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Rappahannock River

By Kate “Bob” Addison

It’s hard to type right now because I have a contented fat kitten purring on my lap, pinning me down. Every now and then he puts a head or a paw on my hand or on the keyboard, to help write the story, or maybe to correct my spelling. Amazing how much he’s relaxed and grown in confidence from the wide-eyed skittish and very hungry bundle of a couple of weeks ago that Tammy and Michael brought back to the ship in Savannah, Georgia.

Picton Castle is preparing to tack as we sail out of the Rappahannock River at 37°29.1’N, 076°09.9’W with spanker, headsails and square sails set to the topgallants and a nice fresh sailing breeze on the port bow.

We spent the last couple of nights at anchor near Irvington because the northeasterly winds were blowing from exactly where we wanted to go, and everyone was pretty tired after the festivities of Norfolk. It was nice to be just us again, no one to entertain or impress, and to remember that we’re sailors not tourists. Amazing how quickly crew get stupid in port, lose all their sharpness with all that time off and too much ice cream. So we’ve been drilling and practicing sail handling, bracing around, small boat skills. Working on getting things done more competently, faster with fewer people and fewer commands. Making sure people understand the detail, like how to trim the lifts. Definitely improving, but always more to learn…

We spent yesterday morning doing safety drills, talking about and practicing how to get an injured person out of the water or out of the way of a fire. Practicing launching the boats too – perfect conditions to let less experienced people have a go at lowering away. In the afternoon we went out rowing in our long boat, watch by watch in the monomoy, getting the new gang used to using the big wooden sweeps and sorting out their timing, giving people a go at being the ‘stroke oar’ (aft on port) setting the pace and letting the deckhands and ABs practice giving commands as coxswain. I got to cox too for a bit – my first time and was great fun: ‘prepare to give way – give way together’ and all eight crew pull away in time, more or less. Then ‘starboard side hold water’, their oars held steady in the water making eddies as port side keep pulling forwards, then ‘starboard side backwater’ and the boat spins round in her own length. Pretty sweet! I did a figure of eight or two and then handed back command to acting second mate Siri to bring us back alongside the ship in time for dinner.

And then after dinner, it was ‘up and stow!’ Aloft to furl all square sails that had been drying all afternoon and gasket them tight to the yards so they won’t flog about if the wind picks up overnight. What’s it like to go aloft to stow? Climbing up the ratlines, hand over hand on the shrouds, feet stepping lightly on the tarred rope ratlines, always three points of contact, following the bare feet of whoever’s just above you.

Of course you can wear shoes if you prefer, and some people do – occasionally thoughtful visitors to the ship have noticed the crew running around barefoot and asked if they should take their shoes off when they come aboard. Perhaps they’re worried about getting dirt on our cream carpets? You don’t have to go barefoot, it’s just that most of us like to. And we are sure it is safer too.

Then lay out onto the yard, balancing on the footrope leaning forward so your weight is in your hips or belly, lying onto the yard. The angle changes depending on how tall you are and how many other people are on the same footrope – everyone who steps on makes the rope a little tauter and each person a little higher so we sing out ‘laying on’ so the gang already out there aren’t caught off-guard by a sudden movement.

Take a moment to look around at the lovely view of the sea and sky, breathe the clean air. We’re often aloft at the start or end of the day, when the light is soft and clear, and there’s no nicer place in the world to be.

And then get on with the job in hand: neatly stowing the hand-stitched cotton sail. Stowing sail is rather like folding an outsized duvet cover with a bunch of friends to help you. Except that the duvet cover is curved and shaped, has ropes sewn all along the bottom and sides, and is made of stiff heavy canvas. Also, it’s attached along one edge to a jackstay on a yard of steel or wood and of course you’re doing your house-keeping aloft, maybe 80 feet up, balanced on a yard which is suspended from a mast, the whole affair swaying with the ship as she gently lifts and falls with the swell. But really, it’s just like folding a duvet cover. Tuck and fold, pass the excess fabric to your shipmate over there, tuck and fold. And then bust it all up on top of the yard, spiral a rope gasket round and round over the yard and sail, tighten it all up, make it off with a hitch and lay below to the next yard.

The day finished with a swim call off the side of the ship: long ladders over the side, lifeguards posted and then ‘pool’s open!’ in we jump, splashing about. People diving off the pin-rail up by the forward shrouds, DB showing off with crazy flips.

Not long until all’s quiet as people sit and watch the sunset, or head below to read or get an early night. And then morning came, as it tends to do, and we sailed off the hook ready for another day.

bracing practice
Headsail lesson
Jesse and Nathalie haul inner jib halyard
Victor and Abbey brace main topgallant and royal

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