Captain's Log

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Underway from Rodrigues

By Kate “Bob” Addison

Tuesday December 2nd, 2014

This time yesterday Picton Castle was getting underway from Rodrigues. The harbour tug Solitaire was off our port bow churning the turquoise harbour water to white as she took up the strain on our headline, and slowly we came round into the wind, pivoting off the dock on our stern spring. The wharf was scattered with port workers, and the men unloading sacks of rice out of a shipping container stopped work for a minute to watch us leave. The small, covered fishing pier on the east side of our dock was crowded too – it seemed like after a week in Rodrigues everybody knew about Picton Castle and half the town came out to wave us off.

There was some wind and current as we navigated between the marker buoys to get out of the pass, but we didn’t need the tug that was standing by and soon we were clear of the coral and out in the open ocean. And now a day later we are sailing peacefully along, bound for Reunion Island, a mere 500 miles away. All sails are set and we are experiencing light airs behind the tropical storm that held us in port for a few extra days. So we may have to motor a little to make up time until the trade winds fill in again, but for now we are sailing along slowly in small seas, enjoying the quiet and calm of being just crew together at sea again.

We had a good time in Rodrigues – it is a really lovely place, very laid-back, and French influenced, with a mainly Creole population who couldn’t have been friendlier or more accommodating to us. The Harbour Master, Captain Gilbert deserves special recognition for being incredibly helpful to us.

Rodrigues is independently governed now, but had a prolonged history of European administration because of it’s importance as a sort of ‘service station’ to ships making the long Indian Ocean passage on the spice trade to India. Our pilot book says that the first European ships called here in the early sixteenth century, and that they would have re-provisioned their ships with giant tortoises and dodo birds, which lived here and on Mauritius. The giant tortoises are still doing well – now they can be found in a special reserve near the spectacular caves in the southwest. Most of our crew paid the tortoises a visit, and were suitably impressed, though Terry remarked that that they were smaller than the giant tortoises he’d seen in the Galapagos. The dodos of course did not survive all those generations of hungry sailors.

There are strong links with Mauritius, and that’s where the biweekly supply ship comes from – we had to move Picton Castle from the town dock out to anchor in the bay for a couple of days to allow her to berth and unload cargo, a pretty slick process that took them little more than 24 hours, working all night under big floodlights. It was certainly a much bigger scale operation than when Picton Castle delivers cargo in the Cook Islands, but then there are about 40,000 people living on Rodrigues, compared to 400 on Puka Puka. It was blowing hard enough while we were anchored there in the small basin with really no room to drag, and blowing all of Force 7, but we put both anchors out and they held beautifully – we didn’t drag an inch.

While at anchor we had a special treat, organised by Ship’s Medical Officer, Dr Nick. He had met some people in town who were in a band and thought it would be fun to come out and play on the ship, so we loaded band, instruments and amplifiers into the skiff, and enjoyed a brilliant impromptu concert on the hatch, with party lights and popcorn adding to the atmosphere. The music was mostly French and Creole jazz, blues and folk with a few American classics thrown in for fun. It was a wonderful evening.

The town of Port Mathurin is a grid about 4 streets by 6, with a small but good local market for vegetables, home-made hot sauce and woven hats and baskets. There are two or three nice French restaurants where the excellent marlin fumée, steak frites, chocolate mousse and crème brûlée were very welcome treats after a month at sea. My personal favourite was actually a tomato salad, but beautifully done with delicious fragrant tomatoes, sliced thin with a proper vinaigrette. There were plenty of small ‘snacks’ too, offering tasty canteen style food for small money. The range of food reflects the melange of the population: Indian curry places and carts selling samosas alongside East African Creole spots where everything comes with the spicy red local sausage and fiery green chilli paste. And then, just down the street, a proper French boulangerie stuffed with baguettes and fancy patisserie. There were plenty of small shops selling everything from ladies summer dresses to artificial flowers and bicycle tires. We found some good paint thinner and a new steel thermos flask for the ship.

Rodrigues was a good place for hiking; relatively small effort was rewarded with wonderful views as the volcanic hills dropped away to reveal another secluded sandy cove and the aquamarine water inside the reef. Some beaches came complete with a little shop to buy something cold to drink, others completely undisturbed. The countryside inland is all rolling hills dotted with simple little colourful houses, mostly with a pig or goat tethered outside, laundry on the line, vegetable gardens and small children playing in the mud. November must be spring here because there were fluffy chicks and ducklings everywhere – incongruous to my northern hemisphere brain with the Christmas decorations in the shops in town!

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Arriving alongside at Port Mathurin, Rodrigues

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