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October 18, 2013 7:05 pm
It was the nautical equivalent of that old movie cliché: the moment when the plain librarian removes her glasses and shakes her head, spilling blonde locks down over her shoulder.
Somewhere off the coast of Kefalonia, a westerly wind had come up. On the bridge, the captain gave the order to set sail. Seamen scampered aloft, fanning out along the yardarms, balancing on ropes 150ft above the decks. Then the furled sails tumbled loose one by one – the top sails, the gallants, the royals, the mizzen course, the fore course, the staysails, the jibs, the spankers – 30 sails bellying in the wind. And everyone on board felt their hearts miss a beat.
Sea Cloud is a cruise ship from another era, a windjammer that takes just 60 passengers in the kind of glamorous style that went out of fashion with debutante balls and the foxtrot. She cruises the Mediterranean in summer and the Caribbean in winter, much of it under sail. But next year, she also undertakes a new itinerary wholly under sail, whose ports of call between the Greek port of Piraeus and Istanbul will be determined entirely by the winds. In an age of cruising behemoths, with all the personality and style of a multistorey car park, and with passenger lists numbering in the thousands, antique Sea Cloud offers the cruise world something new – a ship with character, with a history, and with the revolutionary idea that a sailing cruise can put us in touch with the great days of sail and of voyages borne on the winds.
Somehow it is no surprise to learn that beneath the teak and the polished brass, Sea Cloud harbours secrets. Her past is as chequered and as fantastic as a dime-store novel, including spells as a private yacht, a Hollywood madam, a getaway hearse, and a rotting hulk in the Central American tropics.
She was built in 1931 for Marjorie Merriweather Post, a breakfast cereal heiress, and her husband Edward Hutton, a New York stockbroker. In a world long since committed to steam and diesel, Post and Hutton wanted a vessel comparable to the great sailing ships of the 19th century. Originally named the Hussar, she was not only the largest private sailing yacht in the world, she was also the last private four-masted ship built, a square rigger with 3,000 sq ft of canvas. No one knows what she cost; to this day the German shipyard responsible declines to release the figures.
Her first years as a private yacht were innocent enough. She sailed the Caribbean. She made voyages to the Galápagos, Alaska and Hawaii. Iguanas wandered the decks as family pets and an adopted bear cub tried to climb the rigging. When Marjorie divorced Hutton in the mid-1930s and married American diplomat Joseph Davies, the yacht was renamed Sea Cloud and went with the couple to ambassadorial postings in Leningrad and Belgium, where she became a useful venue for informal diplomatic contacts. Soviet politician Vyacheslav Molotov came on board to sample western decadence at first hand. The King of Sweden came for dinner. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor came for a week. The president of the Dominican Republic, the notorious Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, came with bodyguards and bouquets for his hostess.
After a stint as a naval escort during the second world war, and another of Marjorie’s divorces, Sea Cloud was sold to Trujillo who wanted a state yacht to lend his authoritarian regime some serious nautical swank. In the late 1950s, his playboy son, Ramfis, took the boat to California with him when he went to study law. Moored in Santa Monica, Sea Cloud, now known as the Angelita, became familiar in gossip columns as Hollywood’s “floating fun house”. Those less inhibited by the threat of lawsuits called her a floating bordello.
Zsa Zsa Gabor and Kim Novak led a parade of young starlets on board. Newsweek estimated that Ramfis spent $1m during the course of his year in Los Angeles, most of it on lavish gifts for his lady friends.
In 1961, Trujillo Sr was assassinated. Loading the corpse on to Sea Cloud, the family tried to escape to Europe with several trunks of bullion. A fleet of Dominican destroyers gave chase across the Atlantic, catching up with the luxury yacht near the Canary Islands and returning her at gunpoint to the Caribbean.
After yet another owner and almost a decade of legal disputes, Sea Cloud was abandoned at the eastern end of the Panama Canal where she languished for eight years. Moss grew across her teak decks, her stays corroded, her brass fittings oxidised, her engines disabled by various marine creatures that had taken up residence in the cooling systems. She was eventually rescued in the late 1970s by a German sea captain who returned her to the shipyards in Kiel, where she had been built almost 50 years before, to be refurbished and resurrected, another chapter in what Marjorie Post once called Sea Cloud’s nine lives.
Now restored to her original state, Sea Cloud is a time warp. Strolling her promenade deck, I kept expecting to run into Peter Ustinov bumbling about as Hercule Poirot. Her interior passageways and original cabins have the air of an Edwardian country house. My cabin had a walk-in wardrobe, a canopy over the bed, and a bathtub with gold-plated taps.
I found it difficult to go to bed at night. After the other passengers had disappeared into their cabins, I stretched out on the aft deck, watching constellations turn round the mast, the lights of a distant shore, the dark waters of the Aegean on our voyage between Piraeus and Venice. At this hour I could listen undisturbed to the historic sounds of a sailing ship – the creak of the rigging, the sigh of the wind in the sails, the sibilant murmur of the waves along her hull. I stayed late enough to watch the new moon sink, changing colour from white to a deep red as it slipped behind a dark island.
At dinner one evening, over the champagne and foie gras, one of the other passengers confessed that this was her sixth voyage. “Sea Cloud is a love story,” she said. “We are all a little in love with her.”
We have forgotten that ships are for falling in love with. Once upon a time hardened sailors wept openly on a ship’s last voyage. Captains who nursed their charges through every kind of weather retired with their ships rather than take command of another. Ships had characters – temperamental, mercurial, enduring, glamorous – and their names evoked rhapsodies. Once upon a time ships were beautiful and people lost their hearts to them.
Stanley Stewart was a guest of Sea Cloud (www.seacloud.com). It operates summer cruises in the Mediterranean between April and late November, with a winter season in the Caribbean from December to April. Prices start from €1,795 per person per week, full board. In later November, she undertakes a 15-day Atlantic crossing to Barbados. The sail-only cruises in 2014 are seven-night itineraries between Piraeus and Istanbul, departing August 14 and September 17, from €2,795 per person
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