There is nothing quite like a ship on a mission to get people focused. The mission: get Picton Castle to Bermuda, and at that this crew has done well. It’s no easy task to load a ship in the dead of winter and prepare for going to sea. Everything takes just that much longer, from having to wait to open the hatch when the freezing rain stops to pulling out the fire hoses and immersion suits for drills in the snow. While we certainly could have completed our fit-out in Lunenburg it will be far more effective to get her ready for the next year’s sailing here in Bermuda, she needs paint after a winter’s lay-up and attention to detail in the rigging is much easier to come by when one is not so concerned about how cold your fingers and toes are.
After the ship was in all aspects made ready for sea the crew spent some time at anchor doing drills and familiarizing themselves with the ship’s safety gear. This is very important at anytime before putting to sea but especially now as the consequences are much higher at this time of year.
We all knew from the outset that this would be a motor sailing trip, the North Atlantic is no place to mess around this time of year. Having some sail on the vessel though helps a lot, with both speed and steadying out her sea motion. The windows of opportunity for good weather can be narrow so when you get one there is no time to doddle. Fortunately we had a good weather window and made best use of it. Northerly winds pushing us with topsails set and the main engine thumping along, Picton Castle raced down the Nova Scotia coast at 8 to 9 knots. The biggest concern upon departure is to watch the low pressure systems coming off the mid Atlantic coast, these can bring very strong conditions and contrary winds. But once past, a northerly or northwesterly wind will fill in and provide a few days of fair conditions, as the coasters called it “a good chance along”.
The prevailing winds along the coast are from the usually from the southwest and once any northerly wind has gone you can expect the southwest to come in again after, and as such it almost always makes sense to head off in that direction. With our fair wind we ran along the edge of the George’s Bank and off toward southern New England, while it was quite cold it was at least sunny, a little bit of sun on your face goes a long way in the chill wind.
Even with what little sail handling we had to do, it gives you great appreciation for those who had to do these things for a living. As we skirt the edge of the George’s Bank, pulling on icy ropes and frozen sails it’s hard not to think about the fishermen and their schooners that plied these banks in the winter.
As forecasted, the wind veered to the west by the time we were about 120nm to the SSE of Cape Cod, and early in the morning the crew got the ship around on to the starboard tack and off we went to the south.
As the seas began to build with the fresh westerly winds, the crew kept busy making sure the ship, all of her gear and cargo, stayed sea stowed. Once anything starts to move it can be hard to get control of it again and the first sea conditions we experience after loading the ship is a good time to make sure nothing gets started. Before the seas built too much we also took the opportunity to rig up some of our extra safety gear, grab ropes to hang onto and extra lashings about the deck and on the boats. Bumpy as it was for a little while, we sped along a a good clip and late in the morning the wind and sea began to ease.
The concern to navigate is the Gulf Stream, the most remarkable current in the northern hemisphere. This massive volume of water flowing in places at a speed of up to 4 knots starts in the Straits of Florida and lesser Antilles continues up the east coast to north of the Carolinas (Cape Hatteras) and fans out into the North Atlantic bringing warm water to the Azores and as far away as Southern Europe. Coming down from the north, as we are, in the cold southerly flowing waters of the Labrador current, the Gulf Stream is a well defined change from dull green water to that of deep indigo blue, that beautiful and defining feature of ‘blue water sailing’. This ‘wall’ between warm and cold water has an effect on the weather, it can create squall lines and the strong flow of the current can cause seas to heap up and become quite steep. The best way to cross the Stream is far enough to the west that the current can be used to your advantage and with a fair wind or calm.
By late Saturday afternoon we crossed into the north wall of the Gulf Stream, quite suddenly the water temp jumped up to 23°C, the air became warm and moist, and the current took us racing off at speeds of up to 12 knots over the bottom. This of course was a welcome change to the crew, who quickly were in short sleeves and barefoot on deck with the warm water rushing around their feet.
Some mild rain and squalls persisted through the night and as we left the main part of the Stream behind the sea smoothed out and skies cleared. Sunday morning found the ship scooting along, still motor-sailing, in a calm sea and beautiful warm sunny day. We made good enough time that we were able shut the main engine down for the first time since leaving Lunenburg and enjoyed an afternoon of sailing. All hands came out to soak up the warmth and feel the easy sailing motion through the water as opposed to the charging along we had been doing under power.
But as the wind slacked off in the evening we fired up again, bound for Bermuda the following afternoon.
We could not have asked for a nicer afternoon for our arrival in Bermuda, a sunny day with a warm 12 knot breeze and small seas around the outside of the reef. As we were somewhat early for the pilot station we took a few hours to go sailing around the north side of the reefs that surround much of Bermuda. We called all hands and the crew put in a good effort getting cleaned up and ready for port.
The Schooner Spirit of Bermuda, under the command of Captain Michael Moreland (former Captain and Chief Mate in Picton Castle) came out sailing to escort us in. Always great to see a familiar face upon entering port.
At 1530 we boarded the pilots, fired up the main engine, took in sail and brought the ship’s head to wind and for the ‘town cut’. Twenty minutes later it was through the cut and into St George’s Harbour were we tied up behind the Norwegian full-rigger Christian Radich, also in for a stop over at Penno’s wharf. It created quite a classic sight with yards and masts of two square riggers springing up over the old town of St George’s with a Bermuda sloop sitting at anchor in the harbour.
With the ship all secure alongside the crew can take satisfaction in having made a good passage in the winter North Atlantic and turn to getting the ship painted and fully rigged. In two weeks time we’ll be ready to put to sea again, doing what we do best in the ship, sailing for the horizon.