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Picton Castle Early Captain’s Logs, Part 5

What follows below are the first Captain’s Logs that were written back when just getting the ship and working at seeing this dream come true. The story begins in Norway in May of 1993. We hope you enjoy the tale.

The Story of the Picton Castle

The Captain’s Running Letter
Captain Daniel D. Moreland

Voyage Across the Atlantic – March-July, 1994

After five months alongside the quay of the inner harbour of Ipswich, England, the crew was ready to go. On March 7, 1994, the Picton Castle (which we bought as the Dolmar) passed through the ancient lock gates of the wet tidal dock into the River Orwell. This was the beginning of a 5,000 mile voyage to the USA and Canada where she will become a square-rigged Barque for world voyaging.

It was a cold and blustery winter’s morning but it was time to get moving. After months of fretting over budgets and fixing things on the ship, we were underway again. We steamed slowly down the River Orwell, lashing down things on deck, checking the engine and double-checking the barometer. The Castle glided serenely past eight miles of farms, cottages, fields, little towns and shipyards, with laid up Thames sailing barges and other gaff-rigged vessels along the riverbank’s low grey countryside. A gale started to blow outside, so we brought her to anchor off Harwich for the night. It would be good just to get used to being on a ship in commission again for a night before we put our toes into the North Sea, an anchor watch to hear her ticks and groans.

One side of Harwich Harbour is a bucolic English country scene complete with thatched roof farm buildings and cows spotted about. The other side is a complex of the most modern marine industrial steel works with gantries, loading-unloading platforms and roll on-roll off facilities. What with the sister port of Felixstowe, this is the biggest container port in Europe. North Sea passenger and cargo ferries would be coming and going to and from Holland, Germany, Denmark, France and the deep sea all day and all night. We anchored on the farm side of the river.

The next day we steamed out into what they specialize in around here: a grey leaden heavy water headwind, just like all those nasty old European marine paintings. We were outward bound down the English Channel. All was well enough crossing the broad mouth of the Thames estuary, still a windward shore with the wind blowing off the land and across the subaqueous delta that makes up the hazardous approaches to the River Thames. We left that all well to starboard, passed a lightship or two and into the North Sea. As we made our course more southerly, the wind naturally came ahead. Rounding Ram’s Gate heading for the Straits of Dover, she started butting her head into a building sea. The weather for that day was advertised as force 5 or 7 and now it was all of that.

Dover approach.About the time we were abeam of Dover, and it was the narrowest part of the English Channel, it was pretty rough. The breeze was kicking up to a force 8 or 9, with seas tumbling through the straits, crowding and piling upon each other after their run in from the wintry North Atlantic. With the wind against the tide, we were still making pretty good headway over the bottom, but we were starting to take a pounding. The bow is 18′ high and it was starting to go under occasionally, with gross, grey, foaming breakers spewing as far as I could see. We were still pitching into it pretty hard even after the engine was brought back to half speed. It was getting dark, this was our first day at sea, the barometer was still dropping, and the 7½-second light at the entrance breakwater at Dover was winking at me through the gloom. I decided that after almost six months alongside, none of my crew nor the ship needed this kind of punishment. I put her hard right to steer north through the darkening dusk for Dover Harbour five miles away. This, of course, took the jarring seas off our bow and put them on our beam. Until now, we had been pitching and shuddering as she came out of the head-on seas. Now she began to roll. I forgot to tell the cook about this, and the galley took some punishment. Anything not iron riveted down, took a trip across the ship.

Oh well, an hour later we were at anchor inside Dover Harbour, behind the massive breakwaters. We twisted and yawed our way right up to the harbour entrance where a pilot boat met us and led us to our anchorage. It became suddenly still as Bosun Tara steered her in and we shot into the lee and slowed down. We stayed on the hook for two days of fog and gales. We watched as gales boiled and churned outside. In the daytime, the white chalk cliffs and castles dominate the scene when we could, in fact, see them through the fog. At night, the huge cross channel ferries took over. The weather didn’t bother them much, but then, every once in a while, one rolls over too.

Drug sniffer--friendly and cute.We could see the breakers through the cut in the breakwater and waited. While we waited, Her Majesty’s Customs Service wondered what this old black trawler was doing at anchor in Dover Harbour. They got so curious about us that they sent a boat out to inquire and maybe take a look around. They brought a drug-sniffing dog. I asked if this was a search and they said yes, in fact, it was. The dog was cute and he ended his visit by putting his paw print in the guest book. His name was Daniel. It was a cold morning, so HM Customs all had a cup of coffee before they left. It was nice to have visitors.

On our third day there (no shore liberty), the early morning anchor watch woke all hands with reports of calm winds, clear weather, and a sunny day in the offing. A high-pressure ridge was passing over us and we glided serenely out into the English Channel once again. It’s amazing how still waters around the world look much the same, but tortured seas take on their own distinctive characteristics: Long Island Sound; the North Atlantic; South Pacific; the Baltic Sea; the Grand Banks; the English Channel; all different when rough, similar when calm; but now it was calm.

I hugged the north coast of the Channel, having taken a hint now about the weather and its changes. It was, after all, the English Channel in winter. We steamed along, leaving Dungeness Folkstone (terminus of the channel tunnel – the “Chunnel”) and the Isle of Wight about three miles starboard. That night the barometer started to drop with the advance of the next low-pressure system lifting her skirts to trundle up the Channel as they are wont to do. The forecast was calling for gales again. Yea. Gales aren’t so bad in the middle of the ocean with lots of sea room and deep water to keep the seas spread out and almost no traffic. That, however, does not describe the English Channel.

We pulled into Tor Bay off Devon and anchored off the old fishing town of Brixham in the southwest corner of the bay. We ended gale bound here for a week. In Tor Bay that is. We didn’t stay at Brixham. We alternated between anchoring off Brixham when the gales were west to southwest and then shifting to an anchorage off Torquay at the northern end of the bay three or so miles away when the gales came out of the northwest. The crew didn’t get ashore to speak of. We dragged anchor once and the Mate Jeff got a second anchor down promptly. Screaming gales in the lee of Devon, the land of Drake and Hawkins as well as where my mother’s family came from a long time ago. It was kind of beautiful in a savage sort of way standing all those watches in the wind; straining at the anchor chains, sun and shooting clouds. Brixham, famous for its fleet of ketch-rigged sailing trawlers, is an enchanting old seaport that, with the exception of a new yacht marina where JW & A Uphams Shipyard used to be, is still a crowded old fisherman’s harbour. The “Crown and Anchor” pub saw our custom for pints as it has for untold generations of seafarers. The Uphams Shipyard built the Mayflower replica now in Plymouth, Massachusetts and sailed there in 1957 by Captain Alan Villiers. The Brigantine Yankee fitted out here for four world voyages just after the war. It also built the Brixham trawler ketch in 1935. That became my first ship in the Caribbean when I was fresh out of school those many years ago. They remembered her launching when I asked around, the Maverick ex-Cachelot.

Finally, we got a gale warning that lacked the usual confidence that we had been accustomed to and the barometer wasn’t doing its expected nose-dive. So the anchor watch woke all hands. Doug, the Engineer, rolled over the rumbling beast of a main engine and at two o’clock in the morning, we got underway again so we could make a daylight harbour entrance (always nice to do) in our next harbour, Falmouth.

At 06:00 we were three miles or so due south of Salcombe Bay, the resting place of the magnificent four-masted Barque Herzogin Cecelie, wrecked in 1936 on her way back from Australia with grain. Years ago, as Mate in the Brigantine Romance, put into Cape Town on a world voyage, I met some who had been crew on her, including Pamela Erikson, the skipper’s wife.

We were also pushing along pretty well into a force 5 or 6 with seas not too built up yet and with good visibility. We were headed for Falmouth, but I took her close to Plymouth on the way just in case the weather forecast was more accurate than I believed it was going to be. We passed north of Eddystone Light. It didn’t blow more than force 7, and by then we were in the lee of Cornwall. We got to Falmouth in eleven hours, 90 miles. That night it blew like hell. It turns out they were right after all, but we were happily on a mooring designed for huge ships in Falmouth’s inner harbour.

Falmouth is a lovely place, well known as a landfall for ships bound for England as well as the last British and European harbour for ships bound for deep water, like us. The last large commercial square-riggers bringing grain from Australia often made for Falmouth in the 1920’s and 30’s to get their orders for a port of discharge. There was no radio in those days. We found Falmouth very hospitable and it was a good place to lay out the weather. It was an excellent safe harbour, with a short row to the town dock, fine pubs and folks genuinely interested in the ship. In fact, a couple of old Navy salts said they recognized her and asked if she was the old “Picton Castle“. It turns out she participated in the raid on St. Nazaire. The raid on St. Nazaire in March 1942 was an attempt to put out of action the Normandie Dock in Nazi occupied France. This dry-dock was the only one that could take the German battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz. This, I think, was the first amphibious assault on Europe. While in Ipswich, we were put in touch with Tom Gamble who had served in our ship during World War II. One night he came aboard for dinner and regaled us with life aboard the HMS Picton Castle in the Royal Navy while Europe was in flames.

The steam-fishing trawler Picton Castle was one of five sister ships built for Consolidated Fisheries out of Grimsby. She had a triple expansion Amos & Smith 91 horsepower steam engine with 9-foot propeller. She was fishing mostly out of Swansea. In September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and the natural fertilizer hit the ventilating system. Later that month, our ship and many others were requisitioned into the Royal Navy. She was fitted out as a minesweeper with, among other things, an acoustical hammer projecting from the bow. The weld marks for this can still be seen on each side of the bow, forming a sort of Maltese cross in welding bead. I expect we’ll leave it there. She served as both a minesweeper and a convoy export vessel, since she was capable of 12 knots under full steam. She was also armed, with a 12-pounder on the foc’s’le head, a .30 calibre Lewis machine gun on each bridge wing, a double .50 calibre machine gun aft of the pilot house and a couple of racks of depth charges on the stern. Her crew was made up of fishermen and reservists hastily mustered into service and made up a pretty rag-tag crowd. They called this fleet “Harry Tate’s” Navy, after a popular vaudeville comedian who was pretty scruffy and vulgar. I can understand why. The reservist officers were often not terribly acquainted with the Navy, ships, sea or war. They were also called the wavy Navy for their wavy uniform stripes. I understand this was not a compliment. It seems that efforts to get the old fishermen into uniforms were dropped early on.

Our friend, Tom Gamble, was regular Navy and he was the telegraph operator. He was also dyslexic. Apparently, both the British Navy and German forces thought the Picton Castle was using some extra secret code. No, Tom was just getting his letters and words mixed up. It seems this kind of curious situation was quite common, especially early on in the war. Tom told us of a time when a mine went off under her, sending her further into the air than she was designed to go. They choked her boilers with coal and steamed her to a dry-dock as fast as they could to repair her, but upon inspection, the only thing damaged was the nerves of her crew. The hull was fine. Tom showed us where his bunk was and described the ship and accommodations to us and showed us pictures of her in those days. The Picton Castle was otherwise employed while the evacuation of Dunkirk was carried out. During D-Day in 1944, she was working as a support vessel for the invasion escorting ships down the North Sea to various staging areas in England for the jump to France. One story, nay, claim to fame stands out as the night grew long in our mess room that night in Ipswich with Tom bringing the story of our ship to life. It turns out the HMS Picton Castle is single-handedly responsible for the liberation of Norway.

As the Allies advanced across Europe and Germany, Norway remained occupied by German forces. Without a major invasion but with plenty of resistance fighting, the German leadership figured out things weren’t going their way and pretty much took it upon themselves to back out of Norway. As the Germans retreated, the Allies figured they probably needed to clear the fjords of mines, etc. So at some point, a fleet of these naval mine sweeper/trawlers were sent to Norway to do the job, our ship among them. She developed engine trouble one night and fell out of the flotilla. Once they got it going again, the skipper calculated they were going to miss their rendezvous and their mine sweeping assignment. He had a chart of Bergen, Norway and he had to go somewhere, so to Bergen it was.

I can picture her now: a lone, bedraggled, grey steamer, streaked with coal dust, puffing and winding her way up the Bergen fjord unchallenged. An unkempt, makeshift crew of independent fishermen ignoring naval discipline, reservist officers hopelessly trying to instil some. Perhaps it was a kind of standoff. Quietly, she would have steamed into the deserted harbour of Bergen. She tied up in town. I doubt if much brass was polished and her dirty old Navy Ensign snapped grimly at the peak. All was quiet. Slowly, people started to come out of buildings to see this strange little vessel.

It had been a long time in Bergen since they had seen anything on a flag besides a swastika. The mayor decided to do something. He and the city council solemnly marched down to the ship and requested to come aboard this vanguard of the mighty Royal Navy. Finding the skipper, they shook his hand, holding it, and thanking him and the crew of the HMS Picton Castle “…for liberating Norway!” From that day in the mid-forties, she has been and forever will be known as:
The Liberator of Norway
(frelser av Norge)

She mustered out of the British Navy in December 1945 and was fishing again in 1946. She might well be the only British naval vessel from World War II still in active sea going commission. There was another thing Tom Gamble told us when he saw our wretched mutt. He started by saying it had been so long since, that he checked himself, realizing it had been 50 years. Our dog Yankee is the very image, an exact replica of the dog of the Picton Castle during the war. I asked Tom if he was as dumb as this one.

To be continued…

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