Trailing Christopher Columbus and a total eclipse in the Atlantic

MÁLAGA, Spain — When I was 8 years old, I wanted to run away to sea and be a cabin boy on a clipper ship. Sixty years later — gender, age and vocation notwithstanding — I finally got the chance.

As I packed to meet the Star Flyer on the southern coast of Spain in October, my one worry was whether this modern clipper would live up to my childhood dreams.

Live up to? Oh, my. It trumped them all, starting at the moment I saw it.

The Flyer was tied up at a palm-shaded pier in Málaga — long, slim white hull; four tall masts gleaming in late-day sun; sails furled and waiting. I already knew the names of those sails: Before reality broke over my childhood, I'd managed to memorize them. Now, seeing the real thing — after so long — brought tears to my eyes.

We left the harbor that evening, bound for the Caribbean, and when the crew began unfurling those sails, I wept again, hoping my fellow passengers hadn't noticed. But their eyes were trained upward too, and not all of them were dry.

In those first hours, I got what I had come for — the sight and sound of a wind-driven ship and the promise of three weeks at sea, much of it without the sight of land.

Most of the 150-some passengers had been hooked — less by the graceful ship, though everyone said it was a beautiful bonus — but by the trip's other startling attraction: the rare chance to see a total eclipse of the sun over the open Atlantic, where the skies are among the least polluted on the planet.

Along the way, we would have twice-daily lectures on astronomy, archaeology, geology, wildlife, climate change and maritime history — subjects that were or had been full-time careers for most of the people listening.

Our course would cover about 3,400 nautical miles and not only intercept the path of the Nov. 3 eclipse but also follow the route Columbus took to the New World, pushed westward by the trade winds. The winds had been another part of my landlocked childhood; their name alone gave me chills.

I was on deck before sunup the first morning, when we were still in the Strait of Gibraltar. The famous Rock lay behind us — an unmistakable black triangle against a blue-black sky. Ahead, the lights of Tangier glittered from the coast of Morocco.

Those weren't unfamiliar places. I'd been lucky enough to visit Tangier, and I once put out a taillight backing into the Rock of Gibraltar. But I had never imagined how they would look from the water, let alone in a waning night. The scene was otherworldly, like a stained-glass window or a dark mirage.

Our next port of call should have been the Portuguese islands of Madeira. But strong head winds were slowing us, despite use of the ship's engines. Unless we skipped Madeira and turned south for the Canary Islands, Capt. Yuriy Slastenin said, we would miss the eclipse.

There wasn't a murmur of protest. The eclipse chasers aboard would gladly have jumped into the Atlantic and pulled the ship themselves if that would get the Flyer to the solar rendezvous on time.

I have seen three total eclipses (four if I count the one my fearful parents wouldn't let me watch when I was a child), but I was a novice, compared with my focused shipmates. Some had seen three times that many and a few were so dedicated that they were running out of room for notches on their telescopes.

This was the 19th eclipse for a diminutive astronomer from California. "I've told my children," she said, "when I go, cremate me and scatter my ashes during the next eclipse — during totality."

Without Madeira, we sailed for four days before reaching the Canaries, over water so intensely blue that the ocean looked like a basin of cobalt paint, just begging for an artist's brush.

In the Canaries' busy harbor of Las Palmas, we shared a wharf with a shockingly big modern cruise ship — the kind with 2,000 or 3,000 passengers and a dozen decks. Illuminated at night, it was a floating city. Next door, the Star Flyer was out of scale. With its low profile, lace-like rigging and single string of white lights linking the tops of its masts, it looked delicate, more spider web than ship.

A small spider's web, at that. The Flyer's steel hull measures 360 feet, less than a third of the behemoth hulking beside her. But Columbus' ships had been even smaller: The Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María all put together weren't as long as our modern clipper.

Beyond the Canaries, the empty blue seascape resumed. Except for a distant freighter early on, we saw no other ships — just occasional porpoises racing beside the hull and spates of flying fish that darted out of our way, zipping from wave crest to wave crest for 50, 100, even 200 feet, like handfuls of expertly skipped silver stones. The air grew warmer by the hour.

We could make 7 to 8 knots an hour with the trade winds and sails alone. But without landmarks, this felt less like forward progress and more like rocking in the center of a vast blue pond — a big azure disk a dozen miles across, as wide as the horizon in all directions, with a white ruffle of clouds fringing the distant edges.