Captain's Log

Archive for March, 2011

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Approaching the Line

Picton Castle is currently sailing just south of the Equator, soon to pass from the Southern hemisphere to the Northern hemisphere. On this world voyage, the ship first crossed the Line between Panama and Galapagos. Sailing slowly towards zero degrees, then veering away from it as the wind dictates and setting course once again, the pollywogs aboard (those who have never crossed the Equator by ship before) are nervous. Picton Castle is a ship rich in seafaring tradition and, much to the relief of the shellbacks (those who have crossed), Neptune will likely board the ship soon to rid our fine barque of the odiferous stench of pollywogs. Here is an incoming email, posted recently on the doors of the salon scuttle where all important notices to crew are hung.

From: scribetohismajesty.neptunerex@ontheline.com
Sent: March 26, 2011 8:22 PM
To: Picton Castle
Subject: Approaching the Line

Dear Sir,

By the usual means – porpoise, whale, flying fish, AIS and sooty tern (hey, what’s up with the cat? Give bird a break, eh?), we have been apprised of your good ship approaching The Line once again. We hope that, apart from the hideous, yet relatively minor infestation of the dreaded and lowly ‘pollywog’, your voyage is proceeding felicitously for you and your noble and long-suffering Shellbacks. Sadly your lack of excellent, No 1, Superior, Finest Kind, Super Duper, Shellback brand tradewinds have been in abeyance due to presence of said proto-low-life, the earlier mentioned and ever so loathsome, gag, spit, pollywogs. Sad but true…

His Royal Aqueous Majesty, King Neptune, Emperor of the Deep Sea Realm and all Who Sail on She, has directed Me, His Royal Scribe, to begin the appropriate and necessary communications so as to commence the delicate and judicious proceedings so as to rid our August Ship, The PICTON CASTLE of such objectionable vermin; odiferous, ulcer-ridden, bilious and festering, oh, too revolting, I can’t go on… The Boss says to keep her coming Cap’, we’ll see you when we see you.

By Order of His Majesty,
The Royal Scribe

From: PICTON CASTLE
To: scribetohismajesty.neptunerex@ontheline.com
Sent: Saturday, March 26, 2011 3:26 PM
Subject: Re: Approaching the Line

Dear Sir Scribe,

Thank you for your e-mail of yesterday. Yes, we are soon approaching your sacred Realm of The Line. Tragically we do happen to have a few wretched pollywogs aboard. Sadly they have been a pernicious presence for far too long. Grateful we are at the prospect of the execution of King Neptune’s holy offices, soon to clear the table, level the field, burn the infection out and cauterize the sore. Yet, we also trust in His Divine Mercy as these pollywogs, as objectionable as they naturally are, and of course, we loath them with distain and indifference, they are not that bad as pollywogs go. Well, actually, they are pretty bad at that…we’ll be in touch – please give our very warm regards to Their Royal Highnesses King Neptune and Queen Aphrodite and the Royal Court and, of course to your Esteemed Self, Sir Scribe.

Captain and Crew of the PICTON CASTLE

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South Atlantic Tradewinds

The break of dawn comes right on time here in the tropical South Atlantic about 800 miles east of the hump of Brazil. We rather expected it would. In these tropics, night to day shifts from deep night to bright shiny morning pretty swiftly, often with a brief brilliant blaze of sunrise. We are steering NW for an area along the Brazilian coast where we might expect to pick up this stiff Guyana or Orinoco Current, and borrow a couple knots from the sea. Yards are squared, studding sails set on starboard, winds modest, hoping they will pick up, seas small, not much swell, bright blue sky, nary a squall to be seen.

The occasional flying fish makes its doomed way over the rail and aboard with a rapid snappy flapping about the decks somewhere followed by quiet as the Chibley the cat dispatches same and enjoys a satisfying fishy munch, suits her it does, the odd flying fish. I had always expected we would gather more flying fish than we do. The crew of the 4-8 watch are in the ritualistic morning scrubbing down of the oiled pine decks with salt water hose and deck brushes scrubbing athwartship across the grain as centuries of sailors have done, perhaps also wondering why they are doing so as the decks looked plenty clean already. Some accumulated grime having been perceived in the corners of the waterways by the mate, crew are told to scrub the scuppers clean – one returning with a toothbrush to get at the job. This dedicated old salt is let in on the notion that perhaps a small stiff scrub brush might just do the trick – when we start using toothbrushes to scrub the decks of a barque displacing 600 tons of ocean, maybe we are getting a bit, I don’t know, lost in our work? But points for giving your all…

All is well in our barque Picton Castle some 26,000 miles out from the advent of this voyage at Lunenburg. Blue seas, sunny skies, warm breezes, occassional whales and porpoise, some fish catching, plenty of flying fish scattering out of our way – well, except a couple. Once in a while we see another ship. One crossed our track last night. The AIS, which tells us of other ships, their course, speed, size and nature, if they are so fitted with AIS as all large commercial vessels are, indicated that it was a “pleasure craft.” Sure looked like a 400′ bulk carrier to us. Maybe the watch officer was bored.

Lots of sails are being made up on the quarterdeck. Three or four sailmaker benches filled at a time, nothing but palms and needles in action. True heaps of snowy canvas, quite bright in the bright tropical sunlight piled up all over the decks getting stitched together into topsails, staysails, jibs and the like. We have two of the gang turned to as carpenter daymen, Jan and Niko. Wire runs, graving pieces, fixing doors, caulking, replacing steel hinges with ones of brass, gearing up the long-boat rudder so it becomes detachable from her gudgens, hoisted to be stowed alongside the port quarter of the boat outboard when the sweep is in use, much as practised on whale boats and Pitcairn long-boats in days not so very long gone by.

With our young ‘styrmand’ Siri (means ‘mate’ in Norwegian) from the Statsraad Lehmkuhl taking the mate’s watch, chief mate Michael has gone dayman as well, leading a rigging campaign to introduce some overhauls and minor improvements: wire back-ropes; wire heads’l halyards and brace runners for the yards, wire upper topsail downhauls too, wire course clew garnets, wire upper topsail clewlines; more wire the better, with manila whips, lasts much longer, less stretch and as it is combination wire, no more weight aloft. Proper ship rigging stuff. The gang has freshly tarred the rig and soon boats will be looked after for an aesthetic overhaul. Our small boats must look sharp in the Caribbean. A ship is naturally judged by her boats.

Engineer Chris has been grinding and making noise for days down in the engine room, I don’t dare find out he is up to… no doubt some worthy project. Cook Donald sweats buckets in the galley without complaint, producing meal after fine meal, day after day. Except Sunday when the galley hands give it a shot, often with positive results.

The last few nights have been giving us Bill Gilkerson pyrate skies.* Pirate skulls and the like seem to form phantom-like in the moonlit clouds. A moon spangled wake astern as we sail away the miles, star speckled night dome. Our Southern Cross is getting lower, the Big Dipper, higher in the north. Our winds are sweet but the closer we get to the Line some 500 miles ahead, the more fitful it seems – some suggest that this may have something to do with the sad presence of “pollywogs” aboard.

*See the wonderful prize-winning books by William Gilkerson: “Pirate’s Passage” and “A Thousand Years of Pirates”

Jan and Niko at work on the focs le head
Jan replacing planks on the quarterdeck
Joani straightens a lower topsail chafe patch
Mike and Robert in the rigging
Robert in the bosuns chair
South Atlantic night sky
Taia pulls on canvas

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Exploring St. Helena

The Picton Castle swung on her anchor at St. Helena for three days and many of us could easily have stayed longer at this remarkable island. Although small (it is about 5 miles wide and 9 miles long) St. Helena is a geological and ecological marvel. Almost deceiving to the approaching ship (its cliffs rugged, dry and bare) the interior of St. Helena is a lush botanical paradise of mist-covered gently sloping hills and uncultivated fields and reveals a unique sub-tropical ecosystem – influenced in part by its geographic location and in part by the southeasterly winds which have a cooling effect in this southern hemisphere.

The waterfront of Jamestown is quite striking with ancient whitewashed stone buildings, forts and and stone barricade with slots for canons, as often as not with their old canons still pointing out to sea. This is all undergoing a major revitalization and phase one of the project in well under way. All sorts of activity was to be seen, with some new stone buildings and cement getting poured, massive earth movers and a crane (how did they get them ashore with no jetty?). Those in charge of the project hope that in the future the waterfront will be lined with shops and a boardwalk – a welcoming entrance for those arriving. The very old customs office and a few other buildings from the 1700s built into the cliff wall speak to a different time and perhaps they will be maintained as another representation of a long and rich maritime history.

Portuguese sailors first landed at St Helena in 1502. Jamestown was established as an English commercial settlement in the mid 1600s and is built in a narrow and steep valley known as James Valley. The Dutch took over for a year or two before the British got it back. It is a fascinating town architecturally as almost all of its buildings represent its colonial roots. A dry moat surrounds the grand gates to the town and as you walk through the archway the castle is directly to your left and ‘Jacobs ladder’ lies to your right. Everywhere one sees ancient fortifications often with old canons sticking out. Jacob’s ladder is an imposing staircase of some 699 steps leading straight up the steep mountainside from the seaside entrance of the town to Ladder Hill Fort. The colourful balconied shops, restaurants and houses boast of Georgian and Victorian roots, while some also have Portuguese and Dutch colonial influences. The crew quickly established bases throughout the town and set about making plans for their exploration of the island. Everyone and his brother (and sister) has contributed to the ethnic mix here at St Helena; Portuguese, Dutch, all manner of Welsh, Scots, English, evacuees from the great fire of London in 1666, Chinese indentured servants in 1810, Africans, Malaysians, Afrikaners, French Huguenot refugees, soldiers and the ongoing stream of mariners from everywhere and anywhere, shipwrecked and otherwise, over the centuries and to this very day.

The friendly and solicitous tourist office was an obvious first contact and the employees there proved more than helpful in organizing cross-island tours, getting our laundry laundered, pointing out the best restaurants and bars and getting us situated. The crew spent quite a bit of time at Ann’s Place. Located just above the castle gardens, Ann’s Place was a quiet spot where the crew could get a bite to eat or some refreshment and use the internet. Ann’s Place was definitely a prime spot for mariners, they stayed open extra hours for us. It was also important for the crew to get up to the other local hangouts – Standard Pub (where they put on a food spread and music one night just for us), Whitehorse Tavern or the Consulate Hotel. Ever friendly the locals treated us to nights of dancing and karaoke.

Most of the crew made it out of Jamestown and into the country at least once. Some opted to hike some of the islands scenic trails, while others took organized tours to some of the popular destinations. As they meandered through inland pastures and rolling hills (reminiscent of Sussex, England and the Downs) they visited ancient historical fortifications; picturesque Sandy Bay; Napoleon’s home Longwood and gardens and his tomb; the settlements of Half Tree Hollow and Longwood; Plantation House and Jonathan. Arguably the oldest reptile on earth Jonathan, from the Seychelles Islands is a seashell tortoise and he is estimated to be 175 years old.

The Captain and senior staff were invited to Governor Andrew Gurr’s home (Plantation House) for dinner and Chief Mate Mike, Siri and I were honoured to be included on his guest list – along with three prominent members of the local community. We were treated to a three course meal – under the chandelier once owned by Napoleon – and absorbing conversation before we ‘retired’ to the library (built by Napoleon’s own carpenter) for coffee and a continuance of the evenings conversation. Governor Gurr had also been posted to the Falklands and it was fascinating to meet him and revel in the Old World empire charm of Plantation House with paintings of kings and queens and all manner of naval heros of England who had put into St Helena. What a rare treat of an evening.

The Captain also invited the Governor (and 12 guests) to tour the Picton Castle. We opened this invitation to the community and consequently several groups – including the Boy Scouts, the employees of the tourist bureau and a local radio personality – took us up on the offer. There are two radio stations on the island and they both requested interviews. Chief Mate Mike did one on the ship and the Captain did an interview in town on the day we departed.

We all had a really wonderful time and were just blown away by the genuine hospitality and the natural friendliness of everyone we met. Personally St. Helena was one of my favourite stops on this world voyage and I would very much like to return.

On the morning of March 17th we hauled up our anchor, set all sail and sailed off the hook out of Anchorage Harbour and once more into the great expanse of the South Atlantic.

Thank you St. Helena! And what a thrill to experience your wonderful island.

Dinner with the Governor and the Captain at Plantation House
Meeting with Jonathon
Rebecca climbing Jacob s ladder
Suzanne at Napoleon s tomb
The lush interior of St Helena
Touring the gardens at Longwood house

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St. Helena’s Majesty

After a fine eleven day sail from Luderitz, Namibia, mostly under studding sails, the Picton Castle made landfall off St. Helena. In the hazy morning light we were all struck by the imposing cliffs and tall mountain ridges on this solitary island. St. Helena is part of a Southern Atlantic Ocean undersea mountain chain which also includes Ascension Island which lies 700 miles to the northwest and Tristan da Cunha,1500 miles to the southwest. This island stands very much alone in the South Atlantic.

The island was first discovered by the Portuguese in the early 1500s. Despite their ambition to keep the island’s whereabouts a secret, Dutch and Spanish explorers also found this island way out in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. In the end, however it was the English who laid enduring claim to the island and the English East India Company, a commercial enterprise, founded the Jamestown settlement in the late 1600s, taking over from something of a Portuguese presence. This island secured its place in the history books when Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled here in 1815 after he lost the battle at Waterloo, putting an end to his European ambitions. He and his entourage spent the last 6 years of his life on this island and during that time St. Helena experienced an economic boom, due in large part to the constant influx of naval ships. But it was as a secure outpost for English global commerce with the Far East and as a fortress of empire that is the deeper story of St Helena. It seems that Napoleon died of stomach cancer, was buried in a lovely glen on the island. Then some years later, with the agreement of the English, his body was disinterred and taken for reburial in Paris in a grand mausoleum where his body, or most of it, rests to this day.

St. Helena has a rich and fascinating history. The English used St. Helena as a base during their fight against the slave trade during the 1800s and many slaves en route to the New World were freed here. As recently as two years ago archaeologists visited the island and discovered grave upon grave of first generation slaves. In the early twentieth century 6,000 prisoners from the Boer War in South Africa were brought here by the English and the island once again experienced an economic boom. At that point the island’s population reached something like 14,000, now at about 4,000 today. The majority of the inhabitants of St. Helena have varied ancestry and consequently there is no specific ‘race’ so to speak. Their ancestors came from Portuguese, Dutch, English, Malay, Goanese, Madagascan, East Indian, African, Chinese, Boer, American and some French decent. Perhaps this is all the more fascinating since we have just come from South Africa where there is still an emphasis, though dimninshing, on ‘race’ – albeit differently than the way it is commonly viewed in North America or Europe.

After the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the number of passenger and cargo ships under sail or steam passing by St. Helena dropped significantly. Today with no airport and no large scale industry, St. Helena relies mostly on imports and financial aid from Britain as well as remittances sent by families. Many people have left the island to go to Ascension or the Falklands or Britain for work. This emigration is only a recent phenomenon on St. Helena, though we did meet quite a few people who have returned to the island after years abroad. As an aside we were told that there are about 740 quite habitable houses standing empty on the island today. At the moment there is much debate about the future of the island. Some are fighting for an airport, which they say will bring much needed revenue to the island and give the younger generation a reason to return. Others argue that the friendly, unique and laid back nature of the island would be irrevocably altered if they were to accept tourists en masse. At the moment the only tourists the island receives come on the HMS St. Helena (en route from South Africa or England) or from the yachts which moor off Anchorage Harbour for a few days or weeks.

As we approached Anchorage Harbour, the open roadstead at the base of James Valley, we took in all sail and sailed up to anchor just like ships of long ago. After clearing in with Customs and Immigration, the Captain and I went ashore to meet with Governor Gurr at the Castle and make our formal introductions. Within an hour the Captain had reconnected with several friends from visits past and the owner of the local book store had ‘given’ him a book he had sought 5 years before on the 4th World Voyage! We were greeted warmly everywhere we went and it immediately became apparent to me that this island is special.

Jamestown, St Helena
Mike, Joh, Cody and Pania with a canon in St Helena
The crew standby for sail handling
The Picton Castle in Anchorage Harbour

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South African Cape Horner’s Association Ends

By Josh Spencer

Official Announcement:

On the 14th of February 2011, the SA Cape Horners met for the last time as an official association aboard S/V Barque Picton Castle in the Cape Town Waterfront.

After much deliberation the committee had decided that in view of the rapidly declining membership and the increasing inability of members to attend meetings that it was fitting that the SA Cape Horners should follow the example of the IACH and voluntarily disband the organization.

The final meeting was attended by Capt Bill Damerell (President), Capt Pail Staples, Capt Daniel Moreland (Honorary Member and host for the occasion) AB’s Dutchy van Dyl, Fred Muller, Tony Newton and Joe Brownless.

Associate members attending were Rear Admiral (Ret) Arni Soderlund, AB’s Elise Soderlund, Cedric Hunter and Bosun Josh Spencer. Guests included Kris Steyn and Dennis Stephenson of the Cape Windjammer Educational Trust and a few friends and relatives of Cape Horners.

As always we were warmly received on board by a good turn-out of Picton Castle crew members who enjoyed the opportunity to meet some ‘old salts’ from a now vanished era.

The SA Cape Horner’s Association ‘tops’l’ was hoisted on the bridge deck and for several hours the main deck buzzed with conversation as all concerned re-lived some of their experiences at sea, and poured over old photographs. At the sound of ‘three whistles’ the association mustered around the main mast for a photo-call and to listen to a short address by Dan Moreland and Bill Demerell who officially declared the association ended.

Although the end of this fellowship is a sad moment, the meeting was nevertheless a joyous occasion, enjoyed by young and old.

The SA Cape Horner bank account has been closed and the proceeds are to be donated equally to the Ship Society and Sea Cadets. The ‘tops’l’ will be cared for by Arni Soderlund who will give it pride of place amongst his incredible collection of nautical artifacts.

It is hoped that ex-members of this association will continue to meet informally from time to time long into the future.

Ships represented in the membership of the South African Cape Horners include the commercial age of sailing sailing ships Lawhill, Pamir, Passat, Herzogin Cecelie, Hougomont, Pommern, Commodore, Olivebank, Archibald Russell, Abraham Rydberg, Padua and Danmark as well as Romance, Eye Of The Wind, Picton Castle and others.

Abbey and Robert hear tales
Catching up on stories of the seven seas
Pania hears some tales
Suzanne gets to know the Cape Horners
The Captain catches up with friends

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A Cape Town Retrospective

Cape Town, South Africa was without a doubt one of the most anticipated port calls on this voyage, and it did not disappoint. Though we left more than two weeks ago a brief recap of our stay there seems appropriate…

There is plenty to do in Cape Town itself and the crew spent the much of their stay wandering the downtown markets for crafts and goodies for home, eating at trendy restaurants (or at a braii in a township), going to the movies or staying in hotels on Long Street (or off in the bush on safari), hanging out with locals and seafarers alike at our waterfront pub of choice – Mitchell’s, hiking Table Mountain (or taking the cable car) to see the incredible vista and encountering the wily Rock Dassie (or taking a Helicopter ride like Clark did – or parasailing Lions Head like Paula), visiting the numerous museums in Cape Town.

The crew favourites include Robben Island, an amazing museum and one that will remain etched in your memory for years to come. Nelson Mandela was the most famous of its incarcerates, 17 years he spent here banging on rocks and waiting out the aparthied regime, one among many who fought aparthied. This museum, when a prison, was filled with political activists and community leaders who fought against apartheid and injustice. All of the tour guides are ex-prisoners and this makes the tour heart-wrenchingly real and incredibly powerful. Many of the other workers at the museum are ex-guards.

Another crew favourite was the District Six Museum. District Six was by all accounts a thriving artist community and ‘coloured’, ‘white’ and ‘black’ people alike lived there. During apartheid this community was torn down and the majority of its inhabitants were relocated to the townships. Since then little has been rebuilt and the empty lots of the area still reflect a history not soon forgotten. Was ‘urban renewal’ in North America much different? In Halifax the wiping out of Africville comes to mind. Most of the staff who work at the museum used to live in District Six and that gives a powerful touch to the already moving exhibits and forces you to reflect on what it means to have a home. The crew also enjoyed visiting the South African Maritime Museum (but of course!) and the Aquarium, among others.

Many of the crew made it to Clifton Beach and Camps Bay for a Goldfish concert, surfing or simply a relaxing day on the beach in the shadow of the 12 Apostles – a series of mountain peaks that extends from Table Mountain to the Cape of Good Hope. Cape of Good Hope nature preserve was also a crew favourite, but only Clark made it to Cape Aghulas, the true southern-most tip of the African continent. Points to Clark.

Most of the crew made it to the famous wine regions of Stellenbosch and Franschoek for a tour of the vineyards or a relaxing dinner overlooking green, luscious, grape covered farms in the valleys. Some took more extensive trips outside of the Western Cape. Some took the popular Garden Route along the coast. South Africa was voted the best country to road-trip in this year and some might say it was because of this route. Spectacular. Alison and Paul drove out to Bloomfontein in the Free State where they visited with the vanSchalkwyks on their sprawling farm. Their sons Hendrik and Danie have both been crew on the Picton Castle on previous voyages and the family remains good friends of the Captain, the ship and her crew. Others went off to visit Kruger National Park and other distant game parks –catching glimpses of the Big Five (elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino, leopard, hippo, giraffe, maybe zebra, I know, that’s eight!). And still others explored Durban and the Eastern provinces. Yes, the crew certainly did keep busy during our stay in Cape Town. And yet, you could spend your lifetime here in South Africa and not see half of its hidden treasures.

Cape Town was not just a time of exploration. It was also a time of reconnection. Many friends and family came to visit the ship during our stay. Paula and Rebecca both got visits from their mothers, Joh’s parents came to see her from Norway, and Davey’s family flew from Dubai and Durban to visit with him. NickSA and Georgie (both attending the University of Cape Town) spent a lot of time with their old shipmates. Arran, who spent last winter helping with maintenance, repair and up-rig, was also in town to welcome us. The Picton Castle has a long association with Cape Town and Cape Town harbour. Consequently not a day went by that the Captain did not have an old friend dropping by to visit. Julie (who was Bosun on the second world voyage) and her husband Richard threw a braai and invited some of the crew back to their lovely home for a fun evening of dinner and games. The Bestbier family (NickSA’s family) threw an amazing party at their home in Rondebosch for the crew. We dined on sushi appetizers and had a roast beef feast before dancing the night away to a live band –under a canopy tent in the backyard. Our agents also hosted an event onboard the Picton Castle. A catering company dished out a first class meal while our esteemed guests mingled with crew and toured the ship. Gerald, one of our agents, and his wife Serena also invited some of the crew back to their house in the hills above Hout Bay where we spent a lovely evening dining and debating and dancing under the stars. We also held a “marlinspike” onboard one afternoon for the members of the Cape Horner Society. These gentlemen had sailed great cargo carrying sailing ships around Cape Horn in the last days of commercial sail in the four-masted Barques Passat, Pamir, Lawhill – and had fascinating stories to share with the crew. This sailing community of ours is a rich one. Thank you to everyone for your hospitality and generosity and your friendship!

Cape Town marked the end of Leg 3 and the beginning of Leg 4, the final leg of this world voyage. Like all endings and beginnings there are hellos and goodbyes, or farewells rather as we sailors don’t like goodbyes so much and reunions seem inevitable for a crowd such as ours. Tiina, Megan, Vicky, Susie, Michael S and Hege’s time was up and signed off in Cape Town to get back to school, other ships or commitments and their presence onboard is indeed missed! Logan also left us in Cape Town after going through an emergency surgery at the Christian Barnard Memorial Hospital for a rare medical condition. He is recovering well, but for obvious reasons has flown back home to heal. He is missed by all! We did however gain some new crew while in Cape Town. We welcomed aboard Dan, Wendy, Cody, Suzanne, Bas, Christine and our new Medical Officer, Petran. They have all been fitting in very nicely and we are all happy to have them.

We are now sailing toward St. Helena. Stuns’ls are up and we have been flying the royal staysail and mizzen t’gallant staysail. The sun has returned to warm the decks and the crew after a few days of fog, cloud and chill and classes have begun (more on that in a day or two!). We were in Cape Town for almost a month and Namibia for a nice and interesting stop too and everyone truly enjoyed their time. But this voyage is about the ship and the sea and that is where we want to be.

*Thank you to Liam, Adrienne and Pania for their photographs.

Abbey and Dave pinic
Adrienne and Clark at Cape Point
Adrienne at a game reserve
Adrienne spots a giraffe
On their way up to Table Mountain
Pania and Joh at the Aquarium

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Christel House and Beyond

During this 14-month circumnavigation the crew of the Picton Castle have visited friendly remote islands, swam in cascading waterfalls, snorkelled on coral reefs, watched dolphins play off our bowsprit, sweated out airless passages under power, climbed active volcanoes, sailed in perfect tradewind conditions with stuns’ls set, explored bustling metropolitan centres in Panama, Fiji, Bali and South Africa, dined with chiefs and chefs, surfed sand dunes and waves alike… and yet one of the biggest highlights for the crew is when we visit the local schools. Perhaps it is the innocence and the curiosity inherent in every child the world over. As we sail the world and discover how large it actually is (and how small) and how many differences (but mostly similarities) there are between cultures, children seem pretty much the same – not all of them have the same shot at life though.

When we visit schools we usually bring with us much needed school supplies. These school supplies, generously donated by school children and communities in Nova Scotia in particular and the East Coast in general, provide needed materials for schools in remote and/or poverty stricken areas who have very little access to a resource we too often take for granted: knowledge. Paper, pencils, crayons, pens, rulers, black boards, chalk are extremely well recieved.Then reference books such as encyclopedias, dictionaries are highly sought after. And anything reasonable to read, novels and other books as well as text books. Thank you all for your generous gift. It has been an absolute pleasure to see the gratitude and excitement in the eyes of children when we deliver books to their schools and perhaps even more satisfying to invite the children back to our ship and see their curious minds explore the possibilities. A life at sea? Who knows? But certainly coming down and spending a day on the ship opens eyes to possiblities anyway.

The Picton Castle has a long-standing relationship with Christel House, South Africa. Opened in Cape Town in 2002 by Christel DeHaan, Christel House believes in more than just quality education. It believes in breaking the cycle of poverty through a combined effort of community outreach programs, social programs and access to education for the very poorest of the poor.

At 9am on February 9th a bus arrived to take us to visit Christel House. Forming a human chain we stacked the mountain of books into the carriage and piled onto the bus. The school is located quite close to downtown Cape Town (and yet worlds away by other standards) on a large plot of land. Table Mountain dominates the horizon on one side, sprawling townships, the other. This facility is quite new. When the Picton Castle visited Christel House five years ago they were located in a rented building with little outdoor space for the children to play sports or run around in. This new land was recently donated by the city of Cape Town and was an attestation to the good work that Christel House is already doing for and with the local communities.

When we arrived we were greeted by Principals Midge Hilton-Green and Ronald Fortune along with Sharon Williams, the head of public relations, and a few teachers and social workers. With the help of some of the school children we unloaded the books into the lobby of the school and were led onto the field to meet and greet. Ever curious and ever affectionate they approached us with huge smiles and open arms. The older children asked what we did and who we were and wanted to tell us about their studies and lives. Amazingly some of them remembered us from our last visit – and of course, asked about Chibley the cat! The younger children ran up to us and invited us to play soccer, climb on the jungle gym, swing with them or play in the sandbox.

While the children were ushered off into their classrooms to take their exams we were escorted to the lounge. After speaking with some of the teachers and social workers we were shown a video about some of the students attending the school. It is almost impossible not to be moved when you realize what some of these children have gone through in their short lives and to witness how genuinely thrilled they are to be in school. Most speak four languages and are well-spoken and incredibly well-behaved and polite.

Christel House has become such a positive and regular presence in these communities that their school buses can go into areas where visitors are often not allowed. It is not an easy thing to understand poverty and the culture that poverty creates – let alone attempting to break the cycle of poverty. The school believes that an integral part of the tour is a trip to the townships and into the communities and houses where the students live. The townships are just as much a part of Cape Town as the ritzy, upscale Victoria Wharf area or trendy Long Street and yet few people venture here. There is indeed a lot of gang violence and yet these communities can also be vibrant, caring spaces. The school offers support to the communities and families (the way many of the gangs do, with a dire cost) with no stings attached.

It was still quite eye opening for those of us from Canada, USA, Europe and New Zealand to witness this level of poverty and to know that only the poorest from the townships are chosen to attend Christel House. We were all greeted with friendly, albeit curious, smiles and we found the homes to be small, made of tin and clap-board and sometimes cardboard – essentially materials found on hand. The insides were often bare but some were decorated with newspaper clippings and creative, resourceful decorative touches. You cannot help but begin to reassess your own life – no matter how simple – after you leave townships like Phulam Village and Jim Se Bos. And after visiting Christel House you also realize that one child can make a difference. One more voice and one more smile in what I have every faith will be a brilliant Rainbow Nation.

We still had quite a few books left after our donation to Christel House. After touring their new facilities, including their new library and computer centre, we knew that these other books may be more needed elsewhere. The Captain got in touch with two good friends to help in our quest for another school. Melvin King and Peter Flanders have both been involved with Christel House in the past. Melvin King is still working in education and Peter Flanders has gone on to work for another worthy organization. He was able to organize the delivery of the rest of our school supplies to St. John Primary School in the community of Bufflejagsrivier.

This is what they had to say to us after the delivery arrived:

“You made very happy people and children in South Africa! Peter rocked up with a bakkie and trailer full of school material to be donated to the rural primary school St John in Buffeljagsrivier near Swellendam. Thank you very very much! I made some photos and video footage that I still have to mount. I will do this next weekend. Again thanks for you so beautiful gesture. Best Regards, Carlo”

We also invited 150 of the children of Christel House to the ship for a morning and afternoon. The Captain and Mates created different stations for the children so that they could learn something and have fun – while exploring life as a ‘pirate’. They took turns on the windlass, set the mizzen stays’l, had a block and tackle tug of war, took turns taking rides in the skiff – for all their first and very exciting time in a boat on the water; ‘steering the helm’ and boxing the compass. This activity we followed up with a huge pasta lunch a la dream team of Sophie, Dave and Niko. A good time had by all!

Ali makes friends with Christel House students in the sandbox
Christel House students on the quarterdeck
loading books for Christel House on to the bus
Rebecca and Christel House students set the mizzen stays l
touring townships with Christel House staff

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Township Braai

By Chief Mate Michael Moreland

Surrounding the scenic and stunning city of Cape Town is another world all together although just minutes away. They call it the ‘Cape Flats’ a flat stretch of land just to the northeast of Cape Town, which if you have been there, denotes a frequently dry and windy swath of land that is as dramatically flat as Table Mountain is steep. The contrast doesn’t end there however. While Cape Town has its hip shopping districts, large modern and historical architecture intertwined, and plenty of classy bars and restaurants that can almost compare with NYC (although at 1/4 of the price), you can almost forget that you’re not in Europe somewhere. But head out down the freeway toward the airport and you see the other side of Cape Town, the neighborhoods and houses that thousands call home.

From a distance and on the surface the ‘townships’ (officially called ‘informal settlements’) of the Cape Flats are a depressing and demoralizing sight for anyone new to the area, seeing for the first time the endless string and blocks of patched together shacks made up of anything that works. Corrugated steel, aluminum sheets, cement, brick and so on. Sporadic poles sprout up amidst the field of flat roofed single story houses that spread electricity to houses here and there. The roads are mostly dusty dirt and the maze of streets have no names. But on closer look you are forced to realize that these are peoples homes and they are just like anyone else, trying to make the best with what they have. While visiting some of the homes of the children of the Christel House school, deep within the townships, we saw that behind the shabby, patched exterior was, in every instance, a well-kept homey place. Properly made beds, a little TV, clean dishes and kitchen. An initially intimidating place became almost endearing.

So when a local friend told a group of us crew about a famous barbecue or ‘braii’ place deep in the townships of Gugeletu, where locals and visitors alike come and eat incredible grilled meat, listen to loud music, and drink cold beer under the hot and dusty sun, we were all in. Instead of touring a township, we would be with the township, doing what they like to do which just so happens to coincide with what we like to do. Word spread through the crew about how cool this would be and our local friend and old shipmate, Nicksa, arranged a couple of taxi buses there and also decided we should go on the Sunday afternoon before a big football match which was sure to be a proper party. Sure, why not?

The party was just getting going when we arrived en masse midday. First thing to do was buy your meat and get it in line on the braii. Basically a small butcher shop, Mzoli’s has one counter and glass display where you shout your order of vague quantities of beef steak, pork chops, sausage and chicken to the ladies in aprons behind the counter. There were about 15 of us so we asked for a bucket full of everything mixed up. The lady asked if we wanted sauce. Of course, say yes to everything. On goes several massive ladles of homemade barbecue sauce on to the meat and into the bucket. Money was thrust forward to pay for this 20 kilo tub of meat and a few of us walked our prized catch back to the braii. Smokey and hot as hell, two massive firewood braais were raging with a perfect stockpile of Namibian hardwood coals spread out beneath the grills where close to a hundred pieces of tasty meat were being expertly and imperfectly grilled by four or five guys. The smell was intoxicating but the smoke unbearable, so with a wave to the braii masters we put our bucket in the queue and decided to find cooler pastures with cold beer. Across the street from Mzolis and through the crowds of people was a little house with funky, makeshift tables and chairs in front and some guys drinking beer. Music was blaring from the oversized speakers and we decided to set up camp there. Beer could be bought in the living room of this house out of giant fridges lining the walls from the owner who seemed quite content with his current state of business as the line was out the door. A quart of Black Label beer for about $1.50 worked for our budget and we soon found the local company to be quite welcoming to our large group of wayward sailors.

We had warned some of our less travelled Picton Castle crew coming with us to be cool and keep your guard up against a few local ‘rude boys’. This proved to be sound advice as just outside the short stone wall of this man’s house were always a couple of young local guys eyeing this or that on us. The locals there made sure to point these guys out to us and even went as far to tell them off a few times when they started hassling someone here or there. Everyone was cool though and enjoyed the high energy, massive block party under the sun with all colors and backgrounds hanging out problem-free in the slums of Cape Town. After a few bribes of cold beer to the cooks, our meat finally made it out after two hours and with no plates or forks (we forgot to bring them) we devoured the most incredible grilled meat most of us proclaimed we had ever had. We shared with the people around us and more beer was bought to wash it down.

As the football match was soon set to start, we decided to hail our taxi bus, with some of us heading to the game and others heading back into town. Gathering up our crew was a bit of a mission but everyone was nearby, just hidden in the building crowds. With all hands accounted for, we got underway, everyone full and excited after a great afternoon. Driving back to the city, I felt a sense that this is what we had been missing in Cape Town proper. The crowds, the hustle, the people, and excitement, which is what I have come to love about Africa. Cape Town is Africa, for the best spots, you just have to know where to look. A rainbow nation to be sure.

bucket of grilled meat at the braai
Donald and Liam select the meat for the braai
giant braai fires

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A Swift Passage

The Picton Castle is six days and 730 miles out from Namibia, southern Africa. On a bright sunny day we sailed from Luderitz surrounded by the most barren of dusty desert with no sign of rain or green vegetation to be seen. And straight into a thick wet fog bank to rival the shores of Newfoundland. Sea lions followed us out. The wind was fair, double lookouts posted, radar spinning, on we sailed slowly into the murk. The next day the fog thinned and the ceiling got higher until after another spell skies broke blue and clear. Winds on the port quarter built to a sweet force 4-5. We are in the South Atlantic southeast tradewinds. The best, most reliable tradewinds on any ocean in the world. And the South Atlantic, tropical even though it may be, is delightfully cool.

With over 5,000 miles of sweet benign tradewinds carrying us to reach the enchanted “Isles of the Blest,” the islands of the eastern Caribbean Sea, a swift passage is desired. To this end, the crew of the Picton Castle are performing a number of tasks: they are bending all the extra sails we can find up on to royal stays and such. They are rigging up to set studding sails (stuns’ls), the canvas wings of clipper ships of the 19th century. The gang will be practicing and drilling in these sails so we can take them in rapidly with ease. And, of course, good steering makes a difference. Quite a bit of difference. That’s why America’s Cup had dedicated helmsmen, no?

We have some advanced workshops set up for the gang to work on. We have broken a lot of daymen out of watches in to carpentry, sailmaking, rigging and engineering and the new gang is catching up too.

Bracken admires the stuns ls
Picton Castle under stuns ls, on the way to Bali
putting stunsls up
stuns ls set

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Hope and Grace

By Meredith McKinnon

There are moments in time that if frozen, would forever remind us that life on the Picton Castle is amazing. Sailing around the Cape of Good Hope in the Barque Picton Castle and then into Cape Town were two such moments, moments that will be forever etched in my memory.

It was a crisp, clean Sunday afternoon at sea and the watch was busy laying in with preparation for our imminent arrival in the famous and highly anticipated Cape Town, South Africa. The 12-4 watch was busy shining brass, cleaning away stains from the bulwarks, and trying to catch glimpses of the curious continent looming to the north east. Land was starting to look like less of a homogenous blob and more like an abstract painting. There were humps that could’ve been mountains or trees; lines that could have been roads or mudslides; speckles that could have been human or wild life. Rebecca called the watch to set royals, so up the masts we scurried loosing them and then setting them with vigour – Cape Town here we come! But alas, the wind piped up setting us on too swift a track and thus interfering with our arrival schedule, so we promptly took them in and off we were again to work, to shine, to sail along.

As I looked up from my scrub brush to take a peek at the coast, I could feel some sort of magic setting in, and as I looked around me it became apparent that everyone else could as well. As if all of a sudden, the once distant coastline became something tangible; a real continent the likes of which we had not seen since Panama some eight months past. Africa. This Southern coastline was riddled with mountainous tops of almost a silvery green, the hues of which I would have imagined in famous tales of old. Below creatures roamed, and closer sharks circled, seals played (albeit cautiously), and birds dove down for a fine feeding frenzy.

We were about to make landfall at a place rich in a history of political and cultural strife with a diverse population unlike anything we had seen on this voyage. Yet, all I could think about was the sheer beauty of ‘Mama Africa’ before my eyes, and of all the sailors who must have gazed upon this same sight in years, lifetimes, and generations past. As the hour wore on, more and more crew came crawling out of their bunks, called from their slumber by some strange force more compelling than the usual ‘wake-up you have watch in ten minutes.’

Shortly after this wayward group of sailors climbed out onto deck Captain Moreland appeared on the bridge, in a warm and wintery fleece, and called out “set all sail’. As we smoothly hoisted halyards, hauled on braces, and sheeted home the royals, the ship finally seemed extravagant enough to honour the Cape and her history. The Cape of Good Hope has long been thought of as a milestone for sailors as it represents the changing of the oceans. For European merchant ships it represented the long voyage ahead to the east, or the homebound passage often yearned for by sailors who had already made arduous passages around the world’s oceans. For those on land, Cape Point is place to look out at the ocean and see the ends of the world, or to look out at ships such as Picton Castle, and think of loved ones far away from home. I couldn’t help but look at the distant cars on the point and feel like I was part of history. We could’ve been any ship belonging the Dutch East India Shipping Company 150 years ago, heading to Cape Town to rest and re-provision for the long passage ahead. Come to think of it, not much has changed for us in those one hundred and fifty years, for we were heading there for the same reasons and are now on our homebound journey across the Atlantic.

Of course, amidst all of this magic was the daily routine of the ship. We cleaned up the work day, stowed the decks and before we knew it the bell rang and it was time for supper. The foc’s’le head became the ‘table d’hote’ for the evening and we all sat there laughing, chatting, and feeding our stomachs with good humour, beautiful vistas, and delicious chicken a la Donald.

Now at this point we all realized how close we were to Cape Town and rumours were spreading as to when and how we would make our entrance. The crew had been informed at the last all hands workshop that there was some weather coming, and that it would be better to arrive sooner than later lest we get caught in a gale a stone’s throw from ice cream. As we all speculated these issues in the foc’s’le under the safety of our warm and cozy blankets the Mate called ‘all hands on deck’ to take in sail and get ready to anchor.

Onto deck we went, toques and all, to watch the sun as it began to set upon Cape Town and to gear ourselves up for the long stretch of work ahead. Just as it was starting to get dark, the wind picked up to a fresh Force 9, which is about 45 knots of wind, the kind of wind that will knock the socks off of your feet should lose your footing. The wind stayed this gusty for the entirety of our approach into the harbour. Our topsails needed to be stowed, so a team of shipmates went aloft to furl. The moment the call to ‘up and stow’ was made not a single person batted an eyelash before laying aloft, for sailors are trained to take care of their ship. Take care of your ship, she takes care of you. After precisely navigating into Cape Town under cover of darkness, the Captain and Mates safely anchored us in a calm spot just outside of Cape Town’s inner harbour. Hourly night watches were set with three people each to make sure that the ship stayed safely in her anchorage overnight. The off watches went to their bunks full from the magic of the day and blinded by city lights, not knowing that in the morning we would awake to see the magnificent Table Mountain spreading her tablecloth, inviting us into her home.

In the early hours of the morning the wind laid down to a melancholy Force 1, fine hat weather, as if to say ‘alright, you pass this test’. All hands mustered at eight o’clock that morning to ready the ship for her berth alongside the Cape Grace. We hauled back on the anchor with Brad singing us a tune or two, changed into clean (more or less) shirts, and boarded the pilot at about ten o’clock. The Captain weaved our ship into the depths of the working inner harbour, turning from corners scarcely big enough for us into bustling channels full of the lively sounds of people and ships. We came alongside, starboard side to, with the Cape Grace Hotel smiling down at us in greeting.

Cape Town was to be a place of many wonders and many bittersweet memories. From friends to be re-acquainted with, friends to say goodbye to, sights to see, and lessons to learn. However, in the moment marking our arrival I felt fully at peace recalling the magic that was felt as we rounded the Cape and realized that hope and grace gave us the most enchanting welcome we could graciously ever have hoped for.

Handling the skiff
Pilot departs
Sailing into Table Bay
The first view of Lions Head
The pilot is dropped off

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