Eclectic sailing ships offer cruises with attitude

Destination Caribbean

October 22, 2006|By Gary A. Warner | Gary A. Warner,The Orange County (Calif.) Register

Monday morning, the moment of truth. The passengers of the Yankee Clipper climb up on the deck of a former millionaire's yacht and squint into their first sunrise.

The deck is pitched at a 20-degree angle as the schooner carves through the waves of the south Caribbean north of Grenada, its sails rattling and lines groaning against the masts.

There are those passengers who are wide-eyed and smiling, the breeze in their hair, ecstatic at being at sea under sail.

Then there are those who realize they have signed on for a week sleeping in a windowless broom closet that heaves, creaks and shudders.

Members of the first group are veteran "Jammers," lovers of Windjammer Barefoot Cruises' highly eclectic collection of vintage sailing ships, along with new converts.

"I have been on all the Windjammer ships, and from a sailing standpoint, this is the best," says Bill Fleming of Omaha, Neb. "She can do 11 knots. You are really moving."

A Windjammer cruise is not for you if you need luxurious accommodations, tight schedules, defined itineraries, fine dining, don't drink or don't like to be around people who do, and can't stand off-color jokes.

So it is just fine for me.

The word "barefoot" in the company title is taken seriously. On Windjammer, the old joke goes, formal-night wear means a clean T-shirt.

For my seven-day cruise, I chose the smallest and fastest of the four sailing ships in the Windjammer fleet: the Yankee Clipper. It sails the most unique itinerary, threading between the small islands of the Grenadines in the far southern end of the Caribbean chain.

My fellow passengers, mostly couples in their 40s and 50s with a smattering of older folks and a quartet of 30-ish professionals, meet Sunday night at a gritty wharf in St. George's, the capital of Grenada.

We would soon be off to the beaches and snorkeling spots of Carriacou, Union Island, Bequia and Mayreau. But in what order, for how long and where else we might go was up to providence and Capt. Julian Peterson.

"The Caribbean is La-La land," the captain says. "We don't ask where we're going or when we're going to get there."

The 197-foot white schooner pulls out at 11:30 p.m., motoring from the harbor before the notes of "Amazing Grace" come on the sound system. This is the signal that it is time to raise the sails, and guests scramble to join the crew in grappling with the great ropes that lift the sheets into the stiff evening breeze. The ship takes on a slight tilt as the wind bites the canvas and we glide off under a star-pocked sky.

"It's just wonderful to be out here," says Joe Vulcan of Madison, Ohio. "This is my 10th Windjammer cruise. I keep thinking Barefoot can't last, but here we are again."

The days slip into a lazy rhythm. Mornings of fresh-baked doughnuts or rolls served piping hot from the postage-stamp-sized galley. Ribald jokes at the morning meeting with the crew.

We spend a day ashore on Carriacou, sipping odd but tasty concoctions such as linseed and milk. We take a swim with the brilliant small fish in Chatham Bay on Union Island. Best of all is lolling on the beach at one of the tiny Tobago Cays, the water such a brilliant azure that it seemed the bottom of the ocean had been painted as white as a suburban swimming pool.

"I want to snorkel every day," says Frank Zellerhoff of Seattle. "On this itinerary you can do that. No shopping. No fancy restaurants."

Afternoons are spent back on the ship. Time for drinking rum swizzles and waiting for the sun to set. The crowd gathers at the rail to test the legend of the "green flash," when the last speck of sun sinks below the horizon. Was it true or an optical illusion?

I was skeptical, but saw it.

Dinner is in the polished mahogany dining room, then more drinks of choice, from coffee to rum and coke, served up by Oxford Toussent, a bear-like bartender and shore-excursion leader. Jimmy Buffett, Caribbean steel-drum music and the Eagles play well into the night.

The Yankee Clipper crowd is like a big cruise human manifest in miniature. There are socialites, wallflowers, jokers, drinkers, romantics, adventurers, grumps and the people who seem to be counting time until the next chance to eat.

Below deck

The Yankee Clipper began life as a millionaire's party boat. But when Windjammer bought the ship in the early 1960s, the interior was sliced up. Today it can accommodate 64 passengers and 30 crew. The luckier (and wealthier) passengers have larger cabins on the top deck, with windows to look out to sea. The rest of us are below, in standard cabins with sealed portholes that are minimalist in comforts.

My 12-by-12-foot room has worn polished dark wood walls, a beat-up carpet and an open closet. Think Amtrak goes to sea or a rustic mountain cabin. Bunk beds press against the hull. A small bathroom with very old tiles has a sink and a toilet.

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