The tide is high...but I'm holding on

Forget those boring cruise liners. What you really want is the pitch and roll of a traditional tall ship. Frank Partridge embarks on a Clipper cruise of the Med and has the wind knocked out of his sails

I was about 30 feet up the mast, clinging on to a flimsy rope ladder and still a long way from the sanctuary of the crow's nest, when I suddenly lost the use of my legs. Nothing I could do would move them. Every instruction from my central nervous system was ignored. And with the dead weight of my lower half to support, my arms began to lose their grip.

I was about 30 feet up the mast, clinging on to a flimsy rope ladder and still a long way from the sanctuary of the crow's nest, when I suddenly lost the use of my legs. Nothing I could do would move them. Every instruction from my central nervous system was ignored. And with the dead weight of my lower half to support, my arms began to lose their grip.

Far below me was a deck-load of onlookers – most of them brandishing video cameras. Far above, the safety platform – as unattainable as the peak of Everest to a climber running low on oxygen.

In my case, I admit, it wasn't a life and death situation: I was wearing a safety harness, and the worst scenario would be falling a few feet and dangling like a corpse in the wind until a crew member shinned up the mast to cut me free. I'd still be alive, which was some consolation, but I'd be the laughing stock of the ship for the rest of the voyage. It was one of those moments in life when you wish you hadn't raised your hand.

Eventually, fear of shame overtook fear of falling, and with a huge effort of mind over matter I scrambled to the top and pretended everything was fine. But my heart took several minutes to return to normal service. Having done the hard bit, coming back down was relatively easy, but it was the last time I volunteered to do anything.

"Climbing the Mast" is one of the on-deck activities on board the Star Clipper, one of a fleet of three tall ships providing luxury cruises with an added garnish of adventure to people who've experienced the soulless, shopping-mall cruise ships ruling the oceans these days – and want something different. The vessels are modelled on the classic clippers that raced across the high seas in the 19th century, before steam arrived to move people and cargoes around the world at an even faster pace. But their amenities assuredly belong to the 21st century.

In fact, new techniques and materials mean that today's imitations would leave the originals of yesteryear trailing in their wake. The Star Clipper, with a steel hull and high-tech, lightweight sails, has a top speed of nearly 20 knots (23mph). In 1813, when the canvas-sailed America set a new world record of 13 knots (15mph), the captain was fired by the owner for sailing too close to the wind and risking a capsize.

For the most part, however, during my week in the Mediterranean, the Star Clipper dawdled along at a stately five knots. The winds were gentle, and, anyway, there was no particular hurry as we called in at some of Europe's most delectable ports in a round-trip from Rome's sea-link, Civitavecchia. The journey took in Corsica, Monte Carlo and northern Italy.

Any faster than jogging pace, and the passengers revolt. They may be looking for an authentic nautical experience, but they haven't shelled out upwards of £2,000 a head to go careering across the sea, Ellen MacArthur style, at an angle of 40 degrees. On the one occasion when we did pick up speed and lean excitingly into the wind, the purser's office was inundated with complaints. Excess water was slopping around the en suite showers. Someone's shoes had got wet. And the flapping of the sails was disturbing people's afternoon naps.

During mealtimes, I discovered, our speed was limited to four-and-a-half knots – scarcely faster than a brisk walk – to avoid a catastrophic rearrangement of the elegant dining settings, and fine wines ending up in the soup. Clipper sailing is all very well, but one can only go so far.

Ah, mealtimes. For many, the highlight of the cruise. For some, apparently, almost the only reason for coming. All day long, the dining tables groan with food. A continental breakfast awaits early risers at 6am. The full "English" version, individually cooked if desired, starts two hours later. Fruit and cakes are left out for the stayabeds. At half-past noon: a sit-down lunch or barbecue on deck. In mid-afternoon: tea, pancakes and assorted fried morsels. Then, the pièce de résistance: a four-course dinner between 7.30pm and 10pm, followed by late-night snacks at half past eleven. By the end of the first day I had noticeably gained weight, and struggled to my cabin half expecting my steward to knock in the middle of the night proffering cocoa and biscuits.

For me, there are two compelling reasons for going on a Clipper cruise – and it's not the food. One is the feeling of being part of a true-life drama. As you leave or arrive at a port, bystanders hurry along the shore to get a better view. It's like a steam train, bringing awe to the faces of young and old alike. The vessel on which you are travelling is so magisterial that you feel like a member of a privileged club.

The highlight is arriving in Monte Carlo, home of the yacht's Swedish owner, whose villa looks out to sea. Wind or no wind, he insists that every inch of the Star Clipper's 36,000 square feet of sail is unfurled, a task carried out with great ceremony – and not a little flamboyance – by the crew. When the last sail is unfurled, the skipper, who has choreographed the whole exercise, turns to his captive audience and announces, "Ladies and gentlemen, that is all we have." We break into a spontaneous round of applause. And then the engines have to start up, because there's not a breath of wind. It has all been just for show.

The other attraction of drifting around the sea under sail is that there's not very much to do – apart from Climbing the Mast, of course. One empty afternoon, I stroll from one end of the deck to the other, stopping half a dozen times to shoot the breeze with my suddenly familiar shipmates: people whom I would probably never encounter ashore. Many are elderly, with jaunty nautical caps and hip replacements, reminiscing about voyages past.

Half an hour is spent identifying a speck on the horizon, which turns out to be a yacht. But what kind of yacht? And how far away is she? Estimated speed? And those clouds out there – is that a storm approaching? If so, will we make extra sail for speed? Or haul them in for safety?

And afternoon becomes evening, and we tarry on deck a little longer than we should to watch the sunset. And so another day is ticked off our lives – a day made up of many such inconsequential events and encounters. But because we've learned to stop rushing: to pause and ponder and observe the sea and the sky and the sun – and our place among them – the day hasn't been inconsequential at all. It might even be among the most important days of the year.

But I must go now. The ship's bell is ringing. Can't be late. Dinner is being served.

Traveller's Guide

The author travelled as a guest of Magic of Italy (08700 270 500, www.magictravelgroup.co.uk), one of several tour operators that sells Star Clipper cruises; they are also available through Kuoni (01306 747002, www.kuoni.co.uk) and Fred Olsen Cruises (01473 742424, www.fredolsencruises.co.uk).

Prices for the 2003 season have not been finalised, but are likely to be in the region of £2,300 per person for a one-week spring or summer cruise. In the most popular months of July and August there is a weighting of around £100.

Prices are based on two people sharing. They include a standard cabin with en suite facilities, all meals, return flights to Rome, transfers to and from Civitavecchia, tips and entertainment (including climbing the mast).

Sailings on the "Ligurian route" for 2003 leave Civitavecchia on 17 and 31 May; 14 and 28 June; 12 and 26 July; 9 and 23 August; and 6 and 20 September.

The ports of call vary slightly but the basic format is unchanged, with seven-day cruises starting and finishing at Civitavecchia.

The alternative is the Tyrrhenian route, which takes in the islands off southern Italy, including Sardinia. Prices are likely to be identical.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Day In a Page

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?