From a Pram to a Windjammer
by D’Arcy O’Connor
Shortly after midnight I was standing upon a gently rolling deck under scudding clouds and twinkling stars off the west coast of the Grenadines, wondering how life could possibly be any sweeter. For (in my mind anyway) I had achieved a sailor’s Nirvana. I was aboard the 360-foot barque Sea Cloud, perhaps the world’s most exotic all-hands windjammer carrying well-heeled passengers through Caribbean and European waters.
My sailing life began when I was 11 and a friend and I took his parents’ 12-foot lapstrake-hulled dinghy out on Montreal’s Lake St. Louis. We dumped not 50 feet from shore. Undaunted, we kept trying, managing to make it across the lake and back a couple of times that summer. Neither of us had any idea what we were doing. But the bug had bitten me, and soon after I joined a local sailing squadron, bobbing about in eight-foot sprit-rigged Optimist prams. (Several Optis would fit comfortably in the cabin I now inhabited aboard Sea Cloud.)
By my late teens I was sailing 13-foot Flying Juniors and eventually bought and raced my own for several years. But in 1972 my partner at the time and I had a hankering to do some blue-water sailing. So I purchased a second-hand Royal Canadian Navy sextant and took a correspondence course in celestial navigation (this before the advent of GPS), and through an ad in Yachting magazine, offered our services as “experienced” crew to help anyone sail their yacht anywhere. Over the next 13 months we virtually hitchhiked from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Sydney, Australia, crewing on five different yachts, from a 30-foot double-ended sloop to a 72-foot yawl-rigged motorsailer.
After living in Australia for a year, I sailed from Perth to Singapore, and later skippered a 50-foot ketch on the French Riviera before moving to New York as a journalist. It was there that I saw my first parade of Tall Ships, most of them naval training vessels, as they sailed up the Hudson River and under the George Washington Bridge. I would see many of the same ones some years later when I was living in Nova Scotia. I was always entranced by those ships’ graceful lines and complicated rigging; but even more so by the young sea cadets who scrambled like sure-footed monkeys up ratlines and along yards and yardarms to furl or unfurl the massive square sails.
Until now, the closest I’d gotten to a windjammer was during my hitch-hiking-under-sail odyssey, and I was navigator and crew on Kwan Yin, a 59-foot steel-hulled ketch berthed in Oranjestad, Aruba. Tied up nearby was the ARC Gloria, a three-masted Colombian Navy training barque. I met a couple of its officers in a waterside bar late that afternoon and they invited me on board. For the first time in my life I had my feet on the deck of a traditional windjammer.
Both Kwan Yin and Gloria were scheduled to leave for Cartagena the following dawn, and (after too many beers) I casually suggested we make a race of it. The two naval officers readily agreed, especially when I proposed that the losing vessel buy the crew of the other rounds of beer once we reached port. Big mistake!
We cast off at about the same time as Gloria, and for the first few hours Kwan Yin was on a beam reach and well in the lead. Then the wind freshened to about 25 knots and swung abaft. That’s when Gloria threw up everything she had and came surging past us like a runaway locomotive. Even sailing wing-and-wing day and night, we were no match for a 212-foot barque on a dead run. Suffice it to say Gloria completed the 400-mile passage to her home port a good half day ahead of us. Fortunately, my two Colombian friends never pressed me to make good on my rash loser-buys-the-beer wager. Gloria’s crew consisted of 150 naval cadets, versus a mere five of us aboard the Kwan Yin! I can only imagine what the inside of a Colombian debtors’ prison would have been like.
In recent years my summer sailing has been limited to cruising and racing a Hobie 16 in upstate New York’s Lake Champlain and in northern Ontario, or volunteering with physically disabled sailors who learn to handle and race specially equipped Martin 16s on Lake St. Louis. And in the winter months I occasionally sail and match race Hobie 14s at Grenada’s Petite Calivigny Yacht Club, or else crew for various friends on their keel boats.
There is no drug more powerful than the adrenalin rush I get when flying the windward hull of my Hobie 16, stretched out on the trapeze wire, jib and mainsheet in one hand and tiller in the other, while on a screaming reach at 20-plus knots. But now I was on a four-masted barque far larger than even Gloria and with almost twice the volume of billowing sails. And a different sort of adrenalin rush was coursing through me. This time it wasn’t the thrill of speed, but the thrill of seafaring history. I’m a huge fan of any account of 18th- and 19th-century maritime explorers and traders, or European man ’o’ war naval battles.
Moreover, 85-year-old Sea Cloud has her own fascinating and sometimes bizarre history, beginning as the world’s largest and most expensive private yacht when she was built in 1931 for breakfast cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and her Wall Street tycoon husband, Edward Hutton. In the mid to late 1930s the yacht was host to ambassadors, European royalty and world leaders, before being commissioned during WW2 as a US Navy weather and coastal patrol ship. (She reportedly was instrumental in locating and tracking a marauding U-Boat that was later sunk by a US destroyer off the Carolina coast).
In 1955 Sea Cloud was sold to Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo who, with his playboy son Ramfis, essentially used it as a floating pleasure den for the idle rich and high-class call girls. In 1961, following Trujillo’s CIA-backed assassination, his family loaded his corpse and trunks of treasury gold aboard Sea Cloud in a bid to escape to France. But she was chased across the Atlantic by Dominican gunships, caught near the Canary Islands and returned to the Caribbean.
Then, after a decade of ownership disputes, Sea Cloud was abandoned and left to rot for eight years in Colón at the eastern end of the Panama Canal. But in 1972 she was rescued by Hartmut Paschburg, a German sea captain with a passion for classic sailing ships. After getting her barely seaworthy, he returned her to the shipyards in Kiel, where she’d been launched a half century earlier. In 1978 a consortium of Hamburg ship owners and businessmen purchased the ship and spent a year and US$7 million meticulously restoring her to what she is today — a five-star cruise ship comparable to no other. She is certainly nothing like those behemoths that ferry 3,000 or 4,000 souls from port to port in an environment akin to a floating Las Vegas hotel complex.
Sea Cloud is a fully man-operated windjammer, with a crew of 61 sailors, carrying up to 64 pampered passengers on voyages through a time warp in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Aegean, Black, Tyrrhenian, and Adriatic seas. With her 32 Duradon canvas sails blossoming from yardarms and masts that rise up to 178 feet, and her luxuriously refurbished cabins, teak decks, burnished brass fittings, oak-paneled dining room and lounge restored to 1930s elegance, she harkens to a time when only the very wealthy, eschewing steam and diesel power over the glamour of sail, could indulge themselves in a magnificent throwback to the days of Tall Ships.
My fascination with Sea Cloud began a year ago when I was invited to tour her while she was berthed for the day in St. George’s, Grenada, where I live during the winter months. I was immediately struck by her grandeur and beauty, especially by the fact that she is a genuine ‘hands-on’ passenger barque, i.e. her sails are manually set and struck entirely by rigging-climbing tars. And when I went below, I felt I was on the set of the “Great Gatsby” film. Her décor and appointments have been carefully preserved or restored much as they were when Post and Hutton lived aboard her in the 1930s. Even the bridge boasts the original brass binnacle and engine-room telegraph installed in 1931, though today complemented with modern navigation and communications systems.
And now, a year later, I was actually at sea on Sea Cloud. I’d joined her the previous evening while she was anchored a mile out in St. George’s Harbour, lit up like a Christmas tree with lights strewn from her towering masts and yardarms. (I felt this apt since I was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning!). The ship’s tender brought me alongside the high white hull where I was welcomed aboard by the hotel manager, Simon Kwinta, an affable Polish sailor who’s been at sea all his life and with Sea Cloud for 30 years, far longer than any other crewmember. (A joke among the crew is that when Simon eventually dies, his embalmed body will replace the magnificent golden eagle figurehead on the ship's prow.)
I followed Simon to the broad canopy-covered Lido Deck, which serves as the ship’s bar, and entertainment center where I met some of my fellow passengers — a mix of Germans, Swiss, Austrians, French, Russians and Americans. Interestingly, I was the only Canadian on board for this particular cruise.
We weighed anchor at midnight and most of the passengers retired to their cabins. But I was too pumped to sleep, and spent several hours wandering her stone-scrubbed teak decks, marveling at her polished brass and bronze fittings, ornate woodwork, and complicated standing and running rigging with anti-chafing baggywrinkles hand woven from hemp, just as it was done centuries earlier. I was also musing across a threefold time warp: back to when similar ships (although far less opulent or seaworthy) brought Spanish, French, British and Dutch colonists to these islands; to the 1930s Post/Hutton years; and to the 1970s when I first cruised these very same waters.
After motoring all night, we dropped anchor off Chatham Bay, Union Island, for a swim and an exotic beach barbecue before heading north to St. Lucia under a cloud of sail. Being slightly acrophobic, I was in awe of the 18 young men and women who scampered up the ratlines and crawled out on yards and yardarms to loosen buntlines and unfurl the 22 sails, while others operated huge deck winches to trim the billowing square sails to catch a steady southeast eight-knot breeze. Highest upon a yardarm on the 178-foot main mast was 22-year-old Magdalena Szydlowska, who started sailing in her native Poland at the age of 17. As she told me, “I love being way up there where I can see forever.”
The next morning we anchored off Soufriere, beneath the shadow of St. Lucia’s majestic Pitons. I went ashore to check out the Petit Peak and Hummingbird, two popular sailor hangouts that were much as I remembered them from many years earlier.
By 2:00PM everyone was back on board and we headed to Bequia, 55 miles south. That evening the ship’s 48-year-old Belarusian captain, Vladimir Pushkarev, hosted a cocktail party and dinner, during which the menu was more elaborate than ever. In fact, meals on Sea Cloud are tantamount to eating three meals a day every day in a four or five-star restaurant. And that doesn’t include the delectable teatime and midnight snacks. I have never eaten as well as I did on this voyage.
Beside me at one of the dining room’s eight long tables was fellow passenger Aylin Jaspersen, a doctor from Berne, Switzerland. This was a blessing because I needed her advice on which of the four forks, three knives and two spoons were appropriate for whatever was put in front of me. It was a far cry from my cruising days when all I had to worry about was gutting and filleting a fish or opening a can of Spam without slicing my finger.
After dinner, which was followed by a chorus of ship's officers and crew singing rousing sea shanties in English, German, Polish and even Tagalog, I again spent much of the night wandering the decks while gazing up at the crystal necklace of constellations high above the swaying spars.
On the foredeck leading to the crew’s quarters in the fo’c’sle, I chatted with several off-duty sailors. Alex Pajic, the ship’s Chief Carpenter, said that of the many ships he has sailed, Sea Cloud, with its antique woodwork and complex rigging, provided him with much more of a challenge and variety than he’d ever had on a merchant vessel or cruise liner. A Serbian who's been on Sea Cloud for four years, Alex described his crewmates as “an international family”. (There are 12 different nationalities among the crew.)
Interestingly, I’d heard the same metaphor earlier that day from Dick and Wanda Peters of Sabula, Iowa. The retired couple has traveled the world on many ships, and described this as their best ever. “I love the family feel of this cruise,” said Wanda, referring to the passenger and crew mix on a small ship where everybody gets to know everybody within a day or two.
Indeed, we were a veritable floating family with but one common interest — to travel in a style and a time that is long past. Besides having no swimming pool, casino, fitness center, or Las Vegas-style floorshow, Sea Cloud is television and radio free. Instead, the ship’s oak-paneled dining room walls are lined with a huge collection of books, among which is a complete collection of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels. Perfect reading for a voyage of this sort!
After anchoring in Bequia’s Admiralty Bay, I visited my favorite beachside bar, the Frangipani, where I’d spent many an afternoon and evening while anchored there several times years earlier. We then set sail for our final destination of Barbados, 98 miles to the east. Shortly before sunset, another barque, the Star Clipper, passed a mile off our port side, with each skipper giving the other a salutary blast of the horn. A deckhand beside me scoffed and said, “That’s a push-button ship”. By which he meant that of the several passenger-carrying windjammers plying the Caribbean and European seas, only Sea Cloud is sailed “by hands”. The others, while looking authentic and pretty, have sails that are raised and lowered from the security of the deck by sailors using power winches and hand-controlled horizontal and vertical power furling, and trimmed by computer-controlled servomotors.
I spent my last night again on deck, this time with Aylin and a few other passengers sprawled across the pillows of the Blue Lagoon at the ship's stern, all of us trying to identify the stars in the sky and to figure out the proper names of fixtures on the mizzen mast and shrouds.
When we docked in Bridgetown, Barbados, the next morning, I thanked Captain Pushkarev for my 370-mile amazing journey. His parting comment was: “If there is something perfect in this world, it is the Sea Cloud and her crew.” This was from someone who, since the age of six, has sailed on every type of vessel on all of the seven seas.
And, as a sailor who has logged some 15,000 nautical miles on many different boats since cutting my teeth on an eight-foot pram, I had to concur with him.
D’Arcy O’Connor is a veteran journalist, scriptwriter, TV documentary producer, published author and round-the-world sailor. He has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, People, Yachting, National Geographic and many other publications in North America and Australia. His most recent book is Montreal’s Irish Mafia. He lives in Montreal, and spends winters in Grenada.
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