Captain's Log

Archive for February, 2007

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Passage in the Caribbean Sea

“Good morning, this is your wake-up for breakfast!” comes the cheery voice from outside my curtain. It’s 0715 and time for the crew to be awakened for a day sail between islands. I slowly roll out of my bunk and put on my work clothes—shorts and a tank top that are already covered in paint and tar. I know that they’re going to get covered in some other ship goo today so it doesn’t matter much that even though they just came back from the laundry they don’t look clean. I head up towards the aloha deck after the bell has rung at 0730, signalling that it’s time to start eating breakfast. Donald has made pancakes with dried cranberries and oatmeal along with the fruit he cuts up every morning. One of the advantages of short passages is that we can go shopping more frequently and we almost always have fresh fruit and veggies on hand. I make a plate and sit down on a spar in the breezeway to eat. By now I know which of my shipmates will wish me a good morning and who needs to have a cup of coffee before they’re ready for a conversation.

At 0800 the entire crew musters on the cargo hatch to find out the plan for the day. Because we plan to get underway, some of the jobs that we usually do in the morning will be postponed until we’re sailing. The Captain tells us about the island that we’re heading to, and what we will do to get the ship underway. The crew who climb aloft go up and loose sails, those who stay on deck lay down running rigging coils on deck and single up the gear. Once the sails are loosed and crew are back on deck it’s “Hands to the windlass!” Everyone heads up to the foc’sle head and prepares to heave up the anchor using the hand-powered “Armstrong Patent” windlass. Second mate Lynsey and I head to the charthouse, where she will navigate and I will stand by for communications. MacGregor and Andrea go to the engine room to fire up the main engine as the rest of the crew begin the hot, sweaty job of hauling up the anchor. The Captain is on the bridge observing all aspects of getting underway while the Mate and the bosun are both on the foc’sle head leading the team on the windlass.

The rhythm of the windlass begins with the command, “Heave along!” There are two shots of chain out, meaning the crew have 180 feet of chain to haul up followed by the anchor itself. The Captain tells me to take the wheel. I hear one bell from the foc’sle head, meaning that there is only one shot of chain left to heave up. The Captain tells me to put the wheel hard left, and shortly after I hear multiple bells, meaning the anchor is off the bottom. The crew on the windlass breathe a sigh of relief because although it’s hard work at the end to lift the anchor itself, they know it will soon be finished. The ship turns left and heads away from land and once we reach the desired direction the Captain tells me to keep it steady.

After the anchor is housed properly and the bars are out of the windlass, the crew stand by on deck for sail handling. We set lower tops’ls first, then upper tops’ls and a few fore and aft sails. Soon we’re out of the lee of the island and the wind picks up, so MacGregor and Andrea shut down the main engine and we’re under sail alone. After a frenzy of sail setting all hands help to coil lines and clean up the deck. Then the duty watch musters so the lead seaman can assign helm, lookout, and other duties. Sara comes to relieve me on the helm while Stephanie heads up to the foc’sle head to take the lookout. It’s not long before she spots the next island amongst the clouds on the horizon. The rest of the watch break into two groups: one will do a deck wash and the other will do domestics. The deck wash team begins by picking things up off the deck to clear the way and rolling out the hose from its wheel in the starboard breezeway. Those on domestics break into smaller teams to tackle each of the interior spaces with brooms, sponges, bleach, toilet brushes and windex. The other watch has some time off to have a nap, read a book or just sit and enjoy the beautiful sailing and lend a hand where they can.

Once deck wash and domestics are done the duty watch starts on the day’s work as organized by the bosun. Most jobs involve painting, sanding, tarring or the like. This particular day we need to get the t’gallant rail painted and the wood trim on the galley house sanded so it can be varnished. Contents of the paint locker are unpacked as people look for the right colours of paint, thinner, brushes, stir sticks, containers to pour paint into and tarps. Jobs are begun and then handed off at the top of the hour as people relieve the helm and lookout. There’s a lot to do, but everyone pauses to look for a few minutes when the lookout spots a pod of dolphins on the port beam. Sea turtles are sometimes spotted too, but you have to be quick to see them.

Twenty minutes before lunch, someone from the duty watch goes to wake up the other watch and let them know that it’s almost time for them to eat and be ready to work. Donald has made his usual variety of dishes—everything from rice and peas to leftover chicken from the previous night’s dinner—along with a fruit salad, curried chick peas, and a vegetable and beef dish. The oncoming watch eats first and then musters before the off-going watch can head to lunch. The helm and lookout are relieved by the afternoon watch, the mates turn over duties and the off-going watch musters before they go below to eat. The afternoon watch picks up paintbrushes and sandpaper and carries on with the day’s work with some instruction from the bosun. The off-going watch linger over lunch and speculate about what time we will arrive at our destination.

Around 1430 all hands are called on deck to stand by as we come into our next anchorage. We take in and furl royals and t’gallants first, then the engineers fire up the main engine again so we can manoeuvre the ship more easily. All the proper flags are flown, including the flag of the country we are arriving in and the yellow “Q” flag. Andrea takes the helm as we approach the anchorage, Logan stands on the pin rail forward so he can take soundings with a lead line, and the Mate and the bosun are on the foc’sle head with a few helpers ready to let the anchor go on the Captain’s command. Lynsey is back in the charthouse navigating, plotting postions and the rest of the crew stand by on deck to take in sail. The orders come quickly to strike sail and the crew respond by repeating the orders and carrying them out. Once we get to the desired spot, the Captain gives the order to let go the anchor and the bosun releases the brake to let the chain run. MacGregor puts the engine in reverse and the chain pays out as the ship moves backwards. Once we have the anchor settled and the proper amount of chain out, we launch the skiff and get fenders, ladders and all the other accessories in place. All of the crew are put to work stowing sails, either working aloft, in the headri or on deck. The Captain and I are taken ashore by Ky in the skiff to go and clear in with Customs so half of the crew can go ashore when the work is done and enjoy some time off.

The crew get to visit some amazing islands this winter, enjoying beautiful beaches, lush rainforests, coconut trees, steel drums and some of the friendliest people around, but upon leaving the ship many say that the highlight of their trip was the sailing. “Breathtaking” was how Rosalie, a trainee, described watching the sails being set. Shirley and Ky were thrilled to see dolphins jumping and playing in the bow wake at night, causing bubbly green trails of phosphorescence. Sailing this barque can be a lot of work, but it’s an unforgettable experience.

Becky and Nadja stow the upper topsail
John on helm with Logan
Mary Anne coils lines
On the windlass
Picton Castle under sail
Yellow Q flag up on our way into port

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Bequia is truly one of the most beautiful islands around, and the Picton Castle has had the pleasure of putting in there twice this winter. We sail into Admiralty Bay and head for our “usual parking spot,” which we have found empty and waiting for us on both visits. Several ferries run between Bequia and St. Vincent, so all vessels must keep the channel clear for them. On either side of the channel there are many vessels anchored, everything from tiny sailboats to ships bigger than we are. On our first visit this winter we happened to anchor next to a yacht flying a Nova Scotia flag, so we had a visit and chat. Bequia attracts sailors from all around the world, and it is often a first port for those making trans-Atlantic passages. As such it has a number of marine chandleries, an excellent sail loft (Aleck’s) and other businesses that cater to people who sail and live on boats. Many a night islanders gather at the beachfront “Frangipani,” where a big three-masted schooner was built, to listen and sway to the excellent and exuberant steel band playing in the evenings from time to time.

The Friendship Rose is a Caribbean schooner that calls Bequia home, and when she’s not out on day sails she moors close to the beach in Admiralty Bay. With a wooden hull painted a vibrant light blue and wooden masts, Friendship Rose stands out from the rest. She used to be the main form of transportation for passengers and cargo between Bequia and St. Vincent in the days before the modern ferries, but now she does lots of charters (particularly weddings) and day sails where the public can buy tickets and sail to Mustique or Tobago Cays for the day. It’s a long, full day leaving at 7 AM and not returning until 5 PM with plenty of sailing, swimming, snorkeling, and gourmet eating. The ship was built as a cargo schooner under the palm trees in Friendship Bay, Bequia, in 1967 by local craftsmen and is a well-kept example of a typical work boat built in the Grenadines with a rounded wooden hull and wide beam.

Bequia has a laid back attitude, but also has enough going on to be interesting and exciting. The main street of Port Elizabeth runs along the water and has two cement lanes divided by colourful tropical gardens. One side is for cars, the other is for pedestrians. There are a number of shops and restaurants along the main street, most of which are multipurpose. There’s the internet-restaurant/laundry-real estate-car and bike rental place, the restaurant-grocery store, the tourist souvenir-clothing-FedEx depot and many more. Browsing in all the shops—especially the book shop, with its interesting titles and beautiful scrimshaw knives—is a good way to spend an hour or two ashore. From the main dock heading left, you reach the two markets. The first is filled with tourist t-shirts that say things like “Sail Fast, Live Slow,” as well as jewelry, local jams, jellies and preserves. The second market has tables laden with delicious-looking produce (mangos, lettuce, pineapples, coconuts, cassava, christophene, yams, onions, potatoes, cabbage, stalks of sugar cane…) and very insistent but cool Rastafarian salesmen. We have learned from experience that it’s best to spread our business around, if possible, and buy a few items from everyone. As soon as they know we’re there to provision for the ship we get almost physically pulled from table to table by each shopkeeper who will try and convince us that everything they have is the best. At the produce market they also sell the bags that so many of our crew have bought and carry regularly; they’re made from grain sacks with a colourful fabric edge on the top and industrial strength straps that are comfortable to carry. They hold all a sailor needs on a day off (bathing suit, towel, change of clothes, snacks, a book, wallet, camera, etc) with room to spare, or are great to take to the grocery store. We bought a few to bring home with us and sell in The Sea Chest, the Picton Castle‘s store in Lunenburg. They will fly off the shelves. All the crew got one.

It is lovely to sail back to places we know; it is sweet to sail back into Port Elizabeth in the sailor’s isle of Bequia.

Anchorage at Admiralty Bay, Bequia
Friendship Rose

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Sailing Off the Hook

The Picton Castle got underway yesterday afternoon from Nevis by sailing off the hook. This means that the ship sailed away from being at anchor entirely under wind, sail and crew power, the engine was not used at all. It wasn’t even on. We had the fore yards braced on a starboard tack and the main yards on a port tack and all the sails loosed before we started heaving up the anchor. There is no electric windlass on the Picton Castle; the anchor is heaved up using a hand-powered windlass. We put five or six crew members on each side and they alternate pumping up and down, which turns the wild-cat that pulls in the chain. Each shot of 1-1/4″ chain is 90 feet, and we had two shots out. This means that the crew had 180 feet of heavy chain to pull up, as well as a 1,200 pound anchor. Heaving up the anchor is hot, sweaty work. Once the anchor was most of the way up, we took in the spanker and started setting sails on the foremast. This pushed the bow around and once we had turned, the fore yards were braced on a port tack to match the main yards. Less than half an hour later, we had set all sails and the ship was starting to pick up speed as we got farther out of the lee of the island.

Sailing off the hook is a great exercise in seamanship and sail handling, as orders must be carried out quickly and correctly. It usually seems a bit chaotic at the time with people dashing around the deck from line to line and hauling, easing or tending it as required, but yesterday afternoon everything went very smoothly and felt relaxed. One of the best parts of sailing off the hook is that we don’t have the noise of the engine. The silence allows us to hear other noises of the ship—the jangle of the lower tops’l sheets as the sail is set, the sound of the hanks of the heads’ls sliding up the stays, and the flapping of canvas as the giant mains’l and fores’l are set. It was a lovely trade-wind afternoon, bound for a couple days at sea under canvas alone.

Anchor chain and windlass
Hauling fore upper tops l halyard
Under full sail

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Les Isles des Saints to Antigua

The Picton Castle‘s newly repaired skiff was launched last Friday morning. It was a grand occasion with all the crew onboard, hauling on tackles to lift it off the cargo hatch and over the rail into the water. The new and improved skiff is one in which we can be proud to pull up at any yacht club dock. It is sturdy and seaworthy, more spacious and comfortable than the spare one we have been using while this boat was being repaired. But the spare did a good job and we are glad to have her standing by. Just as the Picton Castle looks different from all the sleek, shiny, modern boats that are often our neighbors at anchor, our skiff stands out from all the grey rubber inflatable boats that everyone else uses as tenders. Carpenter Joe has done a fantastic job of repairing the skiff using metres of fiberglass cloth, gallons of fiberglass resin, metres of lumber, boxes of screws and all sorts of stainless steel and galvanized steel hardware.

After leaving Dominica the Picton Castle sailed to Iles Des Saintes, a group of small French islands that are part of Guadeloupe. Quaint is a good way to describe the Saintes, with a pretty main street with a variety of small businesses that cater to tourists. The streets are filled with rented scooters, except in the centre of town, which is designated for pedestrians only. Many of our crew rented scooters to check out the island. Ky in particular had a great time scooting around. The island has many beaches, most within easy walking distance of the main town. Our crew also found one of the best ice cream shops we’ve ever been to, with a wide variety of homemade flavours. There’s nothing wrong with eating two or three ice cream cones on your day off, is there?

Antigua was the next stop for us, and we found a space to anchor in Falmouth Harbour. There are two major harbours very close to each other, Falmouth Harbour and English Harbour, separated by a peninsula only a few hundred metres wide at its narrowest point. We found ourselves in very interesting company in Falmouth, with most of our neighbors being shiny superyachts. Several had their own helicopters, and on one there was a 42-foot sailboat on deck that you hardly noticed at first. The same one with the sailboat also had a sort of garage that opened up to reveal a whole stable of jet skis, speed boats, bicycles, and other fun toys. Le Grand Bleu, supposed to be owned by some Russian oil guy. We also saw Maltese Falcon, the most modern square-rigger imaginable. Instead of bracing the yards individually the entire mast turns, and the sails are stowed inside the masts, set by pulling them out to the ends of the yardarms like a shower curtain. We are told that she cost $280 million—wow! We stayed in Antigua a week and a lot of work got done on the ship. In addition to completing the skiff, Joe has started to make dutchmen in the quarter deck, replacing sections that are gouged. There were some major painting projects happening, particularly the bulwarks and stanchions on the main deck as well as the topsides. Pin rails on the quarterdeck were sanded and varnished. We got a lot done ashore as well, including some marine shopping at the island’s many chandleries—Second Mate Lynsey had a list as long as her arm—and the usual laundry and provisioning.

We launched the Monomoy and spent some time learning and practicing how to row. It’s great physical exercise, but more important, it teaches us about working together to move the boat through the water. The person on the port side all the way aft is the stroke oar, the rower who sets the pace that everyone else must match. Trying to row on your own agenda just won’t work because the oars get tangled and you annoy your boat-mates. When all the rowers work together they pull the boat through the water almost magically; when they don’t, it looks like a drunk spider with uncoordinated legs. The first few minutes in the Monomoy are often a little chaotic until the group finds its pace, and we saw huge improvements over the few days of rowing.

During their time off, crew went exploring to discover the best of the island. We met a local guy with a bus, “Sarge,” who took two different groups of people on an island tour. We saw everything from the bustling market in St. John to the most well-landscaped international airport around. The Caribbean plays host to the Cricket World Cup this year with many different islands each hosting a pool of teams in the earlier rounds. Matches begin in Antigua at the end of March. They are very proud of their brand-new stadium, which I hope they finish in time; the stadium is done, but the infrastructure around it (roads, parking lots, etc) still needs some work. The stadium will be named for Sir Vivian Richards, one of the best batters around and a former captain of the West Indies team, who is a national hero in Antigua.

Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour was another interesting place to explore, as its modern yacht facilities occupy the former British Navy base. The thick stone walls that once were the home of Lord Nelson himself now house restaurants, shops, a bakery, the customs office, a bank and a post office. Many boats tie up stern-to around the same dock to which British ships would have come for repairs and maintenance. The Dockyard certainly has its modern uses but has not forgotten its history, with informative signs and interpreters who guide visitors around and explain what things were like there 200 years ago.

We hauled up the anchor early this morning, and as I write we are moving along at about 4 knots under full sail. A whale was spotted, breaching, a short while ago. There are some flying fish to watch, the volcano on Montserrat is spitting a constant white cloud, and we hear the gentle sounds of sapphire blue water lapping against the hull. As I have heard Captain Moreland say, it’s not so bad to be us.

Anchor at Nelson s Dockyard, Antigua
Launching the skiff, Antigua
Maltese Falcon, Antigua
Monomoy rowing exercise, Antigua
PC at anchor at Iles des Saintes
PC at anchor in Antigua, dwarfed by superyacht
Quaint shops in centre of town, Saintes

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