Chart a course to a sailing cruise. You can snorkel in crystal-clear water, watch dolphins surf the wake or spend a day on a small, secluded beach. So kick off your shoes and relax. January 31, 2006 When Tammie Stotts wanted to take a dip on her weeklong Caribbean cruise, she just dived off the sailboat Mandalay's teakwood deck. You can't do that on an ordinary cruise ship -- at least not without risking a 50-foot drop or landing in the middle of a Pilates class on the deck below. Stotts's yacht vacation two years ago, which she shared with 71 other passengers, fulfilled her seafaring dreams -- unlike an earlier trip on a conventional cruise ship with hundreds aboard. One night she volunteered with a few fellow passengers to raise the sails, as the crew observed its nightly tradition of playing "Amazing Grace." Stotts became friendly with only her dinner mates while she was on her megaship cruise, but she mingled with dozens of shipmates on the 236-foot-long yacht. And, oh yes, she met passenger Brian Mirgon, to whom she became engaged. They plan to honeymoon on a sailing cruise. "To us," says Stotts, "it's heaven." Even if you don't marry a fellow passenger, a sailing vacation is a special naval engagement. The sea is the main attraction, not just the medium of transportation. With main decks that hug the waterline, sailing yachts offer passengers a front-row view of dolphins surfing the wake. From the deck of a big ocean liner, dolphins' distant dorsal fins look more like fingernails. Vacations aboard a sailing vessel are comparably priced to traditional cruises. Stotts paid about $1,000 for her voyage, plus $650 for round-trip airfare from her Dallas home to San Juan. Taxes, a bar tab and government-assessed port charges added about $350. In general, weeklong sailing cruises range from $700 to $5,000 per person (including meals), and even more on some luxury lines. Port charges can add $50 to $250 a person. Advertisement About three in every 100 cruisegoers opt for laid-back sailing cruises, which lack the whirlwind of activities -- such as cabarets, trapshooting and formal dances--common on behemoth boats. Such cruises put a premium on relaxation and visits to out-of-the-way spots. Although you'll find fewer amenities and activities, sailing cruises usually come baited with free water-sports equipment, such as kayaks and snorkeling gear. And you can add guided tours to local islands for fees that start at $20. Small wonders Sailing cruises chart courses that are often miles apart from giant cruise ships' routes. For example, they may visit such quiet beaches as the ones on Mayreau Island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which are studded with secluded coves and colorful local shops. Bigger ships tend to dock in large ports, such as Nassau in the Bahamas, that can absorb thousands of tourists without sinking. On most sailing cruises, you can now skip the slacks-and-skirts dress code at dinner -- shorts or jeans will do. And although no one goes sailing for the food, many galleys now serve up gourmet fare, from caviar to risotto. And instead of accepting assigned seats, you can usually choose your tablemates. Skip Travelocity and the other major online travel agencies. They don't supply the best deals on sailing cruises. You can often find discounts of up to 25% off the standard rates quoted in this story by booking trips through your travel agent or the cruise lines' Web sites. You can also find discounts at online agencies with a sailing-cruise niche, such as Small Ship Cruises (www.smallshipcruises.com) and Windjammercentral.com. And cruise deals abound at Cruise Compete (www.cruisecompete.com), where 99 travel agencies vie to give you the best prices for dates and itineraries you specify well in advance or at the 11th hour. Many of the trips on Cruise Compete's site will likely come from these top sailing-cruise lines: Star Clippers (www.starclippers.com). This fleet uniquely offers true tall-ship sailing (the masts tower from 197 feet to 226 feet above the waterline). And the snorkeling opportunities are the best that sailing cruises offer, says Anne Campbell of CruiseMates.com. The food is so-so, and most passengers wear button-down shirts and khakis at night. Ships depart from ports in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and Phuket, Thailand, and can accommodate from 170 to 227 passengers. Advertisement The showcase ship, with five masts and 42 sails, is the 439-foot Royal Clipper. A typical itinerary is a seven-night sail departing from Bridgetown, Barbados, with stops in Tobago Cays, Martinique and other ports. Prices start at $1,675 per person, double occupancy, for an inside cabin, and rise to $5,595 per person, double occupancy, during peak season. Windjammer Barefoot Cruises (www.windjammer.com). The 58-year-old cruise line sails ships that are most like the ones you see in pirate movies. Some cruises even have a pirate theme, such as the one Stotts and Mirgon went on, complete with cannons and crew dressed in costume (bring your own parrot). And the venerable cruise line has been shucking its couples-only reputation by adding children's day programs to several summer itineraries. When they say "barefoot," they're not kidding. Stotts and Mirgon ditched their shoes and dressed in beachwear the whole trip -- which might have earned 20 lashes on a megaship or even another sailing cruise. The casual attitude extends to itineraries and meal schedules, which can be spontaneous. A typical itinerary includes a day at a beach. Expect a cash bar so that you can sunbathe without resorting to sobriety. Windjammer's five motored sailing vessels can carry 64 to 119 passengers. The ships' cabins are the most Spartan of these four sailing-cruise companies, says Campbell, who notes bunk beds and cramped storage. Cruises depart from Miami or island ports and run from three to 15 days in the Caribbean. Prices for seven-day trips this spring to the Virgin Islands range from $1,000 to $2,300, double occupancy, including meals. Visit the company's Web site for early-booking and last-minute deals, such as "buy one ticket, get one free." Advertisement Windstar Cruises (800-258-7245; www.windstarcruises.com). This luxury cruise line has a following among upscale travelers. Expect to see polo shirts and khakis on board, says Campbell, who says that the cruise line offers the best cuisine. In 2004, Windstar changed its itineraries to offer longer layovers at some ports, thereby affording its guests more time to sightsee on land than other sailing cruises do -- on average, about one night's layover on a seven-day cruise. Windstar's three yachts hold 148 to 308 passengers and depart from ports in the Caribbean, Central America and the Mediterranean. Prices for all itineraries, which run six to 11 days, range from $2,000 to more than $8,000 per person. Sea Cloud Cruises (www.abercrombiekent.com). No sailing yacht comes as close to matching the private yachts of the super-rich as the Sea Cloud. This 360-foot, four-masted vessel's sumptuous accents preserve the taste of its original owner, heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, who first sailed on it in 1931. Sea Cloud passengers are the most likely among sailing cruisegoers to dress in formal attire, such as dresses and navy blazers, says Campbell. The yacht's food is a close second to Windstar's, she adds. Tour company Abercrombie & Kent arranges vacations on the Sea Cloud, which departs from Antigua. Last February, Camille Carrick of Newark, Del., took a weeklong trip on the ship around the Dutch Antilles with her husband, Chris. "The decadence and elegance made it the vacation of a lifetime," she says. Prices for cabins start at $5,000, double occupancy, and rise to $9,990, double occupancy. The Carricks paid about $10,000 total. Safeguard your sailing trip Consider buying travel insurance that will compensate you if you cancel your cruise and flights because of an illness or other misfortune. The top sailing-cruise lines do not refund money when you cancel trips within a month (or sometimes more) of departure. Advertisement Several insurance companies sell policies that cost up to 7% of your trip's price; the precise tab depends on your age and the coverage provided (find an insurer at www.insuremytrip.com). A sample policy that covers up to $10,000 in forfeited expenses recently cost $422 per person from Travel Guard (www.travelguard.com).