I had been on board for almost a week when fellow passenger Jurgen said You know, Jim, this is not cruising, its camping!" Jurgen and his partner E-bette had done it all, in the Canadian Arctic, on the Aranui, a mixed passenger/cargo vessel that operates between Tahiti and the Marquesas, and with Clipper Cruises in the Far East, and all this in just the past year or so.
We were on the deck of the Amazing Grace and Jurgens thoughts were clearly prompted by the sight of the Crystal Harmony whipping past us at a fair rate of knots.
Well, there is camping and there is camping. Jurgen was saying that passengers on the Amazing Grace (except for some good shore excursions) are largely left to their own devices, that dressing is very casual and the meals are home-cooked. Its certainly casual compared to a cruise ship.
Amazing Grace provides an unusual opportunity for those seeking more of an adventure experience than they would find on a run-of-mill cruise liner. At barely 1500 dwt, she has capacity for almost a hundred passengers and 40 crew. Her function is to carry provisions and mechanical parts for the five sailing ships of the Windjammer Barefoot fleet, and with five such vessels to provision, she is kept in constant motion on a series of two-week voyages between The Bahamas and Trinidad. On our trip from Port of Spain to Freeport we carried clean laundry, cases and cases of food, fresh water and fuel oil. Lashed on deck was a spare propeller shaft, although this could not have belonged to any of the sailing fleet!
My stateroom was an outside one (porthole) with twin beds, and washhand basin. Shower and toilet were nearby. Breakfast, served at about 7am was different every day. From pancakes, to French toast, to bacon and eggs, and, always, cold cereals, and lots of fresh melons. Lunch at noon was a choice of spaghetti meatballs one day, and cold cuts the next. Dinner was usually a choice of fish or meat, with passengers being asked at breakfast time what they would prefer. Hot soups came first, followed by salads, and then dessert. Whereas choice of food was very limited, in almost all cases, the quality was superb. Additional helpings were not a problem.
A half-hour after breakfast was completed, Capt. Pete would ask passengers to assemble in the lounge for storytime. This was a talk on the day's activities, or lack of any, but usually were to inform us about the port to be visited that day. This is island-hopping in the true sense. Passengers can expect to visit a selection of 9 12 islands (see Ports of Call). On our 13-night voyage we touched on 10 islands in addition to the home ports of Port of Spain in Trinidad and Freeport in the Bahamas, and enjoyed two full days at sea. Shore excursions were well organised, but passengers soon learned that they could arrange their own with local taxi drivers, and this resulted in savings of 50% most of the time.
On three occasions we dropped anchor off deserted islands and went ashore in the ship's lifeboats. One of them was Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands, said to be the model for Robert Louis Stevensons Treasure Island. Sea swimming at these islands was about as good as it gets, with schools of brightly-colored fish to follow about. On one of these snorkeling expeditions, I was surprised to find myself being followed by barracuda fish, up to five feet in length.
Although not a cruise ship, and perhaps not a freighter in the true sense of the word, Amazing Grace, which carries no stabilisers, has no elevators, and no official doctor, provided her passengers with up-to-date navigational equipment, and a fully-trained crew, from the engine room to the bridge, both places we were encouraged to visit. Capt. Pete told us we were free to visit the bridge anytime, day or night, as long as the railing was raised. Emergency ship stations and procedures were fully explained and we were all warned about smoking inside the ship. Just not acceptable, we were reminded!
One sunny afternoon during a rare day at sea, Jurgen demonstrated his GPS device, and quickly informed his fellow passengers that our home at sea was making full speed ahead at eleven knots. Not fast compared to Crystal Harmony, but plenty of motion when you are just relaxing on deck with a good book. Reading was a major past-time for most passengers, and usually by 2pm, the shady side of the top deck was a sea of easy chairs with heads down and only the rustle of paper as pages were turned.
One area that seemed to be lacking was the distribution of news. I spoke to members of the bridge staff and mentioned that some day-to-day information of major world events (aftermath of September 11) would not go amiss and should be posted on the bulletin board. But to no avail. It was left to passengers with radios to try to glean bits of information.
Amazing Grace dates back to the early l950s when she was put into service supplying the lighthouses off the Scottish coast. She was acquired by Windjammer in the early l990s. Although her lower outside plates looked as if they could use some cleaning and painting, I found the ship to be well maintained inside and outside, and that cleanliness was evident everywhere.
Entertainment in the evening (on our voyage) was limited to a movie on the VCR in the forward reading room, or perhaps bingo or trivial pursuit in the dining room. My guess was that most passengers retired early, or lost themselves onboard with a book or spent time at the outside bar over the stern. It was at the rear of our ship that the crew members trailed a line with lure, and on one occasion hooked something so big that it took three of them to haul it aboard.
Dinner usually saw most of us in a change of clothes, but still just a shirt and shorts. The Captains farewell dinner saw us tucking into prime rib that just doesn't get any better. The captain however, never managed to join us to eat, just to wish us all farewell.
None of the staterooms had a lock on the outside, so you left your cabin as is. At first I was concerned about this, especially in port. But security was always in effect in port and at no time was I worried about leaving any valuables behind. I took an immediate liking to the crew (and I'm sure the others did as well) and found them to be a pleasant and reliable bunch. My association with the crew members was pleasant and we parted in Freeport as if we were close friends.
Photos: Jim Peerless