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An exhilarating Atlantic crossing on the world's largest square rigger

Jeannine Williamson
Sightings of land are few and far between when you're crossing the open Atlantic

With a collective ‘heave-ho’ we hauled on the sturdy rope in a disjointed fashion and staggered backwards on the gently rolling teak deck when nothing happened. Over the sound of the waves breaking against the bow our team leader shouted that we needed to tug on the ‘ho’ rather than the ‘heave’. We regrouped and seconds later were rewarded with the sight of one of Royal Clipper’s 42 sails responding to our efforts.

It was an exhilarating moment as the creamy staysail gently unfurled and picked up the trade winds to propel the tall ship forward across the Atlantic. With another team of salty shipmates completing the task in less than half our time of one minute and 33 seconds, we were duly rewarded with a chocolate cake for coming second in the seafaring ‘Olympic Games’ that also saw us play an unsteady game of darts on the ocean wave and run around the swabbed decking in an egg and spoon race. 

That night we gathered in the al fresco Tropical Bar and tenuously continued celebrating our success, deluding ourselves we were easing aching arm muscles with the aid of the Pain Killer; a potent cocktail of rum, brandy, orange juice, coconut cream and nutmeg. It was probably no surprise we slept so well in our cosy cabin decked out in gleaming wood and brass that night; rocked like babies to the rhythmic sound of sea spray washing over the porthole. 

For people who aren’t big on regular cruising, but still adore sailing or harbour a romantic notion to run away to sea on magnificent tall ship, then Royal Clipper ticks all the seafaring boxes and more. 

Royal Clipper is the world's largest square rigger sailing today

It was all a world away from the stereotypical image of a transatlantic crossing, where thousands of passengers gather on mighty cruise ships to dress up in their best bib and tuckers, sit down to eat a formal dinner, watch West End-style shows, and dance the night away in glittering ballrooms. 

The largest of the three-strong Star Clippers’ fleet, which replicates the golden age of sail, the flagship Royal Clipper holds the Guinness record as the world’s largest square rigger sailing today. With nearly 56,000 square feet of billowing sails spread across five masts, it is powered solely by Mother Nature wherever possible or a combination of wind and engine.

We had joined the ship in Barbados heading to Lisbon. Each year the 227-passenger Royal Clipper and its smaller sister ship Star Flyer relocate between the Mediterranean and Caribbean, providing a thrilling experience for serious sailors, intrepid travellers and curious cruisers looking for an adventure on the (sometimes) high seas – during our crossing we encountered a force 8 gale. 

Pods of dolphins swam alongside Royal Clipper’s bow crossing the Atlantic Credit: Star Clippers

Each day, dot on noon, three bells would sound and Captain Mariusz Szalek updated us on the progress of our 16-day 3,131 nautical mile voyage to Lisbon, with just one stop in the Azores. Unlike some large ships, Royal Clipper is very inclusive and officers and crew mingle with passengers throughout the day and guests are welcome to join them on the bridge during daylight hours to chat and ask questions.

For the entire voyage, and with a visibility of 30 miles to the horizon, we saw only a handful of vast container ships passing in the distance along with four plucky souls crossing the Atlantic on a yacht. Adding to the thrill of sailing in this vast expanse of water were encounters with some of its marine inhabitants – silver shoals of flying fish skimming the surface off Barbados, pods of dolphins swimming alongside Royal Clipper’s bow and the breath-taking sight of a whale with her calf alongside almost simultaneously expelling air from their blowholes.

On a particularly memorable night we gathered under the sweeping canvas of the night sky for a star gazing session led by one of the officers. Free from any kind of light or environmental pollution we were transfixed by the stellar spectacle as the officer pointed out Jupiter, the bright Dog Star, the plough and astrological constellations of Leo, Gemini and Virgo. Many of us agreed that it outshone any theatrical show you get on a big cruise ship.

Although the crew do all the hard work, there’s a real connection to the sea as you climb the rigging for a bird’s eye view from the crow’s nest, have a go at raising the sails or lounge in the bowsprit nets.

Royal Clipper cabins have a nautical theme with brass fixtures and wood panelling

Each night another bell – rung around the ship’s corridors accompanied by the call “dinner time” – would herald the arrival of the next meal, and without any restocking stops en route we were constantly surprised by the array of imaginative spreads that greeted us at breakfast, lunch, late afternoon cocktail hour, evening meal and even late-night snacks. 

It seemed fitting that we ended the crossing in Portugal, birthplace of some of the world’s greatest navigators, and in the city of Lisbon that has witnessed the arrival and departure of so many illustrious ships over the centuries. With its billowing sails and elegant lines modelled on the Preussen, built in 1902 and the largest and fastest ship of its time, Royal Clipper certainly created a nostalgic head-turning sight as crowds of onlookers lined the quayside to witness our entrance. 

It was an exhilarating finale to a real-life swashbuckling adventure and while the days of press ganging sailors into ships might be long gone, Royal Clipper is enough to lure anyone to a life on the ocean wave.

Essentials

Royal Clipper’s Barbados to Lisbon eastbound crossing on April 4, 2020 starts from £1,580pp and the Lisbon to Barbados westbound crossing on October 22, 2020 starts from £1,740pp. Star Flyer’s Las Palmas to St Marteen westbound crossing on November 20, 2020 starts from £1,620pp and the St Marteen to Malaga eastbound crossing on March 27, 2021 starts from £1,690pp. Prices based on two sharing, flights extra (0808 231 4798; starclippers.co.uk).