Harnessing the Central American wind on the world’s largest hand-sailed ship

Laura French sets sail around Central America on Sea Cloud Spirit – the largest ship in the world still sailed by hand

“Dolphins!” shouts the captain, and I turn to glimpse three bobbing gracefully out of the water, their sleek, glossy bodies shimmering under a sunset glow.

Soon there are four, then five, darting in and out of the ripples like a troupe of elegant gymnasts so that I feel like I’m watching a show – except there’s nothing else around.

Nothing but a blanket of deep, inky indigo flecked with shards of peach, and a huge, vibrant sky painted magenta, yellow and orange. The sails above my head flicker in a flash of luminescent white, and I’m in awe of everything around me. 

All hands on deck  

I’m sailing the coast of Central America on Sea Cloud CruisesSea Cloud Spirit – a 136-passenger windjammer that’s the epitome of luxury and a model for sustainability too, with three huge masts that means it can sail, engine-free, whenever the wind blows in our favour (the 16-night Magic of Central America cruise costs from €9,235 per person, including all food and select drinks).

We’ve been sailing day-long for the past two days, and it’s blissful; I’ve got used to a routine of lounging on a double-sized day-bed, book in hand, wind in the hair, as the ship floats ethereally along and the sea stretches off to meet the sky in a vision of electric blue.

It’s not just the dolphins that have me transfixed, though. The third vessel in Sea Cloud Cruises’ fleet, the ship lays claim to being the largest in the world whose sails are raised by hand – which means every morning, we watch as crew members harness themselves up and climb the wooden masts, entangled among the rigging 58 metres above the water. 

This sailing expertise is one of the biggest lures of the ship, mirroring the line’s other two vessels – the first of which, Sea Cloud, has been a hotspot for the ultra-wealthy since it launched in the 1930s. American businesswoman and socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post had it built as a private yacht, sparing no expense in the décor (think Carrara marble bathrooms, gold-plated fittings and Louis Philippe chairs); it later became a famous hosting ground for diplomats and royals.   

Life on board

While Sea Cloud Spirit, launched in 2021, can’t yet lay claim to quite as illustrious a history, it imbues the same sense of glamour, with rich mahogany furnishings, sleek marble bathrooms and gold-hued embellishments set against a colour-scheme of cream, peach and royal blue. 

Our stateroom, a Junior Suite with a constant sea view, is especially impressive, with a sprawling king bed, elegant sitting area and private balcony. Here we spend several evenings admiring the stars as they sparkle like fireflies on a sheet of black, untainted by any light pollution. 

When we aren’t watching seabirds swoop into the ocean, we saunter around at the outdoor bar, sipping Caribbean cocktails with a soothing sea-breeze. On-board marine biologist Stephen Weston provides lectures in the lounge to inform us about the regions we visit, and there’s a spa, library and gym to keep us entertained too – the last with a sweeping sea view for motivation. 

Sustainability is taken seriously here; the ship is powered by wind when it can be, and features a low-emission, diesel-electric hybrid system for when it can’t. There’s a focus on using local suppliers and tour operators to support the communities visited, and every guest is given a reusable water bottle to help reduce plastic use, with glass straws provided at the bar. 

The food is impressive, too; dinners rotate between four course à la carte menus that feature the likes of veal with truffled mash, lobster bisque and porcini risotto, and moonlit buffets on deck where chefs grill locally-sourced meat and fish right in front of you. One evening we’re presented with a ginormous tuna measuring about a metre long, its eyes wide, mouth gaping; another an indulgent hog roast with falling-apart pork fresh off the bone, barbecue aromas swirling beneath the stars.

Breakfast meanwhile features a live cooking station, while lunch is a spread of inventive salads and international dishes. When we have room, we squeeze in a homemade cake at the daily afternoon tea, when the resident pianist plays melodious songs to a backdrop of swishing ocean.

That low-key entertainment is part of the charm; there are no large-scale shows here, with the focus firmly on the sailing – although we’re treated to a memorable set by a local band one night when we dock in Belize. 

Shore thing

It’s not just about life on board, of course. Sailing on Sea Cloud Spirit is an enchanting way to explore the region, and we’re able to dock at certain ports the larger vessels can’t get to thanks to the smaller size of the ship.

Among my highlights on the destination front is Guanaja – a tiny, castaway island in Honduras where we spend the morning kayaking on water the colour of turquoise glass, wandering barefoot beneath emerald palms, and lounging in hammocks above powder-white sand.

Just as mesmerising is Bocas del Toro, an archipelago off the coast of Panama that’s home to more than 200 islands. Here we meander on a local boat through sparkling jade waterways, passing colourful stilted houses, lush, leafy mangroves and traditional wooden fishing canoes, as we learn about the region’s eco-system from our naturalist guide.

Other ports of call include Belize City, where we head out on an excursion to the ancient Mayan ruins of Altun Ha; Cozumel, a white-sand island on Mexico’s Riviera Maya; and Progreso, a beach town in the northeast of the country that’s the gateway to Mérida – a colonial-era city and the capital of the Yucatan province that brims with colourful architecture.

But the most memorable stop for me is a snorkelling excursion to Belize’s Great Blue Hole. Set in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef – the second largest reef in the world – this Unesco-listed sinkhole formed from a collapsed limestone cave during the last ice age. Today it’s a void of deep, dark blue that falls 125m deep and spans over 300m wide, and it’s an exceptional spot for marine life; hammerhead sharks, nurse sharks, turtles, rays and an abundance of tropical fish all call it home, while divers can explore stalactites and stalagmites deeper down.

Jacques Cousteau proclaimed it one of the best dive sites in the world when he came in the early 1970s, and I quickly see why. Within minutes of ducking my head into the water, I’m floating above a landscape that belongs in a picture book; all bright yellow coral formations and purple-veined plants shaped like mini trees, with iridescent fish coloured turquoise, pink and blue darting between them. I float peacefully along, exploring the fringe reef that surrounds the “hole”, as I take in this huge abyss of vibrant, sparkling cobalt. 

It’s a magical moment, and a memorable highlight on a cruise that’s blown me away from day one – and, like the idyllic picture of dolphins bounding along at sunset, it’s an image that will long stay with me.

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