Captain's Log

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Pre-departure Task List

By Kate “Bob” Addison

As our Picton Castle is about to set off on another epic voyage, this time bound for and throughout the amazing South Pacific in the trade winds, we thought our readers might be interested to read about some of the detail of our preparations. Sailing to the South Seas might seem like a romantic thing to do and so it is, but there’s a whole heap of work, orientation and training in a sailing ship to be done before we cast off the first line. A lot of this work isn’t very romantic at all… it’s just work.

Senior staff meet on at least a daily basis just before a voyage. The Captain and his officers, together with our fabulous shore-based staff, meet to check on progress, make sure nothing is falling through the cracks, and make plans to deal with anything that could delay our departure or impact the conduct of voyage. As well as the reviews we have a long check-off list to get through, Captain Moreland just gave me his copy to help write this, and it’s ten pages long.

Broadly the things that must be done break down into regulatory requirements imposed by various authorities, and our own internal requirements that the Captain, officers and shore staff have built up over many years of successfully planning and carrying out long voyages.

Picton Castle is registered in, certified and inspected by the Cook Islands, where we will put in many times on this next South Pacific voyage, and naturally we are required to comply with the inspection, maintenance and certification requirements of our maritime authority, as well as all applicable international marine laws. These are very similar to US or Canadian requirements, in case you were wondering. One part of the flag state requirement is that the ship is fully surveyed every year. The survey covers everything from the ship’s hull and machinery to her radio transmission equipment, firefighting systems, ship security systems, all safety equipment such as life rafts and other emergency gear. The list goes on… and on.

There are other ongoing requirements from the Cook Islands Maritime Authorities too, such as our minimum safe manning certificate that specifies the minimum number of professional crew and what minimum qualifications they must hold, and the load line certificate that establishes a certain standard of care and arrangements for the vessel. There are international health certificates, and of course personal travel and medical documents for everyone on board, even for the ship’s cat! Life at sea was certainly more randomly hazardous before much this legislation, especially in the 19th century when sailors were at the mercy of the ship’s owners who may or may not have had scruples about sending an over-stuffed ship out to sea in the hope of making a little extra margin on the cargo. Just one reason that a modern day voyage aboard the Picton Castle might well have seemed like paradise to your average ordinary seaman in the great age of sail.

Part of the ship’s inspection includes being hauled out of the water every two years. This we did in the spring right here at Lunenburg Slipways. While out of the water she has her bottom freshwater blasted clean so it can also be inspected visually, and then repainted with fresh anti-fouling paint. At this time there is also a thorough inspection of all through-hull fittings, prop shaft and propeller, rudder and rudder bearings and zinc anodes, which are all overhauled or replaced as necessary, as well as whatever else the surveyor and prudent seamanship requires. The massive anchors and fathoms of chain are run out so they can be inspected too, and oiled to help maintain them. It’s pretty cool watching her come out of the water – she really does have lovely lines. And she seems ever so big.

Once she’s back in the water, a thorough testing of every system and piece of gear commences. Everything from testing and changing the batteries in all of the fire alarms to making sure we have all of the charts and publications we might need for the places we’re planning to go, and the ports we could possibly run to if the weather should have different plans. We check all of our communications and navigation gear; our two satellite phone and email systems, VHF radios and emergency beacons and radios. The anchors and windlass are tested, as is the steering gear which, along with the freeing ports, gets a good dose of grease to keep it nice and free.

The Engineer has lots to do making sure generators, main engine, water maker and tanks, battery bank, bilge manifold, freezers, pumps, and black and grey water systems, running lights and electricity are all online and working sweetly. He also has to make sure we have spares of everything, all inventoried and stowed away for when we need them, and lastly that the fuel and water tanks are topped up before we go.

The Cook comes next, he has the important job of making sure we have enough provisions to keep a hungry crew fed and happy, and the stoves, galley and provisions are his responsibility. The medical officer, in this case our Doctor, makes an inventory of the drugs and medical supplies we have onboard and orders anything additional we may need. He also has copies of everyone’s medical information and prescriptions. Copies of all of these are kept in the office in Lunenburg, along with emergency contact details for all aboard, and copies of all of the personal and ship’s documents that are onboard. We also orient those with any medical and first aid training to act as his assistants, should that be needed.

Meanwhile the deck officers and crew are plenty busy too. Most of us think sending up rigging, yards and sails is a fun job, working aloft, and it’s certainly a great learning experience for the new crew! Our ship’s boats are overhauled, exercised plenty, then stowed aboard; standing rigging surveyed and repairs made as required. Everything is tarred or painted or slushed, depending on whether or not it’s supposed to move. There are supplies to order and stow aboard for the deck department too – from copper fastenings to miles of manila rope, paint, tar, and timber. We have lots of timber aboard, including a couple of big logs that will be turned into spars on the voyage. A spare compass and spare suits of sails too as well as much canvas and thread to make new sails when we get to the tropics. School books and supplies kindly donated are wrapped in plastic, labelled and stowed. These will be distributed to island schools on our path. Any cargo or supplies for the islands is safely stowed away too.

There is the safety equipment; an astonishing amount and quality of kit, that must be all inspected and carefully stowed for easy access if we ever need it. All hands train and get used to the safety gear. We have enough life rafts for everyone on board on each side of the vessel, so double the capacity of the ship in total. They each have hydrostatic releases and supplies of food, water and flares inside, which must all be kept within their expiration date. We have containers of extra food, flares and water to grab if we need them. There are fire extinguishers and alarms in every compartment as well as three fixed fire fighting systems in the high risk areas – again the dates are all checked regularly at sea, and as part of our pre-departure check-list. We have breathing apparatus and firefighting outfits, which we sincerely hope we never have to use except in a drill. We have man overboard rescue gear that’s always kept in the rescue boat, a stand-alone fire pump that can pump water out of the ship or onto a fire depending on the situation. There’s emergency steering gear and a manual bilge pump too. Then there are flares, EPIRB, SARTs, emergency flashlights, waterproof radios and satellite phones, hailer, intercom, foghorn, climbing harnesses, personal floatation devices and cold-water immersion suits for everybody on board. Everything is taken out, checked, overhauled, batteries replaced and re-stowed before every voyage. And all this must be familiar to the crew and trainees. Then there is drilling, drilling, drilling in all our emergency procedures as well as in bracing the yards, setting, taking and furling sail, small boat training and so on.

But the most important thing for our safety is the skill and judgement of our crew. And ‘judgement’ as it were, has yet to be ‘regulated’ or put in a book. Kit stored in a locker doesn’t often save lives. So we drill for all of the emergencies that we can think of (fire, flood, abandon ship, man overboard, damage control, launching and recovering boats underway, heavy weather), spending time talking through other people’s roles as well as each person’s own station according to the station bills posted throughout the ship. We are working to build a general awareness in the crew of what action we might take in any given situation, what kit we have on board and how to use it. Our everyday life aboard is focused on safety too: working aloft, moving heavy loads, handling paint and other chemicals – the whole time we are working to build a crew who are aware of their surroundings and able to keep themselves, their shipmates and their ship out of unnecessary danger. So we start with a general and then a more detailed orientation so every crew member knows where every piece of safety kit is stored and how to use it. Then we have safety aloft training, and a review of the standing orders of the ship as well as the crew handbook, which itself includes all of the safety policies and procedures. And then detailed instruction and supervision of every task until people are deemed competent to carry them out unsupervised. It is important to bear in mind that emergency duties only come into their own if there is an emergency, better not to have a fire than have to put one out.

Everything’s documented too, from our Safety Management Plan to the safety policies and operating procedures. So these documents are reviewed and refreshed before the start of every voyage. And they are reviewed and refreshed during a voyage too.

Weeks before we’re ready to sail, the Captain and mates start following the weather religiously, checking different sources on the internet (the US Navy has some great ones) to try to get the best possible information so they can make a passage plan that makes the most of the weather we’re likely to get. This plan always has contingencies and options built in because weather forecasting is inherently uncertain, and gets less certain the further ahead you look. Once at sea we get regular updates from something called GRIB files. If the weather looks too nasty then we wait on a departure until it’s favourable. We have a schedule like everyone else, but the weather is one thing that you can’t control, so if we’re late we’re late. Once deep sea, you do the best you can taking best advantage of the weather and the up to date forecasts we get.

So, this is what we have been up to the last few weeks.

Then comes the day where the forecasts are promising, and finally, thoroughly drilled, stowed and inspected, we clear out through customs and immigration, muster all hands, do a final headcount to check we have everyone on board (and no stowaways!) and we’re ready to cast off our lines and set sail for our next adventure.

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