“I must go down to the seas, again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.” John Masefield, Sea Fever
Tall ship travel is the most elegant of life’s experiences.
It’s also romantic, poetic and fun. In a world where terrorism and wobbly economics have stripped the elegance from travel, sailing on a tall ship is a ray of sunshine directed to the adventurous soul. It is a type of boutique travel, where everyday hardy crews of fit young men and women weight anchor, cast off lines, climb rigging, pull ropes, and drop sails to glide over the sea to the next adventure. Except that on a tall ship this method of travel is part of the adventure.
As a travel writer I get to do a lot of very cool things. I get to see a lot of the
world, experience fine food and meet interesting people. Sailing on a tall ship is at the top of my list of fun things to do.
I’ve sailed five times on four tall ships. The first was the SSFantome in the Bahamas. It was primarily a booze cruise under canvas. Next came a week on the tall ship Europa, sailing from Cape Tormentine around PEI to Pictou. After that was a week sailing the west coast of Newfoundland on the Concordia. Finally, I joined the initial cruise of the Caledonia in the French Caribbean and again from Quebec City to Bonne Bay.
The Europa, which is taking part in the Rendez-Vous 2017 Tall Ships Regatta, was built in 1911 as a floating lighthouse. It is 185-feet-long, has three masts, and 27 sails which cover 11,000 sq. ft. and requires over five miles of rope to manage. Europa’s white hull, neatly tied sails and taut rigging looks like Disney designed a pirate ship.
The barquentine S.V. Caledonia is 248-feet-long, 30-feet wide and has 21 sails containing 17,000 sq. ft. of canvas. Under sail, the Caledonia, which has a four-yard front mast and two single masts, looks like a cross between the Bounty and the Bluenose. Caledonia, which was based in Halifax, is not part of this year’s tall ship gathering. It is for sale if anyone catches the dream to play pirate or enter into boutique cruising. Caledonia can accommodate 57 passengers in 32 cabins in four-star comfort. It operated with 22 crew.
Tall ships are a true adventure. Because of their size they can take you to ports
that bigger ships have to bypass. One of the places we visited was Anticosti Island. I’ve grown up hearing the weather forecasts for Anticosti, but how many every go there?
Not surprisingly tall ships draw a lot of interest from local residents. In every community a ship visited we were treated as part celebrity, part curiosity. People who live by the water, who make their living from the sea, sail recreationally or are descended from seafarers are naturally fascinated by the anachronism of such a creature in their midst. It was pleasant, surprising and natural since all the communities we visited were founded in the age of sail. In these communities, fortunes rose and fell during the period when tall ships connected the world, so we became part of their living history.
Sailing down the St. Lawrence River was amazing. People who live along the St. Lawrence refer to it as “Le Mer”, the sea, because in places it is so wide you can’t see the far shore. We shared the river with all manner of ocean-going ship. The crews lined their decks looking wistfully at our young crew scrambling the riggings.
There is an enormous amount of work for the crew on a tall ship. Sails are not automated. Crew members climb pirate-like ratlines, the rope ladders that reach from the railings into the rigging, to untie massive sheets of canvas and lower them in an orderly way. This is usually in the wind, which adds to the challenge. When we want to stop or have to adjust for changing weather conditions, the crew again climb to the crossbars on moving masts 50-, 70-, 100-or-more feet in the air to haul up these great sheets of canvas, which can be full of air or wet from rain or waves making them that much heavier to pull up. Working on a tall ship keeps you fit.
As a passenger we aren’t required to work, but most pitch in to pull ropes, raising and lowering sails or securing the ship to a wharf. That’s a great ab workout. A week on a tall ship is worth several weeks at a spa. You sleep well, in part because of the clean, salt air; in part from physical exercise; then there is the food, which has been excellent on all ships. There’s also the calmness of a tall ship. Crews have to work as a team for the ship to sail efficiently. So that contributes to the positive ambience. And while on all cruises passengers form intense, albeit temporary friendships, the type of person who cruises on a tall ship contributes to the adventure.
Tall ship travellers tend to have interesting lives and inquisitive natures. On Europa I met Bill Clinton’s real estate lawyer. There was a TV presenter. There was a couple from Nevada who, in their 60s, met on an on-line dating service. On Concordia one passenger was a United Church Minister who had been a ballet dancer in her youth. On Caledonia we had a couple who were civil rights lawyers in the U.S., a computer nerd who invented one of the driving languages for the digital world, a retired surgeon, four people from Paris who kept each other alive during the war, and an engineer who worked on the original plans for the Confederation Bridge. There was no shortage of conversation and expertise and ideas. There were films on board, but who needs electronic diversions with companions like these.
On the Europa cruise we sailed up the Northumberland Strait to make port in Summerside. The wind was with us and the captain had all 27 sails set. We looked magnificent that traffic stopped on the Confederation Bridge. We could see transport trucks had stopped and rows of heads above the sides of the bridge. They are would be fined for stopping on the bridge, but no one seemed to care since we were such an amazing sight.
While the ships were different, there were commonalities to our cruises. First off, space is limited on a tall ship, so passengers are asked to travel with less. It’s easily done because tall ships don’t do formal nights. Just like a big cruise ship, your luggage is delivered to your cabin. The actual experience starts almost upon boarding. It seemed like we had barely shaken hands hello when lines were cast and we began to sail. It’s not unusual for the keeners to begin pulling ropes before seeing their cabins. Sailing on a tall ship is a hands-on type of cruise. There is no obligation to help, they’ll still feed you, but if you want to, you can lend a hand. Rope pulling, I learned, while it can be a little hard on delicate hands, is really no more than a gym workout. On each tall ship the crew and captain where incredibly patient with over-eager novices who couldn’t wait to hoist sails and climb rigging. (Guests are usually allowed onto the rigging one afternoon of each sail, but only if they wore harnesses, were accompanied by a crew member and hadn’t had a drink in several hours.)
Interestingly, there are two British ships, Tenacious and STS Lord Nelson, which are designed to accommodate those who are physically challenged. Tenacious can even take someone in a wheelchair into the masts!
There is a lot of work to running a tall ship, but it is done with such skill, ease and smiles, that it seems more passion than employment. As in comedy, timing is everything when sailing. You must catch the winds and read the currents. It is on one level so very old fashioned, while on another so wildly romantic. Tall ships run like a ballet. Whatever the origin of the ship, the crew shout back and forth to each in a language unfamiliar to our ears. When passengers helped, the commands were translated into equally foreign sounding phrases, like: “Let go of the royal”. The parents of the crew should be proud, because I never saw laziness among the young crew. No one had to be told what to do, the acted in anticipation of need. And the crews always smiled and joked with each other as well as the passengers. There was a great sense of camaraderie, because we share not just close quarters but this passion for adventure and romance.
If there is a draw-back to sailing on a tall ship it’s that you can’t see yourself. It’s like going up Paris’ Eiffel Tower, suddenly it disappears from your view.
Under sail the ship leans at a 30-40 degree angle. You quickly learn to hold
on, then how to brace yourself so you don’t fly across the deck (this is where sensible rubber-soled shoes help). The first day on Europa we jokingly asked, “Is your cabin on the dry side of the boat?” Someone would look at the water lapping the lower side of the deck and panic about whether their porthole was closed (they’re fixed shut).
We glided across the water, cutting a fine white foam in our wake. What is so surprising is how calm a ship is under sail. To be able to travel at any speed with such silence is almost spiritual. Sometimes you hear the wind, other times it could be the flap of a sail as it loses wind or the creak of a block (the wooden pulleys through which the ropes are guided).
Given what I considered to be a modest menu of activities available on these cruises, I always take along some books to fill the downtime. To my surprise, I rarely have time to read.
On the last night on the Europa cruise, after the sails were set and we slid out of Georgetown Bay towards the Northumberland Strait for Nova Scotia, I stood on the deck in the dark. Clusters of lights on shore signified Island villages and hamlets. The seep of the beams from two lighthouses guided us to open water then we were embraced by the welcoming, sweeping beams from a lighthouse from Nova Scotia. It was as if one light handed us to the next.
The success of this type of cruising is the intimacy, casualness and calm provided by the ship. It is an elegant adventure. One cruiser said it feels like the ship has a soul. I think most of us were like big kids, playing with a great new toy. It was refreshing to be so out-of-step with the modern world.
For information about Rendez-Vous 2017, tall ships and tall ship cruising options, click on: https://www.sailonboard.com