Captain's Log

Archive for December, 2013

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Bound for Pitcairn Island

Barque Picton Castle – Opua, Bay of Islands, North Island, New Zealand – December 31, 2013

After much preparation and anticipation the Picton Castle sailed from lovely Bay of Islands, New Zealand two days ago, bound for Pitcairn Island.

The ship and crew are ready for sea in all respects. We waited out passage of a low with strong winds and heavy rain but after that the morning broke fair and clear. The weather forecasts, both short and long term, looks very favorable to start on this voyage.

The crew is strong. We have four new crew just off the Danish full rigged school ship Danmark. The ship has been thoroughly gone over, prepped and stowed for sea, fuel tanks topped up, provisions for a long time. All the gear we need aboard. No defects in any gear aloft or alow.

The watch officers and I have been studying GRIB weather files and various weather forecasting websites for some time and we have had discussions with a number of skippers locally who have taken larger traditional sailing ships along this southern ocean route. The passage plan includes steering southeasterly making for the vicinity of Chatham Islands about 650 miles away, leaving them well to starboard and then look to making easting in reliably fair winds between 40S and 44S with hopes of making a northeasterly turn around about 150/140W to steer direct for Pitcairn Island. The distance of this planned route is about 3,200 miles. It may be less or more depending upon actual winds and weather.

Right now two days out the ship is under all sail to the royals and making a nice 120 miles a day. Days are bright and winds are fair. New Years is at hand.

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Drying Sail

Wednesday December 11, 2013

The day comes in fair and clear and calm. Not a ripple on the sea. A few nice old yachts lay at moorings between the Picton Castle and the village wharf of Russell. The early morning ferry from Paihia leaves a wake which rocks our skiff alongside as she passes. Dew on deck and the varnished rails sparkles in the low morning sunlight. It rained pretty hard a day or so ago. We must dry sail.

As many of you know, all the sails of our ship are made onboard by the crew, by hand, out of cotton duck canvas. They are good old fashioned sails and work just fine. We get to teach sailmaking to those that wish to learn and can be here long enough to pick it up. This is not something one can learn in a week or two.

Canvas is reasonable to sew by hand and Dacron or polyester is not. Cotton lasts long in sunlight and we can expect to get five good years out of a sail and longer too. But not if they are allowed to remain wet in their furls after a good rain soaking. If we did not dry them consciously after a rain we might only get six months’ use out of them. That would be too bad.

After morning muster all hands clambered aloft to loose sail. Now all that canvas hangs in creamy bights drying in the gentle breezes over the still waters. By mid-afternoon the gang will have all these twenty-one sails nicely furled again.

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Sailing To The Next Island

Tuesday December 3, 2013

With all this discussion of Capt. James Cook sailing around hereabouts in small barques and anchoring where we have been anchoring here and there – and with the fine worthy Barque Lord Nelson a heaving line throw or so away anchored off to our starboard – and with something like a fair wind in the making – it seemed a good thing to consider sailing the Picton Castle off the hook and up to the anchor if we could manage this.

Our day here in early December in the southern hemisphere, was bright and clear with a fresh easterly breeze. Blue skies, surrounded by small green islands and snappy white caps on the waters of these bays and sounds. No seas to speak of. To our port side was the island of Motuarohia (being a bit redundant here, ‘motu’ means island). To our starboard was open water, apart from a reef and one anchored barque, the Lord Nelson.

She was anchored more or less in the exact spot through which I would have preferred to sail away from this island. But I could hardly ask them to move for our convenience. We would have to sail around her. The gang loosed sail. They braced the main yards on the port tack and the fore yards on the starboard tack, this to swing the head away from land, the main yards to catch the wind soonest and draw us away from land. And from the reef to leeward. Then the gang hove up the anchor to one shot on deck (one shot being 90 feet of chain).

They mustered around the hatch and got the details and low down on what was about to come and in more or less what sequence – but – they need to expect variations in the expected orders and be ready to spring into action to respond to these new and perhaps differing orders. We did not want to sail into the Lord Nelson, nor did we wish to end up on to the reef to leeward. This would be bad.

Back to the windlass and heave up. Soon the anchor was doing what it was supposed to do, dragging a bit allowing us to drift aft a bit under control – and then off the bottom, heave up a bit more to let the ship’s bow cant to starboard and fall off with the backed fore yards working as desired. With anchor up far enough not to cause trouble, they stopped heaving and all hands jumped to the task of getting sail on the ship so we could do something other than drift. As we fell off to starboard our jibboom traced a line down the port side of the Nelson some hundred yards off or so. The main lower topsail got sheeted home and started to draw, stays’ls were hoisted rapidly to get some more forward pull as we headed for just under the stern of the Nelson. It looked as if were close but as we were making some leeway at the moment there would be plenty of room as we drew nearer.

The gang braced the fore yards around onto the port tack and set the fore lower topsail and fore course and we drew astern just fine and crossed under the other ship’s stern with plenty of room, but just as importantly is that we were also clearing the reef with room to spare as well. Past the reef, we fell off some more until steering due west and we squared the yards. Back to the foc’sle and heave the anchor all the way up until needed again. This would be soon enough too. We sailed along under easy canvas on this very lovely day. Time enough to enjoy supper on deck as the Bay of Islands slide by and the sun lowered giving us a golden afternoon light.

In a few miles we got up to Tapeka Point and around Fraser Rock, always good to go around something labeled “Rock”. From there we braced sharp and steered south the mile or so to the anchorage off Russell. In the early evening, the gang took in all sail forward, the helm was put hard over, the ship ranged into what light breezes remained, backed against the main upper and lower topsail with spanker amidships, and the Mate let go the port anchor in about five fathoms of water with a great big splash. Most hands climbed aloft to get a stow on all the sails. Then to coil down the many spaghetti-like lines snarling all over the decks. Rudder amidships, and all done. So ends this day. It is supposed to rain tomorrow. We get to start our rainy day projects.

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At Motuarohia, aka Robertson’s Island, Bay of Islands

Monday December 2nd, 2013

This day comes calm with a light southerly breeze. Pale yellow sunlight streams through layered clouds in this early morning. We sailed here a day ago after anchoring up under Day Point to tuck in out of some 30 knot plus winds. Motuarohia is a small sweet island or a couple high lumps of islands strung together by small raised beaches. At anchor is a fine gaff-rigged yawl.

A much respected sailing ship colleague, Capt Jim Cottier, is living ashore here and invited the crew to come, explore and hold a barbeque as well. The Monomoy had sailed independently from Day Point letting some of the gang get more exercise in that fine craft here at this island too. In the evening, most hands went ashore in the long boat for a quiet night around the BBQ. The rest of us had a nice ‘picnic’ supper in the mess-room onboard.

This morning, as we went about scrubbing the decks and cleaning the below, and getting the days work started, the Barque Lord Nelson hove into view. They gave us a call and then came to anchor right near the Picton Castle. I wonder when two barques were last anchored here.

We all know of when one barque was anchored at this very spot. That was in the later 1700s when Captain James Cook dropped hook here and went shore. His accounts report that these islands of the Bay of Islands were well populated at the time, with villages everywhere and canoes pulled up on all the beaches. This area would be an extremely pleasant place to live and truly benign climate at 35 South. Fish everywhere, good soil, good harbours, protected bays, balmy winters but no freezing. Pretty all around good place to live it seems to us. And a good place to meet up with another North Sea barque it appears. Thinking back on Cook and later trading sailing ships of the 19th century, I asked Capt Cottier when the last time there were such ships anchored here. He told me ‘two weeks ago’.

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Russell, aka Kororareka

November 28, 2013

At anchor off the old colonial village of Russell, also known as Kororareka in the Maori language. Once the capital of New Zealand, we are told. Smaller than Mahone Bay it is.

We had a beautiful day here in the Bay of Islands. The day came in clear and bright with a warm northerly breeze. Blue sky, white puffy clouds scudded over the masts of the Picton Castle. Around here, the northerly breezes are warm and the southerly breezes are cool, sometime even sort of cold if you happen to be overly accustomed to warm weather as we are. It had rained much of yesterday, a soft gentle rain all afternoon, perfect for the farms around here calling out for some of this wet stuff. But, of course, soaking our cotton canvas sails.

The crew make all these sails by hand and we want them to last as long as possible. If they are not thoroughly dried when they get soaked like this, the sails will mildew and then rot away. These sails might only last six months if ill-treated in this way. Or they might last five, six years or more if looked after properly. Today with a nice sunny day and a bit of breeze, was perfect for drying sail. All hands up and loosed sail. Folks on the small ferry boats between Russell and Pahia across the bay, took a lot of pictures of this ocean-going square-rigger at anchor with drying sails where once many sailing ships little different than Picton Castle anchored all the time.

With sails drying in the sun and breeze around them, the Mate and Finn sent up the main upper topsail parral and secured it. The two royal yards on deck get are getting more coats of varnish before sending back up and crossing again. We did workshops in heaving lines and the use of the leadline. James Cook charted the world with a leadline. Ship’s cook Donald got ashore to the “4-Square” store which is what a small market is called around here, less than a supermarket and a good deal more than a convenience store. Probably what we used to call ‘grocery store’ but have forgotten. Maybe we should revive the name ‘grocery story’, it has a proper solid sound to it.

No doubt just for our entertainment I am sure, a delightful small topsail schooner, the R. Tucker Thompson has been sailing about the bay on daysails, a sweet plumb stemmed thing of about 70’, she has been sailing all around us today too. Much of the year she takes groups of young people out on trips around the Bay of Islands, and now she is doing daysails to help pay for it all as well as give visitors the chance to see this lovely waterway under sail.

In the early afternoon, as our sails dried the breezes picked up and all hands to headed aloft and got a good stow on them to reduce windage in the rigging. Not much worried about dragging anchor with our 1,500 pound admiralty anchor, our best bower and two shots of very heavy chain holding the ship to the bottom with good holding. As some of us stopped work to watch the Thompson slash by in the sparkly seas, a few dolphins jumped and cavorted about the stern of our barque making for quite a display. Looked like fun to us. Kind of amazing too. After Donald went ashore to get some more groceries, pumpkin, melons, and sandwich makings, we hoist the skiff and we head off to find an even quieter anchorage in a secluded cove and to launch the Monomoy long boat. We will be back to Russell soon enough.

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