On board for a true Greek odyssey
An incurable explorer, the old man is spelling out his name with the help of places he has visited.
"S for Sweden, J for Jamaica, O for Oslo . . . " begins Lars Sjogren, 81, a retired Swedish sea captain.
We are enjoying a glass of bubbles on the teak deck of the Star Clipper, just off the coast of Greece, a light summer wind teasing the tall white sails of the traditional clipper ship as we amble along towards the island of Patmos.
Captain Sjogren's tales could fill several volumes of a Boys' Own Adventure. Visits to the North and South poles. Days of rum and roses in the Caribbean. The time his ship sank in just 20 minutes in Antarctic waters (all crew safe and accounted for).
In his retirement, the captain can't tear himself away from sailing, albeit these days as a relaxed passenger. Many port days he stays on board the ship, anticipating the moment the anchor will be raised.
"I've seen all of the world and I still love the sea - it's my greatest love," he says.
It's easy to understand why keen sailors choose to see the world from the deck of the majestic Star Clipper. Embracing the romance of true sailing ships, she boasts four masts and 16 sails, and often splices through the water on wind power, without the aid of her engine.
Passengers are encouraged to participate in hoisting the sails, to adjust the rigs in order to change direction of the ship, and to climb the 226-foot mast under supervision.
Daily lectures from the Estonian captain and Bavarian cruise director centre on seafaring themes - the history of sailing, the nature of modern-day piracy, the roots of the Greco/Turk conflict. A seafarers' toast is offered each day in the ship's newsletter ("To our wives and girlfriends, may they never meet!").
Thankfully, luxury and comfort are not sacrificed in the name of salty maritime cred. Leisure time can be spent in the two swimming pools onboard, watching DVDs in elegant staterooms, or with a cocktail in hand at the Piano Bar. Meal times are to be anticipated, with an appetite bordering on gluttony.
Served in the European fine-dining style of seven courses - appetiser, soup, sorbet, main course, salad, cheese and dessert - dinner is offered from 7.30pm until 10pm, no reservation or assigned time required.
The food is delicious and the options are extensive, including lobster, filet mignon and Atlantic salmon. One night, an off-menu craving for a steak sanga is satisfied with aplomb. There is always a choice to dine together with other travellers, but certainly no obligation.
The Star Clipper carries a maximum 170 passengers, though we sail with just under a hundred. It's cruising, but not as you know it, especially if your onboard experiences have previously been shared with thousands of holidaymakers.
There is, of course, a rich Greek heritage of seafaring. Hundreds of islands dot the Aegean Sea and the Greeks have been island-hopping by sailing ship since long before Homer was a boy.
Blue and white are the eternal colours of this proud, hospitable nation, and wherever you go, the sea is never far away.
Departing from the Piraeus overseas cruise passenger terminal in Athens, we sail for seven days, exploring some of the lesser-known Greek islands: Patmos, Amorgos and Monemvasia.
Shading ourselves from the searing hot summer sun with parasols, we wander around sleepy fishing villages, feast on crunchy baklava and discover little shops selling bespoke leather shoes and floaty beach wraps.
The Star Clipper is small and nimble enough to reach ports and docks inaccessible to larger cruise ships.
Within minutes of dropping anchor we are swimming in the surprisingly cool sea or ordering heaped plates of grilled calamari in whitewashed taverns.
My friend takes a scuba-diving course with the ship's instructor and revells in the opportunity to suit up and get back in the water at each new stop.
Changing scenery both under and over-water is marvelled at; one day swimming with a giant sea turtle, the next laughing at a group of olive-skinned boys daring each other to jump from an elevated jetty into the blue, blue sea.
A port day in Turkey is an adventure in itself, as we swim at the beach in Kusadasi, bypass the Brit pubs serving fried egg and chip sandwiches, haggle for handbags and tour the ancient ruins of Ephesus.
Cruising in this way is my favourite approach to sampling regions unknown. You unpack once, know what you're paying for upfront, leave the navigation and logistics to others and get a snapshot sense of many places in a short time.
What you also get is a sense of where you might like to revisit.
For me that would be Mykonos, the island of joy. We discover the one downside to sailing at the whim of the tides on day five, when the captain decides to change course and bypass the party island because of high winds and treacherous seas. Instead we head for the sun and sea in Syros. No regrets.
The writer was a guest of Star Clippers.
TRIP NOTES Star Clippers operates three of the world's largest and tallest sailing vessels, visiting ports often untouched by large cruise ships and offering passengers the activities, amenities and atmosphere of a large private yacht.
The writer sailed on Star Clipper's seven-night Northern Cyclades (eastern Mediterranean) cruise from Athens to ports in Greece and Turkey. Destinations include ports in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean – see starclippers.com.
Sydney Morning Herald