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Ship’s Work

By Kate “Bob” Addison

Tuesday December 16th, 2014

A typical Tuesday afternoon of this Indian Ocean passage and all about the Barque Picton Castle are scenes of quiet and very salty industry.

People sometimes ask how we fill our time all day at sea. If you’re used to short holidays aboard a fibreglass yacht with synthetic lines and sails, GPS navigation and not much in the way of deck space, it’s a reasonable question. It’s not like we have TVs on board or spend much time commuting. But it always sounds an odd question to me – there’s never enough time in the day to fit everything in, and with so many people around there’s always someone to sit and chat with if you do find yourself at a loose end.

Firstly there’s watch. Most of the crew are part of the four hour on, eight hour off watch system that rolls along non-stop day and night until we drop the anchor or send our mooring lines ashore. The on-watch are responsible for keeping the ship sailing along safe so the off watches can sleep, relax or get on with their own projects. The watch rotate through hour-long tricks at the helm, the big teak wheel aft on the quarter-deck and also hour long rotations standing up on the fo’c’sle head, acting as dedicated forward lookout when it’s night, or if weather conditions, proximity to shore or traffic demand it.

The rest of the time the watch are looking after what ever needs doing to keep the ship sailing effectively and safely. It might be trimming the sails or bracing yards around if the wind shifts, or if our ordered course changes. If the wind picks up they might be ordered to take in the light-airs sails and run up aloft to furl them snug. Or if we’re slowing down and the wind is light they might set more sail. There’s domestic cleaning that needs doing everyday – you can imagine a house with 45 people living in it would need pretty regular scrubbing to keep it reasonably clean. We wash down the decks every morning too – the salt water being good for the oiled pine decks and keeping the seams tight, as well as cleaning off any wood chips or project debris that escaped the previous evening’s deck sweep, and the scraps of midnight snacks that invariably get spread around the quarterdeck by the night watches.

Then there’s is always ship’s work to do. The natural fibre running rig and sails are plenty strong, but they are affected by the elements and there’s always work to do aloft and on deck to keep them in good condition. The wire standing rigging is tarred regularly to protect the marlin serving and steel from sun and salt water, and areas that might chafe or rub are protected with pieces of sewn on leather or canvas, or served with marlin. Blocks need to be overhauled and kept well greased so the lines run through them with as little friction as possible, and sails need any small tears or thin spots repairing before they get bigger. Salt water would corrode steel pretty fast if not protected, so we chip or scrape off any surface rust that’s formed, clean up the steel and then prime with special paint to protect and seal the steel before applying top coat. We use epoxy paint in dry dock when we can sand blast the hull and do a good job of it, but on top of that is many layers of oil paint, applied fairly often as protection for the epoxy coat, to slow down any corrosion and for the cosmetic effect too. Wood too would suffer from the elements if not kept painted, varnished, or oiled so there’s usually some scraping, sanding or coating that needs doing somewhere on the ship, and the bosun and lead seamen keep these projects organised and running smoothly throughout the day.

Then there are the ‘day-men’ and their special projects, which all crew are welcome to join in with if they find something interesting. Actually that’s usually how we choose the next day men – people who’ve shown some interest by getting involved in some of their off time. Day-men work as sailmakers, riggers, engineers and carpenters.

The sailmaking team is especially strong this passage, and since the weather has been fair the sailmakers have been catching up on repairs to plenty of old sails, as well as making some brand new ones. I think it’s pretty cool that we make sails from scratch onboard, usually starting them off in a yacht club or on a well-swept concrete dock in some exotic port, and then seaming them up with a machine or by hand. But all of the finishing and hand work is done onboard, up on the quarterdeck where it’s clean and fairly flat, as far as possible from the tar and paint of the bosun’s supplies up forward.

First we roll out the bolts of brand new white cotton canvas to make the panels, and seam them up with beeswax coated twine, pushing the special sail-maker’s needle through stitch after stitch using a thick leather palm with its angled metal thimble. That makes the body of the sail, which is laid out a second time and its final shape cut out. Then there is more stitching to do: adding tabling and patches, and sewing rope along the edges for strength, and a long sacrificial sun-patch along the top for protection when the sail is furled. Then fitting the hardware: head earrings and clews and grommets all along so it can be lashed to its yard or stay. Finally the sailmaker gets the honour of marking the completion date, the name of the sail and the ship’s name in a corner and the sail is ready to send aloft.

It’s quite a process but we have lots of hands interested in helping out, and if a few volunteers put in an hour or two of seaming every day it’s amazing how quickly it moves along. This week the sailmakers started making a new canvas cover for the main cargo hatch. With its twelve long, straight seams and nice square shape it’s an ideal project for people new to sail making to practice their stitching, and two seams are done already.

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Sailmaker John works on a repair job on the quarterdeck, with help from one of the ship’s cats

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Assistant Engineer Nikolaj does some fine painting on the outside of the charthouse

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