Star Clippers is the right cruise line for clients hoping to learn about sailing. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
Feature image (above): Star Clippers allows guests to relax on the net at the bow of the ship. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
Like a gymnast on her balance beam, I steadied myself on the bowsprit of the ship, carefully placing my foot on the thin, eggshell-yellow pipe protruding from the hull above the water.
As the ledge narrowed, I had no choice but attempt what I had been putting off.
I swiveled my torso and placed one foot onto the netting, a series of knots tied to form a pattern of squares. An able seaman in a striped shirt and sailing shoes assured me that while my foot could get caught in one of the squares, I would not fall into the ocean below. I knelt underneath the rope, reaching out for the thick wire running the length of the net. I plopped down onto the net and the net bounced back, communicating to me that I would be supported. Lying down onto the knotted fabric, I felt the wind caress my face and watched as the royal blue waters revealed their wrinkles.
But my seven-night cruise onboard Star Clippers’ Star Clipper ship in Indonesia was not love at first sight. I've been spoiled rotten by numerous modern, luxury ships; butlers, French balconies, Egyptian cotton and fresh-baked baguettes were fresh in my mind.
So when I saw my stateroom — little more than a full-size bed and a porthole — I wasn’t sure what the week would entail. It turned out that it didn’t consist of much time spent in my cabin, and that was the point.
There’s a lot of talk about the romance of the high seas and tall ships onboard Star Clippers, which choose sailing over running the engines as much as possible. This perspective is nicely reflected in the vessel's evening literature, which is filled with quotes in medieval fonts exalting the ship life.
“There is little man has made that approaches anything in nature, but a sailing ship does,” reads one such quote by Alan Villiers, a mariner, adventurer and author.
Onboard, our ambassador of sailing was Peter Kissner, Star Clippers’ cruise director and resident historian. His twice-daily and well-attended talks — on topics such as tall ships, clipper ships and the spice trade — were fueled by his comprehensive knowledge of the sea, geography, sailing and our destination. At one of his sessions, I found out that Star Clipper isn't technically a clipper ship because it has a metal hull rather than a wooden hull, and because its primary purpose is not to move fast like the clippers of yore. Kissner explained that Star Clipper is more of a windjammer with elegant clipper lines and, like all the brand’s ships, it’s meticulously designed to look like a classic sailing ship.
"The owner’s passion is really in building more than sailing," Kissner said.
Passion for sailing, on the other hand, is the obvious commonality among staff, who act as seamen, sailors and just about everything else in between.
For example, Marika, a member of the watersports team, did more than just teach passengers how to windsurf and show them where to snorkel. She also showed guests how to chart the ship’s sailing position with a sextant. Each staff member is an open book, and guests have a variety of opportunities to get involved and go behind the scenes.
“Forget everything you've heard about cruising,” Kissner said. “We are voyaging. Our aim is to give you the opportunity to sail on a tall ship. That doesn't mean that men have to scrub the floors, or that ladies have to peel potatoes down below, but we'd like to give you the feeling of being on your own private yacht.”
The experience onboard is intimate, with a maximum capacity of 170 guests and 74 crew members, so guests can quickly learn the ship’s floor plan and feel comfortable. But don’t expect to find the usual elements of luxury cruising here. Aesthetics haven’t been updated since the ship set sail some 20 years ago, and I found that food was often hit or miss. Guests should also know that they’ll have to pay for extras such as Wi-Fi access, wine, water bottles and even hair conditioner. But I was usually too busy to care about those things.
Besides attending lectures and bouncing on the net, I steered the ship (with second-by-second instructions by a hands-on, able seaman); climbed the ship’s mast and watched as the crew manipulated the sails; and practiced safety drills such as “man overboard.”
Also on the daily schedule were visits to the ship’s engine room, a class on folding napkins, a presentation on the intricacies of the hotel department and more.
Activities onboard were well-attended by guests, who were more active, young and international (skewing German and North American) than most other ships. Because it was a summer sailing, there were numerous families onboard despite the fact that Star Clippers doesn’t offer a kids’ club. Nonetheless, most guests had a good handle of what to expect before sailing.
Indeed, they were a self-selecting group who found luxury in being present for small, priceless surprises.
One evening while I was lazing on the net during sunset, dolphins appeared just below. Racing the ship for a few glorious minutes, they confidently spliced through the orange-sherbet waters that are their home.
And for that one week, many of us started to feel at home at sea, too.