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'This ain't no foo foo ship'

The Windjammer ship Polynesia sailing in between the Twin Pitons of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.
The Windjammer ship Polynesia sailing in between the Twin Pitons of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.Windjammer Barefoot Cruises / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The sails flap weakly as they climb the four huge masts. "Ride of the Valkyrie" blares from the speakers as a cannon booms, then fires again.

Catching the wind, the ship slowly turns, the sails fill, masts creak and 248 feet (74.4 meters) of oceangoing history is on its way. Bagpipes and "Amazing Grace" replace the martial music. The sailors, some new to the sea, some crusty old salts, all share the same shiver of emotion.

This is no Errol Flynn movie. And, as the T-shirt says, "This ain't no foo foo ship."

And this is no ordinary cruise.

Some people will never understand the attraction of Windjammer Barefoot Cruises. Those who get it, do so immediately and will start planning their next trip as soon as they get home.

A disclaimer: I'm one of the believers - 27 weeks aboard since 1996. And that's compared to some who have sailed more than 100 weeks.

Windjammer's four sailing legends, plus a charming old tub, ease into some of the more obscure ports up and down the Caribbean each week on their own itineraries. The steamer Amazing Grace even made its way to Tahiti for a series of sails in 2005.

In port, a few dozen Windjammer passengers - ships range from 64 to 122 passengers - go ashore to explore and experience, unlike the thousands who disgorge from the gleaming white cruise ships - derisively known as "foo foos" among Windjammer faithful - to overwhelm the small islands.

The size of Windjammer ships makes visiting out-of-the-way islands possible: Mayreau, Bequia, Tobago Cays, Dominica, Carriacou, St. Barts or Norman Island, all in the Caribbean. There are no casinos aboard, though crab races might be in the offing one night if you want to wager a dollar or two; no elaborate production shows, unless you count costume night where the passengers double as the entertainment; no dressing for dinner, though your shipmates would appreciate a clean T-shirt. Going usually ashore means climbing into a rocking launch, disembarking on a pier or climbing down a ladder onto a beach for a "wet landing."

This is cruising of a different sort. It helps if you're a bit adventurous, open and none-too-formal. Unlike aboard the monster ships, you'll meet more than the six or eight people at your assigned table and you're liable to know most of your fellow passengers by the end of the week. And the bartender, on the Poly, the incomparable Warren Sinclair, will probably know your favorite libation by midweek.

Contrary to myth, WJ passengers don't have to work, unless you count time spent on their tan. Cabin stewards make the bed every morning and meals are served, though you do have to make your own way to the bar. But if you'd like, you can help raise sails or even take a turn at the wheel, the one that really does turn the ship.

There's even a captain's dinner, but you also see him every morning at "Storytime," when the day's events are recited, tours arranged and jokes told. On the Poly, it is Neil Carmichael, a redheaded, usually bearded Scotsman who may just be the prototypical Windjammer skipper - a bit bawdy, a touch of a pirate's heart, engaging and in love with his work, his golf game, two kids and a wife. Don't ask him to put them in order. He's been fired a time or five and always manages to make it back aboard.

He might lead the judging for costume night or arrange boat races, which are not what you might think.

Like Carmichael, the Poly has a few stories to tell. Built in 1938, the ship began life as a Portuguese fishing boat off the grand banks. The Argus, as she was known then, was featured in a 1952 National Geographic article.

Cabins are, well, sparse, but functional. In fact, you can do anything needed in the bathroom without ever getting off the toilet. Don't bring a hard-sided suitcase because there's nowhere to put it. But you can also sleep on deck - just bring your pillow and blanket from the cabin and make a bed on one of the blue floating mats that double for beach duty during the day. Especially while the ship is sailing, sleeping under the stars is an experience not to be missed.

My recent week aboard was Carmichael's first back since his, ah, unsatisfactory foray into real estate. This trip, in late November, was a repositioning cruise as the ship moved from its hurricane-season home in Aruba to its winter home of weekly sails out of St. Maarten.

The crowd is fairly typical, a significant percentage of veteran 'Jammers along with some newbies, ages ranging from mid-20s to 60s and more. Days spent ashore can be on tours arranged through the ship or just wandering the alleyways and hideaway restaurants of Dominica or Isles de Saintes. Scuba diving is available at many islands and there is a dive mate aboard. There might even be swimming off the ship, including dives off the gangplank.

Evenings start with snacks and rum swizzles promptly at 5. The rest is up to you. You might dine ashore, or attend the dining room seating of your choice. First Mate Cesar Lopez, a Panamanian with a wry sense of humor, might conduct sailing or knot-tying classes. Or you might just land near the bar exchanging tall tales.

The point, as with all things Windjammer, is to do what you like, not something demanded by the Foo Foo masses. You'll be back.

If you go:


SCHEDULE: Weekly roundtrips on three sailing ships, the Polynesia, the Yankee Clipper and the Legacy for 64 to 122 people departing from various ports around the Caribbean, including St. Maarten, Grenada, St. Thomas, Aruba and Miami. The Mandalay sailing vessel departs from Grenada or Antigua on one-way, 13-day trips. Destinations vary by season and include Bonaire, Tortola, Dominica, St. Bart's and St. Vincent. Periodic theme cruises, like photography, singles, yoga.

PRICES: Prices range from $900 (euro739) to $2,200 (euro1,800) per person for six-day cruises; $2,400 (euro1,971) to $3,200 (euro2,630) for 13-day cruises. Special deals are often available. Additional costs include port charges of $65 (euro53) for the six-day cruises, included in the longer cruises. Stowaway night, which means boarding the ship on Sunday before the Monday departure - the best deal going - $55 (euro45) to $65 (euro53); included in the longer cruises. Windjammer has also recently instituted a $25 (euro21) fuel surcharge. There are no single supplement charges. Meals included. Tips extra and recommended at $75 (euro62) per person for the week.

TIPS: Traveling to the islands to meet the cruises can be an adventure in itself. Major airlines like American, Delta and US Airways have regularly scheduled flights to major islands. Inter-island, Liat and Caribbean Star are other options. Windjammer offers air reservation services that are often competitively priced, even if the schedules are not always ideal.