As darkness began to lift from the Pacific, officers were changing watch on the bridge of the Sea Cloud and crew members were beginning to stir on deck.
Before long, deckhands were scrambling up ladders and spreading out on the yardarms to work the sails. Balanced on a spider web of wires, they loosened the sails to ready them for unfurling.
"Sheet 'em up!" the captain ordered. As muscles stretched and strained, 30 sails took the breeze, and soon the sky above us was filled with canvas stretching taughtly before the wind.
On this voyage we were headed to the Galapagos Islands on a three-day visit. This winter, the Sea Cloud, one of the few tall ships that takes paying passengers, will sail the Caribbean. But no matter how alluring the destination, it's the ship that excites the imagination.
For 18 days we lived like millionaires, awaking each morning in canopied double beds beneath a frieze-decorated ceiling. Opulent suites with fireplaces were furnished with antiques. Bathrooms were tiled in marble. The corridor had the look of a grand hotel. Fine porcelain and silver were displayed in elegant, glass-fronted sideboards.
On the Lido Deck, sunbathing passengers sipped champagne, ate smoked salmon and chatted.
Days were spent relaxing, swimming, eating, watching tapes of vintage movies and attending lectures. We learned to tie nautical knots and the refined art of napkin folding. Lectures were given by such authorities as William F. Buckley and Bill Robinson, editor of several sailing magazines, on topics ranging from history and politics to sailing.
We sailed from Easter Island for 10 days before reaching the Galapagos. After three days there we sailed for five more days to reach Panama. From there, we flew home.
Tall merchant ships were once the primary form of ocean transportation around the world. These sailing vessels had masts of dizzying height. By the turn of the century, large sailing yachts were in vogue in Newport, R.I., where the eastern millionaires summered.
The Sea Cloud was built in 1931 by E. F. Hutton as a gift for his wife, cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.
Post entertained royalty, world figures, movie stars and the literati of her day on board the ship. King Gustavus V of Sweden, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Vanderbilts and Clare Booth Luce were among her passengers.
No matter what its port of call around the world, the Sea Cloud's stunning silhouette always created a stir. In the late 1970s the ship was bought by a German company and passage was offered to those who could afford it.
The Sea Cloud was built as--and, indeed, remains--a floating mansion. Post's personal quarters are appointed with an imposing chandelier, marble fireplace and a bathroom larger than most cruise ship suites. It is decorated with gold leaf.
E. F. Hutton's suite is modest by comparison, fashioned of dark wood and decorated with red velvet.
Both suites are open to passengers, along with 11 other original staterooms. Up to 75 guests at a time can sail in style.
There is a ratio of two or more crew members to every passenger, so service aboard the ship is impeccable. Dining on the Sea Cloud is a treat, too.
Mornings begin with a breakfast buffet. Trays are loaded with fresh fruit, cheeses, bacon, eggs, steak, French toast, a vast selection of breads, jams, fruit juices and, of course, Post cereals.
Lunch offers plentiful platters decorated with food carved into sculptures of birds and flowers. Lobster, duck, shrimp, chicken, beef and salads are laid out on the richly wooded Promenade Deck for guests to savor at their leisure.
Dinner is served in one seating, with long tables carefully appointed with crystal, silver and china. A master chef prepares all meals, and attentive waiters quickly learn your preferences. Vintage wines flow freely during five-course dinners.
The Sea Cloud is a return to times when life was especially sweet for those rich enough to sail the tall ships.
Etched in a worn leather guest book, short phrases told of passenger sentiments:
"There's a dance in the old dame yet," wrote one former passenger.
"Truly full of romance and history," commented another.
"We were set adrift in a world without time," wrote a third.
" Merci beaucoup ," a fourth confessed. "I'm spoiled forever."
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In winter, the Sea Cloud cruises round trip weekly from Antigua and calls at smaller, historic ports in the Caribbean's Lesser Antilles. Prices for the week range from $2,500 to $4,500 per person double occupancy, not including air fare.
Dress on the Sea Cloud is casual during the day and informal at night, with at least one formal night per trip. It seems more like a private party than a cruise ship.
For current information on Sea Cloud voyages, write to Sea Cloud Cruises, 2701 S. Bayshore Drive, Suite 402, Coconut Grove, Fla. 33133, or call (305) 285-2370.
Travel Dynamics, a New York-based travel organization, also runs luxury cruises all over the world. Voyages vary in length and are priced from $3,000 to $9,000 per person. Call (800) 367-6766 for a detailed schedule.
For a high-tech, computerized-sailing experience, Windstar Sail Cruises offer seven-day trips in the South Pacific, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and Alaska for $1,795 to $2,495 per person double occupancy, not including air fare. Call (800) 358-7245.