Destinations and routes

Tall Ship Santa Maria Manuela

By Julia Boll
17 May, 2019
After spending six days on board the Santa Maria Manuela, traversing 800 nautical miles with 26 strangers plus the Crew, I am sharing my experience. It was unlike any trip or vacation I had ever been on before and arguably better than anything I could have imagined, but what was it really like? What did I learn? Who were these strangers that I spent six days with stranded in the ocean somewhere between Lisbon and Funchal?
Our tall ship sailing experience on the Santa Maria Manuela
Table of Contents
To show
  • The Tall Ship
  • The History in Fishing Cod
  • The Guests on Board
  • The Ship's Crew
  • The Education on Board
  • The Santa Maria Manuela Sailing Experience

The Tall Ship

It’s easy to call the Santa Maria Manuela a beautiful ship. Painted white, four masts that rise into the sky, and coiled lines perfectly in their place, indicating a meticulous crew. A step below deck will show you that it is certainly not just the outside that is beautiful. After being refurbished in 2010, the ship has become something of a floating hotel, but certainly less spacious. The cabins fit between two and six passengers in bunks. Each room has closets, extra shelves and a private bathroom with a shower and everyday, members of the crew come through to clean the bathrooms, make your bed and ensure that your time on board is as comfortable as possible.

Since space is not plentiful, everything, absolutely everything has a purpose and no space goes to waste. The stairs are designed to still fit your foot of course, but have been modified to take up less space. The bathrooms have a sink nozzle that doubles as the shower head when attached to a different metal piece on the wall. And storage is smartly placed everywhere. Think the couches in the dining area are solid? Think again! T-shirts, sweatshirts and hats for purchase are stowed there. As to be expected, spaces are small, but not uncomfortable by any means and the very open deck makes you feel a newfound sense of freedom as you sail along the open seas.
View from the top of the tall ship's rigging
View from the top of the tall ship's rigging

The History in Fishing Cod

Putting the design of the ship aside, it’s important to note the history of the Santa Maria Manuela. The Captain and Crew are extremely passionate about the ship’s history and they have the answer to any question you could ask about the ship and its history in fishing cod. The ship was built in 1937 for transporting codfish. With hundreds of other ships, it would disembark for a six-month mission to find and bring back as much codfish as possible.

There are dories, or small wooden boats, on board that would be lowered into the water with one man each and they would disperse into the sea in the search of fish. They would fish long hours and fill their dories as much as they could, sometimes getting as much as a half-ton on board, leaving about two inches between the boats’ sides and the waterline. Then they would row or, if the winds were on their side, put their sail up to head back to the ship at the end of the day. This was one of the most dangerous professions of the time. If you were a young man back then, you had the option to enlist in the military and go to war or climb aboard a fishing vessel like the Santa Maria Manuela, equally frightening futures for these young men. Some fishermen would never return to their families after leaving the port and some viewed the military as a safer option. The ship would not return home until the hold was full of codfish so the fishermen had a common goal - fish as quickly and efficiently as possible so they could all go home.

What started as hundreds like the Santa Maria Manuela turned into few. In 1993, the ship left its industry and, in 2010, it was updated to remain seaworthy and more comfortable as it looked toward its future in recreational sailing. While it does have a sister ship built at the same time, the Creoula, now located in Lisbon, a sail on the Santa Maria Manuela is a truly one of a kind experience because the Creoula is not currently sailed. Everything I learned from the Captain and Crew was fascinating and their passion for the history has given me more appreciation for the fisherman who used to sail her than I can put into writing. It is truly impossible for me to explain her history as well as they did so, if you have any interest in Portuguese history or the difficult lives led by these fishermen, I urge you to take part in a voyage on the Santa Maria Manuela and hear the stories from those who are best at telling them.
Fishermen in their dories leaving for the day
Fishermen in their dories leaving for the day

The Guests on Board

You don’t sign up for a voyage like this if you are looking for a resort vacation with a beach of imported sand. This ship provides a unique getaway, exactly what the guests on board were looking for during our voyage. It doesn’t take an adventurer to enjoy a trip like this, though many of them certainly were. You don’t have to be extremely curious or passionate about learning, though some were. What was important and evident in all of them was their love of being on the water. You could see guests at any hour of the day - early morning, afternoon or late evening - staring out to the sea, admiring the color of the water, looking for sealife, or just enjoying the breeze.

As someone who grew up sailing dinghies, 420s and FJs to be exact, I had no idea what to expect from this experience except that it would be different from any sailing I had previously done. I was right. Every kind of sailing has its special perks, but sailing on a tall ship has an inexplicable feeling of community that comes with it. So not only was the Crew incredibly welcoming, all of the guests who were complete strangers on the first day, felt like real friends when we landed ashore on the last day, exchanging contact information and promising to invite each other on upcoming sailing adventures.

This group of people accompanying you will certainly be diverse. The group may speak Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, and many other languages. These people have lifetimes of stories to share, many nautical, but also related to work, friends, family history, hobbies and fun facts. Listening to these people speak from their own experience made me realize how much I have to learn about people and other cultures and it was wonderful to get to know them in such a relaxed environment. They were all so easy going and they were all there to have a new experience, to learn, to meet new people and, of course, to get out on the water. Even when you don’t speak the same language as some of the other guests, it is not difficult to interpret and sense their kindness and desire to communicate. I assure you that you will find no trouble making some new friends on board the Santa Maria Manuela.

The Ship's Crew

When you climb on board, you are greeted by the Crew, a group of wonderful people who have chosen a life on the water. You will not meet a more welcoming and kind group of people than the Crew of the Santa Maria Manuela. Thinking about it after the fact, it’s hard to be surprised. These people have the best job in the world! Have you just gotten lost because you’ve only been on board for an hour and can’t find your room? Are you feeling a bit seasick because your body is still adjusting to life on the open ocean? Do you have a question about the array of instruments used on the bridge? Whether you need a little guidance, a seasickness pill, some information for your curious mind or anything else, the Crew is always eager to help and make your time on board as carefree and enjoyable as possible.

Sailing takes a lot of teamwork and it is evident that they are a very good team, jumping in to help each other hoist sails, fold sails, make changes to the sail trim, coil lines, etc. It is impressive and heartwarming that they work together so well and, for a group that doesn’t get to see their biological families often, they certainly seem like a family.
Crew member climbing the mast to prepare for the sail to go up
Crew member climbing the mast to prepare for the sail to go up

The Education on Board

If you have any aspirations to learn something about the Santa Maria Manuela, navigation, sailing or whatever else you can think of, the Captain and Crew are more than happy to teach you. Safety is of the highest importance so there are some things that the experienced Crew must do themselves, but for many tasks, you can be their helping hand. Have an interest in charting? Whoever is on watch would be more than happy to explain their tools to you as well as any other instruments on the bridge that you find interesting. I found that I would ask questions and receive a thorough answer only to come up with more questions because it was all so fascinating. They have so much knowledge about these instruments and I believe even a person with no interest in technology would enjoy hearing them talk about and explain all of the tools utilized on board. I feel lucky that I was able to take advantage of my time on board to learn so much from them.

The Santa Maria Manuela Sailing Experience

Finally, this experience is fully what you make it. The Crew is happy to have your help on deck pulling halyards or folding sails, but none of that is required. It’s all on a volunteer basis. You can spend the entire voyage reading on the bench in the stern or grab a lounge chair and nap on the deck for full afternoons. And all the while, the two chefs are cooking up delicious food, the Crew is cleaning your dishes and making up your bed and you can sit back without a worry in the world. The Santa Maria Manuela has been able to find the perfect vacation for anyone who has an appreciation for sailing and the water. You can fully disconnect from the hustle and bustle of your normal life while on board and you might have to! There is no service on the ocean and, while you can purchase WiFi, it is arguably a much more pleasant trip when your phone can be left behind in your cabin.

They certainly plan out a number of wonderful activities so the guests can make the most of the trip and these were easily some of the highlights for me. One day, they may tell you you have the opportunity to climb the rigging, or put on a harness so you can see the view of the boat off the bow or, if you’re lucky, there will be something you are celebrating. It was the Santa Maria Manuela’s 82nd birthday during my week on board and it was a great cause for celebration. I can’t speak more highly of my experience on the tall ship the Santa Maria Manuela and think that everyone would learn something and get something wonderful out of joining the Crew for a week.
  • Julia Boll
    International business development of Sailwiz. An adventurer at heart looking to expand Sailwiz to new corners of the world so you can find your perfect next adventure.
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