I’m a huge fan of writer Patrick O’Brian, the author of ‘Master and Commander’ and 19 other novels in the Aubrey-Maturin series. They are set during the era of the Napoleonic wars between England and France on the high seas, towards the latter part of the Age of Sail. Jack Aubrey is the captain of a tall ship; Stephen Maturin is his surgeon, friend and naturalist in the style of Charles Darwin.
In August I got the chance to sail on a similar tall ship with four masts (a ‘barquentine’) and a full set of sails including back stays, shrouds, jibs, top gallants, mizzens and a spanker, named Star Clipper, which has been converted into a cruise ship. It hosts just 166 souls plus staff, with a wooden deck and wheel, brass rails and bundles of ropes and rigging. It’s a very different experience to one of those enormous cruise liners, almost like floating tower blocks.
This seven-day cruise started in Civitavecchia, a couple of hours by train from Rome, sailing down to Sicily, passing volcanic islands and then back up past the Amalfi coast, stopping at Amalfi, Sorrento and Ponza.
Every day on deck started and finished with a yoga class. I had no idea it was so difficult to maintain a balance pose when you are swaying on calm seas.
It was exhilarating to climb the rigging, steer the boat, read a book while laying on hammocks over the waves by the prow. At night I looked at the stars, gazing under the blanket of the Milky Way, so clear when uninterrupted by light pollution.
I watched us come into port via the round window of my wood-panelled cabin, listening for seven bells (dinner time) ringing through the corridors. Every time I opened my cabin door, a steward’s head would pop out and ask if I needed help. I felt pampered. The steward would tidy up three times a day, fold my nightie and leave a chocolate on my pillow.
We ate at the same table each night, getting to know other passengers. This particular cruise seemed to consist mainly of Germans and French. Someone always had a birthday. The waiters brought a cake and everyone sung and clapped. The Germans have a different tune for Happy Birthday.
There is something rather Agatha Christie about sharing the same table with the same cast of strangers. My table consisted of a tanned French man who turned out to be a bit of a crooner on talent night; an elderly German couple who spoke excellent English; a couple of middle-aged Welsh ladies; and an American woman who never spoke. She celebrated her 52nd birthday on the second night, but still looked frankly miserable. Then she disappeared from meal times. I asked the waiter if she was dead. He laughed and said she was here at lunch.
I found out her cabin number and visited her, concerned as I’d heard she fell out of her bed. Still in her pyjamas, she looked slightly cross-eyed and admitted she’d been enthusiastically partaking of the daily cocktails, cheap at five euros a glass. ‘Don’t be a stranger,’ I said brightly.
The next time I saw the American woman at a meal, she suddenly looked very green and threw up on the carpet. The sea was not rough.
The German couple did talk. They’d just got married after 16 years together. It was a second marriage for him.
‘His kids don’t know,’ the step-mum announced with a twinkle.
‘Wait ’til they see the will,‘ I muttered.
The Welsh lady opposite giggled.
The work never stops on a ship. If you remained on the ship when others were doing excursions, one of the crew was stitching sails on deck, using a giant industrial sewing machine. Another was sanding and re-varnishing the rails. In Messina, a ten-story cruise ship was docked next to us. Men were repainting the outside white with brooms, part of the relentless maintenance. As a nod to modernity, the deck hands hose the wooden decks rather than scrub them. Our crew was fairly international, with a Belgian captain, a Ukrainian mate, a Brazilian activities director, while half were Filipino. All were multi-lingual.
Approaching Messina, on the horizon, a series of volcanic mounts were tinged in blue and salmon pastels. You could see glowing sparks from the top of Stromboli.
Each night we got a cruise newsletter tucked in our doors. Tomorrow is Italian lessons with yoga flow at 8am, we would learn.
At dawn I went on deck in my nightdress, fancying myself as Kate Winslet. The sun would begin its remorseless creep upwards.
At Amalfi, I took a boat to Minori, the village of my Italian ancestors and took photographs of where my great-grandmother used to stay. Chef Gennaro Contaldo came from Minori and stayed with my nonna when he first arrived in England. Jamie Oliver took cooking lessons from another of my relatives, couple Enzo, 79, and Maria, 76, who run an agriturismo above Minori. From their terrace, as I ate their home-grown produce of tomatoes, mozzarella, homemade red wine and olive oil, I could see the Star Clipper, glittering in the distance. I felt rather proud of it.
‘That’s my ship,’ I declared.
A 7-night Mediterranean cruise in summer 2023 starts at £1630pp, which is based on 2 adults sharing a category 6 cabin. This price includes your full-board cruise, port charges and a 10% Early Booking Discount (valid until 31st January 2023). Bookable via the Star Clippers Reservations team on 0845 200 6145 or via your local travel agent. Drinks, excursions and tips are on top. https://www.starclippercruises.co.uk/ships/star-clipper