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Surprise in The Lesser Antilles: At the Helm of the Star Clipper By Eric West


f you’ve ever read Jack Aubrey or Horatio Hornblower and fantasized about sailing a real tall ship, guiding her through rough seas or into tropical ports of call, about running aloft to look out from the crow’s nest or perhaps just doing all the manual rope handling that an able-bodied seaman would have done, my wife Carolyn and I have good news for you, as we discovered how it’s possible for some of your fantasies to come true. Just a week before Christmas 2005, my wife and I joined the 360-foot SPV Star Clipper, in St. Maartens in the Leeward Islands. We arrived early in the afternoon, and by 10 p.m., we were under way for Virgin Gorda, approximately 140 nautical miles away. We had never been on a commercial cruise ship before, much less an actual barquentine modeled on the fast packets of the 19th century—we had no idea what to expect. Prior to leaving port, the captain greeted us and said, “This is a sailing ship, and all dreams are possible. You only have to ask.” We then slowly left the quay, raising the sails as we turned toward the open sea to the majestic sounds of music by the same composer who wrote the theme to the movie “Chariots of Fire.” The forestay, backstay, triadics and the tops of all the yardarms were lit with white ornamental lights. One by one, as we cleared the headland and headed to sea, the square sails, jibs and staysails were set, and we heeled over and gathered speed. Throughout the night, the winds built until finally, they were up to around 30 knots. The Star Clipper was flying along with seas building and spray flying in the moonlight. In the morning, the wind was still


March 2006


The Star Clipper. Photos by Carolyn West. The author at the helm of the Star Clipper

blowing in the mid 20s. The captain once again proffered the chance to fulfill our dreams, and I asked to take the helm. Immediately, he waved me forward, and the bosun’s mate turned over the helm to me. While I steered, the captain had the crew prepare to come about, at the same time explaining to the passengers what the maneuver entailed. Following the captain’s instructions on rudder angle and new course, I was allowed to tack the ship and set off for the last leg to Virgin Gorda. The next day, anyone who wished was allowed to climb to the first crow’s nest. So, aloft I went. As we sailed from Virgin Gorda to Jost Van Dyke, I watched the island slide by from my perch just behind the upper topsail—just as thousands of sailors had done centuries ago. This time, more people asked than could be accommodated at the time, so another climb was scheduled for the next day. On the next to the last day, as we were approaching St. Bart’s, the captain allowed me once again to take the helm in preparation for a jibe. It took about 20 minutes to explain everything to all the passengers, who were finally getting into the swing of things, helping to jibe the staysails and brace the yards around, and complete the jibe. The captain really surprised me by telling me to stay at the wheel while we sailed right into the anchorage, dropped the sails, let the wind slow us to a stop and then let go the anchor. All this happened because I believed the captain’s words and asked to participate. Those who asked got the ride of their lives. Star Clipper will be racing in See STAR CLIPPER continued on page 76

Southwinds March 2006

Southwinds March 2006