Our passage from the Cape Verde islands off West Africa to Fernando de Noronha , Brazil was just about as perfect a sailing ship passage as one could ask for. We started off with strong winds, which then moderated, later got calm and picked up again but under sail almost every inch. If Columbus had any idea how close the New World really was he would have sailed south west from the Canary Islands towards Brazil instead of due west to the Bahamas (and a little more than twice as far), and well, who knows what would have happened. His first voyage took about two months across almost the widest part of the Atlantic – I guess he must have hove-to at night to avoid going aground and only making 50 miles a day – a good call but I don’t know what he did. His ships could easily make 100 miles a day in fair conditions.
Our gang got the Picton Castle under way from Mindelo, Sao Vincente under sail alone, sailed every inch of the way but for a couple six hour stretches motoring in flat calms – then 1498 miles, 12 days and nine hours later they sailed their barque in fresh breezes right up to the hook off the little harbour at Fernando and anchored under sail without the use of the engine; pretty good gang of sailors they are. Somewhere near the equator King Neptune and his Royal Court boarded the ship and after offering their tender ministrations welcomed all hands into the Sacred Order of Royal Shellbacks. More on these dignified proceedings I am proscribed from relating. After a brief interlude at that pretty island we set off again. This time bound for Grenada in the West Indies just about 2,000 trade-wind miles away.
Just now we are sailing along braced well up on the starboard tack, under all plain sail to royals, flying jib and gaff topsail set. The stunsle booms are run in on top of their yards – the wind is too close right now for stunsles and actually probably too strong anyway. The Picton Castle is making about 6 to 7 knots in fresh North East trade winds steady, steady, steady on the starboard quarter right here off the coast of Brazil right about on top the equator, a bit north of said line actually. Land lays about 180 miles on our port beam. Flying fish take flight and soar out of our way – scientists say that these fish do not fly; they look like they fly to me hundred yards or more at a time. When they loose a little speed they drop to almost sea level and the bottom bit of their tail dips in the seas and sculls madly and they are airborne with speed again; seems a lot like self propelled flying to me. Scientists are baffled but they need to get out more…Our nights have magical skies of clouds overhead that could easily, with some imagination form into any number of mysterious shapes. The binnacle lantern gives a feint rosy glow to the helmsman framed in the spanker sheets as he is, or perhaps a she, and drenched and backlit in starlight and velvet blue-black sky – yet dark enough to hold on to the mystery of the night.
Pretty well out of fresh vegetables we are but Mr. Church managed to find a few sacks of potatoes in the last island. We even have couple watermelons from Senegal , well, maybe one. Donald is still feeding us but we are getting to that point in a long passage where we can see those tins of sardines and corned beef hash we have been avoiding…we last provisioned heavily in Dakar now many weeks astern and an ocean ago.
It was plenty warm today under this tropic sun – helmsman stripped to the waist with a broad straw hat – haven’t touched the braces in days. Some crew are broken off into day-men riggers, sailmakers and ‘donkeymen’ (engine-room gang). The quarter-deck is covered with two new t’gallants getting roped by David and his able helpers John and Sophie. Aloft we spy a couple crew, Erin and Jackie, seizing on new ratlines on the main shrouds. Another former landsman is oiling blocks. Some new baggywrinkle is being made up there from some fine new German marlin we got in Hamburg and the usual short yarns of manila rope. DB, Bruce and Charlotte have the task well in hand. The engineers (Suzie having joined their ranks as a Donkey-Dayman for the passage) seem to be on perpetual smoke-break on the fore-deck. But the engine room looks pretty good so they must be doing something from time to time.
It is about two hours past sunset and full into the night now. Seas are small, the moon has not yet made an appearance although expected any minute or any hour perhaps… There are enough stars to make the night far from pitch black and getting around on deck with the ambient light is easy enough for those on watch without the use of our night deck lights. As the ship rolls in the modest beam seas the nipped buntlines slat and drum softly on the fore-side of the billowing canvas sails. I remember stories by old deep-water seamen standing lookout on the focsle-head of some huge Finnish or Swedish bark when young in the 1920’s and 30’s, sailing squared before the trades and grabbing a wire buntline (yes, wire) as the foresail fills and it would lift them off the deck and set them down again gently. This barko is a bit small for that. Along the lee waterline seas swish and slop and make that pleasant undulating hissing sound. Up forward on the well deck near the fore-bits a guitar and fiddle are doing their best. A couple crew are stretched out on the hatch in the cool of the night. Now with the moon having joined our company, these crew are alternately bathed in muted silver light and then blue-black shadows of darkness from the sails and rigging and then into the moonlight again.