They were the daredevils of their day, the Top Guns of the sea. Often barely in their early twenties, the near-fearless clipper captains of the mid-1800s drove their bonus-hungry crews savagely to please international trade barons engaged in fiercely-competitive ocean commerce.
Built “to move at a faster clip” and to “clip the waves”, in the days before the opening of the Suez and Panama canals, the young captains’ lean, sleek and heart-stoppingly swift vessels, jammed with cargo, rode the trade winds down one side of the African and South American continents and up the other; dancing around the globe at speeds never seen at sea.
British clippers, such as the famed Cutty Sark, carried passengers from London to the Far East and Australia via treacherous Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, then hurtled home with holds bulging with grain, wool, tea and crates of fragile china.
Historian Carl B. Cutler, in dubbing them the “greyhounds of the sea”, described a classic clipper ship’s dimensions as: “lines clean, long and smooth as a smelt. Sharp arching head. Thin, hollow bow, convex sides, light round and graceful stern.” For another chronicler of the past, Samuel Eliot Morison, they were: “The noblest of all sailing vessels … our Gothic cathedrals.” Common crafts they were not.
The clipper era was brief but frenzied – introducing the now-familiar cult of the speed demon into an otherwise stately world. With gold discovered in California and Australia, the whole world seemed to be on the move. Prospectors had to be ferried about and new communities sustained. The British and American thirst for tea and fascination with porcelains saw the Sea Witch set a record of 74 days for the New York-China run.
Clippers were turned out of shipyards in England and Scotland, the American east coast (notably Baltimore), Scandinavia and other ports as fast as the craftsmen could fashion them (160 between 1850 and 1854 alone), with many now-legendary names, such as the Flying Cloud, Storm King, America and Ariel spoken of in awe. The clippers’ heavy rigging enabled a vast amount of sail to be spread and they commanded attention wherever they sailed, inexorably growing in size from the Sea Witch‘s modest 195 feet length to the Great Republic ‘s 335 feet.
But, almost in a blink, the era was over. The Suez Canal opened, a railroad was built across America and steamships made redundant a reliance on the wind. In 1870, when Buffalo Bill and Billy The Kid were astride their mounts and Lenin was being born, the Black Ball Line, the last hold-out, ceased its trans-Atlantic passenger services under sail. A decade later, it stopped its clipper cargo services, conceding that steam was cheaper and faster overall. Notwithstanding the Titanic‘s fate, steamships ruled until air travel became generally affordable.
The great clippers were gone but they were certainly not forgotten. At least not by Swedish schoolboy Mikael Krafft, who grew up in the shadow of the Plyms Shipyard at the port of Saltsjobaden in the Stockholm archipelago a century after the clipper boom’s peak and marvelled at tales of the Pommern, a four-masted steel barquentine still anchored off the Swedish-Finnish island of Aland. At the age of six, he was carrying varnish and wood stain for old-timers at the yard; not that many years later, he was dodging watchmen to climb the Pommern’s rigging. With a degree in Maritime Law, he embarked upon a business career that allowed him to indulge his passion as yacht-builder, ship owner and internationally-recognised yachtsman.
Krafft’s irrepressible dream of returning “thoroughbred” clippers to the world’s seas – which required an investment of US$80 million – was realised in July 1991 when the Star Flyer entered service in Caribbean waters and again in May 1992 when her sister ship, the Star Clipper, entered service in Mediterranean waters; both becoming the first clipper sailing ships since 1911 to be granted the certificate of highest quality by Lloyd’s Register of Shipping. These Belgium-built clippers also became the first sail vessels in 122 years to maintain scheduled passenger sailings between Europe and the New World.
The tallest of the tall ships were on the waters, to be marvelled at all over again. Though this time, with crates of cargo no longer stuffing the holds, comfort and luxury became the new imperative. Built to cater to the needs of somewhat spoiled late 20th and early 21st century wayfarers in search of the much-eulogised “romance of the sea” and what the travel industry terms “soft adventure”, Krafft’s crafts of polished teak and mahogany trimmed with gleaming brass are tastefully appointed (with an eye to clipper history) and artfully constructed.
Designed to carry up to 180 passengers apiece in 90 spacious air-conditioned cabins, they offer marble baths, queen-sized beds, a carpeted Edwardian-style salon dining room ringed by portholes, two swimming pools, cabin phones and televisions (with films and world news bulletins), an antique Belle Epoque fireplace, a cool library of Dickensian ambience, a Tropical Bar, a grand piano, regally furnished lounges, silken service, fine food and wines, and a remarkable amount of open, uncluttered deck space (some 11,400 square feet). Krafft had certainly tapped into a new age desire and fascination with his grand steel-hulled barquentines. The New York Times thought the Star Clipper “struck a pleasant balance between private comfort and conviviality, laid-back relaxation and island-hopping adventure”.
At 360 feet overall, the opulent Star Flyer and Star Clipper are longer than even the largest of the old clipper ships. The tallest of their four gleaming steel masts tops 226 feet, and the sixteen white, light dacron sails (far easier to raise and lower on the run than the old canvas variety) spread out to a massive expanse of 36,000 square feet. Most of us are dazed and confused by numbers but to set off in a small tender boat or zodiac and circle around these things of beauty from a distance which allows full perspective is to feel a puff of pride that one of those cabins, if only for a week, is actually yours.
One was mine, on a cruise in the Andaman Sea along the Malay Peninsula in the company of about 130 passengers of diverse origin; a deeply-etched travel experience to be sure. Where once I had difficulty differentiating port from starboard, I was, within days of clambering along the gangplank, casually dropping into such jargon as jigger, mizzen staysail, halyards, hawser, luffing and furling – with not a “hey hey me hearties!!” to be heard (though there is a ship’s parrot).
In 1996, the Star Flyer began an annual sojourn in South East Asian waters after its Mediterranean program, effectively chasing summer. On its debut run, it recreated history, becoming the first passenger-carrying clipper ship to enter the Straits of Malacca in more than a century. Now it bases itself out of Phuket for a season, taking every advantage of Thailand’s famed white-sand beaches and islands, such as Surin, Rok Nok, Similian, Phi Phi, Dam Hok, Khai Nok and “James Bond Island” (as featured in The Man With The Golden Gun ). There is a certain amount of languid sailing-in-circles but it is a voyage of discovery.
On my journey, Captain Jürgen Müeller-Cyran, a German who went to sea at 18 as part of a family and regional tradition, was admirably well versed in sea lore, history, and even a spot of philosophy and creative conjecture. At his morning and evening “Captain’s story time” sessions by the bridge, the sailing neophytes in his care began to care passionately about reading the weather, recognising the stars and using the prevailing winds. All aspects of exploration and navigation seemed to hold him in thrall and, with only a little prodding, he would regale you gently with some of his seafaring theories, such as the origin of Christopher Columbus (would you have ventured Norwegian?). “Land is a ship’s enemy,” he has been heard to declare.
This is not a cruise experience for those who want glittering floorshows, pulsating dance floors, lavish casinos and an inexhaustible selection of cocktails. “We can’t copy what the large cruise liners offer,” says owner Krafft. “These are sailing ships …… what you will experience is the equivalent of a very large private yacht.” A yacht which, with the assistance of powerful diesel motors, is able to steal into shallow bays and remote ports and tie-up at docks which cruise liners would never dare approach. It is, as one writer has put it, the exotic “sensation of sailing on a classic tall ship to islands and ports of call where mariners have been blown by the winds of fate for centuries” which proves so irresistible to those who forsake the packed ‘party boats’ or ‘booze cruises’.
Clipper passengers – half of whom return – seem more inclined to climb out along the 46 foot long bowsprit and prostrate themselves on the ‘widownet’ (a vast hammock of rope and steel suspended high over the prow), feeling the breeze and the sea spray and watching the flying fish and the stars. Or to consult on plotting the course in the open-to-all charthouse, or to help the eight or nine top deck crew members hoist the sails, or to elicit tales from the First Mate about his hair-raising Whitbread around-the-world yacht race experiences.
There are invariably lifelong sailors on board as paying customers, living out their own dreams of childhood. For it is under sail that the ship comes alive and fulfils the measure of its creation. Where possible this is not “sail-assisted” cruising, as shamelessly practiced by most of the other tame ‘tall ships’ plying the leisure routes (and often charging considerably higher tariffs). Every propulsion advantage is taken of nature’s forces and on a standard week-long voyage a clipper is powered by sail 40 per cent of the time, sail and engine 50 per cent, and engine the remainder.
It is the former that most on board find themselves wishing, hoping and quite possibly praying for. When the sails fill and the ship bends to the wind to slice almost noiselessly through the water, even the most jaded travelling spirits soar. Little wonder that many of the passengers first saw the clippers from the decks of other cruising craft – while waving wildly, exposing a considerable amount of film and making a mental note to ring their travel agent as soon as they got home.
It is when the motors are silent that, Canadian scribe George Bryant has written, “She ghosts along, a thing of spectral beauty, gliding over the swells and through the waves like a trim, white apparition from another century, as graceful as a ballet dancer, as powerful as the winds which drive her.”
Yet, for all the ornate extravagance, there is no sense that this is a precious artefact that can’t be touched. An absolutely relaxed, informal mood pervades; nobody will tell you that you can’t drape yourself languidly over a polished railing if that is what takes your fancy. Meals are taken when and with whom you choose. There is basically no dress code. The casual mood of the 73-strong multicultural crew – drawn from 23 countries on my sailing – engenders an easy camaraderie among the passengers. Infectious West Indian laughter rises constantly.
There is also no strict schedule. As a rule, evenings and nights are for sailing and days are for landings and water sports (kneeboarders, sailboaters, windsurfers, snorkelers and scuba divers are indulged to the point of exhaustion by a set of indefatigable Scandinavian instructors and supervisors). As the sun sets and the sails are unfurled, the bars come alive, bets are often placed on a crab race, tales as tall as the masts are unleashed by crew and customers alike, ad-hoc talent show routines are cobbled together for a laugh, and books are read from scattered deckchairs. The backdrop to it all is the sense of inescapable history; pages torn from the journals of swashbucklers, discoverers and hardy mariners.
Yet, in some regards, appearances can be deceiving. The clippers, while intended to evoke the past, very much belong to the future when it comes to technology. Old salts and tars would no doubt roll over in their graves at the very thought of it but power winches with computer aid can have the sails aloft in a flash and a state-of-the-art ballast tank system can stem the ship’s roll sufficiently to keep the wine in your glass at dinner. An even keel, a smooth ride and quease-free passengers are a high priority at this end of the market. Adventure is one thing but few paying passengers are prepared to go green in the pursuit of it. On the Star Flyer in the Andaman, on the rare occasions that the sun was not shining and the waters not sparkling, it was case of monsoons, schmonsoons! These crews are hard to faze.
A writer for Diversion magazine on board the ship during a rare Force 10 gale in the Mediterranean in 1994 reported how “Resolutely, the Flyer sliced through the angry, purple sea with just one sail unfurled against the 60 mile-per-hour wind. Were we panicked? Hardly! This was sailing in its truest form and, for most of us, the ultimate in high adventure.” A communal bravado no doubt reinforced by the knowledge that the ship carries the highest safety rating of any commercial vessel in its class and meets rigid U.S. Coast Guard safety specifications that are often beyond many passenger ships outside American waters.
Krafft’s clippers usually slip along at a controlled 8-12 knots per hour with the ‘understanding’ that when conditions permit both ships are prepared to cut loose and exhilarate passengers. The Star Clipper, sailing erect with strong winds astern, was clocked at over 17 knots off Corsica just after it entered service. The Star Flyer, on one of its trans-Atlantic ‘relocation’ cruises regularly topped 14 knots. On its westbound ‘shakedown’ voyage in 1991, it averaged 11.5 knots for 2,600 miles, much of it under reduced sail after passing the Azores.
I doubt if we set any new records in the Andaman and I’m not sure if I wanted to. A few days in, my seven day journey seemed far too short to be hastening toward its finish.
©2014 Glenn A. Baker. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.