Royal Clipper - Historic Sailing Experience

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

My former colleague, Anne Campbell, wrote a stunning tribute to the Star Clippers ships in an article over ten years ago. "When Star Clippers sails into port, the passengers and crew from every other ship will stare in awe, such is the regal splendor of a fully rigged clipper ship."

Star Clippers is a three ship "cruise line" featuring sail ships built in the style of the classic clipper ships of the late 19th century. The larger star of the fleet, Royal Clipper, was built in 2000 at 439 feet long and with a capacity for 227 passengers. It is a near perfect replica of the largest and fastest sailing ship the world had ever seen, the tall ship, Preussen, built in 1902. The other two vessels, Star Clipper and Star Flyer, are smaller, identical vessels each carrying 170 passengers.

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Royal Clipper   The beautiful Interior   Climbing the masts

I had a chance to sail in the deep Caribbean out of Barbados on Royal Clipper during the final week of March 2008. We visited a new island every day; on some days re-positioning from one part of the island to another. The itinerary was a mix of the more renowned cities on Grenada, St Lucia and Martinique along with several quiet beaches that larger cruise ships never get to visit due to size limitations.

Even though we were in port every day, the star of the show on a Star Clippers cruise is the ship itself. Royal Clipper is the only existing fully rigged (meaning all masts carry square sails) five masted sailing ship in existence. Like the original Preussen, the ship is steel-hulled and steel-masted. Unlike other sail ships that also have masts and square sails, Royal Clipper actually uses wind-power to propel her 80% of the time she is sailing - half of that time with engine assistance, and half of that time by wind power alone.

This ship is for sailing enthusiasts longing to see and learn the rigging of the pinnacle of sailing vessels. For a wind-powered ship, she is not only strikingly beautiful, but also amazingly maneuverable; able to make a full 180-degree reversal in a circumference just twice as long as the hull itself by sheer wind power alone.

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Preparing to Sail at Night   The Outdoor Steering Helm   The Swimming Pool - view from the lounge below

Lying on deck with the warm Caribbean wind filling your sails is a way of life for the kind of people who enjoyed this cruise the most. The feeling of sailing as fast as 16 knots by sheer wind power alone is exhilarating and even a little disarming, especially to we experienced cruise enthusiasts who are used to the vibrations of engines under our feet. Fellow passengers are friendly and convivial, starting conversations easily with one another. The more you know and love sailing the more company you will find on a Star Clippers voyage.

Royal Clipper Details

On the outside, especially when fully dressed, Royal Clipper is stunningly beautiful. When she is docked or at anchor the sails come in, and the masts stand tall but naked except for the miles of rope that hang from the masts at all angles. The entire top deck is sun-aged teak with spars, gaffs and brace winches everywhere. If that does not mean anything to you it is OK, you are just one of the passengers there to soak up the ambiance. Even we novices couldn't help getting swell-chested the first night we felt the ship ripping through the seas by sheer wind power alone.

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Ropes and Gaffs   Navigating the ropes to the crow's nest   The ship's 180-degree turnabout

But the inside of Royal Clipper is actually even more beautiful than the outside. The original Preussen was built to carry saltpeter from Chile to Germany (which it did with remarkable speed). The inside of Royal Clipper is for people. Midships is a spacious mini-atrium spanning the full three public decks, all of it lit by translucent light filtering through the glass-bottomed swimming pool that is the roof. On the bottom floor lies the dining room, which seats all 227 passengers at one sitting. The pool above reflects water-rippled waves of light on the tables below. There is a small stage with a grand piano two decks higher looking down over the entire indoor expanse.

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Top Level (deck 3) indoor lounge   The Indoor Atrium   Outdoor Tropical Lounge

The top layer of the atrium on deck three is an inside lounge with several plush couches and chairs. People congregate here daily, reading books and playing cards or scrabble. Coffee and tea are available here 24 hours/day. Aft and on deck outside this room is the Tropical Bar, a regular bar setting on all three Star Clippers' ships. This is the primary gathering place. On sunny days we enjoyed outdoor lunch and pre-dinner cocktail hour buffets, and on balmy nights we were entertainment by the onboard musical duo from Russia. Aft of the Tropical bar is the entrance to the library. This room is well stocked with plenty of books in English, German, French and Italian.

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The Bottom level Dining Room   The full Atrium with bandstand and staircases   Mid-level walk-around aisle

Forward of the aforementioned inside lounge is a long hallway with suites on both sides. These are the most spacious suites, with balconies, on the ship. All the way forward is the Internet room. Not a "web café," this room has views out over the bow and seems to have once been a conference room or maybe a cinema. Now there are just a few computers and lots of stacked chairs.

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Glass-bottomed pool from below   The Library   Deck two Tuscan Mural

On the next deck down, deck two, the atrium area had simple aisles to walk around the open area looking up to the main lounge or down over the dining room. This is one of the most beautiful spaces on the ship with the light from the pool above showing through the water and glass down upon Tuscan murals painted into the walls depicting scenes of Italian villas and Amalfi coast grottoes. Majestic staircases go up or down at opposite ends of the atrium. Aft of the atrium is the gift-shop and purser's desk. The rest of the deck is for cabins.

Deck one has staterooms both fore of the dining room. The cabins are a vast improvement over the more confining rooms on the two smaller Star Clippers ships. The bathrooms are surprisingly generous, bigger than most cruise ships, though it seemed to me the cabin would have been better apportioned if some of that bathroom space was given back to the bedroom. In any case, I remember back in 1995 when the showers on the smaller Star Flyer required holding down a button down just to keep the water flowing. The plumbing has been upgraded on all the ships so it is as good as any cruise ship now.

The staterooms come in many sizes from inside singles to generously appointed suites with balconies. I recommend at least opting for one with a king-size bed (or two twins). These rooms have extra floor and storage space plus portholes for light. There are smaller cabins, some interior, and some far forward into the narrowing bow. Some of these forward cabins have queen-sized beds but they are more suited for a single person.

Ship Motion

My equilibrium is not what it used to be since a bicycle accident a few years back. If you are sensitive to motion sickness, this ship and itinerary may not be good for you. Sailing in the southerly islands near Barbados, we faced some of the windiest and roughest seas, as high as 15 feet, as I can ever recall seeing in the Caribbean.

Videos:

  • Royal Clipper Docked: The ship continues to roll even when docked and wind catches the masts. You can imagine what it is like in high sea.
  • Royal Clipper Loose Sail: A sail gets loose on an approaching strom. The crewmember looks on flustered.
  • Royal Clipper Captain: Here the master give us a lecture on his vessel and the other Star Clipper ships on a beautiful day at sea. Royal Clipper Ziplining: A shore excursion we took in St Lucia; zipling atop the rainforest canopy.

Royal Clipper is a small and light vessel, not a standard cruise ship. Size does matter when you are in high swells. Even with the sails down, the masts catch the wind and cause the ship to rock. This motion was almost non-stop, even when docked. Most of the time in port we were anchored and were tendered into port. Some of the tender rides lasted as long as 20 minutes. In other words, though we were truly all right 90% of the time, do bring your seasickness medicine on this cruise, you might need it.

Itineraries

Star Clippers' three ships specialize in tropical sailings to small, remote islands. They do not sail to the U.S. Most of their cruises spend slightly more time in remote beach locations than visiting urban areas.

Royal Clipper spent the winter of 2008 in the Caribbean, and will soon sail trans-Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Of the two smaller ships, Star Flyer is sailing out of Tahiti until at least 2010. Star Clipper (the other small ship with the same name as the cruise line) is also in the Mediterranean this summer but will relocate to the Far East next winter to sail the waters of Thailand and Malaysia.

The ships all pull into port nearly every day of each cruise. Our ship was in port every day and actually visited more than one location on two of those days. We spent the mornings in the cities, but relocated mid-day to sunny afternoons at the beach.

Sports, Fitness and Tours

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Sports Guides offering Kayaks on the Beach   Inside the Spa   Fitness Center

While the smaller Star Clippers ships are less complicated, Royal Clipper has a drop-down sports platform on the stern that opens up to the sea like a teak decked patio just above the water line. From this platform guests can don scuba gear (you must already be SCUBA certified) or take a sea kayak out for a row.

The ship's tender has a landing-craft ramp that drops down onto the sand to allow passengers to basically stroll off the boat onto the shore. The onboard sports and diving coordinators take kayaks, snorkel gear and water vests onto the beach for guests to use at their leisure.

Examples of the tours offered as shore excursions include hikes to waterfalls, jeep tours or other active endeavors such as zip lining. These are fairly active cruises if you want them to be, and there were a fair number of younger people onboard, mostly traveling with their parents.

There is an onboard Spa offering massages and facials. They do not do haircuts, but the dress code for the ship is fully casual all day long and contemporary casual at night (no jeans, collared shirts, jackets not required). There is an expansive fitness center for a ship this size. Most uniquely, it was true underwater portholes so you can look out under the sea.

Cuisine

Having been on Star Flyer about 12 years ago, I was very impressed by the improvement in the dining experience over what I had back then. While I cannot speak for the smaller boats now, Royal Clipper's cuisine is excellent, very similar to what one would experience on a European riverboat. There is a sommelier with a wide variety of wines. Imported beer is available by the bottle or glass. The menu offers choices from two salads, two appetizers, soup, three entrees including a nightly vegetarian option and three desserts.

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Tropical Bar Buffet Desserts   Hot Entrees for Lunch

Breakfasts and lunches were always served buffet style, but the selection was vast and the preparation by the European crew was perfection. I became addicted to freshly made-to-order omelets served piping hot with plenty of gooey cheese every morning. I loved adding pine nuts and pistachios to the hot oatmeal or chunky European style mueslix. The coffee was European strength - like mud. Not tasty to American palates but it certainly does the trick. At lunch the omelet station was replaced by a chef carving freshly roasted meat.

One drawback is the lack of room service. It doesn't mean you will ever go hungry, but you do have to fetch your own coffee every morning. The 24-hour coffee and tea station does have large paper cups available.

A continental breakfast is served from 6:30 on. Full service breakfast is served from 8:00 to 10:00. Lunch begins at 12:00 and runs until 2:00. There is an extensive "snack" served at 5:00 p.m. and dinner commences at 7:30 p.m. nightly. Star Clippers may also be the last purveyors of the sea-going midnight buffet, though I must admit I never stayed up late enough to try it.

Staff

For a ship of 227 passengers there are over 100 crewmembers, but not as many of them are directly related to service as on a standard cruise ship. A sailing vessel with five masts and 47 sails requires a large contingent of "sailors" who can climb those masts and sew a sail while buckled to a pole 50 feet in the air. Indeed, watching the sailors work is a big part of the experience. Everywhere you go on the top deck you are immersed in ropes and winches. Being a part of it all is the whole idea.

The captain is friendly and affable. Ours gave a few lectures during the cruise to tell us about the history of tall ships and his own personal experiences with them. He was trained on one belonging to the Russian navy. For his real-life navigational demonstration he showed us how the ship can "turn about" with sail and wind power alone. That experience is, well, breathtaking. Royal Clipper can actually completely reverse its direction solely using wind power in a 180-degree turn that is just twice the circumference of the vessel itself. Most modern cruise ships cannot do as well using the latest pod technology.

The hotel director and the cruise manager were always in sight and willing to assist. The passenger mix had as many Europeans (mostly Germans and Brits) as Americans. All announcements were made in three languages, the third being French. The room stewards and waiters were mostly young Indonesian men who do an exemplary job.

The cruise manager was responsible for giving port lectures and handing out maps every day, which she did on deck in the early morning hours before the ship arrived in port. There are no in-port shopping programs, and so her talks were mostly about the history of the islands and what could be seen from the landing area. Most of the port time was spent in isolated beach areas, this was not a shopping-oriented cruise. There were tours available in every port, but some were cancelled due to a lack of interest.

The onboard currency is the Euro, but this didn't mean sticker shock for Americans. The average drink was 2.50 Euros, which compares to what a passenger would normally pay in dollars on a standard cruise ship.

Summing Up

As stated, this is a sailing experience. Many of the people onboard own their own sailboats or and just love the idea of wind-powered ships. There were a few people who had previously been on the now out-of-service Windjammer cruises who were scouting out the line to see if it was similar. Their conclusion, despite the crab races, was that it is not a Windjammer experience, and although they enjoyed it for what it was, it did not satisfy their craving for onboard antics and free rum swizzlers at cocktail hour.

There were many repeat passengers onboard however, and they seem to be the kind of people who love quiet times in nature. Reading with the wind in your hair was a popular pastime, while personally I was somewhat upset that the rocking of the ship meant the CNN television signal was generally on for 20 and then off for 40 seconds out of every minute.

The Internet access did work surprisingly well, however, and the fee to connect is more reasonable than most cruise ships - about $12 Euros/hour. I paid nearly the same in Martinique after walking a mile to a Web café.

Bottom line, this is one of those experiences everyone will like and some people will love. The seasickness did not add to my joy, however, and a week later I still have a rocking sensation, but this was an unusually rocky cruise - even the crew said the last night was one of the worst they had ever seen. For the most part, the experience is quiet and calming and the pictures here tell most of the story.

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