“We all came from the sea… We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.” – John F. Kennedy
Sailing aficionados love the meditative state of sailing, finding balance with the natural elements, attuning oneself to the rhythms of waves, gravity and wind. Sailing is one of the most ancient activities of humankind.
But you don’t have to be a sailing aficionado to have the experience of traveling in a small ship on the ocean. There is an elite niche of operators who offer trips on small ships. It is a tiny part of an industry that is dominated by megaship cruise lines. But many of those who have discovered small ships believe it is the best way to experience a destination up close, not just gliding by.
Small ship operators are a different breed from the megaship cruise lines, on which the ship itself is the destination. On small ships the cruising experience is more intimate with nature, the sea, other guests, crew and the destinations.
The small ship segment is a stepchild of the cruise industry, closer to the tour operator mindset in which the primary goal is to explore the natural, historical or cultural aspects of the destination. Small ship cruises are like tours that use aquatic vessels as the means of transportation.
Small ship cruises run the gamut from expedition cruising in remote places such as Antarctica and the Galapagos to cultural immersion in the capitals of culture. The ships vary from small schooners and yachts to elegant clipper ships with tall masts. It’s a style of travel that has little in common with the cruise experience offered on big ships.
A thriving international cruise industry takes millions of cruise enthusiasts every year on sea voyages aboard floating entertainment mega-complexes such as The Allure of the Seas, a ship five times the gross tonnage of the legendary Titanic. It has 40-some bars, restaurants, theaters and casinos. It is noted for its off-Broadway musical theater. It carries 5.400 passengers. It’s so gigantic it’s divided into “neighborhoods.”
It even has its own tree-lined “central park.” It is referred to with pride as a “floating city.” It’s an offshore amusement wonderland. Such entertainment is avidly pursued by millions, many of whom repeat the experience over and over, year after year.
In that spectrum of entertainment, the sea itself doesn’t figure in much. It’s just the field upon which the floating city moves. The destinations themselves become more or less incidental. As ships grow larger, the intimacy with the sea and the natural elements diminishes.
On small ships, you get the chance to discover more of what the sailing experience has been about for thousands of years.
The Small Ship Alternative
Once all ships were small ships.
Until the rise of steamships in the 19th Century sailing was the means of propulsion of all ships that weren’t paddled or rowed. Nearly all sea experiences were on small ships.
Columbus’ flagship Santa Maria was only 62 feet long and weighed 100 tons. The Allure of the Seas is 1,187 feet long and weighs 225,282 tons.
But although ships are getting larger, there are still many opportunities to experience the historical intimacy of small ships. Small ship adventures are available to people who want more to have more adventurous and authentic nautical experiences and to dig into the destinations.
There is no standard definition of a small ship. Some of the most popular ships carry as few as 22 passengers. The category has historically included ships up to 200 passengers. Now ships that carry as many as 800 passengers are being marketed as small ship cruises.
Small ship cruises provide a different kind of experience from the megacruisers. It’s not taking the city out to sea. It’s leaving the city and traveling out onto the ocean in a small, agile vessel, where you will be close to the experience of the sea, the ship and the ancient nautical traditions.
On a small ship you are never far from the elements. You’re not likely to forget you are on a ship. Your personal rapport with the waves and the wind, the stars and sun and moon makes it more adventurous. Your grounding in nature is exhilarating.
A small ship can go places that are out of reach of a megaship. It can get close to sites of natural beauty and go to more remote places.
Those who are expecting the kinds of entertainment of the mega ships might be disappointed at what they find on small ships. The small ships are more low key in their entertainment. As they are more destination oriented, more about cultural immersion, they may offer onboard lectures, music or dance performances, or culinary presentations from locals.
In regard to the destinations, there is a stark difference between large and small ships. The large cruise lines, in their marketing as well as in their operations, are focused on the onboard experience. They offer shore excursions, but their main focus is onboard.
Small ship cruises cater more toward the kind of traveler that wants to experience the destinations. The land component is a large part of the experience. Sometimes the cruise operators work in partnership with land specialists who bring their expertise in conducting tours to the program when the ship is at port.
Small Versus Colossal
My introduction to small ship cruising took place many years ago, but I remember it vividly because it was the kind of trip that leaves a deep imprint.
It was a cruise among the Greek Islands on a tiny motorsailer, 150 feet long, carrying 36 passengers. It was a cute, bold little thing that bounced along the water like Tuffy the Tugboat. It had a mast and sail, but it relied mostly on its motor for propulsion. Its shiny, elegantly contoured dark blue hull attracted admiring attention whenever we were in port. It was a thing of beauty you could feel real affection for. I could understand why ships are referred to as “she.”
The nights under the stars on the Aegean Sea were stunning! In the crisp night air far from the shore and artificial light the sky was black and the stars and planets were big and bright. The cool wind caressed your face. The boat bounced and cut through the waves, rocking in rhythm. It was fantastic and unforgettable.
The boat could stop and throw an anchor and you could go swimming in the clear, buoyant waters of the Aegean. It could take you into coves and remote places that would be hard to reach by any other form of transportation.
We made the rounds of some islands, including the fantastic Santorini with its jagged, nearly vertical cliffs and unforgettable volcanic caldera, and then we went to Amorgos, Delos, Mykonos, Patmos and Somos. We stopped on the Turkish mainland and saw the ruins of the ancient Graeco-Roman city of Kusadesi.
It was a thrill beyond thrills, never to be forgotten, always to be cherished.
I think it was Mykonos where my friend and I were sitting at a café having coffee and I noticed a blip on the horizon. You could not detect movement, but over time it became larger and larger. Eventually it was close enough to see that it was a cruise ship.
We were on a tiny island with no skyscrapers and as it came closer it towered over everything else on the entire horizon. It was like the Flatiron Building floating on its side. And there it was parked at this tiny island, looking completely out of place.
Everything moved in slow motion, as if it were a giant prehistoric beast. Eventually I could see tiny figures and movement on deck. The passengers were lining up to come ashore. After a large number of them had amassed they began filing down the ramp to the land. From our distance they looked like ants.
It was a massive, instant crowd of thousands. The people flooded the vendor booths, stores, streets, sidewalks and beach. It completely changed the atmosphere. It had been a rather sleepy little spot before. Suddenly it was like a jamboree.
It stayed revved up like that for a couple of hours and then the scene played in reverse. The people filed back onto the ship and it got underway, foreshortening into a blip on the horizon and then disappearing.
I have enjoyed many different kinds of travel experiences at different times. But that day I was very glad that I was on my little ship instead of the megacruiser.
And as I drift along into that memory, I bid you fond farewell, for now.
Your humble reporter,
A. Colin Treadwell