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Jamming with Windjammer

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Although our first 36 hours on Windjammer Barefoot Cruises' Polynesia got off to a rocky start, both literally and figuratively, by the second full day it was smooth sailing the whole way for my eight-year-old daughter Alex and me.

Part of the first day's problem was confronting Alex's expectations, based on her previous experience aboard large ships. I had to convince her that although the Windjammer vessel had no pool, no dedicated kids' room, nor any other girls aboard (our sailing only had boys for some reason), we would still have a great week sailing the Deep Caribbean's A-B-C islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao). Since she had been on 11 traditional cruises previously, she assumed that all ships have these kinds of amenities. As for the literal rocky start, the Netherland Antilles have experienced unusually windy conditions all summer, so our first 15-hour sail from Aruba to Curacao was very rough, and Alex was one of many who got seasick.

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Soon after that, however, the laid-back Windjammer experience started to work its magic on Alex, as the 112-passenger ship sailed from Aruba to Curacao and Bonaire. My daughter loved having free time to play cards with us, and being able to run around barefoot aboard ship (even Captain Casey never wore shoes). We both enjoyed reconnecting with nature; we watched a sunrise and sunset together, swam in pristine waters, and even had a flying fish land right at our feet while aboard ship! True, one can watch a beautiful sunrise and sunset from a big ship. But it seems many of the amenities on traditional ships entice us indoors, away from what has drawn people to the sea for generations -- immense starry skies, the feel of the wind on our faces, and the lull of waves rocking us to sleep each night.

Youth Program Details

Windjammer's "Junior Jammers" youth program is available for those between ages six and 18. Since this is a sailing ship, children under six years old are not allowed aboard for safety reasons. From the second week of June through the end of August, youth counselors are aboard the Polynesia and Legacy (the latter on a Bahamas itinerary), offering an array of activities on and off the ship.

While these ships don't attract huge numbers of children like Disney or Carnival, there is something to be said for getting to know the youth counselors and other kids more personally. Most of Windjammer's summer sailings had attracted about 25 kids and teens per cruise, but there were only six on ours since it was the last cruise of the summer and many kids in the U.S. had gone back to school. Unfortunately for Alex, she was the only girl but by mid-week she realized it was still fun hanging out with the youth counselors and boys.

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The counselors split the youngsters into two age groups: six to 12 and 13 to 18. Two lovely counselors, Glendyne Collins and Sarah Czaja, were in charge of the six to 12-year-old group. "Since we do all the activities as a group, the older children become mentors to the younger ones and help the little ones act more mature," said Collins.

The leader for the teens, Drew Brown, said, "At first the teens don't want to participate in activities, but by the end of the week they're having fun with their peers."

In an age where few cruise lines offer in-cabin babysitting, youth counselors aboard the Polynesia and Legacy do offer private babysitting from 9 p.m., when the official youth program ends, to midnight. The fee is $10 per hour per cabin.

A Few Concerns

The main drawback for us was the lack of a kids' menu, and the fact that many meals were buffet-style. Alex is a picky eater, so we had some sparse meals where the stewards brought out peanut butter, jelly and crackers for her. A spokesperson for Windjammer said the line plans improvements in this area for the 2003 summer season. There were two nights when the kids ate with the counselors and had pizza or macaroni and cheese. The other technical difficulty is that there aren't any dedicated public spaces for the youth activities, so the counselors have to improvise in the dining room or on deck. The former was sometimes too rocky and the latter too windy while at sea.

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Windjammer shipboard life is very laid-back, casual, and adult-oriented for 10 months of the year. With this, there is some sexual innuendo used by staff during the crab races and the captain's story time when the staff briefs passengers on the day's events. Luckily most of this went over Alex's head, but it might not have had she been a pre-teen. Smartly, the youth counselors do separate the children from the adults on sea hunt and costume night, which had a number of amusing yet off-color moments.

Due to the size of the ships, accommodations for a family of four are distinctly cozy. Both the Polynesia and Legacy have a few cabins with four bunk beds. Since these are no-frills accommodations with little storage space, pack lightly. There's no need to dress up, so it's easier to reduce the amount of clothes you bring compared to a traditional cruise. In order to save space, bathrooms don't have a separate shower area; thus the entire bathroom gets wet when you take a shower.

Lastly, since this is a small sailing ship, you and your children will feel the motion of the ocean more than you would on a 70,000-ton ship. There were many repeat passengers on our cruise (Windjammer boasts an impressive 40% repeat passenger rate) who said this was the roughest sailing they ever experienced due to the extremely windy conditions. While Alex is usually an old salt, she, along with many adults, did not feel well on the first leg of our trip.

Activities: On and Off the Ship

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While none of the large cruise lines take children off the ship for activities, Windjammer makes this a main component of the Junior Jammers program. From swimming to snorkeling, hiking, and walking into town, the youth counselors led a great array of group activities ashore. I consider this to be a big plus since my daughter is inside for 10 months of the year at school, and I prefer her to be outside when on vacation. Most of the large ships rarely even take the children out on deck for activities, instead keeping them in youth rooms or lounges.

Unlike most other lines, Windjammer has a free youth excursion led by the counselors in each port. In Aruba, they rented a van to take kids (and parents, if interested) to a nearby beach. In Curacao, we took part in the short hike from the Caracas Bay dock to Beekburg Fortress. Along the way, Drew pointed out some unusual local plants and once in the fort, the kids got to climb a ladder and pose by cannons overlooking the sea. Since we stayed in Bonaire for a full two days, on the first day the counselors brought the children to a beach that was a 15-minute walk from the pier. There they got to swim, build sandcastles and snorkel. Alex's favorite expedition was on our second day in Bonaire, when the kids and counselors walked into town to go souvenir shopping, buy and write postcards, get stamps at the post office, and stop at an ice cream store. Some of the port activities for the teens differed. For example, in Curacao they took a taxi into town to go shopping, buy local fruit at the Floating Market, and spend time at the Internet café. Another day, they hit the beach for snorkeling and volleyball.

Since there are two dive instructors on the Polynesia, they offer an introduction to snorkeling and diving for kids. For those six to eight years old, there is "Sassy," a free introduction to snorkeling and diving. "Sassy" gets youngsters comfortable with using underwater gear near the water's surface. "Bubble Maker," for those over eight years old, introduces the children to going underwater for very brief periods. There is a $45 fee for this course.

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When we were at sea or during the evening in port, on-board youth activities included a costume night, karaoke night, deck games, and crafts. We found the arts and crafts to be nice quality, such as painting tiles, watercolor collages, or hemp ankle bracelets. Although there weren't non-stop planned activities from sunrise to sunset, as one can find on larger ships, I noticed that Alex was old enough to let the ship and surroundings be the entertainment. She also loved having time to play cards with us or read and chat on deck. Additionally, kids aboard Windjammer ships get to really feel like sailors, since they can help hoist the sails, steer the ship's wheel (briefly, for safety reasons!), and even sit in the widow's net while docked!

There were several intergenerational activities that were very memorable. In Curacao, the ship hosts a beach barbecue at Bahia Beach Club, a stone's throw from the pier. Alex had a great time dancing to the Caribbean band with me and some fellow passengers. It was great to see a teen on the dance floor with his dad, something he would never get caught doing at home! My daughter and I also loved going up on deck at night to star-gaze. Since we live in a very suburban area and most of the big ships we've been on are extremely lit up at night, Alex was wowed: "This is the most stars I've ever seen except at the planetarium!"

Smooth Sailing

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Two seven-year-old twin boys, Ryan and Dylan, on our cruise said they really enjoyed the Windjammer experience. Their parents, Jim and Jessica, had sailed as a couple on Windjammer before, but this was the first time the kids were old enough to cruise with them. By the end of the voyage, Jim and Jessica said the boys were begging to come aboard again next summer.

Like Alex, the twins had been advised by their parents prior to the cruise as to what to expect, which made for smoother sailing for everyone. And it is the ship's strengths -- its beauty under sail, friendly passengers and staff, and laid-back atmosphere -- that made sailing on the Polynesia with my daughter an adventure to remember.

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