The Alternative to Huge Cruises? 3 Masts, 28 Sails and Wind Power.


From the bridge of the three-masted windjammer, the Sea Cloud Spirit, the captain called out the words we’d all been waiting for.

“Let’s set the sails!” he cried, after turning off the engines, while maneuvering to maintain an optimum angle for his 18 deckhands to climb into the shrouds and unfurl the ship’s 44,132 square feet of sails by hand.

Like acrobats, the crew scurried up the masts to the upper topgallant sails that rose nearly 200 feet above us. The ship’s captain, Vukota Stojanovic, later insisted that none of it was for show. “Whenever there is an opportunity to sail, we sail,” he said.

For the next hour, the crew hauled the ropes until the 28 sails were billowing in the wind, propelling the 452-foot-long ship — the world’s largest passenger sailing vessel on which the sails are raised by hand — toward its first port of call, Portofino, Italy.

At a time when cruise lines are packing their ever-more-gargantuan ships with water parks and basketball courts, the 136-passenger Sea Cloud Spirit, with its old-fashioned clipper design and wooden decks, stands out. It is the newest ship from the Hamburg-based Sea Cloud Cruises, and while it is the company’s biggest, Sea Cloud said it wanted to leave space for passengers to connect to the surrounding elements.

“Wherever you are on the ship, it feels like you are sitting on the water,” said Amelia Dominick, 71, a retired real estate agent from Cologne, Germany, who was on her third cruise onboard the Sea Cloud Spirit.

I had arrived for a four-night “taster sailing” from Nice, France, to the Ligurian region of Italy, designed to entice passengers to sign up for a longer cruise. Here’s what I found.

The Spirit has many comforts and luxuries, including a fitness center, library, hair salon and a spa with a Finnish sauna that overlooks the sea. The deck layouts are spacious, with nooks carved out for privacy and relaxation.

Sixty-nine spacious cabins have windows that open onto the sea. My room, a junior suite on the third deck, had two large arched windows, mahogany tables, a balcony and a comfortable couch and armchair. The marble bathroom was lavish, with a gold-plated sink and large jetted bathtub.

The elegant interior design is inspired by the original Sea Cloud, built in 1931 for Marjorie Merriweather Post, the American heiress of the General Foods Corporation, with glossy wooden panels and gold trimmings. The Sea Cloud was the largest private sailing yacht in the world before Post handed it over to the U.S. Navy for use as a weather-reporting vessel during World War II. The four-mast, 64-passenger ship has since been restored to its former glory and will sail across the Aegean and Adriatic this summer.

The experience felt authentic — even before the sails were set — with a detailed safety drill. On most cruises, the drill entails a safety video and signing in at an assembly point. But here, passengers put on their life jackets and walked through emergency scenarios that included rationing food supplies and fishing from the lifeboat.

Each day, the sails were set, even during heavy rain and wind speeds over 30 knots. Guests wanting to participate in the rigging are usually invited to do so, but the weather conditions made it too risky for this sailing.

“It was amazing to watch the work go into putting the sails up and down and to experience the wind power pulling the ship so fast without the engines,” said Malte Rahnenfuehrer, a 50-year-old psychologist from Zurich, who was traveling with his partner and two children.

It is rare for cruise passengers to see the ship’s captain after the initial welcome drinks or gala dinner. But Capt. Vukota Stojanovic was omnipresent throughout the cruise, from setting sails to lifeguarding to mingling with guests.

Originally from Montenegro, Captain Stojanovic piloted container ships for years. When he was asked to consider helming the original Sea Cloud nearly 10 years ago, he hesitated because he had no experience sailing. Even after he learned the ropes — and there are 340 ropes (known as running rigging) on the vessel — he was unsure. “I grew to love the sailings, the boats, the crew the lifestyle, but I still felt I belonged on container ships,” he said. “It would be a big adjustment, especially because I would have to shave every day,” he joked.

Eventually, he accepted the opportunity and worked tirelessly to learn how to sail and operate the ship. Today, he keeps an “open bridge” policy, allowing passengers to visit the control room, even when he is wrestling with the wind.

“The crew and the passengers are all part of the experience, and I like to meet people and receive their feedback,” Captain Stojanovic said.

Sea Cloud Cruises aspires to take a “gentle” approach, using wind power to drive its ships wherever possible, even if that means changing course for optimal weather conditions. When sailing is not possible, the Spirit has two diesel-electric engines that run on low-sulfur marine diesel fuel. The company is also working with ports that have shore power capabilities to plug into the local electric power.

Onboard, there is an emphasis on reusable bottles and paper straws, and crew members separate solid waste to be compacted and removed when in port.

We made stops in Portofino, San Remo, Italy, and St.-Tropez, France, anchoring offshore and getting to land by tender — a contrast to the big cruise ships with their loud horns and thick plumes of exhaust spewing from their funnels.

For passengers wanting to take a dip (there is no pool), the crew marked an area in the water with floats and an inflatable slide. The water was frigid, but many passengers took the plunge from the swimming deck. Guests could also take “Zodiac Safaris” around the ship to get views of the vessel from the water.

Excursions ranged from food and wine tours to e-biking and beach trips. In Portofino, passengers were free to explore the sights independently, including the Castello Brown Fortress and the lighthouse on Punta del Capo rock. There was ample time to eat meals on shore as the ship did not depart until 11 p.m. Over the summer, the Sea Cloud Spirit will sail to Spain, Portugal, France and the Azores, among other destinations. On Nov. 11, she will depart for St. Maarten in the Caribbean for the winter.

Wherever the vessel goes, said Mirell Reyes, president of Sea Cloud Cruise for North America, the company tries to “stay away from the crowds and ports where big cruise ships spit out 6,000 passengers.”

Summer prices, which include food and beverages, range from $3,995 for a four-night sailing in a superior cabin to $9,420 for a veranda suite. Seven-night sailings cost between $6,995 and $16,495.


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