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.