Sailing on a Clipper Ship By
from our SCUBA dive, we bounced our way across the sea in a small Zodiac until
our ship, the Star Flyer, came into view around the next point. Her four masts
seemed to stretch as high as the surrounding hills and the elegant, tapered stern
and lengthy bowsprit reaching forward seemed graceful and swift. Seeing this beautiful
clipper ship, sails furled and anchored in an otherwise empty cove, was a stunning
sight that seemed incongruously retrieved from the past.
of three clipper ships operated by Monaco-based Star Clippers, the Star Flyer
is a modern day creation inspired by the speedy 19th century sailing ships. Built
in 1991 as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream by Swedish owner Mikael Krafft,
she and her fleet mates cruise the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Southeast Asia
with a perspective that seems literally ages apart from the rest of the cruise
Cruise Director set the tone the first day by saying, "Forget everything
you know about cruising. This week, we want to give you the opportunity to sail
a tall ship- to climb the mast, to steer the ship or learn about navigation."
Star Flyer did just that during my one-week trip out of Phuket, Thailand around
the Andaman Sea. In an age where cruise ships are becoming larger, more impersonal
and in some cases just a bit bizarre (have you seen pictures of passengers shaking
elbows due to fear of the Norwalk virus?), Star Clippers is a refreshing contrast.
no mistake - these are true sailing ships. Walk around and marvel at the myriad
of rigging stretching skyward like a vertical spider web. Winches, cleats and
line are scattered on all open decks, and whenever possible, the sails are used
as the vessel's main propulsion. (More so than their upscale competitors Windstar
or the party-oriented Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, Star Clippers are insistent
upon sailing as much as possible. Several times on my trip, we actually spun the
ship completely around with sails only and proceeded out of the anchorage without
even engaging the engines.
a maximum of 170 passengers, Star Clippers attracts a wonderful mix of ages from
all around the globe. While the average around hovers just below 45, honeymooners
happily mixed with those celebrating significant wedding anniversaries. Generally,
the Asian sailings attract the most international crowd, and on my sailing the
112 passengers hailed from no less than 17 countries! The Mediterranean and in
particular the Caribbean sailings tend to be less diverse and attract mostly Americans,
British, French and Germans, with English still the predominant language.
the day, life centered around the open decks and water sports, including using
the ship's sailboats, water-skis or banana boat free of charge. Snorkeling and
swimming were always on the agenda, and some of us would venture off on short
hikes around the islands. I frequently partook in the SCUBA diving program and
loved the convenience - you had all your equipment onboard, stepped into a Zodiac
directly from the ship and returned onboard an hour and a half later.
like life onboard, was easygoing, with breakfast and lunch buffet style and open
seating at dinner allowing everyone to sit wherever they wanted. Even the dress
code was relaxed, as polo shirts and slacks sufficed at night except for the Captain's
dinner, when most put on a button-down shirt.
dinner, there were hokey games or silly talent shows on deck, which while hardly
sophisticated, accomplished the goal of bringing everyone together. Small ships
tend to foster an instant, good-natured camaraderie among like-minded passengers,
and seeing a 75-year old Japanese man dancing onboard with a 30-year old woman
from New York underscored that inherent friendliness. Most enjoyed the opportunity
to meet others, and within a few nights, a large crowd stayed around the bar talking
and being jovial until 1AM.
late nights at the bar might not have been found on earlier clipper ships, the
company does believe in keeping alive many nautical traditions. Fitted with brass
and wood, not to mention a real parrot, the ship exudes maritime ambiance and
at only 360 feet, is small enough to seem like your own private yacht. Other touches,
such as the large flags flying from the rigging or the Officer on Watch ringing
a bell to announce the loading of a tender, further keep the sailing ship ethos
those wanting to embrace sailing as much as possible, the Captain and Cruise Director
held "story time" every morning to talk about the ship, its rigging
and the region in which we were cruising. Those wanting to steer the ship only
had to ask, and one morning was even set aside to demonstrate sailing maneuvers
with the ship. Passengers could, and often did, stroll up the bridge anytime they
wanted, and some always stood next to the Captain when sailing out of port, as
if to discreetly look over his shoulder.
in this age of litigation and self-protection, Star Clippers still trusts passengers'
common sense. The bowsprit stretching 30-feet forward of the bow was open to passengers
during the day, and the hammock-like netting suspended over the ocean affords
probably the most unique- and delightful- setting on any cruise ship afloat. Passengers
are also given the opportunity to climb into a harness and scramble up the ratlines
to a platform part way up the mast. It is an amazing experience, to be lost high
up amidst the sails, looking at your ship below being driven through the waves
by the wind.
didn't compare, however, to the morning we were underway under full sail and allowed
to enter a Zodiac or a ship's tender to photograph the ship. While standing on
deck under the towering masts overhead was always spectacular, seeing the ship
from the water, with the billowing white sails set against the turquoise water,
was simply stirring. Forget those megaships- the tiny Star Flyer seemed far more
impressive than any 100,000-ton ship
most Star Clippers itineraries, we sailed to small, remote ports away from the
tourist track, with a strong focus on natural beauty and water sports. We mostly
anchored off an island in the early to mid morning, allowing passengers to experience
some daylight sailing, and then sailed around 6PM after a day at the beach. (In
fact, only two formal shore excursions were offered during the week as there was
no infrastructure - or need - to support any others.) Some ports were truly remote;
when we stopped at the Surin and Similan Islands near the Burmese border, we found
out they were national parks and the Star Flyer was the only foreign commercial
vessel permitted to call here.
we went it seemed like the Caribbean long before it was discovered by the megaships
- or even before chartered sailboats. It was easily the best diving and snorkeling
I have done, and while we didn't see any elusive Whale Sharks that frequent the
region, we did see Leopard Sharks swimming around us and one seven-foot wide Manta
Ray circling effortlessly right above our heads.
fact, the only disappointment with the Andaman Sea was the lack of a consistent
wind. In the Mediterranean and Caribbean, the ships are frequently under sail
alone and move at speeds around 10 knots or more. While we did go under sail alone
several times, it was often only at speeds of around 3 knots. Still, the overall
outdoor lifestyle, the natural beauty of the islands and the fun international
passenger list make these itineraries popular, and as the only American market
ship based in Thailand, the Star Flyer is a natural add-on to a land vacation
in Southeast Asia.
so much of our time spent outdoors, there didn't need to be much interior space,
but the ship did offer two pleasant lounges. The Piano Bar is centered underneath
one of the ship's two small splash pools, and was comfortable with round banquettes
and sailing ship paintings and prints hung on the bulkhead. Aft of the outdoor
bar is the ship's small Edwardian Library, complete with faux fireplace. While
rarely used, these attractive spaces provide a nice respite from those who have
had too much of the sun but still want to be out of their cabins.
most other small ships, Star Clippers are reasonably priced, with fares below
their more posh but less authentic competitors Windstar Cruises. Cabins, while
comfortable, are much smaller than you'd find on Windstar and range from 97 to
150 sq feet, including some bathrooms where the space for the shower and toilet
seem to be the same. Some cabins on the lowest deck can occasionally hear engine
room machinery quite clearly, and the most expensive cabins open directly onto
the deck. Four cabins surrounding the dining room can be a bit noisy - especially
cabins 310 and 311 which have doors that actually open into the dining room. I
found the best positioned cabins to be forward or aft on Clipper Deck-away from
the engine room noise and generally avoiding any noise on deck.
the food left something to be desired for the first few days, it steadily improved
throughout the week, although it would never be called gourmet. A local Thai chef
brought onboard for the season drew especially high marks for his daily local
specialties. Service, while always friendly, can be a bit busy, especially when
full, and so dinner may take a long time. Occasionally, ordered items were forgotten
or certain requests had to be repeated, but it rarely mattered. We came aboard
for the sailing experience and not for flawless luxury, and with the overall experience
so enchanting we always overlooked any minor gaffes.
the last night, I climbed out onto the netting of the bowsprit and watched the
crowd gathering of deck to see the sails being set. From my vantage point overhanging
the ocean, I could see the lines of the bow taper into the sea and listen to the
waves lap the hull in disorderly unison while the sails slowly rose and
of me, the sun was setting into the sea, turning the sky delicate shades of orange,
red and pink, while behind me, the sails stretched 226 feet into the air to create
a veritable wall of canvas that caught every breath of air. As the ship slowly
moved ahead into the night, we seemed to find ourselves simultaneously drifting
into the past, and relaxing on the netting, I wondered if I would ever find a
more peaceful scene in the present.
more information on Star Clippers, click here.