So this is real sailing...

We are very proud and honoured to publish this wonderful story from Steve Chipperfield, a well-established marine writer and journalist, who has joined the Clipper Stad Amsterdam on her Trans-Atlantic voyage from Miami to Horta and inform you about how fascinating the adventurous square rigger sailing trips are!

By Steve Chipperfield

"As a yachtsman with over 40 years’ cruising and racing experience in various parts of the world, I felt that I had a reasonably good knowledge of sailing. How wrong could I be: I had everything to learn! But what a pleasure it was. In April this year I finally got round to fulfilling an important item on my personal sailing “bucket list” – a voyage under square sail.

I joined the crew of Stad Amsterdam in Miami for the 3,000 mile Adventurous Cruise to the Azores. From the moment I stepped aboard I was as impressed by the impeccable, seamanlike state of the ship’s presentation as I was by the warm welcome from a highly professional yet modest and understated group of individuals.

Light winds

During our first few days at sea we experienced relatively light winds and were grateful for the assistance of the Gulf Stream to help our progress northwards. These light weather days were in fact very useful to us “Adventure Sailors” as we began the process of “learning the ropes” (all 200+ of them) – a big enough challenge in light conditions but an almost unimaginable one in heavy weather.

There was little value in learning where to find the different lines around the ship without first understanding their individual and collective functions, and here came the first big surprise. A clipper ship may represent “old technology” by comparison with today’s advanced fore-and-aft, pre-shaped foils and hydraulic sail management systems. But, boy, those clipper ship builders and sailors had certainly refined square sail technology, virtually to an art form.

Once we had gained some idea of the role of the halyards, topping lifts, clew lines, leech lines, buntlines, sheets, tacks and braces, we then had to discover where to find the individual rope falls (by night as well as by day); to learn the right order of events in hoisting or clearing away a sail; and, finally, how to use these controls collectively to trim the ship for optimum performance.

(Think about the controls you use to shape a conventional Bermudan sail to the perfect aerofoil for the prevailing conditions; now think about trebling the sail’s area, making it sail rectangular, setting it on its side, using twice the number of controls and still achieving near-perfect shape and centre of effort. It’s all do-able in square sail – and that was quite a revelation.)

Being a member

Being a member of the three-watch system aboard Stad Amsterdam was very rewarding, not only for the sense of participation in sailing such a magnificent vessel but also because it enabled us to get to know individual crew members better. A good camaraderie developed quite rapidly among watch members – permanent crew and guests – especially when we were all working hard as a team or experiencing less favourable conditions.

Once we reached higher latitudes and the westerlies began to fill in, Stad Amsterdam came to life and began to show us just what she is capable of. Like most yachtsmen, I find conditions comfortable enough up to, say, Force 5-6. After that, it is less comfortable, something you just have to deal with until it eases again.

By contrast, Stad Amsterdam gets a spring in her stride in 35 knots of breeze and positively relishes the 40 – 45 knots we experienced from time to time. Any sailor who does not feel his pulse quicken and experience a sense of awe and delight as this tall ship puts her shoulder to the seas and dashes them aside at 14-15 knots must be missing some elemental part of their soul!

Stronger breezes 

With stronger breezes we put in consistently high daily mileages, including a best noon to noon run of 257 miles. The daily distance deficit soon became a surplus and we eventually dropped anchor off Horta on Faial two days ahead of schedule after 17 days at sea. We arrived in teeming rain but who cared? We all felt a wonderful sense of achievement.

The next morning dawned fine and we set out for a superb day sail, not least to celebrate departing captain Richard Slootweg’s last day at sea aboard Stad Amsterdam after 11 years. With all watches combined, we sailed off the anchor with exemplary efficiency (we guest crew, in all honesty, trailing in their wake in our efforts to get our hands on the lines before they did). After a wonderful, fast and zesty sail, including a perfect tack to turn us homewards (much harder than wearing ships) we dropped anchor, again under sail.

Final observations include the excellent quality and quantity of food (very necessary because, after all that sweating on lines you certainly build up a healthy appetite) and the excellent accommodation below. It has to be said that I almost felt guilty about the latter because, every time I thought: “so must be what it was like sailing on the great clipper routes”, I had to remind myself of the very different food, clothing and conditions experienced by the tough, capable sailors of that era. Respect!

My advice to any yachtsman or woman who has yet to experience the thrill and fascination of clipper sailing? Get on and do it! You’ll never regret it!

about the author

Steve Chipperfield - marine writer and journalist

Steve Chipperfield, a well-established marine writer and journalist, who has joined the Clipper Stad Amsterdam on her latest Trans Atlantic voyage from Miami to Horta