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Sail Cruising

Niche sector finds a fair wind


Take an idyllic setting like the Caribbean and add the beautiful silhouette of a full-sized sailing ship and you have an aspirational icon. Who wouldn’t want to go cruising in such a vessel? But how far has this niche sector developed – and what does the future hold? John Tavner reports.

Sailing the Caribbean in a yacht is a hugely popular pastime for very obvious reasons. In addition to the balmy conditions and beautiful island scenery, there is the magic ingredient of moving under sail – that special link with the past that comes with harnessing the power of the wind.

But what happens when you take this idea and scale it up? Is there an even greater thrill to be had from travelling in a proper sailing ship – one at least as big as the clippers and windjammers that were still being used commercially in the early 20th century?

Well, ask anyone who has spent time on board a sail training vessel or other modern-day tall ship and the answer is bound to be in the affirmative. More masts and a greater spread of sail can only add to the sense of romance and adventure. But, on the negative side, crewing a tall ship is not for the faint-hearted. The task of hoisting square-rig sails and adjusting them with ropes and tackles is back-breaking, labor-intensive work. Conditions on board are likely to be spartan and seasickness is part of the package.

Yet the idea of a voyage in a tall ship is clearly one that has mass appeal. You only need to think of how cinema audiences around the world responded to ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ to understand the potential size of the market.

So the challenge, for those looking to exploit this market, has been to develop a vessel that is big enough to qualify as a tall ship rather than a yacht; is comfortable enough to compete with conventional cruise ships; and above all a vessel that looks like a proper sailing ship and is actually capable of moving under sail without motor assistance.

A lot of credit should go to Windstar Cruises – originally founded by Karl Gosta Andren in 1984 as Windstar Sail Cruises – which took delivery of its first vessel, the 5,307 ton gross ‘Wind Star’ in 1986. Two sister vessels, ‘Wind Spirit’ and ‘Wind Song’, followed in 1987 and 1988 and then a much larger vessel, the 14,745 ton gross ‘Wind Surf’, in 1989.

These are sail-assisted motor vessels rather than replicas of historical tall ships, and for most of the voyage they rely on motorized propulsion. They are very sophisticated vessels using computerised technology to adjust the sails. They are fitted out to a high standard with luxury accommodation. This and the ‘boutique’ size of the Windstar vessels has given the company an exclusive image that has attracted a following of discerning customers.


Then in 1989 the Swedish entrepreneur and classic boat connoisseur Mikael Krafft founded Star Clippers with the aim of fulfilling his dream of creating modern-day sailing ships based on actual clipper designs from the heyday of commercial sailing ships.

His first two vessels were the identical four-masted barquentines ‘Star Flyer’, launched in 1991, and ‘Star Clipper’, in 1992. Each with a capacity of 170 passengers and 74 crew, these vessels measure 115.5 meters in length with a total sail area of 3,365 square meters.

These were the first sailing clippers to be built since 1910. In July 2000 Krafft added a third vessel, ‘Royal Clipper’, a square-rigger with 42 sails.

‘Royal Clipper’ holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s biggest five-masted ship.


Meanwhile, yet another large sailing – or rather sail-assisted – vessel can be seen cruising the Caribbean during the winter season. This is the 187 meter ‘Club Med 2’, a sistership of ‘Wind Surf’, which has been in service with ClubMed since 1992.

There is no question that operators of luxury sailing ships have tapped into an enthusiastic niche market. In addition to the obvious appeal of cruising under sail, the boutique dimensions of these vessels mean that passenger numbers are limited and so each guest can expect that much more in the way of luxury and personal service. Not only that, but the sailing vessels are able to access ports and harbors in the Caribbean often unvisited by conventional cruise ships.

“Being on Windstar is like being on your own private yacht,” chief executive Hans Birkholz told ‘Caribbean Maritime’. “You can dine when you want and there are no regimented schedules. Best of all, there are no lines or tons of people to contend with on board.”

And Mikael Krafft, of Star Clippers, told us: “Cruising in a clipper gives guests something a little more unusual and individual. The smaller size of the clippers and the nature of them means guests meet up with other like-minded passengers and the overall atmosphere on board is always very relaxed and sociable.”

All three companies report that business is growing and both Windstar and Star Clippers are expanding their fleets – although it may be significant that Windstar’s latest additions, ‘Star Breeze’ and ‘Star Legend’, are ‘power yachts’ rather than sail-assisted vessels.

Mr Birkholz told us: “As we continue to grow we look for additional capacity. In 2014 we had one new power yacht join our fleet and in May of 2015 we had two additional power yachts join Windstar, bringing our total fleet to six yachts and 1,242 berths. This has all been accomplished while keeping our ships small, with less than 300 guests aboard each.”


And Mr Krafft gave a similarly upbeat assessment of his company’s progress: “The business will continue to grow as it has done since the original three ships in the fleet were built. An indication of the company’s confidence is the current construction of a new ship, the largest to date, which is due to come into service in late 2017.”

The building of this latest ‘super clipper’ may also be an indication of Mr Krafft’s personal passion for traditional tall ships. Asked about the cost of building and maintaining this kind of vessel, he said: “They are built to very high standards and still require the varied skills of a great number of craftsmen to recreate the original structure of the historical clipper ships. They cannot be compared with conventional cruise vessels, which are built in a very different way; but, comparing square footage, they will be at least as expensive to build and maintain.”

So what are the benefits to the Caribbean maritime sector of hosting these sail-aided cruises? Clearly, they attract a number of well-heeled visitors to the region – although, due to the limited size of the ships, the numbers are not huge. But in terms of prestige, there is nothing that enhances the status of a Caribbean harbor so much as the presence of an elegant full-sized sailing ship. Image may not be everything, but in visual terms it can be a powerful marketing tool for tourist boards across the region.


Star, Spirit and Surf

Windstar Cruises currently operates three sail-aided vessels. The ‘Wind Star’ and ‘Wind Spirit’ each have a capacity of 148 passengers and 90 crew, while the ‘Wind Surf’ carries 310 passengers and 191 crew. All three vessels were renovated in 2013. Windstar has invested over US$ 20 million since 2012 in refurbishing its sail-aided vessels.

In addition to its sail cruiser fleet, Windstar Cruises operates three ‘power yachts’, acquired from Seabourn Cruise Line and all recently renovated. These vessels have doubled the size of Windstar’s fleet. With a total of 1,242 berths, Windstar is now the market leader in small ship cruising with 300 or fewer passengers. 


Clipper fleet’s new star

In late 2017 Star Clippers will inaugurate a new vessel, its first newbuild since ‘Royal Clipper’. This will be the world’s largest square rigger, carrying 300 passengers, measuring 8,770 tons and powered by more than 6,350 square meters of sails. It is being built at the Brodosplit shipyard in Croatia.

While the ‘Royal Clipper’ is modelled on the legendary German sailing ship ‘Preussen’, the new vessel will be a near-replica of the even more dramatic ‘France II’, commissioned in 1911. Just as the original ‘France II’ eclipsed ‘Preussen’ more than a century ago as the world’s largest square rigger, the Star Clippers newbuild will replace its sister, ‘Royal Clipper’, as the largest ship of its kind afloat today.

The new ship will initially sail the company’s most popular itineraries in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. Sales are expected to open in 2016. 


In the Caribbean

Windstar Cruises will have two sail-aided vessels cruising in the Caribbean this coming season. ‘Wind Star’ will operate out of Bridgetown and ‘Wind Surf’ out of Sint Maarten. The three power yachts ‘Star Breeze’, ‘Star Legend’ and ‘Star Pride’, will also be deployed in the Caribbean – home-porting out of Sint Maarten, San Juan and Bridgetown respectively.

Star Clippers currently operates three ships in the Caribbean, offering sailing voyages between November and April. The flagship ‘Royal Clipper’ operates from Bridgetown, ‘Star Clipper’ from Sint Maarten and ‘Star Flyer’ in Cuba and the Cayman Islands.

The ‘Club Med 2’, with 184 cabins, offers cruises with calls mainly in Martinique, Guadeloupe, Venezuela, the Grenadines and Sint Maarten, using Fort-de-France and Pointe-à-Pitre as its main home ports, but also Philipsburg.