Captain's Log

Archive for August, 2014

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Entering Vanuatu

By Kate “Bob” Addison

Wednesday August 20th, 2014

Wednesday morning here at anchor on the SE corner of Malekula aboard Picton Castle at Banam Bay, is flat, glassy calm. It rained this morning, for the first time since we dropped the hook on Sunday, and the puffs of mist drifting above the dense, lush vegetation give a magical atmosphere to the shoreline with its narrow strip of yellow sand and steep jungled hills behind. It’s proper National Geographic stuff as the smoke from the cooking fires ashore hangs idly in the still air.

There is something deeply peaceful about this place: at night the fires dotting the shoreline are the only sign of the ten or so villages that call this bay their home. Malekula is a big island of small villages, maybe a hundred people or so each and all more-or-less family, the next village may be less than a mile away and yet might speak a completely different local language – so different as to be completely incomprehensible to people just along the coast. The languages in common are English, French and a pidgin English called Bislama, (‘pidgen’ is a corruption of ‘business’ as this was the language of commerce and ‘Bislama’ is from ‘beche la mer’ meaning language of the sea) so the people that we met were well used to conversing with foreigners in whatever language works, sometimes just in big white-toothed smiles and shy laughter, especially from the very young and old. Our guide book ‘Yacht MIZ MAE’s guide to Vanuatu’ recommends a Bislama reference book called: ‘Evri samting yu wannem save long Bislama but yu fraet tumas long askem’. I seriously want to find a copy.

We have 25 or so children from the nearest village aboard the ship just now and there’s a happy buzz of multilingual chatter as our crew show their guests around their ship, and sailors and islanders alike show off how many pull ups they can do, how well they can coil down braces and how far they can throw a heaving line from the foc’s’le head. The island kids might have never thrown a heaving line before today but there’s some serious talent there – the distances are rivalling our lead seaman on the second throw. I guess growing up on an island just makes you good at that sort of thing. There’s an enormous bowl of popcorn on the main hatch, which is going down pretty well. By which I mean it is being gobbled, devoured and all but inhaled. Some of the kids have double fists full and are shovelling it in, while others have made popcorn scoops of their T-shirts to hoard their own private stash. We’ll do a deck wash later to clear up the fly-away kernels.

Going ashore for our crew is a bit like stepping onto a different planet, or maybe a couple of centuries back in time. We load the skiff with crew in their exploring-ashore clothes and sun hats, shiny with sun block and smelling sharply of bug spray; pass down the snorkelling gear and bags and then cast off from the ship with lookouts up forwards to point out the clear water between the coral heads as we make our way to the beach, spin the boat around in the slight surf, lift the engine and drift in backwards. Crew hop out knee deep into the cool, perfectly clean water as the stern makes gentle contact with the coarse sand. Pass the bags and gear ashore, boat crew hop back in and push off and the shore party are left like explorers of old, standing in slight bewilderment in a group on the beach.

There is always a welcome party ready to meet us on the beach, just a narrow strip of coral sand between the water and the dense, untouched jungle. Usually it’s a mob of children of various sizes, from the polite teenage girls with a baby brother or sister on one hip, to the littlest toddling things, naked and brown, wide-eyed and snot-nosed. Usually there’s an adult or two as well, to shake hands with us one by one, say hello and guide us along the beach and up into the village to meet the people and look around. Here the houses are made of woven bamboo panels with coconut palm roofs that slope down almost to the ground. Between the houses are clear areas of swept dust, coarse tropical grass or sometimes concrete with children running around, chickens with their cloud of fluffy chicks, and colourful washing hung out to dry.

There are squares of garden with vegetables growing and ornamental plants too. A large tree trunk worn smooth by countless bottoms makes a communal bench in the shade of a magnificent tree standing with its bark deeply indented with the marks of machetes. There is a stand pipe for fresh water in the middle of the village, and a handful of shy girls are standing there filling up big basins and looking at the strange white people, but smiling back readily enough as we wave to them. As the Captain pointed out to us before we left the ship, the houses are really more like bedrooms and kitchens, and the area between the houses more-or-less living rooms here, so it’s as much like wandering through someone’s house and garden as walking the streets of a village at home. Understanding this fact makes it even more amazing how welcome we are made to feel, sailing into their bay unannounced as we do.

The Captain had come in on the first day with a small entourage to sit down with the chief and ask permission for the crew to come ashore, and together they had come up with a program of activities for all to share. This means it wasn’t so much of a shock to the village when a bunch of sailors appeared on the beach, and people soon crowded round offering to show our gang around and walk with them the fifteen minutes or so to the next village to meet people there too. Before long there was a gang of island children trying to bury our crew in the sand, playing catch with balls woven from coconut palms (‘basket balls!’) and taking photographs of each other with tongues sticking out and much silliness. Meanwhile, Captain Moreland’s two-year-old son Dawson was the leader of his own gang, galloping about chasing chickens with about ten skinny Vanuatu children running behind him, delighted by this happy, fat white boy who seems to stay shy for only about 30 seconds in each new place he goes.

The rather intense program of activities organised for us included football matches (a favourite with our Bermudian football team of Dkembe and Allafia), amazing kastom (custom or ‘traditional’) dances and a welcome party, followed the next day by a trading day and farewell party. Meanwhile Rob and Dr. Murray held ‘coconut tree medical clinics’, dishing out free medical care and advice to all who needed it, and Joe and Billy held an over-subscribed ‘pots and pans clinic’ making new handles for tea kettles, patching up holes in aluminium cooking pots and fixing whatever else people brought along.

Trading day was colourful and hectic. Dozens of local ladies laid out their woven baskets and fruits and vegetables on woven mats on the sand, and our gang laid out T-shirt, machetes, or whatever else they had brought to trade, or found they could spare from their sea chest or bunk. The idea is you walk around till you find something you would like, offer something in exchange and if both sides like the deal then it’s done with smiles; if not you offer something else or just move on, no hard feelings either way.

The ship brought a few bags of second-hand clothes ashore that we brought with us from a thrift store, what seems like a lifetime ago, when we sailed from Canada in 2012. We spread the clothes, shoes and sunglasses out on a big tarpaulin, with a couple of empty plastic crates to collect the fruit and veg currency. Picton Castle crew at each corner and locals crowding around three or four people deep trying to spot an item of treasure in the heap of clothes. Dixon, our good friend and a great organiser of people said the word in Bislama, and the shop was open. It was like a tornado of shoppers: trousers exchanged for kumula and capsicum, shirts for coconuts, shoes for bananas, oranges and pamplemousse. Joe was standing by the crates collecting veggies and they just rained in as the clothes flew out. I reckon it took about seven hectic minutes for our tarpaulin to be completely empty and the crates overflowing, a sack of drinking coconuts, stems of sugar cane and stems of banana lying in the sand alongside. We brought the lot out to the ship and it half filled the skiff. Now the aloha deck is colourful with vegetables and the veggie lockers are pleasingly stuffed. We won’t be getting scurvy this week anyway.

The welcome party was as much fun for the locals as for our gang, I think. Their excellent string band played their favourite songs, fast, melodic and loud. Swing Low Sweet Chariot was a favourite, and they played Jingle Bells once too, which was pretty funny. People were shy to dance at first, but once the crew started then everyone else joined in too, styles covering all bases from salsa and swing to crazy Danish party stomping. Vai enchanted everyone with a couple of lyrical Tongan dances, and the local boys were more or less queuing up to offer the Captain obscene numbers of pigs to marry her. She got a dance class going for a mob of little children too and they were shrieking with hilarity as she got them all swaying their hips and clapping with the music.

There was kava served from a plastic bucket under a tree and the place was all decorated with hibiscus and frangipani flowers stuck in the walls of the houses and the shrubs all around. Finally it was time to head back to the ship; we said our goodbyes and thank-yous, and set off on the starlit walk back through the forest to the boat landing. Even with no moon it was bright enough to see with so many stars out, and the coconut palms above us made their characteristic silhouettes against the pale sky. The cicadas (or maybe gekkos?) were loud, as the drums of the dance faded behind us, and the sweet earthy smells of tropical jungle mingled with bug spray to make a distinctive and evocative aroma. I discussed idly with the Captain how rich we would be if we could just bottle this moment and sell it at a vast price to the stressed-out executives of London and New York.

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Kastom dans (traditional dance) by the men of Banam Bay, Malekula, Vanuatu

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Port Vila, Efate, Vanuatu

By Kate “Bob” Addison

August 15th, 2014

Picton Castle is anchored in seventeen fathoms of water off Port Vila on the Vanuatu island of Efate. We sailed in on Sunday morning after a fabulous passage in fresh trade-winds from Fiji; for the last day and night we took off most of the sail because we were going too fast and it looked like we would arrive at night – never a good idea, especially in an narrow, badly charted harbour when there’s coral around. So we took her almost down to bare poles: just a topsail on the fore, inner jib and main topmast staysail – and still she was doing 5 knots – makes you realise how much windage there is in our rig!

Arriving on Sunday morning meant that we couldn’t clear in until the next day when the officials are back at work, so we had a pleasant Sunday at anchor, doing small cleaning and tidying jobs and a fair bit of standing easy. People did laundry on the well deck, and helped the galley team make supper. Ship’s doctor Murray made scones served with jam and real butter for afternoon tea and Alex and Gabe were in charge of making a Sunday desert bonanza so we had a super-gooey chocolate cake as well as brownies – such gluttony! We had a little marlinspike party in the early evening and everybody was very happy and relaxed after successfully completing the first ocean passage of this voyage – for some of our crew, their first time ever at sea. For the more experienced Picton Castle crew a week at sea seems like nothing at all, but for the newly minted mariner it’s probably quite a long time to be out of sight of land.

Monday came in bright and clear, so the gang ran aloft to loose sail to bake and dry in the sun while we called the port authorities and waited to be cleared in to Vanuatu. The bio-security officer who inspected our frozen meat and fresh fruit and veggies sounded slightly concerned that we had cats on board, but when Tammy bought them in to be inspected he seemed pretty much disarmed cooing ‘ah kittens!’ with a big smile when he saw them. And their being from rabies-free Fiji made them safe too. He cleared the cats in no problem after a glance at their vaccination papers.

The week that we’ve spent here in Port Vila has been very pleasant. It’s a bustling small town by Western standards, though it’s the capital of Vanuatu so it’s got a real buzz about it. Lots of mini-bus cabs which you can hail and ride anywhere in town for 150 vatu (about $1.50 US). There are small craft markets selling carvings, paintings, weavings and handmade clothes as well a hundreds of Chinese stores selling anything and everything made of plastic or cloth. Plenty of bling, $4 Ray Ban sunglasses and $8 Rolex watches, sarongs of every colour and style, Rastafarian hats with artificial dreadlocks attached and electronics stores stuffed with speakers, mp3 players, clocks and all sorts of gadgets. My favourite find was a 3D holographic picture of a four-masted fully rigged ship with tiny dolphins leaping out under the jib boom and sea birds flying above. Captain says the picture is a Japanese sail training ship and it’s now adding a certain kitsch to the foc’sle.

The big outdoor food market in the middle of Port Vila is very good. The produce on offer was similar to Fiji although the market’s on a smaller scale. One notable addition at the Port Vila market are blue coconut crabs: sold alive but wrapped tightly in vines so their enormous coconut crunching claws aren’t a threat to the unsuspecting shopper. We bought big stems of bananas both yellow and green, pink grapefruit, passion fruit, pawpaw (papaya), melon, and pineapple; salad, fresh herbs, tomatoes and aubergine. Oranges we had to buy imported from the supermarket because the season has passed here, but they keep really well for breakfasts at sea so we bought a case despite being out of season. Imagine a whole stalk of bananas for $6!

The off watches were kept busy doing the usual explorations: snorkelling and scuba diving on the perfect coral reefs, island tours with visits to lagoons for swing rope and hot springs for soaking, and to traditional villages to watch the custom dancing and learn how to make traps from sticks and vines to catch wild chickens, pigs or parrots. The parrots are for pets, chicken and pigs for eating, though men may prefer to save their pigs since apparently you need more pigs to get more wives!

The Vanuatu museum in Port Vila was popular, with its live demonstrations of sand drawing and traditional flute playing and also visits to the WWII museums with their amazing collections of Coca-Cola bottles left behind by the American soldiers. Guess the South Pacific wasn’t such a bad place to be during the war with sunshine, palm trees and what seems like an endless supply of cokes. If you were not in the thick of the most appalling fighting that is. There is a French bakery out of town which proved popular for good cheese and fresh baked bread and pastries, and the ice cream parlour was also very good – freshly made with local flavours of coconut, lime, honey and passion fruit.

Yesterday was our final day at Port Vila and starboard watch had the day off, so Aaron, Alex, Gabe, Mark, Mark, Christian, and Rob decided to rig the monomoy up and take her out for a day of sailing adventures. They started by rowing to town to buy bread, cheese, and fruit, and then with provisions stowed, sailed about looking for a pretty beach to have lunch. The first proposed beach proved impossible to land because of dense coral heads and rocks, but a nice sandy beach with a safe approach was identified and the boat was soon Med-moored with her bow anchor out and her stern tied to a coconut tree ashore. After a gorgeous afternoon tacking about the bay, the wind came light, so as dusk fell they took in sail and rowed the last few fathoms back to the ship in time for supper.

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Coconut crabs tied up at the market

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Ship’s cook Donald shops for fresh provisions at the market in Port Vila

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The crew checked out a local festival on Efate

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Captain Moreland and trainee Luke at the World War II museum

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Underway from Suva

By Kate “Bob” Addison

August 6th, 2014

It’s just after lunch here in the South Pacific, our position 18°38’S, 178°45’E. This is the first full day at sea of this Westward Bound Voyage – the sixth time around the world for this fine barque, and the first time out of sight of land for some of her new trainee crew, including the ship’s two new kittens.

And it couldn’t be a nicer day. The fresh winds have been a steady force 4 to 5 from the SE since we left Suva: classic warm, reliable trade winds that buffet the sails making them gently quiver as it fills them and pulls us on our way. We’re sailing under a full press of canvas to the t’gallants, yards braced almost square as we run down wind to the west, bound for Vanuatu.

Amazing islands soon enough, but right now we’re just content to be here in the open ocean with the sun and the wind and the smooth decks rolling a little as our ship lifts and falls easily with the slight swell.

I was just interrupted by the shout of ‘Mr Church, a fish!’ and the sight of Erin standing at the break of the deck under the town pump washing our first catch of the voyage – a beautiful green and gold mahimahi. So that’s supper sorted, good job!

The 12-4 watch have the deck, and some of the gang are up here on Picton Castle‘s quarterdeck painting. Bruce and Rob are tidying up the vegetable lockers, while Charlotte and Chris cut in the green trim on the chart house. Dkembe, one of our two Bermudian apprentices, has the helm. He looks like he is finding it pretty easy. The kitties are sitting in the sun on the main deck, watching the fish being cleaned with extreme professional interest.

It’s just a gorgeous, tropical day, sailing along in the trade winds. The ocean is so blue it’s slightly purple, like a hint of indigo was washed through it, while the sky is a clear, pale blue with a handful of puffy white clouds. The forecast is for more of the same for at least a week or so – should take us all the way to Vanuatu.

Captain says the main problem with sailing passages like this one is the risk that crew get too used to it and stop realising how rare and wonderful this all is.

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One of the ship’s kittens in a coil of manila on deck

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Getting Ready To Sail From Fiji

By Kate “Bob” Addison

July 31st, 2014

The Picton Castle has been at anchor in Suva Harbour, Fiji, ever since coming off the slipway some weeks ago. We have had our big old fashioned port anchor down as it holds extremely well. This is a good thing when a ship is laid up. But an anchor down that long is going to grow some marine wildlife on its chain here in the tropics in that amount of time. And we are sailing very shortly. So, we picked up the port anchor scrubbing the chain free of all sorts of marine flora and fauna and, of course, mud and we set the starboard anchor in its place. Also to make sure no drama lifting the hook tomorrow as after this long at anchor it could be fouled as well.

It was like a very successful marine biology experiment, the chain having been down for a couple of months now – there were all sorts of crazy critters living on it. Some weird squishy pocket things that squirted sea water out when poked, a bunch of weeds and mud and some little scuttling crab thingys that looked a bit startled. All scrubbed and hosed down now and the gang are washing the gunk off the decks.

The monomoy had a cracking day for a sail so Amy and crew rigged her up and took starboard watch out for a few hours in the afternoon. Sounded like a great sail, everyone switching places taking a turn on the sheets and helm, plenty of wind – though not quite enough to have to reef, they took a fair amount of spray and some water over the rail and came back to the ship soaked and cheerful. Port watch’s turn today, though winds are lighter so they might have a less exhilarating sail, but less bailing too!

Still planning to get underway tomorrow, our agent is arranging for us to fuel up in the morning with diesel fuel. He still has some of our passports that needed visas sorted, but has promised we can get them back today. That’s all we’re waiting for really, so fingers crossed we really will actually sail tomorrow! Everyone’s excited….

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Life on the anchor chain

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Scrubbing the chain

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Starboard watch sails the monomoy

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Getting Ready to Leave Fiji

By Kate “Bob” Addison

July 30th, 2014

Another week has flown by aboard the Picton Castle, anchored here off Suva, Fiji, as we make the final preparations to set sail. Since my head has been stuffed with check lists of things to do and buy for the last couple of weeks, I find myself unable to think in anything but lists. So here’s a list of some of what we’ve been up to:

*Sail drill – practicing setting and striking all square and fore-and-aft sails and bracing around – lots of this and important with so many new crew.

*Man Overboard training and drills: especially launching and recovering the boats quickly and safely; location and use of all gear; most importantly how to not fall overboard in the first place.

*Abandon Ship orientation and drill – location and use of gear, and discussion of some possible scenarios; PFDs, exposure suits, life-rafts and extra supplies etc.

*Long Boat rowing practice – rowing monomoy ashore and around the harbour, practicing getting faster, more accurate and more in time – great crew building skills in this and fun too.

*Skiff practice – getting better at docking at the yacht club and the ship, dealing with different conditions of wind and tide.

*Laying out and cutting a new mainsail at the Royal Suva Yacht Club: seaming it up on the machine and then doing second lay out. Now started on tabling, corner patches and sun patch.

*Drying sails every time it rains: running aloft to lose sails, flashing them out briefly to shake the water off and stowing them again once dry.

*Fixing up the clew of a jib for a yachty where it had chafed through.

*Making friends with the crew of the three-masted schooner Alvei and exchanging ship tours.

*Tours of the ship for 35 cadets from the Fiji Maritime Academy.

*Fixing up the fabulous dory Sea Never Dry and hoisting her onto of the galley house along with Sydney and the semi-dory.

*Provisioning – shopping for enough food, coffee and cleaning supplies to last from here to Bali – frozen meat, fish and cheese, tinned fruit and veg, dried staples, cake ingredients and popcorn, hot sauce, noodles, tea, six sacks of spuds and two of onions, a boat load of fresh fruit and vegetables 600 eggs…

*Buying supplies – sand paper, epoxy, paint, barrels of oil, water filters, timber, and all sorts of parts and supplies for the engineering department.

*Re-filling our galley propane tanks and lashing them back in the breezeway.

*Stowing the ship. All that stuff we just bought? It’s all unpacked, organised and stowed. Hold, freezers and lockers cleaned out first, eggs greased so they last longer. An everything lashed down again.

So we’re almost ready to sail now: new crew are getting pretty handy and getting to know their ship pretty well. Routines have become well, routine, and things like running aloft and running the boats are starting to seem like a normal part of our day. No worries, we got it.

We have supplies and provisions bought and stowed, all the ship’s boats back alongside or already hoisted. Engineering department is good to go with a new battery bank installed, and water makers, pumps, generators, freezers and main engine all in great condition. Ship’s docotr Murray has his medical supplies neatly organised in sea chests, and four able assistants trained up as chief first aiders. Ship’s cook Donald has his galley, freezers and fruit and vegetable lockers stowed as he wants them.

We’ve drilled and exercised with all our emergency gear, and started to get good at launching and recovering the boats. We’ve drilled in sail handling too, as well as hoisting the anchor with the windlass, and hoisting boats, barrels and other heavy loads using strops and tackles. We’ve painted and varnished and oiled and greased the ship/rig/deck as appropriate. We’ve learned some knots and splices, how to do mousings (to secure the pin to the shackle – especially important for shackles aloft), and good technique for preparing and applying coatings. We’ve become good at scullery routine, standing anchor watches and how to do a proper wake up (without waking the rest of the ship).

So after all this prep it seems we’re almost ready to sail now – this week is the plan!
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Hoisting Sea Never Dry, our colourful dory built at the Dory Shop in Lunenburg, atop the galley house

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