Under Caribbean stars, cruising seems stripped to its essentials. The ship, her masts and, finally, those clouds of sail unfurling in slow motion, gleaming white in warm, inky night.
Then, a faint chord seems to rise like fog from the deck into the salt air, and passengers turn toward the sound. The chorus builds as the main staysail and flying jib fill with Leeward breeze. The voices swell in Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise as the Star Clipper cuts her way through ultramarine waves.
Sail Away is 10 p.m. embarkation day, lifting anchor in St. Maarten and heading for Anguilla. Passengers are up on the Sun Deck as the crew turns winches, coils ropes and hoists sails, all to that rich chorus. It’s an elegant, stately show because the Star Clipper, with 16 sails, ties with her sister ship, Star Flyer, as one of the tallest Tall Ships in the world.
The soundtrack to Vangelis’ 1492 crescendos with each rise of the sails during this voyage through the Leeward Islands and French Antilles. Every time, there are moments that feel like stepping inside someone’s fantasy. In this case, Mikael Krafft’s, the Swede who so loved clipper ships as a boy that he vowed to return the bygone beauties to the world’s oceans.
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Star Clipper lore tells of 12-year-old Krafft sailing his little wooden sailboat alone to the Aland Islands between Sweden and Finland — without telling anyone his plans. He was compelled to see the four-masted barque Pommern, a museum ship in Mariehamn. The lad risked his life sailing 70 nautical miles — 23 on open sea — and again by dodging the guards and shimmying up the Pommern rigging. He survived that day’s adventure in 1958 and sailed home determined to bring back the legendary era of sail.
Krafft’s three grand clippers are the fulfillment of his vow: Star Flyer, Star Clipper and the massive Royal Clipper. They sail from Greece to Grenada, from Morocco to Martinique. They cross the Atlantic in 14 days.
This Star Clipper voyage is a week’s wander among the British Virgin Islands and the French West Indies, a summery respite for winter warriors from the Northern Hemisphere.
“If you’ve lived through a New York winter, this is painfully appealing,” said Randy Palmer of Saratoga Springs, New York. We’re on the Star Clipper’s Sun Deck as she cuts through the Sir Francis Drake Channel. “If it’s not snowing [in New York], it’s very cold.”
He and his wife Diane Gulbrandsen escape to the Caribbean on the Star Clippers every two years. “If we don’t, they come to our house to get us,” he joked. This is their sixth cruise with the line since 2003.
“There’s something about the Caribbean that never grows old. I can see this,” Palmer said, gesturing to a passing catamaran, “every day. To be surrounded by this type of nature. You feel more in it if you’re on this size vessel.
“We don’t want to be on a big sailing vessel or big cruise ship,” Palmer added. “We get more of a feel for the sea on the Star Clippers.” Nor is he interested in captaining his own small sailboat in the Caribbean. “I’ve heard the horror stories.”
Star Clipper converts — the line has a 68 percent rate of returning passengers — often cite the size of the ships as the main attraction. Star Clipper holds 170 passengers, with 74 crew.
“It’s the intimacy,” said Peter Langdon of the Gold Coast, Australia. Their first week in the Caribbean, Star Clipper carried 112 guests; the second week, 145. “On a big ship, to disembark 2,000 people takes half a day.”
Langdon and his wife Sue have returned for three more Star Clipper cruises since their first Thailand-to-Singapore trip in 1997. “We have known the hotel manager, the beverage manager and our cabin steward on this ship for 17 years,” Sue said. “They’re so friendly and efficient.”
For many cruisers, Star Clippers are the entry point to the mega-yacht experience. Shipboard life is more casual than some of the luxury lines, with a relaxed dress code and open seating for dinner. Breakfast and lunch are buffets, and officers and crew may sit beside you at any meal.
“I really like when the crew members come and eat with us, and intermingle,” said Claire Thayer of Ashaway, Rhode Island, a nine-time cruise veteran on a range of lines. “You don’t have that when you’re on ships with 2,000 people.”
The crew, of course, is from around the world, but it’s surprisingly easy for most of them to find a compatriot onboard. My fellow passengers represent 17 countries, with Yankees claiming a bit more than a third of the manifest.
“It’s an interesting mix on board,” said Linda Williams of Beoley, England, south of Birmingham. “If it were dominated by one nationality, that wouldn’t be so good.”
Some passengers weary of the tri-lingual announcements in English, French and German, but they’re important to keep the shore excursions, shipboard activities and entertainment on track.
Still, if you’re expecting naval military precision, best to scale back expectations to island time. It’s not unusual to wait in line 45 minutes to board the next tender ashore — longer if the passengers who won’t queue pop in front. And last-call tenders late at night, as at Soper’s Hole in Tortola, can be a bit iffy. Rescue came when the ship missed one of her crew members.
But as every sailor knows, it’s an ill wind that blows no one good. When passengers on the shore excursion to the Baths at Virgin Gorda were told the wrong time to rejoin the tenders, some people grumbled about the hour’s wait. But others happily jumped into the ocean at the pier, and sun-starved Briton Linda Williams took the time to drink up the rays.
“I’m quite content to stand in the sun,” said the retiree from Birmingham. “I’m on holiday; it’s not raining.”
This itinerary, round trip from St. Maarten to Anguilla, Virgin Gorda, Norman Island, Jost von Dyke, St. Kitts and St. Barthelemy, is for the ultra-beachcomber. The first four days are all sand, all the time, perfect for sailors who are content with a beach towel, novel, lounger and rum-spiked Painkiller at hand.
“It would have been nice to break up those four days with one port where you could walk around, even if you didn’t want to buy anything,” said Thayer, a blonde with fair skin. “I can’t go and sit at the beach day after day — I’m red enough as it is!”
Shore excursions pick up at the end of the cruise, in St. Kitts and St. Barthelemy, casually called St. Barts. Some head off for the bus tours of St. Kitts, others rattle along on the island’s old sugar railway that now hauls tourists.
At posh St. Barts, some passengers roar off on ATVs, others submerge in the Yellow Submarine to admire the sea life. While it’s fun to window shop for clothes and jewelry priced at astronomical Euros, my favorite daydream at St. Barths is ogling the yachts tucked into the broad, U-shaped harbor. What must it be like to come aboard one of those leviathans of luxury, welcomed back with a cool towel and obeisance from your staff? A girl can dream.
But soon it’s time to snap out of my reverie and head back to Star Clipper, my own little slice of yachting heaven. For one more day, I can still pretend this sleek beauty is mine, all mahogany, brass and those 16 exquisite sails.
Star Clipper ships
The Star Clipper line includes Star Flyer, built in Ghent, Belgium, in 1991; Star Clipper, from the same shipyard in 1992; and the larger Royal Clipper, from Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 2000. The Royal Clipper is only the second five-masted full-rigger ever built, inspired by Preussen, built in 1902.
The ships sail in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, and cross the Atlantic. Rates for a seven-day Caribbean cruise start at $1,993 per person, double occupancy; for a seven-day Mediterranean, $1,575 per person, double occupancy. For more information on Star Clippers, 800-442-0551; www.starclippers.com.