Tuesday 27 July 2010

Cruise Weekly: Romance and Adventure Under Sail

Anyone who loves ships cannot deny the spendour of a fully-rigged windjammer, all canvas unfurled and propelled by a stiff breeze. This unquestionable allure is not lost on many passengers seeking an out-of-the-ordinary cruise experience. Yet these magnificent ‘divas of the seas’ also seem cloaked by a veil of mystery, romance and intrigue.

Best known to Aussie cruisers are the shapely Star Clippers, only recently withdrawn from service in the Andaman Sea off Thailand. Windstar too, once busy in Tahiti, has left our region after a devastating fire aboard Wind Song in 2002 and headed to more lucrative waters of the Mediterranean and Caribbean. French line Ponant’s 88m, three-masted flagship, Le Ponant, briefly skippered by Somali pirates, also forms part of the world’s luxury sailing fleet.

Last week, however, I was introduced to one cruise line I confess I knew little about. German company, Sea Cloud Cruises, operates the only sailing ships in the rarefied air of the Berlitz 5-star category. What’s more remarkable is that their original vessel, the 96m, four-masted barque, Sea Cloud, will celebrate its 80th birthday next year after an extensive, yet sensitive modernisation in her birthplace, Bremerhaven.

Originally built in 1931 as Hussar by the Germaniawerft shipyard in Kiel for the New York heiress Marjorie Merriweather-Post, she was the world's largest private yacht of its day. No expense was spared in the design and construction and it apparently still retains the original solid gold taps in the marble trimmed bathrooms.

The United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies acquired the ship in 1935 after marrying the recently divorced heiress, renaming it Sea Cloud. The gallant vessel was used by the US Coast Guard as a weather ship and submarine hunter during WWII and was stripped of her rigging and fitted with an array of deck guns and depth charges.

Interestingly, during her naval service, Lt. Carlton S. Skinner drafted 50 Afro-American sailors into the crew, creating the first fully integrated ship in the US Navy.

Drama, intrigue and adventure continued into her postwar history. Majorie Post reluctantly sold her in 1955 after a US Navy-funded refit to notorious dictator, Rafael Trujillo, the brutal head of the Dominican Republic, apparently trading it for a secondhand Vickers Viscount airliner.

In 1961, after the strongman’s assassination, reputedly a CIA hit, his family fled aboard Sea Cloud (then named ‘Angelita’) with the body and lots of cash but was turned back. She was then sold to a cruise company in 1965 but impounded. Liberated by the glamourous 26-year-old philanthropist, Stephanie Gallagher, for use as a floating school, it was reclaimed by the owners and a sordid legal battle began.

Another period of inactivity ensued during which time Sea Cloud deteriorated badly. She was rescued again, this time by a consortium of German businessmen and maritime men and women led by Harmut Paschberg and painstakingly returned to service as a luxury passenger vessel. After fifty years, Sea Cloud had finally come home.

For more information on this enthralling saga, visit www.seacloud.com

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