Sailing sea in ship of the past


Last month an armada of mega-yachts - all 70 feet or longer - converged on New York for a two-week race across the Atlantic Ocean called the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge.

There were 20 boats on the starting line, but four - including the 250-foot Stad Amsterdam, the largest boat in the fleet - dropped out before the fleet reached the finish at the Isle of Wight, U.K.

Dick Neville, 56, of Annapolis sailed aboard the Stad Amsterdam. He chartered the boat with a group of 40 other sailors.

Q: Tell me about the boat.

A: It is a full square-rigged clipper ship designed and built recently.

But it is not like the square-rig sailing ships we see in [movies like] Master and Commander. It is quite nice. There are 16 private cabins. ... They are air-conditioned cabins. Each has their own head with hot and cold water. The food was fabulous.

This is a boat that you can charter to experience what 19th-century sailing was like. At the same time you are quite comfortable. It looks spectacular when it is under full sail.

What was your role on the boat?

We had to do watch and crew the boat. It included hoisting the sails and climbing the rigging [which is about 150 feet tall].

Climbing the rigging itself is not so bad, but going out on the yardarms, you've got to be comfortable about heights. A lot of people weren't.

Why did you need to climb the rigging?

You can control the sails to some extent on the deck. But if you want to furl [roll up] the sails you have to go up and physically furl them. I went up in reasonable conditions. Some of our guys were willing to do it under any conditions.

You dropped out of the race. Why?

It was a charter so we only had the boat for a limited amount of time. They postponed the start for a day. We had two days in light air. So we motored to the breeze and then we had a fabulous sail for 10 days. Because we used the motor we weren't eligible for the race.

What were the nights like?

The Atlantic is more overcast than the Pacific. But when the clouds do disappear and the night is completely lit by stars it is nice to be out there. It is one of the great things about off-shore sailing.

Were there any scary moments?

We had some heavy wind. It got up to 40 to 45 knots of breeze. That is where you really have to start reducing sail on the boat.

The waves do break over the boat, but with a boat this big you don't get wet like you do on a conventional sailboat.

Why did you go?

I've done two [other] transatlantic races - both on 70-foot boats.

A lot of us [on board] were in the same position: We'd done it when we were young and foolish and didn't mind getting wet. Now we wanted to do it in comfort and it turned out pretty well.

Life is much less complicated on sea than it is on land. You are on a ship and your problems are confined to the boat. Getting back to the office with e-mail, snail mail, and voicemail piled - then it gets more complicated.

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