London - Early morning in the Mediterranean takes a lot of beating, especially when you're on the deck of a five-masted clipper sailing from Spain to Italy. Every colour was enhanced as if someone had got hold of reality and then Photoshopped my mind. The air was still chilly and the deep blue of the sea contrasted acutely with the clear whiteness of the early morning sky - although, to be honest, for the past half-hour I'd mainly been looking at the brown planking of a well-scrubbed deck. This was because our ship, the Royal Clipper, was offering twice-daily yoga sessions as it raced from the Bahamas to Malaga, and then Malaga to Civitavecchia. Christel Vollmer, the ship's German yoga teacher, was helping passengers to salute the sun every day at 7.30am on the mizzen deck, and then to say goodbye to it on the aft deck every evening.
I'd joined her first group when the ship docked in Malaga. A core of three highly committed Americans had already been concentrating on their breathing all the way from Barbados for the past 14 days. They already had their yoga sea legs. I usually think of myself as a fine sailor and have no problem keeping my balance, but when your “downward-facing dog” is accompanied by SPV Royal Clipper rolling to starboard, there's a very real danger the dog in question will end up more downward than you intended.
By the end of the first session I had a headache, but Christel was upbeat: “All the little muscles you use to keep your balance will be getting an extra workout!”
I may not fear seasickness, but I don't generally like cruises. I am willing, however, to make an exception for anything with sails. Royal Clipper is a beautiful vessel, a reproduction of a five-master from 1900. Mikael Krafft, the owner, is a Swedish businessman in love with the great days of sail. One hundred and 50 years ago, the clippers were the fastest things at sea. They were built to “clip” the waves as they took passengers round Cape Horn and out to the Far East and Australia, and as they came back laden with tea, wool and grain.
Krafft built the Royal Clipper in 2000 hoping to revive the golden age of sail at an affordable price. Carrying 227 passengers, Royal Clipper is the largest square rigger in service in the world today. It's also pretty romantic.
When we embarked in the dark from Malaga's harbour, all five masts were lit up like great gold-painted Christmas trees and the ship's PA played Vangelis's relentless, questing theme from 1492. This sort of thing seems to be de rigueur for cruise ships these days, but there is schmaltz and there is good schmaltz. This was grade-A, high-octane stuff because the sails - all 42 of them - were unfurling one by one as we cleared the harbour. Apparently what used to be done by a crew of 100 men pulling on ropes can now be done by 20, thanks to some nifty modern hydraulics. Everyone stood on deck gazing upward as the ship's giant masts seemed to grow huge white sails. It was as if our massive clipper were blooming. Pure theatre. No wonder people are coming back to sail.
And there is something about masts that actually lifts the spirits. On our first morning at sea, on my way to the first yoga session, I looked up and marvelled at these 50m spires with all their middle sails and top gallants. The top of your average oil-burning cruise ship looks like the roof of Tesco, with all its practical details piled messily around two or three black, belching chimneys. You don't go up there if you want to retain the magic. But the white rigging that envelops and sustains a square-rigged clipper is a work of art. Walking the length of this 134m ship was like passing through a white-painted forest.
With a trilingual safety drill after breakfast - English, then French, then German - a long lunch and the discovery of a Victorian-style library where four leather Chesterfield sofas invite you to fall asleep with the thrillers discarded by previous passengers, my first day at sea passed very quickly. It was soon 5.30pm and time to join Christel for the second session of the day. The aft deck was a lovely place to sit cross-legged and watch the sun set as we surged on east. However, it is built on an incline, which meant that when I tried to raise my legs for a shoulder-stand I nearly rolled, heels over head, into Stephen, an accountant from north London who had heard us talking about yoga over lunch and decided to come along.
The passengers aboard the Royal Clipper were mostly in their late fifties and well heeled enough to be looking forward to retirement. Cruises are all too often dominated by masses of small, white-haired people thinking only about the next meal. (Or one big unruly crèche if the cruise is family-friendly.) Because the Royal Clipper moves by sails alone whenever it can, this cruise had fewer hungry pensioners and young families, and far more people interested in the actual business of sailing. Consequently, quite a few were trying out the more oddball activities on offer. Darleen, a health-care administrator from the US, was one, and then there was Lew, a jolly obstetrician from New Jersey who handed out CDs of himself singing “Catskill Mountain Sunrise” in lieu of a business card. Christel herself turned out to be a friend of Mikael Krafft - she had offered to teach onboard yoga and was surprised to find herself booked not just for this summer but 2013 as well.
“I trained with Bryan Kest,” she told me. “He's the man who brought power yoga to Hollywood.” Kest is also responsible for turning Madonna and Sting on to yoga. What Christel offers on board is a mix of Kest's power yoga and Taoist yin yoga. “Westerners don't want to spend too long just meditating. I call it clipper yoga now.”
While Royal Clipper looks remarkably authentic on deck, the dining room is pure fantasy, a luxury, nautically themed chasm that plunges down three floors below the glass-bottomed swimming pool. I enjoyed one excellent lunch all too aware that the Beatles' biographer, Hunter Davies, was swimming round above our table. The cabins were more traditional: lots of polished wood, the smallest of polished desks, noisy air-conditioning and a porthole for a window which was frequently coated with fast-moving spray.
I spent very little time in my cabin. Meals and yoga lessons came round very quickly, as did my afternoon nap in the library. Routine is very important on board ship. A day at sea needs to be broken up. Meals and activities matter. When I'm at home, I find it really hard to go round the corner to use our local gym at lunchtime even if I've already paid for yoga lessons. I'm trapped by the minutiae of working from home, but at sea it was no effort at all to get out of bed for another morning session with Christel and her Snatam Kaur backing track.
“Age brings you to yoga,” said Phil from California, who had not missed one single session on the Atlantic leg. “You need it to retain a level of flexibility.”
Admittedly the other passengers did find us curious. As there were never more than 10 of us to be found doing the cat stretch or the cobra at any one time, there were always a few spectators trying to work out what we were up to and taking pictures. More distracting was the crew who always seemed to be noisily rebuilding the ship when we did our morning asanas.
After a day at sea we docked at Palma de Mallorca and what I thought at first was the harbour office block turned out to be the Costa Romantica, a 10-storey cruise ship. Our slimline five-master looked like an Airfix model alongside that monster.
We had only an afternoon in Palma, just long enough to get a bus to the cathedral and object to paying €6 (about R60) to look inside. The Costa left harbour before us, its 100-decibel hooter making what can only be described as huge farting noises in salute to the other ships. I felt delicate and eco-smug by comparison as I joined Christel's evening class on the aft deck and our ship set sail, once again, to “1492”.
It was going to be another beautiful evening on the Mediterranean. Two sessions a day were really beginning to pay off. I was not only sleeping well but also waking up looking forward to each day. I'd even started developing a fondness for Vangelis.
“Look at that sun!” cried Christel. “I want to be a pirate and stay on this boat for ever!” - The Independent on Sunday