Captain's Log

Archive for July, 2013

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Arriving at Penrhyn

By Kate “Bob” Addison

Sunday July 21st, 2013

Picton Castle is at anchor inside Penrhyn Lagoon at a position of 8°59’S 158°05’W. It’s a very calm and beautiful spot. The port admiralty pattern anchor is holding well in nine fathoms of water, and the ship is still and quiet. The lagoon here is huge so there’s a bit of fetch, and you can hear the wavelets lapping at the hull. But the ship is still.

It’s a welcome relief after the constant movement of the last week. And at Atiu too we were simply hove to in the open Pacific Ocean, so it’s the first time the ship has been perfectly still since leaving her dock at Rarotonga ten days ago. It’s a strange sensation, being consciously aware that nothing around you is moving. Feeling the unusual luxury of being able to place a cup on a horizontal surface and knowing that the surface will stay horizontal and the cup and contents won’t take flight, and sleeping without bracing yourself in your bunk against the roll.

We had an excellent passage up from Atiu, a little over 700 nautical miles in eight days, almost the whole passage under sail alone. We just had to fire up on the last day to push closer to the easterly trade wind than we could make under sail. But a ripping sail with a little of everything you could hope for on a decent South Pacific passage. We had calm weather with light winds and sunshine, then a perfect force five sailing breeze with seas building making the ship dance and at the end a couple of days in an area of low pressure with squall after squall blowing through, the main decks knee deep in swirling white water sloshing from scupper to scupper, or rushing out through a freeing port with a dull metal thud, the rain sometimes vertical and sometimes horizontal, stinging the helmsman’s eyes as she tries to hold her course. It’s never been cold though; on a passage north from 21 to 9 degrees south the water is warm and the air temp has been pretty steady at around 28°C. That makes a big difference to the comfort of the crew – getting soaked is a lot less unpleasant when the water is warm and the sun’s out!

And then the final approach to Penrhyn today, with all hands called after lunch to lay aloft and stow all sail. Land had been visible for a couple of hours, a low dark smudge on the horizon in the glare of the sun off the starboard bow. By the time we were aloft stowing the land had resolved itself into distinct motu and islands set in the coral ring around a huge lagoon. The turquoise water with pale shallow spots and lush vegetation made the view stunning, and exasperating not to have a camera in my pocket.

We steamed once past the passage into the lagoon to check it out, and then made our approach with AB Pania at the helm, chief engineer Alex at the engine controls on the bridge, second mate Dirk on the instruments in the charthouse and the Captain conning the ship from the port main shrouds. The pass is straight and short but the water rips out, churning the water up and making current strong enough to push a ship right off course. But the team did a great job holding her steady and in just a few minutes we were inside the reef and all was calm. Chief mate Paul and his gang got the anchor out, and our passenger, Lloyd, who’s a commercial diver heading for the pearl farms of Manihiki, dove down to check it was holding well. It is.

All fast, and the crew turned to to get the ship clean and shiny after a week of damp living spaces and salty surfaces, and then at 4pm a swim call followed by BBQ to round off an eventful and successful Sunday at sea.

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Amazing Atiu

By Kate “Bob” Addison

Monday July 15th, 2013

At 1000 hours this Monday morning Picton Castle is at position 17°25’S 158°52’W in the Cook Islands, making northing under square sails to t’gallants, staysails and spanker. The wind is a fresh force five, and the day is a bright active one, with cumulus clouds rushing across the sky and small squalls blowing through bringing light rain showers. We are braced up sharp on a starboard tack steering east by north. This is sweet trade wind sailing at its finest, and our ship is dancing along at five knots.

Yesterday we set sail from Atiu after unloading about twenty tons of cargo using yard and stay tackles down into the island’s big aluminium barge. The cargo was hard, heavy work: much of the cargo was building supplies and the pallets of cement must have each weighed half a ton. There was a fair sized swell running too, making the barge ride up the side of the ship and then slam down again when the wave vanished out from under her. So that called for some snappy work on the tackles: hoist away stay tackle, hoist away yard tackle, ease away stay tackle and then when the heavy load is hanging from its yellow cargo strops right above its position on the barge wait for the wave and at the perfect moment burn it down on the yard tackle quick as you can so it’s safely placed on the barge and not bashing into the side of the ship, or worse into the crew of the barge.

Our crew did a phenomenal job, getting this heavy cargo unloaded safely and quickly in the traditional way: getting the strops on the next load, hoisting smartly and then lowing away with skill. We had three tag lines rigged to stop the heavy loads swinging around too much, and there’s skill manning the tag lines too – take up, take up, take a turn on the pin and then ease away smartly as the load is lowered.

So we’re glad that the cargo went so well and since we have much smaller amounts of cargo for the Northern Group islands this sailing feels like a vacation, a reward for all of our sweat and aching muscles.

Atiu itself was a fascinating island, and one I hope to return to. Geographically it is different to Rarotonga or the sandy atolls of Palmerston or Pukapuka. The island is basically one low hill with sheer cliffs around most of it, interspersed with white sandy beaches. It looks a lot like the Galapagos island of San Cristobal, only smaller and more lush, the black rock being made of dead coral rather than volcanic rock. We ran around and stretched our legs, visited Oravaru beach where Captain James Cook is said to have discovered the island on 3 April 1777, played in the surf and waves inside the reef and drank local coffee brewed from beans that grow in the valleys.

Meanwhile the ship was hove to, alternately drifting away from the island and motoring back upwind to get close enough for the crew change over. So a sweet island, but great to be at sea again, sailing with this trade wind instead of bashing into it.

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South Pacific Trading Barque

By Kate “Bob” Addison

July 12th, 2013

Barque Picton Castle is just twenty miles off Atiu, a raised atoll in the southern Cook islands, the first island call of this cargo and passenger run to the outer Cook Islands. We departed from Avatiu harbour, Rarotonga yesterday morning to start this second inter-island voyage; this time we’re heading up north to Penrhyn, Manihiki and Rakahanga after a short call at Atiu in the Southern Group. And then back to Rarotonga in August for the start of our next long South Pacific Voyage.

These cargo and passenger operations are a fascinating chapter in the history of our ship. Running a cargo operation under sail is definitely complementary to our core mission of sail training and adventure travel, it adds depth and purpose to our experiences and provides a true hands on training opportunity on board. The ship has always been about being part of something greater than yourself, of doing things that need doing whether you feel like it or not, simply because it needs doing. And now we have pressed our barque into a service that is bigger than the ship.

At the moment the ship’s hold is about two thirds full of cargo, about fifteen tons of which is building materials that will soon become new water tanks in Atiu. We are carrying a mother, and daughter and their dog back home to Atiu and a commercial diver up to work on the pearl farms of Manihiki. In a small way we are contributing to the workings of the Cook Islands, our home in the South Pacific.

The adventure for our crew on this voyage goes beyond snorkeling in crystal clear tropical lagoons and climbing coconut trees. We are meeting islanders on their own terms in their own homes: working with them side by side unloading cargo, being taken on family expeditions fishing or to church and then at night joining in with the dancing not just watching politely from the tourist seats.

It’s a chance to understand what’s important to different people; to see the world from different perspectives. For example, one evening in Pukapuka I saw people burning coconut husks in front of their house and sitting round the fire talking. I thought it was a great idea – free, carbon neutral energy that also acts as a natural mosquito repellent as the sweet smoke drifts up into the sky. But my island host was horrified, he said the people used to have electric street lights, but the new government wouldn’t pay to maintain them, so they were forced to regress forty or fifty years to the bad old days when fire was the only source of light. And while a fire might add a nice ambiance to an evening it’s difficult for the children to do their homework by.

Travel like this really makes you think about what’s important: education or well-being, prosperity or family, home or adventure. Maybe you can have all of those things. Maybe you have to prioritize.

And then effectively running a small business in the islands adds even more complexity, richness and challenge. It can be incredibly frustrating working with people who have a different culture to yourself. English is spoken throughout the Cook Islands, though generally as a second language and the standard varies in the outer islands. Misunderstandings are common because of cultural barriers as well as language: one person thinks saying no would be impolite while the other person thinks that saying yes, when what you really mean is no, is a rather strange and unhelpful thing to do. We are a little like children who understand the basics of the culture and how things are, but not all of the subtle nuances of how things are done.

But we are fortunate that almost all Cook Islanders seem blessed with a warm generosity and kindness, and a palpable happiness that means misunderstandings usually just end in laughter. And they do try to help us out: as the nice lady in the bank explained to me today, your cheque book will be ready in ten minutes, but that’s ten minutes ‘island time’ so you should come back in half an hour. I did and it was. Simple.

nolan at helm
splicing on the quarterdeck

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Seeking Ship’s Doctor, Mate and Lead Seaman

Aboard the Picton Castle, new trainees and crew are settling in and getting oriented to their new surroundings. The ship is currently alongside the wharf at Avatiu Harbour on the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. We’re spending a few days in port between Leg 1 and Leg 2 of the Aloha Polynesia Voyage in port in order to refresh provisions, take on more cargo, and do a trainee changeover. There are, of course, some trainees who have signed on for the whole Aloha Polynesia Voyage, so they’re part of the regular routine of watchkeeping and ship’s maintenance that happens even while Picton Castle is in port. We’ve said goodbye to some trainees and hello to others who are quickly finding their way around and joining in with standing watches and learning the ship.

Meanwhile, in our office in Lunenburg, we’re looking ahead to the South Seas Voyage which begins in Rarotonga on August 19th. Berths are still available for trainees. No experience is necessary to sail with us as a trainee, just a good level of physical fitness and a desire to be a full participant in sailing the ship.

There is a berth available for a ship’s medical officer for the South Seas Voyage. This is an ideal position for a medical doctor who wants to sail a square rigger. The medical officer essentially functions as a trainee, fully involved in the life of the ship and sailing her, until we need to call on his or her medical expertise. Picton Castle carries a fully stocked medical kit, and we have back-up resources available ashore to consult and assist as necessary. The position could be filled by one doctor for the full duration of the voyage, or it could be divided amongst a number of doctors. If you’re interested, please get in touch with voyage coordinator Maggie Ostler at

Applications are also being accepted for two professional crew positions. All professional crew must have, at a minimum, STCW Basic Safety Training. We’re looking for a mate, who will function as a watch officer and will be instrumental in delivering our sail training program. Mate applicants must have a license that is suitable for our 284 gross ton ocean-going sail training ship. We’re also looking for a lead seaman, who will assist the officer of the watch and lead and instruct the trainees on their watch. We prefer to hire lead seamen with their AB (USA), Bridge Watch Rating (Canada) or their national equivalent. Applicants of all nationalities are welcome. To apply, please send your resume and a cover letter that tells us more about you, your experience and your motivation for wanting to work aboard Picton Castle to voyage coordinator Maggie Ostler at

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Sunday at Sea, Canada Day and First Cargo Run

By Kate “Bob” Addison

1st July 2013

It’s Monday the 1st July, so Picton Castle would like to wish a very happy Canada Day to all our friends back home in Lunenburg and across Canada! We plan to celebrate this evening with a nice BBQ mahi mahi, ice cream for all hands and maybe even some fireworks… We are due into Rarotonga in just a couple of hours – Avatiu harbor is only 11 miles away and we’re motor-sailing directly towards it, though mountainous Rarotonga is not yet visible because of clouds on the horizon.

Yesterday was the first proper Sunday at Sea of this Cook Islands cargo voyage, and we had a very pleasant Sunday. There’s no ship’s work on Sundays, you just stand your watch and clean your own living space, and the cook gets the day off too. Yesterday Matthew, Nolan and Shaun did a great job of feeding us all, and despite some initial trepidation there was an excellent roast chicken with mixed veggies and roast potatoes for supper, and Matthew’s homemade bread and butter pudding after pasta for lunch. Bread and butter pudding – so English it made me nostalgic for the green fields of home!

Then at 4pm we had a little Sunday Soiree with popcorn, South Pacific musics, the party hatch cover on and everyone dressed up nice. The sun was out and the sails set and the crew and passengers were in good spirits. It’s amazing to look at the crew and realize what a team they have become in such a short time. It’s an incredible achievement to join a ship right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and then with just a week’s orientation set sail and make a go of cargo and passenger operations under sail. But that’s pretty much what these guys have done, and they should feel very proud of what they have learned and achieved in such a short time.

For a handful of trainees it’s already time to say goodbye as we reach the end of the first leg of this short voyage. It’s sad to see them go, there are some great characters leaving who we will miss aboard. But we also have new crew arriving today, and of course we are excited to meet out new shipmates and start to show them the ropes. As I think the crew aboard sailing back into Rarotonga will tell them: there’s an incredible adventure waiting for them!

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