Captain's Log

Archive for September, 2014

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At Sea Again

By Kate “Bob” Addison

Monday September 8th, 2014

Picton Castle has been at sea for four days now, four days into the month-or-so passage from Vanuatu bound for Bali, Indonesia. We sailed off the dock from Luganville, Vanuatu’s second largest city on the island of Santo last Thursday after provisioning, fuelling up and clearing out. We drew quite a crowd while we were alongside the main dock getting fuel, and while I was clearing out even the immigration officials poked their head out of their office to see the real live version of the ship on the business cards. They had a globe in the office so I traced our voyage ’round the world for them to see: Lunenburg to Lunenburg by way of Vanuatu. They seemed suitably impressed.

These last few days at sea have been a blur as we get back into the swing of standing watches, day and night, after so long in the remarkable and remote islands. It’s hard to describe the sleepiness that comes the first few days out, but I think it comes from everything moving constantly day and night, as well as the change in sleep schedule – for me anyway, starting work at 4am requires a pretty hefty coffee intake the first few days out! Picton Castle is as sea kindly as any ship I’ve ever sailed and her movement is easy as she rides over this wide, rolling Pacific swell, but still, everything really is moving all the time, and it takes time to get used to bracing yourself in your bunk to sleep, and using all sorts of muscles just to sit down.

The wind and weather have been pretty much what you’d expect of a classic trade wind passage. No complaints at all in that department. Winds have been pretty steady between 15 and 25 knots all week, coming out of the southeast or thereabouts. We had glorious sunshine the first couple of days out, though it was grey and soggy last night and this morning. But forecast to clear up later today. And if the greyness fooled you for a minute into thinking you were in the North Sea or the English Channel, just walking across the main decks would soon put you right: the water sloshing across the main decks and out through the freeing ports is warm and quite pleasant on the toes. Jackets sometimes, but not much need for sea boots here in the South Seas!

The wind is on the port quarter at the moment, and this broad reach is just about the perfect point of sail for our lovely square rigger. Why would anyone want to go upwind anyway? The steering is balanced and easy, with just a half turn or so on the wheel when it gusts up to keep her on course. As it is blowing pretty fresh we have topsails and the fore set now, plus staysails and a jib for balance, but we’re still making five and a half knots to six and the ride is smooth enough as we surf down the waves, smooth decks rising up to meet bare feet as we head ever westwards.

On Saturday I was called forward from the quarterdeck office by the shout of dolphins under the bowsprit. There was a gang of sailors gathered on the foc’sle head watching the pod of maybe twelve dolphins diving and breaching, passing under and over each other and giving every impression of having a lovely time playing in the bow wave. Christian, Luke and I went out into the head rig with cameras to get a closer view, though the photos hardly do justice to the dolphin-magic. Looking back at the ship was a fine view too, her sails full and drawing beautifully, white water foaming around the bow as she cut through the ocean, storming along under t’gallants, alone under the sky on the open ocean. We have royals bent now, and laying aloft to furl the fore royal for the night is the most magnificent view: a tiny ship far below, and then just an infinity of open sea and cloud dappled sky, all softened and pink-tinged in the evening light.

We’ve had three seabirds keeping us company more or less constantly for the last couple of days – three boobies balanced on the royal yards like overgrown canaries on their perch. They take flight now and then, circling around, their wings hardly moving as they ride the currents and thermal lifts in the air, eyes gleaming, watching intently for fish. They dive occasionally before making the landing back on the yard – looks a bit like landing a helicopter on an air craft carrier, precision manoeuvring! The kittens are quite taken with these visitors: they sit on the quarterdeck skylight or sailmakers bench, keenly following the birds with eyes and ears, the rest of the kitty perfectly still, elegantly arranged like a sphinx or cat statue, instinctively absorbing the movement of the ship. There have been plenty of flying fish attracting feline attention too, though none have landed on deck so far, and no fish on the lines so far this passage.

Yesterday was both Vai and Christian’s birthdays, so Alex and Nicole made an epic chocolate brownie cake to celebrate, with chocolate mousse filling and topping, each layer about an inch thick. I don’t know why we have so many birthdays in August and September the voyage, but nobody’s complaining about all of these wonderful cakes!

Amy & Nicole
Amy and Nicole watch dolphins from the foc’sle head

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Wind and Seas Laying Down

September 8th, 2014

At 14-26 S / 159-04 E

Sun has set, could not properly observe this daily phenomena as it is mainly overcast, although the western sky became curiously pink through the clouds for a spell. Almost 500 miles west of our anchorage at Luganville, Santo. About 960 miles to Bligh’s Entrance to the Torres Strait between Papua New Guinea and Cape York, Australia. And there we will kiss the South Pacific good bye and sail westward to meet the Far East. Old Capt. Bligh got around for a young guy, only 36 at the time. Lots of ‘Bligh’ this and that hereabouts.

We have had a decent fresh ride for a couple days. Making good speed under small canvas. Now winds and seas are laying down or so it seems. 12 to 15 footers before. The freeing ports have stopped clanging and the seas have taken on a more steady form. Light rain squalls have been passing over us, just a little spitting rain, not much.

Just reset the t’gallants and end-for-ended the lee foresail sheet that was looking thin. Bent on the main t’gallant staysail and royals too in Santo. Next we will bend on the mainsail on the main yard, flying jib after that. Maybe the gaff topsail. Bend ’em as we learn ’em. But right now its early evening, warm and balmy, rolling along just fine, making good time, headed for the Torres Strait and onwards towards Bali.

Erin, Rob and Alex tack down the foresail
Erin, Rob and Alex tack down the foresail

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Bwatnapne Bay, Pentecost Island, Vanuatu

August 24th, 2014

It is just after dawn and the day comes in fair and clear. The sole anchor watch has shut off the forward anchor lantern in the gaining morning light. A few roosters ashore a few hundred yards off in the small thatched roof village are doing their early AM job. Bwatnapne Bay is broad and palm fringed with a coral beach under high green hills. The waters of this cove are smooth and still and reflect the blue of the sky and the clouds passing overhead. An easy swell turns into a small rolling surf on the beach tumbling the small coral rocks about at waters edge, working their way into becoming sand, enough to be heard from the ship as a gentle white noise. A dugong nearby breaks the surface with a fin or tail. Odd gentle creatures. A turtle pokes his head up for breath of air leaving a set of circles to mark the spot ever so briefly. Even small pods of dolphin make their lolling hobby-horse way into the bay from time to time.

In the golden early morning light a lone dugout canoe is paddling slowly a few ship lengths off, perhaps fishing. The Picton Castle is anchored on her heavy port hook with two shots of chain out in this open roadstead bay up on the west side of the north end of Pentecost Island, a simple indentation along this high jungle cliff wall on the lee side of this long island. To the east and windward the land rises sharply and becomes dense jungle right away. Overhead is what looks like a fresh easterly tradewind as the low puffy clouds are crossing the mountains with a good clip. We feel only the gentlest breeze down here in the lee of the high deep green hills and mountains of Pentecost.

The two kittens from Fiji play on the spanker boom in a manner that does not bode well for their seagoing longevity. In the galley we begin to hear the knocking together of tin pots and that clang-slush of the hand water pump filling a kettle. Smoke from a cook fire ashore drifts aboard and give a pleasant accent to the growing day. And the coffee is good this morning.

After an easy day-sail of 46 miles from Malekula we dropped anchor in five fathoms, sandy bottom, here in Bwatnapne. It was later in the day and I did not wish to disturb the villagers on such short notice so we waited for the morning to launch the skiff and pay our respects to folks ashore. Once we did, however, we were made to feel completely welcome and were offered the run of the bay with a couple areas pointed out as being ‘tabu’, meaning, in this case to be avoided. But this was not much and we were told that we could pretty much go where we wanted and to do what we wished, that the river was open for swimming or bathing. We could swim on the beach and dive on the coral, even fish if we liked. Of great interest was whether we had brought any goods to trade? Yes, we had. So young Frederick Bule, friend and son of the former chief Alan Bule, passed the word up the hills to the other villages that, yes, there would be some trading to be had in Bwatnapne Bay tomorrow at two o’clock in the afternoon.

Trading is pretty popular in these islands. It is very difficult and extremely expensive for the outer islanders to get even the simplest material goods. Machetes, knives, soap, pots and pans, cloth, clothes, shoes are all wildly expensive within their economy. A t-shirt costs $10-$12, a cooking pot might cost $40, and this is after taking the truck ($5) to a shop in the main village, or $60 to get the ferry to the main port of Santo and being gone for several days with all this could imply and all in a nation where $1 more or less represents a day’s wage. So trading a basket or a carving or maybe a stalk of banana for a t-shirt or two (or a few bars of soap, a knife, a machete etc) or for trousers, a foul-weather jacket or a used but good kettle becomes a very attractive exchange for someone in these outer islands. And it is good fun, a big social occasion for all concerned. When the crew arrive with their various good for trade, some bought in Fiji or Vila, some scrounged from their seachests, many islanders, mostly ladies, have set up their wares on pandanus leaf mats in the shade of a large tree near the shore. Our gang soon arrives off the skiff and spreads out some tarps and pareaus and lay out their wares as well – and now the fun begins!

Bwatnapni sing sing

Sing sing in Bwatnapne, Vanuatu

Dkembe at Bwatnapni Bay

Dkembe looks at the ship at anchor in Bwatnapne Bay

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