It’s sailing time. The Royal Clipper is ready; she twists her lines. The giant ship is humming herself some low-octave song. A hum that comes from the wind? It might be that. Or sounds from a sail that’s not yet unfurled. Ropes that seconds ago were asleep — coiled like boas in the deck’s hot sun — start spinning and unspooling. Passengers scatter. Sailors crank and pull. The captain moves to his wheel. I should be watching Bridgetown, Barbados, get smaller, little by little. Instead, I am staring up at just-hatched squares of canvas, diagram in hand. “Is that the mizzen-topgallant-staysail?” I ask as a wedge-like sheet comes down. A man in a green Star Clippers cap takes a look at my chart. “Might be a jigger,” he says. “Might be a jigger up there.”
I notice a woman inching away from us. This type of talk could be contagious.
I’m at the start of my late-February Grenadine-island cruise aboard the Star Clippers line’s Royal Clipper. The line has two smaller vessels, but the Royal Clipper — inspired by a 1902 tall ship and built in Rotterdam by a Swedish firm — claims to be the largest full-rigged sailing ship in the world.
With five masts and 42 confusing sails, the 439-foot-long ship can hold 227 passengers and allows them to watch and help out (a little bit) as the crew raises and trims sails and as the captain or mates turn the oak wheel on the always-open bridge. Some of the onboard activities have a nautical theme, such as lessons in splicing lines or tying knots.
I’d expected quarters to be pretty tight below deck, but as we roll toward our next port, Union Island, I discover that my cabin, with its varnished wood paneling, twin beds and marble-trimmed bathroom, looks a lot like those I’ve had on larger cruise ships.
When the dinner bell rings, I find out that the ship has a three-deck atrium and a multilevel dining room at its core. Eerie shadows from above show off the fact that the atrium’s ceiling skylight doubles as the bottom of the swimming pool up on deck. Murals decorating the central staircase include the following:
●A boy in a sailor suit holding a spyglass
●Two seagulls perched on a railing
●A woman with enormous earrings serving fruit
“Nice, isn’t it?” says one of my tablemates, 73-year-old Gray Furey of Cincinnati, who, as a birthday present to himself, has signed on for his third Royal Clipper cruise. Furey has a pocket watch (“I just like them”) and a penchant for Stella Artois beer.
Asked why he has come back again, Furey doesn’t hesitate. “I remember watching the head bartender in the ship’s talent show,” he says. “He made the assistant bartender disappear. I’d never seen something like that so close.”
Union Island’s Chatham Bay doesn’t look like much beyond a stretch of white-sand beach, but heading ashore on the Royal Clipper’s small, shuttle-like tender, I notice a few of the ship’s French passengers bent over the railing and peering closely at the shallow turquoise water.
“Une tortue!” one shouts, and suddenly we can all see swimming turtles, heads bobbing up above the water so that they can catch their breath.
When we reach Tobago Cays, the crew gets ready to barbecue lunch for us in the shade of some oleanders down on the sand. The Royal Clipper’s cruise director, Ximena C. Dipp, knows five languages, and she is using at least three to handle questions about the menu.
“What will you be grilling out there?” asks one passenger. “Caribbean chicken?”
“Just curious,” says another. “Will there be any corn?”
Sailing on a clipper ship makes people unusually hungry. And already we’ve gotten used to big buffet lunches on board and dinners with such elegant touches as risotto with scallops and marmalade-drizzled creme caramel.
Admiralty Bay in Bequia shows us a little pastel-colored town. The biggest building is the tax office, the smallest a very popular bar called the Penthouse. I decide against having a beer here because I can’t fit indoors. Instead, I pad around and wait for sunset sitting on top of an upturned rowboat. Here, as in Tobago, chunks of coral tumble in with the waves.
St. Lucia, our final stop, is full of chickens circling around and checking out the port. I try to feed them some bread, and suddenly I am being followed by brown and red hens who are interested in more. I half-walk, half-jog, which startles a group of boys stretched out in the shade.
“I like the way you move, man,” says one. “Like it, like it.” Everyone smirks.
When it’s time to pull out of port and set sail, we passengers stand in clusters on the Royal Clipper’s open bridge. If it’s nighttime, we can see how the stars can make a chart to steer by. At sunset we look out at planets, scattered island lights and the silhouettes of far-off ships.
When we’re allowed, we take our turns behind the wheel and try to spin it subtly enough to keep the ship on course. Sea salts may find this second nature, but for us, with tentative hands, it’s hard. Keel and hull behave as if they can sense their short-lived freedom: The huge ship kicks like a bull, or bucks to the side until a crew member steps in.
On the day we’re allowed to climb to one of the crow’s nests, I do not go first. It’s a gusty morning, and the ladder up the mainmast — it’s made of ropes and cable — is swinging like a bell. I watch some German passengers climb. They hop from rung to rung. They don’t look down.
“Not so difficult,” says Christina Drewes of Hanover, Germany, after she’s done.
“Were you nervous?” I ask.
“Never,” says Drewes. “I’ve never climbed a mast before, but I dreamed about it. I read some books about sailing. Horatio Hornblower. Do you know that one?”
I do, I say. But I dream of falling.
Drewes stands back as I click onto the safety belt and step on the lowest rung. I move my hands and think that my legs and feet will follow. Other passengers are staring, which helps to make them go.
It’s maybe halfway up that I hear it again. A kind of hum.
Maybe it’s the wind. A wind that’s strumming lines. That’s making a ladder swing.
Or maybe it’s the sail stretching out from the crow’s nest, now only a few feet above. Definitely not the mizzen-topgallant-staysail, I think. Could it be a jigger? I’m just not sure.
When my hands feel wood instead of rope, I get some help from the crew to pull up onto the little platform and look around. Bow and stern. Starboard and port. All are perfectly arranged in what must be some detailed model of a ship far below.
The hum is louder here. I hear a crack from a flag. Something about a thump of sail sounds wrong.
I realize this: I am a better listener than before. I could learn this song.
The company has three full-rigged sailing ships cruising the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and Central America: the Star Clipper, the Star Flyer and the flagship Royal Clipper.
From December through early April, Royal Clipper concentrates on the Caribbean, sailing from Barbados alternately to the Grenadines and the Windward Islands. Upcoming departures: Dec. 1, 15 and 29; Jan. 26, Feb. 9 and 23, March 9 and 23, April 6. Fares for most of these seven-night cruises currently start at $2,900 per person double and include round-trip air, with restrictions, from various U.S. cities. Cruise fares often change, so check with the line before booking.
Other lines that include at least one cruising tall ship:
Sea Cloud Cruises www.seacloud.com
Windstar Cruises www.windstarcruises.com
Mandel is an author of children’s books, including the new “Jackhammer Sam” (Macmillan/Roaring Brook).