The S.S. Karim, for example, was built in 1917 for an Egyptian sultan. This three-deck sternwheeler still cruises the Nile, powered by its original steam engine. Historic as it is, the Karim's 15 air-conditioned cabins offer 30 travelers a blend of the best of modern comfort and ancient splendor on eight-day round trips from Luxor.
In the warmer months, Sea Cloud departs from a variety of Mediterranean ports. In all of them, even before the crew sets the massive sails, this 369-foot-long, four-masted boat dominates the harbor. Christened Hussar when built in 1931 for Marjorie Merriweather Post — one of the richest women in the world at the time — Sea Cloud remains the most opulent tall ship afloat.
Traveling on such small, historic ships costs more than taking a traditional cruise. But for an increasing number of discerning voyagers, the charm of these vintage vessels is worth the additional cost. According to Nancy Herbert of the New York-based agency, Roberta Sonnino Travel, "clients often prefer them to the gigantic cruise ships, which can feel like nothing more than interchangeable floating hotels."
Closer to home, there's the S.S. Sequoia, which was launched in 1931 as a Prohibition patrol boat, but soon recruited as the presidential yacht. Harry Truman and Richard Nixon relaxed at the piano in the main salon, and John F. Kennedy celebrated his last birthday there. In 1977, President Carter sold Sequoia in a cost-cutting move and it's now owned by a non-profit group based in Washington D.C. The meticulously restored National Historic Landmark is available for charter — unless booked for the President or Vice President.
Then there's the Shamrock V, an America’s Cup J-class sloop that is simply “a gorgeous boat,” according to Bernadette Bernon, former editor of Cruising World magazine. Built in 1929 for Sir Thomas Lipton (of the tea fame), this is the only one of three J-class survivors not to have suffered serious disrepair over the decades. “Shamrock has been for sale on and off for years, but even so it’s available for charter,” Bernon says. A summer week in the Mediterranean costs approximately $77,000.
Given the number of brokers who handle boats like the Shamrock V, making arrangements can get confusing. “Normally, here in the U.S., a boat can be booked by any broker worldwide,” says Bernon. “But only one company acts as the clearinghouse for that yacht and handles their actual booking schedule." Bernon recommends dealing with a reputable American firm and seeing the firm's escrow accounts.
Among the firms Bernon suggests are Bartram & Brakenhoff, Fraser Yachts Worldwide, Churchill Yacht Partners, Edmiston and the venerable Camper & Nicholsons International, in business for 230 years. Camper & Nicholsons represents the fabled Onassis yacht, Christina O., which can accommodate 36 passengers in style; fees start at $618,000 per week in the Mediterranean.
You can book vintage vessels closer to home and on a proportionally slimmer budget and still enjoy the aura of yachting’s golden age. Seascope Yacht Charters, based in Newport, Rhode Island customizes trips on Gleam and Northern Light. These rare 12-meter vessels date from the late 1930s and are typical of the yachts that battled for the America’s Cup from 1958 to 1987.
Seascope’s Elizabeth Tiedemann and two other charter companies in Newport have crafted a highly popular outing called “Your Own America’s Cup Regatta,” in which two or more 12-meters go out for the day. You don’t need sailing experience; in about an hour she says, the captain and crew determine their passengers’ level of experience and assign appropriate tasks. Then it’s off to the races. On a wedding weekend the bride’s family might battle the groom’s — or sometimes, as Tiedemann puts it, “it’s the boys against the girls.”
More often than not, these Regattas are chartered as corporate exercises, with the objective of improving teamwork, respect and communication. According to Tiedemann, "Sailing is like running a company. You have a goal, the course is set, but you always need to watch for a change in the weather.” The newly hatched sailors return to land exhilarated. “These are the photos you see back home on executives’ desks,” she says.