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Getting Your Sea Legs: How to Fulfill Those Tall-Ship Dreams

September 01, 2002|Ross Anderson

A generation or so ago, a sailor in search of a tall ship would have needed a time machine. But the fleet of 14 vessels that is to enter Los Angeles Harbor on Friday provides dramatic evidence that tall ships have sailed back onto the traveler's horizon. And the docks at San Pedro are an excellent place to explore them.

Before you look for your ship, here are a few things to remember:

* Don't assume that sailing a tall ship will cost hundreds of dollars a day. Some do, but others are surprisingly reasonable, especially if you are willing to pitch in, hoisting sails, coiling lines or swabbing the deck.

* Don't expect to find luxury. Sailing ships specialize in spartan dormitory conditions, often shared with the crew. There will be one or two shared baths and toilets that instruct what can and cannot be flushed. The food is likely to be wholesome and plentiful but not gourmet. And if the guy in the next bunk snores, a gentle kick can be effective.

* Learn the lingo. Know port from starboard, schooners from square-riggers, sheets from halyards. And remember, tall ships have no "ropes," only "lines."

* If you're told to bring something, take it seriously. Sailing trips can become miserable without seemingly expendable items such as rubber boots and foul weather gear, gloves or even a flashlight.

Where the Ships Are

Here are a few ways to find a tall ship cruise:

* Rely on word-of-mouth or the Web to find your cruise. Or try Ocean Voyages, of Sausalito, (800) 299-4444,, which books individuals and groups on sailing ships. Their clients include two of the vessels sailing into San Pedro--the 185-foot square-rigger Europa and the 85-foot schooner R. Tucker Thompson.

Most tall ships are operated by individuals or groups enamored of wood boats and sails but who know little about marketing and hate the idea of paying fees to travel agencies. Many ships are nonprofits that focus on educational cruises but are open to the idea of paying passengers as well. If in doubt, ask.

* Take a day cruise. There may never be a better time. Many of the ships docked at San Pedro will be offering short cruises for $50. Other opportunities will be available at two smaller tall ships festivals later this month. The ships will congregate Sept. 12 to 15 in San Diego (call [619] 234-9153 or see for details) and Sept. 20 to 22 at Dana Point (call [949] 496-2274 or see

A few ships based in Southern California offer day cruises year-round. The 118-foot schooner Spirit of Dana Point, based in the south Orange County city, has a regular cruise schedule. Call (949) 496-2274, or see In Newport Beach, the 122-foot privateer schooner Lynx is available for day sails and longer cruises. Call Alison Woods at (949) 723-7814 or Catherine Malm at (949) 642-5031 or see In Long Beach, the 130-foot schooner American Pride has a regular cruise schedule, including brunch and sunset dinner trips. Call the American Heritage Marine Institute, (714) 970-8800, or see

* If a short sail merely whets your appetite, look into a longer cruise--three days to a week. You can work through a specialized agency like Ocean Voyages or do it on your own.

* The best-established cruises are the Windjammer schooners that sail throughout the Atlantic Coast and Caribbean. Contact the Maine Windjammer Assn., (800) 807-9463, Much more luxurious are Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, which sail the Caribbean. Call Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, (800) 327-2601,

* There are increasing options for sailing West Coast waters, but the trick is striking a deal. The Europa, which handles up to 50 passengers, is selling berths on its four-day Los Angeles-to-San Diego leg for $695, and pricier legs as it continues south. The schooner Zodiac, a 127-footer based in Puget Sound, sold all its $2,000 berths on its Seattle-to-San Francisco voyage last month, but still has berths available for the return voyage. Call Ocean Voyages to book either the Europa or the Zodiac.

The Lady Washington, which sails Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest in the summer, now winters in California. The ship passes much of its time taking schoolchildren on educational cruises. But the skipper will happily take paying passengers on transits from one port to the next for $105 per day--which is a bargain, even considering the rugged quarters. Call (800) 200-5239,

These ships operate on very tight budgets, and paying passengers help the skipper meet the next grocery tab.

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