Star Flyer: Tall Ship Sailing from Malaga to the Canaries

Lew and Susan Toulmin were kind enough to submit a recount of their trip on Star Flyer for readers of Avid Cruiser. Lew and Susan live in Silver Spring, Maryland.  Lew is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a consultant in e-government, and Susan retired from the Library of Congress after 33 years of service. Here’s their story:

Star Flyer alongside the dock in Malaga, Spain. © 2015 Lew Toulmin
Star Flyer alongside the dock in Malaga, Spain. © 2015 Lew Toulmin

For years a major item on our “dream trip bucket list” has been a voyage to the romantic island groups scattered across the eastern North Atlantic – Madiera, the Canaries, Azores and the Cape Verde islands.  A cruise from Malaga in Spain aboard the tall sailing cruise ship Star Flyer filled part of the bill for me and my wife Susan.  Scheduled ports were Malaga, Tangier, Cadiz, Funchal (Madiera), and Las Palmas (Gran Canaria).

Star Flyer is part of the three-vessel Star Clippers line, and all three are modern sailing vessels modeled on old designs, namely barquentines (Star Flyer and Star Clipper) or full-rigged ships with all square sails on the masts (Royal Clipper).  The ships usually sail in the Mediterranean in summer and Caribbean in winter. Our Atlantic cruise attracted 92 sailing enthusiasts and regular passengers from the US, UK, Canada and Germany, partly filling the vessel’s capacity of 160.

Star Flyer has four masts, towering up to 226 feet, with square sails on the foremast and fore-and-aft sails on the others; a length of 360 feet and beam of 50 feet; and a dramatic bowsprit and profile that is very unusual in the cruising fleet.

Passengers on Star Flyer relax in the bowsprit netting. © 2015 Lew Toulmin
Passengers on Star Flyer relax in the bowsprit netting. © 2015 Lew Toulmin

Boarding Star Flyer

We boarded Star Flyer in Malaga and headed for our cabin, number 322, which was midships near the dining room.  We were immediately pleased and impressed.  It was about 12 feet by 10 feet – spacious compared to many sailing vessels — with two single beds that were pushed together to form a queen.

Our cabin aboard the Star Flyer. © 2015 Lew Toulmin
Our cabin aboard the Star Flyer. © 2015 Lew Toulmin

There was plenty of storage under the bed, and in three narrow closets and a small bureau.  A flat screen TV with a DVD player gave us a view of the world via the BBC, and an 18-inch porthole gave us a view of the sea.

The nautical décor featured white walls with attractive wooden wainscoting about three-feet high.  The en-suite bathroom had a powerful shower with plenty of hot water.  (We mention this because we have sailed on many tall ships, including naval training ships, and good showers were not always available.  On our first tall ship, Romance, the “navy-style” shower had to be pumped with one hand while the other hand did the soaping and washing, with ice-cold water!)

As we departed Malaga and each successive port on Star Flyer, the dramatic music from Vangelis’ (Evangelos Papathanassiou) film score for 1492: Conquest of Paradise was played, and many or all of the 16 sails were raised.  We passengers were allowed to get close to the action and even stand on the bridge as the ship slowly pulled away from the dock, using her own engine or occasionally assisted by tugs.  People on shore and on neighboring, sail-less, cruise ships stared and took pictures of the unusual sight.  Most looked quite envious.

A Star Flyer crewman concentrates as he raises a sail. © 2015 Lew Toulmin
A Star Flyer crewman concentrates as he raises a sail. © 2015 Lew Toulmin

Activities On Board

A passenger aboard Star Flyer learns to tie knots from a crew member. © 2015 Lew Toulmin
A passenger aboard Star Flyer learns to tie knots from a crew member. © 2015 Lew Toulmin

Typical activities on board during our sea days included learning how to fold towels into the amazing animals and  also into flowers that would decorate our cabin every night; games and quizzes; the Passenger Talent (or Lack of Talent!) Show; needlecraft classes; a short movie about rounding Cape Horn with legendary Captain Irving Johnson of Yankee and National Geographic fame; dancing; climbing the mast;  knot-tying classes; aerobic exercise classes; and lectures on the Vikings, navigation and the state of the oceans by retired Captain Klaus Müeller.

A passenger on Star Flyer climbs the mast. © 2015 Lew Toulmin
A passenger on Star Flyer climbs the mast. © 2015 Lew Toulmin

The Star Flyer does not have a theater, and Broadway-style shows are not feasible.  But the many activities filled the days at sea, and of course the greatest pleasure of all was just looking at the beautiful ocean, sunsets, stars, dolphins and seabirds that surrounded us.

Climbing the mast was popular with many passengers, including some in their 70s and 80s. This involved putting on a harness with a safety line, and climbing up the windward ratlines on the foremast, as high as the foretop, about 38 feet above the deck – four stories!  The climax was squeezing through the “lubber’s hole” in the foretop platform, and emerging to see a terrific view of the sea, sails, lines and the deck far below.  I felt like I had climbed Mount Everest, and could see the whole world.

Passengers were carefully coached by Aneta Gradecka, an experienced and attractive hand who had served for a year as a cadet on the Polish sail training ship known in English as “The Gift of Youth.”  On that ship, she said, “I would race up and down the 160-foot masts ten times a day, changing sails and going out on the yards.  So I find this small climb quite easy.”

Statue in Las Palmas commemorates the island aborigines who jumped to their deaths rather than be conquered by the Spanish during the 1400s. © 2015 Lew Toulmin
Statue in Las Palmas commemorates the island aborigines who jumped to their deaths rather than be conquered by the Spanish during the 1400s. © 2015 Lew Toulmin

Dining On Star Flyer

One of the most exciting activities on board Star Flyer is, naturally, eating.  Hey, it’s a cruise ship!

Unlike many large cruise ships, there were virtually no lines at the breakfast and lunch buffets.  Service from the Filipino and Indonesian restaurant staff was fast and friendly, and the food was excellent.  Typical dishes included salmon wrapped in filo pastry and stuffed with spinach;  tender grouper or sea bass; grilled shrimp; turkey roulade; T-bone steak; juicy pork medallions; and vegetarian choices such as sautéed or grilled vegetables and lots of fresh fruit.

The sit-down dinners always included several starter choices, a sorbet, three to four main dish choices; and several desserts, including île flottante (an “ocean” of crème Anglaise with lovely white “islands” of soft meringue), which was an excellent dessert and appropriate for our destination.

Tours Ashore

The most interesting ship’s tour was in Tangier, Morocco, where our charming local guide threaded us through the maze of the 1,650 tiny passageways of the old Kasbah.  He pointed out mansions formerly owned by Barbara Hutton and Malcolm Forbes, and kept us moving by having us chant “Yalla! Yalla!” – “Go! Go!”

Our charming and fast guide in Tangier, Morocco. “Yala! Yala!” he had us yell, meaning, “Go! Go!” As a result, we saw most of the Kasbah. © 2015 Susan Toulmin Toulmin)
Our charming and fast guide in Tangier, Morocco. “Yala! Yala!” he had us yell, meaning, “Go! Go!” As a result, we saw most of the Kasbah. © 2015 Susan Toulmin

Our guide took us to an artist’s cooperative where we were offered a beautiful red necklace for €120 (about US$136 using today’s exchange rates) – far too much for us.  As we were leaving the shop 20 minutes later, the merchant approached  and said, “What price will you pay for the necklace?”  I blurted out “20 Euros,” and the deal was sealed — a drop of 83 percent from the original asking price.

Another excellent shore excursion was a trip from Cadiz to Jerez de la Frontera.  This bus trip took us to one of the bodegas, Williams & Humbert, founded in 1877, which produce world-famous sherry wines.  The bodega was a massive 44-acre building with a style like a modern, concrete Gothic cathedral.  It is the biggest winery in Europe.  Hundreds of pillars shaped like 20-foot tall tulips formed graceful arches overhead, while below 65,000 oak barrels held the precious wine.  Some of these barrels were signed by notables such as Peter O’Toole, the Beatles, the King and Queen of Spain, and Queen Elizabeth II.  Surprisingly, parked in the middle of all this sherry was a gorgeous 1934 Ford Model B sedan, used by the firm to transport the distinguished visitors around the plant.

A 1926 Ford Model B graces the interior of the 44-acre Williams & Humbert sherry plant, in Jerez de la Frontera, one of the shore excursions from Star Flyer. © 2015 Lew Toulmin
A 1926 Ford Model B graces the interior of the 44-acre Williams & Humbert sherry plant, in Jerez de la Frontera, one of the shore excursions from Star Flyer. © 2015 Lew Toulmin

Nearby we toured the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, famous for its “dancing horse” shows.  The riders practiced their famous dressage, and we were even lucky enough to spot the horses rearing and jumping up in the air and kicking out.  These are natural movements that horses do in the wild, but to train them to do perform on command is quite difficult.  In the stables we learned about the pedigree and character of each gorgeous horse, and even were allowed to stroke a miraculously soft muzzle or two.

A horseman at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, in Jerez de la Frontera, on one of the tours available from Star Flyer. © 2015 Lew Toulmin
A horseman at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, in Jerez de la Frontera, on one of the tours available from Star Flyer. © 2015 Lew Toulmin

A Turn Of Events

Unfortunately, an accident disrupted our otherwise idyllic cruise.  In the morning after the ship left Cadiz, a Filipino cook slipped and fell in the galley, when the ship was rolling.  He hurt his hip and head, and the nurse on board was worried about his back.  Captain Brunon Borowka wisely decided to turn back to the nearest port, Portimão in Portugal, about 100 nautical miles away, where the cruise line had an agent.

Once inside the Portimão breakwater, the injured crewman was carefully moved in a litter from the deck to a tender, which was lowered to just above the surface of the water.  Then the crew transferred him to a Portuguese search and rescue Zodiac, and he was taken ashore to the nearest hospital, attended by the port agent.

We heard later that the crewman was treated for a broken hip and released, and is expected to be fine.

This delay meant that Star Flyer was unable to stop at Madiera, a beautiful island we had been hoping to visit.  Instead, a sea day allowed us to catch up with our schedule and make it to Grand Canary on time.  Captain Borowka had hoped that favorable winds would allow passengers a few hours on Madiera, but the weak breeze reduced our speed, and we had to head straight for the Canaries.  Despite the disappointment, the whole incident was handled professionally, and we wish the unlucky cook a speedy recovery.

So we missed Madiera.  And we still need to see the Azores and Cape Verdes.  Sounds like more cruising in the future.

The Canary Islands were not named after birds, but were called “canaris” by the Romans, after these large canines they found on the islands. So the Canary Islands are really the “Big Dog Islands.” © 2015 Lew Toulmin
The Canary Islands were not named after birds, but were called “canaris” by the Romans, after these large canines they found on the islands. So the Canary Islands are really the “Big Dog Islands.” © 2015 Lew Toulmin

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