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.

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