PREVIEW: The 14th Harwich Shanty Festival on October 11 - 13

PUBLISHED: 10:33 17 September 2019 | UPDATED: 10:33 17 September 2019

Harwich Shanty Festival

Harwich Shanty Festival


Harwich will host the 14th Harwich Shanty Festival this month, so to understand the spirit of the festival, and find his sea legs, Owen Lewis went to sea with festival founders Jon and Pam Fitzgerald

Have you ever wondered what sailing, The Harwich Shanty Festival and a Walton red seal all have in common? Actually, I would be hugely surprised if you had, but the answer is Jon and Pam Fitzgerald of Harwich.

Jon and Pam are the founders and co-directors of The Harwich Shanty Festival and the owners of a beautiful 40ft yacht, The Charlotte Rose. I recently received an invitation to spend a day or two at sea with them, with a chance to talk about the festival too.

I wanted to learn how to sail and see if my legs are worthy of the nomenclature sea legs — the longest I had ever spent on a boat was the six and a half hour sail from Harwich to The Hook.

So Jon would be skipper, Pam the bosun and me the deck hand. I was there to learn.

Harwich Shanty FestivalHarwich Shanty Festival

The Harwich Shanty Festival is now in its 14th year and is still growing, as shanty singing seems to be the new rock and roll around Europe. By definition, shanties are work songs that sailors would sing to assist them in the heavy, onerous tasks of heaving, hauling or pumping.

Because of the replacement of sail by steam, the art form started to die out, slipping from our consciousness and into the annals of time. But then came the British folk scene in the 1960s and with the potential for great participation singing and great chorus singing, shanties fitted well within the folk genre.

Before we could talk about that I found myself on a small power boat heading out from Titchmarsh Marina up the Twizzel and down the Walton Channel.

The boats along the channel looked lonely as they bobbed on their moorings in a kind of deferential welcome to us. I nodded back and we boarded The Charlotte Rose. With the kettle on in the galley, Jon fired up her Perkins three cylinder motor and we turned her round and headed out.

Harwich Shanty FestivalHarwich Shanty Festival

I was fascinated watching Pam stow all our provisions in so many clever cupboards. Amazingly one could take on maximum supplies with minimum discomfort. There was plenty of room for the three of us, enough even to swing a cat (o' nine tails) if we felt the need.

As we left Walton Channel we bobbed along at a comfortable five knots. My job was to do the ropes while Pam did the fenders. This was no easy job. I had six to do and it took me quite some time. We were way out at sea before I had stowed the last. This cabin boy lark might be harder than I thought.

After a busy hour, Pam appeared with three plates of the most fantastic food. Jon lifted the cabin door, turned it over and it was our dining table. The cockpit between fore cabin and aft cabin became a marvellous out at sea restaurant. Now it was time for rum and coke.

As we floated and gently rocked in the arms of the sea I thought it a better time than ever to chat about the festival and find out more that I can share with you. I asked Jon initially if the Shanty Festival had been born out of the Walton on the Naze Folk Festival. This was true enough.

Harwich Shanty FestivalHarwich Shanty Festival

All the key players in the committee assembled as that festival died and the idea of a Shanty Festival was born: and where better than Harwich, the once fine bustling home of Henry VIII's naval dockyard?

'That was 14 years ago,' Pam added. She informed me that in those early days of 2005, the first festival featured nine acts and this year there will be more than 40. 'Next year there will be even more,' she continued. Jon went on to explain that in 2020 Harwich will take part in the Mayflower 400 celebrations and another day has been added to the festival.

With the wind picking up just gently, Jon deftly hoisted up the sails. With them set we leaned gently in the breeze not fast enough to win us an around the world race, but just enough motion to create that unique feeling that only a boat can bring. Like wading in a bath of jelly in wellies.

As the sun was silently retiring, I saw yellow and ochre fingers of reflection stretching across the channel. I saw the yachts as they slid quietly along, all heading somewhere, unconcerned of where that might be. We were really messing about in boats and it was tremendous.

Harwich Shanty FestivalHarwich Shanty Festival

That night I was berthed in the fore cabin. With stars twinkling brightly above and the moon creating a beautiful silver trail, which broke and turned to tiny lights on the water's crest — it was quite breath-taking. In those wonderful surroundings I slept like a baby. It was so soothing to gently rock to sleep as cosy as I have ever been anywhere.

Over breakfast, more details about the festival emerged. Pam told me that this year there will be more than 200 different events in Harwich over the Shanty Festival weekend. Most will focus on singing, naturally, but there will be concerts and workshops too.

'A lot of the events are free,' Jon adds, 'and with the growth of the pirate phenomenon and the Fishermen Friends story, more and more people are turning up.'

Footfall in 2018 saw more than 5,000 visitors, all of them looking for this great music. That makes Harwich the second biggest shanty festival in the UK.

Harwich Shanty FestivalHarwich Shanty Festival

Jon proudly tells me as we slipped anchor and I sat amidships stowing my ropes, that at first there wasn't any foreign shanty groups, but now more than 30 countries have become a part of this. Countries including the USA, Ireland, Italy and Spain have all sent shanty crews. 'We only ever book the best,' Pam adds.

Sorrowfully my time as a true sailor was drawing to an end. But while waiting for high tide to enter the channel again, we took the dinghy into one of the creeks and we counted over 60 seals lying lazily in the sun.

What an adventure, thought I, as I watched the cormorants and oyster catchers teasing the seals with their singing, as the seals torpedoed down the mud and into the water. I felt privileged to be there.

Harwich Shanty FestivalHarwich Shanty Festival

Find out more

The Harwich Shanty Festival runs from October 11 to 13 at various venues throughout the town of Harwich. For more details, visit

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