Sailing the Mediterranean

Yo ho ho and another rum punch, old chap rediscovering the romance of the age of sail
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The Independent Travel

Gazing from my office window in moments of writer's block I sometimes see, in the harbour below, a sailing vessel so blessed with character or charm that I momentarily imagine myself a Joseph Conrad or Robert Louis Stevenson. Idle dreams. A brief childhood voyage in a dinghy on a storm-ravaged gravel pit near Rickmansworth taught me that I would never make a sailor. I am still excited by billowing canvas, burnished teak and sea breaking over tossing bows, but I know that if I were on board trying to go about or aloft or abaft or anything at all, really, I'd just be pining for dry land.

Now, however, I think I have found an answer. She is called the Star Clipper, and she's a four-masted, square-rigged barquentine, 360ft long with 36,000 square feet of sail and a crew of 70. But, while accurate, that is far too prosaic a description. The Star Clipper is a thing of beauty, a greyhound of the seas, as the cliché has it; she has a grey-bearded Polish skipper who became a sailor because he was so enthralled by the books of his fellow countryman, Conrad; she will transport you to tiny islands and great seaports, but while she does this, all you or I have to do is stand and stare and sip rum punch.

I boarded in Civitavecchia, the drab harbour that nowadays serves as the port of Rome. All around the Clipper were the five-star hotels of cruising, their ugliness in stark contrast to my inamorata's lovely lines. I sauntered up the gangway, crossed a seductive open-air bar area and entered a cosy library – not many books, serious supply of board games, daily downloaded British and American newspapers. I then gave away my passport and credit card in return for a cabin key and a blue plastic chip, which was all that was needed for the purchasing of beverages and other incidentals.

The cabin was on the Commodore deck just above the waterline which meant, I later discovered, that when the ship was under serious sail the waves sloshed against the glass of the porthole in a gentle reminder that we were, indeed, at sea. The cabin was bigger than I had expected: double bed and no bunks. The en-suite facilities meant that, as a fellow passenger, the novelist Leslie Thomas, explained, it was one of the few bathrooms where you could sit on the loo and take a shower at the same time. But who would have expected hot and cold running water on a greyhound of the sea?

Our first day was spent sailing. Sky blue, sea blue, sails hoisted, porpoises gambolling, crew in spotless white and navy- blue kit performing all manner of seamanlike tasks, smoked salmon and sauvignon blanc in the brass and mahogany, single-sitting, informal dining room.

First stop Agropoli, a small unremarkable town just south of Salerno. The location caused me a pang of something compounded of guilt and gratitude, for it was on a beach near here almost 60 years ago that my father landed with the Hampshires and was awarded a Military Cross. I wondered if he would be pleased to see me sailing so sybaritically across waters once menacing but now so tranquil.

There were excursions to the Greek temples at Paestum but I had been there before and, taking a leaf from the guidebook philosophy of the great J G Links, I reasoned that the temples would still be there on my next visit and it would be more fun just to stroll up to the castle, admire the view and then pause for an exotic gelato. I think I was right. Agropoli is the sort of place that ordinary tourists do not reach. From the castle there was indeed a fine view of the Mediterranean with the ship, "my" ship, lying elegantly at anchor. The Hotel Carola had a shady garden. The only non-Italians in town seemed to be passengers from the Clipper. It was a lazy day.

From Agropoli we cruised south, passing through the Strait of Messina for a day at Giardini Naxos, the port of Taormina. Most of us went ashore, the more energetic hiking up Etna. I wandered round Taormina's Greek theatre and watched a Sicilian wedding in the main square.

Next day it was the Aeolian island of Lipari. Its museum was clearly fabulous but I found myself thinking scandalously that one Greek vase looks much like another and that my knowledge of ancient history was too scanty to give the place a meaningful context.

Next stop Sorrento, though passing close to the smoking island volcano of Stromboli was one of the highlights of my voyage. From Sorrento I took the ferry to Capri. "Just a lot of shops on a rock," said Leslie Thomas dismissively, but it was more a case of "My dear, the people!" for me. The joy of the Clipper cruise was that, on the whole, we could keep away from crowds, but here one could hardly move for packaged tourists. It was a great back-handed advertisement for travelling lonely by sailing ship.

The final day was spent at Ponza and Palmarola, Rome's answer to Margate and Southend. A stream of ferries disgorged vast numbers of weekenders on the Ponza quayside, and over at Palmarola, a stream of pleasure craft were moored off the beach in a sun-bathed traffic jam. I found a beautiful cemetery high on the cliffs at Ponza, and later, as the Clipper was anchored off Palmarola, I tottered down the ship's steps for a swim in the balmy azure sea.

And so, early next morning, back to Civitavecchia and a berth alongside the massed floating hotels of conventional cruising. I know that the voyage was a sort of pretence and I wasn't really sailing before the mast with all the aplomb of a Hornblower. But I almost believed I was.

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