News & Advice

Older Sailing Ships Are Making a Comeback

A rising tide of sustainably minded travelers are looking to cruise the old-school way.
Sea Cloud Spirit
Courtesy Sea Cloud  

Next summer, Sea Cloud Cruises will introduce its latest ship, the 136-passenger Sea Cloud Spirit. It will feature balcony cabins, a first for the company, as well as an extra-large fitness area and sundeck. Another soon-to-launch ship, the latest vessel from Star Clippers, will be the largest operated by the company and will feature a bi-level dining room that allows everyone to eat at the same time, while an onboard dive pool will offer scuba certification at sea. Both these ships, though, have one other thing in common beyond their luxurious amenities: sails. They’re both windjammers, or traditional sailing ships, with masts and vast riggings, around which the staff can scurry like old school sailors (expect Popeye-like biceps on Star Clippers, too, as most of the winches are hand-cranked rather than electric). Each of these cruise ships sails with a conventional engine installed, but will operate for 80 percent or more of the time at sea using wind energy. It’s a romantic notion: They will chart paths that follow the weather patterns much as windjammers might have done centuries ago. “The sails create a unique atmosphere on our cruises,” says Daniel Schaefer, CEO of Sea Cloud. “It’s not like a typical cruise line … . Sailing, and the ship itself, is part of the experience.”

Both lines are seasoned operators where every fleet member is a classic sailing ship. (Star Clippers operates a fleet of three masted ships that sail Asia, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean, while Sea Cloud has two—notably its namesake four-masted vessel, which originally belonged to Marjorie Merriweather Post.) But more mainstream companies now are operating sailing ships: Take Windstar, whose three windjammers sail under engine and wind power simultaneously, or Ponant’s namesake three-masted clipper, the first in its fleet. Variety Cruises, which shuttles around the Greek Islands, also operates two old-fashioned sailing ships.

Sea Cloud’s Schaefer emphasizes that taking a trip this way differs markedly from sailing on a mega-liner. “Rather than rushing to the next port, we plan our itineraries so they’re half at land, half at sea, so people have the chance to have a real sailing experience,” he says. “We set the sails as often as we can, and our captains have the order to sail as much as possible.” They can also dock at smaller harbors— like Taragona in Spain, for example, or the inner harbor at Barcelona— and sidestep the crush of visitors that can hobble some peak-time itineraries.

Mirell Reyes of Star Clippers echoes the sentiment. “We can go to little ports, ones where only yachts could pull in, like the Greek island of Spetses, where the only way to get around the island is on horse and carriage,” she says. It’s a time-consuming, hands-on process. “Our owner and his daughter sit there with their charts, to figure out where we can go and make sure we have enough wind to get there when they create our itineraries.”

Such notions have long formed part of the allure of cruising the old-fashioned way. But now these ships have a newfound appeal. As the cruise industry comes under increasing scrutiny concerning sustainability, these lines can claim minimal environmental impact from their sailings. If they rely on wind power 80 percent or even 90 percent of the time, the impact is radically lower compared with conventional cruises. Even the generators and engines on these masted ships are more sustainable: when used, they rely on low sulfur marine diesel, which minimizes fossil fuel pollution. It primes these lines to appeal to a new generation of cruisers, conscious of the footprint on the planet left by every trip they take.

It isn’t just a rising trend in commercial cruising either, says Kate Kalamaga. She runs South Florida-based Tropicalboat Luxury Yacht Charters & Rentals and is a veteran of yacht chartering. In that superrich sector, there’s growing demand for old-school sailboats. When Kalamaga started her business 15 years ago, only 10 percent of bookings were on yachts with sails; in the last five years, she’s seen that rise to 40 percent—and climbing. She notes a longtime client, with a budget of up to $150,000 per week, who came to her late last year with an unexpected request. “He has always chartered motor yachts,” she says of the man, who confessed his wife had threatened a divorce if he kept hiring them. “His wife had become very environmentally conscious and had decided she wanted to spend the rest of her life in the most eco-friendly way.” They picked a newly built 186-foot superyacht with a modern contemporary interior (no wood, per request) and a good sized spa pool. “His wife is an avid sailor now, and her new quest is to eliminate his beloved private jet,” Kalamaga says.

She says that chartering a sail-powered ship reduces running costs by around 30 percent, as fuel is your major expense when chartering. Next year, a slew of new yachts are coming on the market aimed at offering elite travelers the luxuries they expect at reduced cost to both their wallets and the environment. The E Supercat, which launches this month, is a 60-foot catamaran that relies on hydrogeneration and solar power for its propulsion. Near silent, it allows guests to experience dolphins and marine research projects more closely than its motorized rivals. The aptly named Silent Yachts is building vessels that will be entirely reliant on solar power, while Voyage Yacht Charters’ new Electrified is a battery-powered catamaran that will operate in the British Virgin Islands starting early next year.

For most travelers, though, such high tech trickery won’t compare with Star Clippers or Sea Cloud, cruise lines that rely on technology that was cutting-edge millennia ago—and has a rediscovered purpose for modern travelers planning their trips in a sustainable age.