Cruising with Claire

By Lew Toulmin

Claire McElarney is the energetic and always-smiling Activities & Dive Mate aboard the S.V. (sailing vessel) Mandalay, one of the fleet of four tall ships run by Windjammer Barefoot Cruises (Box 190120, Miami, FL 33119; 800/327-2601,

I interviewed Claire on the deck of the Mandalay in summer 2006 as the 236-foot vessel sailed from Grenada to St. Vincent.

Q: Tell me about your background, Claire.

A: I am from Fleet, Hampshire, in the U.K., and I’m 25. I have an unmarried older brother.

Q: What was your education?

A: I received a Higher National Diploma in Sports Science from Farnborough College of Technology in the U.K.

Q: How did you get interested in diving?

Claire McElarney, Activities & Dive Mate aboard the Mandalay. Photo: Toulmin

A: I did a diving course in Australia after I got my Sports diploma at age 20. I liked it so much that I went from novice all the way up to divemaster. I loved Australia and was there for the Sydney Olympics, which was great. But my visa ran out and I had to move on, so I went to teach diving in Malta for eight months and in Bermuda for 18 months.

Q: What happened next?

A: I went back to the U.K., then traveled with my brother down to South America for some hiking, diving and to visit the Galápagos and Patagonia. I went on to French Polynesia and New Zealand, teaching diving in both places.

Q: How many dives have you been on?

A: I have done over 2,000 dives and have over 700 hours underwater.

Q: How did you get involved with Windjammer Barefoot Cruises?

A: I heard they needed a diving instructor. I applied, along with over 1,000 other divers! I thought I had no chance, but then I got the call. I only had 10 days to leave New Zealand and dash to Dominica in March 2005 to join Windjammer.

Q: Do you like Windjammer Barefoot Cruises?

A: It’s a blast! I’ve had a wonderful time. I really like the islands and the laid-back atmosphere on board the Windjammer fleet. We get about 60 to 70 percent repeat passengers, and on some voyages that number goes up to 95 percent. So you know they are very happy to be here. Some passengers have been on over 100 Windjammer voyages. I’ve had more than 20 passengers come back just to have me as their dive instructor and activities director, which is terrific. I also like giving diving instruction to kids — on Windjammers we teach children as young as six to SCUBA dive. And I like the many weddings. Later in this voyage a couple is getting married on the beach in a very casual, non-“foo-foo” style.

Q: What does “foo-foo” mean?

A: That’s a special term we use on board the Windjammers which makes fun of “overly formal cruise ships.” Here on Windjammer you never have to wear a tux or tie or stand in a long line to meet the captain. We are very informal.

Q: What are the “least” formal activities on board?

A: Well, I have seen skinny-dipping contests on a few cruises, and almost every voyage has a lighthearted “PPP” party, where you are asked to come dressed up as something that begins with a “P.” Most passengers opt for a pirate, pimp or prostitute, and prizes are awarded for the best costumes.

The barquentine Mandalay in the sunset. Photo courtesy Windjammer Barefoot Cruises

Q: What are your favorite islands and dive spots?

A: Dominica is my favorite island. It is so green and unspoiled, with a gorgeous rainforest and 300 rivers. The people are poor but very friendly. And my favorite dive destination in the world is also on Dominica; it’s called the Champagne Pools, on the southwest coast. Volcanic bubbles and a beautiful reef make it quite spectacular.

Q: What was the most interesting wildlife you’ve seen while diving?

A: I was in New Zealand on the surface of the water, waiting for some of my students to come up. Suddenly everyone in the nearby dive boat shouted, “Orca!,” and I saw three killer whales with 4-foot fins pass right by me. We all dashed after them to get a better look but couldn’t keep up.

Q: Hmmm, I think I’d be swimming in the opposite direction. What was the scariest thing that happened to you while diving, since the killer whales didn’t bother you?

A: Before joining Windjammer, I was teaching a middle-aged woman diving student in Bermuda and I noticed she was breathing too fast. I signaled her to slow down, but she breathed even faster and began struggling in the water. I towed her back to the dive boat and we got her on board. Suddenly she stopped breathing and it was apparent she was having a heart attack. We had a male nurse and a veterinarian on board, and together we were able to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and get her breathing again. Actually, she was lucky that she had the attack then, with trained personnel around. If she had been alone on a land vacation she probably wouldn’t have survived. She is now fine and living in Boston.

Q: So you saved her life! That’s great. What do you want to do in the future?

A: I love the different itineraries of the Windjammer fleet and am really looking forward to going to the “ABC” islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) this fall. I want to improve my Spanish so I can travel more in South America. Eventually, I want to travel everywhere.

Lew Toulmin is the author of “The Most Traveled Man on Earth,” available for $16.95 plus $5 shipping from The Village Press (13108 Hutchinson Way, Silver Spring, MD 20906;