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Sailing the Tyrrhenian Sea on the Star Clipper Tall Ship

sailing ship
The Star Clipper. Photo Brian E. Clark.

By Brian E. Clark

In my decades as a writer and photographer, I’ve been lucky to knock around much of Europe and even live abroad a couple of times. But I was clueless when it came to the Tuscan archipelago off the west coast of Italy in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Until this summer, that is, when my girlfriend and I sailed to the islands of Elba, (where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled the first time), Corsica (where he was born) and Sardinia (where a young Lt. Napoleon was part of a failed invasion) on our way to St. Tropez and our ultimate destination of Cannes on the French Riviera.

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Yoga on the deck of the Star Clipper. Photo Brian E. Clark.

Our mode of transport and home for a week was the Star Clipper, a majestic, four-masted barquentine tall ship that is 366 feet long, has 213-foot-tall masts, a library, piano bar and boasts 16 sails.  Unlike the huge cruise line vessels that can host 5,000 travelers, our comparatively intimate ship only had a capacity of 166 passengers.

As a sailor myself (usually on boats under 50 feet), I loved that the Star Clipper relies on wind 80 percent of the time for propulsion. When the crew was raising the sails, I felt as if I’d time-traveled back to the late 19th Century, when these square-rigged cargo ships ruled the seas.

Alas, the barquentines pretty much disappeared when steam and then diesel-powered engines took over shipping.

But not in the mind of Michael Krafft, a Swedish sailor, lawyer and entrepreneur who was raised outside Stockholm near a shipyard. He grew up listening to tales from old “sea dogs” and dreaming of tall ships. A few years after sailing across the Atlantic on his yacht “Gloria,” he built the first barquentine in more than 80 years when his company commissioned the Star Clipper in 1993 as a passenger ship.

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The author at the helm of the Star Clipper. Photo Tish Lafferty.

It was followed by the Star Flyer and then the Royal Clipper, fulfilling his dream to recreate the legendary clippers that crossed the oceans and offer people the chance to experience the special thrill of sailing aboard a tall ship.

Today, these impressive boats sail in the Mediterranean, Aegean and Caribbean seas, as well as the Suez and Panama Canals and the west coast of Central America. If that weren’t enough, the company (starclippers.com) also offers Atlantic crossings of 28 days from Cannes, France to Barbados.

We boarded the Star Clipper in Civitavecchia, Rome’s cruise port, after a short stay at the ideally located Hotel Napoleon near Rome’s Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and only a short walk from the Termini train station and the Coliseum, Palatine Hill and Forum.

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A secluded Elba beach. Photo Brian E. Clark.

Our first stop was Porto Ferraio on Elba, which is about 10 miles offshore of the Tuscan town of Piombino. Because our ship was small, we were able to snuggle into the port.  We walked off the ship and up into Porto Ferraio, population 12,000, where we found the comfortable villa where Napoleon was exiled for less than a year in 1814.

We also hiked down to a lovely beach popular with locals and picked raspberries in a plaza overlooking the harbor.  That night, we ate in the elegant dining room of the ship for a dinner of salmon, one of many tasty dishes we consumed on the voyage.

A mural of Napoleon on the island of Elba. Photo Brian E. Clark.

As we set off that night, crew members raised the sails on our ship and we headed west to Bonifacio, a town of 3,000 on the southern coast of Corsica – the land of vendettas.  As we sailed in the next morning, the undercut, chalk-white cliffs made it appear that the community was hanging over the seas.

After an early morning yoga session and breakfast, we walked along the quay to look at chartered catamarans, fishing boats and even one stunning sailboat that was more than 80 feet long and boasted a beautiful blue hull and a tawny teak deck.

After looking at shops in the vieille ville (old town) we climbed to the haute ville (upper town) to a citadel that had once protected the town and more recently was an outpost of the French Foreign Legion.

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A grumpy Sardinian. Photo Brian E. Clark.

Then it was on to the town of Alghero on the west coast of Sardinia, where we visited the Leda d’Ittiri vineyard to sample its red and white wines, olives and Pecorino cheeses made from sheep milk.

Alas, the Leda d’Ittiri was not serving (because it’s sort of illegal) the Casu Marzu cheese, which includes – I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP – live maggots and is considered a Sardinian delicacy or even, ahem, an aphrodisiac.

However, the vineyard owner told me she knew where to find a Casu Marzu cheesemaker in the hinterland and that if I returned, a visit and a tasting might be, perhaps, arranged. I have a feeling I’ll be returning…

That afternoon, back on the Star Clipper, I got the chance to climb up the main mast to a lookout over the Alghero Harbor. I asked if I could ascend further to the 213-foot summit, but (sadly) was turned down. Still, the view over the marina was lovely.

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Napoleon’s birthplace. Photo Brian E. Clark.

Next we sailed on to Ajaccio, about half way up the Corsican coast and Napoleon’s birthplace in 1769.  We toured the upper middle class home, not far from the harbor, where he lived until he was sent off to a military boarding school at age 9.

He later became a Corsican nationalist before leading France after the French Revolution. During his time as emperor, the European continent was in a near constant state of war from 1803 to 1815 with combat deaths totaling between 2.5 million to 3.5 million, according to some published estimates. Civilian dead ranged from 750,000 to 3 million.

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Vegetable stand in Calvi. Photo Brian E. Clark.

Our final stop on Corsica was Calvi, population 5,000, on the island’s northern tip. According to legend, Christopher Columbus was born here in 1451.  Like many coastal cities in the Mediterranean, Calvi has an imposing citadel that we toured.

Then we walked through the town on cobblestone streets and along the harbor, where we saw not only sailboats but some ritzy looking superyachts.

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A father and daughter stroll the narrow streets of Corsica. Photo Brian E. Clark.

Several dive operators had stands in the marina where wetsuits were hanging up to dry. They offered trips out into the waters off Calvi.

If I’d had more time, I would have chosen an excursion to a wrecked U.S. WW II B-17 bomber that crashed just off the citadel in 1944, killing several crew members. It rests on a white sandy bottom at about 80 feet, making it an easy visit.  And if I ever make it back to Corsica – perhaps on my own sailboat – I’d love to dive that wreck.

That night, as we headed north to the French Riviera, I finished reading an interesting book about Corsica called the “Rose Cafe.” The setting was the late 60s and the protagonist – an American student in his 20s – had a summer job at a beachside restaurant where he fell in love, and met intriguing characters – some possible spies from WW II – and learned their stories.

In St. Tropez and Cannes, we saw scores of huge motor yachts that must have cost tens of millions of dollars and had crews of a dozens.

It was all a bit overwhelming.

I think I’ll stick with sailboats.

Visit Star Clipper.


Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis.  A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.

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