Captain's Log

Archive for October, 2008

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Bay of Biscay

Our barque Picton Castle is sailing along in the famous Bay of Biscay about 180 miles west of the French city of Bordeaux and conditions could not be more stunningly enchanting. We have had our share of fog and gales in this voyage around Europe but now will be increasingly leaving that type weather astern as we head south. The crew are all excited about this as we make our way south for Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Senegal and across the mid Atlantic and the equator to Brazil.

We have just sailed from Saintt Nazaire, France and before that from Milford Haven, Wales but these stories will have to wait a little bit.

We are in the middle of a perfect and sunny day at sea under full sail. The yards are braced up on the port tack well off the back stays. The force 4-5 winds blow from the southeast and are fed by an enduring high pressure area overhead. The sky is a rich clear blue with not a cloud to be seen. Seas, a royal blue to complement the skies, are spattered with enough white caps to give depth to the horizon. This morning we passed nearby a bunch of whales headed the other way. For a time we were surrounded by the spouts of these huge creatures. There will be some sunburns today. Yesterday, when were doing our practice safety drills a lot of porpoise joined in and surrounded the ship. One of the objects was to train and drill in launching and recovering the 24 foot ship’s rescue boat in seas. The drill went very well as the crew are very used to quick launching and recovery of the boat, as we so often do this apart from our drills when coming into harbours. We had launched the rescue boat into lumpy seas and soon it was surrounded by jumping porpoise leaping ahead of it as if pulling it like sled dogs. I wasn’t lucky enough to catch them on camera in that pose but almost. And after we hoisted the boat in the five foot swells the porpoise took to jumping out of the water and slapping the seas by landing on their sides. They did this repeatedly as we checked all our abandon ship gear and put on and inspected our exposure suits. We had to stop and watch their cavorting. Later that evening we sailed through a school of small tuna jumping out of the water that some porpoise seemed to be rounding up.

It is good to be back at sea and get back to the business of seafaring under sail. But seafarers need fine old world ports too. Onward.

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Bound for Wales

We have rounded Land’s End and made our way north to Milford Haven, Wales, where this ship began her seafaring life. We are under a big high pressure so there is little wind but the weather is nice. Weather types insist that it will persist but I do not trust that and I am anxious to get south and below the Bay of Biscay, into some nice steady warm northeast trades. In the meantime we will soon be bound for Saint Nazaire, France. Right now the jet stream is to our north, sweeping all nasty weather with it. But that can change in a day and if it does, that changes everything.

But now we were making what is something of a special port of call for this ship. We were sailing to the Picton Castle‘s original homeport and where she worked and sailed from for many years, Milford Haven, Wales. We had fair winds all the way around from Portsmouth, around Land’s End and into the Bristol Channel. This high pressure system kept building making for lovely fair weather but diminishing winds. We finally fired up and steamed into the estuary leading to Milford Haven and anchored off a small village called Dale.

Milford Haven is an interesting town historically and a bit of an anomaly. Basically it was founded in 1790 by Nantucket whalemen and their families. It was sort of an American colony in reverse. Purpose founded much as Lunenburg was, even with the standard colonial grid layout (regardless of topography, streets going straight up and down steep hills) but this town was founded for commercial purposes to exploit and provide whale oil to light England. This it still does as it has become a major oil and gas terminal, petroleum being in its essence only a substitute for the diminishing supplies of whale oil in the mid 19th century and now we can look to run out of that stuff eventually too.

Out of whaling also grew, quite naturally, deep-sea fishing and this of course is what our Picton Castle was originally built for. She was one of five deep-sea trawlers built for Consolidated Fishing (they had many other vessels as well) named after Welsh castles. The castle known as Picton Castle (built 1300) and for which this ship was named is only a few miles from the port and we were keen to make a visit. From Milford Haven we will start to make our way southward and towards sunnier climes but for now we were excited to see where our ship had come from.

Nadja heading aloft to replace ratlines

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Portsmouth

So there we were, motoring along in the English Channel, using up precious and expensive fuel in calm weather; excellent fair weather apart from the lack of a usable wind, and we found ourselves just south of the Isle of Wight. We had made good progress through the Channel, past Dover and Dungeness and we had days to get to Milford Haven. We had intentionally planned a good deal of extra time for the passage from Ipswich to Wales, ten days in fact, in order to allow enough time for dodging westerly gales as can occur hereabouts. But we were steaming along in perfect summery weather and getting quite ahead of ourselves. Portsmouth was close by and the pre-eminent Royal Navy port so we turned north and made our way in to see what we could see.

There was a bit of fair wind and a fair tide so the crew loosed and set all sail on the Picton Castle for a sail up the Solent which is the strait between the Isle of Wight and mainland England. The western entrance, near some dramatic formations called “The Needles,” is quite narrow but easily managed. Lots of yachts out sailing in the Solent. The main town on Wight is Cowes, a major yachting centre. One small sail boat about 20 feet in length was sailing along well away from the fleet then tacked and crossed close under our bow as we were making way under full sail along the Solent. Close enough but not so bad as long as this brave sailor kept going but, no, once just past us and clear this marine savant tacked again directly ahead of us and sailed back under our jib-boom requiring us to make evasive manoeuvres to avoid hitting him. It is this sort of actually insane behaviour which gives yachties a bad name among tugboat and other commercial mariners, not to mention tall ship captains. The vast majority of recreational boaters are sensible, but this bright lad and his kind, not so much. Anyway, we managed to avoid him and he gets to be a suicidal fool another day. On a cheery note we also saw a couple of restored steam boats including a beautiful side-wheel paddle steamer called the Waverly slicing up and down the Solent. So quiet, elegant and fast.

Although with strong tides, the approaches to Portsmouth are simple and clear with great massive installations in these waters that look like forts left over from the Napoleonic wars spotted here and there. Soon up the narrow harbour entrance with ancient looking ramparts (which we later learned were built by Henry VIII), we came alongside a friendly Dutch Barkentine and we were moored across a fine floating wharf from the lovely Swedish schoolship the Bark Gunilla (much like Picton Castle) with whom we would become acquainted over the next few days. This is all at an area called Gun Wharf, once a Royal Navy installation, now a festival waterfront recreational area similar to Pier 17 in Manhattan or the Victoria & Alfred Basin in Cape Town. Lots of glitzy shops and fancy restaurants. Bright lights, big city. A short walk away was the old and still working fish-boat basin. This was nice to visit with is proper smells of tide, fish and old boats.

Portsmouth, England, has serious English Naval heritage here. The 1860 HMS Warrior is quite amazing. This is a monstrous iron auxiliary sail and steam powered warship. When built, she made all other ships obsolete. It is said that she altered the course of European history by being such a powerful deterrent. This ship could get anywhere with a great deal of fire power very quickly. She was of such fine construction that she was used as a Naval oiling depot in Wales until quite recently when it was decided to restore her. This restoration is most likely the biggest such effort of marine preservation ever undertaken. It is difficult to exaggerate her size and overwhelming impression She has been more elaborately kitted out since I last saw her. Sail and steam, big engine, big rig. At almost 10,000 tons the ship is HUGE. A larger ship than the famously large Prussean or Moshulu and built 40 years earlier. We are told that the Warrior never fired a shot in anger.

If the Warrior is one of the last and certainly most mighty English sailing warships, we also got to see what remains of one of the first English sailing warships. Not much to see with Henry VIII’s ship Mary Rose herself (she is in a very dark wet room behind glass being sprayed with chemicals) but the ship and her times are very well interpreted in a large separate exhibit, also very impressive. Lots of explanation on things and artifacts. Longbows, armour, clothes, plates, weapons and tools and bits of tarred hemp perfectly preserved, goes to show how tar is so good. The Mary Rose capsized right off the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour in 1545. Preserved in mud, she was eventually located and hauled up in 1982 in a unique and Herculean effort. It turns out that the longbows found in chests on the Mary Rose are the only extant examples of the famous English longbow from medieval times. Seems that local fishermen still drag up any number of stone canon balls from this era quite routinely hereabouts in the English Channel and usually chuck ‘em back – I am hoping on getting a couple, with at least their latitude and longitude for provenance. There seem to be lots of them littering the seabed.

Lord Admiral (or maybe it’s Admiral Lord) Horatio Nelson’s flagship the famous HMS Victory is next – quite an amazing vessel she is; but as one who thinks he sails these types of ships, she makes me wonder how on earth they managed to get such ships around. A bow and entry that is only a few degrees out from square to the fore and aft centreline and thus virtually flat to the sea, a remarkably short stubby run underwater aft with topsides forever high. Her lines are not too far off from a box. Plenty sea room, good anchors (and plenty of them) and a lot of waiting for a fair wind methinks. But a none the less a remarkable window into a world I am just as glad as a mariner to have skipped, although the seamanship/rope-work would have been high quality. They have on display the fore topsail of the Victory from the battle of Trafalgar which makes for a fascinating artifact, sewn just the way we sew sails today onboard the Picton Castle, with some 90 odd shot holes in it. So here in Portsmouth we have not simply three random antique ships but quite the troika of extremely significant ships behind the rule Britannia.

In the old parts of town we still see winding alleyways and charming old pubs that have been doing business with sailors for centuries. Time to go. Under full sail with a ESE breeze taking us out of the Channel, making our way around the bottom of the Isle of Wight just now. Getting cold and autumnal hereabouts.

alongside in Portsmouth with Gunilla
commercial shipping on our way to Ipswich
Great cabin, Victory
HMS Victory, Portsmouth
HMS Warrior in Portsmouth

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Down Channel

When last we met, the Picton Castle was just sailing down the River Orwell from Ipswich, England past the mouth of the Thames and Dover and headed down channel. Weather looks OK for now. Weather hereabouts can be just as bad as all those Hornblower novels, gale after westerly gale this time of year. Mostly spent hurricanes and tropical storms from the other side of the Atlantic but still with plenty of punch left in them. And then in late October it can get worse. But we have a high building right now so we will put the pedal to the metal and get as far west as we can as quickly as we can.

We are bound for Wales to make our pilgrimage to the Picton Castle, an old Norman keep of sorts about 450 miles away. Then on to France and Saint Nazaire which this ship last visited in March 1942 while participating on the first surface assault on Nazi occupied France. This was to take out the big dry docks there, the only ones that could accommodate the German Battleship Tirpitz I have read somewhere. The HMS Picton Castle swept mines for the advancing flotilla. Then truly to head south to Spain and Portugal and away from this turbulent weather of northern Europe.

After spending the summer with all these fine Scandinavian sail training ships, I am pretty impressed how they bang around the nasty North Sea all the time. As commented on a lot already, the weather is volatile, oil rigs and an enormous amount of traffic (large and small) everywhere, Traffic Separation Schemes, the waters are shallow making for square seas and plenty of current. And on top of that most of these big sailing ships really aren’t doing traditional sail training anymore but more the two week adventure sailing that has become current today. Only the Danish full-rigger Georg Stage is still making conventional long term sail-training trips anymore, although all these ships do a good job at their craft. All these ships look great, painted nicely and clean as a whistle and with excellent dedicated crew.

We are all fine and looking to turn the corner soon, keen for some long sea passages and tropical trade-winds too. Coming soon to a barque near you (or us). However, regardless of any grumbling about the North Sea, it has been a great voyage so far and has all made for a pretty strong crew of the Picton Castle gang 2008. Now we are bound down the English Channel looking for a fair wind, steaming past the Goodwin Shoals light ship, past Dover, past Dungeness, past St Catherines Point, Isle of Wight and still no wind. Maybe we should put into that famous and venerable Naval port of Portsmouth and see what there is to see, since we are in the neighbourhood.

bracing the main yards around during tacking drills
Isle of Wight
practicing tacking
tacking and wearing drills

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Ipswich

The Picton Castle raced into Harwich/Felixstowe harbour, coming in making ten knots with a following gale and a strong fair tide. This harbour, just to the north of the approaches to the mighty Thames River and complex of waterways, is at the mouth of a couple of rivers that join at this point. The whole area is an industrial complex serving the massive shipping requirements of an island nation of some 60 million people. Slab sided bulkheads with cranes and gantries everywhere. Containers ships and ocean-going ferries from all over northern Europe are sailing in and out all the time. Tugboats and rescue craft standing by. Three bright red painted light-ships were laying at anchor, perhaps awaiting their turn at service in the approaches to the Thames, a complicated estuary and region of shifting sand banks and fog. But as soon as we steamed past all this industrialism and left the last container ship wharf astern on starboard entering the River Orwell, the land and seascapes all changed dramatically and enchantingly so.

Years ago from Ipswich and the River Orwell a young couple sailed their just purchased Dutch wooden pilot schooner, newly renamed the Yankee bound for Germany for a refit. Then they sailed off for New England to begin a career of world voyages and voyaging, only ending forty years and seven world voyages later. From Ipswich also sailed the diminutive full-rigger Joseph Conrad in the 1930’s, bound round the world as the soon to be famous young skipper’s first command. In the autumn of 1993 the motor vessel and former steam trawler and Norwegian coaster Picton Castle ducked into Ipswich for no other reason but to dodge oncoming equinoctial gales in the English Channel. Here we found a safe respite and we would end up wintering over.

Now, 15 years and 200,000 sea miles as a barque later, we would return to this port of refuge. Still with a fair tide our little ship sailed up the River Orwell passing soft and green rolling hills of patches of woods and fields. Cow paddocks and old farm houses dotted the hills spread far apart and seemingly ages apart from the bustling industrial ports astern. We passed the small ancient village of Pin Mill on port where a few Thames sailing barges were laid up “on the hard” getting work done in an image from the bygone days. By the way, “on the hard” means laying your vessel in and on the mud at low tide. We passed under a high bridge and the deepwater wharves of Ipswich, hosting coasters and small tankers, and sailed through the lock into the Ipswich wet-dock at high tide and at what is called ‘free-flow’. This means that both inner and outer lock doors are open and a vessel can just sail straight through. This we did, got turned around inside the basin with little room to spare due to the new marina floats and yachts filling the place now in its effort to revitalize the port, and tied up.

The good and Worshipful Mayor and Mayoress Councillor, David Hale and Mrs. Betty Baskett of Ipswich greeted the crew upon arrival. We had the Ipswich sea cadets aboard and open decks for several days. Des Pawson and the Ipswich Maritime Trust looked after the Picton Castle crew very well. Friends and acquaintances from fifteen years ago called upon the ship to catch up. Des Pawson of Foot Rope Knots and his wife Liz are two of the foremost rope-workers, knot tyers, fancy work makers and general all around ropey folks in the world today and they took us to and showed us their private knot work and rope Museum. The pub ‘Lord Nelson’ built before 1666 and having put up the Beatles in their early days made the crew welcome as well. Back in the winter of 1993-94 we could not figure out how to get the furnace in our ship to work, so like many locals without central heating we spent many an evening at this cosy public house.

It looked as is if the weather was going to be doing us no favours so we ended up staying a few extra days at Ipswich. Such days were built into the schedule to allow for just such eventualities so this was no problem. That is unless we used all our extra days up and still had poor weather. With this time some crew explored the countryside, getting as far as London. A small contingent took the skiff, locked out of the wet-dock just like a big ship and followed the river down to Pin Mill to look at all the old vessels laying there and see what there was to see. Among other things was discovered the ancient public house called the Butt & Oyster. Established over 450 years ago, Exy Johnson of the above noted schooner Yankee mentioned this tavern in their book on their first world voyage “Westward Bound in the Schooner Yankee” as a convivial spot to row into after a days work in their vessel as they had spent some time here looking after their new ship in the early 1930’s. It remains so today, although I suspect the food is better now.

Eventually the wind laid down, gales abated and we found ourselves steaming down river with a view to making our way down the English Channel bound for Milford Haven in Wales about 500 miles away. Milford Haven was our Picton Castle‘s first homeport and nearby to the actual castle called Picton Castle built in 1300. This was to be a form of pilgrimage for this ship and her crew of today.

Dave and Kimbers came to visit and Bear got to drive the boat!
getting the topsides cleaned up alongside in Ipswich
locking into Ipswich
the river Orwell, bound for Ipswich
we hosted a reception for the mayor on our first night in Ipswich

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Terschilling, Force 9

Sorlandet and Christian Radich joined us going down river from Bremerhaven towards the North Sea. At the approaches to the Weser River, after cheers back and forth, they pulled off to starboard, sailing towards the north and home to Norway. In the Picton Castle we would make our way down the coasts of Germany and Holland bound for Ipswich, England across the bottom of this North Sea. The weather was not looking so good. We would duck in if we had to. There were a few spots to hide if needed.

We were almost all the way back down the coast of the Netherlands and to Den Helder when the sky became darker and head winds picked up in force. Not so bad but then the tide turned and with everything working together against us; wind, seas and tide we came to a virtual stop. It seemed that the winds would get worse before they got better so we turned into that grim spot (with good holding) at which we had anchored before, Terschilling, and let go in almost the exact same place. It worked and was good holding before. It looked as if it was going to blow for awhile. Winds were piping up pretty hard as we came to anchor in this flat open bay. Put down the big port bower anchor with over 300 feet of heavy chain with the starboard anchor standing by – didn’t want to set it unless really needed as with all the current the two anchors could foul. Now we would see what the weather would bring.

We were in for quite a blow. For the next three days it blew a steady force 8 and 9 at times, maybe more. The very strong currents, flooding and ebbing around these vast estuaries, dictated which way the bow pointed sometimes putting the gale-force winds abeam. Every tidal change brought the ships head into the stream regardless of the force of the wind. When it did this we would brace the yards to the wind to reduce windage. These days were something to behold. Again, it seemed as if were transported into one of those ancient marine oil paintings from years ago depicting unrealistic waves and small ships being tossed about with raggedy clouds scudding close overhead – looks just like that with pale weak sunlight splashing through here and there.

Finally, it looked like we had something of a weather window coming up, more like a small attic window or maybe a port-hole but the weather predictions had been very accurate lately so we hove up and got going towards Ipswich. There would be another three days of gales here pretty soon, we could put into Den Helder or other ports down the coast if we needed to. We got underway with draggers coming in as we were headed out. Normally this would be of some concern but we had seen them all put out at the height of the gale so didn’t figure it meant much – it didn’t, they just follow their schedules, come what may. We pushed along.

Right off Amsterdam we came to starboard, struck away from the coast and crossed over towards the approaches to the Thames. We had quite a night, lots of ships everywhere. More oil rigs. Of special note was the Russian 3,000 ton four-masted Bark Kruzenstern which was sailing north-east up channel with a fair wind astern under full sail. She was making 11 knots. She was the last built (1926) commercial four-masted Bark, then named PADUA of the Flying P Line. She made a magnificent sight for our crew. Too bad we were not sailing the same direction, we could have tagged along for awhile anyway until she left the Picton Castle far astern…

We had a pretty bouncy ride from the coast of Holland to the coast of Suffolk, England across the approaches to the Thames, but we scooted right into Harwich/Felixstowe harbour with a fair tide and up the river Orwell just in time for the Mayors reception, hosted for this ship and crew in the wet dock in Ipswich.

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Lutte Sail, Bremerhaven

The European Tall Ships ports were good for the ship and crew. Pretty interesting weather, ship handling and various other challenges as well. It was good for the European ships to see the Picton Castle and good for our gang to see them – whole thing ended up being a sort of love fest. The Picton Castle fit right in. Norway and Denmark were lovely.

After steaming 20 miles up the River Weser in low overcast and spitting rain, past low marshes, big cargo ships coming and going and past a very long container ship terminal with ships coming and going and great big gantries towering over the ships, we were directed to our lock. They were saving the very big locks for the big ships. The lock master told us we would fit into the sportboat lock. The chart said maybe not. But the lock master was insistent we would fit so we went in, and as we have come to expect, with a strong wind astern making stopping and manoeuvring just that much more exciting. We did fit and we filled the lock, not one more yard of ship would it take. The crew did a fine job of handling the Picton Castle once again. The inside lock doors opened up, we got some applause form the viewing crowd and we drifted the few feet to our wharf and designated berth. Our yards were very close to some lamp posts. Soon, gangway out and let the show begin.

Bremerhaven, Germany was good festival and interesting. The festival was a massive tall ships affair well attended by throngs of folks. Along the quay there were any number of big roaring barbeques charring worsts, cutlets, steaks and slabs of meat, cotton candy, popcorn, buskers and lines of folks visiting the ships.

In Bremerhaven they have quite the maritime museum including one of the last and very advanced German U-Boats from late 1944-45. This one on display never engaged in hostilities but was in commission before war’s end. Pretty slick beast compared to the WWII submarines we are used to seeing in books and movies, very far advanced class. I gather that this class was used as the prototype for the next generation of US subs in the late 1940’s and 50’s. They have much else as well. They have the only American four masted schooner (now rigged as a bark Suete Dern) formerly the Elizabeth Bandi of Gulfport, Mississippi in 1919. Between the tendency of that class of vessel to come apart and decay in 20 years and the pounding Bremerhaven must have taken in the war it is no small wonder that she exists today and she looks fine. They also have a pretty intact Cog they dug up from 1100 or 1200 or whenever those vessels were about, I think they are called Cogs. So full and detailed a recovery of the original that they have built a few very accurate reproductions that sail hereabouts on the river Weser. They really look like blown up monster maxi-dories in a way.

I, for one, never got into the city of Bremerhaven. We did get over to Hamburg driving at enormous speeds on the autobahn in a Mercedes that didn’t even start breathing hard at 215 km/hr. The port of Hamburg was pretty wild, almost franticly busy. Saw the Bark Rickemers, went to a great ship chandlery where we could satisfy much of our rigging need for the ship called “Toplicht.” And we found a fellow who makes tarred hemp marlin quite reasonably priced.

The Mexican ship, the Barque or I should say “Buque Escuela Armada Republic del Mexico” Cuauhtemoc had our crew over for receptions as did the beautiful French Navy schooner Etoile. Our gang cleaned up well and did our ship proud. The locked-in harbour was just one huge line up of magnificent ships. Ship after beautiful ship along the quay, a true forest of masts. We were moored between the Sorlandet and the Polish big modern Dar Mlodziezy. But we also had German Three-masted Schooner , Annie Von Hamburg, German Barkentine Alexander Von Humboldt with her distinctive green sails, the Omani Barkentine Shabab Oman as neat as a pin, the Dutch passenger vessel Clipper Fullrigger Stad Amsterdam, Norwegian Fulligger Christian Radich, Dutch three-masted schooner Eendracht, Russian 4-masted Bark Sedov, Royal Dutch Navy Ketch Urania, Polish Barkentine Pogoria, Brazilian Fullrigger (and sister to Stad Amsterdam) Cisne Branco and more fine ships I can not recall just now.

By Bremerhaven, our crew had some well developed acquaintances in some of the other ships so we decided to have a dance party on the last night of the festival onboard the Picton Castle. It was great fun with live music provided by the bagpipers and drummers of the immaculate Barquentine Shabab Oman. It seems that the Sultan of Oman not only attended Sandhurst Military College in England but served in Scottish regiment developing a fondness for the pipes. The hatch once again serving as a finest kind dance floor. It was a good party and one hard to turn off as everyone knew that this was it, the last chance to all have good time together. But eventually all was quiet for the night.

The next day, Sunday, dawned bright and cheery but the lock master could not sort out getting us locked through. So after about four hours of waiting, singled up and with engine ticking over, we gave up and elected to spend another night alongside in Bremerhaven. It might have been part of a cunning plot to keep the ship there anyway but we sailed the next day. Weather didn’t look so good…

Bremerhaven - packed with ships and people!
Bremerhaven harbour
Guatemoc backing into Bremerhaven with yards manned
little Viking ships, Bremerhaven
locking into Bremerhaven
the big ships had to turn outside and back into Bremerhaven, yikes
the very good maritime museum in Bremerhaven

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North Sea

It’s coming up on late August here in the southern North Sea and we are beginning to feel it. Frequency of lows rambling across hereabouts is picking up ever so slightly but enough, enough. These European Tall Ships festivals have been pretty good for the gang but it is hard to see how having gone to seven would have been an improvement over attending three; three may be just right. As I type here we are heading for the entrance to the Die Weser River and up same to Bremerhaven. It gets pretty skinny up that creek but we do have a paddle. Overcast, cloudy too, small spitting rain, force 5-6 SWly, seas not built up yet.

Our crew are all jiggy over the prospects of maybe sailing in Sorlandet or Lehmkuhl some day, many of our gang were encouraged to apply to these fine ships, some were even given outright job offers. They did not conceive it possible before meeting the crew of these ships. Also Stad Amsterdam, a new and stunning full-rigged ship of about 700 tons. She is very much a clipper-like ship, which totally makes a lie out of the assumption that with today’s regulations one can not build a beautiful ship. She is exquisite and, like all the rest of us, needs good crew badly. But, unlike us, these ships pay well, so get your training here and then get a job there and get more experience.

Me? Well, this has all been fine. Challenging at times and very good in fact, but my attention is turning towards warmer climes and trade-winds. And also look forward to being at anchor in ports instead of alongside all the time, I like that better. Things start to shape up off the coast of Spain and Portugal for dependable fair winds. Fewer nasty gales and lows, a bit more dependable sunshine, that sort of thing. And to get back to the business of sailing ship seafaring and less steaming around to ports embayed in the oil rig studded North Sea. Can’t hardly heave-to in that sea anymore, what with oil rigs and traffic EVERYWHERE. Oil rig supply boats have been popping steroids lately too, it appears. They are much bigger and more sophisticated these days than they used to be, even ten or fifteen years ago. Fishing boats are smaller and focused on the business of fishing as always, cute little trawlers some of them.

After Bremerhaven we sail for Ipswich for a Tall Ship Event of One. We spent about six months in Ipswich in the winter of ’93-’94 while working our way across the Atlantic. The gang became pretty well known in Ipswich. The two lads made famous in Alan Villiers “Cruise of the Conrad”, known as Hard-Case and Storm-Along, boys of twelve upon joining the Fullrigger Joseph Conrad, still lived here then and we became well acquainted. They did not even snicker at the concept of rigging and sailing this ship. Stan Goodchild and Jim Fuller, fine gents they were, have passed away now, glad to have known them. The Admiral Nelson was our designated pub. We had to go there in the evenings as the ship was so cold and no one could figure out how to make the furnace work. The 450 year old Butt and Oyster at Pin Mill was popular too.

Coincidentally, Captain Alan Villiers home-ported the Conrad in Ipswich for his world voyage in the mid 1930’s (this exquisite ship is now laying preserved at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut) and Captain Irving and Exy Johnson bought their first Dutch wooden pilot schooner Yankee here as well and fitted out at Pin Mill on the River Orwell before beginning their career which included seven world voyages. Small world. We only stuck in there 15 years ago due to gales in the Channel. There is still a wooden shipyard of sorts at Pin Mill catering to various sailing barges and rebuilds, not as rich and redolent as Ring Andersen in Svendborg, but with its charm none the less. The Butt and Oyster is a pretty fine place to linger on a rainy afternoon. Exy referred to this yard and pub in their first book, I just noticed in a quick scan. A good read, “Westward Bound in the Schooner Yankee.” I knew Villiers had been in Ipswich, but not the Johnsons. At the mouth, Felixstowe and Harwich are major container and cross-sea ferry ports but the River Orwell remains a bucolic country stream leading up to the old city of Ipswich, or so I hope…then out the English Channel to Wales and then France, Spain and so forth. Just passed in this channel by a monster MAERSK-Line container ship – no worries, Mate has the con.

Just now we are sailing from Den Helder, Holland for Bremerhaven, Germany, steering north around the very low coast of Holland – that’s what Netherlands means, low-lands – conditions SW force 6, seas 2-3 metres, overcast and a little rain. Under easy canvas, upper topsails and fore course. Nice overnight sail with moderate fair winds. Lynsey and Nadja are with Sorlandet for the 5 day but 165 mile trip to Bremerhaven and what will be our last Tall Ships fest for a while, I hope and expect that they are having a good time. We got crew in exchange for the passage.

We are just sailing east along the north coast of Netherlands getting close to the German border. Wrecks in the water everywhere, just everywhere, WWII not so long ago or that far away hereabouts. Going to anchor soon, have to go up 20 miles of skinny river and locks and lifting bridges to Bremerhaven tomorrow. You can drop the hook anywhere as long as you don’t mind anchoring in the middle of the sea. We sailed up to the hook, dropped it and couple shots of chain and furled sail for the night. Tomorrow, up the Weser to Bremerhaven.

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Den Helder, The Netherlands

We raised the anchor at Terschilling and headed off past these low lands of Holland. Of course that’s what Netherlands means, “low lands.” They are sure enough low, can barely see them they are so low. We had a good push to get to Den Helder in time to join the fleet there assembling, but the tide was on our side and it went slack conveniently as we turned up the long channel towards the port. We never motor as much as we do around Tall Ships festivals…maybe we should call them Festivals of Dee-Sails (diesel).

We motored past the high moles into the inner Naval harbour that had been turned over to the festival for the weekend and found that we were to berth across from the huge and magnificent Russian four-masted Bark Sedov. This we took as a quite a distinction. The Sedov was built as the German Magdelan Vinnen, one of the last cargo carrying Cape Horn sailing ships in the early part of the 20th century. She is altered very little from her original layout. But if you ever want to put the Picton Castle next to a ship that will make her appear very small, the Sedov will do quite nicely. She is the largest sailing ship in the world. There was, naturally, newspaper coverage of this event and in one aerial photograph there is the little Barque Picton Castle next to the massive Sedov. We thought it was pretty fine anyway. Small but tough.

We must compliment and commend Sail Training International (STI) and the host ports for the phenomenal job of putting complicated, crowd pleasing events together. We were glad to be part of them here in Europe this year. It is an enormous undertaking consisting of endless planning and coordinating, taking three years to prepare. There are always little hitches, but nothing in comparison to how much complicated stuff goes correctly and on schedule.

Holland is pretty special. Certainly a lot cheaper than Norway for us poor sailors. We all sort of liked the happy Dutch do-your-own-thing freedom attitude. Although in the maritime realm this seems to border on eye-popping nautical anarchy. Returning to port after the obligatory Parade of Tall Ships we had some pretty amazing experiences resulting in a variety of conclusions regarding local marine operating traditions, none of them particularly printable. I have since consulted with those in the know and I was told that what follows is all too typical…

Coming back in to port we were crowded like crazy, not just by random private spectator craft – no, no, that’s expected – but by big Navy vessels either side of us and some big schooners all racing to be back into harbour. First, at the none-too-big entrance of the none-too-big harbour, we get passed at high speed on the inside of the sharp turn by a Navy Minesweeper; this, of course, with a zillion small craft making up on us, as well as a couple of larger vessels. Then, once inside the harbour there was a collision in broad daylight in perfect conditions in the turning basin, about a ship-length away from us, between a 120′ topsail schooner and big 200 ton fishing trawler that had been out to watch the parade (all dressed in signal flag, coolers and lawn chairs about the decks) more or less head-on, right by our port side. Steaming slowly right at each other! We could not stop, turn around or get out of the way – it was madness.

Then, just to make sure heartbeats don’t slow down too much, as we were manoeuvring to approach the dock, following the orders and instructions of the dock-master, these two large vessels, two 100 foot steel passenger ketches (names deleted to protect the guilty) kept motoring right in front of us or dashing in front and taking our designated spot – the dock master is yelling at them to back off – but they do not care. They wanted to discharge passengers and dock master be stuffed. They would not give us any room to manoeuvre. We asked them to hold back on the radio as we were not that easy to manoeuvre, they responded saying that manoeuvring was hard for them too. As if that somehow made it all better! I said to the dock-master to just dock them first, then we will come in once they STOP moving and motoring around directly under our jib-boom. The Picton Castle is not the biggest Class A ship by far, but she is not all that tiny once you get her in a small harbour basin with the wind blowing fresh. Absolute crazy behaviour. All of that above in only 30 minutes. But a good time had by all…

I spent a lot of time here with my old shipmate, Captain Jarle Flatebo, now skipper of the 1700 ton bark Statsraad Lehmkuhl. Anyway, one last Tall Ships festival and then back to sea.

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