A cruise on board a four-masted barquentine gives Ed Elliot the opportunity to explore southeast Asia the old-fashioned way.
“A beautiful sailing ship in a port is like a beautiful bird in a dirty, stinking cage,” declares cruise director Peter Kissner, in his distinctive German accent. “A beautiful sailing ship belongs to the sea.”
And once released from the shackles of a harbour, the Star Clipper – the world’s tallest sailing ship – bobs freely amid the fresh salty air of the Andaman Sea, which runs to the east of the Indian Ocean.
I am on a seven-night voyage aboard the majestic vessel, discovering the delights of southeast Asia by wind power.
Peter, a tall Bavarian with sun-bronzed skin and long blond hair pulled into a ponytail, is an experienced officer and the vessel’s knowledgeable cruise director. He looks on intently as I join a handful of other passengers in the fading light of early evening, to hoist up the main sail in preparation for departure.
Travelling on board is an authentic sailing experience with plenty of opportunities to get all hands on deck.
We form an orderly line, take the strain of the rope, and await instruction before heaving in unison to raise the large sheet of canvas up one of the ship’s towering masts.
On cue, the haunting sounds of Conquest of Paradise by Greek composer Vangelis boom from a series of speakers, heightening the sense of adventure as we glide effortlessly across the glistening waters off the west coast of Thailand.
“We try to sail as much as we can, but it depends on the weather and the wind,” explains Peter, sporting smart naval whites complete with navy blue epaulettes.
“Under perfect conditions, we can lead the ship up to 17 knots. With a ship of nearly 2,500 tons, 17 knots under sails is something quite remarkable – then you feel like flying over the water.”
Launched in 1992, the steel-hulled Star Clipper – which is around 110 metres long and almost 68 metres high – is a four-masted barquentine with 16 sails.
I step aboard in the modern city-state of Singapore, a fraction north of the equator at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Bright lights, imposing skyscrapers and one of the busiest ports on earth provide the backdrop, contrasting with an elegant vessel which revives the heritage of the mid-19th century tall ships.
Speed was the priority back then. Gold-diggers rushed from the east coast of America to the west via the treacherous Cape Horn, tea was rapidly transported from China to England, and opium was smuggled into China from India.
The tea and opium clippers would have had to navigate a stretch of our route from Singapore to Phuket, racing up and down the Strait of Malacca which links the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Cargo capacities were extremely limited during that era – a tradition which is maintained, as there is room for only 170 passengers on the Star Clipper. I am joined by just 104 shipmates of eight nationalities on this occasion, in addition to 79 crew members from 10 different countries.
Each evening, we dine a la carte from a menu prepared in consultation with Michelin-starred chef Jean-Marie Meulien, and there’s a cosy, informal atmosphere reminiscent of a private yacht.
Our first port of call is the Malaysian city of Malacca. Crimson colonial buildings remind of the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s occupied past, while a pair of sizeable Malayan water monitors patrol the river running through the centre.
A crumbling gate, reportedly saved from destruction by Sir Stamford Raffles – the founder of modern Singapore – is all that remains of the Portuguese 16th century A Famosa fortress.
Garish trishaws decorated with flashing lights and cartoon characters have become part of the city’s present-day culture, tooting horns and pumping out music to attract tourist trade.
Mine is particularly tacky – bright pink with at least 10 images of Hello Kitty – but the ride back to the ship’s tender is reasonably short, and it’s great fun.
After a relaxing day at sea, we moor 316 nautical miles further north at the southern end of Langkawi, Malaysia’s largest island. Jumping into a taxi, I am whisked past troupes of opportunistic crab-eating macaques, with the pungent scent of rubber plantations sporadically permeating the air.
My driver, Asri, a 42-year-old native of the Jewel of Kedah (as the place is officially titled), offers insights into island life as he takes me to the north-west corner. From there, I board a cable car which rises 708 metres above sea level over rainforest and the cascading Seven Wells Waterfall.
At the summit, I am blessed with panoramic views of far-off bays and some of the archipelago’s 98 other islands.
As a vantage point, it takes some beating. But a couple of days later, having been blown into Thai waters, I am keen to try and trump that view.
After spending the morning struggling to tie sailing knots, I haul myself up the rigging. The steep climb up the slack rope ladder provides another stern test of my seamanship and leaves me gazing out on a seemingly endless expanse of blue, punctuated by a smattering of uninhabited limestone islands.
We are in Ao Phang Nga, a marine national park located in a bay between the provinces of Phuket and Krabi. Pink jellyfish shimmer just below the surface, while sea eagles circle above the elephant-grey rock formations, which are partially rusted red and capped by thatches of green vegetation.
Later, I board a Zodiac rubber boat for a closer look, bouncing over the waves before pulling into the shade among the islands’ intricate stalagmites and stalactites.
“When we started here many, many years ago, we weren’t really very welcome,” admits Peter, back on deck. “We invited the Thai royal family to the ship. The king didn’t come, but his sister came.
“Thailand has a royal television channel; for hours we were on the television channel and we somehow became the royal yacht.”
The picture-postcard national park is undoubtedly one of Thailand’s crowning glories and, indeed, fit for a king.
It is the highlight of my time at sea, and there is a tinge of disappointment as I disembark the Star Clipper for the final time after dropping anchor in Phuket’s Patong Bay.
Glancing back along the jetty at the stationary ship weighed down and with its sails furled, Peter’s bird analogy suddenly strikes a chord.
- Press Association