Journeys: On Cloud Nine

  • Jack Smith

The diesel engines have been cut for the moment, and the yacht drifts as if becalmed while waves lap against the gleaming white hull. On the deck the crew members stand by, their eyes on the captain. Each of the passengers holds his or her breath in expectation. Then the captain issues the command: “Hit the rigs!” and the spectacle begins.

 

Like seagoing acrobats ascending a trapeze, the sailors—young men and women from Germany and the Philippines—clamber up the masts, the highest of which soars 20 stories above the waterline. Once aloft, crew members begin unfurling the sails under the scrutiny of the boatswain, who prowls the decks below. The sails fall limp and wrinkled, as if emerging from a chrysalis, before being tied to the crossbraces. “More slack on the sheets,” calls the boatswain, as the metamorphosis nears completion.

Then comes the moment everyone on board has been awaiting. Suddenly, 32,000 square feet of sail catch the wind, and one of the most fabled yachts ever built, Sea Cloud, seems to take wing and fly across the Mediterranean waters.

From the bridge, Capt. Richard Choinski, a trim man of 60 with a nautical bearing that borders on a cliché, surveys the sea ahead and smiles. “To sail is a gift from heaven,” he says. “A passenger once told me, ‘All boys in time become men. The luckiest of us reverse that process.’ That’s the way I feel when Sea Cloud is under sail. There is nothing like her.”

 

When launched in 1931, her magnificence was incomparable. In the years that followed, she served as a U.S. embassy, a warship, and a dictator’s plaything. Today, as a luxury cruiser accommodating 65 passengers, Sea Cloud continues to charm passengers, offering them a chance to climb onto the monkey deck—set over the bridge—and feel the sea spray in the air and the wooden deck rolling under their feet while the crew bustles about on the foredeck below.

The ship’s passengers are a mélange of financiers, oilmen, executives, ranchers, and socialites. They have been everywhere and done everything. Yet they are beaming, as thrilled as schoolchildren, as the four-master slices through the chop.

The itinerary for the days to come includes visits to ancient Greek and Roman temples, abandoned forts, and lively seaside villages. All are fascinating, yet for those fortunate few on board, some of whom booked their desired cabin or suite years in advance, their real destination is Sea Cloud itself. It was much the same for the ship’s original owner.
marjorie merriweather post was one of the wealthiest women in the world and famous for her lavish mansions and estates. Even so, she was most at home aboard Sea Cloud.

Only Post possessed both the imagination and the means to create such a vessel. The heiress to the Post Cereals empire, which would become General Foods, Post and her husband, Wall Street tycoon E. F. Hutton, were the golden couple of the 1920s. She was a Midwesterner, and he was the son of a farmer. Both were nouveaux riches, but in the America of the Roaring ’20s, society had thrown open its gates to anyone with money and style, and she was determined to make a splash. On Fifth Avenue, Post built a 55-room mansion. Upstate, she owned a sprawling country retreat; on Long Island, an estate with stables and riding rings; in Palm Beach, she built Mar-a-Lago, a gaudy 118-room Moorish fantasy. Indeed, when New York socialite Harry Thaw, who years earlier had murdered architect Stanford White for engaging in an affair with his wife, viewed the estate, he is said to have guffawed, “My God, I shot the wrong architect.”

In the years following the Crash of 1929, however, America was no longer infatuated with the ostentations of the rich. Against the backdrop of the Depression, the press that had breathlessly chronicled the couple’s galas a few years earlier now chastised them for their extravagances. Post curtailed her spending and involved herself publicly in charities. But she would soon sequester herself and her family far away from the prying eyes of the public aboard the largest, most lavish private sailing vessel ever built.

Originally christened Hussar—in keeping with Hutton’s bent for machismo—the ship was constructed in Kiel, Germany, to Post’s specifications. Sixty feet longer than a football field, her size was matched by her elegance. The decks were finished in polished teak and mahogany, with gleaming brass fittings everywhere. Ten spacious bedrooms—each perfumed with an individual scent—were furnished with open fireplaces, exquisite wood carvings, Carrera marble bathrooms, plush carpeting, and gold faucets in the shape of swans. Hussar also boasted the most advanced technology of its time: a double-skinned steel hull, a steel gyroscopic stabilizer to smooth the way over rough waters, 10 watertight bulkheads that could be sealed from the bridge, and ship-to-shore telephones. Four diesel engines provided power on windless days, and from the bow, a golden eagle figurehead fixed its unblinking gaze on the horizon.

 

The yacht had a practical purpose as well. In the wake of the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping, the wealthy had become anxious about their children’s security. Post’s daughters by her first marriage were grown and had husbands of their own, but she was protective of her young daughter Nadeenia, who would later become famous in her own right as actress Dina Merrill. At sea, where some of the crew and butlers performed double duty as bodyguards, Post’s family was essentially unapproachable.

With the completion of the ship, her owners began spending less time on land and more time at sea, sailing to South America, Africa, and Alaska. This life pleased young Dina. “I had such a wonderful time,” she wrote years later. “I really loved that boat. It was like a living thing to me. Until I was 13, I spent about six months every year on it.”

Four years after its launch, however, life aboard the family yacht changed. Hutton possessed as keen an eye for women as he did for yachts.  His wife once discovered him in an intimate embrace with a chambermaid at Mar-a-Lago, and when his indiscretions continued, Post finally divorced him and kept the yacht, which she renamed Sea Cloud.

In 1936, Post married Joseph Davies, an adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with presidential ambitions of his own. Toward that objective, Post agreed to lease Sea Cloud to her new husband for the grand sum of $1 a year so that he could refer to it as “my yacht.”

When Davies was appointed ambassador to Russia in 1937, he, his wife, and her daughter sailed to Leningrad aboard Sea Cloud. After discovering that the American embassy, Spasso House, was bugged, Davies moved his operations to the ship. Sea Cloud now hosted monarchs and heads of state instead of movie stars and socialites. The latter were much more fun than the former, Dina decided. “They used [Sea Cloud] to entertain royalty, prime ministers, and at my age, that didn’t amuse me at all,” she wrote.

With the onset of World War II, Sea Cloud was drafted into the fray and leased to the U.S. Coast Guard for $1. Few of those invited on board when she was in her original livery would have recognized the ship fitted for war. Demasted, she now carried a 50-caliber cannon on the foredeck and depth charge launchers to port and starboard. These were not ornaments: Sea Cloud was cited for sinking two German submarines during the war.

When the war ended, the ship was returned to Post, who spent more than three times its original cost on refurbishments. Once again, an invitation to cruise on Sea Cloud became the most coveted status symbol on the international social scene. As the Duchess of Windsor gushed in a note to her hostess, she and her husband, the former king of England, “...have never had such a thrilling invitation.”

Another passenger, Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, was so delighted to be the guest of honor on one cruise that he endowed the cereal heiress with one of his country’s highest medals while proposing a swap: his new 44-passenger Viscount propjet for Post’s yacht.

The offer appealed to Post. She was now almost 70 years old; her daughter Dina, her favorite shipboard companion, was occupied in Hollywood; and her marriage to Davies, whom she suspected of stealing from her, had ended in divorce two years earlier. Further, in mid-1950s America, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find crew members worthy of the yacht.

Thus in 1955, Sea Cloud became Angelita—so named for Trujillo’s youngest daughter—and joined the Dominican Republic’s navy. It soon saw more action, in a manner of speaking, than any of Trujillo’s other warships. The dictator’s favorite illegitimate son, Ramfis, chief of the armed forces and a general since he was 9 (being the dictator’s son did have its nepotistic advantages), sailed Sea Cloud to California, where he wooed such starlets as Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joan Collins, and Kim Novak amid a milieu of bilious nude paintings that hung on walls once adorned with the former owner’s valuable oils.

When the senior Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, Ramfis seized power but was overthrown shortly thereafter. He boarded his yacht and set a course for France following his brief reign, until the crew acquiesced when the new government radioed the ship and ordered its return. It was one of the few times that a Sea Cloud passenger was disappointed with his voyage.

Ramfis was ultimately exiled, and the ship passed through a series of commercial charter operators, none of whom enjoyed much success with the vessel. As a bare-bones charter, it was too large—who could assemble a crew of almost 60 for a pleasure cruise? As a mass-market cruise ship, it was expensive to operate and lacked the amenities—swimming pool, hot tub, casino—passengers had come to expect. The ship that presidents and kings once wangled invitations to board had become just another white elephant.

In 1970, Sea Cloud was mothballed in Panama. There she languished, her interior mildewing and her brass fittings missing, until a German businessman and sailing enthusiast happened upon the ship. His company, Hansa Treuhand, a maritime investment house, had been looking for just such a ship to offer a more classic sailing experience than was then available. The ship, now reduced to a skeleton, was towed to Kiel, its birthplace, where it was completely refurbished and equipped with new engines. In 1979, Sea Cloud sailed again.

There is still no putting green on Sea Cloud, no fitness center, no casino, no swimming pool or hot tub, and no organized activities. Yet none of these are missed. “Our passengers are typically quite wealthy and sophisticated,” says Capt. Choinski. “They can afford to travel anywhere they wish. But some of them have sailed with us a dozen times or more.”
As repeat passengers learn, no two voyages are identical. “Every time you set sail it is a new experience,” he says. “You never have exactly the same weather, the same winds, the same tides. So the ship responds differently every time.” Indeed, as the captain was reminded four years ago in the Caribbean, there is no such thing as a routine voyage. “We were off the coast of Nevis and setting the sails when a wind suddenly blew up out of nowhere, and the ship listed 25 degrees.”

Fortunately, that was far from the ship’s critical moment of 45 degrees, and though one passenger fell out of bed, nobody was lost. Even so, the captain keeps a sharp eye on the topsail to see if even the smallest cloud is wafting over. “It could be the sign of a storm, conceivably enough to blow the ship over,” he notes. “So there are always risks. But if you are going to live, you have to take such risks. To me, it’s worth it.”

On this cruise, there are no such hair-raising moments, and life on board quickly falls into an easy rhythm. Some passengers read, some explore the ship, while others play heated games of chess or scrabble.

Yet every day also brings something new. In Corsica the ship docks in a harbor whose inhabitants, in Greek mythology, tossed boulders onto Odysseus’ ship as he sailed past. A call to Sardinia includes a visit to the Aga Khan’s resort at Costa Smeralda or, as some describe it, Scottsdale-on-the-Mediterannean. In Sicily, there are Norman fortresses with views that extend to Tunisia. On the last day, the ship cruises past the island of Stromboli, barren on one side and populated on the other, with a live volcano in the center. Stromboli erupts as if saluting Sea Cloud’s passage. White clouds of steam puff from its cone, and dislodged boulders roll down its sides.

After dinner that final night, some of the passengers gather one last time beneath the Lido Deck’s canopy to exchange addresses, compare notes on the trip, and speculate on what lies ahead for Sea Cloud. Ironically, the very accoutrements that make the ship unique no longer meet international maritime regulations, and because of the extensive use of wood, the ship is already prohibited from docking in the United States. As cruise director Tom Hook explains, by the end of this decade, Sea Cloud may no longer ply the seas.

Choinski says he will retire with Sea Cloud rather than serve on a lesser craft. As for Hook, his hope is that after the ship’s final voyage, instead of being dismantled, it will be turned into a museum. “I hope to go along,” he says, “as the curator.”

But all of this lies in the future. For the time being, the deck still heaves beneath us, the wind still sings through the lacework of the riggings, and Orion’s belt glimmers bright overhead. We have seen this constellation countless times, but its stars have never before appeared so magical.

 

Side Story
Clear Sailing

Today, the original 10 suites of Sea Cloud have been completely restored, and 20 more cabins have been added. More compact than the original passenger quarters, they are luxurious nonetheless, with rosewood paneled walls, brass furnishings, and marble en suite bathrooms. Her communications system is state of the art: Any spot on the globe can be reached by phone, e-mail, and fax. Yet from the moment you catch sight of her, it is evident that Sea Cloud hails from another era.

Viewed from a distance, the ship appears cocooned in an intricate lacework of rigging strung from the bowsprit to the spanker boom. Just aft of the foredeck lies the dining room; dinners nowadays are coat-and-tie rather than black-tie, as was the custom 20 years ago. Farther aft, canopied against the elements, lies the Lido Deck, the main public area and stage for cruise director Tom Hook’s nightly piano and vocal stylings. Once aboard, passengers quickly learn to watch their steps; the wooden stairs are steep and narrow, and the decks may be heaped with coiled rope.

However anachronistic Sea Cloud may be, the ship’s officers and crew would not have her any other way. In 2000, the demand for Sea Cloud prompted parent company Hansa Treuhand to launch a larger, more modern version of the legendary yacht. Dubbed Sea Cloud II, it was designed from the outset to be a commercial luxury yacht, and as officers aboard the original concede, it is a lovely ship. “It is easier to work,” says hotel manager Simon Kwinta, who has been a member of Sea Cloud’s crew since 1985. “The dining rooms and kitchen are larger, and the cabins have TV, which we don’t have.”

Yet for Kwinta, the original Sea Cloud is still the ultimate. “She is an historic ship, and she is unique. This is both her appeal and her challenge. With a new ship, you can select parts from a catalog. Here, to replace her wood fittings, we must make everything ourselves.

“But this is unique,” he adds as he leads the way across the promenade deck, where an athletic young German woman is wrestling a mooring line as thick as her forearm around a mushroom-shaped capstan. “You have the true feeling of sailing. You can come up to the foredeck any time of day and see the riggers, sail makers, and carpenters working. You get to know the crew, the cooks, the officers. She feels like a private yacht.”

Though her first owner made a vast fortune in frozen foods, such fare is verboten on Sea Cloud today, says Kwinta, as stewards prepare a lunchtime buffet of fish, lamb, beef, pastas, fresh greens, and freshly baked breads. “We go into port every day with a shopping bag,” he explains. “This morning the swordfish looked good, so that’s one of the things we’ll be serving at lunch.” 

Sea Cloud’s cruise schedule for 2004 includes the Caribee Islands in the Caribbean (January 31 through February 7), the Aeolian Islands and Sicily (May 19 through June 3), and the Aegean Sea—beginning in Athens and ending in Istanbul (October 13 through 26). Prices for the Caribee Island cruise range from $5,000 to $9,400 per person. Prices for the other two cruises have not yet been determined because of the fluctuating exchange rate between the euro and the dollar.

Sea Cloud reservations can be made through Abercrombie & Kent (800.323.7308, www.abercrombiekent.com). 
 

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