Captain's Log

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Weathering a Storm Mid-Atlantic

By Purser Kate (Bob) Addison
Tues 10 Nov 2015

The sun is streaming in through the starboard window of the ship’s office as PICTON CASTLE daintily rises and falls with the Atlantic swell. She’s making an easy five knots this morning with square sails set all the way up to the t’gallants, swaying like inverted pendulums high above the deck. The wind is astern so yards are braced square as she runs before this fresh sailing breeze, and all is well and comfortable in our little floating world.

Just 12 hours ago and it was quite a different story on deck: after dark it seems like all of your other sense heighten to make up for the limited vision, so the roll of the deck under your feet seems exaggerated, and the whistle of the wind in the rigging more unnerving. The waves look bigger and everything just seems that much more real. We have red deck lights that we can use on dark nights so the gang can see their way about without losing too much in the way of night vision, all very practical but the red glow adds its own special drama to the scene.

And there was some drama on Sunday night: a deep low pressure system was forecast with its centre somewhere north of 40N, sweeping westwards in the jet stream, and big enough that we would be affected by it no matter where we went.

The Captain and Mate are always very interested in the weather, but with a storm predicted, every 6-hours sees them poring over the various weather charts and forecasts that we receive by fax and satellite email. The Captain was checking in ashore too to make sure he had all the best information and he set a strategy to make the ride as safe and comfortable as possible. His decision was that we should hold our latitude and keep making easting as far as possible before the cold front hit, so that we could make the best of the north westerly winds expected to follow the front, but without gaining latitude which would put us closer to the eye of the storm.

As the long-range forecasts gave way to 24-hour forecasts, all the information began to converge to give a pretty clear picture. The day had been warm and wet with the classic squally weather of a warm front, so it was just a case of waiting for the cold front to follow it as the wind built in strength throughout the day. Winds were predicted up to 35-40 knots – actually something of a moderation since the long-range forecast originally predicting up to 50 knots. But still, a 35 knot wind is plenty for a sailing ship, and you have to expect gusts that are stronger, especially if the front brings unpredictable squalls.

So we made our preparations for heavy weather, three simple aims: keep the people in the ship, keep the water out, and keep all the gear and boats lashed where they should be and not flying around. So we rigged the ‘sailor strainers’ netting running midships from fore shrouds to main shrouds, and then from abaft the main shrouds to the stanchions at the quarter, rigged wire jackstays along the breezeways and quarterdeck for people to clip their harnesses into, and tight man ropes across the main deck and quarterdeck for extra hand holds. We battened down the main hatch with an extra heavy-duty tarp and a bunch of ratchet straps atop of the standard heavy planks and three-layers of tarp. Extra lashings were put on all the boats, and the hold and decks were carefully inspected for anything that could get un-stowed and cause problems if not properly lashed down.

We took in most of the sails through the day as the wind got too strong to safely carry them, but the ship just kept moving right along – at one point making 9 knots under just lower topsails and the foretopmast staysail. We got double gaskets on the stowed sails aloft, and sheeted the canvas still set down hard.

All port holes and watertight doors were dogged down tight, and once there were boarding seas crossing the main decks, the captain ordered the main decks and breeze ways closed and gave instructions for all hands to make their way from one end of the ship to the other below decks. The watch standing by on the quarterdeck were to be in harnesses at all times, and clipped in when stationary, and all ship checks done in pairs. We had our lookouts posted at the bridge wings, and our best helmsmen at the wheel – important not to get caught aback and to keep the seas on the quarter and not let them come abeam, so the steering must be strong and skillful.

Since it was a Sunday and Donald’s day off, Vai, Kevin and Jesper cooked a big pasta bake with prawns, crunchy salad and chocolate cake to keep everyone fueled through the night long. Even doing dishes after dinner was quite exciting with everything flying through the air given half a chance, but stepping out of the nice warm, brightly lit scullery onto the aloha deck was sobering: by then it was dark and blowing a steady force 8, gusting 9, so you really had to focus just to walk about without getting blown sideways. Definitely real.

Forward in the fo’c’sle I was amazed how comfortably she was riding the enormous seas, and I slept well until half-past midnight when the wind shift and sudden heavy rain changed the movement and sounds of the ship. It was cold too. Guess that’s why they call it a cold front.

Meanwhile on deck we’d taken one big boarding sea that curved up above the galley house and smashed down on the boats that are stowed there. A shock, no doubt, for the people sheltering in the lee of the galley house to get a big square of green water dumped on their heads in the dark. The water forced its way in through the gaps around the galley house doors, picked up and moved the semi-dory a good half-inch sideways despite her being well lashed down, and swept away the lid of the galley cool box all the way from the well deck to the aloha deck where it ended up. The scullery cooler on the aloha deck did little better, with left over pasta from the cooler ending up scattered on the main deck. The bucket rack under the port forward pin rail had given way, so there were odd deck buckets bobbing across the decks like so many rubber ducks.

By the morning the wind had dropped right off and we were starting to set sail again, though the big seas took more time to lay down. I am glad to report that the worst casualty of the storm was the bucket rack: a simple wooden structure that the carpenter had patched up soon enough in the morning, and the 4-8 watch had everything else ship shape and tidy by breakfast. All ready for the next day at sea.

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Crazy Clouds on the Atlantic

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