Written by Ashley Mulock
We’ve been at anchor for two nights now at the mouth of the York River on Chesapeake Bay, enough time to reflect back on the journey that brought us here. Sailing in under clear blue skies and a cool breeze it hardly seems real that only two days ago we were dashing about the ship in full foully (foul weather) gear, shivering with cold every time we stopped moving for any length of time. Instead, we now stand free of sopping wet clothes sailing through the engineering marvel that is the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. It’s a little surreal being on a ship that operates as it would have 100 years ago at the same time as passing by a bridge that goes on as far as the eye can see and then having it convert to a tunnel and disappear under the water over which we sail.
A little further down the Bay we spied the tall ship the Eagle in the middle of training maneuvers. Seeing this gives us a window into understanding what people experience when the PICTON CASTLE sails into a port. We are almost as in awe of the sight as everyone else. Not twenty minutes later the L’Hermione passed alongside us, both crews enthusiastically waving away. Imagine our starts of surprise when they fired two rounds of their ceremonial canons right across from us! Flashes of every pirate show or movie ever seen whips across the mind’s eye in the split second it takes the brain to process the showmanship of the maneuver. Talk about getting the heart pumping in a hurry. Already the voyage exceeds the expectations of what we might see and do while aboard.
When we left Lunenburg two weeks ago (has it only been two weeks?!) we were a mixed bag of seasoned professionals, experienced amateurs and full on greenhorns of all ages and nationalities. As we pulled away from the dock and headed out to sea we were all finally faced with the reality of living and working with a multitude of different personalities all colliding together in a fairly small environment. Somehow, in the coming weeks, we are to form a cohesive, functioning unit. Amazingly, test number one came the very day we set sail under a barrage of hail and a wind that chilled to the bone. Yet we all pulled together, helping wherever we could and bid adieu to Canada. When the day was done and I looked around at my fellow shipmates there was nary a frown to be seen. There was excitement, anticipation, a little bit of exhaustion and perhaps a tiny amount trepidation as to what exactly we all signed up for.
What did we all sign up for anyway? Personally, I wanted an adventure. An experience that was bigger than any given individual, where the people aboard come together innumerable times every day to make things happen on the ship. Not a single sail can be set by one person alone just as the daily chores go by a lot faster when there are a team of people set to tackle them instead of a lone soul. As we sailed out of the Lunenburg harbor, and indeed for the next 4-5 days of cold and wet Canadian spring sailing, the shipmates care for and dependence on each other was immediately apparent. Whether it was Donald whipping up batch after batch of hot chocolate to help keep us warm, to runners of hot tea towels/beverages to shipmates on helm or lookout, to the sharing of warm clothes as more and more of our gear failed to dry out, everyone pulled together as a crew. “A clam sea did never a good sailor make” – my Dad told me this before I signed onto the PICTON CASTLE and it has proven true as we stared down the inclement weather and came out the other end a more responsive and knowledgeable crew.
One of the most important things we do while aboard is drill for emergencies. Right from the getgo, before we even took the mooring lines off the dock, we were practicing the man overboard, fire and abandon ship drills. Indeed, over the past fourteen days we have drilled one or more of these emergency procedures every three to four days. We’ve also gone through how to set up the safety nets and lines to clip into should the weather and sea turn really rough. This practice, which is so important for our overall knowledge, helps us to become increasingly confident and efficient with the tasks we’ve been assigned to complete during an emergency. The end goal, of course, is that should something happen while underway our training will take over and the situation will be responded to with the best of our abilities.
As to this end we also had a go at putting on the survival suits. These suits are designed to keep us warm and dry for a time if for whatever reason we end up in the water. They seal us in from the tips of our toes (rubber boots), to our wrists, hands and head (snug neoprene hood plus wrist cuffs and attached mitts to put on last) and are packed full of insulation to help a body stay warm. When the order was given to suit up it was a mass of awkwardness and laughter. Imagine twenty-two people trying to sort out all at once whether or not to kick off existing shoes, hauling the whole suit up and then zipping up so close and snug to the neck that for a few minutes it looked like the entire crew had spotted an actual flying pig and were craning about to get a better view. The laughter really kicked in as we all began to take the suit off and quickly realized that hands slide through tight neoprene better in one direction than the other. Even me, who has fairly small wrists, was envisioning how I was going to go about for the next eight weeks wearing a huge orange one piece survival suit because I was literally stuck inside. Fortunately this kind hilarity not only breeds photographs but helps forge stronger bonds amongst the crew and we had each other free once again in relatively good time. All humour aside though, knowing exactly how to don the survival suits quickly can save our lives so gaining the firsthand experience of trying them on prepares us for a worst case scenario.
The other main stream of knowledge that we have been increasing by giant leaps is that of sail handling. Since our departure from Lunenburg the wind has proven to be as elusive as it is gentle. We have been frequently setting sails, bracing yards and adjusting angels to harness even the slightest power the wind can give us. Inside of two weeks I have watched as our new trainees have gone from the deer in the headlights look to one of inquisitive competence. They ask questions when they need to and are always open to someone with more experience helping them to learn the safe way of doing things. Additionally it helps that if it’s noticed that the crew needs to be refreshed on setting or bringing in a particular sail then we will practice on and off for a few days until our skills improve. This has hugely impacted our ability to confidently hear, understand and respond correctly to the sail handling orders that are given. To the layman it may look chaotic but in actuality what people are watching when they see us dashing about the deck or hauling on lines is the result of hours of practice and a dependence on each other to get the job done.
To me this is what the PICTON CASTLE really offers. It is so much more than learning how to sail – albeit on a really cool ship. Here, I am offered the chance to be a part of way of life where every persons contributions matter. The collective whole wants each person to learn as much as they can and become as good as they can because it is safer for the ship and for each other that way. As such, a question asked of anyone aboard is always treated with respect and answered right away. We all want to do better and so we all help each other. Living and working on a tall ship breeds friends and it breeds them fast. What I have found here in only two weeks are people who I will consider friends for the rest of my life. I have found a family of sorts – a family where going off and doing unusual things is the norm instead of the bizarre. On top of that just look at what we get to do and where we get to spend our time. There is nothing quite like the sunrise view from the royal yard while underway. The ocean stretches out in every direction; the glow of the sun as its rays streak across the sky and kiss your face; the ship far below, so tiny as you are so high up. Then one by one your shipmates appear from their bunks to great the new day, with you.