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The Great Wicomico River

17 June, 2012

By Kate “Bob” Addison & Captain Daniel Moreland

Picton Castle is anchored in Ingram Bay at the mouth of the Wicomico River at 37°48.9N 076°17.7’W. It’s a muddy bottom twenty feet under the bow, so we have our big (1,500 lbs) port anchor down and she’s holding nicely. Very good holding here the Captain says. The skies are blue with puffy fair-weather clouds, and the water green and brackish. We are taking advantage of those rare moments at an anchorage to look after a good many things from small boat training to sail repair to getting some paint on the ship. Small boat exercises are very good for seafarers.

It’s been perfect weather for coatings, so we’ve been spot-painting the ship here and there and tarring the rig. The trick with tarring is to get plenty of tar on all of the standing rigging, but none on the sails or the deck. Tarring yourself is optional. Not required, but a common practice. The tar is mixed with linseed oil to make a thin dark gloop which is slurped up by the standing rigging. Made of natural fibre rope, marlin and wire that has been wormed, parcelled and served with cotton strips and more marlin, if not tarred regularly this coating dries out and acts as a sponge to soak up water, which is terrible for the wire it’s meant to be protecting. Tar is an antifungal, mixed with linseed oil it is also waterproofing and for those headed to the beach it makes an excellent sunblock, if a bit sticky. But it does smell good. So up aloft we go with tar-bucket and brush to make the rig all shiny and happy.

Yesterday a gang was aloft on the fore yard bending on a new foresail and sending down the old one so we can do some repairs on it. There were a couple of small rips where the sail had caught on the stuns’l irons from over-enthusiastic stowing so Siri and her sail-making gang wanted to get some patches on before the damage got worse. With all our sails being stitched by hand we know how much work goes into making a new one and how much easier it is to do early repairs!

Deckhand Abbey spots an osprey on the mizzen and calls out so everyone can take a look. Sure enough, there he is hanging out on the radio aerial boom on port side, half a fish in one claw, dripping fish blood and scales on the deck and looking pretty mean. George sensibly hides in the office. I don’t know if osprey hunt kittens but probably not a good idea to find out. Turns out there are plenty osprey around here. There is a pair that have nest on the remains of an old seiner steam engine sticking out of the remains of a wreck in the harbour.

In the afternoons we’ve been out sailing in the monomoy long-boat. Our lovely double-ended surf boat from Martha’s Vineyard, the Picton Castle crew rigged her for sailing during world voyage five: carpenters made the boom, gaff, tiller, rudder and leeboard, sail makers stitched a sweet gaff mainsail and jib, and riggers made the whole lot into a working sailing rig. She’s actually got a second jib and a gaff topsail but plenty of power for these waters without. The last time I sailed the monomoy was in the South Pacific after sailing from Pitcairn Island – we were anchored in the stunning lagoon of Mangareva in French Polynesia inside the coral reefs there, sailing across to an almost-deserted island to set up camp for the night on the palm fringed white beach. Not so much in the way of palm trees, coral or blue water here, but a very pretty meandering coastline with trees right down to the water and houses dotted here and there. We sailed the monomoy into Reedville, a tiny, pretty place up the creek. As we were making our lines off to the wharf outside the Crazy Crab restaurant someone asked ‘does that thing have an engine? No? Well how did you get here?!’ Well, we do carry oars in case the wind dies. Auxiliary power by “Armstrong”.

On the way in we sailed past an industrial fish plant with maybe 13 big seine boats moored alongside. The menhaden boats offload their catch here through suction hoses. The plant produces fish oil; apparently it’s not at all fishy and was traditionally sold to Europeans to make croissants. Now, with the health benefits of omega-3 understood it’s mostly sold in caplets to the health-conscious supplement market. Pretty sure that means croissants are healthy, yes?

It’s the last plant of its kind left around the eastern seaboard – there were over thirty up and down the coast at one time, but ‘social pressure’ caused the others to all shut down. They call it social pressure – but nothing to do with concerns over the environmental sustainability of industrial fishing or workers’ rights or any other cause. No, we were told that the social pressure, powerful enough to virtually shut down an industry that employed hundreds of families in these parts, was simple – some people didn’t like the smell from the plants so real estate prices were depressed and real estate was worth more than the fishing. The smell is not pleasant to be sure, and plenty strong – something like that fish-bone-and-blood-meal used for garden fertilizer mixed with old lobster pots and just a hint of used kitty litter. But in Lunenburg, Barbara Zwicker tells us that the smell of fish was once refered to as the “smell of money”.

Ashore we needed to provision for fresh foods, but with no store in Reedville, it looked like we’d be eating tinned bully beef and dried food until Newport when we were rescued by a very kind local couple: Cindy and Gary who drove us all the way to WalMart and back, stopping at their beautiful house on the way to change cars and give us a tour. We stocked up on fresh provisions: plenty of fruit, vegetables and fresh chicken. Much easier for us to buy food than it must have been for Reed and his fellow settlers in 1874 – bet the natives didn’t even take Visa back then.

After our provisioning expedition, the monomoy was stuffed with bags of food and there was just time for an ice cream by the water before we sailed back to the ship in the evening light. The sky was big and blue and streaked with cirrus clouds, a broad stripe of red at the horizon and the rigging of the Picton Castle silhouetted between the two.

AB Alison painting
Bending on a new forecourse
Osprey and fish
Sailing the monomoy

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