I stepped onto the teak deck warmed by the Barbadian sun to order my first cocktail of the cruise, the speciality of the day that was flagged up on a board in the al fresco bar. The resulting Bon Voyage, made with blue curacao, was perfectly matched to the unbroken azure canvas of surrounding sea and sky, but it was also a very fitting sundowner in more ways than one.
Beside us a giant ship carrying thousands of passengers was also preparing to set sail, probably heading on the short hop from Bridgetown to one of the neighbouring Caribbean islands such as St Vincent or St Lucia. In complete contrast I was travelling with just 108 fellow shipmates and as I raised my glass to the handful already gathered by Royal Clipper’s bar we wished each other luck and toasted an altogether more epic sailing – at that moment 11 nights at sea on a tall ship.
Twice yearly the largest ship of its kind and flagship of the Star Clippers’ fleet, along with its smaller sister ship Star Flyer, embark on repositioning cruises between winter and summer destinations, offering seafaring expeditions like no other which also elicit divisive Marmite-style opinions. Friends veered between the extremes of utter horror and mutterings of sea biscuits, scurvy and seasickness or unbridled woo-hoo enthusiasm and asking if there was room for stowaways when I told them what I’d signed up for. There was no middle ground.
Once on board many of my new seafaring companions related similar tales. Quite a few were sailing solo as their spouses and partners couldn’t stomach the prospect. Many were sailors of some kind, having variously owned or crewed yachts. One Norwegian even owned his own cargo shipping line. For others it was a bucket list dream to cross the Atlantic, including a Canadian couple who’d never previously set foot on a cruise ship. What we all shared in common was the desire to do something different and that’s certainly what we did.
Carrying up to 227 passengers Royal Clipper is a head-turning sight, and never more so than when the first of the 42 sails covering a combined area of nearly 56,000 square feet are unfurled for the first time and the ship slides out of port to the rousing sound of Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis. Maybe it was the salty breeze, but I saw quite a few burly men brush what looked like a tear from their eyes as we set sail under the billowing canvas stretching 200ft above our heads and we set forth on our 3,131 nautical mile crossing.
Those out on deck early the following morning were rewarded with the sight of a shimmering shoals of flying fish alongside the vessel, spreading their pectoral fins to use as wings. On other days there were sightings of dolphin pods and, most memorably, another afternoon when Captain Mariusz Szalek suddenly announced from the bridge: “Whales on the port side”. Fleet-footed passengers were rewarded with the incredible sight of a breaching female whale, her calf alongside.
Each night the daily programme left in our cabins outlined the following day’s activities, including quizzes, games, exercise sessions, a fashion show and talent night – both with the option for passenger participation – culinary classes and even a messy ‘christening’ ceremony performed by ‘King Neptune’ for those on their first transatlantic crossing.
Whilst the ship is fully crewed, nautical pursuits also play a large part in the programme and really add to the authentic experience. There were insightful talks by the officers on navigation and oceanology, a star gazing session, knot tying, documentaries on historic ships and even the chance to climb the mast to the first crow’s nest 50ft above deck.
Most poignantly, at 6pm daily passengers could gather on the aft deck and join a rendition of Salve Regina. The ancient sung prayer to the Virgin Mary is mentioned in many ship’s logs, including those of Columbus, both marking the end of the day and providing solace to seamen on voyages around the world.
We certainly didn’t lack any home comforts on the ship decked out in varnished wood and brass. There’s a cosy library, lounge with a white grand piano, lovely restaurant reached by a winding staircase and even a below sea level spa with portholes looking into the ocean.
That said, it did turn into an adventure on the high seas when we hit a force 8 storm with 15ft swells. Royal Clipper listed 10 degrees from port to starboard, crockery and the occasional passenger went flying and waiters started to hand out cutlery and rather than set tables and, one night, served wine in plastic glasses. In bed we rolled from side to side, synchronised with ship’s motion and eventually rocked to sleep like babies; even more so with the ‘cot’ sides that can be pulled up when the going gets rough.
But this is what many had hoped to experience and at breakfast we swapped tales of things that go bump in the night. A few headed to the on board doctor for industrial strength seasickness pills that soon had them shipshape.
Captain Szalek skirted the worst of the weather but was forced to abandon our only scheduled port of call in the Azores, so we sailed non-stop to Lisbon using a combination of sail and engine power. It was a reminder, if one was really needed, that we were in the hands of Mother Nature, which for most of us added to the thrill of being on a 449ft ship in a vast ocean.
Of course calm always follows a storm and the following evening I stayed up on deck to watch as the clouds became edged in pink and set the scene for another sunset. It was a sight I never tired of.
After 16 days we entered the Tagus River and passed the towering Monument of Discoveries on the edge of the Tagus River, which pays homage to Portugal’s great explorers. It was an apt marker at the end of our epic modern-day voyage of discovery on a magnificent ship that recreates the golden era of sailing.