came up trumps. Full cooperation was promised – and receive – together with the supply of obligatory ships’ welcome packs compromising: Duffle bag, battle flag, cast bronze plaque, etc.

With the long-awaited go-ahead under our belts, it was full steam ahead. Ipswich Borough Council arranged for closure of all approach roads to the Dock and to provide a ‘Park and Ride’ service for the public.

Thanks to the enthusiasm of several quay owners, 5 Large waterside sites were donated for use as arenas and show/display areas giving us around 5 acres in addition to the quaysides which for safety were kept for public strolling, busking and ship viewing.

Sail Ipswich ’97 – Crowds on the Common Quay – Mark Grimwade – IMT Image Archive

From the Health and Safety Executive came news that, as Sail Ipswich ’97 promised to be a “Major Event”, we should have to produce and have approved a full-blown Health and Safety Risk Assessment. (Some years previously I had produced one of these for my farm machinery factory, so there was no argument as to who’s pigeon this was going to be!)

Many late nights at my PC later, all 84 pages were accepted with the full and helpful cooperation from the Health and Safety Executive. Mostly it was common sense but complicated by the fact that we had no idea how many people to expect. Assuming too low and attendance could put safety procedures at risk (with possible consequent closure of the Festival). Too high, and the cost of the extra measures would far exceed our income. As it turned out we got everything just about right – with the exception of the recommended 100 individual toilet ‘kiosks’ which looked very pretty but were distinctly under-sued!

One expected bonus was the requirement for a continuous barrier along the quay edge. This actually encouraged people to walk nearer the edge so giving more quay space – as well as something to lean on.

At the “3 months to go” mark, Contship generously invited me to move into one of their quayside offices where all facilities were provided (and from where I could see “Vetiver” but couldn’t fit her out!).

Willing helpers were recruited to take on specific responsibilities. Having worked single handed on my part of the festival for over 2 years it was extraordinarily difficult to bring myself to delegate. However, it was with relief that I was able to set this hesitation aside and hand over bulging folders on the performers, stall holders, the Grand Draw, etc. to great effect.

Meanwhile around the Dock, ABP filled potholes, mended fences, replaced lifebelts and scooped up tons of rubbish from in and around the Dock.

Ipswich Borough Council helped with much of the detail of organising the infrastructure, advertising – and more.

Out of the blue, the Bulgarian Barquentine ‘Kaliakra’ said she was coming, as did the huge Russian Barque ‘Kruzenshtern’. Both were very welcome, but the latter’s 4 masts are too lofty to clear the Orwell Bridge (which has 43m, air draft). She is also too wide and deep for the Docks lock sill, so we found her a berth at Harwich – whilst still claiming her as one of ‘our square riggers’; ‘Sedov’ planned to come too but would have had the same trouble.

7 days to go … it started to rain and continued to do so all week!

1 day to go – Friday… 2 inches of it fell whilst the growing band of damp organisers and exhibitors grafted away under the eyes of some 2000 school children invited to preview the Festival. (A fairground was being erected in 8” of floodwater!).

At 4pm that day the lock opened and around 150 vessels form the “Classic Boat Festival Fleet” poured into the Dock having completed their Parade of Sail up the Orwell. They formed massive but tidy rafts in their appointed places alongside earlier arrivals including the Dunkirk Little Ships.

Day 1. Saturday 27th June 1997, dawn and the rain ceased, wind eased and scraps of blue-sky appeared. Every vessel in port dressed overall complete with ‘SIPS’ battle flag – in honour of the event and in praise of better weather. Exhibitors, caterers, barmen, shanty singers and dancers were poised for action… At 10am in poured the public! By this time were were heavily ‘overdrawn’ in cash-in-hand against ultimate cost. To me the crowds took the appearance of £££ signs (at £2.50 a head) as they thronged the quaysides.

Sail Ipswich ’97 Vessels moored on Albion Wharf – Mark Grimwade Collection – IMT Image Archive

Day 2. Ditto but further enchanced by 22 teams of Chinse Dragon Boat Racers and their many followers. 5 minutes after the close of the festival it rained again!

Sail Ipswich ‘97 featured on TV, Radio and in the Press, beer flowed, sea shanties were sung, and it didn’t rain. Everyone seemed happy and there was no trouble – in fact the worst incident (and after hours) was a chap tripping over the tow bar of the Red Cross caravan; he was somewhat taken aback to be carted off to the hospital by 8 first aiders in their ambulance!

32,000 people came and 310 vessels attended. We paid all our bills and made a respectable profit for the Ipswich Maritime Trust. The entire cost came out at just under £45,000. Under its new name of “Maritime Ipswich” the event is now an annual affair incorporating “East Coast Classics” (ex Shotley Classic Boat Festival) and compliments the development of the Historic Ipswich Wet Dock. Planning for a quayside “Maritime Heritage Centre” by the Ipswich Maritime Trust is well forward.

Sail Ipswich ‘97 proved an excellent way of making the adrenalin flow. I made a host of new friends and fine-tuned my scrounging skills but, in future, I intend to refuse cups of team from sailors!

Written by Mark Grimwade in 1998 and originally titled ‘Sail Ipswich 97 – Perils of the Sea Festival’.


We hope you enjoyed this piece we pulled from the archives for you to enjoy, wouldn’t it be good to see something close to this scale again in Ipswich for the 30th Anniversary of Sail Ipswich ’97 in 2027. If you are interested in supporting the Ipswich Maritime Trust during plans for the Ipswich Maritime Festivals or any other events please do get involved with us or if you are just interested check our events page for our upcoming events.

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