Captain's Log

Archive for August, 2013

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First Night Watches At Sea

By Cheri Davidson

Thursday August 29, 2013

20-15’S, 160-47’W

Sailing at 4 knots, bound from Rarotonga to Tonga by way of Palmerston Atoll

For some of the folks aboard thePicton Castle, last night was their very first night watch, and adjusting to the movement of the ship in the dark can be challenging. Port watch (Captain’s watch) had the deck from 12-4am. We had new crew practice their steering and staying on a course of NWxW, sometimes needing the help of experienced hands to get a feel for how the ship reacts. We also had a lesson in knowing our lines in the dark, as we took in the spanker and fores’l for practice before the change of the watch. The Starboard watch (Mate’s watch) had the deck again from 4-8am and took in the inner jib and outer jib. Overnight we had bits of drizzly rain and overcast skies. We are hoping to see some stars soon!

Today the weather is clearing up slightly, enough to get some ship’s work done. Nolan was aloft on the fore lower tops’l replacing robands that keep the sail on the yard, Mark B is painting the overhead in the engine room. And, of course, the fishing lines are set! New crew are still learning their lines and knots. Repetition is key, but it can be a bit of information overload in the first few days.

George wasn’t to be seen all day yesterday and some worried that he might have been left behind in Rarotonga. But he popped out of his hiding place last night in search for food. Today he is laying comfortably on the hatch amongst the drying hawsers.

We are almost ready for lunchtime at 1230 for the oncoming Starboard watch, then again at 1300 for Port watch. I peeked in the galley and it looks like hamburgers! Smells yummy too. Donald also gave me a special sneak preview for dinner tonight… Donald’s famous fried chicken! The crew will all have happy full bellies.

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A New Voyage Begins – Departure From Rarotonga

By Cheri Davidson

Wednesday August 28, 2013

Picton Castle departed Rarotonga this morning, hurrah! Motor-sailing NWxW under overcast skies. Crew are broken off into two watches now, Port and Starboard, with Port watch taking the decks just after a yummy lunch of roti wraps from Donald.

Leaving Rartonga we set lots of sails! First with the outer jib and the fore topmast stays’l. Then upper and lower tops’ls, the spanker, the fore course, and finally the t’gallants. Crew and trainees are getting their sea legs back and new trainees are learning their lines. So far just one or two are feeling a bit queasy, but I’m sure they will adjust soon enough. We don’t have a big swell and the ship is quite comfortable.

Picton Castle alongside Rarotonga Cook Islands
Picton Castle crew and trainees officially sign aboard the ship

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New Voyage Starts At Rarotonga

By Kate “Bob” Addison

Bound for Tonga, Norfolk Island and join the Tall Ships at Sydney!

As this new voyage kicks off, the new trainees and professional crew are settling in, making friends and starting their shipboard orientation. The focus is on getting to know the ship and all her routines and equipment, basic sail handling and learning lines and also getting the ship ready for sea. The decks have been oiled, the fore upper topsail parrel drum was welded, the spare topmast timbers were de-barked, reduced and hoisted aboard and lashed in the starboard scuppers. Today we’re starting drills on sail and yard handling and safety drills such as Fire Drill, Man Overboard, Abandon Ship, Damage Control and so on, these will continue for the next four days.

Everyone was delighted to welcome ship’s cook Donald back aboard after his holiday for Carnival in Grenada – he knocked our socks off on his first day back in the galley with homemade pizza for lunch on a Tuesday! George The Cat is getting to know his new shipmates, and seems to approve of them, more or less.

It is another lovely day here alongside in Rarotonga and we are all very busy. All’s well.

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Aitutaki and Home

By Kate “Bob” Addison

August 8th, 2013

It’s 0800 on Thursday the 8th August 2013, and Picton Castle is steaming towards Rarotonga. The familiar rolling emerald mountains are dead ahead, and looming larger every minute. It’s the end of another voyage, a voyage of almost four thousand miles offshore sailing around the Cook Islands. It’s amazing that we could sail so far without even leaving the country, and very nice not to have to clear in and out of every island too.

It’s been an incredible voyage in a lot of ways, from the fact that we were running a much needed inter-island passenger and cargo operation in a square rigged sailing ship to the very islands that we visited. In some ways looking back at the photos it feels like it was some other crew who were really there and we just saw it all on TV.

Dancing in the copra shed on Pukapuka, sailing the monomoy across the fabulous Penrhyn lagoon thick with reef sharks, stopping to assist a yacht in distress, and spending sweaty hours hoisting load after load of heavy cargo out of the hold to lower it onto the barge bobbing alongside the ship. We’ve had a med-evac from an airfield that was literally a field, we’ve played cricket in a tropical rainstorm with laughing school children, we’ve slept under the stars and in the houses of some of the most kind and generous people I have ever met. We’ve sold toothbrushes, clothes and staple foods to the islanders, and bought rito fans, hats and black pearls in return. Back on board we’ve stitched ditty bags and leaned how to do patch servings, whippings and splicings. We’ve scraped the deck and painted the ship and learned how to ‘hand, reef and steer’.

The final island call of Aitutaki was a mini vacation on our way home. We arrived on Tuesday and left yesterday morning because the container ship Tiare Moana was due in so we had to hoist our anchor and clear the pass for them. It was a glorious two day visit. I think it is actually impossible not to have a good time in Aitutaki. You’d have to try pretty hard anyway. The beauty of the lagoon and the island are justifiably famous, and the people are so happy, laid back and kind that the combination is irresistible. There’s enough infrastructure to get anything you want easily, but not so much as to feel spoiled or crowded. Definitely one of my favourite islands, Aitutaki is a gem. We were also lucky enough that our visit coincided with their Te Maevai Nui celebrations and on Aitutaki that means dancing!

The Tuesday night dancing was the story telling dances, slower and lyrical, the elegant, sensual dance is accompanied by singing and tells a story, usually a very traditional one that passes down these legends from generation to generation, keeping the tradition alive. The whole village is involved; the beautiful young people at the front in magnificent matching costumes, the elders forming the musical accompaniment at the back, and the Ariki or chief leading and telling the story. The best thing is that this has nothing to do with tourists, we just happen to be lucky enough to be there are the right time: you can see by the glances and smiles that the boys are dancing for the girls, the girls for the boys, and everyone trying to impress the judges in the hope that their village will be champions.

Then on Wednesday night it was the turn of the drum dances. Fast, energetic, colourful and spectacular. Maybe a hundred matching dancers, moving their hips and knees in time, the movements so fast and precise that the coloured rito skirts and leg bands become a blur and the audience, never mind the dancers, is left breathless. What an amazing end to an incredible voyage!

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Penrhyn to Manihiki

By Kate “Bob” Addison

Thursday August 1st, 2013

This is a bit of a catch up log, which takes Picton Castle from her anchorage in Penrhyn lagoon to Manihiki, our last island call of the Northern Group of the Cook Islands.

The saga starts in Penrhyn where our shipmate Tom had to be flown back to Rarotonga for a painful medical condition. In itself the condition was not life threatening, but his insurance company preferred to charter a plane to send him back to Rarotonga rather than risk possible complications arising in a small and remote hospital. So within two days of being admitted to hospital, the Air Raro plane touched down on the runway and the pick-up truck ambulance was carrying us to the airfield to see Tom on his way, being well chaperoned on his flight by a Rarotonga doctor. Typical of the intimacy of the Cook Islands, we knew the pilots who had made the four hour flight from Rarotonga, so it was good to know that Tom was in safe hands.

The other good news from this incident was that Tom and his insurance company kindly agreed to allow two pregnant ladies to fly back with him in the charter plane; one of the ladies was due in a week so the alternative would have been the Cook Island government chartering a separate plane in a few days once her case became urgent. It was clearly a better solution all round for the ladies to share Tom’s plane, saving public funds and a stressful last-minute flight. So we were delighted that common sense prevailed over what could have been a bureaucratic nightmare, involving government departments, two hospitals and a Dutch insurance company with twelve time zones between them.

The next morning we hauled back our port anchor, catted the anchor with fish tackle and the capstan, and steamed back out through the pass into the open Pacific to get underway for Manihiki. It was Thursday 25th July when we left Penrhyn, just one day behind our schedule, and after an easy three day sail we arrived at Manihiki mid-morning on Sunday. We weren’t sure what sort of a welcome we would get arriving on a Sunday, and especially a Sunday during the week long Te Maeva Nui constitution celebrations, so we were prepared to heave-to for the day and go ashore on Monday if we had to. But luckily a call for Picton Castle came out on channel 16 on the VHF radio explaining that everyone was at church but that they would be happy to send a boat out for us at noon.

So we busied ourselves getting the Manihiki cargo out of the hold, sending up Lloyd’s gear and making the ship look shipshape ready to send half the ship’s company ashore that day. Lloyd is a commercial diver from New Zealand who had accepted a post diving the black pearl farms in Manihiki for six months, or maybe a year, so Picton Castle was Lloyd’s ticket from Rarotonga, but also an adventure: he gladly stood a watch, and took his turn steering the ship, standing lookout and scraping the decks side by side with the rest of the crew so we were sad to say goodbye to our shipmate, but pretty impressed that his new home in Manihiki was such a sweet place.

Manihiki, more than anywhere else in the Cooks, reminded me of the Caribbean with its brightly painted wooden houses, gorgeous turquoise water and lush vegetation. Most of the island’s income comes from farming the famous Cook Islands black pearls. Lloyd’s new host and employer, Brian was glad to show us the trappings of his trade and explain the different stages in the four years it takes to farm a pearl, while we sat around under a mango tree in the garden sipping on coconuts and watching piglets snuffle and root in the dirt and tumbling over one another. There was just time for a swim before we went back to the ship for the night, our memories filled with sunshine and the scent of frangipani flowers.

In the morning the other watch went ashore, the boat loaded up with the Raromart goods for a fast and furious sale. Paul, Katie and I were manning the store for a frantic hour and a half, and then we packed everything up so we’d have time to go black pearl shopping before heading back to the ship. Shopping for pearls was a lot of fun, the farmers pouring a few hundred out onto a velour tray for eager hands to pick through to find the prettiest according to personal preference. My favourite are the bright green ones, or black with a subtle hint of pink and round or semi baroque shape. The pearls come in different grades from A through to ungraded based on perfection, though even some of the ungraded pearls are gorgeous, and have more interesting baroque shapes with rings that catch the light and elegant drop shapes rather than the sphere of a perfect pearl.

The price of a pearl is based on size, lustre, percentage of the surface with imperfections, colour, and shape. And they can be set in jewelry so as to hide any imperfections and thus increase the value of a beautiful but imperfect pearl far beyond its loose value. If anyone’s visiting the Cook Islands and looking for a gift idea for someone special they could do a lot worse than a pearl or two, loose or in an elegant setting…

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Penrhyn aka Tongareva

By Kate “Bob” Addison

25th July 2013

Penrhyn Island is named for the British ship Lady Penrhyn which arrived here in 1788. Its Maori name is Tongareva, which translates as Land Floating in the South.

We came ashore on Monday morning with our small consignment of cargo for Penrhyn wrapped in tarps to keep it dry on the twenty minute skiff ride. The sun was out and the waves across the lagoon just a couple of feet high so it was a most enjoyable commute. We tied up the skiff to a couple of large rocks, bringing her alongside in the old stone harbour where a number of aluminium fishing boats were pulled up high on the beach. The cargo ship Lady Moana, also out of Avatiu, was tied up to the newer looking wharf discharging cargo. She actually left Rarotonga a couple of days after Picton Castle, but caught up to us by missing out Atiu from her schedule.

Most of the off-watch had opted to sail ashore in the monomoy rather than taking the motor-boat option, so it was lunch time before they arrived, soggy from walking ashore from monomoy’s stern-to ‘med-mooring’ and beaming from a great sail, reaching across the lagoon on one long tack, dodging the coral heads marked with poles. The Okoma High School was right opposite the cargo sheds on the wharf and the Principal Tyronne very kindly allowed us to use the school’s brand new computer room to check our emails, and also let us use the showers at the school.

Supercargo Katie ran a shop selling all sorts of household goods, which was a lot of fun, especially because we had set up shop in the only place on the island where you could buy ice cream by the cone. Stripy candy-coloured ice cream in wafer cones became the must-have purchase for sailors and school kids alike, and between us we were soon working through the second 16 litre tub.

Ship’s shop finished, and it was time to have some fun so people dispersed to go swimming and snorkeling or hitching rides on the back of scooters or pick-up trucks to see more of the island.

Lloyd and Paul organized a spear fishing expedition that sounded especially exciting because the lagoon at Penrhyn is famous for its large number of reef sharks, a sign, I have heard, of pristine and healthy coral. The sharks are more or less harmless, but it must have been scary enough to be surrounded by sharks while fish blood was being spilled in the water, and the occasional fish dropped too. But the locals weren’t worried, and that’s always a good sign.

There were more shark sightings the next day from the ship: Nick was cleaning the fish from the spearfishing expedition ready to fry up for a delicious dinner, and as he threw the heads over the side the water started boiling as five or six sharks darted to the surface to fight for the tasty morsel. I was pretty glad to be safely on deck at that point, though snorkelling when the sharks are minding their own business in the deep water doesn’t bother me too much. George the cat was quite impressed with the spear fishing haul and guarded it closely and with great attention.

My highlight of the island was a ripping sail in monomoy back from shore to ship. With a skeleton crew of Captain, Dirk, Katie and myself we could certainly have used a little more weight, but with a reef in the mainsail and all hands far out to windward, she balanced well enough and we got back in just a few long, exhilarating tacks. Then close alongside we rounded up towards the ship, took in the jib, put her head to wind and glided sweetly alongside the ship. Grab the painter; take in the mainsail and ringy ding the bell went for dinner. Perfect timing!

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Welcome to Penrhyn!

By Kate “Bob” Addison

The lagoon at Penrhyn Island is enormous; it looks like you could arrange all of the other Cook Islands inside the fringing coral reef and still have clear water to go snorkeling. From where Picton Castle was anchored at the northwest corner of the lagoon you couldn’t even see the reef far away on the southern side. What you could see was a handful of picture perfect islets that stud the reef close to our anchorage, just smudges of fine white sand each with a couple of palm trees and the bright clear lagoon gently lapping the beach. And then a little further away, the buildings of the town of Omoka just visible on the western side of the lagoon.

We could have spent weeks exploring the endless miles of uninhabited motus at Penrhyn, where giant sea turtles make their nests and coconut crabs scuttle across the sand, but even our four day visit was plenty of time to fall in love with this spectacular island.

It was Sunday lunchtime when we made our approach to Penrhyn, and since the Day of Rest is taken seriously in the Cook Islands, we planned to just go in, drop our anchor and chill out for the afternoon before heading ashore on Monday morning.

It’s the only atoll in the Cooks that we can comfortably take Picton Castle inside as the passage through the coral is wide and deep enough. But any excess water sloshing in the lagoon from wave or rain must flood out again through the pass, so the current is ripping and the margin for error is very small. The ship must be exactly on the right course to make sure she’s not set onto the reef by current or wind, and there are few second chances for a ship that gets out of shape. We had an excellent team of sailors to bring us in: AB Pania at the helm with apprentice Jeff to assist, chief engineer Alex manning the engine controls on the bridge, with second mate Dirk monitoring the instruments in the charthouse. The Captain had the conn from his position high in the port main shrouds, and I was clipped in up on the main top taking photos from aloft.

It was pretty exciting coming through the narrow pass in the coral, watching the water swirl around the ship and feeling her powerful main engine throb near full throttle as she fought against the current. And then suddenly all was calm; the water around us became flat and serene and the ship’s roll dampened to nothing. Captain maneuvered us to our anchorage and then Chief Mate Paul and his gang on the foc’sle head let go the heavy port anchor and two and a half shots of chain. Picton Castle swung gently on her cable and then came to a stop in the middle of a large circle of clear blue water.

The crew exhaled collectively and then turned-to cleaning and airing the whole ship after a damp few days at sea. By tea time the ship was all shiny and sweet-smelling, her decks glistening from a good wash and the accommodation much pleasanter for a good clean and airing. It being a Sunday, the rest of the day was spent relaxing: a swim call with swing rope off the port side, mahi mahi on the barbeque and popcorn, punch and dancing on the cargo hatch.

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