Tall 3-masted ship at sunset anchored with decorative flags

Taking the Helm of a Tall Ship: One Magical Night

And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to sail her by. – John Masefield, Sea Fever

The year was 1994. The place was St. Kitts, a whale-shaped islet in the Leeward Islands. Our ship, the Polynesia, was docked that evening in the little harbor town of Basseterre.

For years, I had dreamed of taking a barefoot cruise on a Windjammer. Unlike the giant mega-ships that dominate today’s cruise industry, this company boasted a collection of historic sailing vessels that catered to a smaller, more laid-back crowd. I was one of them.

Trying to reason with hurricane season, I had come to the Caribbean in September to celebrate my 30th birthday, hoping for some decent weather, a bit of rest, and perhaps, just maybe, the chance to sail the tall ship. To my delight, the captain posted a daily sign-up sheet for would-be helmsmen. I grabbed the midnight watch for the night of September 21, meaning I would be at the wheel as I sailed into my thirtieth year!

EDITED Mandaly at St Kitts BETTER
The Windjammer ship Mandalay in St. Kitts harbor, as seen from the Polynesia

Sadly, it seemed my dream would die in port that night, as filling the ship’s fresh water tanks was taking longer than expected. At least there was an enjoyable steel-drum band playing on deck. As the music wrapped up, I dejectedly looked at my watch to see the midnight hour slipping away. Hooray, I was thirty years old! Boohoo, I was going nowhere.

Strolling back towards the ship’s stern, the captain noticed my crestfallen face idling nearby. I told him I had signed up for the midnight turn at the helm, which wasn’t happening. To my surprise, he smiled and asked, “How would you like to take us out?” Would I ever! I thought this might be too complicated a maneuver for a passenger, but he reassured me I could handle it. I happily took my place beside him, grasping the huge spoked wooden steering wheel, and like James Thurber’s Walter Mitty, instantly transformed myself into a sailor of old.

Tall sailing ship Polynesia rests at anchor

We drifted gently away from the dock and softly motored out of the harbor when the magic began – it was time to set the sails. The Polynesia was a 248-foot long schooner fitted with four massive wooden masts. She carried gaff-rigged sails, an unusually heavy arrangement that required a team of folks hauling on each line to raise them. To the piping of “Amazing Grace,” passengers and crew heaved on the heavy ropes as the sails soared skyward, transforming us from a mere motor vessel to a true sailing ship.

There is a reason a ship is called a she. As the wind swelled the sails, you could literally feel her coming to life. While the deck planks creaked and the big masts bowed, the sails ruffled and popped like giant lungs inhaling the warm trade winds. The twinkling stars above were silent. The only sounds were the salty sea spray and fluttering canvas.

I spun the wheel to the right, setting us on a northwest heading for the rocky pinnacle-shaped island of Saba. “Steady as she goes,” said the captain. “Aye aye, sir,” I contentedly replied, feeling perfectly at peace and happily moving forward.

EDITED Sunrise rainbow over Saba Sept 22 1994

I read recently an article about the demise of the Windjammer Cruise Company and breakup of its fleet. Like that evening in St. Kitts before taking the wheel, I could waste time and energy brooding over the fate of the once proud Polynesia.

However, I will instead choose to remember one magical night, when I turned 30 and took my turn at the helm of a great sailing ship.

Do you have any memories of the Windjammer fleet or something similar? Please share your comments and like this article if you enjoyed it.

passport stamp to St Maarten

4 thoughts on “Taking the Helm of a Tall Ship: One Magical Night

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