The biggest fleet of tall ships Northland has seen in more than a century is racing towards the Bay of Islands.

The seven sailing ships left Sydney on Thursday with the first expected to cross the finish line off Russell's Tapeka Pt on October 18 or 19. The largest and oldest is a 102-year-old Dutch barque called Bark Europa; other standouts include the 180ft (55m) Canadian barque Picton Castle and the UK's Lord Nelson, the world's first tall ship built to be sailed by the disabled.

The finish line is between Brampton buoy and Tapeka Pt, a good race vantage point. After crossing the line they will clear Customs and biosecurity checks at Opua before anchoring at Pomare Bay or Waitangi, depending on the conditions.

At 4pm on Saturday, October 19, five crew members from each ship will be escorted by waka to the beach opposite Haratu, Russell's marae, for a traditional challenge and powhiri by local iwi. The welcome, like the ships themselves, promises a spectacle recreating scenes of almost 200 years ago.


The Bark Europa and Lord Nelson will be open for free public viewing at Opua Wharf on Sunday, October 20, from 1-4pm.

The three Dutch ships at the core of the fleet - the Bark Europa, a three-masted schooner called Oosterschelde and a 98-year-old herring boat called Tecla - are sailing around the world. They were part of the centennial celebrations of the arrival of the first Australian Royal Navy fleet in Sydney. They will sail down the coast to Kawau Island on October 22 and attend Auckland's Tall Ships Festival on Labour Weekend.