Captain's Log

Archive for June, 2010

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Arrival at Galapagos

Galapagos is probably one of the most-anticipated ports on the voyage. Many times in the past day I have heard different crew members exclaim “I can’t believe I’m actually here!” With the first skiff runs ashore dropping crew off at a floating dock inhabited by three sleeping sea lions, it was immediately apparent that there’s something special about this place and it’s flora and fauna.

Picton Castle is currently anchored at Wreck Bay, off the island of San Cristobal. The island of Santa Cruz is the usual tourist destination, but almost everything that you could see on Santa Cruz can also be seen here. Once the ship anchored early on Thursday afternoon, we were greeted by our agents Carmela, Karina and Fernando. Picton Castle’s most recent visit here was five years ago and we remember Fernando and Karina from that visit. The agents brought with them representatives of the port captain and the sanitation and agriculture department. Because they value the environment so highly here, there are many restrictions to preserve it. We’re not allowed to take any of our organic garbage ashore to dispose of, and none of it can go overboard. We can’t take any fruits or vegetables from the ship, which were grown and purchased in other countries, ashore with us, they must all stay aboard the ship or be consumed aboard the ship. And, of course, nobody is allowed to take sand, shells, seeds, or any other natural material from the island.

There have been some changes since we were here last time – the pier that we use for skiff runs between the ship and shore has been greatly improved with a floating dock behind a concrete extension designed to cut down some of the large swell. The whole street that runs along the waterfront, Avenue Charles Darwin, now has sidewalks paved with volcanic rock stones, beautiful wooden benches with awnings for shade, gazebos, a fountain, a couple of small gardens and playground for children. Tourists and locals alike seem to like it, it’s a well used space, especially in the evenings as people take walks or sit and talk with their friends and neighbours by the waterfront.

Wildlife is abundant here, from the frigate birds flying overhead to the sea lions everywhere. On Thursday evening, chief mate Mike had to remove a sea lion from our skiff, which was tied alongside the ship, so that one of the crew could go and bail the boat. Apparently Mike frightened it away by making loud noises and throwing a rope towards it. We had another sea lion, a young one, trying to jump up on to the bow of the skiff while people were getting in at the floating dock last night and when the sea lion was unsuccessful in making the jump on the bow, it decided to try amidships. It got its front flippers over the gunwale and part of its body into the skiff when Mike came to the rescue again and pushed it back into the water.

Our agents arranged a welcome reception for us on our first night here, complete with a buffet of local food and folkloric music from the mountains of mainland Ecuador. The crew were seated at a long table out in front of the restaurant, along a pedestrian walkway. Medical officer Gary started the dancing and before long all 25 of the crew who attended were on their feet, taking over the walkway while dancing to the band.

rsz jan and a sea lion
rsz johanne gives a tour to our agents and guests
rsz picton castle at anchor at wreck bay

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Crossing the Line

Picton Castle sailed across the Equator on Wednesday, entering the southern hemisphere in the Pacific Ocean. As expected, King Neptune and his royal court boarded the ship to address the pollywog issue. With kind serene senisitivities and all-knowing wisdom all pollywogs were solomly raised from their base state to a higher plane. Picton Castle is now crewed entirely by shellbacks. The tale of the transformation shall remain untold (but some of our crew are sporting really short haircuts). ‘Nuff said. its all good…

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Pitiful Pollywogs

Picton Castle sailed from Panama almost a week ago. Bound for Galapagos we are. In many ways, this is a regular passage for us with the routine of watchstanding, workshops, meals and day-to-day life aboard. We changed the watches on leaving Panama, mixing the groups up so that everyone has a chance to be on watch with different people in different times. Crew are settling into their new watches well, getting to know and spend time with different shipmates and learning new routines and subtleties of each watch and how to accomplish that watch’s assigned tasks. Bosun WT and bosun’s mate Paula continue to assign ship’s maintenance projects, focusing this passage on holystoning the main deck and getting some rust busting, priming and painting done on the overhead of the aloha deck. Both of these projects are appropriate for this passage as they can be done even when it’s raining. We’re in the intertropical convergence zone, resulting in light winds, overcast skies and fairly frequent drizzle. We’ve been mostly motoring with intermittent periods of sailing when the wind cooperates. The Captain’s multi-part splicing workshop continues today with part 5 with a sailmakers eye-splice. Yesterday was the chain splice, with the long splice the day before. Prior to Panama, we had already done the eye splice and short splice. Each crew member has a practice rope where they’ve been doing their daily homework – a practice on their own of whatever splice was covered in the workshop that day.

In some ways, this passage is not regular for us. The ship seems to have developed a foul, noxious, malodorous stench due to the number of pollywogs aboard. A pollywog, for those who don’t know, is someone who has never sailed across the Equator before. To a shellback, someone who has sailed across the Equator, there are few things as undesireable as the smell of pollywogs. For the sake of our loyal shellbacks’ sensitive noses, I certainly hope that King Neptune and his royal court will come soon to take care of this embarassing faux pas. And the adverse winds? Can only be due to the presence of the dreaded pollywog. Messages have been arriving almost daily, in the form of emails, a canvas bag caught on one of our fishing lines and even notes scrawled on mirrors in all the heads, warning the pollywogs of the court’s impending arrival and of King Neptune’s penchant for cutting hair. We were visited by representatives of Neptune himself in the form of two booby birds – one on the jibboom and one on the quarterdeck. These mighty sea birds made themselves at home while they observed the behaviour of our putrid pollywogs. Also black fish or pilot whales and porpoise have been swimming by to take a gander and inspect it seems. The reports can’t be good… We’re currently less than 10 nautical miles from the Equator and we’ll have to cross before we reach Galapagos, so one way or another, the pollywog problem will be solved.

booby on the taff rail
Meredith helps Niko with his splice
Robert, Katie and Michael at the splicing workshop
Shawn reads the note fished from Neptune

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Panama-Finishing The Sail

Well, there we were, through the canal, the Picton Castle moored in hot steamy Balboa on the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Panama getting ready to shove off into the broad South Pacific Ocean, working hard to get provisioned and stowed, sailing time bearing down on us – and we had to get this new main sail finished for the legendary Sloop Mermaid and her Skipper of long renown, John Smith. The Mermaid is a 50’ wooden working sloop built in Carriacou without an engine in the 1960’s. So many like her were built for trading in the Grenadines, fishing and maybe once in a while a leetle bit of smuggling of rum, whiskey and cigarettes from St Barts before that island blew up and became a jet-set destination. Jutting bowsprit and a raking mast she is little different than the small pyrate sloops that once did their deeds o’swashbuckling in the isles of the Caribbees…

In Anguilla, with Captain Kevin Gray’s masterful help and encouragement, we got the sail cloth landed in from Doyles in Barbados. Then we immediately laid out and cut the sail and seamed it up on our big machine at Roy’s Place on the beach at Sandy Ground– we did the second layout there too right away in order to get the final dimensions and tableings – on the way to Bonaire, even though we did not know we were going to Bonaire, we sewed up the tableings and corner patches with our small machine – in Bonaire, with a nice clean dock available we got the big machine out and sewed on all the other patches, reef bands and the like – on the way to Panama the gang sewed in grommets by hand furiously even working on night watch on the quarter deck. Now we had to rope it and stick on the cringles. As it happens we had an equally nice large cement floating dock at Isla Flamenco complete with awning and light to work with. So Rebecca, Jo, Brad, Ollie, Nadia, Nadja and others got to it. And got done in time to toss it on a small hop plane with Ollie and WT to get it to the Mermaid at Boca Del Toro and bent on to see what it looked like. We think it will be a strong sail. Maybe a few too many barefoot prints on it, but that adds to the charm, John is a barefoot kind of guy, Mermaid is a barefoot kind of vessel…

Those who worked on this sail for the Mighty Mermaid are…

Rebecca Libby

Johanne Aase

Krista Watson

Julie Vermeer

Siri Botnen

Alex Moore

Nadja Nitschke

Meredith McKinnon

Brad Woodworth

Dan Rutherford

Logan Livingston

Paula Washington

Shawn Anderson

Dave Farrall

Leonard Weaver

Jimmy Gordon

Adrienne Bode

Georgie Lockwood

Kate Addison

Joani Cain

Clark Munro

Lauren Berdow

Nadia Vassos

Christian Barmettler

Maggie Ostler

Katelinn Shaw

Sophie Martel

Cheri Davidson

Jan Caselli

Davey Laing

Mike Weiss

Meredith Spratt

Joanna Clark

Via Christensen

Niko Griffes

Tammy Sharp

Tiina Randoja

Ollie Campbell

WT Simmons

D. Moreland

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Panama #2-Turtles, Lumber and Sugar

Chief Engineer Christian has become the Picton Castle turtle wrangler. On the list of requests from Pitcairn Island, one of the things that was asked for was pet turtles, the little kind you have in aquariums. Just had to have pet turtles. In order to have a reasonable number of turtles make it to Pitcairn Island alive a month away, we bought 35 in Panama. I think the pet store owner was a bit shocked. They’re currently all living, quite happily it seems, swimming around in a plastic tote with fresh water and rocks in the skiff on top of the galley house. They don’t seem to be fond of having the main topmast staysail set over their temporary home, but other than that they are quite happy, energetic and almost frisky, swimming around in the tote and hiding under the rocks. All are OK so far. They’re pretty feisty, or feistier than you might expect turtles to be anyway. We are bringing these turtles with full knowledge and approval of the island council and due deliberation given to environmental concerns…turtles to Pitcairn? Sure, why not…we are also bringing 14 lawn mowers to the island – we said we should bring goats instead as they fertilize as they mow but that idea didn’t catch on…besides Pitcairn already has some goats.

Even though we might be the only sailing ship today with a big cargo hold for storage, storage space aboard any ship is finite, so that makes stowing all the things we bought a bit of a challenge and always a job once we start getting full. In addition to the lumber and food provisions I’ve already mentioned, we also had two major food orders that will see us through until Bali on dry goods, plenty of deck supplies like paint brushes and wire wheels, and an assortment of household goods to bring to Pitcairn. You can get pretty much anything in Panama. When the trucks bringing these things arrived at the ship, the crew unloaded the trucks, laying everything out on the dock to see what we had, inventory and to put similar things together, before finding a spot for it on board. The 4-8 watch loaded most of the food order into the hold, taking everything out of cardboard boxes on the dock before bringing it aboard.

The hold is organized so that the port side is mostly galley supplies and the starboard side is mostly deck supplies, with shelves built to fit and hold plastic totes in place. A great deal of organization goes into stowing the hold, making sure that similar things are packed together so that later on, when someone is looking for something, it can be easily found and accessed. Most of the dry goods are stored in the hold, the freezers were packed completely full, and the veggie lockers on the aloha deck are topped up. The aloha deck itself currently looks like a bit of a jungle with four stalks of bananas, a net full of mangoes, and a net of pineapples and papayas suspended from the overhead. Some of the lumber has been stored on deck, along with big metal drums, so the crew have had to learn their way around deck again without stubbing their toes on the new arrangement. Conveniently, these wood stacks also make handy places to sit on deck.

With the ship completely stowed, the last step was to lash everything down for sea. On Wednesday morning we had all hands busy with loading the last of the lumber on to the deck and lashing it below the pin rails, making sure that plastic totes were secure in their shelves in the hold, lashing down the bags of flour and sugar in the hold and tying down the 55 gallon drums in the port breezeway. Until we manage to eat a significant amount of food and discharge cargo at Pitcairn Island, the ship will be quite full. We could potentially still fit more things, it’s all a matter of using the available space wisely.

assembling provisions on the dock before stowing
Christian, chief engineer and chief turtle wrangler
lashing a load of wood on deck
Siri and Clark load bags of sugar into the hold

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Crew Changeover in Panama

In Panama we said goodbye to two crew members, Nicksa and Dr. Krista. Nicksa, a young South African, has been with Picton Castle since December 2008 and is leaving us for the amazing chance to become a cadet in the Full Rigged Ship Danmark for the summer. We’re all very excited for this incredible opportunity for Nicksa to advance his training, skills and experience as a seafarer in one of the finest ships in the world.

We managed to steal Krista away from her job as an ER doctor in Lunenburg to be our medical officer for almost six weeks and we now have to let her return to her regularly scheduled work and family life. This is by no means Krista’s first time at sea under sail, for a number of years she was a deck hand in the magnificent Schooner Bluenose II out of Lunenburg.

While we’ve said goodbye to two crew members in Panama, we’ve said hello to five more. Relieving Krista as medical officer is Gary, who sailed on the Atlantic Voyage with us as medical officer. Another familiar face is Billy Campbell, who circumnavigated on our fourth world voyage. Mike made a short passage with us last summer between Boston and Halifax (he has sailed on a number of other sailing vessels too, including the Brigantine Romance) and is now back to sail again for a longer period, seems he needs to see some South Pacific under sail. Robert was with us in Lunenburg but had to miss the first passage in order to take care of a few things at home in Germany, so he rejoined the ship in Panama, and Roselyne from Holland has joined us for the first time.

Dr Krista in the Panama Canal
NickSA discusses the windlass job

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Panama #1

Picton Castle’s stay in Panama was an absolute whirlwind. You’ll have to forgive the lack of Captain’s Logs for the duration of our visit, we’ve been so busy with sourcing, shopping, buying, delivering, organizing, stowing and sailmaking that there has been little time left for writing about it all. On Wednesday afternoon we finally sailed from Panama, bound for the Galapagos Islands on our first passage of this voyage in the Pacific Ocean. The receipts, calculators, shopping lists and inventories have been flying around our tiny shipboard office in the chart house for the past three days, making sure that everything has been accounted for and stowed away properly. Emerging from under a pile of papers and foreign coins, we can finally get back to business as usual (which means regular logs once again).

We had a very rapid and smooth transit through the Panama Canal; it will be a highlight of the voyage for many of the crew. It is quite a trip over the continental divide and through the tropical jungle. The institutional planning and organizing that goes into operating such a large waterway is mindboggling to me – there are so many details to take care of to ensure that ships can pass through quickly and easily. The only hold-up in our day was when we had to wait for our berth to open up at the dock upon arrival at Flamenco Marina. Another vessel, which was supposed to have left earlier in the day, was still at the dock due to some engine troubles. We anchored just inside the breakwater at the marina, making ourselves very obvious and letting them know that we were ready to move in as soon as they were able to get underway. The wait was just over an hour, but just as the wind shifted, causing us to have to get underway from our anchorage in the marina (it was kind of tight in there), the other vessel got going and we moved in and went alongside. We were greeted by our excellent agent Francis, with PANACO, who was extremely helpful throughout our stay in Panama. He arranged all of the necessary formalities, and by shortly after dark the off duty watches were able to leave the ship and start exploring this remarkable country, or at least the city.

Our shopping adventures began on Friday when the Captain, chief mate Mike, chief engineer Chris, Ollie and I headed out with Francis. We visited a few different hardware stores, then hit the jackpot in the giant lumber yard of Cochez. It’s always interesting to buy wood in different ports because of the variety of different kinds of local wood. We mostly took measurements that first day, but I was back at Cochez every day that they were open during our stay to order something else. Some of the lumber we were buying is for Pitcairn Island, some of it is for some upcoming carpentry projects on board. We also found a marine industrial hardware store with great shackles and blocks, as well as handheld VHF radios.

Nadja discovered the fruit and vegetable market on our first full day in Panama City. She had gone out shopping for a few fresh fruits and veggies for the crew to eat during our stay in Panama and found one of the most incredible markets she has ever seen. Nadja often assists with provisioning, so she has seen markets in many different ports around the world and was particularly impressed with the variety, quantity and price in the market in Panama. It helps here that she speaks Spanish perfectly. She brought Donald, Siri and I back to the market on our last full day in Panama to stock up on more fresh fruits and veggies for our passage to Galapagos. Even Donald couldn’t stop grinning – he was truly in his element. He kept exclaiming over how cheap the pineapple was (three for $1), how fresh the yucca was and the vast quantities of plantain available. Where many markets are made up of individual stalls selling a bit of everything, the market here is organized by item – all the different kinds of fruits are together, pineapples, cantaloupes, limes, mangoes, then there is one indoor section with assorted garden vegetables, then an aisle of root vegetables, an area for corn and so on. Bananas were the only thing on our list that we had a bit of trouble finding, but we were eventually successful with them too. Now the back deck is festooned with stalks of banana ripening.

Shopping was a big activity for most of the crew during our stay in Panama. Crew members left the ship on their off duty time in small groups, heading out to find the best bargains. Many of our crew found Avenida Central and its pedestrian-only section for inexpensive clothes and shoes, others discovered the craft market at the YMCA, some went to the incredibly giant Albrook Mall and second mate Paul found a big fishing supply store. Shopping isn’t the only thing to do in Panama, most of the crew spent at least part of a day in Casco Viejo, the old quarter of Panama City with its narrow streets, beautiful old stone buildings and churches, quaint squares, sidewalk cafes and local little establishments. Even Isla Flamenco, where the ship was tied up alongside, is an interesting place, the last of a series of islands connected to the mainland by a long causeway, and kind of a tourist spot for Panamanians with waterfront restaurants and bicycle rental shops.

chief mate Michael looks at wood at Cochez
Donald loves the market in Panama City
Donald, Siri and Nadja choose avocados at the market
piles of pineapples at the market

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Galapagos Bound

Well, Panama shopping for the ship and for Pitcairn Island too was quite a whirlwind of activity. Shop til you Drop and then get up and shop some more. But many of the gang did interesting things besides shop all the time although shopping in Panama is pretty interesting with all the big markets, back ally stores and much more – hopefully we will get to that shortly here…The Picton Castle has been sailing, or really steaming, from Panama for several days now in warm, headwinds with light rain. Bad winds in the Caribbean, no winds here… we were wondering what curse we were being plagued with when we got the following e-mail from His Crusty Highness King Neptune, well, really, his Scribe – see below – all has become clear. Old Neptune knows his stuff – our poor winds are due to the presence aboard of the dread ‘pollywog’ – for those who do not know, a ‘pollywog’ is a low life form that has not crossed the equator in the company of ‘Shellbacks’, noble souls that they are, tolerate them benignly in the same ship. But lucky for us, as we approach this equator, Neptune and his Royal Court will remedy the situation and set all to rights….soon – Neptune is a great guy, once you get to know him…

My Dear, Master of the Magnificent Deep Sea Sailing Ship, our own Shellback Barque Picton Castle

We see that you are underway and bound for the regions of My Realm in your fine Barque. Too few such ships pass by these days. We note with satisfaction and approval that you are` blessed in your ships company with a goodly number of My finest, loyal, faithful but clearly long suffering and thus infinitely patient Royal Shellbacks.

We also sadly detect that tragically you have in your otherwise exalted midst, an unacceptable number (that number being anything greater than zero) of hideous and abject ‘pollywogs’ the lowest form of Aquatic Life ever known, causing endless grief and embarrassment to the refined seagoing sensibilities of my Favoured Shellbacks. We are reliably informed by our Flying Fish, Tropic Bird, Gull, Dolphin and Whale that despite all possible sacred precaution and infinite care in such a well found ship even the dependable trade-winds have abandoned your noble selves due to dismay and revulsion at such a horrific and deplorable state onboard such a fine old friend of a ship. Well, Noble Sir, keep the faith and keep sailing hither and as you well know that on or about the Line, We will board the magnificent Picton Castle and set things aright once more with tender mercies, judicious judgments and cleansing love.

Please convey our Kindest Regards to Her Furry Highness, Chibley, Our most renowned seagoing Shellback Cat as well as to all My True Hearts of Salt Hardened Oak, our loyal Shellbacks who have been suffering woefully untold indignities without complaint in the Hateful Proximity to the teaming pestilentialy odiferous ‘pollywogs’. Please be as so kind as to make all ready.

The Royal Scribe

In the name of His Royalty of the Deep

Neptunas Rex

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Panama Canal #2

The pilot decided that our captain would keep the con, which is pretty unusual, and steering was entrusted to in-port helmsman, Nadja, who steered us through all of the locks at the captain’s direction, and we had some of our other more experienced helmsmen, including Logan, Meredith, Siri, Sophie, Julie and Brad, steering through Lake Gatun and through the Gaillard Cut to get some practice and experience in slightly intense and precise steering. The Galliard Cut is the channel which was cut out of rock and hard clay across the Continental Divide. The channel is narrow but deep and some of the land on either side is terraced to reduce erosion into the Canal. We passed two big dredging operations during our transit – one just before entering the first lock and the other at a bend in the channel in the Gaillard Cut. It’s vital to the Canal operation that the channel stays clear and deeper than the largest ships the Canal can accommodate. There are huge ships, known as Panamax ships, built with the dimensions of the Canal in mind – just a bit smaller than the locks so that they can fit in. The maximum size for a ship in the Panama Canal is 965 feet long, 106 feet wide with a maximum depth of 39.5 feet in tropical fresh water.

Just after we left Lake Gatun and entered the Gaillard Cut, we said goodbye to pilot Eric Hendricks and welcomed pilot Eduardo Correo. There are about 300 Panama Canal pilots in total, each of which has trained for three years for the job. They all started out as deep sea mates and masters having had attended Maritime Academies around the world. There are a few remaining American pilots who are now Panamaian citizens still working from the time when the Americans operated the Canal, but most of the pilots and other employees are now Panamanian. About 8,000 people in all work on the Panama Canal. The Canal operates 24 hours a day and there were about 35 other ships going through the Canal in the same direction as us on the day that we made the transit. The organization and logistical planning that it takes to operate the Canal is astounding – where Picton Castle has a daylight transit only restriction, there are other ships that have restrictions for one-way traffic only through the Gaillard Cut, plus all of the pilots, line handlers, lock operators and launch drivers must be scheduled, equipment must all be in top working order and in the right place, and so on. Some ships go through with four pilots and eight electric mules.

Currently work is underway to add locks that will accommodate ships twice as large but also conserve water, all of which is rain water caught in Gatun Lake. This project is to be complete by 2014.

At the end of the Gaillard Cut is the Pedro Miguel lock, a single chamber lock. As the line handlers at the Gatun locks had disembarked onto a service launch as soon as we were through the locks, we boarded a new group of line handlers just before the Pedro Miguel lock. We continued to share our lock with the same mid-size ship as before. The Pedro Miguel lock empties out into Miraflores Lake, a small lake, a mile long, that we motored across in order to get to the Miraflores locks. The Miraflores locks are the last locks before the Pacific, made up of two chambers. There is a visitors centre alongside the Miraflores locks and there was a big crowd of people on the observation decks, watching ships pass through. After the Miraflores locks, the line handlers disembarked, then shortly after, our pilot disembarked. We motored down channel past Balboa docks, under a huge bridge called the Bridge of the Americas, out toward the Pacific with dozens of ships anchored, then around Flamenco Island to the entrance to Flamenco Marina, where we are currently tied up alongside the wharf. We had to anchor and wait a bit for the other vessel which was at our dock to depart, but shortly after we were tied up securely. Our whole transit, from getting underway from the anchorage area on the Caribbean Sea side to being tied up alongside on the Pacific side took 11 hours and 20 minutes. It was a long day, but everything went very smoothly. The actual canal transit from first to last lock was about 8 hours and that is something of a record for us. Our excellent ship’s agent Francis was impressed anyway.

So, here we are, tied up at Flamenco Marina. The tides are quite high here, so we’re tied to a floating dock that goes up and down on big pillars. There are no other vessels that look anything like Picton Castle here, most of our neighbours are white fiberglass power yachts and sport fishing boats. We have huge plans for ship provisioning here, and shopping seems to be on the agenda for most of the crew. There’s lots of other things to do too – see old Panama City whose ruins date back to the early 1500s sacked by Henry Morgan; visit Casco Viejo, the old quarter of the city; check out the Miraflores visitor centre to learn more about the Canal. We plan to be here until Wednesday morning, shopping ‘til we drop until then.

Christian on engine controls as we re passed by a giant container ship
line handlers disembark from PICTON CASTLE
Nadja on helm going into the lock
Sophie on helm in the Panama Canal as a big container ship passes
terraced walls beside the canal

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Panama Canal #1

The Picton Castle crew had an early start on the morning of Wednesday June 9, with all hands waking up at 0345 in order to be ready for the scheduled arrival of our pilot at 0430 (they often arrive early). We had shifted within Anchorage Area F on Tuesday afternoon in preparation, getting to the edge of the anchorage area and away from the other vessels so we could get underway in the dark more easily on Wednesday morning. Our first pilot, Eric Hendricks, arrived around 0420, as expected.

Many harbours and seaways have pilots, all of them experienced and trained mariners who have specific local knowledge in the area where they work. In all places in the world except the Panama Canal, the captain of the ship retains command of the ship and the pilot is an advisor. In the Panama Canal, the pilot actually takes command of the ship. While Picton Castle looks small compared to the giant ships that regularly use the Canal, she handles more like a big ship than a small yacht. In the first few minutes that the pilot was on board, there was some discussion and questions between the pilot and the captain so that the pilot knew what to expect of the ship. A good pilot will tell that a ship like the Picton Castle is actually more difficult than a big ship in the Canal – and perhaps because of this our two pilots both had our captain handle the ship in and out of the locks.

We had started heaving up the anchor first thing Wednesday morning so that there was only one shot of chain remaining out. Once the pilot was on board, we had to wait a little bit for another ship, which we were scheduled to follow, to get underway. Once they did, we finished heaving up the anchor and motored out into the channel. Picton Castle has a restriction with the Panama Canal that we must transit during daylight hours, which suits us just fine – it’s an interesting thing to see and our daylight restriction allows the crew to take it all in. It was still dark when we started heading down the channel, but the sun was rising as we approached the first set of locks. Dramatic clouds were lit by the early morning sun and flocks of parrots flew overhead close by.

As Picton Castle slowly entered the Gatun locks, there was a rowboat with two Canal line-handlers in it, one of them rowing and one of them holding the ends of two lines. The pilot mentioned that they have tried everything else, outboards, rocket guns but what works best and safest is a decent row boat bringing the messenger lines out. The other ends of the lines were held by two other line-handlers on the edge of the lock. A few minutes before we approached the lock, a boat had dropped off ten line handlers aboard the ship, who are responsible for managing the wire lines that hold the ship in the locks. As we entered the lock, the guys in the boat rowed over and handed the ends of the line to the line handlers – one to the well deck and one to the aloha deck. The line handlers hauled in the heaving lines to bring the wire cables aboard. The wire cables are made fast around the bitts on deck, leading through the Panama chocks in the bulwarks. The wire cables lead to electric locomotives called “mules”, that run on tracks along the edge of the locks. Picton Castle had four mules with us, one forward and one aft on each side of the ship. The mule drivers pay out and pull in the cables as the ship moves up and down in the locks, they also keep the ship still in the locks and pull her forward into the next lock when it’s time to move.

The Gatun locks are made up of a series of three chambers which raise the ship up to the level of Lake Gatun, a man-made fresh water lake that supplies all of the water to the Canal. The technology for moving water through the chambers hasn’t changed since the Canal was built in 1914 – it depends on gravity moving the water from higher to lower. We shared the lock chamber with a medium sized cargo vessel which went in the front of the lock, while we were in the aft end of the lock.

From there we motored through Lake Gatun, following the traffic lanes which were well marked with buoys. This is a waterway through dense jungle – sometimes you can see alligators and more exotic birds. We took full advantage of being in a fresh water lake, using the deck wash hose which pumps water from overboard to give the ship a thorough fresh water rinse. We also rigged up the port fire hose for a fresh water power shower – a real treat for the crew on a very hot day. There were other vessels anchored in Lake Gatun waiting their turn in the schedule, but we were able to go straight through with no waiting. Leaving Lake Gatun marks about the halfway point in the Canal transit.

entering Gatun locks at first light
line handlers row lines to the ship
mules pull PICTON CASTLE through the locks
pilot Eric Hendricks and the Captain on the bridge

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