I fell in love with slow travel on a ship in full sail


As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean, Sea Cloud Spirit lolled in the Pacific – its 32 magnificent sails untroubled by the slightest breath of air. We were becalmed.

Unlike the Ancient Mariner we, of course, had engines – silent, ­diesel-electric ones – and no shortage of libations on board. But that wasn’t the point. Spirit (built in 2021) is the third, and newest, of Sea Cloud’s sailing ships and, at 138m (453ft), the largest: a three-mast, manually operated, full-rigged tall ship that recreates the romance of 19th-century seafaring, without its attendant discomforts.

“The idea of slow travel is built into the itinerary,” captain Heiner Eilers told me. “This is more about the ­experience of sailing than about ­rushing from one destination to the next.”

Even with a fair wind, there was ­certainly no rushing – our speed under sail a stately 5 to 11 knots. Although I have been on many small-ship cruises, this was my first experience of one aboard a sailing ship. I had previously benefited from a course on wind ­propulsion in the Mediterranean, with two Olympian sailors as my instructors – but had retained little other than how to keep the champagne in my glass level as we tacked at perilous angles (it was a somewhat ­personalised course). But that was a ­different kettle of fish and, mercifully, aboard Spirit, guest participation was neither required nor yet allowed.

Sea Cloud Spirit Panama Canal

Spirit is the third, and newest, of Sea Cloud’s sailing ships

Credit: Michael Poliza

It was already dark when I boarded at the port of Puntarenas, in Costa Rica, greeted on the pier by a squadron of brown pelicans silhouetted like ­gargoyles against a moonlit sky. There was just time for an introduction to my cabin – a Junior Suite opulently decked out in classic style, with lots of highly polished dark wood and brass ­trimmings – followed by a “light snack” of grilled lobster on deck, before we waved goodbye to terra firma and toasted our southbound departure – down to the Pearl Islands, through the Panama Canal, thence to the San Blas Islands, to disembark in Colón.

Spirit is a nod to the original Sea Cloud, the legendary gift of E F Hutton to his heiress wife, Marjorie ­Merriweather Post. It was an absurdly over-the-top creation, which, when built in 1931, was the largest private sailing yacht in the world. Marjorie stopped at nothing to create an eight-cabin, 60-crew floating Versailles, complete with marble state room and gold swan taps, in which she regaled presidents and royalty. But Sea Cloud’s fortunes waxed and waned over the years. Among its various incarnations, it was loaned to the US Navy during the Second World War – losing its four masts and its glamour in the process – then restored and sold to a Caribbean dictator whose playboy son used it as a party ship to entertain the likes of Joan Collins and Zsa Zsa Gabor, before eventually being purchased by the present owners and converted into a 32-cabin cruise ship.

The Lido bar on Sea Cloud Spirit

The Lido bar on Sea Cloud Spirit

Credit: Michael Poliza

With such an illustrious heritage, Spirit has much to live up to. Most of my fellow passengers were Sea Cloud ­regulars, and of the fleet’s three ships, each had their own preference. But all agreed that, if less refined in her ­specifications (the Lounge, for example, is an ­atmospheric trough of relentless brown), Spirit is certainly the most ­spacious and comfortable. And ­crucially, for those who, like me, are averse to air conditioning, 30 of the 69 cabins have balconies and doors that can be hitched open at night for the fresh sea breeze and a breath of iodine.

We were 91 passengers – in this instance, mostly German. They included a senior designer for the Volkswagen group, a classic car ­collector who had partaken in the Mille Miglia, and a ­startlingly blue-eyed Graff who regaled me with stories about the Second World War and bemoaned the loss of his ­family’s numerous castles at the end of the conflict. To make things more ­interesting, there was also a ­contingent of English guests who had been ­catapulted onto this cruise because of the last-minute cancellation of their planned trip on a ­Russian-owned vessel. Factions formed, with frequently ­hilarious results. “The Germans!” ­grumbled one guest, in a parody worthy of Monty Python: “You go to the Sun Deck at 7am and their towels are already all over the loungers!”

Sea Cloud Spirit Deck

Passengers taking part in a yoga class on the deck

Credit: Michael Poliza

From this recumbent position on deck, sun-worshippers of both ­nationalities had a worm’s eye view of the hoisting of the sails – an exquisitely choreographed procedure that was accompanied, on the first occasion, by an explanation from the chief officer of the intricacies involved. The yards were braced and I watched in awe as 18 ­ratings climbed the shrouds, scaling the three masts in perfect synch, up to the dizzying 189ft of the main mast.

We visited the famously biodiverse Manuel Antonio National Park in Quepos, to see Jesus Christ lizards walking on water, capuchin monkeys scampering like funambulists along aerial tightropes of lianas, and to listen to howler monkeys bark at their approach. We ooh-ed and aah-ed at the sloths hanging from the trees, and gawped at fantastical toucans – for all the world like a child’s caricature. In Palo Verde National Park, we cruised the Tempisque River, lined with smiling crocodiles that posed obligingly for photographs, while beauty took more elusive feathered form overhead. We visited a community of indigenous Kuna in the touristy, but no less fascinating, San Blas Islands, and spent a lazy afternoon on the picture-perfect deserted beach of Mogo Mogo Island.

Manuel Antonio National Park in Quepos is home to capuchin and howler monkeys

Manuel Antonio National Park in Quepos is home to capuchin and howler monkeys

Credit: Michael Poliza

I loved the time spent on board. The haste of our century temporarily dampened, and with organised ­entertainment restricted to a single pianist, sensations were heightened: the sounds of wind and wave as we sliced through the ocean, techni-­colour sunrises and sunsets, flypasts by seabirds and dolphins that ­outpaced us. I spent time on the bridge, learning about nautical-this and maritime-that. And I developed an obsession with knots. Joseph, the jovial staff captain, taught me to tie everything from club hitches to bowlines.

After days of untamed wilderness, traversing the Panama Canal, that ­triumph of engineering over Nature – the waterway from the Pacific to the Atlantic, first dreamt of by Spain’s Charles V in 1534 – was a thrill.  As the skyscrapers of Panama City hove into view, our main mast was lowered and, sailing at low tide, we scraped beneath the Bridge of the Americas to enter the mechanical embrace of the locks. We marvelled at the operation as we were raised 85ft, sailed through the infamous Culebra cut and the massive man-made Gatún Lake, were lowered 85ft through more locks, and safely disgorged into the Caribbean Sea.

Sea Cloud Spirit

‘Sensations were heightened: the sounds of wind and wave as we sliced through the ocean, techni-­colour sunrises and sunsets’

Credit: Michael Poliza

It took nine hours to cross the 51 miles of the Panama Canal; 11 days to cover a sea journey of 1,105 nautical miles. Some things just can’t be rushed. As the Buddha taught, “It is better to travel well than to arrive” – and at our stately pace, we certainly travelled well.

Teresa Levonian Cole was a guest of Sea Cloud, which has the 11-night Tropical Forest and Panama Canal cruise aboard Sea Cloud Spirit from £6,344pp, including all meals with wine, port fees, soft drinks and tips

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