Setting sail on a high seas adventure

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Our flight into Fort Lauderdale was late. So late that my wife, Laurel, and I began to doubt we'd make it to our cruise ship before its announced 5 p.m. sailing time. I'd been in touch with the line's air-sea department throughout the day and was told that the ship might wait for us, but there were no promises. We were the only passengers reporting flight delays. "It's up to the captain," they said.

About 10 past 5, we flew over Fort Lauderdale's harbor, Port Everglades, on our approach to the airport. Peering out the window, we saw our lovely five-masted vessel, the Wind Surf, still at the pier, and our stomachs unknotted a little. "They're holding the ship until 6:30 for you," I learned by cell phone the minute the cabin door opened.

Still, when we got to the pier, we jogged from taxi to gangway, breathless.

"Relax," the officer on duty there advised. "We're not sailing for a little while."

By the time the Wind Surf eased away from the pier, we were sitting at an outside table at a bar with fruity rum drinks in our hands. The sails began to unfurl as the ship edged out into the channel, accompanied by melodramatic music piped through the public address system. We watched the sails stretch taut, floodlighted and looming majestically above us, and a sense of exquisite well-being washed over us.

Though called the largest sailing ship in the world, Windstar Cruise's Wind Surf isn't easy to characterize beyond that. After cruising through the Bahamas to the Florida Keys for a week aboard this pleasing, idiosyncratic vessel, I'd hazard this description: It's a sailing ship, no mistake, and its seven sails are for real, not just window dressing. Whenever practical, they're up.

As cruise ships go, this one is gratifyingly small. There were 304 passengers (served by a crew of 194) on our New Year's cruise, a full load. But at 535 feet, the Wind Surf is about the same size as Holland America's old 881-passenger Maasdam. It's a ship with real heft and presence. The feel aboard is more liner than clipper.

"Sailing" seems to imply "old-fashioned," and the ship's rangy bowsprit and graceful hull do suggest an earlier time, but the Wind Surf is actually high tech. Computer sensors set the sails.

How else would I describe it? Spacious, casual, stylish and sports-minded.

A lazy itinerary

Our objectives for the cruise weren't ambitious. Walk on the beach, swim, snorkel. Perhaps paddle a sea kayak from the "marina" that folds down from the stern when the ship is anchored out. Lie in a deck chair and alternately read and gaze at the ocean. Soak in the on-deck hot tub at sunset. Sleep as long as we wanted. Dine leisurely.

The Wind Surf turned out to be perfect for that agenda. Our Bahamas itinerary placed no responsibilities on us to take shore excursions. (The ship has now moved to one-way Caribbean itineraries between St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Barbados. In April the vessel makes a two-week crossing to Lisbon to begin a summer of Mediterranean cruising.)

Many typical cruise ship activities -- pool games, contests, crafts -- were missing. There were no shows, but a trio played at cocktails and after dinner.

Windstar Cruises was founded in 1986 and later acquired by Holland America Line. Initially its fleet was composed of three sister ships, smaller than but otherwise similar to the Wind Surf. These four-masted vessels -- Wind Star, Wind Song and Wind Spirit -- were built to carry 148 passengers. Last December the Wind Song suffered an engine-room fire in the South Pacific while headed for Bora-Bora. All passengers and crew were safely evacuated, but the vessel has been declared a total loss.

Inspired by Wind Star and its two sisters, Wind Surf was built in France in 1989 as Club Med I and later purchased by Windstar. Its last renovation was in 2000.

The first night on board, as we headed for Port Lucaya on Grand Bahama, we dropped off to sleep listening to the rush of water on hull -- a benefit of being on Deck One, the lowest of the three decks devoted to passenger accommodations. The next morning, as the sea grew rougher, green water washed up over the two portholes.

"Just like being in a laundromat," Laurel said.

The cabin was trimly appointed and spacious, with a queen-size bed, ample closet and drawer space and a minibar, TV, VCR and CD player.

Meals were a pleasure, with a variety of options. Dinner was the only meal served in the restaurant -- open seating, running from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. The Bistro on Star Deck was an alternative dinner venue; there was no extra charge, but reservations were necessary. The menus were not significantly different.

Chef Joachim Splichal, of Patina in Los Angeles, creates the recipes for Windstar. Among them were a carpaccio of beef tenderloin with marinated mushrooms, roasted eggplant and garlic soup, seared ahi tuna with Asian vegetables, and seared scallops with brandied potatoes. There were always vegetarian alternatives (such as potato risotto with a mushroom ragout) and low-calorie, low-fat offerings.

The lunch buffet, served at an informal restaurant called the Veranda, with indoor and outdoor seating, was at its best with fresh salads, such as fennel with orange and dill, and a Nicoise with anchovies. For dessert, bread pudding was a specialty.

Day and night, dress aboard Wind Surf was casual. We knew this in advance -- but we weren't precisely sure what "casual" meant. "Stylish yet comfortable," said Windstar's information booklet, "just as you would dress on your own private yacht." This latter suggestion, I say without embarrassment, was not much help to us. We found jackets to be scarce on board, and ties even scarcer, even at the welcome aboard reception.

Capt. John Clark presided over this party with engaging, self-effacing wit. His remarks at his party reflected this and were also a sign of the times. "I have a few things to apologize for. Usually the hotel manager and I shake hands at the gangway as you board. But now there's this little thing called the Norwalk virus," he said, referring to the illness that has bedeviled cruise lines for the last several months. (There have been no reports of the virus on Windstar cruises.)

"On our last cruise we had the sails up 80% of the time," he said, "and ran with sails-only about 20% of the time." Our cruise would do almost as well; we had the sails up about three-quarters of the time, but we did little pure sailing. On our last evening aboard the captain told us, "We could have sailed the whole way, but it probably would have taken us three or four weeks."

Hoping for clear skies

We found that close to half of those on board had traveled with Windstar before. Was there much difference this time around? Most called the on-board experiences similar to what they'd found on the smaller ships, though many said it was easier to get to know fellow passengers on those. All the Windstar ships share a water-sports orientation. Weather permitting, the "marina" platform folds down and kayaks, small sailboats and scuba expeditions are launched. On our cruise, unfortunately, weather hardly ever permitted.

At Port Lucaya, Half Moon Cay and Bimini, the morning mantra from the cruise host over the public address system was much the same: "The following tours have been canceled," he said, and then read off a list of most of them. Scuba, snorkeling, kayaking, glass-bottom boat. Only once during the week, at Salt Cay off Nassau, was the sea calm enough to deploy the marina. That morning we went down to pick up our complimentary snorkeling gear, which we could keep for the duration of the trip.

"They don't like to put the marina out if there's any swell," one of the water-sports attendants told us apologetically. She estimated that there were 25 certified divers on board, who must have found the week frustrating.

Another unusual feature of Windstar ships is the line's open-bridge policy. Passengers are welcome to visit any time except during maneuvering in or out of port. I went often.

"I like bridges better at night than during the day," Laurel said, after we had dropped in one evening. It was serene up there -- quiet, dark, with dials, gauges and switches on consoles glowing like Christmas lights. There was a roughly 3-by-5-foot board just to show sensor readings and control the sails: forward jib, mizzen and sails 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

Charlie, an earnest cadet from New Zealand, told me that the fastest the Wind Surf had ever traveled strictly under sail was 12.8 knots. More often, the sails simply give the four diesel-electric engines a few knots' boost. They aid stability too. "If we have a lot of sea," Charlie explained, "the sails will keep the ship from rocking."

The days spun by too fast, and just after a Sunday sunup, we arrived back at Port Everglades. We'd had a long overnight run from Key West, and 11 ships had docked ahead of us, mostly such behemoths as the Grand Princess, Carnival Legend, Costa Atlantica and Maasdam. A few were smaller. But no observer, casual or otherwise, would have confused our bow-sprited, five-masted beauty with any of them.

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