Sailing away out of time
Sailing off the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, my cell phone quit syncing with the time zone changes — an apt metaphor for my tall ship cruise. On board the Royal Clipper my fellow passengersI travelled into another time and another dimension. We metamorphosed.
As we sailed over the aqua-blue and turquoise water, we found our sea legs. We changed from pale, seasick landlubbers to tanned, life-embracing adventurers. We transformed from anonymous individuals, passing one another with a nod – to agreeable, animated shipmates sharing a marvelous voyage outside of time. On a fabulous sailing ship!
We greeted one another, table-hopped during meals and leaned forward to hear the fascinating life stories we each brought on board with us. I got to know several of several guests. Among them was a pair of British detectives, a woman who studied the history of ideas and a retired German diplomat whose international career spanned several eventful decades. Another, a renowned chemist and academic had been persecuted during McCarthyism in the U.S. and had emigrated to Canada. He was celebrating his 95th birthday, swam like a fish and danced like Astaire. His 20-something free-spirited granddaughter added flare and character to the cruise. I laughed heartily with a lively, fashionable octogenarian who had owned a shop on Portobello Road in London. She was also celebrating a birthday and was travelling with her gregarious young Scottish nephew.
We danced to a steel drum band, we laughed at the hokey antics of our crew during the talent show.We were silenced when charming, newly-wed Kate stood before us and belted out a hauntingly beautiful Ava Maria.
About 60 per cent of the 200-plus passengers are repeat customers of the Star Clippers fleet — Royal Clipper and her smaller sister ships Star Clipper and Star Flyer. On my seven-day cruise at the beginning of February the clientele ranged in age from 20 to 95; with the average about 60 years old. Many were travelling for an important occasion, on a honeymoon or on family vacations. Others just loved to sail.
We set sail out of Barbados and cruised through the West Indies’ Windward Islands of St. Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, St. Kitts, Iles des Saintes and Martinique; and returned to Barbados. Our days were structured around breakfast, lunch and dinner; sunrise and sunset; and the arrivals and departures of the tenders that carried us back and forth to shore.
And we we were all on deck to witness the dazzling daily spectacle as our international crew raised the sails and we gracefully sailed from harbour. We wept and oohed and were mezmerized during this daily drama, which was saturated by the sweeping music of Vangelis symphony “1492: Conquest of Paradise” and the calls of the captain from the unfurling of the first sail until each of the 42 sails was in place.
Our Captain Sergey lovingly orchestrated the event, I suspect as much for his benefit as for ours. An Estonian sailor, he was passionate about sailing and proud of the Royal Clipper’s status among the largest and fastest clipper ships in the world. The Royal Clipper is the modern version of the fastest sailing ship that ever sailed (The Pruessen, 1902–1910). He couldn’t contain a wistfulness when he said that he could never push the ship to its fullest speed because the guests would not like the extreme list required for full throttle sailing.
He also repeated a couple of mantras: The pleading “The ship she is a lady. And like all ladies, she needs to be treated with respect.” And the pedantic “Sailing on the Royal Clipper is about sailing. This is a sailing ship.”
I agree with the captain’s perspective. Sailing around the Windward Islands aboard the 439-foot Royal Clipper was an extraordinary experience — a fine balance between the adventure and tradition of sailing, the impeccable service of a five-star cruise and the lavish amenities of a sumptuous yacht.
I loved the windswept 19,000 square feet of deck space. I thrilled at the sound and sight of powerful rippling sails towering above me on five masts as I absorbed the expanse of space and sea into my cells. I marvelled at the sunrises and joined my fellow passengers as we gathered on deck at dusk, scrutinizing the horizon for the elusive green flash, which under perfect conditions accompanies the sunset.
Although the Royal Clipper sails in the Mediterranean, the Balkan Sea and does transatlantic crossings, being in the Caribbean made the sailing cruise even more of an adventure. The history of the islands resonates with battles fought off their shores in sailing ships, distant, scrappy ancestors to the Royal Clipper. On many of the islands old forts stand high on cliffs, their cannons aimed at the exposed bays below. Inside the historical Fort Napoleon on Iles des Saintes, vivid illustrations of the epic 1782 Battle of the Saints line the walls. Desperate fiery scenes depict men leaping off burning ships amid heavy smoke and clamour. It was a brutal time, I concluded.
I was happy it was a couple of centuries later that I stood at Fort Napoleon overlooking the placid bay at Iles des Saintes. There, anchored among the yachts that dotted the picturesque bay, was the elegant Royal Clipper, truly the star of the sea. Unlike massive cruise ships, the Royal Clipper is able to anchor in small quiet bays while we passengers filled our days playing on white sand beaches, taking trips to quaint island towns and on a variety of shore excursions.
And we looked forward to getting back on board the Royal Clipper, which welcomed us with the assurance of luxury. I was enchanted by the open staircase that spiralled around a light and airy three-deck atrium. It extended from the well-appointed piano bar on the main-level deck and wound around the second level, entering the dining room on the lower deck.
To descend the staircase into the dining room was to make the proverbial ‘grand entrance’. Thankfully, each evening the maître d’, who remarkably knew everyone by name, would greet me and ask me if I had company for dinner; or he would suggest a table that I may want to join. I travelled alone and most of the clientele was couples, so the maître d’s attention was pivotal in making my voyage on the Royal Clipper social and relaxing.
Dinners were sumptuous five-course à la carte affairs, including steak, a variety of fish, lobster, suckling pig and vegetarian cuisine. The buffet breakfasts and lunches were delectable and varied feasts.
When I returned my cabin at night I found my bed linen turned down, my nightie folded and a chocolate lying on my plush pillow. My cabin was a gem of comfort, with queen bed, abundant closet space, an adjustable thermostat, two large portholes and a marble bathroom. Each night I was lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the ship. I felt like an infant in a cradle.
I dreaded taking leave of my shipmates, which by the end of the cruise included the 100-plus crew and guests. I was fond of so many of them and had befriended several. Once again Captain Sergey provided the right sentiment.
“On the Royal Clipper, we don’t say good bye,” he told us during the toast he made during the traditional Captain’s Dinner. “We say ‘see you’.”
That is a valuable piece of seaman’s wisdom, useful when leaving the Royal Clipper and while exiting the dimension that is outside of time.