Captain's Log

Archive for the 'Atlantic Voyage 2008-2009' Category

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In these Tropics

Our passage from the Cape Verde islands off West Africa to Fernando de Noronha , Brazil was just about as perfect a sailing ship passage as one could ask for. We started off with strong winds, which then moderated, later got calm and picked up again but under sail almost every inch. If Columbus had any idea how close the New World really was he would have sailed south west from the Canary Islands towards Brazil instead of due west to the Bahamas (and a little more than twice as far), and well, who knows what would have happened. His first voyage took about two months across almost the widest part of the Atlantic – I guess he must have hove-to at night to avoid going aground and only making 50 miles a day – a good call but I don’t know what he did. His ships could easily make 100 miles a day in fair conditions.

Our gang got the Picton Castle under way from Mindelo, Sao Vincente under sail alone, sailed every inch of the way but for a couple six hour stretches motoring in flat calms – then 1498 miles, 12 days and nine hours later they sailed their barque in fresh breezes right up to the hook off the little harbour at Fernando and anchored under sail without the use of the engine; pretty good gang of sailors they are. Somewhere near the equator King Neptune and his Royal Court boarded the ship and after offering their tender ministrations welcomed all hands into the Sacred Order of Royal Shellbacks. More on these dignified proceedings I am proscribed from relating. After a brief interlude at that pretty island we set off again. This time bound for Grenada in the West Indies just about 2,000 trade-wind miles away.


Just now we are sailing along braced well up on the starboard tack, under all plain sail to royals, flying jib and gaff topsail set. The stunsle booms are run in on top of their yards – the wind is too close right now for stunsles and actually probably too strong anyway. The Picton Castle is making about 6 to 7 knots in fresh North East trade winds steady, steady, steady on the starboard quarter right here off the coast of Brazil right about on top the equator, a bit north of said line actually. Land lays about 180 miles on our port beam. Flying fish take flight and soar out of our way – scientists say that these fish do not fly; they look like they fly to me hundred yards or more at a time. When they loose a little speed they drop to almost sea level and the bottom bit of their tail dips in the seas and sculls madly and they are airborne with speed again; seems a lot like self propelled flying to me. Scientists are baffled but they need to get out  more…Our nights have magical skies of clouds overhead that could easily, with some imagination form into any number of mysterious shapes. The binnacle lantern gives a feint rosy glow to the helmsman framed in the spanker sheets as he is, or perhaps a she, and drenched and backlit in starlight and velvet blue-black sky – yet dark enough to hold on to the mystery of the night.

Pretty well out of fresh vegetables we are but Mr. Church managed to find a few sacks of potatoes in the last island. We even have couple watermelons from Senegal , well, maybe one. Donald is still feeding us but we are getting to that point in a long passage where we can see those tins of sardines and corned beef hash we have been avoiding…we last provisioned heavily in Dakar now many weeks astern and an ocean ago.

It was plenty warm today under this tropic sun – helmsman stripped to the waist with a broad straw hat – haven’t touched the braces in days. Some crew are broken off into day-men riggers, sailmakers and ‘donkeymen’ (engine-room gang). The quarter-deck is covered with two new t’gallants getting roped by David and his able helpers John and Sophie. Aloft we spy a couple crew, Erin and Jackie, seizing on new ratlines on the main shrouds. Another former landsman is oiling blocks. Some new baggywrinkle is being made up there from some fine new German marlin we got in Hamburg and the usual short yarns of manila rope. DB, Bruce and Charlotte have the task well in hand. The engineers (Suzie having joined their ranks as a Donkey-Dayman for the passage) seem to be on perpetual smoke-break on the fore-deck. But the engine room looks pretty good so they must be doing something from time to time.

It is about two hours past sunset and full into the night now. Seas are small, the moon has not yet made an appearance although expected any minute or any hour perhaps… There are enough stars to make the night far from pitch black and getting around on deck with the ambient light is easy enough for those on watch without the use of our night deck lights. As the ship rolls in the modest beam seas the nipped buntlines slat and drum softly on the fore-side of the billowing canvas sails. I remember stories by old deep-water seamen standing lookout on the focsle-head of some huge Finnish or Swedish bark when young in the 1920’s and 30’s, sailing squared before the trades and grabbing a wire buntline (yes, wire) as the foresail fills and it would lift them off the deck and set them down again gently. This barko is a bit small for that. Along the lee waterline seas swish and slop and make that pleasant undulating hissing sound. Up forward on the well deck near the fore-bits a guitar and fiddle are doing their best. A couple crew are stretched out on the hatch in the cool of the night. Now with the moon having joined our company, these crew are alternately bathed in muted silver light and then blue-black shadows of darkness from the sails and rigging and then into the moonlight again.

chibbley sitting on sail
Fernando Brazil 088
sweet tradewinds

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Bound for the New World

On Monday January 26 we sailed from Mindelo, Sao Vicente, Cape Verde Islands bound for Fernando de Noronha, Brazil. It had been blowing extremely strongly for many days but now it was laying down to under 30 knots. After clearing out with Immigration and the Marine Police the gang loosed sail, braced yards aback and hove up both anchors. Without using the engine the Picton Castle crew did a fine job of sailing their ship off the anchor and out of the harbour, past the other anchored ships, past the breakwater, past the USS Pittsburgh, a Navy submarine in for a port visit, past the high jagged cliffs before falling off down the broad channel between Sao Vicente and Sao Antone.

Soon the barque was making nine and a half knots between the two islands. As we made our way offshore we settled down to 7-8 knots and have been keeping that speed ever since. Still comfortably cool we are all pleased to be back at sea in good passage making breezes. Celestial navigation lessons have started, other workshops are in the works and the Equator lays somewhere ahead – as soon as the wind lays down a little we are sure to set studding sails.

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The Atlantic Neighbourhood

IMG_0789.JPGThe Picton Castle crew had a fantastic eye-opening time in Dakar. We all could spend much more time here getting to know the place and people better. The sights, the desert, the big (80’) fishing canoes near to where we land our boat on the beach, the friendly and engaging folks, music, food, you name it, (along with our fascinating visit in Morocco) all leaves us wanting more here in Africa

We are discovering something remarkably intriguing about this voyage, although a bit obvious when put into words. Sailing from the former British Atlantic colony of Nova Scotia to Ireland (England’s first colony), to England, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway and down to Spain and Portugal, closer and closer to Africa, then Morocco, North Africa, now Senegal, soon onto Cape Verde and then onto Brazil and the Caribbean islands– in some ways the cultural changes seem sudden and swift from place to place but on the other hand if you step back and squint your eyes just right the cultural shifts are actually quite gradual and sort of seamless in a way and they even inform each other a great deal within proximity – very interesting. For example, southern Spain is very, very Arabic in so many ways (architecture, music, food, look of the people). Senegal has so much in common with the Caribbean and much of the Americas in general. Even so called white North America has a great deal in common with things African that most would presume. Africa is in every North American’s roots. This Voyage of the Atlantic is something like a front row seat at the panoramic telling of the “Story of Us” in North America – our roots are everywhere, very interesting voyage, challenging too. This ocean is no barrier but a splendid highway.

Strong trade winds every day, soon time to pull up anchor…we are very excited to be visiting the eastern outpost of the New World of the Cape Verde Islands. Sal, Boavista and Sao Vincente. And soon the long sea passage bound for Brazil and the West Indies.

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Dakar, Senegal

Dakar, Senegal, West Africa is fantastic. What a remarkable, land, country, people and so many cultures all mixed together in one place. We talk about diversity a lot in North America, yet in Africa there seems to be more diversity on one dusty road than we are used to seeing in a month. I am surprised more visitors don’t flock to this country – I guess some do. The people we met are all delightful, gracious and helpful, even elegant.

After a good passage of about 1,000 miles from the Canaries of light winds mixed with fresh winds (and a sweet Christmas and fun New Year’s, and formally crossing into the tropics) we sailed around the headland and anchored the Picton Castle just to the east of Cap Verte in the Baie de Goree, very near the city.

From the ship we can see that this broad bay is surrounded by a lowland and a long semi-circular, beautiful creamy sand beach fringed with palms where dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds of big (80′) brightly painted fishing canoes are hauled up and are launched, returning with the day’s catch. At dawn there is always a big colourful crowd around these boats as nets are hauled up on the beach, canoes are unloaded and others set out. This anchorage, about ¾’s of a mile from shore, was to prove good holding and the ship had no hints of security problems here at all.

Soon we got ashore and Lynsey, Corey (formerly in the Canadian Foreign Service and an excellent speaker of French) and I found a resourceful cabby and tore around town sorting out customs and immigration- quite an adventure in itself. Clearing into Senegal was time consuming but a happily painless process, without any problems. The friendly Prefect of Police did not even seem to be terribly concerned with the official Senegalese visas we went to so much trouble to get for three of our crew while in Las Palmas.

Goree Island

While at Dakar many of the Picton Castle crew went out to Goree Island, the infamous slave island, just a mile off the main harbour entrance and a key European outpost for centuries, much contested. With no cars and few buildings less than 100 years old, this island was one of the most notorious slave handling points along the west African coast and later the center for administration of French West Africa. Now it is a heritage destination for Africans and other people from all over the world. We met up with an excellent guide, Ali Drame, and that made a difference when wandering around the island.

As a slaving center, Goree obviously has a lot in common with many other places in west Africa, but it seems to remain a somewhat unique and emblematic overlapping crossfire of a place in that it switched European hands (Portuguese, Dutch, English, French) so many times and was such a focal point of international contention even up until WWII. It is sort of a crossroads of the European power struggle of almost the last 500 years. Goree was the capitol of all French West Africa well into the late 1800s, even 1900s.

Delightfully it is now a pleasant local artists’ colony of sorts with a couple of cafes and small old hotels in former colonial buildings with clean sea waters for swimming in the small cove, sweet breezes and gentle waves. Kids playing in the water or kicking a soccer ball around everywhere. Ladies (and some seriously take-charge ladies, let me tell you, they will make their sale – you are going to buy something) selling crafts. We went all throughout the island, to churches, convents, the Governor Palace, the Police Station occupying what is believed to be the oldest building in the island built by the Portuguese in the mid 1400s, forts dating from ancient times up until the 20th century. When turning the island over to the authorities of the newly independent Senegal in 1960, we were told that the French destroyed the big guns at the fort on the top of the island set up to defend the port. We were told that these guns, under the authority of Vichy France, had fired on and sunk an allied merchant vessel, the SS Tacoma, not nice. The wreck is still marked by a buoy.

Of keenest interest was what they call the “Slave House” which, like many others (8-12 or more as far as we can tell), was a slave holding and processing centre devolving on to the “Door of No Return” which once led out to a narrow jetty towards a canoe and out to the ship to head west for Brazil, the West Indies or North America. Nelson Mandela has visited this place which is now a museum. This house has been preserved and restored pretty well. Apparently most all the houses along the shore, none of them as big as expected, were such holding stations and transit/processing places. Such prosaic terms for such nasty stuff. The guide said that this house was the biggest and most organized of them all and was thus chosen for preservation. The others have simply reverted to attractive seaside villas, which is what they were more or less anyway on the top floors- but, my goodness, the ghosts that live downstairs!

And elsewhere, some crew trundled north to the old city of Saint Louis, some stayed ashore making local friends, all were mesmerized by all we saw and felt. Any French language ability at all got a good workout here in Dakar.

Meanwhile, back at the ship the wind shifted and blew up pretty hard at times but the anchor held fine without setting a second anchor and work goes on – heads are getting stripped down and overhauled, David laid out some sails in a stone court yard ashore, provisioning for fresh produce is under way, chipping, priming and painting is a constant in good weather, decks got oiled and the engineering gang did mysterious things down there…

a lively little beach, Goree
Our guide Ali tells us the stories of the slave house, Goree
Relaxing at the yacht club, Dakar
soccer game, Goree
the church, Goree
the landing at Goree
the streets of Goree

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Off Africa

Las Palmas

Las Palmas is a huge modern port. Of everywhere we have gone in the past few months we have been impressed by the Spanish port infrastructure as being solid and up to date. The Picton Castle put in here to see what the place was like and because there really aren’t many anchorages in the Canary Islands for a ship like this one. On an overcast day the ship sailed right up to the huge breakwater under topsails in good sized seas before ducking around the corner into the smooth shelter of the large harbour. We had a good passage from Essaouira, Morocco. We dropped the hook in the designated anchorage inside the breakwater but it became immediately clear that with all the yachts anchored there as well that this would not be a good, secure berth for the Picton Castle. It would have been fine if we had it to ourselves, but this was, naturally, not to be. If we dragged or even swung one way we would damage yachts, another direction lay a stone breakwater and in the last direction lay the harbour limits where anchored ships could not be. The weather, although getting warmer, was predicted to be unsettled, making our swing around all the more likely. Soon enough we arranged to go along side at the head of the harbour. After we got safely moored it picked up to blow pretty hard for a few days. There was a certain amount of surge at the wharf keeping the duty watch busy with chafe gear and replacing a parted hawser, even though our hawsers are quite oversized. This condition was partly due to our location in the basin – but that is where the port authorities wanted us as other ships were coming and going and there was no place to anchor. So it goes.

Full Rigged Ship Danmark and Best Dressed Dogs

To our delight and surprise the Danish State Full Rigged Schoolship Danmark was in port too, along with the English Barque Tenacious. It turns out that the Danmark was in winter lay-up in climes a bit more benign than winter in Denmark. Our crew met up and traded ship tours. Also the German Brig Roald Amundsen pulled in for a day with a medical issue to attend. Again crews traded ship tours. Las Palmas was great for Christmas shopping, getting laundry done, phoning home (very cheap), catching up on emailing and internet stuff which is so important today, people watching and generally hanging out with your shipmates. We had to get some visas sorted out for Senegal for some of our crew and, of course, there was minor shopping for the ship. Las Palmas seems to be a Mecca for every manner of bohemian and alternative lifestyle. You see some of the most remarkable outfits on people and the little dogs too. Best dressed dogs we have ever seen. All was friendly and peaceful and pleasant.

Isla Gomera

We just sailed from the island of Gomera in the south of the Canaries group here. After a fine overnight sail from Las Palmas we anchored at a little place called Vueltas or Punta Trigo on the SW coast which was quite dramatic. We have the Christmas music playing all the time in the hopes that it will become annoying to all onboard, therefore fulfilling a longstanding Christmas season tradition. We have a little tiny Picton Castle Christmas tree with little red maple leaves on it and all the ship pins collected at tall ship events on it as ornaments including Schooner Bluenose II pins and a little uniform-cap gold fouled anchor from the Russian 4-masted bark Sedov at the top – looks pretty sharp. It is, however, a bit odd to listen to the Platters sing Jingle Bells out here at sea off Africa, this is so on so many different levels. Crew have been baking on night-watches so there are plenty of Christmas cookies about.

Work Onboard

Sailmaking is proceeding apace with the bending of a new hand sewn spanker, just finished. The forward head on the port side of the focsle got stripped down to bare metal and is being smoothly overhauled. Soon at work on a new topmast studding sail boom. Our 20 foot wooden skiff just got a complete overhaul bottom-side up on the hatch and caulking, now tight like a drum. We have a good gang aboard, all keen about the ship and seagoing. We should be on the edge of the tradewinds but we have an upper level low developing over us promising light southerly winds. So we may need to motor a day to get to a breeze. It’s about 800+ miles to Senegal and should be a good sail and conserving fuel is a huge priority these days. We topped up on diesel at Gibraltar and want that gas stop to last the rest of the trip… this just in – winds have faired and picked up and now the ship is bowling along to the SSW as she should be.

Canaries – A Classic Transatlantic Port of Call

All said and done the Canaries are alright – all the eastern Atlantic islands are weak on good anchorages and are very European even off Africa. Our crew have had a really good and interesting time here. Pretty logical to put in here if making a western-bound Atlantic passage from Europe or the Med and do not really have a taste for adventure. There really is not a hint here that you are off Africa – this is a Spanish Mediterranean sorta place with all the tiled piazzas, architecture and sidewalk cafes. More Africans in Copenhagen than here. Lots of dramatic scenery, though. Gomera reminds us of St. Helena, which is not a complete shock as it’s part of the same geological system, the mid-Atlantic ridge. High steep volcanic rocks (astern of us not more 150 yards the cliff goes straight up to 1400 feet in dry striated brownish rock). It’s all dry and shrubbery except curious little damp micro climates here and there with both cactus and palm trees. Seems that there is a patch of unique pre-Ice Age forest on the top here, the last anywhere, very special woods is this. We can only imagine what rare Galapagos type uniqueness must have been specific to all these islands a long time ago. Mauritius had the Dodo, what was on these islands including Madeira and Azores a heap of years ago before we paddled our canoes out here? Plenty of northern Europeans trying to stay warm here, a few stalwarts from the 1960s holding fast to lifestyles and ideals, winter and full time residents here, all very nice and friendly though rarely a word of Spanish to be overheard. Exquisite wooden fishing boats here, 20-30 foot open launches beautifully modeled and put together and beautifully painted and kept up.

Back at Sea

Now, in good winds out of the ENE and fine balmy temperatures of 22c /71f and sea temps to match we are happily at sea under all sail. Seas are modest and the sky is plenty blue with a enough puffy white clouds to be encouraging. The mates are starting celestial navigation classes. We have broken off ‘daymen’ to work and thus learn more about sailmaking, rigging and engineering. Christmas preparations are moving ahead as we sail onwards.

Bound Ever South and Westward

Many vessels, when sailing for the West Indies, make the Canaries their last eastern Atlantic port before heading off to the west. This was Columbus’s plan and route and he made four such voyages over twelve years. There must be ruts in the ocean hereabouts from all the ships of the 19th century and yachts later from this passage.

Beautiful valley and beach, La gomera
Danmark and Picton Castle alongside in Las Palmas
Dave lays out a t gallant, Las Palmas
Dry, terraced hills, La Gomera
La Gomera countryside
Local craft, La Gomera
Putting the finishing touches on the skiff, Las Palmas
The stunning anchorage at La Gomera

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Essaouria, Morocco

What an amazing place is this Essaouria – encompassed by endless desert. When we got ashore we found ourselves immersed in and surrounded by old Moorish castles with towers and stone-works, crowded wharves, minarets, full on eye-slit only covered ladies (others in tight jeans and sweaters), most men kitted out in camels-wool hooded robes of every shade and stripe (jalabas), winding ally ways, hidden markets, spice smells (fish smells too), beautiful weathered stone arches of this ancient walled city, lines of bronze cannons at the fortress walls from the 1600s overlooking the smashing breakers and the approach to the bay, excellent coffee, great food eaten with hands in a circle on the floor, gorgeous rugs everywhere, leather goods, big scary daggers, knives and swords, antique chests covered in leather and brass, fine fabrics, pottery, intricate jewellery, fun haggling, begging kids laying on the soulful eyes (while wearing bright shiny running shoes). Berbers, Twareg and Nomads all over the place. Donkey carts hauling everything from fire-wood to sheep to propane tanks. Jimi Hendrix spent some time here and wrote a song about castles in the sand. His house is crumbling nearby. Not a word of politics, although when prompted they are quite pleased about Obama (as is everybody else in the known universe we run into). Long streets of markets, some touristy, most local.

Folks here are universally very friendly, always inviting you in for sweet mint tea while sitting in their shop or just next to an old stone wall, and even for full meals. If you just happen to mention that you are hungry the next thing you know is that you are invited into the back room of some shop and Fatima is sorting you out with a communal bowl of couscous. Always with the feasting – this time was coming up on a big Islamic fest so one day you see sheep tied up being carted about with much knife sharpening going on in the many road-side knife sharpening stalls (they also sharpen hatchets and axes) and then soon no more sheep and the knife sharpening is over. Tanjine cooking and couscous dishes all the time. Interesting combinations of prunes with meat and such. Some of the gang found camels to ride. Camels are nasty beasts. Many of the folks we met were headed off into the desert soon to see family and hold feasts for a week or two. We were invited to come along join our new acquaintances into the dunes and I think quite sincerely. Next time when we happen to be in Morocco – into the desert…

carpets everywhere
howitzer in Essaouirs
the main drag, Essaouira

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The Rock of Gibraltar

The name Gibraltar comes from Arabic, meaning Fortress of Tarik. Interesting spot, Gibraltar. First of all, sailing in from sea it is quite an astounding sight just in size and shape. It really is a huge rock rising out of the mists and sea with a geology that seems different from the land nearby. Then you quickly see that it is crowded around with ships. My guess is that most of them put into Gibraltar for the cheap low-tax fuel which, at their rate of consumption, would make a big difference – makes a big enough difference to this small ship. 95% of the world’s goods get around by ships like these. When their fuel bill goes up so does the cost of those goods.

While we were there, over 100 ships were at anchor or manoeuvring nearby at any given time on either side of the Rock, shifting, coming and going all the time. Bunker boats come out and moor alongside to fuel these ocean behemoths up. These bunker boats are all sea-going 5,000 to10,000 ton tankers in their own right. They look pretty small alongside these huge bulk-carriers, freighters and tankers. I don’t see much other reason for all these big ships to be here, not so much commerce needed at little Gibraltar. Big ships steaming in and out all the time – VHF radio chatter regarding pilots, anchorages, permission to proceed or shift is constant. We even had to report in when we were running our little skiff into shore. Like a really big truck stop with cheap fuel, trucker grub and shops to fetch something homeward. We also went in alongside a fuel dock inside the breakwaters to tank up on 14,000 litres of diesel fuel – hope to make this last the rest of this voyage. It might.

For aficionados of the British Empire there is much to do and see here in Gibraltar. Captured from Spain in 1705 Gibraltar has mostly been a massive Royal Navy base until fairly recently. For a long time Spain was pretty cranky about the British flag flying over the place for so long, but when Tony Blair said something like “sure, we can talk about giving it back…”, the citizens of Gibraltar got even more cranky. They were Brits, had been Brits for 300 hundred years and did not see why they should stop being Brits, at least not without a little discussion among themselves first. For many years and until recently, there was a closed border between Gibraltar and Spain proper but now there is none and you can just drive back and forth without even someone to wave at you. The heat seems to have died down on the subject of which flag flies where. Walking along or in shops you hear a mixture of Spanish and English and it seems a great many folks here are bilingual.

An ancient stone and mortar Moorish castle overlooks the town, its last rebuild dates from the 1300s. It was first built considerably before that. The Rock is riddled with tunnels, many of which were dug out in the late 1700’s when the place was under siege. Then there are WWII tunnels for much the same purpose. Old and not so old gun emplacements sprout up all over the place. There is a remarkable old naval graveyard right in town called the Trafalgar Cemetery which holds the remains of many Royal Navy sailors, including some who died of wounds received at Nelson’s famous Battle of Trafalgar. It is a pretty and serene spot, very much like a tropical rock garden. Lovely botanical gardens to visit, too. The main drag here is converted to a walking street leading to a large square about which the guide book almost gleefully comments “here was once the spot for public executions but today a lovely shopping plaza…”

In Gibraltar we saw our old crew member, Billy Campbell, in his recently released movie “Ghost Town” – romantic comedy, good fun, a lot of nice touches – felt a little like an old Jimmy Stewart movie. The whole crew went to check it out. Made a double feature of it with the latest James Bond flick.

Gibraltar is a curious remnant of empire. Nice enough, still a big shipping town. Lots of shops selling useless stuff to sailors with money burning in the pocket. We all had to go to the top of the Rock to meet the monkeys who live there; Barbary Macaques, they look like a cross between our ship’s cat Chibley and a human, furry and smart, no tails. The story is not quite straight how they got here. These keen eyed simians hail originally from North Africa – some say they were imported by a certain British officer in the mid 1700s so those stationed at Gibraltar could have something to hunt during idle hours. Others say these monkeys came over much earlier with the Moors. About 250 of them scramble around the Rock, they sit around where they feel like. They seem as if they can read your mind.

Heaps of British pubs. And as a bastion of old England the food here is genuinely, well, what can I say, maybe nostalgic for historic traditional English fare – unlike back in old Blighty where the cuisine has actually become quite excellent and cosmopolitan over the last twenty or thirty years. Or you can go to the local Moroccan or Indian restaurants hidden down some narrow alley. These are always reliably tasty. All hands got two days ashore to wander about this Rock.

Onboard, the crew end for ended braces and worked on getting a new spanker finished. We faced strong westerlies, making departure out into the Atlantic difficult for a bit but then when they laid down we got the Picton Castle‘s anchor up and got underway under sail out of Gibraltar Bay bound for Morocco. It was curious to thread our way under sail through all these huge anchored ships. It is exciting to be sailing bound for Africa.

Europa Point, Gibraltar
Jay and Bill on the wheel, under sail departing Gibraltar
the view from the top of the rock
Trafalagar Cemetary

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Mallorca and Gibraltar

The Picton Castle was at anchor at Gibraltar after an excellent, 450 mile sailing passage from Mallorca. The ship and her crew have sailed over 8,500 miles so far on this voyage. We are surrounded by many large merchant ships anchored next to this famous rock. Dozens of anchored vessels fill this bay stretching off into the distance with the peaks of mountains of Morocco riding above the sea haze. At the southernmost point a large ship is being salvaged after dragging up on the rocks. It was big news. The ship was a complete loss, this looks like a clean up operation. She apparently dragged anchor and could not get engines started, we were told.

We had been at Majorca for a week for a longer stay in port than usual. This we did because we wanted to send the mizzen topmast down for an overhaul and take advantage of being alongside to get some work done that is easier that way. We usually anchor out. Palma was also the end of a leg and the beginning of the next one and the mid point of this remarkable voyage. There were some sad goodbyes to shipmates who had to get home and the welcoming of new ones.

This topmast was sorely in need of varnish. We could have taken care of that while it was in place by using Bosuns chairs, but it was due for a good check over anyway so we sent it down to the deck to get a thorough overhaul. It is also a nice piece of seamanship to send down a large spar like this and was a good chance to teach how this is done safely and efficiently. Now the topmast is back aloft all painted, varnished, greased and all the rigging checked and overhauled. Sailmaker David set the big sewing machine up on the wharf – he and his helpers, Sarah and Bruce, laid out, cut and seamed up two new topgallants and a new upper topsail in just a couple days.

The gang had a good time in sunny Mallorca – well, not so sunny with a low pressure system sitting on top of us and raining aplenty – and we got lots of good work done after the rain stopped. There is a quite a large yachting scene there with packed first class marinas and superb commercial waterfront infrastructure. Many German and British folk here, some on holiday, some as residents. There might be more Irish pubs here than in Dublin and the skyline of Palma is dominated by a magnificent cathedral built in the middle ages. The surrounding countryside is beautiful and varied. It is much like the American southwest in places and looks like the land of The Man of La Mancha in others; windmills, orange groves, dusty scrubby plains, jagged peaked mountains overlooking all. The family of our lead seaman Nadja lives in the country of this lovely island. The Nitschke family looked after their daughter’s ship and crew above and far beyond the call of duty, including having all the crew out to their home in country for magical feasts around the big bonfire with great steaming pans of paella and other delights.

The Picton Castle had great passages both to and from Mallorca while in the Mediterranean, light fair breezes sailing in east bound and strong fair breezes headed back west bound for Gibraltar. The ship made very good time under t’gallants in occasional stiff squalls but it was a fair wind and she surged ahead in each squall, 8-9 knots, fast for us. Gibraltar is an interesting spot and fuel is 35% cheaper here compared to Mallorca, so we will save $5K on a fill-up. Yes, that’s right, $5,000 will be saved by fuelling here. It costs $1,000/day to motor now in this ship, it used to cost $250/day not so long ago. I was last here in the Danish training ship Danmark. The hull of the 1877 Barque Elissa was here too, on her way to Galveston, Texas, at the end of a wire on her improbable path towards a full and amazing restoration. The Rock of Gibraltar is honeycombed with caves from the days when this was a major British Navy base. It is quite a formidable looking rock. There is an ape that calls this rock home – the only native apes in Europe apart from the kind that walks upright.

Europa Point, Gibraltar at sunrise
Sailing off the hook agt Lagos, Portugal
Seaming a new upper topsail in Mallorca
Sending the mizzen topmast down in Mallorca

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As we sailed around the corner of Cabo Raso after a fair passage from Spain, the magnificent German Navy training ship Gorch Foch sailed into view and along with the Picton Castle for few miles. She carried on towards Lisbon while we anchored at Cascais, Portugal. And just in time as the next day a northerly gale set up to blow for a couple days. Well protected from the north, we still put out an extra anchor and plenty of chain and the ship held fine. I imagine that the sea bottom hereabouts is well scarred with the furrows of ancient anchors as so much sailing naval history, aggressive wars of domination and sheer piracy during the age of sail took place right here.

Cascais is a lovely Portuguese town with charming open squares filled with attractive cafes. Painted and fired tiles are in use everywhere as street signs and decorations on buildings. Every Wednesday a big fruit and vegetable market is held with an attached fish market and butcher as well as a variation of an open air discount department store where you can buy shoes, jeans, shirts, CDs, DVDs, handbags, sunglasses, baskets, garden pots and fresh fish as well as meat.

Many crew went inland to the town of Sintra on their days free. For many the goal was to visit the castle built by Moors in the 800s, a pretty long time ago. This stone fortification is quite a grand sight and well worth the visit. It seems to grow organically out of the rugged topography and has few right angles, taking into architectural account any massive stone out cropping. Walls meander logically over the shape of the land. Views from the top turrets answer the question why build such an ambitious castle at the top of this mountain – a lookout gets perfect views of all approaches from sea or the low plains and whether from the north, south, east or west. The castle seems almost a fantasy in its layout the over all effect is quite magical.

fishing, photo from Cody
inside the moorish castle
it s blowing a holy hoolie at anchor, Cascais
the view from the Moorish castle

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Saint Nazaire and Across the Bay of Biscay

As we have done several times on this amazing voyage around Europe, we found ourselves waiting out a gale before getting underway from a port we were visiting. Well, they have pretty protected harbours hereabouts, plenty of them and we had set up the schedule with these delays in mind so no problem. It would not hurt us so much to hang out at the fine French seaport of Saint Nazaire a couple more days. It looked like a big high pressure system would build behind the front carrying the gales, bringing fair weather. We could live with another day of café au lait and croissants.

Sailing day broke bright and clear with light northerly winds – just perfect for sailing on a southwesterly course for La Coruna, Spain and a very fine chance along to make our way under sail out of the Bay of Biscay. The Picton Castle sprung off the quay, turned around with the help of sails and the skiff pushing the bow. We locked through by ourselves this time. Jean-Claude piped us out of the basin at the river side of the lock. Shortly after we were steaming down the River Loire. As soon as we were clear of the channel, the gang got all sail on the ship and shut down the engine. It was a treat to be under sail with the sun burning down.

Now it was back to sea watches, standing lookout, tricks at the helm, working the ship, setting and trimming sail, bracing back and forth, ships work and afternoon workshops in nautical lore and skills. Again we had a surprising number of porpoise and dolphins swimming and jumping around the ship, more whales too. Two owls hitched a ride and perched on the mizzen cross trees for a couple days – they flew off when they could see Spain. We locked up Chibley while they lurked aloft, seemed like good idea. Getting noticeably warmer it was too, day by day. We closed with the Spanish coast as the light winds died away all together. Rather than drift about at sea in a large sloppy swell we put into a small fishing harbour called Corino for a night. Corino has that little squiggle over the ‘N’ making the pronunciation ‘cor-een-yo’. This was a fine little stop and good anchorage behind a high breakwater. I explained to the crew that when you see a high breakwater it is because, at times, they really need one just like that. Weather info indicated little or no wind on the morrow. As we were not more than forty miles away from La Coruna it looked like a day for motoring.

Off we sailed for La Coruna, or motored actually as there was not a breath of wind, only a large oily swell from a storm swirling far off in the North Atlantic somewhere. As we approached the harbour the port authorities of the La Coruna area recommended that we anchor in a small anchorage nearby at a small town called Ares. This we did and it turned out to be a lovely spot. From here, the crew made forays into the interior. A big hit was visiting Santiago, an ancient medieval city with a magnificent cathedral called Catedral del Apostol. The center piece is a sarcophagus said to hold the earthly remains of James, brother of Jesus. It is a beautiful stone city with winding narrow streets and cafes everywhere. We admired the fine wooden built small craft in this small bay. Every day some good work got done on the ship with sail-making progressing and workshops for the duty watch in seamanship ongoing. From Ares we sailed for Cascais, Portugal at the mouth of the port of Lisbon.

a little ship
An owl hitched a ride to Spain
cathedral at Santiago, photo from Cody
The streets of Santiago de Compostella

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