Captain's Log

Archive for January, 2006

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Leaving Reunion Island

The time finally came yesterday for the Picton Castle to leave Reunion Island. The cyclone that had pestered us had blown itself out and gone safely over land, and the day was bright and gorgeous, a good day to leave. We fueled in the morning and finished our last-minute chores and it was time to go. As we prepared to leave, a fresh breeze picked up as it did most days on Reunion just after lunch, but today it was especially fresh. A tug was called to pull us off the fuel dock, which is very exciting as tugs are, of course, and then off we went.

I can not tell you how good it feels to be back at sea. A quiet routine, the watches resumed, and daymen getting on with their projects—how sweet it is. After our delay we have found ourselves out of time for stopping in Madagascar, so we will push on towards Cape Town. The passage to Cape Town should take us 17-20 days if the weather is good to us! If not, of course, it could take much longer. We have about 2,500 miles to sail around the Cape of Good Hope and into Table Bay. But right now we have a fair wind on the port quarter, all sail is set, and the helmsman is having an easy time of it.

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Waiting out a Cyclone

Reunion Island, Southwest Indian Ocean

The Picton Castle is alongside a wharf in the artificial harbour of Port Ouest on the northwest end of this roundish French island of Reunion deep in the southwest Indian Ocean. It is now coming up thick in the cyclone season in the Indian Ocean. Being at Reunion we are almost out of the Indian Ocean, but not quite. When we sailed from Rodriques 17 days ago, we had an area of “disturbed weather” off the northeast corner of Madagascar. This is a hot squally area and basically a kind of incubator for low-pressure systems that can turn into cyclones.

A week or so ago a not-very-impressive shallow low spun out of this area and started to make its way southwest into the waters between Reunion and Madagascar. All the predictions were saying that this was no big thing. All the computer models that the prognosticators use indicated a diminishing system. We expected to get under way a couple of days ago—get some fuel at the fuel station here in the basin, and sail off bound for Toliara in southwest Madagascar. Reunion had been good but we were all excited about getting to sea and Madagascar.

The night before sailing the wind picked up pretty strong in this little protected basin. The weather forecasts still predicted a diminishing system but the sky did not look like this to me. I decided to sit tight. Then a new report came in saying that this low had been upgraded to a tropical storm. Over the next few days this storm got upgraded to “severe” and then down to a “moderate” storm again. This could change back. Now it has stalled right in our way—”quasi-stationary” they call it. It continues to defy the predictors, and 50+ knots is a lot of wind. If you get stuck in like that you get to deal with it, but if you can dodge it that’s all for the good. And when sea-room is diminished by having the east coast of Madagascar downwind, which is like a wall without any meaningful harbours along its shore, it’s better to sit tight in a sweet place like Reunion Island. There is plenty to do here. Everybody’s French is improving, as are their friendships.

The sky is grey. There is a curious surge in the landlocked harbour that makes the Picton Castle tug at her mooring lines in a small jerking motion. The ship is secure, however. The watches continue with meaningful jobs getting done: a new hatch cover is finished and getting waterproofed, the main fife-rail is getting stripped, as are the teak ladders up to the quarter-deck, and a new lower-topsail is getting roped. The free watches are deepening their experience here in Reunion.

Soon we will be gone. Soon we will be leaving the Indian Ocean cyclone season behind as we head for the famous Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of the great continent of Africa. We will pass the Cape in high summer, the best time of year to make such a passage. The South Atlantic has no circular tropical storms. The water is too cold.

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Still in Reunion

A Severe tropical storm, called TS Boloetse, has formed between us and Madagascar. This storm is hanging just outside Reunion and off the Malagasy coast with high winds and high seas; the Captain has decided that we will wait for it to carry on by. The storm is dodging and weaving right in our way. So we are still in Le Reunion, not that we mind that much—fresh baguettes, great wine, and still so much to do here (it is so cool in the mountains!) that there weren’t too many complaints! We will wait until Monday morning and hopefully then it will be clear for us to go sailing.

So we’ve been up to all sorts. Sightseeing, as I mentioned in my last log, hiring cars and driving all around this beautiful place, eating till we can’t stand how round our bellies are, and hanging out. Onboard the watches are getting the ship ready and double-checking the rig for our turn around the Cape of Good Hope. It is important to make sure and then sure again that the rig is strong. Going around the Cape of Good Hope can be very dangerous, weird weather, large four-knot currents, and at times big seas. So we are preparing, as always, for the worst.

Ollie, Rebecca, Lynsey and Greg have been doing a lot of work on one of the port main shrouds—overhauling the turnbuckles and re-seizing—and the sailmakers are busy laying out a new main sail while we have all this room right beside the ship. The ship has been cleaned several times with our really high-pressure hose that the dock provides, and there is rust chipping and painting galore, as well as great weather for oiling the decks.

Joe has been buying up all the fresh veggies and cutting them up and freezing them. We love this, as we then have fresh vegetables much longer than usual when we are at sea. I honestly don’t think that there is anything they can’t grow here; they have beautiful sunshine and in the hills plenty of rain. The markets are chock a block full with every kind of fruit, vegetable and spice that you want.

With the extra days off in port that we now have, the crew have gone to check out the fresh water swimming holes, usually found at the bottom of the waterfalls. Picnics are prepared in the morning and there’s chatter of maybe the beach later in the day. The hire cars are back and the local bar is overjoyed that we are still here, as you can imagine!

We’ll keep you posted on the storm, but for now, we are sitting tight tied up alongside.

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Visiting the Furnace—Reunion Island

When the Picton Castle put into Reunion, I don’t think we realized where we were going. A small island in the Indian Ocean with more things to do than you can possibly imagine. The ship is alongside in Le Port, which is on the northwest corner of Reunion just west of Saint Denis, the island’s capital. As the crew soon learned, it is much easier to get around and do what you want to do in Reunion in a car. There is a line of white (because most of the cars are) rental cars alongside the ship, of various shapes and sizes. Most of the radios don’t work and very few have air conditioning, and not one of them has any hubcaps, but it feels good to have some freedom and mobility!

To drive around Reunion would take a while and though it has a quick coastal road, most of the most beautiful sights are inland. The coastal road has not only heavy traffic during rush hour but also has steep cliffs on the side, which are covered in heavy steel netting to stop the rocks falling on the road. They sometimes shut off the inside lane for months at a time. Yikes! You don’t want a sunroof around here!

As you start to go inland, what you may expect and what you get are quite different. A drive into the mountains or “La Cirques” as they are called—basically canyons left over from the volcanoes—you think it will be pretty but it is jaw-dropping gorgeous. You start the drive into the La Cirques by driving along the dried-up riverbed with some very steep cliffs on either side. Lush vegetation covers each cliff, with the dark volcanic rock poking out here and there. As you get higher there are definite Yikes! moments. To get to Cilaos, at the top, you must go up and through more than 200 switchbacks, a tiny windy road going off through dark tunnels only one-lane wide and carved literally out of the hills. Rocks litter the road all the way up and sometimes no wall borders the side of the narrow road as you keep going up and up. Sometimes the roadside wall has a nice car-shaped hole in it! YIKES! But oh, my! Was it worth it! The view was so amazing looking down into the valley with small villages nestling into the canyons. The colors seemed so vibrant. Flowers cover this whole island, and up in the mountains it was no different. We saw purple hydrangeas, roses, and loads of tropical flowers that I didn’t recognize that smelled amazing. Rainbows were covering the peaks as we drove up, and the cloud cover gradually got heavier and it got cold. Gloriously cold!

Entering Cilaos, you might think you had driven a high road through the Alps and ended up somewhere like Chamonix. The highest peak in the Cirques is about 11,500 feet. You can see this from the village and with mist rolling over it like a table cloth. Cilaos was a little French village with a spattering of shops, hotels, and restaurants, and covered from one end to the other in flowers. It was so beautiful I didn’t want to leave. I was happy chowing down on the fresh-grown lentils and drinking local wine. Yummy. But time goes so fast when in port and you feel like you must see it all. There were volcanoes to see yet, and active ones at that!

Going back down through the switchbacks is not quite as scary, as you aren’t on the edge of the road anymore! But you go down much faster than you go up! Then back along the coast to the southern tip of St. Pierre and then straight back inland and up and up again. “The Furnace” they call this still-active volcano, and yesterday they reported in the paper that it had stabilized after starting to erupt again before the holidays. We stopped at the first lookout as you go up. I honestly didn’t expect to see much as it had been so misty on the way up. Looking over the rail I found myself staring into an old lava flow, now a glorious valley filled with tiny hills and leading straight into the ocean. It was so beautiful. How, I wonder, can every view I see be better than the last? And still we go farther up. The switchbacks are not quite so scary and the road is much better maintained here. I am just starting to relax and put my feet up on the dashboard (I am not driving here!) when around the corner we go and there right in front of us is a moonscape. It’s part of the crater of the volcano and just a strange but pretty sight. A dirt road runs along the bottom of the crater to get you the rest of the way up. What a crazy sight!

The rest of the drive up I spend wondering if it is worth climbing the 4.5-hour hike to the farthest peak of the furnace, with the chance of seeing real lava. The verdict is definitely yes, but unfortunately I had only flip flops on and it just didn’t seem right to hike up a mountain in them! I sat drinking coffee and wondering if the mist—so heavy that I couldn’t see the little kiosk which was 20 feet in front of the car—was causing the hikers any drama. After a couple of hours I began to wonder if my French was good enough to cover an explanation that still my friends hadn’t come back. I needn’t have worried. Through the mist and sweating profusely they arrived, smiling and talking nonstop about the little volcanoes and the steam. I was jealous and hated my flip flops right then!

We finished the day off by coming back around the island by the east side through the sugar cane and vanilla, where the air smells so fragrant and the waterfalls are so large you cannot imagine! It is a good thing I wasn’t driving or there would have been a danger of driving straight off the road as I stared at the great plunging waterfalls.

Back on the ship, the watch looked as if someone had tried to melt them. Lordy! Was it ever hot down here! There was a hose hooked up to the shore water, and the watch took turns hosing themselves off. Today it is still ungodly hot down here and we have also taken turns hosing ourselves. Everything is hot. The decks are so hot don’t even imagine taking my flip-flops off, and we keep imagining one of our lovely shipmates might come up the gangway with a bag of something really cold to drink!

PS: I just took the temperature. Now I know why it so hot—it is 44 degrees! Hot, hot, really hot.

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Reunion Island Arrival

Yesterday in the Picton Castle was one of those perfect days, on sea or on land. Except, of course, we weren’t on land. Nothing much going on except what you wanted to have going on. Joe opened Chibbley’s Café—very exciting. We had a enormous breakfast and then a late lunch and then our Sunday at sea Marlinspike. The weather was gorgeous, good temperature and sunny. A great day for reading on the hatch and generally not doing much just sailing along on blue seas. Can’t be bad and it wasn’t.

Then as the sun was going down and it went from startlingly bright sunshine to—Wait! Is that Reunion? It had been visible for probably hours, about 45–50 miles away and towering right up into the clouds. The sunshine had been so bright and the clouds so low that we hadn’t really noticed it, but then it was just there. Two towering peaks on either side of the island and high! We could see it from a very, very, very long way off. And no wonder. The highest peak rises nearly 11,500 feet from sea level!

This morning we took in all sail and slowed ourselves down until we could contact the authorities at a more civilized time. Waking up and coming up on deck to see a massive soaring island to our port side is always exciting, but one we haven’t been to before is even more exciting!

Reunion is a large Island. It has over 645,000 people and every outdoor sport you can think of—canyoning, paragliding, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, and my particular favorite, people watching while sitting on a nice, white, sandy beach with maybe some red wine, a baguette, and some cheese!

Before coming in, we first clean the ship so we look even more pretty. Bruce has become the Brasso King, making all the brass work sparkly. All the living spaces get a good tidy and we make ourselves presentable. Then we negotiate our way into the port, tie ourselves up, and wait until the authorities come down and clear us in. But first the Captain is lucky enough to have to squeeze us into a narrow little gap that acts as a throughway into the inner harbour where we will dock. With Danie at the engine controls going slowly slowly, and Lynsey in the skiff with some line handlers to drop lines on the dock and sometimes pushing the bow around with boat, the Captain maneuvers his way past the narrow entrance into the inner harbor, then spins us around and backs us around into the little space for us. Sounds easy, and the Captain always makes it look easy, too; but methinks it may not be that easy. I can barely parallel park a car let alone back a Barque!

When all is done, then we will break into shore watches, and those off watch will depart quickly to internet cafés, laundromats, ATMs, hotels, restaurants and any roadside stand that sells cool drinks! We’ll let you know how much fun we’re having in a couple of days!

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On the way to Reunion

What a beautiful passage the Picton Castle is having! I have been saying that a lot lately. We aren’t going lickety-split, more like a gentle saunter. The seas are small, the wind also pretty small, but we have yet to even consider motoring. We, the crew, are more than happy with this. All sails set and strolling along bound for the French island of Reunion. At this rate we should be there about Monday morning, just in time for an early lunch.

With this gentle motion, it is a great time for doing serious jobs onboard. The daymen riggers have started to overhaul the lower shrouds: renewing serving and replacing wire seizings, which hold the lower rigging together. This is a complicated and long job that has to be done just right while perching precariously on the ratlines. It is quite possible that the Picton Castle has its first all-women wire-seizing team—Rebecca and Amanda—with sometimes a little help from Ollie(!). Tracy has been varnishing the stanchions on the bridge, and Kemper and the watch have been painting the fore royal yard, which is down on deck at the moment. Becky has been spot-painting the breezeway overhead and the big job, sanding the helmsman gratings.

In the last couple of days there has been much action:

  1. There has been traffic. Compared to our passage to Rodriguez where we saw 2 ships in 3 weeks, this passage we’ve seen fishing vessels, bulk carriers and tankers. These huge mammoth ships are our after-dinner (sometimes after-breakfast) entertainment. We watch them until they pass by and disappear over the horizon.
  2. Lots of dolphins. This morning we all stopped to watch the dolphins try to play in our not-very-substantial bow wave, but nonetheless they were dashing to and fro, jumping up, and generally hanging out.
  3. We tacked the ship 4 times! Okay, it was just for instruction and practice, and if we hadn’t decided to do it, it is possible we wouldn’t have had to touch the lines for this whole passage, except maybe to tighten the braces.
  4. The 4-8 pranked the 8-12 watch. They attached tiny lines to all the coils on the quarterdeck and ran the lines down to the Aloha deck. Then just as the watch changed over, they pulled the line from the Aloha deck, springing all the coils onto the deck. This may not sound funny, but it was! And quite a mess, too. Maybe you had to be there…
  5. Joe has announced that Chibley’s café will open again tomorrow. Eggs any style—woo hoo! And bacon! And hash browns! Maybe crêpes! Even English Muffins!
  6. There must be more, but I am drawing a blank right now.

Smooth sparkling blue seas, a fair breeze, a sweet ship, best shipmates and an exciting island over the horizon. Pretty good, eh?

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Rodriguez First Impressions

After 21 days at sea the Picton Castle has made landfall and put into Rodriguez Island, which is to the east of Mauritius. The second new place to us in a row, new to all of us! A small island with only 5500 people who live here, the capital town of Port Mathurin is tiny grid of streets named after the British town planners who developed it in the 00’s. Full of tiny little shops with corrugated iron shutters painted in an array of bright colors. Tropical flowers weep over the roads and over fences, the air is full of smells of baking bread and frying fish. Mainly French Creole now and part of the Mauritius it has an array of Chinese, Malagasy and French people; with big smiles and really friendly hello’s. We have only been here less than a day and have found friends already!

As the off watch sprang onto the dock yesterday to go in search of a cold drink, they found their usual mission slightly harder than usual. The New Years holiday is still being celebrated and many people have not yet returned to the island and many businesses are still closed. YIKES!!!� Along our hunt we found a man named Carl. He spoke no English, no French only Creole. He got the idea of our charade of needing a cool drink and laughing he waved his arm for us to follow him, like following the Pied Piper off we all trotted. He tried for us so hard, walking all over town to no avail, finally we had picked up several locals by this point desperate to help us in our quest for a cool beverage (very important after a long passage with no refrigeration!!), they popped us into the back of a pick-up truck along the side of the road, walked up to the door of a house there and explained the situation. Now I don’t think this guy was a cabbie, I don’t even think he knew the guys who knocked on his door, he definitely didn’t know us. His wife was hanging out of the second story window baby in her arms waving his chubby little arms at us and smiling. We smiled and waved back, what else do you do? Still sitting in the back of this mans truck; the locals were obviously explaining the situation with much arm movement and shaking of heads, finally he grabbed his keys laughing and off we went. A couple of minutes down the road we stopped along the beach, halleluiah! And there it was a restaurant bar with a big fridge in the corner… yippee!

We asked them to join us, no no he said maybe tomorrow first he would return home for dinner but they wished us a good evening and off they went. We went into the restaurant and ordered cool cool drinks. But wait, these are not so cold. Ahh bless us, all they had were warm drinks. We laughed and drank them anyway. As is typical of a first night in port, all you really want to do is order food that you choose, and drink cool beverages. Well we had the food we also had the drinks, but we were lacking the cool but whatever we were greeted with big smiles and friendly people. John went off to a corner store, bought some ice cold beers and headed back to the restaurant. The owners did not mind that we went BYO to their bar.

On Saturdays (today) the local market starts at 5am and goes until about noon. People from all over the island come to set up their stalls. There is every imaginable hot sauce and spicy pickled sauces, chilies in bottles of oil, big jars of local honey and beautiful vegetables. Joe and his gang were up early picking up fresh produce for us. Big mounds of red juicy looking tomatoes, bunches of beets, little pineapples which are really the sweetest I have ever tasted, big bunches of cilantro, mint and parsley, big wagons full of baguettes. As well as vegetables there were lots of very colourful woven baskets of every size and shape and handmade hats all lining the narrow streets this morning.

Onboard the watch has taken advantage of being in port — we are making some serious mess; that at sea we don’t usually get the chance to do. Yesterday the crew sent down the fore royal yard to make some repairs and today we are giving the galley a massive clean and makeover, everything comes out and then after good scrub the whole galley gets a coat of new paint. This also means we get to set up the barbeque on the stern. Erin and David Zimmer are making burgers and hotdogs for lunch and something grilled for dinner, lovely.� Logan is working on new sink platforms for the heads, Rebecca is still working on the Stay, Andrea Moore, Pania, and Keith are working on topsides and Susannah is laying out sail with Morgan and Ivan on the dock, Chibley has gone ashore for the first time since Rarotonga when we were last up alongside and she is loving it and well I am sitting in the office listening to tunes and writing this. It’s a good day to be part of the Picton Castle crew.

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Sailing Good

The Picton Castle is having an excellent passage in fact this whole voyage has been full of excellent passages; good winds and fair weather. But this passage across the Indian Ocean, with the exception of a few rough days before Christmas, really couldn’t be nicer. The sailing is the kind where it feels good to have the cool breeze on your neck and the warm sun on your face, it feels good to look up at the sails all set, it feels good to lie in your bunk being gently rocked to sleep, it feels good to sit outside after dinner and watch the sun go down, the sailing plain and simply just feels good. We have been going a steady 6+ knots and it feels like 4 (that means it feels comfortable!).

The riggers with the help of the Captain are doing some serious work, they have taken down the port fore cap stay, a ‘stay’ is basically a long piece of wire for strength and support for the mast. It goes to the cap at the top of the foremast and then down to a big turnbuckle and chain plate on the deck. This particular stay backs up the fore lower tops’l yard. It is a big job to clean it up, do the required maintenance which consists of reserving the lower half, replacing the four wire seizings that clamp it together and then send it on up again. This stay on the Picton Castle is made from 1″ wire and is about 35-40 feet long. Yesterday they took all the old seizings off and all the servings, they wire brushed it and cleaned it. Today they have reserved it. They do this so the wire is protected from the elements and rust.

We have also started to take off the taff-rail cap on the quarterdeck so that we can rust bust underneath and make it all pretty again. Another big job! And it’s loud.

Joe is making hamburgers for lunch and homemade burger-buns, this is an exciting lunch to most of us.

It seems like we have just gotten back into our routine again when all of sudden we are nearly in port, we expect to be making landfall at the very end of this week or early next, but how could it have come so soon???

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Clean Sweet Wind

The crew of the Picton Castle is enjoying a passage across the Indian Ocean that is just about as sweet as can be. Since the dual low pressure systems we threaded between just after we sailed from Christmas Island scurried off and away we have had nothing less than perfect trade-wind sailing. Day after day of south easterly breezes blowing in over the port quarter at around 18-20 knots, clear blue skies with just enough puffy clouds to break up the blue. Seas have been small to moderate too. The Picton Castle has been carrying every stitch of canvas we can set; royals, flying jib, main-t’gallant staysail, gaff-topsail, fore lower studding sail, topmast studding sail and t’gallant studding sail. We have been making a steady 130 – 160 miles a day and although some of the gang have had to learn to concentrate, steering has been easy too.

Flying fish dance across the sparkling wave tops scattering out of our way as we plough along ever westward. We have caught a few Wahoo. And eaten them right up.

Sails are getting made up on the quarter deck, piles of bright creamy canvas blinding us in the high tropical sun. Rigger daymen (Ollie, Amanda, Tracy, Rebecca under Lynsey’s�guide) are replacing ratlines, tarring and greasing things. In the afternoons we have been holding seamanship workshops; rope-work, splicing and seizings have been the concentration. Today we will start to overhaul a backstay making new serving and wire seizings. A good chance to learn some rigging skills. Logan and Brent are lifting the teak cap-rail aft around the quarter deck. The steel underneath will be treated and painted, then the cap-rail will be bedded and refastened back in place. Maggie is making some beautiful new curtains for the t’weendecks bunks in the salon out of richly woven Ikat material from the market in Bali. A lovely Christmas has come and gone. Our formal New Years Dance was a fine success and on we sail. This is a big ocean.

This gang has logged over 16,000 miles since casting off from our wharf in Lunenburg. Mostly we have had excellent sailing conditions. Right now sailing conditions are perfect.

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