Out of Lisbon in the Gulf of Cadiz tonight and southbound for Tangier, with 20 to 25 knots of wind on the port quarter and 5ft to 8ft seas, we’re reaching at nearly 10 knots. The motion is easy, the angle of heel steady at five to 10 degrees, and there’s no question that we are on a sailboat. A big one.
Though this feeling of movement without effort would be familiar to any sailor and the bridge looks remarkably like the cockpit of my 33-footer, everything else on this boat is magnified. This is Star Clipper, a 360ft, four-masted barkentine—and she is to a typical cruise ship as a limousine is to a bus.
At that moment we were under upper and lower topsails, main and mizzen staysails and one jib. The young deck officer said we would carry the current sail configuration up to 30 knots of wind, then reduce if necessary by taking in the jib and square sails.
We had arrived in Lisbon two days earlier, to recover from jet lag and take some time to explore the city before embarking. By pure coincidence, we had been at the Castelo St. Jorge, atop a high hill overlooking the harbor, as Star Clipper pulled in from her transatlantic voyage. Her size and profile were a striking contrast to the conventional cruise ship we’d seen dockside an hour earlier.
This would be a voyage of new experiences for my wife, Kathy, and me, starting with a slightly rolly cha-cha on the main deck as the ship’s musician played an electronic keyboard. (Something we certainly couldn’t do on my boat!) After that we took a turn around the decks to locate the essentials—bridge, dining room, library, etc. Instead of glitz, we found classic varnished mahogany joinery, polished brass fittings and white planked ceilings. From the cabins to the public spaces to the handling of the vessel, Star Clipper is simply a yacht for 170 people. The owner likes to call it a megayacht, and that’s not far off the mark.
The passengers were of a different sort from the usual cruise ship, too. There were no hyperactive children, no hormonal young singles trying to score for the night and no loud Texans flashing photos of their Cadillac collection. Yes, I have been on cruise ships where those were real characters in the party. (Perhaps you have, too.)
Instead, this was a rather quiet group, but open to lively conversation on a wide range of subjects. Most of them had been on several Star Clipper sails before, some as many as nine times. Many were sailors with their own boats who also had quite a bit of small-boat cruising experience.
It appeared that the ages ranged from the 50s through the 60s, with a few of us older than that. Some were taking time off from work; many were retired. A group of 30 Australian doctors was using the voyage as a setting for a series of meetings. About a third of us were Americans or Canadians, with the remainder split among German, French and British nationals. The ship was not full, carrying only about 110 passengers, with an equal number of crew.
One reason for both this demographic and the empty cabins was the nature of the trip. An axiom on cruise ships is, “The longer the cruise, the older the cruiser,” and this 10-day voyage in chilly April would not have been convenient for people subject to corporate schedules. Midwinter cruises in the Caribbean and summer trips from the French Riviera, for example, will typically draw a younger crowd.
Ours, however, was to be a classic Mediterranean crossing of the sort I have long been envious of others having completed. We would stop at Tangier in Morocco, Motril in Spain, Palma on Mallorca, Mahón on Menorca, and Trapani and Empedocle on Sicily before disembarking at Valletta, on the island of Malta.
To be sure, 10 days on a cruise ship would not be the same as a year or even a summer in the same waters on our own boat. But as I touch the three-quarter-century mark after 60 years of sailing, I have less ability (and desire) to fight a flailing jib in unfamiliar waters at night. Granted, I would lose the feeling of accomplishment, the freedom of choosing destinations, the total privacy of a cruising home and the long exploration times in ports. But I would still have the sensation of sailing, the joy of discovering new places and even the ability to help with sail handling.
I would also gain a vast amount of comfort, food that I didn’t have to buy and prepare, freedom from responsibility, a solid sleep every night and a variety of interesting companions.
As the wind dropped the next day, the crew increased sail, eventually carrying three staysails, two fisherman staysails and three jibs. Now on a beam reach, we could no longer carry the square sails, but the big diesel made up the difference, and we continued south at 10 knots, our normal cruise speed. The next morning at 0730, I sighted Africa.
Kathy and I opted to go to the city of Tangier on our own, rather than joining the ship’s excursion. Star Clipperwas only a 15-minute walk from the old walled city and reports were that it was safe with normal precautions, so we plowed through the peddlers and explored this fascinating, albeit touristy, old place. I finally had a chance to say to my beautiful, mysterious companion, “Come weez me to zee Kasbah.”
A massive cruise ship had just left and the early-season tourist load was light, so we did not feel crowded or rushed. It was market day, and farmers had come to the city to sell their produce, chickens and meat products. At the end of the day we had tired feet, some herbal potions that made us smell better, SD cards full of pictures and big smiles.
Soon afterward we motored off into the calm night to join the orderly stream of heavy commercial traffic headed to the Mediterranean Sea via the Straits of Gibraltar: defined by Jebel Musa, a prominent mountain in Morocco to the south, and that big, familiar insurance company rock on the north. These landmarks comprise the mythical Pillars of Hercules, the western end of the Mediterranean Sea and the traditional limit of the ancient world. Phoenician and Greek explorers actually traversed it from time to time without falling off the edge of the Earth, but that doesn’t make the place any less significant.
Capt. Tunikov soon received permission to turn north and cross the shipping lanes, so we had a nighttime view of the floodlit “Rock” from a couple of miles out as we continued toward the Spanish coast. Then it was time to go into the lounge for another cup of hot tea and a visit with new friends.
Did I mention that it was cold? We had flown to Lisbon from central Florida, where the temperature was in the 80s every day. However, sweaters and under layers came out of the suitcases immediately upon our arrival in Portugal, and the deck chairs were habitable only during the sunniest hours and the little swimming pool stayed empty. Even the couple from the north of England said it felt colder than home.
Still, the tea was hot and the conversation was excellent. Travel is broadening because it creates a chance to see, hear and exchange diverse world views, and the soft, traditional lounge, library and dining room facilitated that.
Back to Europe
The rain in Spain did not stay mainly in the plain; it also drizzled down through the mountains to the coast. We would only be in Motril for eight hours to allow a shore excursion to the Alhambra, an hour’s bus ride inland, so Kathy and I opted to explore the sailing center adjacent to the ship’s berth, instead.
Having been in the sailing school business in Annapolis for a couple of decades myself, I enjoyed comparing notes with the owner of the commercial sailing school at the marina in Motril. Although the boats are about the same, there’s a world of difference between pleasure sailing in Spain and in the United States.
Licensing, for example, is mandatory here, and you need to get professional training in navigation, boat handling, radio operation and the rules of the road to obtain a basic license that allows a cruising radius of some 150 miles from your home marina in a boat less than about 40ft. If you want to go bigger and farther, you must take even more classes and pass more tests.
There are few anchorages along this part of the coast, so cruising usually is from marina to marina. Most sailors will hop to the next harbor or across the Med to Morocco for the weekend. When I described the relative free-for-all boating in America and having more than a hundred anchorages within 25 miles of my home on the Chesapeake, the Spaniard’s jaw dropped.
Back at sea, the wind piped up to 25 knots on the nose and waves were running about 8ft, with spindrift blowing off their tops. It would be a slow motoring trip to Mallorca, a reminder of all the times I have encountered the same experience on my own boat. The first officer shrugged and said, “That’s the way the Mediterranean is. The wind is always from the wrong direction.”
Unfazed, Peter, the social director, was giving his daily “Story Time” session about ships, sailing and regional history to a good crowd on deck. Peter switched effortlessly from English to German renditions of the information every few sentences, so we had to be alert. His knowledge was wide and deep, and his daily bulletins became a keepsake encyclopedia.
The Balearic Islands
With a mere four-hour stopover in Palma, Mallorca, we had only enough time to stroll around the town, admiring the architecture and the vast marinas full of pleasure boats before a midnight departure. That’s one of the downsides to sailing on a schedule, of course. On our own boat, we could have simply stayed for a while and explored the entire island.
Overnight, the wind dropped to zero, and the skipper set up a photo session of the ship under full sail at the entrance to Mahón, on the island of Menorca. We piled into a couple of launches and snapped away. Like other commercial sailing vessels, Star Clipper carries full sail only in very light wind.
Star Clipper puts on a show when entering or leaving port. She’s an eye-catcher, even among the other huge cruise ships and large pleasure yachts. The skipper makes a point of carrying sail as close to port as practical, making us even more visible, proving that size is not everything, it’s how you use it that counts.
I was amused to see that the wind picked up just as we approached our dock with everything up. As all sailors know, this “mooring breeze” is the one reliable, predictable wind we ever encounter, and it seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.
Menorca is not heavily developed, so it is a fine spot for enjoying nature. Time constraints had eliminated the scheduled bicycle tour of Palma, and both the mountain bike and the kayak tours of Menorca were cancelled because the weather was just too cold. Needing a dose of exercise and solid ground, we joined an excursion on a hike through the S’Albufera Nature Park.
This walking tour was led by a Scotsman who said as we left the bus, “We’ll keep the pace nice and slow,” then disappeared over the horizon at a brisk pace, trailed by several energetic Germans. The rest of us wandered behind like stray cats, taking pictures and gazing at the sights. The track was moderately rough, and recent rains had washed out some areas and left mud. It was not a hard trek, but a pretty good three-hour workout.
Many of Star Clipper’s events and fair-weather excursions are active events like this. The ship carries kayaks and a Laser, and a couple of strong, energetic young crewmembers comprise the “Sport Team,” who offer an exercise program aboard. There’s morning yoga, a mile walk around the deck, pool gymnastics, beach trips … that sort of thing.
Evening entertainment aboard is low-key, often just the young keyboardist playing on deck or at the baby grand piano in the lounge. One evening, Kathy and I borrowed a guitar and added our blues-rock rendition of a John Prine song as part of a spirited talent show.
Bound for Italy and Malta
At sea again, we encountered moderate conditions and our speed edged back up toward 10 knots under sail and power. Navigation is modern, of course, and a large chartplotter, wind and knotmeter displays are out for all to see.
Sail handling is a mix of traditional and modern systems. The square sails roll up into their spars with hydraulic drives, which is simple, reliable and eliminates the need for sailors aloft. The fore-and-aft sails are rigged just as they would be on a schooner of any era, with halyards and booms that are familiar to any sailor. Big electric winches on pedestals enhance muscle power, so the standard watch crew of one officer and three deckhands is sufficient to take care of normal setting, trimming and furling.
The crew, right up to the captain, are readily accessible, and if you wish, you can join in and help run the ship. The bridge is normally open to visitors, and the officers seem happy to talk with passengers and answer questions.
I jumped at the chance to climb the foremast to the crow’s nest, about 50ft off the deck. With a harness, a carabiner attached to a safety line and solid footing on the ratlines, it was easy, and the view was wonderful. I also joined a small group with the chief engineer on a tour of the engine room, where the 12-cylinder Caterpillar diesel roared. The space was just like a typical cruising boat, but hugely magnified. Backup propulsion comes from the twin eight-cylinder gensets, which can drive an electric motor on the main prop shaft.
An excursion to the city of Erice, on Sicily, was touristy but fun. Sources say that the town hasn’t been quite the same since the First Punic War, but its Saracen and Norman castles and old stone streets are still beautiful. The Gothic church, an unimpressive pile of rock on the outside, is a gem inside. Friends who took the funicular up to the town on their own were thrilled by lunch at a cliffside restaurant.
We took another bus excursion while Star Clipper was docked at Porto Empedocle, Sicily. This one was to the “Valley of the Temples,” a misnomer if there ever was one. It’s an ancient site with remarkably preserved buildings—on a hilltop.
Among these Greek temples, I immersed myself in an irrational search for an irrational number: The Golden Ratio. After estimating temple dimensions and running calculations on my iPhone, I had to concur with mathematical historians who say that the Greeks did not build according to those proportions, after all. It’s just a very old urban legend.
We were surprised and pleased by the quality of these shore excursions. Kathy and I normally avoid bus tours, groups and guides the same way we avoid driving in rush hour, but these trips were consistently fun, easy, fairly priced and informative.
After an easy overnight passage with a following wind, we entered the harbor at Valletta, Malta at 0700. This would be the end of our trip, although some passengers were continuing on to Athens. The golden light on the ancient stone fort was a perfect punctuation to terminate the voyage.
We would spend two more days exploring the historic old city of Valletta before being packed into an aluminum cylinder to be flung back to the New World. Those days and the two in Lisbon before departure were bookends to a library shelf of new experiences. Star Clipper, a 19th century ship built with 21st century technology, had proven the perfect vessel for collecting those books of memories.