CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Republic of Kiribati -- It's hard not to wax romantic about a voyage on a tall ship. Majestic masts. Billowing sails. Exotic ports of call.
If the adventures of Drake and Magellan haven't long piqued your salty curiosity, then perhaps the more recent exploits of actor Johnny Depp or author Patrick O'Brian have helped put your sea legs under you.
Indeed, the allure of the high seas has for decades motivated college students to do the strangest thing: give up sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll for the privilege of a berth on an authentic sailing vessel.
During the past 35 years, some 7,000 collegians have spent three accredited months with the Woods Hole-based Sea Education Association, six weeks of ocean studies on land and six weeks voyaging on one of its two tall ships in the Atlantic, the Pacific, or the Caribbean. No iPods, no cell phones, no Internet, no booze, no ``exclusive relationships."
Now, for the first time, adults can join in the fun -- and the rigor. In an effort to broaden its appeal and tap into the eco tourism market, the association has opened its tall ship sailing program to adventurous grown-ups.
It's not everyone's idea of a cruise vacation; you don't just go along for the ride, you're part of the crew. You stand watch at all hours, sailing and maintaining the ship. You learn how to navigate by the stars, cook for 30 people while under sail, and how to build a community out of strangers with whom you find yourself living cheek by jowl with no possibility of escape.
In the process, you're bound to discover a thing or two about yourself -- and quite possibly have the adventure of a lifetime.
If it sounds like a tall order for a vacationing voyager, it is. ``The gulp factor is considerable," says Chris Maguire, a 34-year-old association captain who has a tattoo from Fiji on his left ankle and thousands of nautical miles under his sandals. `` We ask the kids to do more than they can possibly do and in the end they end up doing the unthinkable: running the ship and all the scientific experiments."
Of course, the kids have the incentive of getting college credits for their semester; the adults won't. Their voyage, to the French Polynesian Islands in the South Pacific in January, will be shorter (10 days) and somewhat less rigorous academically.
Still, it's more anti-cruise than bikini cruise; there's no escaping to an exercise room, a casino, or an air-conditioned state room. But even without those extras, the association's tall ships offer comforts far superior to the hammocks and hardtack that were staples of the great days of sail.
There's plenty to marvel at -- the sails do billow and the sunsets are spectacular -- and there are plenty of challenges, too. So batten down the hatches.
My voyage on the tall ship Robert C. Seamans began on Christmas Island in the equatorial Pacific; it is the largest of 33 islands in the Republic of Kiribati, which is spread over a wide expanse of ocean. The ship had sailed from Honolulu 1,000 miles to the north with 22 college students and a professional crew of 10 aboard.
I had a few days to wait before the Seamans arrived, so I spent some time fly -fishing for bonefish. I was casting in the atoll's vast lagoon one afternoon when my guide suddenly pointed and exclaimed, ``Your ship has come in." It was a breathtaking sight: a two-masted brigantine whose yardarms loomed over the island from a full mile away.
The guide piloted me out to the ship; I clambered up a rope ladder and stepped onto the deck of the 135-foot-long vessel that, for the next four weeks, I would call home.
The Seamans, named for a former secretary of the Air Force and MIT dean , is impressive. Launched in 2001, the steel-hulled craft has an on-deck dry laboratory complete with computer stations and microscopes, as well as a wet lab equipped with derricks for lowering research equipment into the briny deep. It also has two masts with ratlines and crow's nests, nine sails, and some 75 assorted sheets, halyards, and outhauls to tend them.
It has a modern galley, a spacious saloon (dining room) , a library with computers and bookshelves, some 40 bunks, four heads (bathrooms) , and a couple of showers with hot and cold water.
It also boasts a walk-in freezer, a high-tech desalinization water-maker, and a sewage treatment plant, all nestled below decks with the 455 horsepower Caterpillar engine.
The association website describes the living conditions as ``comfortable but Spartan," but the Spartans never had it this good.
While the ship defines your physical world, the watch system determines your personal schedule. For our voyage, which took us to the island of Palmyra, and back and forth across the equator before heading back to Honolulu, everyone was assigned to one of three watches or shifts.
Each group took turns performing essential duties -- manning the helm, navigating, trimming the sails, and keeping a lookout -- on a rotating schedule of roughly six hours on watch during daylight and four hours each night.
Socially, the watch becomes your core community; you work together through fair weather and foul, relying on each other to help steer and change sails whether in the heat of high noon on the equator or during a squall in the dead of a starlit night.
The team pulls together, literally. `` Heave, heave, heave" goes the old deckhand chant as you raise or trim a sail. And the codependence is real: No one wants to be the one who lets go of the line at the wrong time, letting a watchmate get yanked 15 feet into the air clinging to a rope with hands about to be minced in a pulley.
``You're not only forced to get along with people you don't know, but you're forced to trust them as well," says Maguire, the captain on my voyage.
When you're off watch, it's time to catch up on sleep -- those 8-foot -long bunks with pull curtains never felt so good. It's also an opportunity to get to know others on the ship, to read or write in a journal, or to simply loll about the deck, ascend to the crow's nests, or climb out on the bowsprit to enjoy the lonely beauty of the vast ocean.
Meals are served family style; the offerings included fresh-baked goods daily and hearty three-course meals ranging from roast beef and potatoes to fresh-caught fish to pork ribs.
And then there are the snacks. Life can seem pretty darn good when, at sea for four weeks, you have apples, popcorn, or a bowl-full of M & M's. Even better if the captain relaxes the no-booze dictum when the ship is docked or at anchor during the adult cruise.
The weather, of course, is a defining factor on any voyage, and with rough weather can come the curse of inner ear seasickness. If one is so prone, it may take a day or so to get reoriented and gain sea legs; the ship stocks a variety of seasickness pills, and you shouldn't feel queasy about taking them. As Maguire says, ``Seasickness is an amazing dynamic, and overcoming it can be an epic victory."
There are a lot of significant moments on board any ship, and here are a few of my favorites :
Crossing the equator for the first time. The rituals for entering the Kingdom of Neptune are legendary -- and secret. Suffice it to say that the purveyors of an equatorial crossing make fraternity pranks look like child's play.
Swimming in mid-Pacific. If you're becalmed and the captain allows a swim call, there's nothing more breathtaking than plunging into the blue-green deep, swimming down as far as you can, and contemplating your minu scule place in the vastness of the largest ocean in the world.
Sailing at night. A tall ship and a star to steer her by: It's a feeling of power and vulnerability all in one.
Watching the weather. In the open ocean, you can see the weather coming from a great distance. The eeri ness of a flat calm or the threat of a hulking squall bearing down on the ship -- all are natural wonders that are served up free of charge.
Standing bow watch. Your job is to spy land or spot an oncoming ship, but staring out into the endless ocean is both hypnotic and a thought stimulant. By the time your watch is done, you may have figured out the secret of life and solved the world's problems.
For a fleeting time you believe you're the master of your own destiny. But in reality you are subject to the forces of nature, and you must learn to live with them, come what may.
You are larger for the experience, but equally aware how small a speck you are in this world.
Contact Nick King, a freelance writer in Needham and former op-ed editor of the Globe, at email@example.com.