A cruise on the three-masted windjammer Sea Cloud II is a luxurious and romantic interpretation of a bygone era. Words: Gerd Wilmer.
On a morning stroll through rainy Antwerp, I was struggling to appreciate the beauty of the Renaissance buildings in the city centre when I saw the telltale masts of a large sailing ship. As I approached, the elegant lines of a three-masted windjammer came into view. I was delighted to discover that this was indeed Sea Cloud II – the ship I was to board that afternoon. Even at anchor and with all sails furled, she looked beautiful. Except for the steel hull, it seemed that wood and rope were the only materials used in the construction of this magnificent vessel.
The combination of weathered teak deck, varnished wood superstructure and masts, and thick manila ropes immediately evoked a bygone area of sailing on tall ships. In reality, of course, travelling on a sailing ship in the 18th or 19th century was far from romantic. Passengers and crew alike suffered enormously from sea sickness, malnutrition and cramped conditions during the months-long voyages.
Luckily, sailing on Sea Cloud II eliminates such privations and lets you discover the romance of a true windjammer. On this five-star ship, you are pampered all the way, from your roomy cabin to the fine food and excellent service.
The ship: Sea Cloud II was built in 2001, carries a maximum of 96 passengers, has 60 crew members and sail area of 3,000 square metres.
Décor: The warm, understated elegance of the superstructure carries through to the cabins and public spaces. Dark wood and shiny brass dominate the interior of the ship, with unobtrusive ornaments and features surprising at every turn. The main staircase is the most elegant I have seen on any ship. There are more imposing ones but for sheer elegance, this one is unsurpassed.
Cabin: Though my cabin was one of the cheaper ones on the lower deck, I did not have to rough it. The 20 square metres allows enough space for a double bed, a sofa and a table, plus a small but comfortable marble bathroom. There is room to move around without dodging furniture.
Being the good travel agent I am, I arranged for an inspection of all the other cabin types. Cabins on Promenade Deck and above are of the same design but a bit roomier. There is a bathtub with shower instead of a shower cubicle only, on the lower deck. This may not be ideal for all passengers; however, there is a (make-believe) fireplace to add that extra glow to your romantic evenings.
The top suites are brighter, more colourful and, of course, much larger than the cabins. They seem to be more popular with American passengers than with Europeans.
Service: The ship’s company is headed by a captain from the seafaring nation of Switzerland. He is an enthusiastic seaman, who used every opportunity to unfurl the sails. Officers and senior hotel staff are European, from a variety of countries; sailors and junior hotel staff are Filipino.
Passengers are mainly from continental Europe and English-speakers make up a large minority on board. Communication was never a problem. All the staff is multilingual and announcements, lectures, menus, daily news and so on reflect the various nationalities of the passengers.
But do not worry: the barrage of multilingual announcements you may have experienced on some mass-market ships will not happen on this vessel. There is a daily address by the captain in German and English and the occasional announcement of a whale or dolphin sighting; otherwise, there is blissful silence.
The voyage: We were exceptionally lucky with the weather. We travelled some 250 nautical miles under sail with a top speed of 11 knots – the same cruising speed as under motor power. Unlike some other sailing ships, Sea Cloud II is sailed by hand. It is a spectacular sight as 16 sailors climb the rope ladders to unfurl her sails. The masts may have to be turned for optimal trim. For this task, the sailors wrap the ropes around electrical winches – 30 minutes of hard physical work. For passengers, this is a spectacular event.
When the engines are cut, all you hear is the wind bellowing in the sails. The ship tilts ever so slightly and powers forwards. There is no rolling; in fact, there is less movement than there is when she’s under motor. The strength of the wind and the deep keel act as most effective stabilisers.
With the unfurling of the sails, the scenery on deck changes dramatically. As you look up, all you see is the sun shining through billowing sails. Ropes go in all directions (though there are none in the passenger areas). The system of where these ropes go, and when, has been developed over centuries and leaves a landlubber like me quite bamboozled.
The verdict: Travelling on a windjammer under full sail was everything I had envisaged and more. Words cannot adequately describe the excitement and awe of the experience. You have not really cruised unless you have sailed on Sea Cloud II or one of her sister ships.
Your favourite cruise ship: Europa
Favourite destination: Antarctica
Number of cruises taken: I’ve taken more than 40 cruises.
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