Captain's Log

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Learning to Sail in October

By Ashley Mulock

Thirty odd days ago trainees and apprentices who are sailing on the PICTON CASTLE for the Transatlantic Voyage began to arrive. Eyes like saucers they boarded the ship, struggled awkwardly down the quarterdeck stairs (designed I’m pretty sure to initiate newcomers on the spot) and then gathered on the green hatch at amidships to be shown where to go next. First order of business, down to the bunks to dump personal gear, followed by a quick introductory orientation of the ship, heads and meal schedule then, at last, some time to settle in. Looking at the strange surroundings, including a bunk that is the only personal space to be had while aboard, may have left some wondering what on earth they’ve gotten themselves into. Others will immediately think of the ship as home. It all depends on a person’s rate of adaptability.

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During the course of the week ending on October 3rd, the steady stream of new crew member arrivals culminated in a three day blitz of about 24 people. New faces were seen in every corner of the ship almost overnight. Everyday there were numerous orientations held until the last dotted line on the last checklist had been signed by the last trainee. Next up – the best way to get adjusted to life aboard a tall ship is to begin living it. With that in mind, on October 1st a three watch system was posted. This means that each crew member was assigned to either the 12-4, 4-8 or 8-12 watch. Out to sea these would be the hours that each watch will work. While at the dock it plays out a little differently. For example, if the 12-4 was ‘on watch’ that means they will work a 24 hour period beginning at the 8:00am muster and finishing at the same time the following day. The ‘on’ watch is responsible for cleaning all domestics that day as well as standing the anchor watch rotation at night (one person being assigned to each hour between 20:00 – 08:00). Everyone on board gets busy doing ship’s work during the day with the 4-8 and 8-12 being stood down after the evening muster, generally at 17:00. These two watches are then on free time during which they could leave the ship as long as they were back by the morning muster. At that time, and in this case, the ‘on’ watch would then change to the 4-8. This same basic schedule will be used anytime the ship is anchored or alongside a dock.

Living, working and playing in a relatively small amount of space helped the crew bond really well. Going from complete strangers of different nationalities, ages and backgrounds to becoming full-on shipmates should be a daunting task. Actually, it is not as difficult as it may seem. Virtually all of the tasks we perform and the training that we engage in is done as a team. As the weeks flew by the tasks become more involved which in turn involves a greater degree of coordination. A few missteps have been taken to be sure, but every one of them has been addressed, learned from and not repeated. Sailing a tall ship is, in essence, a coordinated effort in which every crew member plays an important role.

Oddly enough one of the best ways to teach this actually takes place off of the ship. As often as possible rowing has been part of the training schedule. Each of the eight rowers will take their place in the boat and from that moment on await instructions from the coxswain. Why is it important to wait for instructions at this early stage? Well since even the act of picking up the six foot oars and lifting the blades skyward can wreak havoc, it is best to begin the way you intend to continue. Once the oars are in position, poised over the water, it is again up to the coxswain to call out instructions that must be followed in unison. Can you guess what would happen without this person? Oars would be slapping into each other; one side likely will be rowing with more strength than the other; progress would be slow and tempers would be on the rise. Rather than descend into potential chaos and anarchy the coxswain calmly identifies the first oarsman, port aft most position, with whom everyone else must stay in sync. He or she then issues the first command. After only a few strokes most people realize that this activity is not nearly as easy as it looks. Focus and attention sharpens on not only the physical aspects of rowing, but also on the coordination and teamwork required to make the boat respond correctly. In this way the crew begin to learn and then solidify how to work together. They also become more accustomed to listening for and to the commands of one particular person. These are some of the fundamental and vitally important lessons that crew members must understand for sailing on a tall ship.

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There are a host of tasks on the ship’s work schedule every day that hone coordination and teamwork among crew members. Sending up masts, crossing yards, bending on sails, hauling up the anchor, emptying out then re-stowing the hold, stowing the ship for sea, painting, rust busting, – the list is endless. Add to this the various training sessions of emergency drills, sail handling, learning the pin rails, ship board terminology, heavy weather drills, basic weather lessons, boxing the compass and learning relative bearings it’s a wonder that heads didn’t explode with the sheer amount of information needing to be digested. As has been illustrated in the daily logs, repetition is the name of the game. Sail handling and emergency drills especially were trained over and over again, the frequency increasing as the day of departure grew ever closer. If they chose to do it, filling out the pin rail diagrams could help take a new crew member from a boiling mass of confusion to being confident as to what line to go to and when. Loudly repeating commands makes everyone feel silly at first but is vital for effective communication between the Captain, Mates and Crew. It also reinforces the names and places of all sails, yards, stays and masts and what lines affect each. Slowly, by degrees, the new crew members improved their skills with every training session or drill that went by. There were impromptu after hours talks in the salon, on the hatch, in the warehouse, etc. to help those who were struggling with one concept or another. Sometimes the answer clicked from a staff crew explaining things or sometimes from a crew member who just joined as well.

In these weeks before leaving, everyone at once became a student and a teacher. The PICTON CASTLE herself is one of the best classrooms a person could ask for. This particular crew was able to participate in rigging her back up after a summer of maintenance and repair, thus gaining an understanding and appreciation for all that must happen in order to leave the dock. A task that may have seemed too pedestrian before, suddenly takes on a whole new level of importance. “The ship is the absolute safest place to be while underway” Captain Sikkema has told us before. “It is our hard work, attention to detail and focus that will keep her this way”.

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After a slight delay brought on by the remnants of Hurricane Patricia blowing through, and accounting for the superstition against starting a voyage on a Friday, the departure of the PICTON CASTLE was scheduled for Saturday October 31st at 10:00am. The notice was put out the day prior and a hundred or so people arrived on that bright sunny morning. Captain Moreland spoke to the entire crew from the dock, as did Mayor Rachel Bailey of Lunenburg, Suzanne Lohnes Croft, Lunenburg’s MLA, and Laurence Mawhinney – past mayor as well as Presbyterian Minister, who blessed the ship. At 10:15 the last mooring line was tossed to waiting hands and the ship slowly separated from the wharf.

The skiff, being the last piece of equipment not yet aboard, was hoisted up – the cries of ‘And’ ‘Heave’ being heard faintly over the water. Then she was off, sailing around the lighthouse at the mouth of Lunenburg Harbour. Keeping with tradition, every one of us had turned away, and not looked back, by the time the last sail disappeared around the bend. Fair winds to the PICTON CASTLE and her crew. Enjoy the epic adventure that awaits. Stay open to things happening that never would have crossed your mind when signing up for a tall ship experience. And here’s to finding whatever it is you were looking for when you first gazed at the website and thought ‘I can do this’.

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