SABA, West Indies — On a peaceful, cool night in a quiet world, a tall ship's billowing sails, lit by a full moon, keep time with the rhythm of the lapping sea against the ship's wooden hull.
Savoring the rarity of this experience from the deck of the last of the Portuguese Grand Banks schooners, sailing beneath a bright nighttime sky, the salt air and Caribbean breeze lull you into considering just what sets this Windjammer cruise apart from the mammoth floating hotel experience on an 800-passenger cruise ship.
Aboard the Polynesia, 248 feet of varnished oak decking are filled with many of the ship's 126 passengers sleeping after a day of sunning, swimming, snorkeling and fishing around the white deserted beaches of Saba, part of the Netherlands Antilles. The picturesque, tiny island is distinguished by volcanic rock outcrops rising 3,800 feet above clear emerald waters rimmed by post-card lush greenery.
"Barefoot Cruises" is this line's motto, so you know that the dress code is casual, as is the ambiance on board and off. Dressing up on this cruise means putting on a dry swimsuit before dinner. Forget your tux or gown.
The small fortune you save on formal cruise wear can be augmented with cash not spent in a shipboard casino; there are none among the Windjammer fleet.
Adventure on Tap
"The big cruise ships offer movies, entertainment, jogging tracks, dancing, racquetball, on-board swimming pools, gyms and seven meals daily, all things that can easily be found at home," says a Windjammer hand. "We offer adventure."
Adventurous passengers take a turn at the helm or lend a hand hoisting sails. You can climb to the crow's nest for a memorable view, if you dare. It is 192 feet high on the Polynesia.
Sharing the workload is a good way to burn calories collected from fresh-baked breads, pastries and three daily meals featuring fresh seafood and tropical fruits as well as chicken, pork or beef dishes chased by free rum swizzles. A nightly midnight buffet caps off the dining experience.
Working is, of course, optional. You do not have to do anything.
Cabins are small but air-conditioned, with private baths. Many passengers prefer sleeping outdoors on decks once owned by the likes of Onassis, the Duke of Westminster, the Vanderbilts and the Guinness brewery family. Deck pads and front row seats for a seagoing sunrise are free.
Windjammers sail mostly at night, mostly calmly. Huge nylon sails are designed to prevent rolling, so seasickness is rare.
Even so, remedies are kept on hand, along with a full complement of safety equipment for emergencies, including radio telephones, motor launches and life rafts.
Itineraries are finalized at sea to take advantage of wind and weather conditions, as well as passengers' preferences whenever possible.
Standard six-day voyages are available from about $650 to $900 in the deluxe captain's suite. Air fare is extra. Booking consecutive six-day cruises will knock $50 off the price and back-to-back cruises never cover the same route, so "old salts" can visit new ports.
Windjammers sail from Caribbean ports. Even though air fare is extra, the rates compare favorably to those of cruise ships, and on a Windjammer you get the experience of sails flapping gently beneath blanketing stars and the tingle carried on the salt breeze.
For additional information, contact Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, Box 120, Miami Beach, Fla. 33139, phone (800) 327-2600.
For those seeking even less formality than a Caribbean Windjammer cruise and more personal control of a voyage, bareboat and crewed charter fleets sail the Bahamas, Virgin Islands and other West Indies, Florida, New England, New York, Chesapeake Bay, Texas, the Great Lakes, California, Hawaii, Alaska, the Mediterranean and the South Pacific. These vessels generally carry two to six passengers, sometimes more. Rates vary, depending on the size of the boat, location, season and services required.
Same Weather, Same Wind
For example, a 29-foot bareboat sloop carrying six in the summer off-season in the Caribbean might rent for $600 to $700 weekly, while a 43-foot sloop could fetch twice that for the same week and twice that again during the high winter season.
What you find off-season in places such as Florida and the Caribbean are close to the same weather and winds, the same pretty harbors and beaches and fewer fellow sailors and tourists to share it all with.
If you decide to charter during busy times, remember that the boats are routinely booked for Christmas, New Year's and other holidays as much as a year in advance.
If your sailing skills don't warrant commanding a vessel, captains and small crews are available for $100 to $200 daily. Food and supplies are extra, although many of the charter firms can supply completely outfitted rigs.
Most bareboat charters require that you demonstrate proficiency in handling the vessel. Some owners will sail with you for a day or two until you get the hang of it. Others check sailing references.