Captain's Log

Archive for April, 2009

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Martinique, Under the Volcano

The Picton Castle gang up on the focsle head hove up the anchor at St Pierre and we rounded the northern tip of lava and ash (and jungle) covered Martinique, bound towards Antigua in lovely warm easterly trade winds. Our plan is to sail north along the windward sides of Dominica and Guadeloupe. To attempt to sail in the lee of these high islands is futile as there is nothing but wind shadow calms unless one sails very close to the shore and then is constantly at the braces. Just to starboard as we made our way north, the shore nearby was made up of steep jungle covered cliffs and precipices plunging to the sea from improbable pinnacles. We just spent 3 days in St Pierre wandering about and taking in the local scene – this involved markets, French language, cafes and interesting walks among the ruins. As it happens there is an excellent tattooist here who doubles (or triples) as an internet cafe and Customs & Immigration office (only in France…). Martine at the Café L’Escapade became a tattoo artist after the visit of this very barque in 2002 when she saw a few of the crew boasting South Pacific tattouage and thus found her inspiration. She is excellent with an elegant and light touch and a couple of the crew got so engraved – this done we now carry on towards Antigua.

We are bound for the “Classic Yacht Regatta” preceding the more hi-tech, yachty Antigua Race Week out of English Harbour. This is a series of races for classic type vessels; very big Alden and Fife schooners, gaff ketches, the odd Scottish Zulu, Norman Tunnyman, curious single-handers in old gaffers, Carriacou Sloops and the like. We are headed that way in order to disperse our crew amongst these fine sleek craft for the upcoming week. The Picton Castle will, most likely, remain happily anchored in Falmouth Harbour, right next to English Harbour, throughout these proceedings. We could go stern-to in classy English Harbour but not just now as there will be little room at that inn until Race Week is well past. English Harbour remains a charming bastion of old English nautical history, being formerly the West Indian answer to the British Naval Bases in Halifax, Bermuda and, before the American Revolution, also New York.

St Pierre, under the volcano, once a noble stone-built city of 30,000 prior to being wiped out in 1902 by the eruption of Mt Pele, now a town of about 7,000 sprouting among the ruins, was a treat for all and we like it here beaucoup – history, ruins, French lingo, baguettes, cheese, coffee, croissants, wine, ladies and gents with style promenading about– it is all good. Early in the mornings as the sun climbed over the peaks we watched fishermen in brightly painted pirogues spreading their nets and pulling them up on the beach. Along this beach we can see at frequent interval big cannons sticking up and slanting towards shore. These, along with a great number of huge old anchors spread about too, were for tying the sterns of ships up back when St Pierre was the main port of commerce. Not so since 1902. Walking along this long curved black beach you can still see sections of cobblestone roads leading into the sea. Pottery shards and pieces of brick, all well worn from tumbling in the light surf, must be from the great destruction as well.

In Grenada we got a little 14’ boat in frame as a project to finish on deck for some of our gang. We have been planking it up and learning how to plank in the process. Our boat-building team was puzzled about how to get replacement knees for it as some had rotted off. After too much discussion regarding makeshift plywood knees, planning expeditions into the forest and like nonsense, I told them to just walk along this big long black sand beach and see what they could find in the way of driftwood with shape – in short order they found five fine pieces of hard driftwood that made perfect knees which are now shaped and installed in de boat.

We are all well enough indeed and soon we will be gearing up our psychology to be excited about getting home, but in the meantime we ain’t done yet with these here fine West Indies, not yet.

Norm and Matt work on the boat
St Pierre, Martinique

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Dominica, Nature’s Island

Dominica, where to begin? We had a decent sail down from Anguilla – we sailed off the hook in Road Bay, rounded the west end of Anguilla, sailed past St Martin with beautiful sunny skies. Past Saba, slipped under Statia, sailed in the lee of St Kitts and Nevis. We got buzzed by a multinational patrol plane piloted by a friend of a Picton Castle shipmate. The pilot called and sent greetings. In the night we passed Guadeloupe and the early morning found us in the lee of mountainous Dominica.

We took the ship in close under power so the crew could get a good look at this stunning island. We had spent about three months here two years ago being the ship for the “fantasy/reality” TV show “Pirate Master.” This TV shoot was a whole lot of work, and quite demanding, but fascinating work at that. And, for one thing, we really learned the coast of Dominica. Now this would not be so remarkable if it weren’t for the fact that for all its charms, Dominica has scant few anchorages, decent or otherwise. The island is steep to, very steep to. But by and by we made our way down past the main town of Roseau where we saw the fine schooner Spirit of Massachusetts and got anchored stern to the beach by the Anchorage Hotel, a small hotel which had a dock we could take our skiff too. The anchor was let go in over 100’ of water on a steep incline and we had hawsers going to trees on the beach holding our stern inshore and thus in effect, pulling the anchor up hill. The ship was quite secure.

We had planed to stay awhile as Dominica has a very special character and we have many connections here we wanted the gang to take advantage of. It certainly is a stunningly beautiful isle, covered with all lush tropical rain forest and craggy mountains. Most of the Lesser Antilles were completlly deforested in colonial days, in the interests of big profits from the brutal making of sugar. Not so much in Dominica. This island was not cut down like so many others and retains much of its natural flora and fauna. Everywhere one can find bubbling hot sulfur springs underfoot and some of the beaches are even too hot to walk on barefoot. When we sailed around the island during the filming we were just stunned by the majestic beauty of the place.

Our history and guide books tell us that Dominica has been inhabited for about 5,000 years and peopled in successive waves of indigenous groups coming up from South America over time. There is still a group of about 3,000 Caribs, the last large and identifiable such group in the West Indies. They were often (and the books still do) described as “warlike” but weren’t they just defending their homeland against invasion? We saw a t-shirt with an old photo of Geronimo on it with the caption “Homeland Security – Fighting Terrorism since 1492.” And this they successfully did here and in most of the Lesser Antilles with success for about 125 years. Spain had shown little interest in these smaller islands in the Eastern Caribbean even though they considered them theirs, as they considered the entire Caribbean theirs. But in due course, at about much the same period that Plymouth Plantation was being established in Massachusetts, these islands were invaded and taken over by the English, French, Danish, Dutch and even Sweden got one little one. Now these islands are all independent except the French and Dutch ones. Well, St Thomas, St John and St Croix were sold by the Danish to the USA in 1917…

Well, I guess we have to say that Dominica is really and truly wonderful. Its complete lack of long white sandy beaches has made it immune from conventional resort development, so we don’t see massive gated and insulated resorts. Its lack of decent anchorages has made massive marina development unattractive too to those that make money doing that sort of thing, so, again we see no massive, exclusive marina complexes. So what is left is a vibrant local culture and identity on an island left to its own devices which, as it turns out, are quite excellent. It is hard, if not impossible, to describe what all the gang did because, in fact, I do not know. But here we go a little anyway.

In the Caribbean, Dominica is known as the Garden Island, supplying many of the drier islands with fruits and vegetables. The market is just bursting with all manner of beautiful produce. Donald is in his element shopping and bargaining and getting fine fruits and veggies for the ship

The architecture of the main town of Roseau mostly dates from the 19th century and earlier. Few buildings over two stories built of volcanic stone and wood very much in a West Indian Victorian vernacular. Narrow roads lead out of Roseau and take you through the steep craggy jungle covered mountains to small villages with goats, free-range chickens and usually a backdrop of reggae music.

Rudolph Xavier, our friend who was our guide, leader and scout as well as driver during the TV shoot two years ago, was back to see us and it was great to get together again – Mr. Xavier is a most excellent guide and gentleman. Anyone visiting Dominica would do very well to meet him and put themselves in his able hands for their visit.

And of course, crew took full island tours all around the island to Carib Territory, went diving on underwater vents, found great local restaurants where you can get delicious Caribbean dinners, and internet and so forth and so on. Back on the ship, work is ongoing with afternoon swim breaks – swing rope from the fore-yard plunging into the sweet Caribbean sea.

architecture downtown Roseau
Dominica s lush rainforest
PC anchored and tied to trees ashore
running stern lines ashore, Dominica

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The Caribbean is Cool

We are under way the 200 miles from Anguilla for Dominica, just now off the island of Nevis. The Picton Castle is braced sharp up on the port tack with royals stowed in these fresh and warm winds. We had NNE head winds heading up, now we have ESE head winds headed down islands – the curse of having a destination! But the sky at dawn is pretty, the crew are getting pretty good at sailing “by the wind” now, which is pretty tricky and demanding, so all is good. Just got buzzed by a Dutch patrol plane piloted by a friend of an ex-PC Crew. They called and said hi.

So our visiting boat-builder Professor Flemming has headed home from Anguilla. It was great to have him along. He is a great teacher. He got our wooden boat carpentry gang started on planking and caulking this old 15′ Grenada skiff in frame, which we got for the express purpose of teaching something about wooden boatbuilding. And the Grenadines and all the islands are just as sweet as ever.

I don’t understand those that bemoan the Caribbean, how it’s all gone now and “not the same”. These islands are as awesome as ever (mostly) and in many ways, to my way of thinking, even better. Provisioning is better, mechanics are better, supplies are better, communications are better, shipping is better and being truly in a period well past the colonial days, islanders are better off, well educated, well travelled and warmly welcoming. Sure, it would be nice if development on a few of the islands was a bit less and that there were more island schooners around and all that old folksy charm was fully intact, but then the same could be said of Lunenburg and pretty much any other place. It ain’t over in the islands, dey plenty cool man.

That said, St Martin is quite a buzzing extension of France/Florida/Holland and Anguilla is in a condo development frenzy spilling over from St Martin that is a bit hard to see. It was a bit of a fright actually, although my guess would be that the brakes are on such speculative development for the time being anyway. But don’t get me wrong, we had plenty of good times in Anguilla at the Moonsplash Reggae Festival. Sandy Ground, Road Bay is fine. Great beaches, nice folks, lots of music. Now we are bound south again to the delightfully enchanting Dominica.

So a decision is taken, we will attend the Antigua Classic Regatta. We will distribute our crew among the fleet of big cool schooners and gaffers and the like and let the Picton Castle sit out the competition unless they come up with a square-rigger class. This Classic race series will be fun and very instructional for our crew who have learned so much that can’t even tell. Getting on other large sailing vessels for a couple days will tell a great deal.

Then when the racing and hoopla is over we will sail off to anchor in some obscure, aquamarine palm-fringed cove and retreat to a roadside chicken shack for a very cold drink and some hot and tasty barbeque chicken right off the grill. We will sit on odd-scrap plank benches in the shade under a big tamarind or breadfruit tree and keep on keeping on and look at our fine ship out in the cove.

Matt and Captain look at the Grenada skiff
PICTON CASTLE at anchor, Road Bay, Anguilla
The Mate at a roadside chicken shack

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Picton Castle crew could make tourism commercials for Dominica. Every crew member I have spoken with thinks this is one of the most beautiful and unique islands in the world. I continually hear comments about how friendly the people are, how many different activities and sights there are to do and see, and about the natural beauty of the island. The interior of the island is mostly mountains and rainforest, the coastline is mostly rocky with a few black sand beaches. The island is lush with an incredible range of biodiversity. It has been fantastic to introduce crew on this voyage to old friends here, as well as meeting new people.

Two groups have taken trips to the Indian River, in the northern part of the island. This river is a protected natural area with a variety of species of birds, fish, crabs and other fauna. It’s also famous for being featured in the second “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, when they rowed up the river to find Calypso in the woods. Our guide yesterday, whose nickname is James Bond, said that he rowed Johnny Depp up the river in the same boat we were in. All boats in the river must be rowed, no use of motors is allowed because the government is trying to protect it.

Crew have also been discovering the natural hot springs. A group went yesterday to Wotten Waven, which is inland from the capital city of Roseau, to soak in the hot springs at a spa. The hot water was diverted through a bamboo pipe into an oval-shaped cement pool, filling it chest-deep with warm water. Many local people on the island swear by the therapeutic properties of the hot water, saying that it is good for the skin and promotes good health. Dominicans can live a long time – the world’s oldest person was a Dominican woman who died in 2003 at the age of 128, and there are a greater percentage of the population that are centenarians (age 100+) here than anywhere else in the world. I think a good soak in a hot spring is good for mental health and stress relief as well.

Work continues on the ship as well, mixed with some fun. Yesterday’s watch put the dory into the water and started to get it rigged for sailing. The ship’s dory, which has been named Sea Never Dry, doesn’t look much like a typical boat from The Dory Shop in Lunenburg now because of its Caribbean makeover. The boat is now painted a combination of two different shades of pink, some blue hues with accents in some other tropical colours. The sail, made on this voyage from a variety of fabrics, is also unique. Hopefully the watch that is on duty today will get to finish rigging the boat and take it out for a sail.

Hot springs tubs, Wotten Waven
Lynsey and James Bond row on the Indian River
Lynsey, Deb and Carl on the Indian River
Pool at the hot springs, Wotten Waven
Trees on the Indian River

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