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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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