Fair winds: sailing voyages offering an alternative to mainstream cruising

Traditional (or modern) sailing vessels offer an alternative to the love-it-or-hate-it proposition of mass-market cruising. What are some of the big names in this unique industry niche, and what is its appeal? Chris Lo finds out. 


ruise represents a strong growth segment in the travel industry, at least outside of the current Covid-19 chaos – annual passenger volumes have risen from just over 23 million in 2015 to an estimated 30 million in 2019, according to Cruise Lines International Association. But for many travellers, taking a mass-market cruise with a major player such as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian or Carnival is a divisive proposition.

For some, the opportunity to visit a range of different locations while surrounded by activities in a large hub vessel is the perfect getaway. Others might be put off by the prospect of mass-catered buffets, rushed excursions and feeling claustrophobic aboard a floating resort that may host 5,000 guests or more in a single voyage. There’s also the fear of holidays being disrupted if a viral outbreak spreads like wildfire among densely packed (and captive) passengers.

For those who fall into the latter category – and who have deep enough pockets – the industry does offer experiences that emphasise smaller groups of passengers and side-step many of the issues that put off the cruise-averse, from intimate river cruises to adventurous expeditions to far-flung locales such as the Galapagos Islands or the Arctic.

And perhaps the most anti-cruise cruise option of them all is voyaging under sails. Specialist cruise operators such as Star Clippers and Ponant provide tall ships and sailing yachts for voyages in the Mediterranean, Caribbean and elsewhere, bringing with them the appeal of a more traditional sailing experience and a greatly reduced reliance on noisy diesel engines, while lighter ships allow guests to disembark at quieter destinations ashore.

Below are four of the leading operators of sailing cruises across the spectrum of this industry niche, from traditional tall ships to ultra-modern luxury. The ongoing Covid-19 crisis might be keeping these vessels at anchor for now, but plans are already underway for their next wave of voyages when global travel restrictions begin to ease.


Viking Cruises hotel general manager Joachim Scherz.

Royal Clipper and Star Clipper.
Image: Star Clippers

Star Clippers’ fleet consists of Star Flyer and Star Clipper, twin four-masted barquentines completed by the Langerbrugge Yard in Ghent in 1991 and 1992 respectively, as well as the company’s flagship Royal Clipper, the largest five-masted ship in the world, which was delivered by Rotterdam’s Merwede shipyard in 2000

Viking Cruises hotel general manager Joachim Scherz.

The deck of the Royal Clipper.
Image: Star Clippers

Royal Clipper can accommodate 227 passengers across eight cabin grades, while Star Clipper and Star Flyer are each designed for just 74 guests. The comparatively intimate guest count, traditional nautical features and Edwardian interiors evoke the early-20th century sailing vessels that inspired these modern counterparts, while onboard activities include knot-tying lessons and a chance to help the crew raise the sails or climb the mast.

While the emphasis is on the ships’ maritime heritage, they don’t want for modern amenities including swimming pools, massage treatments and, in the case of Royal Clipper, ‘Owner’s Cabins’ featuring whirlpool baths.

The Royal Clipper's onboard library.
Image: Star Clippers

ZOE on MSC Grandiosa (top) and the MSC wristbands and app (bottom)
Image: Frances Marcellin

Construction of Star Clippers’ latest ship, Flying Clipper, started five years ago at Brodosplit shipyard in Croatia, but a contractual dispute between the parties has delayed the ship’s launch and left its future in doubt, despite the fact it is already built. Croatian media even reported in December that the shipyard had sold the vessel to a new buyer, before a Croatian court ruled that it could not be sold until the arbitration proceedings between the two parties in the Netherlands are resolved.


Viking Cruises hotel general manager Joachim Scherz.

The Wind Surf at sea.
Image: Windstar

Small ship cruise line Windstar has three tall ships in its fleet of six – Wind Star and Wind Spirit, each with capacity for 148 passengers, and flagship sailing vessel Wind Surf, the world’s largest sailing ship with room for 342 guests.

Windstar’s sailing ships make more concessions to modern technology than Star Clippers’ vessels, with their triangular sails operated by computers rather than seamen, and the aesthetic is more in keeping with today’s super-yachts than the clippers of the 19th century.

Viking Cruises hotel general manager Joachim Scherz.

Image: Windstar

As such, there’s more room in the Windstar concept for multiple restaurants, espresso bars, fitness centres and entertainment areas – many of the facilities customers would expect on much larger liners, but with the shore access of a smaller, sleeker vessel. Wind Surf reinforced its luxury credentials with an interior refurbishment in the second half of 2019, enhancing the lounge area and adding a new spa, as well as the ‘Officer’s Suite’, a 242ft² cabin located just behind the ship’s bridge.

“Guests in this suite share exclusive company with the captain, chief officer, hotel manager and chief engineer,” said Windstar president John Delaney in January, adding that there’s “nothing else like it in the industry”.


Viking Cruises hotel general manager Joachim Scherz.

Image: Wikimedia Commons - Ein Dahmer

Ponant is the only established name in the French cruise market, having been founded in 1988 by around a dozen officers of the French Merchant Navy. The crown jewel in the company’s fleet is its first ship, Le Ponant, a three-masted schooner built in 1991 by SFCN shipyard.

The ship’s design by French architect and longstanding Ponant collaborator Jean-Philippe Nuel emphasises a sense of gentle refinement, and its 16 cabins and suites are closer in appearance to luxury hotel rooms, clad in tasteful wood panelling and a modern sense of minimalism.

Le Ponant’s three masts form part of the ship’s environmental pitch to prospective guests, as the only yacht in the world with a hybrid propulsion system that relies solely on wind whenever possible and has a shore power system to limit its environmental impact when docked.

Le Ponant began a six-month refurbishment programme at San Giorgo del Porto shipyard in Genoa in October 2019, which Ponant general secretary Charles Gravatte described as a chance to “rethink and reshape the interior space of our emblematic flagship”.


Viking Cruises hotel general manager Joachim Scherz.

Image: © Jan Belgers - Oceanwide Expeditions

Netherlands-based Ocean Expeditions was founded in 1993 and is a pioneer in civilian expeditions into polar waters, offering the world’s first civilian voyages to the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, with routes today taking in Svalbard, eastern Greenland, northern Norway and the Antarctic Peninsula.

Although the company, which evolved from a Dutch university research programme, started out with a disused oceanographic vessel, it has since started offering voyages onboard two historic, repurposed sailing ships: Noorderlicht and Rembrandt Van Rijn.

Viking Cruises hotel general manager Joachim Scherz.

Image: © Jan Belgers - Oceanwide Expeditions

Noorderlicht (‘Northern Lights’) was originally built in 1910 and operated as a three-masted light vessel in the Baltic Sea. The ship’s hull was bought in 1991 and refitted as an expedition ship for up to 20 passengers in ten cabins. The Rembrandt Van Rijn had its own start as a herring lugger in 1947, and like its counterpart, it was rebuilt in the early 90s for carrying passengers.

Today Rembrandt Van Rijn carries 33 passengers, and both ships now voyage to Spitsbergen and northern Norway, offering perhaps the closest analogue the cruise industry can provide to the traditional early-mid 20th-century sailing experience. Both ships have strengthened bows, but neither is classified as an icebreaker.

Viking Cruises hotel general manager Joachim Scherz.

Image: © Jan Belgers - Oceanwide Expeditions

While their open decks, shallow drafts and accompanying Zodiac inflatables offer incredible opportunities for excursions and wildlife-spotting, the company’s own ship notes warn that “willingness to compromise on comfort is a basic requirement onboard a historic traditional sailing vessel".

Ocean Expeditions is set to launch its newest vessel, the engine-propelled polar icebreaker Jansonnius, in 2021, but the company’s sailing vessels will continue to be popular among adherents of legendary American sailor Robin Lee Graham, who once wrote: “At sea, I learned how little a person needs, not how much.”

Viking Cruises hotel general manager Joachim Scherz.

Image: © Jan Belgers - Oceanwide Expeditions

Image courtesy of MSC Cruises

Image courtesy of MSC Cruises