Captain's Log

Archive for January, 2009

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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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Medical Officer Wanted

Are you a medical doctor or experienced EMT who dreams of learning to sail a square-rigged ship? This winter might be the perfect opportunity to realize that dream. Picton Castle is looking for a medical officer for Leg 4 of the Voyage of the Atlantic, beginning February 23 in St. George’s, Grenada until May 23 in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada.

As the medical officer, you get all the benefits of being a trainee – sailing in Caribbean tradewinds, taking your turn at the helm and on lookout, exploring tropical ports of call, developing your seafaring skills – while being on call in case of a medical emergency aboard. Your skills and experience will be backed up by a full kit of medical supplies, professional crew trained in first aid and a medical consulting service ashore.

If you have questions or want to know more about this opportunity, please contact our office.

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