Revel Barker loved the romance of crossing the Atlantic aboard a tall ship. With a chance to take the wheel and help chart the course, it's every amateur sailor's dream

Captain Simon Waite, master of the Cutty Sark, looked skyward and examined 54,000 square feet of sail flapping against five 200ft masts. The trouble with the Med, he remarked, was there was always no wind or too much wind, and when there was wind it was inevitably in the wrong direction for sailing.

True to form, heading out of the Mediterranean en route from Cannes to Barbados we encountered a force eight (gale) becoming force nine (strong gale) on the nose. Most of the 42 sails were quickly furled. Unlike Captain Waite's clipper that now resides in dry dock in Greenwich, this vessel has an alternative form of power. The engines of the Royal Clipper started and we toiled through heavy seas towards the Atlantic.

Off Casablanca there was another storm, the decks awash. Those of the 152 passengers brave or foolhardy enough to remain on deck or in the open-air bar staggered from port to starboard with the affected confidence and grim resolve of old salts. This was high adventure on the high seas - higher than many people would have preferred.

Most of the voyagers were, in fact, sailors of a sort. Some were yacht owners who had dreamed of crossing "the pond" but lacked the bravado to tackle the task in their own small vessels. Others were cruise-ship regulars who had discovered that cruising in a tall ship had a magic not found in what they now derisorily described as "floating blocks of flats". I was aboard Royal Clipper (439 feet and 5,000 tons), part of the Star Clipper fleet of sailing cruisers. So too was Captain Waite, marking his retirement as master of the Cutty Sark (even though the world's most famous clipper has not been afloat for 50 years, she still has an honorary master). He was on board the world's largest as a guest lecturer.

Other speakers offered their expertise on topics ranging from astral navigation to whaling off Nantucket. There were also lessons available in watercolour painting with a maritime theme. After a summer season in the Mediterranean, this was the ship's 21-day repositioning trip to the Windward Isles and Grenadines, where she will winter; she returns to the unco-operative winds of the Mediterranean in the spring. But the ocean crossings - the alternative route is to head east and winter out of Phuket, Thailand - are what the serious sailors go for.

Captain Jurgen Muller-Cyran, skipper of the Royal Clipper, says that four out of five of the passengers on a transatlantic voyage are sailing enthusiasts, whereas the proportions on shorter cruises are roughly reversed: these passengers would rather call in at beach resorts than enjoy sailing for sailing's sake.

My fellow adventurers, on a passage from late October to early November, complained only that we were not doing sufficient travelling under wind-power alone. Apart from the storms in the French Gulf of Lions and off Morocco's Atlantic coast, there was generally insufficient wind to propel us at the speed demanded by the ship's schedule. The trade winds that had aided Columbus half a millennium earlier, and the tea, spice and fruit clippers of the 19th century, were not open for business this autumn. And Captain Jurgen had appointments to keep. With a lot of wind and little sail, his vessel could shift at maybe 18 knots (17.5 is the fastest he's sailed her, with only two sails in a force 11): under engine, she cruises at 12.

We left Tenerife under sail, in winds of force three or four. A true yachtie will tell you that a three can barely be described as a "force". We were making barely four knots. But the demands of the 21st century meant that we needed to average 10, in order that passengers arrived in Barbados in time to connect with homeward-bound flights. So on came the engines and occasionally, when the wind moved around, in went the sails.

With the engines running, the purists could do little but get well for'ard, out of earshot of the motors. The best place was the foredeck or the netting around the bowsprit. Here, the only sound was the roar of our bow cleaving through the Atlantic Ocean. It is a sound you could sell, if you could bottle it.

Looking down was the white bow-wave and flying fish or dolphins; upwards and the only sight the jibs, staysails, topgallants, topsails, royals, mizzens, jiggers, the crossjack and - well aft - the spanker, translucent synthetic canvas against a duck-egg blue sky. They might not be full of wind, but they were sails. We were sailing, engine-assisted maybe, but we were in the wake of Columbus, and that's about as romantic as travelling can get. And just in case some passengers failed to appreciate that, every time the sails were set and trimmed the Vangelis theme to 1492: Conquest of Paradise was played on the ship's sound system.

Many passengers spent the evening on the sun deck, stargazing, listening to the swish of waves, the creak of wooden blocks, the irregular crack of Dacron sails. We were able to visit the bridge at any time, and take the wheel for an hour or so; climb the rigging and assist in the setting of sails; ignore the existence of the GPS navigational aid, and instead "shoot the sun" and take sights with a sextant at sunrise, noon, or sunset.

Royal Clipper's design was inspired by the square-rigged Preussen, which dominated the shipping trade for only a few years after her launch in 1902 (she was hit by a ferry in the English Channel, and eventually grounded and wrecked). She has the outward appearance of a traditional clipper, but inboard she manages to combine the elegant luxury of a four-star hotel without ever losing the feeling that you are a passenger on a classic sailing ship. Everywhere is teak, mahogany and brass, all of it polished daily - in fact the crew of 106 never stops swabbing, polishing, painting, burnishing, fixing and fitting.

On this cruise they were also installing a new satellite to provide internet for those people who can't nowadays live without it. Otherwise you can make calls from your cabin (at about a fiver a minute), but you can't receive them. You can send faxes, although one time-sensitive fax somehow suffered a 30-hour delay. For the sort of people who can afford the time and money for a three-week cruise, that level of communication can be pure joy.

When I boarded Royal Clipper in Cannes, the Swedish owner was there to see us off. Mikael Krafft, president of the Star Clipper line, asked whether I had brought any books on board. Yes, three. "Bet you don't read them," he said. "I always bring books, but there's always too much to do."

In fact I managed only about 20 pages of one book. That said, I am still not sure how I occupied the time.

I attended the hugely entertaining daily briefings from the skipper: weather updates, our position, and yarns about life at sea, from piracy to mariners' lore. But I skipped the aerobics and the inevitable bridge school, missed out on the daily walk around the decks (10 times along the length, and five across the beam - the mile-long club), decided against mast-climbing, avoided knot-tying, and played truant from some lectures. There was plenty of entertainment, but none of it compulsory apart from emergency drill; I include that as entertainment because, until you have watched 150 people try to don a lifejacket you can have no conception of the variety of different ways it can be attempted. Interestingly, the emergency drill that was to have been held during the approach to Casablanca was postponed "because of inclement weather".

Mr Krafft's intention was to provide a luxury level of sailing for people who are well-heeled but who can't quite afford the extravagance of maintaining or chartering their own super-yacht. The price tag: £55m, including marble-lining for showers and bathrooms, a Turkish bath, and three swimming-pools on the sundeck. Now everyone can pretend he's an Onassis, the sole difference being that you can't alter the agreed course of the voyage. In return for something over £2,000, you get three weeks of indulgence. You can even choose your own menu - one passenger had warned that she had a diet permitting only 12 types of food (it was a list including bread and salt).

Why cruise? Some people simply don't like flying. You can drive or take a train to most UK and mainland European ports - with as much luggage and as many changes of clothes as you can tug along. You live in an air-conditioned luxury hotel but, except for ocean crossings, wake up in a different resort most days. Except when travelling off the north African coast and Tenerife there are no flies, and never any mosquitoes. No flying and no flies is an irresistible combination for many travellers.

Why sail? Difficult to answer. It is different, it is beautiful, it seems more natural and is definitely a "romantic" way to travel. A retired diplomat told me: "If you like holidays on the Costa Brava, I'd recommend a bog-standard cruise liner; if you'd prefer the Scottish Highlands, you'd be at home on a sailing ship."

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

What does it cost? Two people sharing an outside cabin would pay between £2,045 and £3,300 each for a 21-night voyage from Cannes to Barbados; from £1,290 to £2,345 if they joined at Malaga for the last 16 nights; £855 to £1,135 for the five-night trip from Cannes to Malaga.

Food and drink: breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner and supper are included in the price and are excellent. Drinks are not included. Clientele: on my voyage, 49 passengers were from the US, 36 from Germany, 21 from the UK and 16 from Australia. There were three couples on honeymoon. The average age of passengers was 45. Most passengers described themselves as retired or semi-retired.

Dress: jackets and ties are not required for dinner.

Contact: Fred Olsen Travel on 01473 292229 or visit www.starclippers.co.uk

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