Crossing the Atlantic on a Tall Ship

Star Clipper raises sail Black and white image

Raising Sail. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

And so it begins . . .  I am on Star Flyer as she heads out into the Atlantic making for Barbados and winter in the Caribbean.

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a tall ship is the stuff of dreams. Rope and cable thrumming in the breeze, the crack of a sail filling with wind: these are sounds old in human time — these sounds lie deep within our collective consciousness.

Star Flyer is a barquantine with four masts, and the first of the Star Clipper’s tall ships.

Star Clippers Tall Ship

Star Flyer is a classic barquantine tall ship. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

A group of 129 like-minded people boarded Star Flyer, either in Malaga, Spain, or Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, for the Trans-Atlantic sailing. This voyage attracts a different sort of passenger, and a surprising number return for the Atlantic crossing many times over.

Why?

A true tall ship. A BIG ocean. Sunrises and sunsets. Stars. The Milky Way. Endless water.

It is a voyage into our past, a voyage into ourselves. The thirteen days at sea give the time and the quiet to internalize the sounds of the ship, to think. At night, standing on the bridge of the ship looking forward, all is dark. I am surrounded by stars and the sound of wind, canvas, and water. That bright swath of sky — The Milky Way — is resplendent with no other light to distract.

The Milky Way over the Atlantic Ocean.

The Milky Way over the Atlantic Ocean. Photograph: Shaunl, iStock Photo.

What color is the sea? How many shades of blue exist?

At dawn today,  the sky turns a powdery bare-blue. Grey clouds edged with pink light add a subtle contrast. 

Later, a silvery light breaks a deep blue swell — the shimmering of a dolphin’s skin during a short, curving leap.

Sunrise Atlantic Ocean from Star Flyer

Sunrise on Star Flyer, Atlantic Crossing. Photograph: Bill Palmer.

In a circle we move, dragging the horizon with us, re-describing it as the day passes on.

Sometimes the ocean is a blue-black velvet. At other times, a sapphire.

Then the sun turns the ocean a golden yellow and white of reflected thunderheads — and only the horizon line remains blue — a thin ribbon of cobalt.

Sunrise, Atlantic Ocean. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean from the deck of the Star Flyer. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

A Little Weather

The first night out of La Gomera, I wake at 3:00 a.m. to large swells rolling me back and forth in my bed and the sound of unsecured items being tossed to the floor. Folks with cabins near the dining room hear crashing china.

Northeast of us near the Strait of Gibraltar, a large low pressure system has formed suddenly. It causes 12 meter seas near Madeira, and 5 – 6 meter (16.5 to 19.5 foot) seas for us.  At sunrise, the crew strings lines along both sides the upper deck of the Flyer, as well as in the open Tropical Bar — we need them to keep our balance as the ship moves with the waves.

I find the whole thing exhilarating. I’m spending a lot of time in the open Tropical bar, and some up on the top deck. The 5 – 6 meter seas don’t frighten me  —  but they require me to watch my step. As a big wave rolls under the ship, one side of the deck tips deeply downward, then slants back to the other side in equal measure. When this happens, you’d better hang on to something, or you’ll go sliding across the ship.

Throw off the bow lines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, dream, discover.  — Mark Twain

In a glint of sunlight, the sea produces a momentary rainbow on a wave’s edge. The ocean sucks and swells, a lacy froth – a crest – and she roils on, building here, falling there. She lifts the ship high on a swell, then pulls us down — holding us close and dear, before sending us up again.

For these two days, I am in the society of people who feel the same way about the waves. However, when the sea flattens out after nearly 60 hours, we are all thankful. Thankful and tired. The constant rolling means balancing each step and being sure to hold on always. Showers are difficult to impossible — too much movement to risk it. Every meal is spent holding onto the table, the plate, and the glass with only two hands.

There is the sun, there is the sea, there is me.

On the fourth day, the Atlantic relaxes into a flat mirror, and the population of the ship increases. I realize that nearly a third of the passengers never left their cabins during the rough period.

Sunset Atlantic Ocean from the Star Fyer

The Atlantic became so calm, that it was difficult to believe it was the same ocean. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Too much of a good thing?

Yes, it is calm, but there is little wind. The sails hang slack, and then there is a great, cracking THWOMP as they fill, catching the wind and holding before losing it again. Then another crack a minute later. The sea is a flat shield set with silver stones. Inscrutable. Endless.

Sailmaker on the Star Flyer

One of the sailmakers on the Star Flyer, working on the main staysail. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

While we are not becalmed, I start to understand the doldrums. The water glints diamond hard, and we are making less than two knots with the sails. Captain Sergey turns the engines back on.

The sounds of the ship are the sounds of a workshop. A saw, then a hammer striking wood. The smell of sawdust and varnish. The whir of the industrial sewing machine. A chisel chinging on a bit of swimming pool rust. The rustling of a fisherman’s sail, bustled together by six seamen before it’s hoisted into position.

The storm damaged the main staysail badly that first evening, ripping it all along the bottom seam. The sail repair advances slowly, a work in progress for at least ten days. Now and again the Captain and first officer stand looking at the ruined sail with the sailmaker — along with the huge new sections of Dacron that have been cut to size. The sailmaker kneels and measures with the sail tacked into the deck for cutting.

Sunrise, Sunset

The two most magical events of the day, every day. I’m sharing “Seattle Bill” Palmer’s series of of sunrise/sunset images:

Practical Questions

For those of you considering an Atlantic crossing with Star Clippers, here is a review of the more practical aspects of my westbound Trans-Atlantic cruise on the Star Flyer in the fall of 2016.

I was onboard Star Flyer for three weeks. The first week was a cruise from Malaga, Spain to Las Palmas. The second two weeks were the Trans-Atlantic portion of the trip, going from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, to Bridgetown, Barbados. This way, passengers may choose either a longer or shorter Trans-Atlantic experience.

So, is thirteen days at sea boring?

I had never been this many days at sea with no ports of call, and honestly, I wasn’t sure how I would feel. I figured I would know halfway into the trip. The answer for me, was no — I wasn’t bored at all. I found it deeply relaxing. I brought things to read, movies on my iPad, photos to edit in Lightroom. The ship has a library and a substantial DVD collection as well.

Closing ceremony for the Star Flyer Olympic Games, Fall 2016.

Closing ceremony for the Star Flyer Olympic Games, Fall 2016.

The cruise director and her sports team staff prepared a schedule of activities each day, so truthfully, passengers could be as “busy” or relaxed as they wanted to be. Star Flyer also had a special yoga instructor on for the crossing. Typically, there were two yoga classes each day, as well as two or three other fitness offerings. Four or five days out of La Gomera, it was warm enough to take a dip in the pool and lounge on the deck.

And — mast climbing anyone?

Some of the activities I participated in were the Olympic Games, the daily trivia quiz, and Captain’s story time, a navigation class on the bridge, and a star class after dinner. Oh, and the first-time Atlantic crossing baptism.

Lounging on the deck of Star Flyer, looking up at the sails and the sky.

Lounging on the deck of Star Flyer, looking up at the sails and the sky. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Olympic Games: four teams, five days, three events per afternoon. It was great, silly fun!

One thing to note: generally, the ship would have had wifi internet access; however, the storm near the Canary Islands knocked out the ship’s wifi, and we were without internet access for the crossing. Important communication could still be handled through the purser’s office. Honestly, I enjoyed being unplugged.

Worried about Being Seasick?

If you are thinking of taking a cruise on the Star Flyer clipper ship, being seasick is a real concern for many people. I was not sick — but then I did take Dramamine proactively, particularly on the couple days during the bad weather. After being on Royal Clipper for two cruises this year, I felt confidant that I could handle the Atlantic Crossing.

My advice is this. If you get seasick really easily, this is probably not for you.

However, if you simply haven’t done much (or any) sailing, but you are really captivated by the idea of taking a voyage on one of these beautiful ships, try a week long cruise in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean to see how you feel.

Star Clippers has even scheduled several three night cruises out of Venice specifically for people who would like to try sailing on one of their tall ships but aren’t ready to commit to seven or more days.

Another thing to be aware of: due to the size of the ship, there are no elevators. You need to be capable of climbing stairs in both calm and rough weather.

Sunrise on the Stern of Star Flyer

“Atlanta Bill” watches the sun rise. He is part of my favorite family onboard — we formed Team Portugal for the Star Flyer Olympic Games.

Fellow Passengers

On most Star Clipper cruises, 50% to 60% of passengers are repeat customers. On this trip, of the 129 people aboard, 92 had sailed with Star Clippers before — so over 71%. Most of the ship attended the Captain’s champagne reception for repeat passengers.

On this voyage, the passengers were predominantly American, British or German. There were several French couples as well.

More than half of the passengers had also crossed the Atlantic before, but there were many of us were first timers. Jane, originally Canadian, now from Colombia, came out of a deep love of the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brien. After reading the twenty books in the series, crossing the Atlantic was a compulsion for Jane. She simply had to experience it on a tall ship.

Then there were many passengers who had made the crossing many times. There was Spanish Bill, also known as William the Conqueror (there were four Bills on the ship, so they each got a nickname based on their home). Spanish Bill is actually British, but now lives in Spain. Years ago, Spanish Bill had built a 35 foot sailboat in his backyard in England; then he and his wife sailed her back and forth across the Atlantic several times.

Seattle Bill, very introspective, thoughtful, captured every sunrise and sunset. He served in the US Navy in the 1970’s and loves the Atlantic crossing, which he has made several times now on both Star Flyer and Royal Clipper. He was kind enough to share his series of sunrises and sunsets, which you will find above.

All hands on deck! Head bartender Alberto becomes the loading foreman as Star Flyer takes on supplies for the crossing.

All hands on deck! Head bartender Alberto becomes the loading foreman as Star Flyer takes on supplies for the crossing.

Crew

I think very highly of the Star Clipper crews. I’ve spent almost seven weeks on their ships this year, and the people who work for this company are one of Star Clipper’s great strengths.

Many of the crew members have made their careers with the company. On my three cruises with Star Clippers, I have found the crew members to be highly skilled, very professional, and genuinely warm people. They are a big part of what makes passengers continue to return to the Star Clipper ships.

Star Flyer versus Royal Clipper

Many of Star Flyer’s Trans-Atlantic passengers fiercely prefer either Star Flyer or Star Clipper to their bigger sister, the square-rigged Royal Clipper.

Why? Star Flyer heels over further — this enhances the feeling of sailing. Captain Sergey laughed at people who thought this meant that Star Flyer sailed better than the Royal — he thought this was silly. I will say this though. Sailors like to feel the ship move, and I think Star Flyer and Star Clipper attract more hard-core sailing people, and I really liked this aspect of my fellow passengers on this trip.

Star Flyer and Royal Clipper.

Star Flyer and Royal Clipper. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Star Flyer Royal Clipper
Tonnage: 2,298 Tonnage: 5,000
Length: 360 feet Length: 439 feet
Beam: 50 feet Beam: 54 feet
Draft: 18.5 feet Draft: 18.5 feet
Sail Area: 36,000 square feet Sail Area: 56,000 square feet
Mast Height: 226 feet Mast Height: 197 feet
Masts: 4 masts, 16 Sails Masts: 5 masts, 42 sails
Total Staff: 72 Total Staff: 106
Passenger Capacity: 170 Passenger Capacity: 227
Cabin 339 on Star Flyer

My Cabin 339 (Category 2 ) on the Star Flyer is on the Clipper deck — which is also the where the dining room is located. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

The standard cabins on Star Flyer and Royal Clipper are so similar that the minor differences aren’t worth discussing, but it is important to note that the cabins are smaller than cabins on large cruise ships. I found my cabin on Star Flyer to be roomy and comfortable, with plenty of storage. However, Royal Clipper does have a group of cabins with private balconies, while Star Flyer does not.

Additional differences: Royal Clipper has a small fitness center and two massage rooms. Star Flyer and Star Clipper do not have fitness centers. Massages are given in tent on a very private part of the Sun Deck. Royal Clipper has a marina platform that opens on the stern of the ship. Passengers can swim or windsurf off the back of the boat when she is moored. Star Flyer and Star Clipper do not have marina platforms. Royal Clipper has taller ceilings in the dining room, which makes it somewhat more quiet because the noise isn’t as compressed.

Bill Palmer photographing the sunset on Star Flyer

“Seattle Bill” Palmer captures another sunset on Star Flyer. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

When the ships are sailing directly in front of the wind, Royal Clipper is faster. She can make 14 to 16 knots, while Star Flyer and Star Clipper have a top speed of 8 to 9 knots. However — and this is a BIG one: Star Flyer and Star Clipper can sail much closer to the wind than Royal Clipper can. This means they can sail more under more varied wind conditions than Royal Clipper without resorting to the engine.

All of the Star Clipper ships have bow thrusters and anti-roll tanks. However, Star Flyer and Star Clipper do roll more in rough seas than Royal Clipper, which is larger and more stable feeling. This might be a consideration for someone concerned about seasickness.

Look – I loved both Star Flyer and Royal Clipper, equally. I can’t tell you I have a favorite. They each have different strengths, and I’d be back on either ship in a heartbeat.

Note: food on both Star Flyer and Royal Clipper was very good. I wrote about the food on Royal Clipper at length in my first article on the Royal Clipper, and everything I had to say there pertains to the food on Star Flyer as well.

If you are interested in reading further about the ships, or looking at upcoming sailings, you’ll find Star Clippers website here.

Ports of Call

I boarded Star Flyer in Malaga, and spent the week visiting Tangier, Morocco, Cadiz, Spain, Funchal, Portugal, before winding up in Las Palmas, Grand Canaria, where the Transatlantic crossing segment of my trip truly began. 

Las Palmas is, of course, an appropriate place to begin the Atlantic journey, following in the footsteps of Christopher Columbus. As part of my tour of the island, I visited Casa de Colon (The Columbus House) — really the mayor’s house where Columbus stayed before continuing to San Sebastian in La Gomera. One interesting note. There was a model of the ship La Nina — that ship was approximately 50 feet in length. Star Flyer: 360 feet. As small as Star Flyer seems next to large cruise ships, she would have dwarfed the ships in the Columbus fleet.

Las Palmas is large and fairly urban. I found the old section of the city interesting, but over all I was not captivated by Gran Canaria. It is of course, an important port for the ship — capable of resupplying the Star Flyer before its fourteen day crossing to Barbados.

La Gomera, one of the smaller Canary islands, was our last port before beginning the voyage to Barbados. Columbus stayed a month on the island of La Gomera, doing final outfitting of his little fleet, laying in supplies. It was his final stop before his 1492 voyage.

While Grand Canaria did not captivate me, La Gomera did — and in a big way. La Gomera has micro-climates from one side of the island to the other. I loved the stark differences between the misty laurel rainforests, and the arid, sun-baked southern point where San Sebastian lies. It’s easy to see why Unesco has declared it a world heritage site. One of the unique rock formations on La Gomera is the Roque de Agando, a volcanic plug — very dramatic and beautiful part of the island.

Would I make the Atlantic Crossing again? Yes. It simply was not like anything else. It was beautiful, and it spoke to my soul.

Sunset on the Star Flyer

Magical. Each sunset we sailed into — there really aren’t words. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

 


I have written about my two other trips with Star Clippers on the Royal Clipper in 2016, in both the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. You will find those articles here:

Photograph of Royal Clipper

Article about my voyage on Royal Clipper in the Mediterranean.

Royal Clipper sails near Soufriere in St. Lucia.

Article about my cruise in the Caribbean on the Royal Clipper.


Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

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About Ann (62 Articles)
Writer, traveler, and cancer fighter. Get out there and live life!

21 Comments on Crossing the Atlantic on a Tall Ship

  1. Sailing across the ocean on a tall ship has long been a dream of mine. At one time, I even considered getting commercially trained on a double voyage from Cape Town to Rio and back. We have the Maritime Museum in San Diego we a couple of tall ships docked. At least we can always sail on the California on a three hour tour (admit it, you were singing the song)

    • Yep, let me put my Gilligan hat on — you have me singing the song :).

      The tall ships have certainly captured my imagination — really more than that — my soul. I’ll definitely be going back to one of the Star Clipper ships. And I would do the Atlantic Crossing again . . . something to think about for next year.

      You have the Star of India in San Diego, a very special ship: https://sdmaritime.org/visit/the-ships/star-of-india/

  2. A Talented person who takes wicked photographs

  3. Jane Atkinson // January 3, 2017 at 3:55 pm // Reply

    Ann, such a lovely reminder of that journey, and especially of those breathlessly beautiful sunrises and sunsets. The unexpected surprise for me was having marvelous discussions with wonderful people, like you!

    • Jane, thank you. I feel the same way — and it’s the people who are really making me think about doing the crossing again in the fall.

    • Jane Atkinson // January 22, 2017 at 3:02 pm // Reply

      Ann, Gabi and Ulli asked me to pass along their great delight in your blog! They enjoyed reliving the experience through your words and photos!

      • Jane — please tell Gabi and Ulli hello. It was such a special time, and writing about it — well. It was a pleasure. — Ann

  4. Beautiful photos, inspiring writing . Thank you very much for sharing your experience ,especially also about sea sickness. I have been wanting to go on a cruise but have always been sceptical about it. You have given me an inspiration to try it. Wish you a Happy New Year with more Happy experiences and adventures.

    • Happy New Year to you as well, and thank you. And I hope you will try a cruise. I have loved my trips on both the tall ships, and much larger cruise ships. Bring motion sickness meds with you, and you’ll likely be fine.

  5. Gregory Cooper // January 2, 2017 at 3:09 pm // Reply

    Very enjoyable read and wonderful photographs. Thank you so much.

    On Sun, Jan 1, 2017 at 1:55 PM, Ann Cavitt Fisher wrote:

    > Ann posted: ” And so it begins . . . I am on Star Flyer as she heads out > into the Atlantic making for Barbados and winter in the Caribbean. Crossing > the Atlantic Ocean on a tall ship is the stuff of dreams. Rope and cable > thrumming in the breeze, the crack ” >

  6. You have captured this trip perfectly! I’m sharing it with my friends so they will know just what we experienced. Thank you so much!

  7. Such a beautiful write up, thank you so much for sharing this! Happy New Year!

  8. Wow, what an amazing thing to do! It sounds very relaxing.

    • Yes, it was a great experience. It was not something I ever thought I’d want to do — but I fell so in love with Royal Clipper on my first cruise, was so enthralled with the sailing, that the Captain suggested I should try the Atlantic crossing because these ships were truly designed for big voyages. I’m so glad I took his advice.

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