It was a dark and stormy night. I have waited 20 years to use that line with a straight face, a reward for patience that was lost on me that particular night as we slammed across the blackness of the Mediterranean. This was our first night at sea aboard the Belgian-built tall ship Star Clipper, and by three in the morning the wind shrieked with terminal fury as we plunged ahead. I lay in my bunk thinking disjointed, jingoistic thoughts. Curled up in a ball against the hull, I made solemn promises to a cosmic stranger, promises I had no intention of keeping.
Then, out of the darkness, a reassuring voice rang out over the intercom. I glanced at the clock. It was 5:30 a.m. "Ladies and gentlemen," the German-accented voice began, "this is Captain Müller, and I wish to say good morning. We seem to have encountered a very powerful storm. There's no cause for alarm. This sailing ship is built for these conditions. Please remain in your cabins. The stewards will be around to check on you. There is nothing to fear. The ship is sailing wonderful."
Later that morning Star Clipper's anemometer recorded peak winds at Force 10—a phenomenon described with considerable understatement by the Beaufort Scale of wind forces as "Very high waves with long overhanging crests. On the whole the surface of the sea takes on a white appearance. The tumbling of the sea becomes heavy and shocklike. Visibility affected." The Mediterranean was chaotic, cobalt blue, unforgiving, stunningly beautiful. Not a cloud blemished the sky from horizon to horizon. This was life on a razor's edge, or rather, on the crest of boiling waves. With just one sail set, the tallest of the tall ships flew along at 12 knots (13.8 mph) through the converging seas; the harmonics set up by the wind in the rigging could have shattered crystal. Star Clipper shuddered with excitement as her spoon bow raced down the face of the waves.
For an avid sailor like myself this was life at its furious and exhilarating best. I had recently sailed for three months on my own sloop, Drummer, from Seattle up through the Inside Passage along the fjord-bound coast of British Columbia. If we get to choose our addictions, I'll take this one. As the blue gale rose to its howling peak that morning, before spending itself on the sands of north Africa, I clawed my way to Clipper's bridge, where I joined two gentlemen from the Irish Cruising Club who were beaming like schoolboys as wind-whipped tears streamed from their eyes.
By midafternoon the wind off the European mainland had slacked to a breezy Force 6. The crisis atmosphere gave way to a smug euphoria of sorts as the passengers strolled about the Star Clipper's heaving decks wearing idiotic smirks on their faces. The sea had never been more lovely or alive. As the island of Elba rose out of the east the captain came over the loudspeaker to announce brightly, "For your pleasure, this afternoon high tea will be served in the piano bar."
The Star Clipper and her sister ship, Star Flyer, were imagined into existence by Mikael Krafft, a 54-year-old Swedish-born dream-weaver, in the early '90s—the culmination of a fantasy he had been brewing for nearly half a century. As a six-year-old boy Krafft landed his first job in his hometown port of Saltsjobaden, Sweden, carrying varnish and mixing wood stain for the old shipwrights down at Plyms Shipyard. Combing wood shavings from their beards, the shipwrights shared their sandwiches with the young towhead and filled his head with salt. Mikael listened to their stories and imagined masts scratching the sky, billowing sails, the golden era of clipper ships. But that was another century. The sailors he imagined had been dead for a hundred years, and the last scheduled clipper to carry passengers across the Atlantic (belonging to the Black Ball Line) vanished in a puff of steam in 1870. Back in those days Mark Twain was gallivanting around the West in a cloud of red dust, the Paris Commune was under siege, and Otto von Bismark was imagining a new world order.
A century after that heady era, Krafft graduated from the University of Stockholm with a degree in maritime law. In the late 1970s he purchased a small Swedish shipping firm, the L. Jeansson Company, and his star rose. Krafft liquidated his Swedish interests in the mid-1980s and moved to Brussels, fleeing usurious taxes. In Belgium he founded a real-estate development group, White Star, and his continued business successes ashore soon enabled him to fulfill his lifelong dream of the high seas.
In 1991-92, White Star commissioned the design and construction of Krafft's two $40 million "yachts," Star Clipper and Star Flyer, which are identical sister ships. Mind you, these are not computerized, whiz-bang, faux sailing ships. They are the real McCoy: the tallest clippers ever built. Beneath the full 36,000 square feet of sail it's like riding on a cloud.
As with so many perfect dreams, the concept was simple. And as with so many simple concepts, execution is a different matter. But after less than a decade of sailing the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and the Far East, Krafft's ships are redefining cruising.
We arrived in Portoferraio, Elba, in the late afternoon, the first of six landfalls we would be making that week. We had begun our trip in the French Riviera at Cannes and would travel on to the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, with stops along the coasts of Italy and Elba. The passengers and crew were positively giddy. The wind had abated and the seas had backed down. After the hook fell clanking into the harbor, another age lay waiting for us off the starboard bow. Somehow, time and space bent around to create an opening—just wide enough—and we rushed in.
We piled into the tenders and headed for shore in a kind of humming reverie that would linger with us through the entire week. This was the magic we had come for, now face-to-face with our forebears. Each morning we poured onto the docks like loud, happy children as the sidereal clock spun backwards, five, six hundred, a thousand years. Harbors, fiefdoms, and the ancient walls of city-states and feudal lords opened before us as we arrived in places with names such as Bonafacio, Costa Smeralda, Calvi, and Portofino.
The weather held steadily moderate for the remainder of the week, and we were quickly lost in the days, in time, in the granular shadows of ancient, silent streets.
Bonifacio, a city on the southern tip of the island of Corsica, casts a watchful gaze over the eponymous straits that separate it from Sardinia. Though the precarious promontory on which it sits once was occupied by the Greeks and Romans, the town was founded in 833 by Bonifacio, Marquis of Tuscany. By the late 11th century the Pisans controlled the city, but they were booted out in 1195 by their rivals, the Genoese, who would dominate Bonifacio for several centuries thereafter. Nestled within high walls and ramparts, the Upper Town overlooks the sea from atop high limestone cliffs. At the foot of these cliffs is the "newer" part of town, the marina. Fishermen still come and go from the narrow harbor in their tiny boats, a timeless ritual, as the handful of tourists break for shade and an afternoon cappuccino under café umbrellas lining the waterfront. Compared to the Côte d'Azur or the Italian Riviera, prices are very reasonable.
Though the language is French, the native temperament of the people evokes the passion of Italy. Mind you, Corsicans are fiercely proud of their island, and as a rule mainland French give them a wide berth, in much the way the British sidestep Northern Ireland. When we sailed from Porto-Vecchio, bound for Sardinia, I felt the old bugaboo of the cruising life. I vowed to return with a more leisurely schedule.
We sailed for Sardinia's Costa Smeralda, or Emerald Coast, early the following morning. The crew had spent the day dockside, furiously attending to the ship and her maintenance, a constant activity. The atmosphere on the Star Clipper had become raucously festive. The dance floor buzzed into the wee hours as the deck pitched and rolled beneath our feet. I turned in early, exhausted from sensory overload.
No forewarning can prepare you for Calvi, the capital of Balagne, the most prosperous region on the island of Corsica. Flowers bloom everywhere, clinging to rock walls built by stonemasons who were buried before Christ was born. The citadel conceals a hidden town, like a Chinese box. The Romans prized Calvi's defenses, a haven for ships voyaging to more distant ports.
Located on the northwestern shore, Calvi has been coveted real estate for more than a thousand years, and the citadel perched on its watery point has withstood seven known sieges. In 1794 the citadel was pounded to gravel bits by more than 24,000 British cannon balls, some of which are still firmly embedded in the ramparts. As you wend your way along the seaport's ancient tumbledown streets, it is no stretch to imagine a young Christopher Columbus peeking his head out of a shuttered window to gaze in wonder at the unfolding sea beyond the walls.
Our last day found us dropping anchor in sunny Saint-Tropez, which is, in Captain Müller's accent, Brigitte Bardot's "willage." The town itself was bustling with activity. Yachts were moored stern-first to the inner quay as waiters set dinner tables on the aft decks. Nearby, people gathered in cafés and partook of that famous French pastime: watching each other. I sat beneath a crimson café umbrella and observed a young woman weaving fresh flowers into the exposed electrical wiring over her restaurant door.Still intoxicated by the bougainvillea, wisteria, and jasmine, we sailed that evening into a rose-hued sunset. Captain Müller's voice boomed over the intercom.
"Would all passengers please report to the bridge for a weather briefing."
The sea was calm. Eager passengers scurried forward. All sails were set. The ship was glorious to behold in the amber-violet light. Our captain regarded us with a broad smile and a fistful of weather charts.
"There is a very large weather system, moving directly towards us," he warned, thumping the maps. "We may encounter strong winds tonight, perhaps building to Force 8! This is nothing to alarm you."
A thunderous cheer rose from the passengers. Bring on the furies; we will have high tea at Force 10. We had come aboard with land legs—now we sported gills.
Life Aboard a Tall Ship
Star Clipper and her twin sister, Star Flyer, are 360 feet long with self-furling square sails. Each has a 46-foot bowsprit, four masts that carry 36,000 square feet of sail, and a unique ballast system that dampens the ship's rolling when it encounters rough weather. With their tallest mast soaring 226 feet above the main deck, the two lay claim to being the tallest clippers ever built, although they are about 80 feet shorter in length than their new big sister, Royal Clipper, a 439-foot-long, five-masted, full-rigged ship christened in July.
With a crew of 72 and accommodations for 170 passengers, life aboard Star Clipper and Star Flyer is both casual and intimate. On any given week passengers will hail from all corners of the globe, and the seven-course dinners in the Edwardian dining room are like evenings at the United Nations. A typical menu includes pressed salmon, carved loin of venison, or perhaps a roast halibut suprême, accompanied by a marinated roasted vegetable, with a finishing flourish of hazelnut parfait. (Vegetarian and health-conscious options are also available.)
Each ship is equipped with two (small) swimming pools. Apart from excursions ashore in ports of call, on-board activities include sailing classes, scuba certification, aerobics, celestial navigation, and films. For those looking for solitude, there are racks of books in the ship's library.
Star Clippers Itineraries
This winter, Star Clippers offers itineraries through the Caribbean, focusing on the Lesser Antilles. The Star Clipper will sail to the "treasure islands," including Anguilla and St. Kitts, and to the Leeward Islands (St. Barts, Nevis), while the Royal Clipper will cruise the Windward Islands and the Grenadines. (During the winter season Star Flyer will cruise to Thailand and Malaysia.)
From May through October 2001, Star Clippers will offer six Mediterranean itineraries: Italy, Sicily, and the Aeolian Islands; the French and Italian Rivieras; the Northern and Southern Cyclades (Greece); the Tyrrhenian route (Corsica, Sardinia); and the Balearic Islands (with Barcelona and Saint-Tropez). The Royal Clipper will sail from Cannes, the Star Flyer from Athens, and the Star Clipper from Civitavecchia, Italy.
Prices for a seven-day cruise start at $2,795 per person (double occupancy).
The Man Behind the Ships
"People are always telling me, 'You spoiled cruising for us—we'll never go back to a conventional ship,'" says Mikael Krafft, the owner of Star Clippers. "If you want to go shopping from port to port, we're not for you. The people sailing with us are looking for something different, and we give it to them. It's personal, casual, and adventurous. I don't know about you, but when I go sailing with my friends we don't run around in dinner jackets—we roll up our sleeves." Because his ships offer a unique experience, they attract veteran sailors; indeed, a third of the repeat customers own their own boat. "We have roughly a sixty percent repeat factor," he crows, "which is by far the highest in the cruise industry." If you aren't a sailor, it's a good place to learn; Star Clippers now offers on-board sail training and navigation.
Today, Krafft's wide-eyed gamble is paying off handsomely. Now, with his company thriving, he is dreaming of taller ships, more distant horizons . . . and he's still young.
Star Clippers is based in Coral Gables, Florida; 800-442-0551; www.starclippers.com.
Paul VanDevelder, an Oregon-based author and avid sailor, writes for Forbes FYI and Sail magazine.