Captain's Log

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Sailmaking

By Kate “Bob” Addison

Another perfect day sailing along in the Pacific Ocean aboard the Picton Castle, shoals of flying fish launch themselves, a small rain squalls wooshes by and a thousand miles or so before we next see dry land, and so it seemed a good time for a short series of special edition “daymen” Captain’s Logs. First installment: sailmaking.

Making sails on a sailing ship is rather like creating your own fossil fuels onboard a diesel liner. Our sails, together with the wind that fills them and the rig that holds them up, are our primary method of propulsion. Sails have several advantages over a diesel engine – apart from the awe-inspiring sight of a full press of canvas, and the delightful silence in which they do their work, sails leave no odor, emit no waste products and their fuel source, the wind, will last as long as the sun shines and the earth orbits around it. We can sail for five years on a suit of sails, maybe 18 days on our fuel tanks.

So that’s the green credentials of our sailmakers firmly established, but how about the sail training agenda?

Well, we make all of our own sails aboard, almost entirely by hand just as they would have done on ships like ours throughout the Age of Sail. On fair weather trade wind passages such as this, under the Captain who is the actual sailmaker aboard, we have a full time sailmaker always at work on the quarterdeck, and he or she never wants for assistants. Our cotton canvas sails don’t last forever – cotton will rot if stored damp, is weakened by sunlight and chafe and the sails will eventually blow out, although we try to keep them in good enough repair that the manilla lines controlling the sails will part before the actual sail gives way. Still, to keep the ship outfitted with a nice suit of sails bent on, and at least another suit for spares is pretty much an ongoing task for the sailmakers, what with making the new sails and patching up the old.

Every trainee aboard for at least a month or so gets a chance to learn something of basic sail making hand skills, and once passed as “good enough” gets to use their new skills on a real project – maybe grommets for the new royal sail, maybe making a new awning or helping to patch up worn spots in the topmast stuns’l. Oil and tar, which are so good for the natural fibre and wire rigging cause serious damage to sails. A drip of tar on a sail makes a small area of canvas that no longer contracts when it’s wet and expands as it dries out like the clean canvas will. So that edges of that spot gets weaker every time the sail gets damp and dries, eventually making a hole, which must be patched before it creates a serious tear. Our stuns’ls, which are pretty old anyway, managed to get cooking oil spilt on them when they were stowed, so we had to make patches to reinforce the oily parts before we could send them aloft.

Captain Moreland leads the sailmaking workshops, teaching the basic theory of sail construction as well as practical hand skills. And then to practice, everybody makes themselves a canvas ditty bag, which has the added advantage of giving everyone a useful bag to keep their sailor’s tools in. Every aspect of making the ditty bag uses a skill necessary for making a sail: from seaming the heavy canvas with needle and palm and tabling and roping the top edge with rope, to sewing in the small grommets or eyes for the rope handle and finally splicing the handle onto the bag – these are all skills our sailmakers use routinely in their work.

Right now we have a good gang of sailmakers working with the Captain and third mate Siri. Veteran Picton Castle sailor John is sailmaking full time for this passage with Allison as his dayman assistant at the moment. And other people help out too in between their watches – Hege, Drea and Mate Michael are often seen working on a grommet or a seam, and ship’s cat George very much likes to supervise progress when he’s not too busy snoozing in the sun.

Brody stitching his ditty bag
Sailmakers at work
Sailmaking workshop (1)

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