Captain's Log

Archive for September, 2010

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By Chief Mate Michael Moreland

“Danger Island” hove into sight in the early morning hours after five rough and wet days sailing from Palmerston. No sleeping on the hatch for our 13 passengers bound back to the island, otherwise known as Pukapuka, but we were able to make up comfortable accommodations throughout the ship. Now, in the lee of the island, the trade winds had laid down a notch along with the seas, making our approach right up to the edge of the reef a bit more manageable. Not even the slightest hint of an anchorage here as the reef has no shelf and goes from 6 feet deep to 1200 feet right away. No problem though, following local practice we put out a new wire mooring pendent just spliced up onboard and a long polypro hawser and we tied up right to the reef. As long as the trade winds blow just so out of the east, the ship lays fine, a good distance off the jagged coral, but if the wind goes light or shifts in a squall we have mere minutes to fire up and let go the mooring to get away. However, the weather was cooperative and allowed us to settle back on our mooring about 200 feet from the reef. Small boats from the island were alongside immediately, islanders pouring over the rail to greet us and reunite with the friends and family who had been away from Pukapuka for around six months. There would be no cargo offloading this day in observance of the Sabbath, but our crew were quickly ferried ashore through the pass in the reef to the beautiful sandy beaches of Pukapuka to walk around, explore and meet the people. The turquoise of the lagoon is stunning.

The next morning, bright and early, the island barge was out alongside and we wasted no time in starting to offload all the cargo we had been carrying for three weeks from Rarotonga. The hatch was ripped open and 30 tons of dry goods were rapidly chained by hand from ship to barge. About three barge loads of food then it was on to the fuel. Twenty 200 litre drums were hoisted over the side by yard and stay tackle and twenty 100 lb tanks of propane as well. Reggae music helped the crew stay in rhythm and we had the ship dry of cargo by lunch time. The smokers in the crew were happy as now they could smoke again. It was a great learning and working opportunity to handle and look after the cargo for the past three weeks. It was a fun challenge right from the start in Rarotonga: figuring out exactly how much we could take, arranging delivery, organizing on the dock, then finally loading into consigned spaces on deck and in the hold and having everything fit right and with no spare space. It was sometimes hot, sweaty work, but very rewarding at the end of the day and quite a thrill to be the only square-rigged vessel delivering cargo under sail. Some of the crew wanted to load up again and keep going, others were just glad to see it go and have our deck space back. Either way it was a memorable venture and a rare one at that.

The rest of our stay in Pukapuka was a fascinating immersion into a rarely visited true South Seas island culture. Home stays were organized, with crew spread out around the island, mostly with families who had been passengers with us, with hospitality coming back ten fold. Kai kai or feasts were arranged with all sorts of local dishes and drinking coconuts abundant. Social nights were organized at the town hall with a great sound system playing local island music with young and old, islanders and crew alike dancing and carrying on through the night. It was to be a short and sweet visit to famed Pukapuka, as the wind was not cooperating any longer and the ship hove-to offshore, but our new friendships were sealed and with one last feast onboard the ship, and an impromptu song and dance around the hatch, we said goodbye to our friends and shipmates from Pukapuka.

What a thrill for us here deep in the South Pacific at ‘Danger Island’!

crew unload cargo at Pukapuka using tackles
local boat bringing cargo ashore at Pukapuka
PICTON CASTLE from the beach in Pukapuka
view from aloft while moored to the reef at Pukapuka
what a feast in Pukapuka!

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Fish On!

By Shawn Anderson

The other day the Captain remarked ¨Beautiful day, calm sea, trade winds, sailing under full sail, including stuns’ls; this doesn’t get better.¨ Now usually I am inclined to agree with the Captain, but there is one more thing to add to this scenario: catching fish. Today we landed one of the largest fish, if not the largest, in our history of Picton Castle (who knows what she caught in her 40 years as a fishing vessel)!

Since sailing from Rarotonga we have had some bad luck and a dryspell while fishing underway. We had only landed two (a mahi mahi, and a wahoo). We had some good strikes, but we failed to bring them in. We even had a hook bent. All this poor luck changed though at about ten past six Monday morning. A big fish struck, and struck hard. Paul and Dave spotted it from the quarterdeck. Dave slowly handlined it in from there, while Paul waited on the aloha deck with the gaff at the ready. It was a slow haul, as the catch gave a good fight, but with Dave hauling it from a heightened position, its power and speed were null and void. As our soon to be prize came in we saw it was a good sized marlin. Since we first dropped our lines in the water, we´d been dreaming of the day when we would bring in a marlin, and here it was. The pressure was on to bring it on board.

The marlin was tired as Dave brought it within the gaff’s range, it barely moved as Paul went to gaff it. Once Paul had secured the gaff good and deep, he, Donald, and myself hauled it up with three big lifts and calls of ¨2-6!¨ It thrashed about the aloha deck as we did our best to put it out of its misery. Only twenty minutes had elapsed since it had bit. By now we had successfully given quite the wake up call to almost all hands on board.

As anyone who fishes well knows, the real work had only just begun. To weigh it we needed to hang it, so we dragged it it up to the galley house. Here we would try to weigh it, measure it, take the obligatory photos of the pirze, and lastly clean and cut it. This wasn’t actually as simple as it seems. It proved to be too heavy for our scale, which goes to 50 kg (110 lbs). It proved to be too long to be hung from the galley house strongbacks. We proved our catch though with photographic evidnence. We then began the long process of cleaning the fish.

We ended up measuring it at just under 7´0¨. We combined the weight of the sections to be 68 kg (approx 150 lbs). I stand by my belief that the only way sailing like this can get any better, is the call of ¨ Fish On!¨

Dave, Shawn, Donald and Paul with their prize
Shawn and Dave fillet the Marlin

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Nassau and Pukapuka Bound

One of the most important things to know on the ship is the lines. And you should attempt to know all 205 + of them as soon as possible. Everybody has their own way of teaching and everybody has their own way of learning and so the deckhands have a lot of work cut out for them when new trainees join. In Lunenburg they had 36 people to teach the ways of the ship. Leaving Palmerston they just had 7 to teach the basics to.

When we sailed away from Palmerston we had wind, watches, waves and willingness. But everyone was a little out of practice. It had been a few weeks since the Picton Castle and her crew had actually sailed much and the rust showed. Time to rust bust, prime and paint. Oh wait…that would be the starboard scuppers. Time to do sail handling drills. Each watch spent an evening or night setting and taking in sail – remembering (tactile memory) and learning. When setting the royal what do you do with the clew and the bunt-leech? What of the sheets and the halyard? And can you find the right lines in the dark? Night time truly is the best time to learn the lines. If you learn them in the dark (and out here when it is overcast it can be incredibly dark… no light pollution for us) daytime sail handling will seem like a breeze. There are naturally some ‘clews’ – the lines that tend to carry more strain have metal pins whereas bunts, leeches and brails can be made fast to a wooden pin.

The trainees who joined in Lunenburg have become teachers in their own right and they have all been incredibly helpful when it comes to guiding their newer crew members. Liam wrote a manual entitled “The Dummies Guide to Setting and Taking in Sail” which breaks the process down into simple steps. Davey is patient when it comes to sharing the technique of tying knots and the art of knowing when to use them. Shawn quizzes trainees on their lines by creating sail setting scenarios and making sure that they find the right lines in a timely period. Tiina has clever sayings and rhymes that she created to help remember lines when she first joined and is kindly passing them on. Leonard takes his time when walking trainees through the lines – giving them time to write the names down on their practice sheet if they so desire.

Yes, it was nice to be sailing again. But with the desired wind came rain and heaving swells… and seasickness. Our passengers spent most of the first couple of days asleep on bunks made for them in the hold – safely tucked away from the squalls and heavy weather. Crew members took turns standing an hour watch amidships to check on our passengers at regular intervals and to ensure that everyone was as comfortable and safe as possible. Tammy had taken over from Joani as Donald’s assistant and the two of them made wonderful meals together, unfortunately most of our Pukapuka guests chose not to eat, preferring to sleep off the queasiness. Not that we blamed them.

As if they could sense the proximity of home people began emerging from the hold of slumber and spending more time on deck. The weather had also started to clear up and the eight knots that we were making steadily dropped to 2 or 3 knots. Nevertheless we sailed on toward Nassau. Enjoying the silence, enjoying the sunshine and enjoying each other.

Nassau is a small island atoll 50 nautical miles from Pukapuka. They had also requested the ship’s help when we were in Rarotonga. Just like many of the smaller South Pacific islands and atolls, cargo ships are few and far between and they were in desperate need of supplies. While we could not stay, the Captain had agreed to do a sail-by cargo drop. Several aluminium boats tied up alongside and Mate Mike oversaw the unloading of cargo. We also said goodbye to one of our guests who hailed from the island. There is no anchorage, so no anchoring.

As a token of their appreciation the people of Nassau sent an absolute feast to the ship. In beautiful woven baskets they packed pounds of coconut crab, taro, manioc, fish and coconut tree marrow cake. That night we ate the fruit of an island only a few of us actually set foot on. Just a few trips to shore with heavily laden boats; just a few hours of our time; just 50 nautical miles out of our way and we had made a lot of people very happy.

A beautiful day to sail
A Nassau feast of Taro, cocunut marrow cake, cocount crab, fish and manioc
Alison and Taia go over lines
Cargo unloading in Nassau
One of the delicious coconut crabs
Our passengers to PukaPuka

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Tearful Farewells at Palmerston

The Picton Castle spent eight days anchored off Palmerston Atoll. While two watches spent time ashore, one watch stayed on the ship. This is not unusual, this is the norm. We follow a similar pattern every time we dock, anchor or moor. But in this case at Palmerston the attention was particularly keen.

While not paricularly dangerous, the anchorage near Palmerston is most certainly one of the trickier spots. The Captain says it’s a typical South Pacific dodgy anchorage – very few “good” anchrages in the South Pacific. Evidence of many a ship wreck are visible on the reef and stories of the ghosts of the sailors are told by the locals at night. The ship’s anchor was secure to be certain – wedged under a piece of the coral reef. What was worrisome was the wind. The wind had slowly picked up during our stay in Palmerston and by day five was blowing an average of 25 knots. While working in our favour by blowing us off the reef, it could switch, and blow us toward the reef. Fortunately, it almost never does something like this quickly or without signs that it is coming. This made anchor watch an interesting and serious affair and the Captain, Mike, Paul and Rebecca all had discussions on anchors and lessons on proper anchor watch. Constant vigilence is the key to a safe ship.

Every deckhand or trainee has an hour watch during the night during which time they watch for changes in wind speed and direction, squalls on the horizon, slack the running rigging when it rains (preventing strain on the yards), the position of the ship, observe the depth and do ship checks – watching for anything abnormal. The mate or the Captain writes up specific instructions for the crew to follow and leave strict orders to wake them if any danger or doubt arises. The new trainees are paired with more experienced deckhands during their first month on board so that they can observe proper procedures, ask questions and feel confident when their turn comes to watch.

Rebecca’s watch (the 12-4) caught a shark! Measuring a metre and a half this was no baby either and excited radio calls bounced back and forth between the ship and shore – everyone offering advice on the best way to bring it onboard the ship and the best way to gut and preserve it – not to mention the best way to cook it!

No, life onboard the ship does not consist of sailors forlornly looking at the shore waiting for their turn on land. There is plenty of work to do on the ship despite the fact that our full hold and passengers make regular ships work near impossible. We still do general maintenance and painting, organize the hold and the sole, do ship domestics, galley duty and stow and lash and ready the ship for sea… and then when the sun is high in the sky and the sweat is prominent on the brow, the Captain or one of the mates might order a swim call or a power shower. Refreshed some have a nap, some watch a movie, some read a book and some sit and talk about the day.

Back on land, back on Palmerston, preparations began for the dance performance. Costumes were finished. Hair was pulled and twisted and manipulated with vegetation. Songs were hummed. Nerves were twisted. Stomachs were knotted. And then we were ready. The islanders had prepared a massive BBQ and we, it seemed, were to be the appetizer. Our dance trainers, Haua, Bob and Taia, had coached us in three different songs which the whole island (all in all about 60 people) had turned out to see.

The women went first. Strutting to the centre of the circle – shoulders back – hips twisted ever so slightly we danced – desperately trying to remember every move while remembering to have fun and make our teachers proud. Alex, Meredith, Georgie, Alison, Cheri and Nadja all kept us all on track. While our ‘waving palm trees’ were not perfectly aligned, do trees really ever sway in perfect synchronicity? Our first two songs were over before we knew it and we walked to the perimeter of the festivities – hearts pounding and adrenaline pumping.

The men were next and they did not disappoint. They had the moves down, but more importantly they embodied the attitude behind the music. Bent knees, swinging arms, sandy shuffle, hip thrust. It was an extremely entertaining show. Well done! Both groups performed a grand finale dance before bowing into the shade of the palm trees.

Prominent islanders gave speeches, the minister gave a prayer for fair winds, our Pukapuka passengers performed four songs with dance (a little sneak preview for us) and the Captain gave his namesake – little Daniel Moreland Marsters – his first haircut.

And then we had a feast… and a true island feast it was. The table was laid out with all the local delicacies and everyone ate and ate and ate until they could eat no more. We celebrated our last night on this beautiful atoll in style with more dancing and sing-sings that lasted well into the night.

Morning came all too quickly and with it the farewells. It was much harder to say goodbye then any of us anticipated. We were all given presents. Does the generosity ever end? Some of us were given handmade fans with shells woven in. Some were given black pearls or jewellery or homemade brooms. And we all knew the effort and thoughtfulness that went into these gifts.

Many of the islanders accompanied us to the ship for snacks and a repeat dance performance. Ten yachts were also anchored or moored in the lee of the island and their crew were also invited onto the ship. Emotions ran high when it came time to haul up the anchor and get underway. While excited to get back to sea, we were also terribly sad to leave behind our new found family. But as the Captain aptly pointed out you cannot come back if you do not leave!

When the Picton Castle left we carried with us not only precious memories and gifts, but one of the atoll’s own. Taia Marsters joined the ship as a trainee and we are all thrilled to have her on board. She had been waiting since she was 12 for a chance to sail in Picton Castle. Not only is she funny and sweet, but she is also arguably one of the best dancers in the Cook Islands and a strong boat handler. Let the dancing continue!

Preparing to dance
Sharing photos in the palm trees after the dance
The men perform on the hatch

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Palmerston Days, Palmerston Nights

Every morning on Palmerston we were woken up at 8 am for breakfast. It sounds late but, well, that’s when we woke. They truly spared no expense at meal time – the tables absolutely overflowing with fruit (coconuts, bananas and oranges), homemade donuts and pancakes, eggs, cereal, coffee, tea, juice (made with the palm tree marrow) and smiles.

Set loose on the island until lunch some people chose to snorkel. The coral reef on this atoll offers a smorgasbord of eye candy for the avid snorkelist. There are no dive shops here, but Nadja, Frankie, Rebecca, Jon ‘Josh’, Megan and Alison (among others) brought their own masks and fins. There were parrot fish, barracuda, trumpet fish, turtles, gruppa, sting rays, many pacific juvenile fish – a multitude of colours. Meredith and a few others were surprised to come across reef sharks – luckily the reef sharks were equally as surprised to see them!

Alex, Siri, WT and Donald spent some mornings walking the island. The ‘bro cave’ boys – Shawn, Dave, Davey, Dan, Niko, Robert, and ‘Fred’ all learned the skill of coconut gathering and husking and reaped the benefits. Obviously Dave Brown helped to guide them all. Coconut water – in the coconut – kept cold in the refrigerator is one of the most delicious things I have ever drunk. Yes, it tastes just as good as it sounds.

Mate Mike and Logan took several people out in the monomoy sailing. Dr. Vicky was kept busy for the first couple of days doing a clinic for the 60-odd islanders and managed to see everybody who needed medical attention. Katelinn, Chris and WT were busy fixing motors and looking at generators – their skills in demand from one end of the island to the other. Paul spent time fishing and Rebecca and Brad went on an expedition to one of the surrounding islands and caught us a huge coconut crab – named so because it cracks and then eats coconuts. Yikes! And yet so delicious.

Then there was lunch. And lunch was just as generous as breakfast, with heaps of sandwiches and fruit. Everyone on the island ate meals at approximately the same time, but if you wandered from your host family too soon after your meal you would inevitably run into another family and they will also want to feed you. It would be rude to say no. And so you eat 2 or 3 lunches. Then you dance…

A huge part of Polynesian culture is dancing and Palmerston is no exception. Everyday the ladies met after lunch to practice dancing – in order to prepare for our grand performance at the end of our stay. The men did the same thing on the other side of the island. Our separation added secrecy and one could only guess what the other group was doing. With our bellies full we bent our knees, threw back our shoulders and threw our hips away – attempting to emulate the ladies who were teaching us. A few stuck out immediately as the star dancers and were placed in the front line to lead the rest of us in both rhythm and gesture. Every turn of the wrist – every arch of the back or swing of the arms mean something and one of the keys to being a good Polynesian dancer is being aware of the story behind the song. It is not solely about the beat – although goodness that is also important. And swing those hips! Faster!!

The mens’ dance, one could say, was much less subtle. We could all hear the heavy drum beat reverberating through the palm leaves…of their costume.

Costume making was another activity in the late afternoons and early evenings. The boys made headbands and arm bands of palm leaves and a palm leaf ‘skirt’ – a Polynesian kilt really. The women had flowery head attire, and banana and palm leaf ‘Ti-ti’s’. These tied around our waists accentuating hips and movements.

All in all the activities of the day made us really, really hungry. And a good thing too. The spread for dinner was nothing short of amazing. Taro, manioc, potato chicken curry, rice, tuna, parrot fish, crab, banana cake, coconut pudding… all offered with the comment, “Help yourselves.” The generosity of the people of Palmerston blew us all away. We did bring them supplies and brought some of their family back to them. But to paraphrase the Captain, what they gave to us was priceless, and so is this new connection.

Afternoon volleyball-Palmerston
Dance practice -palmerston
Dinnertime in Palmerston
Dr Vicky in her Palmerston clinic

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Welcome Home, Welcome to Palmerston

Have you ever felt completely at home in a place you have never been before? Have you ever found yourself across the world from your home, from the familiar, from everyone you know and love, and discovered family?

Welcome home, welcome to Palmerston Atoll.

As we approached Palmerston a sense of excitement began to grow among crew and passengers alike. People began gathering along the pin rail – happy chatter escalating as the atoll came into view. A low shrub of green in the haze on a otherwise sparkly blue sea was how we first came upon Palmerston Atoll. Some of the passengers were coming home. Some of the crew who had sailed here before on the Picton Castle (the Captain, Michael Moreland, Logan, Rebecca and Ollie) knew how magical Palmerston is. Those of us who had never been still had a growing feeling that something beautiful was about to happen.

Just a few kilometres in circumference Palmerston Atoll has the third largest lagoon in the Cook Islands. Its coral reef extends around the island- providing plenty of fresh fish and sea creatures for consumption and warm, protected waters for swimming and snorkeling. And then it just drops off. Anchoring can be difficult to say the least, but the Captain knows this atoll and expertly guided us in. The anchor was dropped and second mate Paul, donning scuba gear, dove down to ensure that it was secure before we began to unload the cargo. High with anticipation the cargo was unloaded quickly. Freezers and box after box of food and supplies were loaded onto aluminum boats and brought to shore. Once we finished we split into our watches. 4-8 stayed on to watch the ship for the night and 12-4 and 8-12 went ashore. Two days on Palmerston and one on the ship – we would all rotate, getting our fair share of the fun and festivities that awaited on land and the challenging work, anchor watch and rest that awaited us on the ship.

The skiff ride to Palmerston is a thrilling one. The tough aluminum boats withstand swell and current alike, their experienced captains guide us through breaks in the jagged coral reef. It is incredibly hard to believe that once upon a time (in the 1980s) they used to row in and out of this swirling torrent of a current. And then again, when you actually meet the inhabitants of this sandy atoll, perhaps not so hard after all. When we got to the beach we were divided up into groups of three or four and escorted to our host family. There are no hotels on Palmerston. No motels, hostels or boarding houses. Every one of us was assigned a family and with that family we would spend our time ashore. Naturally everyone on the island fought for the Captain. Captain Moreland had been coming to the island since his time on the Romance and this is the fifth time he has visited with the Picton Castle. Children crowded round shouting, “Uncle, uncle!”, old friends clapped him on the back and embraced him. It was a joyous reunion to witness.

Each one of us carried a little package for our host families. We all had corned beef, oil, sugar, flour and jam and we also had what we had bought in Rarotonga. Some purchased machetes, others more food, some bought pots and pans and others brought fabric. As we trudged through the sand toward our hosts we all experienced something similar.

We were not greeted as strangers they were obligated to care for. We were not even greeted like guests to the island. We were greeted like family. Children ran down the main street and into our arms, grandmothers clutched us by the hands and pulled us down for kisses (a double kiss at least on both cheeks), families crowded round. And almost all of them said, “Welcome home, child.” As if that weren’t incredible enough – we all felt like we had just come home. And some of us even felt sheepishly guilty for having been away for so long…

Grandma Aka with Alex, WT, Brad, Josh and Vicky
Main Street Palmerston Atoll
Sea Never Dry, Palmerston Skiff, Picton Castle
Unloading cargo in Palmerston

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Passage to Palmerston

The Picton Castle left Avatiu Harbour in Rarotonga at 2 pm on August 31st. A dock full of well-wishers waved and cheered as we readied the ship for sea. It was reminiscent of a Lunenburg send-off, which was suiting because the Picton Castle also calls this harbour home as well. Among the crowd were some familiar faces – Maggie (our Purser and Voyage Coordinator), Julie, Nadia, Bob, Pania (from the 4th World Voyage), Michael Z, Katie, Garth and Alana (our ‘agents’ in Rarotonga), Vaka crew and members of the Cook Islands Voyaging society. Yes, the Picton Castle had some good friends here in Rarotonga and had made many more on this visit. It was also the end of Leg 1 of the Fifth World Voyage – and consequently we were saying goodbye to some of our crew. They are moving onto other adventures and we all wish Julie, Joanna, Meredith, Kate ‘Bob’, Nadia, Katie, Michael Z and Via fair winds. Maggie will return to Lunenburg and continue to work for the ship at our main office there. You will all be missed onboard!

Along with a ship full of cargo bound for Palmerston, Nassau and Pukapuka we also carried passengers to these remote islands and atolls. Pukapuka and Palmerston had not had a supply ship in some time so the Captain was asked if we could help out. Some of our passengers were off to visit, some for work or campaigning in elections and some were going home for good – ready to be with family again and get away from the hustle and bustle of life in Rarotonga or New Zealand. Their family and friends also stood on the dock waving their farewells and passing messages for their friends far away.

The seas were a sheet of calm and with nothing but a huff of breeze it was necessary to motor for the two days to Palmerston. As we motored out of the harbour and into the deep blue the Captain reminded us of a beautiful tradition. When the Picton Castle arrived in Rarotonga everyone was given leis (called ‘eis here) of deeply aromatic and colourful flowers. They sweetened our living quarters for a time and this was the time to let them go. For to cast them into the water – from bow or stern – was to ensure that we would return to Rarotonga and the South Pacific. And a return was what we all had in mind as we watched the trail of tiare’s drifting on the waves -the dramatic mountains of this beautiful island providing a magnificent backdrop for our dreams.

Motoring has its benefits. It certainly was an easier adjustment for those new to the rhythms of ship living. Without the added excitement of constantly setting and taking in sail they could walk the decks with one of the deckhands and go over the lines and their functions. Soon enough they would see them in action. Helm was especially relaxed in this fair weather. With just slight turns of the wheel one could stay on course. Seasickness was also less likely on a passage such as this. Rolling was expected, but it was gentle and new crew and passengers alike were thankful for this.

The Picton Castle has bunk space for 52 and with our passengers we now had 68 people onboard. The hatch was made into a large and comfy bed and families nestled in for a rest – their belongings stowed neatly away in the hold. To make life a little more comfortable the crew set up a large canvas awning over the hatch. This helped to serve several purposes. It blocked sea spray and sun – and, if it rained, it provided shelter. The Ministry of Transport issued a special certificate for this passage. The islanders are apparently used to camping under blue plastic tarps on cargo ships passing by in order to get back to their islands, and told us that Picton Castle was luxury compared to that. And we fed them too!

With several children aboard slight adjustments needed to be made to the watch assignments. Naturally we still had helm and lookout – and to that we added “kid watch”. Three crew members stood watch for climbing, running or crying young’ns at one time. One was stationed on the aloha deck, one on the starboard side amidships and one of the port side amidships. What a busy hour it turned out to be as well! A few crew members, including Georgie, Shawn, Adrienne, Ollie and Lauren, proved to be particularly skilled when it came to the art of distracting and entertaining children.

Donald was a dream in the Galley, as usual. With many more mouths to feed Joani became Donald’s assistant for the week and between the two of them we had hearty, mouth-watering savoury meals and scrumptious sweet desserts. One could say the ship was cozy. We motored toward Palmerston with a full ship, full bellies and full arms…

cargo loading for Palmerston, Nassau and PukaPuka
Jo, Yo, Nadia, Meredith, Siri and Bob say good byes
passengers and crew-motoring to Palmerston
School visitors

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Relief Mission in the Cook Islands

Pukapuka was not originally on the schedule for Picton Castle‘s fifth world voyage. In fact, we hadn’t really considered going there until a few weeks before the ship arrived in Rarotonga, when Captain Moreland was approached by Mr. Vai Peua, a member of the Cook Islands parliament who represents the islands of Pukapuka and Nassau, for assistance. Apparently there hadn’t been a supply ship to his consituency in about eight months and people were starting to run low on food and fuel. Mr. Peua asked if we’d consider making a special trip to Pukapuka to help the people who live there. We thought about it, juggled our schedule around a bit and decided that if the logistics of this relief mission worked out, we’d do it.

The last time Picton Castle was at Pukapuka was on her second world voyage, in 2001. The crew had a wonderful time there, but Pukapuka is a bit out of the way of the more westerly route the ship has taken through the South Pacific on the two most recent world circumnavigations. Pukapuka is in the northern group of the Cook Islands, and closer culturally and linguistically to Samoa than to the rest of the Cooks. Not many people visit this atoll with a population of 500 – it’s cheaper to buy a plane ticket from Rarotonga to New Zealand than it is to buy a plane ticket from Rarotonga to Pukapuka. In my experience, Pukapukans living off the island are fiercly proud of their home, as they should be because their island is beautiful and friendly, as are their people.

After some conversation, calculation and negotiation, we made arrangements with Mr. Peua about the amount of cargo and passengers to be carried and were granted approval for this special trip by the Cook Islands Ministry of Transport. We would also be taking some cargo and passengers to Palmerston Atoll, which was originally a scheduled port visit for us, on the way to Pukapuka (it has also been a while since they’ve had a supply ship).

Throughout our stay at Rarotonga deliveries kept arriving on the wharf, unloaded from trucks and cargo manifests checked, before being loaded into the cargo hold below. By the time the ship sailed, only a series of small pathways remained through the hold to get to our own ship’s supplies. On the final day before we sailed, tanks of propane and drums of gasoline were loaded on deck and lashed down tightly. On sailing day, we welcomed 20 passengers aboard – seven going to Palmerston, one to Nassau and twelve to Pukapuka. As is standard for local inter-island passengers in the Cook Islands, they all brought their own bedrolls, to be laid out at night on the cargo hatch or any other dry space on deck for sleeping.

While this adventure was not part of our original voyage plan, it will certainly be an interesting one. The crew will now have an opportunity to sail home with our shipmates (even if only shipmates briefly), we’ll get experience handling, loading and securing cargo, and we’ll know that we did the right thing by helping out these islands in need.

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Our passage in the Picton Castle from Mangareva to Rarotonga (about 1,400 miles) was good enough, involving sailing north-westerly towards the Society Islands looking for good winds – in the end we had to steam for a few days – Rarotonga was the end of one leg of this voyage and the beginning of another leg – some folks were scheduled to sign off and others would be waiting to join this ship to sail the south seas; airplanes were involved so we had to press along – in surprisingly light airs for this region, this time of year.

Soon enough, on a beautiful sunny South Pacific trade wind morning, the Picton Castle was hove-to a few miles off the east end of Rarotonga. Jagged green mountains slope down to fertile looking plains and to surf breaking on the fringe reef with bits and sparkles of turquoise against the deep blue of the seas surrounding. We were to windward so we could not take in the fragrance of land, earth, tiare flowers growing all over the place. The night before had been squally and from the ship we could see thunder and lightning over the island and well to the south of us.

As the sun climbed against a startling blue sky, the crew braced the yards around and set sail for the final few miles into Avatiu Harbour where we would be berthing for the duration of our stay and the only ship habour anywhere near here. Most of these islands have nothing resembling a harbour, sometimes a coral shelf you can put your anchor on for a bit with minute to minute diligence and the rest, well, you just heave-to off the island and drift around if you can. This morning we were hove-to off Muri Lagoon, a sweet lagoon and harbour for shallow draft vessels and the legendary assembly point for one of the principle Vaka fleets that sailed for New Zealand to settle some 900 years ago, the last chapter in about 2,000 years of Pacific voyages of discovery and migration, if I have it right.

We sailed north around and squared the yards for the short run down the north shore of Rarotonga – out of Muri the new 65′ vaka with the Cook Islands Voyaging Society sailors (who have sailed all over the Pacific in like vessels) aboard had sailed out to meet us – this was very exciting for our gang who had heard so much about Polynesian voyaging and about the big double hulled canoes called vakas that had explored and settled all of the Pacific Ocean in the greatest migration in human history, and arguably the most technologically advanced migration too. Before that people walked. Our winds were moderate, just right for sailing nicely down the coast. Off Avatiu we took in all sail, braced up sharp, poked our nose into the small harbour, turned the ship around 180 degrees and backed her in between a big expedition yacht and two cargo vessels rafted up, needed a shoe-horn for the job, but it worked out fine.

Heaps of folks on the dock on this sunny day including our new crew and old friends. Flower ‘eis all around to those coming, going and staying and thus began our visit to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. It is believed that the first European ship to call at Rarotonga was the HMAV BOUNTY post mutiny with Fletcher Christian in command in 1789 looking for a place to go and be.

What to do in Rarotonga? Plenty; first, it seems imperative to start the stay off at “Trader Jack’s”, a well known establishment on Avarua Harbour a mile or so up the shore, and the kind souls who received, collected and delivered all the ships mail to us – it was a Saturday night so there was an excellent band at the Trader’s and many of the gang danced the night away under the stars – or until midnight anyway, which is when Sunday commences and thus frivolity ceases, all for the best really, no doubt.

Then it seems that one must rent a scooter to tool around the island – or – you can take busses which are logically labelled “Clockwise” and “Anti-Clockwise”. Raro, as we and everybody else call it, is only six miles long and four wide and oval shaped, so no reason to go 3/4rs the way around the island in order to get to a spot, that if you went only 1/4 the way the other direction will get you there sooner. But scooter rentals are popular with our gang. Diving, vaka sailing, ‘island nights’ with wonderful dancing and kai-kai (food), visits to our schools to drop off donated education supplies (where the kids all danced for us and put on big feeds), whale watching from the beach – the island was surrounded by dozens of hump-back whales breaching and doing all sorts of antic easily viewed from the shore. We had maybe 600+ school kids visit the ship, which is plenty good times for the crew (and beats chipping rust as a duty!) we also had a couple nice parties aboard with fantastic Cook Island dancing to thank some folks for all their help in making this visit the delight it was – these were fun but did not go too late – tomorrow is always another day and a work day at that in this ship.

We loaded cargo and supplies for the next islands that had requested help as well as a few deck passengers anxious to get home. Deck passengers in the benign conditions usually found in these islands is a long standing tradition among vessels here and the Ministry of Transport approved our so helping out in this regard. What else? Let the gang tell their own stories, but suffice to say, our stay in Rarotonga was good. And then it becomes time to sail.

With several hundred folks on the wharf, hugging, kissing, saying good by to one and all, giving flower ‘eis, shedding a few tears, this was a picture from generations ago when an island sailing ship cast off for the next island with loved ones and supplies aboard. Tricky enough getting the ship in to Avatiu Habour 9 days ago, it was easy enough to cast off and head out as we were pointed that way anyway and all the other vessels had sailed as well. We steamed out of the harbour with cheers and whistles, outside the reef many of the crew tossed their ‘eis into the sea, the legend being that if you release your ‘ei to the sea and it washes up on the reef, you will return, if not, well, not so good…

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School Visits in Rarotonga

Picton Castle has a special relationship with three elementary schools in Rarotonga – Avatea School, Avarua School and Nikao Maori School. During the ship’s ten day stay in Rarotonga, all students from all three schools came to visit the ship for a tour and the crew were invited to assemblies at each of the three schools.

Donated books and school supplies are what initially opened the door for these relationships. Before this world voyage began, we collected donations of school books and supplies from a number of different individuals, schools and organizations in Nova Scotia. Thanks to the generosity of so many folks at home, we are able to bring these much-needed supplies to schools around the world. All books and supplies were packed into clear plastic bags and sealed with packing tape by our crew before the ship sailed from Nova Scotia for travel in the ship’s hold in tropical conditions on their way to the places where they’ll be given away.

When we knew we were on our way back to Rarotonga, we made contact with the three schools we’ve worked with before to let them know we had books for them and also to invite them aboard the ship. Over the course of five mornings, Monday to Friday last week, we had over 300 students, ages 3 to 12, aboard the ship. Chibley, the ship’s cat, was adored by all of the students, on the few occasions she chose to make her presence known (often when there are crowds on board she gets a bit shy and finds a comfy bunk below decks to curl up in). The students had the full tour, and many of them were able participate in some of the things we do – helping to set sails to dry them and heaving along on the windlass. Our galley crews were also kept busy baking cookies so that each student could have a glass of juice and cookies for a snack while on board. Many of the visiting students went home with Picton Castle “tattoos” – the ship’s stamp inked somewhere on their bodies. With local music pumping from our stereo system, most tours wrapped up with a dance party on the hatch. The crew had a pile of fun with all of the students who came to visit.

Our crew visits to each of the three schools were magical. Monday morning we packed up the truck with books and crew members for our trip to Nikao Maori School. Once there, we were seated on the porch to observe the students in their morning routine of prayers and songs, lined up in the school yard in front of us. In addition to the primary school, Nikao Maori School has a preschool for children ages 3 to 5, and even they stood in their lines and joined in the with the singing. As the students went to their classrooms to start the day, we went to the staff room with some of the teachers and parents where they fed us enormously with all sorts of delicious treats including fresh pawpapw (papaya), homemade donuts and bananas. Nikao Maori School is one of the smallest schools on the island, but the students, teachers and parents put on a huge welcome for us.

On Tuesday morning we packed up the truck again, bound this time for Avarua School. As we walked through the gate, we were met by students who hung fresh flower ‘eis around our necks or on our heads (‘eis are flower necklaces or crowns, worn routinely in the Cook Islands). We were then escorted to chairs where we sat facing the students who were sitting on benches beneath big trees, with a big open space between us. After a prayer, some announcements and a speech from the principal, we were treated to a show by the school’s Culture Team, a group of dancers and musicians who often perform for different events around the island and at the school. In addition to a few group dances, there were two girls who each danced a solo. All of the dances were incredible, and each of the dancers in the Culture Team seemed very pleased and proud to be representing their culture and their school. All of their costumes were traditional Cook Islands wear – grass skirts and coconut bras for the girls, grass skirts with long grass bands around their arms and legs for the boys. Once their performances were done, each member of the Culture Team approached one of our crew to pull us out of the audience and on stage. With the help of our student partners, we were made to dance. This seemed to be the highlight for the students in the audience, laughing and cheering loudly at our attempts at Polynesian dance. Kids in the Cook Islands have been dancing all their lives, so even toddlers who can barely walk are better dancers than most of our crew.

Our final school visit happened Friday morning when we once again packed up the truck with books and headed for Avatea School. We have a particularly close relationship with the students of Avatea as we visited with them at their school on our most recent visit here, five years ago. In the five years that we had been away, the school has built a new hall/auditorium for performances and assemblies. The crew were all greeted with ‘eis as we came through the gate, then led to our seats by the side of the stage. The principal welcomed us all to Avatea School and explained that as we brought books and welcomed the students aboard the ship, many of the students wanted to do something for us, so they brought fruits and vegetables in for us to bring on the ship. There was a very generous pile of bananas, pawpaw , star fruit, and other delicious fresh produce. The first group to perform at Avatea School was the Form 3 class, led by one boy who was one of the best young dancers we saw on the island. The stage was then handed over to the Culture Team who put on an amazing performance. In their opening number, the boys all brought wooden boxes on the stage, which were then used by both the boys and the girls for sitting and standing on throughout the performance. Partway through, chief mate Mike was called up to the front and after one of the students demonstrated how to open a coconut using only a wooden stick, Mike had to give it a go in front of the whole school. Unfortunately the pointy part of the stick bent, so he had some serious difficulties. However, with the help of his student partner, Mike was able to rip the husk apart with his bare hands, earning a round of cheers from the audience. All of us were on stage to dance with the students at the conclusion of their performance. We’re still not great dancers and although we are making some improvements, there was still plenty of laughter at our moves.

All of our school visits, both visiting to the schools and welcoming students aboard the ship, have kept us very busy here in Rarotonga, but we have been so pleased to be able to share our ship and ourselves with these students.

Allison and students at Avatea School
chief mate Mike dances with his partner at Avarua School
Dancing at Avarua School
Shawn plays at Nikao Maori School
students visit the ship in Rarotonga
the Culture Team dances at Avatea School

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