Take a cruise on a tall ship, for the 'up close and personal' joy of exploring exotic lands

ISLAND CRUSING

September 06, 1992|By Joy S. Lewis and Martie Sterling | Joy S. Lewis and Martie Sterling,Contributing Writers

We two old salts have gone to sea both ways: in a luxury liner and in a sturdy little sloop. But when talk turns to cruising, we treasure most the sound of wind in the sails and the harpsichord playing of tinkling masts.

Though we respect those who prefer the routines of a floating hotel, we belong to the legions who wouldn't trade the independence of small sailboats for all the ice-sculpture-decked buffets in the big cruise ship world.

Happily, there is now a splendid halfway measure -- sailing on a tall ship, where you experience the feel of salt spray and the play of dolphins at arm's length without having to fuss with sails, ropes, masts and winches.

Recently, we realized a dream when we went on a four-dacruise on the Sir Francis Drake in the Virgin Islands. We embarked on a mighty schooner of the kind that moved majestically up the Hudson during the Bicentennial celebration -- and lumbered across oceans to appear at the America's Cup off Australia. Only about 100 of these rakish great ships are left in the world, most of them used for training and show pieces by Norwegian, U.S., Argentine and other navies.

The three-masted Sir Francis Drake -- originally the Gotewin(Divine Wind) -- was built in Germany in 1917 to transport copper from Chile to Hamburg. At the age of 71 she was rechristened and refurbished to take passengers. Her home base is the colorful capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Charlotte Amalie.

With a --ingly red-shirted crew -- New Zealanders, Europeans and native islanders -- who tend passengers, sail the ship and join in nightly parties, you cruise "up close and personal." You may choose to lean back in the sun with a new book, dive off the ship into the gentle Caribbean or snorkel in waters as blue as an Isle of Capri dream.

Or maybe you'd like to "learn the ropes" -- help hoist the sails, climb a 17-story mast to the crow's nest, tackle navigation. A tall ship is a fine place to start on the elements of sailing.

Meanwhile, the shallow draft design of Sir Francis' keel allows "calling" ashore where large cruise ships can't go. You'll snuggle up to the best dive areas, beaches, cove-front bars and shops.

On embarkation day everyone is piped aboard to a rousing medley of sea chanteys and resounding "heave ho's." Afternoon departure from St. Thomas is followed by a dinner and party aboard. Each morning Capt. Bryan Petley, a lean New Zealander who's been at sea since the age of 13, gives an after-breakfast talk in the salon. He chats about the ship and makes suggestions for the day's sail. A flexible chap, Captain Petley is amenable to passengers' ideas of where to go and what to see.

Depending on time and tides, you'll probably anchor in good snorkel and scuba grounds at Peter and Norman islands. You may sail into Road Town, the capital of the British Virgin Islands on Tortola. Or stop off at the small treasure chest that is Jost Van Dyke Island. Ashore, at Foxy's open beach-front bar, Foxy himself -- his calypso is known to sailors on seven seas -- will compose a song for you. Here Japtha Penn showed us his fine kettle of fish. "Ole wives [alewives] de bes' eatin' in the worl', " he beamed.

Pleasure-boating came to this corner of the Caribbean only about 25 years ago. Since then, cruisers have multiplied like loaves and fishes. There are flotillas of racing yachts, trim and seaworthy and fit to circumnavigate the world, and just as many diminutive arks so square in the water only a guided missile would sink them.

The Virgins are a friendly salt water neighborhood of contrasts: empty islands, luxury resorts, safe anchorages, marinas, ships' stores, good restaurants and isolated shelling beaches. Often you're amid whole fleets of sailboats, their owners as sociable as bingo players. People chug, sail and swim over to investigate your towering vessel.

The Sir Francis Drake, 162 feet long, 22 feet wide, offers a congenial compromise between the poshness of the large cruise ships and the sometimes primitive fittings of small boats. Cabins are slightly larger than a Pullman train compartment. They have upper and lower beds: some full-size doubles, others side-by-side twins. You have your own private "loo" with hot and cold running fresh water, shower, individually controlled air conditioning, smoke alarms and sprinkler systems. Many passengers, like us, prefer to pull out an air mattress and sleep topside under curtains of falling stars.

One of the loveliest aspects of tall ship life is time to explore the land at whim. If the wind's right and the passengers so vote, the captain will come about and head for a promising landfall in an instant.

After a day exploring sea caves and coral reefs, everyone may shower, change into fresh shorts and run ashore in the ship's launch. You may be greeted by the plunking of a steel band, the sweet smell of the frangipani flower and a rising moon the size of an observation balloon.

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