Captain's Log

Archive for December, 2008

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Christmas Preparations

People everywhere are getting ready to celebrate the holidays and it’s no different aboard Picton Castle. For most of the crew, spending Christmas at sea will be a new experience and certainly a memorable one. In order to prepare to celebrate the season, Captain Moreland recently posted this note for the crew, giving a few instructions on how best to prepare.

From the Captain and crew of Picton Castle, we wish very happy holidays to everyone, especially our families and friends at home.

A Picton Castle Christmas can go something like this

Sure, we are away from home. Off West Africa in fact. Yes, we have no pesky little brothers or sisters about (or do we?) to annoy us. Nope, Mum is not here to bake or put funny things in your stockings. Dad and Grandad are not sitting around and telling you to put more tinsel on the tree or go help your Mom. And, no, no, no, we miss out on the endless krismiss-mall-musik piping out of every corner – also, we miss out on those nasty little candy canes they get everywhere.

But what do we have? Well, we have the temple of a sweet square-rigged ship dressed all in sky, buffeted and soothed in sea breezes. We have a big rolling blue ocean and fresh fair winds. We have a great bunch of shipmates who are making this the wonderful and amazing voyage it is. And we have a moment to make this our own Christmas.

So here is an out line – Just fun, hanging out, doing stuff on a tropical (almost) Christmas at sea. Here is what we do – and no one has to do anything they don’t want to do.

CHRISTMAS EVE – We set up our little Christmas tree on the hatch if it isn’t too rough – yes, we have a tree, a cute little Charlie Brown guy. We have a few decorations but if some of you make some small ones onboard some time that would help the little fellow – we have some really tacky lights to put on the tree – so all set there. But the poor thing needs some more ornaments…need popcorn strings too.

PRESENTS – Here the thing is – do what you want – no doubt many of us have a special gift for a particularly close friend BUT nothing is more fun than lots of silly gifts all over the place. Don’t even worry about getting something for everyone or even anyone – again, do what you feel like. This is a tropical Stress Free, chillin like a villain, cool by the pool, natty rasta Ixmuss.

COOKING – It is important to have lots of icky sweet cookies [and really good ones of ALL different types] all the time for days in advance of Christmas day – we need to start now and put some stuff in the freezer. Pies too. Apple pies, pumpkin pies, mince pies…mmmmm…also, it is important that Donald does not have to do it all – lend Mr. Church a hand

DRINK – Egg Nog? Mulled Cider? Sounds good, eh?

MUSIC– It is important to have so much Krissmiss Musik that you get sick of it – start playing some soon…

SHIP DECORATIONS – Salon decorations, Galley decorations, Focsle decorations, fife rail decorations, quarter-deck decorations, fore peak decorations, crew decorations…

WHAT ELSE? – Whatever you can think of…???

So, here is offering to all – A Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukah, a Rippin’ Ramadan and a Kwazee Kwanza, a Godt Juhl, a Sizzling Solstice…a fabulous mid-winters feast…

Make it so…

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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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Arriving in Morocco

Passage from Gibraltar to Morocco was a bit rough towards the end. We hove-to a couple times in small gales and large seas piled up, but we had a fine Thanksgiving Day feast while hove-to. Soon enough wind and seas laid down and we carried on our way.

Essaouira is one remarkable and exotic port of call, more in keeping with a traditional Picton Castle port than we have had all the last six months sailing around Europe. But first, why Essaouira? What brought us here? We did a bunch or research; Casablanca seemed interesting but very much the big city. We talked to some other mariners, particularly the master of the Bark Gunilla, a fine Swedish school ship we met up with in Portsmouth, England. Then of course we looked at lots of charts. It seemed as if Essaouria would be a real window into Morocco and North Africa. We were far from disappointed. And the place actually has an anchorage, something pretty rare along the north western African coast. Mostly one long beach hereabouts in this part of the world. A lot of swell in the bay but good holding at Essaouira and pretty well protected from most quarters.

The chart and pilots books made us believe that GPS might be a little off here. This is true in many parts of the world where there has not been recent upgrades to the charts due to these areas not being of much great commercial or military value – these, of course, are the places worth visiting for us. Doubtful GPS coordinates not a problem either, we steered in on fixed ranges. These were of ancient stone towers, one near the shore and one on the crest of a Sahara sand dune. These ranges have probably been guiding ships in for centuries. As the prevailing winds here are northerly and the approach is west-east, it means that this is a true sailing ship port which sailing ships can reliably plan to both sail in and out of.

Due to recent gales all along the coast of Europe all the way from northern Scotland to the approaches to Gibraltar we had a big northerly swell running and piling up as the long shore shelved closer to the beach. 10-15 and 20 foot swell at times as we closed with the coast. We made our way towards the bay entrance slowly as I was not completely sure that we could even safely get in to this bay due to the swell. We were ready to turn around at any time. But as we got closer and closer the swell laid down and once past a natural formation jutting out into the sea we rounded up not too far from an ancient breakwater just fine in only modest swell.

The Mate let go the heavy port anchor and three shots of chain and it took well. Astern of the Picton Castle in this lonely desolate desert bay was a small rocky island with a couple of ancient stone towers jutting up improbably as sea broke heavily on the windward side. This island was apparently the source for the colour purple in ancient times. This colouring came from shells somehow and was worth twenty times its weight in gold. So we are told.

While the crew were furling sail and getting yards braced and trimmed, a heavy blue wooden work boat came out the ship with a fellow in a snappy uniform – he asked us to follow him in with our skiff to look after all the formalities. This we did but it took longer than we thought. Launching our fine Lunenburg Dory-built skiff and motoring into this small packed harbour we could see we might be in another world. Over 50 wooden built fishing boats between 60-80 feet long were rafted up inside this ancient harbour with castle towers looming over. And over 250 twenty foot heavy built plank on frame wooden work boats all painted dark blue or yellow. These boats were all rafted up and jammed together in this tiny man-made harbour. Half a dozen large fishing vessels were hauled up on a slipway being scraped, caulked, painted, welded and generally being worked on. Plenty of fish being unloaded too. The air was redolent of salt, low tide, bottom paint, fish and the hard to describe heady brew of a working seaport. Seagulls wheeling about overhead, screeching and calling.

Clearing in was special – after months in Europe where interest in spending much time on such formalities have dissolved down to a bare minimum, now we were at an obscure outpost of weathered vestigial bureaucracy where great and friendly interest was taken in each passport, each home address, each profession of each crewmember, each signature, each purpose for visiting Morocco. Clearing in took 5 hours. But it was done. When we left the office of the Douanes/Gendarmerie night had fallen. Over the towers of the ancient Moorish castle framed by a couple tall date-palms a thin sliver of a sharp silver moon against an inky sky was accompanied by two piercingly bright planets looking as close to a symbol of desert Islam as one could hope for.

Essaoiura Harbour
Essaouira blue boats
Essaouira old city walls
Kolin haggles for a camel, ship at anchor
the ancient medina walls
the harbour, Morocco
the slip in 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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Wales to France

Putting into as many ports as we have in this remarkable voyage, so often going through locks just to get in, has made this crew exceptionally capable in so many acts of seamanship to do with ship-handling under power. A fine passage under sail comes as something of a reward for all the challenges of ship-handling in tight quarters. And passage making under sail brings its own lessons as well. The passage from Wales to France was just about perfect and an excellent, if subtle, exercise in getting around in a square-rigger along the coast of Europe, much as they did in the age of sail. This barque is of a scale very similar to average trading ships that served Europe and other smaller ports all around the world.

Fine Passage under Sail

We locked through out of the old trawler basin with a poignant send off from folks on the dock in Milford Haven. I think our visit here was a touching experience for many of the crew of this ship, perhaps giving some of a sense of being connected with something that came before, perhaps a feeling of connection with seafarers who sailed ahead of us in time. The ship, the skills, the hard work, the havens and the people we meet conjure a potpourri or create a fabric that feels pretty rare. In the old days a tug-boat would have hauled us to the harbours mouth. Today our fine built-in Danish diesel does the job.

As soon as the Picton Castle chugged past the last channel buoy out of Milford Haven we shut down the main engine, all hands loosed and set sail for France. First steering south for Land’s End, then across the western approaches to the English Channel, around Ushant (NW corner of France) and east into the Bay of Biscay and finally to anchor off Bell Isle, France in five days. The wind backed or veered to suit our sail trim, the wind followed us around. Dolphins danced often about the ship. We saw a whale or two. Ships work is, of course, never ending. Afternoon workshops were conducted by the mates in the Rules of the Road. These are the rules developed over the centuries for avoiding collisions at sea between ships. They also cover lights ships are expected to show at night and different buoyage systems. An excellent passage under sail, we only fired up to get to an anchorage, the last couple miles in the failing afternoon light.

At Bell Isle we had another 40 miles to go to get to Saint Nazaire. We had to catch the tide up the river and, once again, slack water at the lock to enter the basin at Saintt Nazaire. The weather was advertised to come on strong the next day and this it did. Early in the morning we upped anchor and set sail for the mouth of the Loire River which leads to Saint Nazaire and Nantes. We made good time under sail and even had to heave-to to let a big LNG ship head up river first. All shipping authorities around the world are very careful when handling LNG (liquid natural gas) ships. If you want to read about Armageddon, find a study of what an LNG ship accident would look like. Not pretty. None have happened yet. We then braced yards and sailed up channel towards Saint Nazaire passing down-bound ships and being overtaken by up-bound vessels. It was now overcast, spitting cold rain and blowing hard from astern. The channel is not so wide but at high tide there is plenty of water outside the buoys for a while. We were bound for Saint Nazaire to make a call because we had been told that that our ship had been here before, in March 1942 on the famous Raid on Saint Nazaire as a Royal Navy vessel fighting in war. We have been to many ports in Ireland, UK and Norway that figure into this ships history. This would be the last such port-ship connection for us and a very different one.

Locking In, Again

The Port Control wanted us at the lock-in at exactly at 1800 and to follow a small tanker in. As we got to the lock entrance a strong current was still running across the entrance but the helmsman did well and we snuck in just fine. We locked through to find ourselves in a large rectangular basin dominated by a massive and other-worldly looking complex of cement structures. These turned out to be submarine pens built for German U-Boats in the Second World War. They look no different than they would have looked in 1941 when they were built, I guess, apart from there being no U-Boats in them. Still here, must be hard to remove – we will come back to this. As we manoeuvred near the lock we were greeted by a sweet little gaff-sloop Babar and her captain whom we have met before on a voyage around the world – first in Tahiti, then Cape Town and St Helena.

Saint Nazaire, Brittany, France, down river from Nantes, is known for a number of things. German Navy sub-pens, the WWII Raid on St Nazaire to take out the dry-docks (in which the HMS Picton Castle played a supporting role), big ship building (SS Normandie, SS France (now Norway) and most recently Queen Mary II just launched) and, among other things, a strong Celtic heritage. Brittany was, apparently back in the early middle ages or before in what was called the Dark Ages, a sparsely populated part of Europe and was not even considered part of France. So a long time ago folks from ancient Britain sailed their little boats over across the Channel and set up house-keeping, hence the name ‘Brittany’. We are not supposed to call it “Dark Ages” anymore but I don’t know the new term. Anyway, lots of Celtic design, place names and a surprisingly pervasive interest in fairies. You see fairy stuff everywhere; whole shops devoted to fairies and elves – calendars, mugs, t-shirts, art books, prints and on and on.

A view of the City

This major ship-building town was bombed out so completely during the Second World War that it is pretty much a new city now (if you call 1950-60’s new), certainly architecturally it is new. Apart from the submarine pens, which are massive, in good nick and dominate the harbour here, and curiously unused. Of course what do you use old sub-pens for? And they are hard to demolish being built with demolition-avoidance in mind. Maybe the town is not so old anyway as it went through a period of massive growth and rebuilding in the mid 19th century; when the big transatlantic steam-ship trade built up, so did Saint Nazaire. Nothing really old here – some churches from the 1890’s – there is a small stone-age mini-Stonehenge type construct. Plenty of small pretty fishing boats, a 14 story cruise ship undergoing modifications, a few yachts and a good fisherman supply store.

Lovely France, Lovely French

Many of us are doing our best to have a French café au lait avec un croissant every morning at the café around the corner. My French would become useful if I spent some time here – I can hear the words clearly but can’t figure them out quite fast enough although I understand it more or less. I like it when I don’t have to fall back on English to muddle through a transaction. Rumours of French haughtiness are without foundation in our experience, quite to the contrary. The French folks we have met here have been universally friendly and gracious to us, not even blaming us, if American – Canadians are off the hook, for the state of the world – and helpful, always trying to speak a little English. The food is delightful. The supermarket across from the sub-pens has a deli section that is amazing with its cheeses and delicacies. Public transport is excellent (and cheap), cities clean, an air of contentment in the atmosphere. My sister, who spent plenty of time in France as a kid, once told me that clothes for children were superb in France (and tres cher) – still true, all the little kids are dressed in exquisite clothes that fit them perfectly, beautiful fitted wool coats – that will not fit them in about a week but never mind. Even the young male skateboarding hooligans are dressed with a little bit of class – not something seen about the malls of North America. France has been pretty sweet to us. Some crew took the train to Paris and Nantes on their free watch. It was lovely just walking around a French city. Chocolate shops and patisserie everywhere. Good people watching. People smoke a lot though.

A Ghost from the Past

The story of the raid to wreck the dry dock here at Saint Nazaire is sketched out separately from this log entry – WWII history lies heavily hereabouts. It can hardly be ignored with the massive U-boat pens looming over the harbour. Yet WWI had and has a big impact too. Saint Nazaire is where, starting in 1915, about 340,000 Canadian troops landed to fight for King and Empire. A couple years later in 1917 a couple hundred thousand Americans landed here too under General John Pershing who famously said “Lafayette, nous sommes ici”, or something like that. In the very well done local port museum they naturally have, showing in loop, old historic black and white film footage of troops and goings on from the times (in WWI Saint Nazaire was far from the front and not a combat area as it was in WWII). There are a few scenes with General Pershing and some other officers walking about and next to Pershing is an officer who looks just like my father’s father. Exactly like my grandfather… He was a major in the US Army who served in France in WWI and at some point was some sort of aid or staffer to Pershing. We have other family pictures of him from WWI with Pershing and the French Marchal Foch that look just like this scene so I am 90% certain I am seeing my grandfather in this video – maybe not, but I think so.

Pretty Days in France

We have been very well looked after by our local born and bred shipmate and squeeze-box player Jean-Claude. Jean-Claude sailed with us from Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean to Cape Town in 2006. Many of the days have been nice and sunny and ship’s work has proceeded apace. Lots of sail-making, rigging jobs, painting, tarring and in the afternoons, small boat handling instruction and practice followed by fire drills and practice at putting on cold-water immersions suits.

Waiting out a Gale

It was blowing rain sideways with a front of gales moving in for a day or so. Then, after that it was supposed to be nasty for a while… Blowing Bay of Biscay. The very friendly harbour-master comes down to the quay – dripping wet, hair blown off and pasted across his face to get me to sign a soggy piece of paper acknowledging that there is a gale on and that I, as master, am well aware of it and will take all appropriate and due caution and stand extra watches, maybe look after our lines and so for and so on…he was too busy to have coffee…nice fella though. So we wait out some gales again before sailing onward and southward for Spain.

Ben aloft on the mizzen
Cathedral, Nantes, France
headed for the lock, departing Milford Haven
huge submarine pens built by the Germans in WWII
Hundreds of thousands of Canadians and Americans landed in St Nazaire during WWI
Jackie and Sarah cleaning our fresh-caught tuna
Nadja and Nicki get some photos of the ship under sail
poking our nose out into Milford Channel
stowing the mainsl on the way to St Nazaire

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