IF YOU look in Lloyd's Register of American Yachts for the year 1932, you find some pretty splendid boats. Once American millionaires had gone in for private railroad cars, and occasionally whole private trains. Right now, a fair number of them possess jets. But in 1932, the way to travel in style was on your own yacht.

Alfred I. Du Pont, for example, could slip off to the West Indies with a few guests aboard his 130-foot power cruiser Nenemoosha. William Mellon of Pittsburgh could get there a bit more sumptuously aboard his 222-foot Vagabondia, also a power boat. Both men would have to bite their nails in envy if W. K. Vanderbilt of New York happened to drop anchor in the same port. His twin-dieseled Alva was not only longer, at 264 feet, but incomparably bigger. Alva weighed 2,265 tons. Seven times the tonnage of Mellon's little toy. Twelve times that of the Mayflower. Bigger than many a tramp steamer.

Impressive as these yachts were, none of them equalled a newcomer to the Register. E. F. Hutton had just trumped them all. In 1931 he built (or, more accurately, paid the Krupp shipyards in Germany to build) the grandest yacht any private person has ever owned. None of your puny twin engines, this one had four big diesels. From stern to bowsprit it stretched 316 feet. It carried a crew of 72. And best of all, it was not just an oversized powerboat. It was a sailing ship. The four diesel engines were only auxiliary to the 30 sails. Hussar was born a square-rigger, a four-masted barkentine, able to spread 35,000 square feet of canvas to the wind.

Square-rigged sailing ships, Gothic cathedrals, turreted castles, these are among the most beautiful objects men have ever built. The square-rigger is the most beautiful mode of transportation. Seen from another vessel, or from land as she glides into harbor, any tall ship is a thrilling sight. But even among the small company of her peers in 1931, Hussar was exceptional. Inside and out. Seen from a distance, she stood out because her masts were exceptionally tall--taller, for example, than those of the few square-rigged freighters that still plied the oceans. The mainmast soared up 190 feet from the deck.

Inside, she was more striking still. Instead of the cramped economy of the accommodation on most sailing ships, there was incredible and spacious luxury. Gold-plated fixtures, the finest wood paneling, lots of marble, fireplaces with ornate mantels. Instead of bunks in the principal cabins, canopied double beds. A noble wine-cellar. In short, the kind of grandeur no one has ever had or ever will have on a private railroad car or on a jet airplane. There isn't room.

All this opulence was the work not of E. F. Hutton but of his wife, whose ship it really was. He was rich, but she was richer. Born Marjorie Merriwether Post, she was sole heiress to her father's Postum Cereal Company, and eventually the major stockholder in General Foods. Out of deference to male pride, Hussar was listed in Lloyd's Register as Hutton's ship, but she had planned it, and her money paid for it. The interior decoration was entirely her design, and so was some of the complex technology that kept the ship stable, airconditioned, and comfortable. She had taken a course in marine engineering.

The Huttons first saw their glorious ship on Nov. 30, 1931. She had been sailed from Germany to Bermuda, where they came from New York to meet her. "She came up to all our expectations, which rarely happens," Marjorie Hutton wrote later. The comment means a lot, coming from a person whose idea of a Manhattan apartment was something with 70 rooms, and whose winter house in Florida could occupy two European sculptors for three years, just to carve some of the interior ornaments.

For the next four years, Hussar was the usual vacation home of the Huttons--and of scores of their friends. They sailed her to Africa, to South America, to Hawaii, to Europe, and over and over again to the West Indies. They spent so much time on her that, as Marjorie Hutton's biographer William Wright put it in his book "Heiress," "It appeared they were staying at sea until the Depression went away." They liked her in rough weather as well as smooth. A friend remembers Marjorie Hutton taking her up to sleep on deck, right under the mainmast, one night when the ship was tossing. "The roughness wasn't nearly so noticeable."

In 1935 the Huttons were divorced. E.F. Hutton went his way, Marjorie and the ship went hers. A long line of earlier (and smaller) Hutton yachts had been named Hussar; one way she celebrated her independence was by promptly renaming the ship Sea Cloud. Herself she renamed Davies by just as promptly marrying again. Joseph Davies, her new husband, was a lawyer and politician who was soon to become the American ambassador to Russia. Out of deference to male pride--just as touchy in 1935 as in 1931--she leased Sea Cloud to her new husband at the bargain rate of $1 a year. That was so he could refer to "my ship," be the one listed in Lloyd's, and so on. But Sea Cloud, of course, remained hers.

For the next few years the ship served as background for a lot of diplomacy. When Davies reported in to Moscow as ambassador, Sea Cloud sailed up the Neva River to Leningrad, loaded with American food and French wine. On day cruises she would sometimes carry the entire Moscow diplomatic corps. It was during a Baltic cruise that the queen of Norway (on board with her husband for lunch) said admiringly to her hostess, "Why, you live like a queen!" Yes, and better, too, Marjorie Davies could have answered, but didn't.

The diplomatic phase ended as World War II approached. When it began, and America joined in, so did Sea Cloud. In January, 1942, Marjorie Davies leased the ship to the Navy for the duration, charging the same modest fee she did to husbands. The Navy took down the four great masts, and turned Sea Cloud into a sub-chaser--a bigger and more formidable one, incidentally, than the standard 173-foot government-issue model. She was credited with sinking two submarines.

After the war, the ship came back to her owner, relatively undamaged except for one badly chipped mantelpiece in the main salon. That was where the young naval officers had set up a dartboard, and sometimes missed their target.

At first the Davieses contented themselves with repairing the mantel, setting the canopied beds back up, a few things like that. The masts were down, the rigging (it included something like eight miles of manila rope) gone, and it would have been hideously expensive to turn a sub-chaser back into a sailing ship. For some time they used her as if she were a mere Vagabondia or Nenemoosha.

But if you have sailed on a square-rigger and seen the sails bosoming out before a breeze; if you have known the difference between diesel engines churning their way through the sea like a bulldozer through a landscape, between that and sails enabling a clipper ship to ride the sea with such harmony that you feel a sense of oneness with the whole universe, you are not easily going to be contented with anything else. Mrs. Davies restored Sea Cloud to her pre-war glory. It cost her around $3 million.

When the job was finished in 1950, the great ship began a fourth career. She had been a vacation ship, a dip- lomatic ship and a warship. Now she became a social ship. Marjorie Post Davies was 63 by now, and her husband was 75. She was less interested in adventurous cruises around the world than she once had been. She was more interested in being a career hostess. Sea Cloud spent a lot of time tied up at Alexandria, the nearest deep water to Washington, while her mistress gave grand parties. Most of her cruises were now in the Caribbean. Her passengers were people like the duke and duchess of Windsor, and Rafael Trujillo, dictator and generalissimo of the Dominican Republic.

That period ended in 1955, when the Davies got divorced. After the Hutton divorce, Sea Cloud got a new name. After the Davies' divorce, she got a new owner. Marjorie Post traded her to Rafael Trujillo for an airplane. At least it was an airplane of distinction: a 44-passenger Viscount propjet. From the person with the largest private ship, she became the person with the largest private plane.

But for Sea Cloud a dark period had set in. There's nothing actually disgraceful about being the yacht of a dictator--and Trujillo was a very rich dictator who could afford to keep her up, and did. But he and his family had considerable lapses in taste, and Angelita, as the ship now became, was the setting for various kinds of low farce and tragi-comedy over the next few years.

For example, when the Generalissimo's son Ramfis went to the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in 1957, Angelita was dispatched to New Orleans to be his retreat from the rigors of Fort Leavenworth. That's not wholly unlike her having been in Leningrad when the Davies were in Moscow. But it's not wholly like it, either. Ramfis' main use of Angelita was for weekend meetings with Zsa Zsa Gabor. Gabor later cast a certain glamor over those weekends, writing in her autobiography, "This boat, this entourage, this man were not of the 20th century, but of centuries before"--a statement of anachronism in which she included herself. Certainly square-riggers are redolent of an earlier age. But the fact remains that it was mostly the wrong kind of sheets that this one spread to the wind when she was in New Orleans.

Or, again, there was a squalid though exciting incident after Trujillo's assassination in 1961. Dictators tend to have splendid burials and mausolea, which, when a new group takes power, are often pillaged. This seemed about to happen in the Dominican Republic in 1962, with the result that Trujillo's gorgeous coffin--with him in it--and all available cash were sent off to Martinique on Angelita. One hatch had to be enlarged for the purpose. Just before they arrived, the new authorities in Santo Domingo persuaded the crew, with the offer of handsome bonuses, to turn around and sail back. The republic recovered both the body and about $4 million.

No one knew what to do with a "yacht" twice the size of most of the 19th-century China clippers, however; and the sixth and darkest period of Sea Cloud's career began. She rusted at a dock in Santo Domingo for several years. She was sold to a group of Americans who intended but failed to turn her into a charter vessel. She rusted at a mooring in Panama for several more years. The typical end of a glorious anachronism seemed in sight: decay and death.

But then in the mid-1970s came an unexpected happy ending. There were Germans living who had never forgotten that it was the shipyards in Kiel which built Sea Cloud, and a group of German yachtsmen and shipowners got together and bought her. Keeping most of the original splendor, they did enough remodeling so that the ship could accommodate 80 passengers: 23 in Marjorie Post Hutton Davies-designed opulence, the rest in comfortable but more ordinary cabins. They gave her back the best of her names. They hired a mixture of German and American officers, and a crew of young sailors from many countries of Europe and many states of the Union. (Your first day as a new crew member you get to climb the mainmast right to its 190-foot top, just to show you have the right kind of head for working in rigging.) And in 1979 she began a new career as the only cruise ship of her kind in the world.

In 1982, I had the good fortune to take a cruise on her. The days of being able to lease Sea Cloud for $1 a year are long gone; if I had had to pay for my stateroom, it would have cost me about $3,500 for the week. (This price would have included airfare to and from Antigua, where we met her, and a couple of luxurious days on Antigua itself.)

The way the cruises work now (and will continue to operate until a December holiday cruise inaugurates a new program in which individual bookings through travel agents will be available), some organization charters Sea Cloud for a week. It may be the Smithsonian, or the History Book Club, or the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, or any of numerous colleges and universities. (Some people have joined a club just in order to go on Sea Cloud.) The organization then usually hires a lecturer to go along, so that the cruise has an educational side. If the organization is a college, it's naturally one of their own faculty who gets to go. I got on board because Dartmouth had the ship for a week, and I teach there and have lots of seniority.

There have been better weeks of my life, but not many. The noble wine cellar is still noble. The food, though no threat to a three-star restaurant, is excellent. The stops at little Caribbean islands where the big motorized tour ships never go were memorable. It is quite an experience to lecture on Herman Melville and Richard Henry Dana on the deck of a square-rigger gliding past Guadaloupe. But mainly the thing is just to be on a ship like that. There is nothing else like it.

As a young graduate student, I used to go back and forth to Europe on passenger ships large and small. (I was studying at Cambridge.) Being on the Flandre, the Nieuw Amsterdam, the United States was pleasant, even delightful, but it wasn't like sailing on Sea Cloud. As a member of the middle class growing up on the edge of Long Island Sound, I have been on a good many people's sailboats, yawls, ketches, and whatnot, especially when I was a teen-ager, and the people with the yawls, etc., had teen-age daughters. That was a moderately pleasant way to spend a day, at least if the wind was right. But some little object with a few triangular sails has almost nothing in common with a tall ship--not in my experience, anyway.

Of course there are inconveniences. If the ship sails through dinnertime, and there's any sea at all, the bottles of glorious wine are going to slide around a bit. If she furls her sails at 4 p.m.--as happened too often on my particular cruise--one gets the stink and hum of diesels for the rest of the day, instead of the silent joy of sails which is what we were all there for. Because it's a working ship, there are often sailors coiling ropes on deck right where you might want to stroll. If there's a storm, it's rough.

But any real experience has possible inconveniences. Only artificial experiences and Disneylands are totally free of inconvenience, just as they're totally free of adventure. Sea Cloud has reduced the inconvenience to a minimum, and brought the luxury to a maximum. Next best to spending a week at sea in 1840, and seeing one beautiful ship after another all week long, maybe passing Melville standing masthead on the Acushnet (that would be 1841, actually), I'll take a week on that glorious anachronism, Sea Cloud. May her seventh career last forever.