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"Set sails!" ordered the captain. "All hands on deck!" shouted the chief mate. Within minutes, crew members were pulling ropes and manning capstans. The chief mate then called out: "All passengers on sheets!"

A queue materialized instantly. He assigned us to various sails and shouts: "Upper topgallant sheets! Heave away! Standby to tack! Take them away now!"

Star Flyer in full sail
Star Flyer in full sail
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Hoisting the sails

Helping the crew hoist the sails was only one of the pleasures of sailing on a tall ship, a yacht-like experience quite unlike cruising on a traditional ship.

It's a great view from the huge rope hammock stretched around the bowsprit at the prow of the ship. Above us, 16 white sails billowed from four masts like bulging pillows, restrained by 18 kilometers of rigging. Our eyes were drawn to the sleek 110-meter hull, as it cleared a foaming pathway across the sapphire sea.

It could be 1850, the zenith of the romantic era of the clipper ships, which was spurred on by the California Gold Rush, then forced to an abrupt halt by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the development of steam-powered ships.

In reality, it's the 21st century, and we were embarking from St. Maarten on a Treasure Islands cruise aboard the Star Flyer, the tallest of the tall ships along with her twin, the Star Clipper.

Not a traditional cruise

In spite of its romance, a tall ship cruise is not for everyone. If you expect Las Vegas-style shows, casinos, spas, beauty shops, gym equipment and room service, then consider a traditional cruise ship. The dress code was casual. There wasn't a necktie or sequin in sight.

Our cabin was very comfortable with lots of storage space, a TV with in-house video, a private safe, a DVD player with free movie rentals, a direct-dial telephone, air-conditioning and a marble bathroom with shower (although it was an "after you, dear," size).

Tropical Bar on Star Flyer
Tropical Bar on Star Flyer
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

International passengers

Early on the first morning, we woke-up and noted that the ship was tilted. Hearing water brushing the hull, we wasted no time getting dressed and up on the deck.

Dozens of passengers were already up, coffee cups and cameras in hand. The fresh air made us ravenous and although we nibbled on fresh fruit and pastries from the continental breakfast, we indulged in the buffet as well.

Since the dining room was large enough to accommodate all 170 passengers, there was only one seating. It was completely open, allowing us to sit with whomever we pleased to meet our European, American and Canadian traveling companions. The vast majority, like us, were couples in the 40-to-65 age-bracket.

Shore excursions

The laid-back atmosphere led to easy conversation and camaraderie, whether it was lounging on deckchairs around one of the two pools or relaxing at the Tropical Bar, sipping piña coladas. Other than the mandatory life-jacket drill, nothing was regimented.

Each morning during the captain's briefing, we sat in a circle on the deck while the captain described our port of call and introduced the staff who, in turn, outlined the day's sports activities, shore excursions and entertainment.

Snorkeling near Anguilla
Snorkeling near Anguilla
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Anguilla snorkeling

On the first day, we anchored off Anguilla, a 25-kilometer eel-shaped island surrounded with beaches, islets, coves and coral reefs. Our options? We could board a tender to bring us ashore to explore an upscale resort, or we could participate in a plethora of complimentary watersports.

The Star Flyer’s sports department spread out the equipment on the beach for Sunfish-sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, paddleboarding and snorkeling.

Cruise meals

That evening, we enjoyed a delicious lobster dinner. You never go hungry on the Star Flyer, with 24-hour coffee and tea at the Piano Bar, complimentary appetizers during happy hour, and a late-night spread of fruit, cheese and other snacks.

After a few hearty meals, we decided to join the morning yoga classes. The daily watersports program also helped burn calories — painlessly, considering the allure of places like Norman Island.

Norman Island

Reputed to be the place that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Treasure Island, it's a great location for watersports. Some passengers sailed on the Star Flyer's Sunfish.

Desserts on lunch buffet
Desserts on lunch buffet
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We viewed emerald green coral, brilliant orange fire coral and schools of tiny fluorescent blue fish while snorkeling near the rocky west coast. Legend claims that treasure was discovered in the caves that perforate the rocks.

BBQ lunch buffet

The aroma of barbecued meat tantalized us as we returned to the ship and a delicious alfresco lunch buffet with fruit and decadent pastries for dessert.

Afterward, passengers lazed by the pools with books from the library, chatted with each other on deckchairs and helped the crew wrap ropes around capstans.

Views from the crow's nest

We watched with never-ending fascination as riggers climbed the masts, nimble as trapeze artists, to work on the furling gear. (The tallest mast is 69 meters high.)

Secured with staff-monitored tethers and safety vests, adventurous passengers can climb to the 23-meter-high crow’s nest. The views of the ship below and islands on the horizon were worth the vertigo. We were tempted to shout: "Land ahoy!"

Soper's Hole

Our next destination was Soper’s Hole on Tortola. Although it’s the largest island in the British Virgin Islands, it is only 16 kilometers long and four kilometers wide.

We took a taxi to Sage Mountain National Park. After hiking through the rainforest, examining tree ferns and purple orchids, we visited Pusser's Pub in Road Town.

Passenger helps crew use capstan
Passenger helps crew use capstan
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

After dinner, passengers danced on the deck to vibrant calypso music played by a local steel band brought onboard for the evening.

Navigation lesson

The following morning, we sailed to lush Virgin Gorda, and the Baths, a beautiful beach strewn with house-sized boulders. We followed a trail over whale-backed rocks into grottoes with tiny secluded pools.

Back onboard, the first mate conducted a navigation lesson. We learned about bracing the yards, trimming the spanker and other nautical terms. Finally, the names and purposes of all those ropes (lines and sheets), jibs and mizzens made sense!

The captain invited passengers into the bridge and answered their questions about navigating tall ships. Although we were travelling at a speed of 14 knots, the ship was only slightly tilted. "We try to hold any heeling over to less than 12°, to keep the dishes on the dining room tables," he explained.

Every few weeks, the Star Flyer and her sister ship, the Star Clipper, cross paths in the Caribbean. Elated that the event coincided with our trip, we watched from the deck railing as our magnificent mirror image sped by with wind-filled sails. It was an unforgettable memory.

Jost Van Dyke

The next day, we cruised through Sir Francis Drake Channel to Jost Van Dyke. The azure sea surrounding the small island enticed some passengers to explore the coastline on two-man RIBs (rigid inflatable boats). Others swam, snorkeled and viewed the activities from the deck.

Star Flyer at sunset
Star Flyer at sunset
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

After dinner, some passengers sang sea shanties by the white baby grand, in the Piano Bar, while we relaxed over a game of backgammon in the library.

At our final port of call, St. Bart's, we booked an ATV shore excursion for a day of exploring the spectacular beaches and scenery.

At dusk, we reached the lighthouse overlooking the harbor just in time to see the sun sink behind the Star Flyer, silhouetting the ship against the gilded sea.

Capturing the trade winds

After the captain's dinner, we climbed to the upper deck for a stroll. It was a dark, moonless night, but the stars were so bright that they made the inky black sea sparkle with diamonds. Above us, 36,000 square feet of sails reflected the starlight as they captured the trade winds.

Even today, the recollection transports us back more than a century to when the early mariners circled the globe on their clipper ships.


Star Clippers cruises: www.starclippers.com