Tales of tall ships and early explorers excite the imagination. Pictures of square sails and yardarms bent to the sea, evoke images of the past. But the days of the fully rigged ships are gone and stories of the men who sailed in them live only in the pages of a book.
Twice a year a modern clipper sails across the Atlantic providing its passengers with the opportunity to step back in time. A chance to taste the salt. To experience the power of nature. To hear the ship's own music: the thrum of wind through rigging and the beat of the bow as it pounds relentlessly into the swell. The ship is the Star Clipper. I join her in Spain.
My first glimpse of the ship is from the Paseo del Parque in Malaga. I find it hard to distinguish her four bare masts through the branches of the trees. Behind me is the old town - a maze of quaint narrow streets where live statues glitter in gold paint and olive-skinned beauties frequent the fashion boutiques, where accordionists play in the alleys and dark Spanish eyes flash with the romance of Malaga's number one son, Antonio Banderas.
It is a fitting port to board a sailing ship bound for the Americas.
As evening falls and spotlights light up the Alcazaba and Gibralfaro, the 115 meter Clipper with 120 passengers on board slips from the harbour. Square sails drop from the foremast yards and my voyage of 3600 nautical mile begins.
From the stern I watch as the lights of the Costa del Sol fade into the night. Only when they have all disappeared do I retire to the comfort of my cabin.
The following morning I wake to see Gibraltar emerging from the dawn mist. As the sun warms its face, The Rock, which once marked the end of the known world, slides slowly by. In classic style, as the ship leaves the Mediterranean Sea and sails through the fabled, Pillars of Hercules, a fresh breeze whips the waves and the ocean's swell heaves beneath the hull.
Day three and I am on deck early. In the east, the sun gilds the clouds fanning streaks of gold around the sky. On the sea, the sweeping line created by the ship's wake glistens like the shiny trail left by a garden snail. To the west, the night sky fades in a haze of mauve and blue and ahead on the horizon a grey outline hovers like a long thin cloud. As the ship draws closer, the image transforms into a line of purple mountains. Peaks, ragged like a dragon's tail slide into the sea, and cliffs, folded into petrified waves, rise up from the shore. On the hillsides, forests furrowed with valleys capture pockets of cloud. Above the tree-line, silver streams, tumble relentlessly over polished mountain rock. This is the Island of Madeira.
In Funchal, passengers disembark. A chance to ride the cable car to the Church perched near the top of the mountain, and for the adventurous, a high speed descent in a fragile cane basket. Opting to return by coach, I wander round the town and sample the fine wine for which Madeira is renowned. Like most passengers, I take a bottle on board to remind me of the island.
Two days later the Star Clipper docks in Las Palmas and I visit the house which Christopher Columbus occupied. That evening as we set sail, I think of the great man and his remarkable voyages of discovery.
The Clipper's bearing is to the south west. It must drop to a latitude of 15 degrees if it is to catch the south east trade winds which will carry it to the Caribbean.
As its course does not cross to the Equator, the Tropic of Cancer is considered a significant line to re-enact the old seafaring tradition. In a lavish ceremony those who have never crossed The Line are summonsed before King Neptune. After being daubed with coloured dye and dowsed with flour, each candidate is unceremoniously dunked in the pool. I am pleased I am not one of them.
Life on board is idyllic. Passengers swim in one of the pools - providing the ship is not heeling too much! Relax and read, or take lessons in navigation, participate in the daily art class, or practice the gentle art of Tai Chi.
From the bow I watch the dolphins racing the keel and marvel at the flying fish which glisten like silver darts as they skim the waves. But, most of all, I enjoy lazing in the netting slung from the bowsprit. Rocked by the ocean, I gaze up at the bank of sails and dream of the days of tea clippers and the fully rigged ships which sailed the seas a century and a half ago.
Star Clipper is a modern four masted barquentine. She was built in Ghent in 1992 and like her sister ship, Star Flyer, carries 3,400 square meters of sail. The Fisherman sails on the main and mizzen are the biggest sails in the world each boasting 400 square meters of Dacron - enough to swamp a large suburban house. When sailing comfortably at ten knots, the power of the wind is equivalent to 1000 horse power. The ship has recorded seventeen knots under full sail. At night the 12 cylinder Caterpillar diesel purrs quietly keeping the ship within its required time schedule.
The Clipper's Captain and his officers are mostly from northern European countries where maritime officers serve a considerable amount of time training on square rigged sailing ships.
The passenger manifest is multi-national, including French, Germans, Scandinavians, Americans and Australians. Amongst them are many hardened sailors, retired naval officers and merchant seamen. Some passengers bring their own sextants, and on deck, hand-held GPSs are as common as mobile phones in the city. When it is time for the Captain to demonstrate the ship's manoeuvres, there is no shortage of volunteers to haul on the braces. Taking the helm of the 2300 ton sailing ship mid-Atlantic is a thrill.
For twenty-one days the sea treats the Clipper with the respect of a grand old lady. Passengers endure endless blue skies and are rocked to sleep every night by the rhythm of the rolling swell. But when the ship is within two days of the Leeward Islands conditions suddenly change.
The first storm hits around 11 pm. It arrives stealthily out of the night and takes everyone by surprise. The ship heels and for fifteen minutes the wind speed reaches force 9 on the Beaufort scale. The sound of the gale ripping through the rigging is thunderous. What we experience is a tropical low. Fortunately it does not intensify into a hurricane.
The following day with the West Indies almost in sight, another storm looms on the radar. On deck all eyes are fixed on the gathering clouds. At first they flank the ship. Rolling. Moving rapidly. Spawning smaller storms which quickly close in. The automatic pilot is switched off. The helm is manned. Sails are furled and the cat and mouse game of storm evasion begins.
From the deck I see the rain approaching. As it gets closer, the surface of the sea bubbles. The storm hits. It lasts for twenty minutes.
Standing on the leeward side, the sea and sky meld enveloping the ship in an eerie aura of strange aqua light. The rain blows horizontally. The sea boils and the gunnels lean down to meet it. In the dining room, plates and glasses crash to the floor. Passengers grapple to remain upright – but throughout the storm they thrill to the excitement. This is sailing at its best!
The following day we sight land, La Diserade and Guadeloupe, and head north toward the Netherlands Antilles and the tiny island of St Maarten.
As the Star Clipper docks at Phillipsburg two mega cruisers tie up alongside. The twin 70,000 ton liners dwarf the sailing ship, and from their decks, which tower ten stories above the wharf, the cruise ships' passengers point and take photos.
After twenty-three days of 360 degree horizons, my mind is full of sunrises and sails, of dolphins and flying fish, and of waiting on deck for that elusive green flash as the sun sets each night on an endless sea.
I feel privileged to have sailed in the wake of the adventurers. To have glimpsed a bygone era.
(This article was first published in the Weekend Australian Travel Section under the title "Tall ships and True" – 19 November 2005).
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