Schensul: Cruising aboard a clipper

August 7, 2016 GMT

A cruise on the Star Flyer offers travelers a taste of old-time sailing to places like St. Tropez and Corsica. At a length of only 360 feet, the sleek craft offers an experience far different from a voyage on a modern luxury liner.

The Star Flyer can offer stops at less-traveled spots like the sun-washed Corsican port of Calvi, above. Passengers can also learn to tie knots, right, and relax on the bowsprit netting, far right.

It actually was a dark and stormy night, this particular night in May in the Mediterranean aboard the four-mast Star Flyer. Up late in the cozy library typing on my laptop, I’d taken a break to get coffee from the 24/7 coffeemaker at the bar. It had been raining. But just as I headed back across the deck toward the library, the rain came pelting sideways. Worse, though, was the wind. It was actually howling as if Jack London had written it to life.

The crew had given us a lot of safety information. The usual muster drill was held before I could even open a suitcase. It lasted forever, and then they called a second drill some 10 minutes later. I was kind of annoyed then. Kind of grateful now.

One thing the program director had drilled into my head was “leave one hand for the ship,” meaning have one hand free in case you have to grab for balance. At the moment, there was nothing to grab but wet air, so I decided to make a break for the library door, where I grabbed the handle and pulled.

Pulled harder. The door opened, slightly until the wind slammed it shut.

I pulled harder, the wind just laughed. I felt as if I were in a bad cartoon. At least no one was around to pull out the cellphone to make a video. Then the ship’s nurse came strolling by. Really, he was strolling. He smiled, gave a nod, strolled on.

“HELP ME!” I really did say it in capital letters. He did. We went to the other library door, which opened the other way — with the wind, rather than against it. The nurse left, I stumbled toward a sofa beside my laptop, feeling like a Hemingway character. Now this was real sailing!

I had expected some kind of old-style, romantic sea voyage when I signed up for the Star Flyer cruise.

Just looking at a tall ship festooned with sails is a ticket to the past. And as I researched the Star Flyer, one of three in the Star Clipper fleet of tall ships, I was also taken back to a cruise I took years ago aboard the schooner Lewis R. French in Maine. That ship, built in 1871, was much smaller and carried a maximum of 21 passengers. But it had ropes and sails, and a captain with a beard. And we got to raise the jibs, take the wheel for a while, and do other old-salt types of chores.

I imagined a similar sort of situation aboard the Star Flyer, though on a larger scale.

I signed up for the May cruise scheduled for early May, which I knew was in the Mediterranean, though I didn’t really study the ports of call in detail. First, I expected the ship to be the star of this trip; and second, when you’re depending on wind power, you’ve got to go with the, well, blow. So I didn’t have my heart set on any place in particular — except on the deck, helping raise a sail or two.

Boarding in Barcelona and seeing the 360-foot Star Flyer in the flesh (or the teak, brass, steel, and rigging) was as majestic, romantic, cinematic as I’d hoped. As we pulled out of port that night, we experienced a sail-away ritual that was performed every night of our weeklong trip: the sails (most or all of the 16) rose slowly from heaps of canvas to filled white triangles against dark-blue skies, while the pathos-filled “Conquest of Paradise” by Vangelis was played and the champagne was downed.

There was plenty to make a passenger’s heart kind of puff up and pound in a good way on this trip. As my friend and cabin-mate Lisa said later I the trip “I feel sorry for anyone who’s not me right now.”

There also were a few disappointments — for the most part because of worlds old and new colliding.

The Star Clipper fleet is the dream come true of the line’s founder, Mikael Krafft, a Swedish entrepreneur with a lifelong passion for sailing. Krafft was in love with the old clipper ships — the fastest, sleekest ships at sea — and the vessel of choice for carrying goods on the trade routes of the 19th century; it took a while, but eventually they were squeezed out by steam-driven vessels, especially with the completion of the Suez Canal shortcut in 1920.

Krafft wanted to build new clipper ships, still based on wind and sails and the sleek silhouette, but with enough room for 170 passengers who were used to having all the modern comforts — in luxurious style. Like the yachts he’d sailed around in, actually.

So the Star Flyer and its sister ship the Star Clipper, along with the newer and larger Royal Clipper and upcoming Royal Cloud, lose a little bit of the old, and a little bit of the modern, in the process.

Our cabin, for instance, was tiny. Putting 170 passengers (and 75 crew members) on a svelte, built-for-speed clipper ship, you’re going to have to scrimp on floor space. I usually like small spaces — nest like, I think of them. But two people, plus two sets of luggage in a cabin measuring 118 square feet (150 is considered compact)? Some fancy footwork may be required to negotiate around each other if you both find the need to walk around at the same time (I used the bed for a bypass route). Consider upgrading to a deck cabin, for more square feet (150, and fewer bruises). The cabins on the newer ships are bigger.

Another modern feature are engines. The ship doesn’t have to rely on wind alone, and though it likes to be as fuel-saving as possible, it only uses wind power about 30 percent of the time. So the masts were not always up, and I never saw any passengers helping raise sails, though I hear it happens. Our captain, who was obviously passionate about the old sailing ships, said we needed the engines because we needed to be on schedule. What we were doing wasn’t “real sailing,” he said — that’s when he did the 45-degree angle with his hand. You’re going fast when that happens, or into crazy waves.

Something heart pounding.

We did, however, learn how to tie knots. I think one or two of my fellow passengers are still trying to extricate their fingers from their handiwork.

We also could go out and relax, hammock style, on the bowsprit on nets slung from the edge of the deck right over the water. Another sailorly activity was getting to climb to the crow’s nest — wearing a safety harness.

The benefits of small

The Star Flyer and its fleetmates are small ships. And you either like the small-ship style or you want the floating-city style.

For me, the advantages of small-scale cruising are many: By our second night, all the waiters knew us and our preferences (“the vegetarian,” “aye, rock star” after I wore a Nirvana T-shirt). The food, if you weren’t a vegetarian, was a cut above a lot of big-ship fare, at least for dinner. The selections for the buffet breakfast and lunch didn’t vary much day to day, however, and there was even less variety for the non-meat-eaters.

Small also means you can visit smaller, off-the-beaten-path ports that a big ship can’t, and it’s easier getting on and off. We had to use smaller craft known as tenders to get to most ports we visited — not as convenient as tying down at the town dock, but we never had to stand in line waiting to disembark, either.

Which brings us to the terra-firma aspect of our trip, which was seven nights from Barcelona to Cannes, hitting Palma, Mallorca; Mahon, Menorca; Bonifacio, Corsica, Calvi, Corsica, St. Tropez, France, and disembarking in Cannes (no time to sightsee).

Each was at least a little different from the others. And all were different than what I had expected. In St. Tropez, for instance, I didn’t see as many of the locals as I had expected sporting that “St. Tropez tan” of the suntan jingle; then again, I hadn’t expected to find Le Musée de l’Annonciade, a small but amazing museum full of masterpieces by French artists — some of whom were on the island when its inspiration hit them: Paul Signac, Vuillard, Matisse, Braque, Bonnard, and many more.

Other memorable finds: windmills on the walled fortifications of Palma on Mallorca — one turned into a pub.

A prehistoric henge-like enclave at Menorca, where we took our only organized tour. The monolithic arrangements here, called taulas, were created between 3000 and 1000 B.C. Nobody knows why.

The standout was Corsica — we had one day each in Bonifacio and Calvi. The former is at the southern end of Corsica, just 7.5 miles from Sardinia. The harbor is beautiful, and there’s a definite Italian tinge to this part of the country. The citadel (now the old city) was built atop — and dug into — the steep, tawny cliffs that drop into the sea. Definitely spring for the 2.50 euros (about $2.80 at current conversion rates) for a visit Bastion d’Etenard (or Stronghold of the Standard). The harbor views alone are worth the price. Make sure to continue along the cliffs to the Marine Cemetery, with its warren of whitewashed crosses, small mausoleums, and profusions of poppies. Some call it the most beautiful cemetery in the Mediterranean (gets my vote).

And Calvi, in the northwest, features a Genoese citadel. The colorfully painted town has a pretty pink baroque church, and the countryside is planted with olive trees (their oil is a specialty). Did I mention, Christopher Columbus is thought to have been born there?

So, after going from port to port — country to country, really — it did seem a little like we were island-hopping on our private yacht, which is what Krafft, the line’s owner, was hoping.

So maybe I didn’t feel quite like the old salt I’d imagined I’d become on this trip. But really, I couldn’t be walking around yo-ho-hoing, tying knots with one hand while lugging a bottle of rum with the other. You have to keep a hand free … for the ship.

If you go

The 170-passenger Star Flyer set sail in 1991, the first of the three sailing ships that currently make up the Star Clipper fleet. Her sister ship, the Star Clipper (not to be confused with the company) followed a year later, and in 2000, they were joined by the 237-passenger Royal Clipper, the line’s flagship and the largest (five masts) sailing ship built since 1902. Features on the sister ships include a nicely arranged indoor-outdoor tropical bar, a small piano lounge and a warm, Edwardian-style library complete with fireplace (no fires allowed, understandably), where people read and work on jigsaw puzzles with nautical themes under the glow of lamps.

The larger Royal Clipper has a good deal more public space (as well as more spacious cabins). The 19,000 square feet of open-deck area and three swimming pools, comes out to about 106 square feet of open space per passenger — more than that offered by most of the standard big cruise ships. Additional amenities on the Royal Clipper include a marina platform that lowers from the stern and is convenient for diving and water sports. The Star Clipper and Flyer offer similar activities, and there’s a water sports staff that can also arrange snorkeling and other adventures.) The Captain Nemo Lounge, where you’ll find the spa and health club, comes with underwater glass portholes.

All ships serve meals in one dining room, open seating. We were in some ports long enough to be able to have dinner in town, getting a taste of the local flavors. Alfresco barbecue is offered, as well.

Onboard activities are low key and low tech, from yoga and aerobics classes to a nighttime fashion show of the attire sold in the gift shop and modeled by the crew and other willing volunteers. I almost forgot to mention the crews’ towel-animal demonstration.

There are a lot of DVDs to play on your in-room TV/VCR player. Note that they’re in a variety of languages — similar to the mix of passengers aboard. It’s a pretty international group, and 60 percent of passengers are repeat sailors.


The cruise line offers sailing itineraries along the French and Italian rivieras, Spain’s Balearic Islands and Catalonia,

Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, and the ports and coastal resorts of Greece and Turkey in summer and fall. The rest of the year they’re in the Caribbean, including Cuba. And new for 2017, the Star Clipper will be sailing in Bali, offering seven-to-11-night itineraries that include in-depth exploration of Indonesia, visiting Lombok, Komodo and Java. Also new, all itineraries in the Far East and Bali will offer diving trips conducted by the onboard dive master.

The Star Flyer will do the itinerary I took in the western Mediterranean — but in reverse, from Cannes to Barcelona, departing on Oct. 1. Rates for the seven-night cruise start at $2,925 a person for an inside cabin, to $4,410 for a deck cabin. Airfare, tips, wine and soda aren’t included nor are shore excursions, Wi-Fi, etc. It does have air-inclusive prices that are often good deals.

For more information and reservations, visit starclippers .com.


The schooner Louis R. French is part of the Maine Windjammer association, North America’s largest fleet of historic schooners – nine altogether. They range in size from 64 feet to 132 feet and carry 16 to 40 passengers. Five of the windjammers are national historic landmarks. All of the vessels are privately owned and operated and sail out of either Rockport or Camden, with itineraries of up to 11 days along the coast of Maine. More information: sailmainecoast.com

Windstar Cruises bills its fleet of six ships as “yachts”: three of them are sailing ships carrying 148 to 310 passengers. There are itineraries in 50 countries. More info: windstarcruises.com.

Email: schensul@northjersey.com Blog: northjersey.com/openroad