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Setting sail on a high seas adventure

The stylish Wind Surf, advertised as 'the largest sailing ship in the world,' is spacious, casual and fun.

March 16, 2003|Karl Zimmermann | Special to The Times

Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — Our flight into Fort Lauderdale was late. So late that my wife, Laurel, and I began to doubt we'd make it to our cruise ship before its announced 5 p.m. sailing time. I'd been in touch with the line's air-sea department throughout the day and was told that the ship might wait for us, but there were no promises. We were the only passengers reporting flight delays. "It's up to the captain," they said.

About 10 past 5, we flew over Fort Lauderdale's harbor, Port Everglades, on our approach to the airport. Peering out the window, we saw our lovely five-masted vessel, the Wind Surf, still at the pier, and our stomachs unknotted a little. "They're holding the ship until 6:30 for you," I learned by cell phone the minute the cabin door opened.

Still, when we got to the pier, we jogged from taxi to gangway, breathless.

"Relax," the officer on duty there advised. "We're not sailing for a little while."

By the time the Wind Surf eased away from the pier, we were sitting at an outside table at a bar with fruity rum drinks in our hands. The sails began to unfurl as the ship edged out into the channel, accompanied by melodramatic music piped through the public address system. We watched the sails stretch taut, floodlighted and looming majestically above us, and a sense of exquisite well-being washed over us.

Though called the largest sailing ship in the world, Windstar Cruise's Wind Surf isn't easy to characterize beyond that. After cruising through the Bahamas to the Florida Keys for a week aboard this pleasing, idiosyncratic vessel, I'd hazard this description: It's a sailing ship, no mistake, and its seven sails are for real, not just window dressing. Whenever practical, they're up.

As cruise ships go, this one is gratifyingly small. There were 304 passengers (served by a crew of 194) on our New Year's cruise, a full load. But at 535 feet, the Wind Surf is about the same size as Holland America's old 881-passenger Maasdam. It's a ship with real heft and presence. The feel aboard is more liner than clipper.

"Sailing" seems to imply "old-fashioned," and the ship's rangy bowsprit and graceful hull do suggest an earlier time, but the Wind Surf is actually high tech. Computer sensors set the sails.

How else would I describe it? Spacious, casual, stylish and sports-minded.

A lazy itinerary

Our objectives for the cruise weren't ambitious. Walk on the beach, swim, snorkel. Perhaps paddle a sea kayak from the "marina" that folds down from the stern when the ship is anchored out. Lie in a deck chair and alternately read and gaze at the ocean. Soak in the on-deck hot tub at sunset. Sleep as long as we wanted. Dine leisurely.

The Wind Surf turned out to be perfect for that agenda. Our Bahamas itinerary placed no responsibilities on us to take shore excursions. (The ship has now moved to one-way Caribbean itineraries between St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Barbados. In April the vessel makes a two-week crossing to Lisbon to begin a summer of Mediterranean cruising.)

Many typical cruise ship activities -- pool games, contests, crafts -- were missing. There were no shows, but a trio played at cocktails and after dinner.

Windstar Cruises was founded in 1986 and later acquired by Holland America Line. Initially its fleet was composed of three sister ships, smaller than but otherwise similar to the Wind Surf. These four-masted vessels -- Wind Star, Wind Song and Wind Spirit -- were built to carry 148 passengers. Last December the Wind Song suffered an engine-room fire in the South Pacific while headed for Bora-Bora. All passengers and crew were safely evacuated, but the vessel has been declared a total loss.

Inspired by Wind Star and its two sisters, Wind Surf was built in France in 1989 as Club Med I and later purchased by Windstar. Its last renovation was in 2000.

The first night on board, as we headed for Port Lucaya on Grand Bahama, we dropped off to sleep listening to the rush of water on hull -- a benefit of being on Deck One, the lowest of the three decks devoted to passenger accommodations. The next morning, as the sea grew rougher, green water washed up over the two portholes.

"Just like being in a laundromat," Laurel said.

The cabin was trimly appointed and spacious, with a queen-size bed, ample closet and drawer space and a minibar, TV, VCR and CD player.

Meals were a pleasure, with a variety of options. Dinner was the only meal served in the restaurant -- open seating, running from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. The Bistro on Star Deck was an alternative dinner venue; there was no extra charge, but reservations were necessary. The menus were not significantly different.

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