Siren of the seas

The be­guil­ing Sea Cloud is a sail­ing ship from a much more ro­man­tic era

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - STAN­LEY STEWART

IT is the nau­ti­cal equiv­a­lent of that old movie cliche: the mo­ment when the plain li­brar­ian re­moves her glasses and shakes her head, spilling blonde locks down over her shoul­der.

Some­where off the coast of Ke­falo­nia, a west­erly wind has come up. Up on the bridge the cap­tain gives the or­der to set sails. Sea­men scam­per aloft, fan­ning out along the yardarms, bal­anc­ing on foot ropes 45m above the decks. Then the furled sails tum­ble loose one by one — the top sails, the gal­lants, the roy­als, the mizzen course, the fore course, the stays, the jibs, the spankers — 30 sheets bel­ly­ing in the wind. And ev­ery­one on board feels their heart miss a beat.

Sea Cloud is a cruise ship from another era, a wind­jam­mer that takes just 60 pas­sen­gers in the kind of glam­orous style that went out of fash­ion with debu­tante balls and the fox­trot. It cruises the Mediter­ranean in sum­mer and the Caribbean in win­ter, much of it un­der sail. But next year, among a full pro­gram of cruises, it un­der­takes a new itin­er­ary wholly un­der sail, and its ports of call be­tween Pi­raeus and Is­tan­bul will be de­ter­mined en­tirely by the winds.

In an age of cruis­ing be­he­moths, many with the per­son­al­i­ties of mul­ti­storeyed car parks, and with pas­sen­ger lists num­ber­ing in the thou­sands, an­tique Sea Cloud of­fers the cruise world some­thing new — a ship with char­ac­ter, with a his­tory and with the rev­o­lu­tion­ary idea that a sail­ing cruise can put us in touch with the great days of voy­ages borne on the winds.

In its 83rd year, Sea Cloud seems the very model of re­spectabil­ity, a dowa­ger of the high seas. But un­der sail it shows another side. It sheds years. Its bows lift, and it be­comes youth­ful and coltish. Sea Cloud would never pass for a plain li­brar­ian. Even with sails furled it is beau­ti­ful, the kind of tall square rig­ger that has en­vi­ous tourists — in ports, on other cruise ships — scram­bling for their cam­eras.

But with sails fly­ing, it is rav­ish­ingly, heart-stop­pingly gor­geous.

Some­how it is no sur­prise to learn that be­neath the teak and the pol­ished brass, be­yond the oak-pan­elled din­ing room and the cush­ioned di­vans of the aft deck, Sea Cloud har­bours se­crets. Its past is as che­quered and as fan­tas­tic as a dime­store novel, in­clud­ing spells as a pri­vate yacht, a Hol­ly­wood madam, a get­away hearse, and a rot­ting hulk in the Cen­tral Amer­i­can trop­ics.

The ves­sel was built in 1931 for Mar­jorie Mer­ri­weather Post, a break­fast ce­real heiress, and her hus­band Ed­ward Hut­ton, a New York stock­bro­ker. In an age long since com­mit­ted to steam and diesel, Post and Hut­ton wanted a ves­sel com­pa­ra­ble to the great sail­ing ships of the 19th cen­tury. Orig­i­nally named the Hus­sar, it was not only the largest pri­vate sail­ing yacht in the world but the last pri­vate four-masted ship built, a square rig­ger car­ry­ing 3000sq ft of can­vas.

No one knows what it cost; to this day the Ger­man ship­yard de­clines to re­lease the fig­ures. Its first years as a pri­vate yacht were in­no­cent enough, sail­ing the Caribbean, mak­ing voy­ages to the Gala­pa­gos, to Alaska and Hawaii. Igua­nas wan­dered the decks as fam­ily pets and an adopted bear cub spent his af­ter­noons climb­ing the rig­ging. When Mar­jorie di­vorced Hut­ton in the mid- 1930s, mar­ry­ing Amer­i­can diplo­mat Joseph Davies, the yacht was re­named Sea Cloud and went with the cou­ple to am­bas­sado­rial post­ings in Len­ingrad and Bel­gium, where it be­came a use­ful venue for in­for­mal diplo­matic con­tacts.

Soviet pre­mier Vy­ach­eslav Molo­tov came on board to sam­ple Western deca­dence first-hand. The king of Swe­den came for din­ner. The duke and duchess of Wind­sor came for a week. The pres­i­dent of the Do­mini­can Repub­lic, the no­to­ri­ous Rafael Leonidas Tru­jillo, came with body­guards and bou­quets for his host­ess. Af­ter a stint as a naval es­cort dur­ing World War II, and another of Mar­jorie’s divorces, Sea Cloud was even­tu­ally sold to Tru­jillo, who wanted a state yacht to lend his au­thor­i­tar­ian regime some se­ri­ous nau­ti­cal swank. In the late 1950s his play­boy son, Ram­fis, took the boat to Cal­i­for­nia when he went to study law.

Moored in Santa Monica, Sea Cloud (now known as An­gelita) be­came fa­mil­iar in gos­sip col­umns as Hol­ly­wood’s ‘‘float­ing fun house’’. Those less in­hib­ited by the threat of law suits called it a float­ing bordello.

Zsa Zsa Ga­bor and Kim No­vak led a pa­rade of young star­lets on board. Newsweek es­ti­mated Ram­fis spent $1 mil­lion dur­ing the course of his year in Los An­ge­les, most of it on gifts for his lady friends. Given the Do­mini­can Repub­lic

Clock­wise from main pic­ture, Sea Cloud at an­chor in Cor­sica; the owner’s suite, orig­i­nally dec­o­rated by Mar­jorie Post; th

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