Sail away from formality on a Caribbean cruise aboard a windjammer LAZY SEA DAYS

February 23, 1992|By F. Lisa Beebe | F. Lisa Beebe,Contributing Writer

The dictionary defines windjammer as "a large merchant sailing ship."

"Windjammin'," however, as practiced in the Caribbean these days, is something else entirely. To truly reflect its quintessence, the word would be awash in oceans of soothing white space and would languish across the page in the laziest and most laid back of italics.

"If I were any more laid back," sighed a fellow passenger the morning of our third day out, "I'd still be asleep."

Such is the nature of windjammin'. Gradually, inexorably, the mental wheels turn ever more slowly; time e-x-p-a-n-d-s, and the sea breezes blow through the wide-open days and nights.

The night we arrived, most of us downed the snacks and rum swizzles wearing the full complement of foot gear. The next morning, off came the socks; the morning after that, the shoes. From then on it was a matter of sartorial minimalism from head to toe. Welcome, friends, to a Windjammer Barefoot Cruise.

Yes, life was good aboard the S/V Mandalay, a 236-foot sailing ship (dare to call it a "boat" and Captain Max would slap your sentence with a crisp "Ship, dammit!") once owned by E. F. Hutton and pressed into oceanic research service by New York's Columbia University. The early birds among us -- sticky buns and Bloody Marys in hand -- would watch the sun rise over a hypnotic sea while waiting for the laggards to rise for breakfast.

At post-breakfast "story time," Captain Max detailed our daily R&R options, which included sunning, swimming, snorkeling, diving, picnicking on the beach, strolling through some of the world's smallest capital cities, learning about navigating or marine knot-tying, lounging around deck on a cushioned mat and partying in most inventive ways in the evening. But we'll get to all that later.

First, take all your cliched images of the Caribbean, mix them with a cup of remoteness, add a handful of humor, a hearty helping of zaniness, a soupcon of spontaneity and a -- of adventure, and you've got a Windjammer Cruise served straight up. Now fortify this potion with a star-rich night sky, a glowing moon preening itself on the surface of the sea, sporadic histrionics of a tropical shower as it break dances across the waves, and I just dare you to conjure up anything more intoxicatingly romantic. If this were a ship in a bottle, it would be required to carry some kind of government warning about the hazards of feeling too good.

All that aside, however, let me tell you why "Amazing Grace" will never be the same for me again. Every time the ship set sail (and the passengers are more than welcome to assist with raising the sails), a bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace" washed over the ship like the siren song of the Ancient Gods of Getting Away From It All. When this stirring anthem to carefree cruising resounded one last time at the end of the cruise, nary a dry eye was to be found on deck.

But there is much to do before that dreaded day arrives. A costume party, for example; a wedding at sea (yes, the romance of it all can be just that potent); a night at the races; a day on the top deck; a limbo contest ashore, a local steel band aboard, and just about anything else you can think of that can be done on a ship.

Windjammin', you see, is a little like jazz jammin' -- you know where you're starting, you know where you'll be finishing, but you don't know quite where you'll be going in between. So just let the spirit -- and the captain -- move you.

In the capable hands of Captain Max -- a man whose overripe pauses during story time kept us ever on our barefoot toes and whose sensibilities included a strong aversion to large cruise ships -- we steered a circuitous course through unbroken tranquillity, avoiding overrun islands whenever possible. In fact, many of the islands we snuggled up to were not even in my Caribbean vernacular. Carriacou, Palm Island, Tobago Cays, Mayreau, Bequia. Was this really the Caribbean or had we been pirated off to parts unknown? The only familiar name during the first week of the cruise was Grenada.

I learned a good deal more on this Windjammer cruise as well. For instance: That you don't park a boat, you anchor it (I'm from New York; it's an easy mistake.) That modern-day pirates can win bottles of champagne. That crab races have it all over the Kentucky Derby. That a boat race is not what it seems. And that a week or two communing with the sea, sun and stars can sure take the "knots" out of your stomach and the kinks out of your psyche.

While I'd really like to tell you more about life aboard the Mandalay, I don't want to give the whole plot away. Suffice it to say, the idea of stowing away at cruise end had tremendous appeal. And on the return flight to Miami, I found myself walking to the bathroom -- aft -- still barefoot.

If you go . . .

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