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Lily’s Letter

By Lily Donovan

March 31st, 2014

Editor’s note: Lily Donovan joined Picton Castle as a trainee in Sydney last October and has been aboard ever since. When our regular cook, Donald Church, left the ship in Tahiti for some time off, Lily took over as ship’s cook. She wrote a letter to friends and family at home and has allowed us to share some of it with you.


After 6 months at sea, I face my final 4 weeks. Time has passed in the blink of an eye since leaving in Sydney last October. However if I think about the things we’ve made, fixed and learnt, the people who have joined us, those who have left us, the places we’ve been to and the people we’ve met; then time stretches out, slows down and is filled to the brim with experiences.

I can’t remember the last time I wrote, but to recap some highlights, we spent Christmas in the Bay of Islands, NZ. We had two Christmas parties, one as a work Christmas the week before to get into the festive spirit, and one as a family Christmas feast and presents on the day. The food was great and I was assistant cook for the Christmas feast. The handmade gifts and creativity everyone shared was impressive and very kind. As a crew we came together so much more over this time because we were all thinking about home, and instead found family among ourselves.

This was an important bonding experience to have before embarking on our one-month voyage to Pitcairn Island. We left just after Christmas, and celebrated the New Year at sea – twice actually – as this happened to be the day we crossed the dateline! The nautical version of a New Year celebration is a symphony of flares being set off into the night sky, guitars and singing, then a quiet moment for reflection before returning back to work or

The continued voyage to Pitcairn was a test of our resilience, camaraderie and humour. I was on the 12 – 4 watch, standing both AM and PM watches. In this routine the days rush by; day shift, night shift, day shift, night shift. We filled our spare time with many games of 500, Craphead and Pictionary. We watched movies and celebrated birthdays. But all of this nice stuff was to combat the constant damp, wet, cold weather. Our beds grew damp, our clothes were never dry, our boots constantly soaked. We stood watch in the day in the rain, and in the night, often in the rain too and always in the freezing cold. Here’s an excerpt from my journal about the cold; “Currently on night watch I wear jeans, wool socks, boots, my PJ top (seems easier to get out of bed at 3.30am to start work if I don’t have to get out of my PJs!) thermal shirt, wool vest, flannel shirt, hoodie, foulie jacket & pants, knife and harness, 2 scarves and one beanie.” If you can imagine all of these layers, then imagine the constant rain on top of all of this, water sneaking it’s way up your boot, or down your sleeve or a wave coming up and over you in a big swell and into all your clothes. We are all good sailors and didn’t pack too many extra clothes, which means for the next watch we just wore the same again, but wet. I know you’re trying to imagine how crappy this feels, but actually living it for 32 days was a real trial, and I can’t explain the feeling of relief experienced when the 4am ‘Watch below’ knockoff call is made, you can crawl down into the dark, peel off the wet layers and climb into a (slightly) dry bed and hide away until the next work shift starts in 7 hours.

So, I make it sound terrible, but we survived, on muffins, a nice sunset, a great win at cards, hot chocolates, borrowed clothes, midnight talks, fish caught off the stern, the thrill of going aloft, by learning lines, some whining and moaning, making great friendships and in the end laughing at it all. We made it to Pitcairn on the evening of January 28th and while we floated for a night in sight of the long awaited island we reflected in the quiet on how quick and effortless the whole month actually felt, now that we were at our destination.

Our time on Pitcairn Island was short – too short – but we did what we could with the time that weather and itinerary allowed. I was hosted on the island for a night with Mike and Brenda Christian, direct descendants of the lead mutineer Fletcher Christian (from the Bounty, Captained by William Bligh). Pitcairn was settled by mutineers and Tahitians, and the current locals are mostly made up of descendants of these original settlers. There are only about 50 people living on the island now, the maximum at one stage was 200, which was when they relocated some people to Norfolk Island to avoid over population. So, it’s a very small, steep, hilly island now with just a handful of people. I think I may have met about 30 of these locals in my time there, and everyone was very friendly, welcoming and proud of their island. Some small interesting facts for you about Pitcairn Island:

. There are no cars; everyone gets around on quad bikes.
. Income is mostly reliant on passing cruise ships. Families take charge of a certain style of souvenir, whether it’s wood carving, jewellery or paintings and when a cruise ship passes by these families take their long boats out to meet the ships, where the islanders jump on board with their goods to sell to the cruisers.
. Transport to and from the island is only on board cargo ships (unless you sail there on a tall ship like us!) so the locals have to plan all their trips away very carefully. Our host Brenda spent so much of her previous year away because she had to leave the island for two separate weddings, and had to wait months for the return cargo ships to bring her back.
. This is the same situation with food and supplies: 3-month provisions, with a few things traded here and there on the cruise liners. Therefore the simple island homes are decked out with an extra room ‘pantry’ with two or three deep freezers, two fridges, and massive storage of dry goods. . Fresh fruit and some vegetables grow in abundance – so even without the delivery people won’t go hungry. When walking around the island I ate bananas, avocado, coconut and passionfruit from the trees, and the ship was given all of these fruits in abundance and about 20 watermelons on our departure!

We left Pitcairn after 3 days, (after 32 days of sailing to get there) due to oncoming bad weather, and headed for Mangereva which was about 10 days sail. It was funny, but after a month at sea we had no tolerance for it at all, and we couldn’t wait to be back on land again! That 10 day sail felt very long! Might I add, by this time, it was hot hot hot and humid.

The weather has changed considerably since arriving in French Polynesia. There is still regular rain, but it’s warm and tropical (just as unpleasant when you are standing watch drenched to the core!). In the beginning we had quite a few major squalls that required extra crew to wake up in the night to assist with sail handling. One of these I lost both my towels, blown off the washing lines and into the ocean. It was a miserable day! With this temperature change suddenly we were standing midnight watches in shorts and singlet tops, preparing ourselves for the 6am sunlight with sunnies and sun cream. Now there is barely any wind; I lie in my bed at night sweating like I have a fever. A solid nights sleep is impossible as I curl up next to the metal wall to cool off, or hang my legs out of the bed to catch a breeze. The temperature of the wooden deck yesterday was 72 degrees celcius – most people decided to wear shoes! I had a heat rash across my belly last week, which seems to have settled again. Just giving you an idea of the contrasts in temperature that we have experienced!

I’m not sure if it’s the heat getting to us, or our loss of any fashion sense (if we had it at all!) or maybe just a sense of abandon living as sailors, but there has been a lot of experimentation with hairdos recently. I’ve gone red and am experimenting with how little I can actually wash my hair. There have been Mohawks cut, heads shaved, legs and armpits stopping getting shaved, beards braided and a constant trial of moustaches and facial hair with the boys! It’s been fun, and a great feeling to have the results of these trials really not matter!

In Mangareva we picked up about 12 new crewmembers and said goodbye to three influential members of our crew. There was Amy A from Canada, Amy B (Beemy) from the UK, and Steve, our 70 year old crew member who is dear in our hearts as the man who ran with us young ones and held his own. I think he had a really great time with us, he always worked his hardest – beyond what his body could handle – he always had a wise remark about “What are we’re really doing here?” and boy could he laugh in the bad times! These three people were here for a shorter time (only 3 months) of the trip, but left a lasting mark on the ship and the people here. In exchange our 12 new crew were mostly bright-eyed kids from USA, Canada and the UK, with a few older crew to balance out the mix and calm it down. It was really nice to feel like the experienced hand and teach people how to climb aloft, to show them around and to literally ‘show them the ropes’.

From Mangareva on to Nuku Hiva, Papeete, Moorea, and Huahine it was a collection of French Polynesian tropical islands with lagoon bays, huge green mountains, swim calls, fresh fruit, days off adventuring by car or bicycle, friendly locals and a small town vibe (apart from Papeete which is Tahiti’s capital where we encountered a large amount of karaoke bars and lady boys!).

It’s time to wrap up this novel of a letter, but I hope you’ve had a great insight into life on board the Picton Castle, which has been my life for the last 6 months. This ship is always a challenge, we deal with the heat or cold, the repetitive jobs, the lack of privacy, saying goodbye to much loved crewmembers, missing family and home, getting woken for work in the dead of the night, and doing things that make us nervous like leading a team in sail handling, cooking for 30, or relying on each other to handle the ship in bad weather.

But these challenges we face offer rewards far greater than the hardships we suffer. I’ve made friends with people from all over the world, who have stories and experiences to share that inspire and energise me. We see a part of the world so few people experience – the open ocean – which includes the star filled sky, orange sunsets and silver sunrises. We notice the world around us, whether it’s a dolphin diving alongside, changing cloud formations, or a land bird. We’ve sailed to tiny islands where the curious kids chase us shouting “Bonjour! Hello!” and locals give us gifts of fruit, flowers or jewellery. We’ve worked in the dead quiet of the night, and the piercing heat of the day to keep the ship – our home and livelihood – a place that we can be proud of. The Picton is a grand ship and after all the hours of scrubbing, sanding, tarring, stitching, greasing, painting and cleaning, we’re all proud to sail into a port and see people impressed with our home.

My favourite things:
. Swim calls off the side of the ship
. ‘Marlin spike’ punch parties
. Rigging new lines or temporary ratlines aloft
. Working aloft at night, or at sunrise, or at sunset, or in a squall, or near land
. Working aloft in general!
. Chipping rust
. Sail making
. Cooking yummy healthy food for everyone (or choc chip muffins!)
. Exercising on the fo’csle
. Playing cards or watching a movie with everyone
. Sitting out in the evening listening to someone play the guitar
. Eating fresh caught fish
. Dress ups and general silliness
. The quiet when the engine turns off and we start to sail again
. Sail handling
. The sound of water and waves when drifting off to sleep
. A good load of hand washed laundry
. Raising the anchor with the windlass
. Tropical fruits

Thanks for reading the novel; I hope you’ve enjoyed this little excerpt of ‘life at sea’.

Lily x

Lily at the sewing machine

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