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Trans-Atlantic passage aboard the world's biggest sailing ship

Feb 28, 2008

To the editor: At 437 feet, the five-masted Royal Clipper is the world's largest sailing vessel. I joined the ship on a hot, humid April afternoon in Bridgetown, Barbados. Also onboard were 117 passengers and an international crew of 100. With a schedule to keep and 3,400 miles of ocean ahead of us, we sailed at nightfall. To push us at our best speed across the Atlantic, we needed the westerlies. And to seek that wind, we had to slog north - beating close-hauled into head seas and the northeast trades - for at least five or six days.

Royal Clipper was built six years ago in Dutch and Polish yards. Flying 26 squaresails, 12 staysails, three jibs and a gaff-rigged spanker - an acre of Dacron - the ship has a design speed of 17 knots under sail, 12 to 14 under power. The auxiliary, a linked pair of 2,500-hp Caterpillar diesels, is geared to a fully feathering four-bladed screw. Separate generating plants supply massive needs for electricity: lights, air conditioning and watermaking - this last a daily conversion of up to 100 tons of salt water to fresh.

All but two of the full rigger's squares furl hydraulically into hollow aluminum yards. A small pilothouse, flanked by jutting bridge wings, straddles the fore end of the ship between fore- and mainmasts. It contains the usual assortment of engine, autopilot and bow-thruster controls. Grouped around a joystick toggle for manual steering are GPS, barometer, gyro and twin radar units.

Our first day out of Barbados a 20-knot breeze blew out of the east, as advertised. Setting staysails and jibs but no squares, Royal ran close-hauled NNE. Late in the morning we shifted course due north, all squares scrolled down like window shades from the yards. The ship stepped out smartly at 13 knots, rolling its side down in a cobalt sea flecked with whitecaps.

In the pilothouse, Capt. Oleg Tovstokory pored over a weatherfax. The forecast was unremarkable: wind east to northeast, 15 to 20 knots. The master, at 49, was a heavyset Ukrainian with more than a quarter century at sea in sail and steam. "Daytime I sail if I can and go as far north as I can," he told me. "At night I make up speed with engine. But whatever I do I have to average 10 knots to be on time at Malaga," the arrival port in Spain.

In succeeding days, Royal pitched like a hobby horse in a lumpy sea, motorsailing against contrary winds. The barometer held steady at 1,010 millibars. A high-pressure system overcovered the entire western Atlantic. But a weatherfax reported a weak easterly moving low somewhere in the vicinity of 25� N.

On the fourth day, at 24� N, even the trades had dropped to puffs. The squares came in and the auxiliary shoved us along under bare poles at 11 knots. Our course began flattening out to the northeast in a closer approximation of the great circle track.

For one group of passengers, however, there was scant time or inclination to worry about the strength or direction of the wind. Five experienced yachtsmen but novice celestial navigators had signed on to participate in a hands-on navigation seminar - the program a joint venture of this magazine's School of Seamanship (ONSOS) and a sea-vacation tour packager called Sailing Ship Adventures.

The five had brought sextants, almanacs and sight-reduction tables. Their instructor, John Carlisle, 47, is a veteran U.S. merchant mariner holding an unlimited chief mate's ticket. With infectious enthusiasm and a tightly packed curriculum, he would manage to gallop his students through the thicket of nautical astronomy to competence as sun- and star-sight practitioners in the span of 10 days.

After morning lectures, the group, led by Carlisle, would climb to the bridge or open deck abaft the mainmast, sextants deployed for a traditional noon sight. At times the motion of the ship made it difficult for the navigators to lock on the solar disk and hold it through meridian transit. Still, their latitude reckonings compared favorably with benchmark GPS readouts.

By a week and a half into the voyage we had hoped to see the wind blow fair, but no. Glued malevolently in the NNE - at 10 to 15 knots - it refused to budge. As the ship motored through an irregular swell, some of the passengers began to grumble openly about the lack of sailing. At mid-morning of the 10th day, the skipper heeded these complaints. He shifted course from northeast by east to SSE, putting the wind abaft the port beam.

"I've got miles in my pocket,�VbCrLf he announced: He was ahead of schedule. With the auxiliary shut down, and squares and staysails set and drawing, Royal ghosted silently at 7 knots. Yet by early afternoon the master had expended that bank of miles. Dousing sails, he brought the ship back on course under engine to the northeast quadrant.

All that day the sun played tag with scattered clouds. At dusk the sky cleared. Soon it was a dome of azure, the horizon a sliver of charcoal. Stars and planets glittered. Earlier, Carlisle and his nav group had calculated bearings and altitudes; with preset sextants they rushed about the bridge in quest of targets. "What have you got?�VbCrLf someone shouted. "Jupiter - I've got Jupiter �� I've got Procyon �� Capella �� Arcturus.�VbCrLf

And later, below, with tables and almanacs open before them, the navigators mixed the ingredients of time, hour angle, azimuth and sextant altitude. One after another, the navigators ruled lines of position on a plotting sheet. The point of intersection formed a rough asterisk, marking a fix: 37� 10' N, 26� 55' W. Carlisle's face stretched in a grin. "Well, that's not too bad,�VbCrLf he said.

On the 12th day, we pushed under engine into a short, steep sea and 25-knot headwind. The sky was gray patched with blue, the sea the color of slate. In the atrium lounge a passenger played Bach and Chopin on a white Yamaha piano lashed to the deck. A few feet away the navigators gathered round Carlisle to work out course, speed and distance for an ETA at the western approaches of the Strait of Gibraltar, landfall on the European coast.

That day and the next, the wind rose moderate to fresh on the nose, Beaufort Force 8. Tumbling whitecaps chalk-scarred the sea. The plunging bow threw spray; it dashed back like gravel. In waterline cabins, the stewards dogged deadlights over portholes.

On the 14th day, the wind - still northeast - fell to a whisper. We rode more easily in a smooth swell, motoring at 10 knots on a compass course of east by south. Early the following afternoon, the ridges of Spain and Morocco hove into view. They etched a distant blue scribble to port and starboard.

In the end, though, this was a voyage not about arrivals and departures, coastlines or seabirds. It was about one thing only: wind; in this case the missing element of fair wind - wind abaft the beam, the lifeblood of a square-rigger. Late in the day we found that wind at last.

Once through the strait, a 30-knot blow, gusting to 35, sprang up in the west. It was a perfect sailing quarter. The Rock of Gibraltar now in sight, there were cries from the mates. Blocks and ropes creaked. Jibs, staysails and spanker were sheeted home; squares bellied out, snapped taut with the sound of gunshots.

Royal fell off on the port tack. The big ship surged ahead at 12 knots, then 14, plowing up a furrow of foam. Its course lay ENE for Malaga and journey's end.

-Alan Littell, a frequent contributor to Ocean Navigator, is an author, journalist and former merchant mariner. He lives in western New York. His latest book, Courage, a novel of the sea, will be published this year by Brillig Press.