Siren of the seas
The beguiling Sea Cloud is a sailing ship from a much more romantic era
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