Captain's Log

Archive for September, 2013

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Sunday at Sea in the Barque Picton Castle

By Cheri Davidson

29-04 S, 166-53 E – Steering SWxW

What could be better for a bunch of sailors in a deep water square-rigger on a long sea passage than a beautiful Sunday at sea? As in ships of old, Picton Castle crew work hard all week, but on a lovely, sunny Sunday like today, we dial it back a bit and take some time to chill and relax.

We started our Sunday with some electrically charged squalls last night. Both night watches were telling each other about the amazing lightning shows they got. It was quite a scene with a bright, almost-full moon shining over the stern and big, fluffy cumulus clouds getting lit up from behind off the bow. With mostly cloud to cloud strikes, it was easy to see how the ancients used to think lightning was the gods fighting amongst themselves. If lightning is nearby, we stay out of the rig, even away from the rig and always wear rubber boots as well as our foulies.

Our amazing cook, Donald, gets to relax on Sundays, his day off, which means we must cook! *gasp!* Hannah and Chris on Port Watch did an awesome job this morning and started everyone’s day right with heaps of pancakes. This business of the crew cooking certainly aids in appreciating the great job Donald does. Starboard Watch had the decks after breakfast and they were happy to report the very first dolphin sighting of the South Seas Voyage. Very exciting!

On Sundays at sea we don’t do any ship’s work. Which means no painting, no chipping, no scraping, no tarring, and no varnishing. But when something needs doing, we do it. The ‘on watch’ still must be on deck at all times during their watch, and ready for any sailing handling and instruction from the Captain or Mates. As we are motoring right now with just a few fore and aft sails set, there isn’t as much need for sail handling as there would be with all sails set. But we are always ready, just in case. Being on deck means we can give our laundry a good soak in a bucket of sea water, then a good scrub and fresh water rinse and hang it to dry on the well deck. It’s also a good time to get small personal projects done, sew up that hole in your work pants, or go over some knots.

We have been having workshops in rope work; eye splice, short splice, cable splice, long splice, sailmaker’s eye splice and whippings. The Mate Dirk gave a very good workshop in tool cleaning and sharpening on Saturday. We have a lot of carpentry, caulking and rigging tools and they all need to be cared for.

This afternoon the Captain gave the first of several workshops on sailmaking by teaching how to make a canvas ditty bag. This is a perfect Sunday project! Every sailor needs a sweet ditty bag to hold all of their sailor trinkets. Ditty bags are made of the same canvas as our topsails, with a wooden bottom and a rope becket (handle) and are perfect for holding all kinds of tools you might need such as sewing needles and a palm, a pair of pliers, a fid, maybe some pencils and a little knife. Or anything you want really! In making a ditty bag you practice many skills that are used for endless other projects on board. Today we just started with a rectangular piece of canvas and stitched it up to make a cylinder shape.

Sewing with a sailmaker’s needle and palm (like a thimble for the palm of your hand) isn’t a skill that comes easily to all. Good seaming takes practice. And grommets, roping and patching. The Captain can barrel through a short seam in a matter of minutes, but he is a sailmaker, whereas the rest of us seem to take an hour to finish our first seam. Our ship’s cat, George, especially likes Sundays like this when everyone is sewing on the hatch, as it means there is lots of twine and string to play with. He is already an old salt and quickly snuggled down on someone’s half-made ditty bag for a little nap after he had his fill of supervising our work.

The afternoon wrapped up with, yet another stunning sunset at sea, and everyone pitching in to help the galley crew clean up after dinner. We even had time to play some music on the hatch. Our littlest sailor, Dawson, got into the groove and wiggled his way into the center of a dance-off. Can he boogie, too! He loves hanging with the crew. Pretty nice way to wrap up a Sunday at sea.

Ditty bag workshop
Even George is learning to make a ditty bag
Megan and Pup at ditty bag workshop

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Night Watch At Sea

By Cheri Davidson

25-56 S, 174-03 E

At Sea

19 September 2013

It’s just after 12 midnight on the Picton Castle and the Starboard Watch has gone to sleep. Port Watch now has the decks and are waking up with cups of tea and coffee. Night watch can get pretty chilly. When we are woken up for our watch at 2330h, we are given a brief weather update and tonight’s was ‘It’s pretty cold out. Layer up!’. Most pulled on their thermal layers and everyone is wearing a nice cozy hat. It may not feel too cold on deck at first, but after an hour on helm or lookout, the damp air gets in.

Coming on deck with the bright full moon and all sails set is quite a sight to see. It’s nights like these when I look up from the hatch at the sails and sky and think ‘Remember this moment, it’s amazing!’. We have light winds so it’s fairly quiet. Just the sound of the occasional wave against the hull and the creak of the masts and yards.

Once we have hot cups of tea and coffee in hand we gather on the quarterdeck and find a spot on a deck box to sit. If the winds shift then we are ready to brace the yards and trim the sails. If there is a squall in the distance the Captain or Mate on watch may tell us to take in some of our lighter sails. But for now we just stand by. We chat about what we did earlier in the day, about how good of a sleep we had in our cozy bunks and ask questions about lines or sail handling. Without fail, conversation will always swing around to where we are going. Next stop Norfolk Island! We have about 350 nautical miles ahead of us and none of our crew have ever been there before. What will it be like? How long will we get to explore on shore? We don’t know. So we must be patient. It will be a few more days until we get there. So for now we enjoy the stars, the sails and the waves on night watch. And a cup of noodles…

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At Sea, Sailing From Tonga

21-05 south latitude / 176-15 west longitude

Steering SW under all sail

The Picton Castle and crew are, at this writing, a day at sea after sailing from Neiafu, Vava’u, Kindom of Tonga yesterday. We are making good time with fresh SE trade winds pulling us along at 7 knots at times. Seas are moderate and even. Skies are cloudy with enough blue peeking through to make us feel good.

The passage from Palmerston Atoll in the Cook Islands was bit odd in that we had light westerly headwinds the entire way of about 600 miles. As we need to be on time to get to Sydney, Australia for a gathering of tall ships and could not afford to tack around for weeks and wait for a wind, we ended up motoring a lot. Schedules always induce motoring somehow, no matter how much time you allow. But for those who wonder how the early Polynesian explores got to the east against the allegedly constant easterly trade winds, well, let me explain – it does not always blow steady from the east around here – we get frequent fronts and troughs that bend the winds to their will – with a passing low, far away winds can and do come from any direction and for days on end – and this situation actually makes getting back and forth around the South Pacific under sail a bit easier. But, yes, much of the time the prevailing breeze is easterly. Maybe we will pick this subject again later.

Our visit to Vava’u was lovely. We steamed in through the long fjord-like passage last Friday and moored to the old copra dock about dusk – too late to clear in with customs and immigration. But they saw us there the next morning and graciously looked after the formalities. The overtime charge was about $15. Soon we were all sorted and at anchor at the other end of this deep and very well protected landlocked sound. After a little added orientation (a few dos and don’ts to help get along) the free watch went ashore while the duty watch looked after the ship. We always keep a full watch on the ship, and there is always plenty of work to do in a ship like this. Over the next few days the weather steadily improved and old Tongan friends of the ship started showing up, either in rowboats or in greetings at the market.

The land rises steeply from the deep harbour and rises to about 50 feet more or less, and rounds off to soft red volcanic earth over ancient coral. Of course the land is dense with hardwood trees and coconut palms. It looks very fertile. What looks like flocks of crows over Pangiamotu is large bats, fruit bats. Some people eat them.

Pigs are in abundance in Vava’u. We came upon a sow and 9 tiny piglets, just the cutest little critters you ever saw, not bigger than kittens. Some were spotted, some striped, some sort of a tabby, all fresh and clean and running around their mum. They would get tired and just fall down in the grass and go to sleep. The mother porker is huge. The Coconet Internet Café has a small pig as the watch dog and denizen. This little guy is perfectly clean and she can be seen trotting around town right down the sidewalk very clearly with destinations in mind when not resting on her mat at the café, or nuzzling folks for a belly scratch. The whole town seems to know her.

What’s to do at Vava’u? Well, you have to go to the market. Fresh fruits and vegetables, carvings and excellent Tongan baskets are for sale amidst a pleasant atmosphere of Tongans who shop or sell there day after day. There may well be a dance practice going on under the big mango tree nearby or perhaps a religious singing group. Certainly there will be quite a few hangers on, just hanging around. Getting laundry done is popular with those crew who have not gotten around to doing it aboard (thus saving both money and time ashore). Internetting seems to be important too. Some crew lined up a big island feast ashore – and others enjoyed an island feast aboard up on the quarterdeck. Plenty kai-kai up on the quarterdeck that night. The main decks were being oiled so we enjoyed our feast up there, complete with delightful Tongan dancings and excellent island music with three guitars and a banjo. As the music spilled across the harbour and the dancers beguiled us with their lyrical motion, one crewmember said to another that “this was the only vessel in the harbour experiencing this tonight.” The answer was, maybe the only vessel in the world having such a feast and island dance up on her quarterdeck.

For jobs in port, the Mate Dirk got the topsides painted, the galley painted, the decks oiled and even some deck caulking instruction in. A good amount of small boat handling in the skiff resulted in added experience for those new to a small motorboat. But one must sail onward. So, after refueling from a big truck at the wharf the crew singled up the lines, we sprung off the dock, loosed and set all sail and made our way back out into the South Pacific Ocean in fine fair winds bound for Norfolk Island – then on to Sydney, Australia.

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Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga

By Cheri Davidson

18-39 S, 178-59 W

Sunday September 8, 2013

After a rockin’ and rollin’ motor from Palmerston Atoll, we have arrived in Tonga!

The beautiful islands of the Kingdom of Tonga came into view for the crew of Picton Castle on Friday morning. After a rolly few days of motoring at sea, they were a welcome sight. Green and lush with foliage, coming straight up out of the sea.

The passage in to Vava’u and our port in the town of Neiafu took us past many islands and peninsulas and coves. As we got closer there were a few cargo ships, some small ferry boats taking people from town back to the small outer islands they call home, and many, many yachts. Even though there are so many boats around, people always watch us closely as we go past. We are the only tall ship in the harbour and have to get used to the attention. Lots of folks on the ferries and yachts stand up and wave at us going by, and we happily wave back.

We came alongside at the quarantine dock just after 1730h and tied up for the night. It was a little too late in the afternoon for us to clear in, so we’d have to be patient and wait until morning. We had a yummy dinner and played some music as we cleaned in the scullery and galley. With all hands on board for the night, it gave us plenty of people to share night watch. Everyone got one hour on deck and plenty of sleep!

Saturday morning came with a little drizzle and grey skies, but the sight of the Customs and Immigration officials perked us right up. We cleared in and that meant we could go out to anchor and get ready to go ashore! Port watch was stood down just after lunch and took the skiff into town.

Neiafu has all the things a sailor on shore could want: cold drinks, ice cream and cakes, internet cafes and laundry service! After getting the essentials sorted out, we are free to explore, swim, make new friends or just sit and take in our new surroundings. We all love the ship, but it’s also nice to put on clean clothes and get some time away as well.

Starboard watch is off today. We have been told that nothing nothing nothing happens in Tonga on a Sunday. So I’m sure our crew are enjoying a relaxing and simple day ashore. I’m sure to hear a story or two when they return to the ship later tonight. On board we are getting ship’s work done as usual. There are always things to do. We emptied the entire galley and sanded everything down, preparing to give it a nice fresh coat of paint. Ninja and Fiona painted topsides. We repaired and replaced some planks in the deck midships. These are the kinds of things we just can’t do when we are at sea. We’ll finish up these projects on board over the next few days and be ready to sail again!

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Palmerston Atoll

By Cheri Davidson

Monday September 2, 2013

Crew and ship are back to sea again after a brief but welcomed stop at Palmerston Island.

Picton Castle has brought cargo to the people of Palmerston twice this past summer, and we have many good friends there. This time we carried just a couple small freezers, a few small tanks of propane and some boxes of dry goods and food such as cabbages, corned beef and tapioca, as well as some bags of concrete.

We arrived at Palmerston on Saturday morning after a nice 300 mile passage under sail from Rarotonga. Shortly after making our appearance near the passage into the lagoon, we were greeted by several small aluminium boats carrying many familiar smiling faces welcoming us back to Palmerston. We sent our ship’s doctor, Mark, ashore and started immediately unlashing cargo from the hold and bringing it on deck to transfer into the small boats. It all went remarkably fast, and crew took hydration breaks as the ship needed to turn around every so often to keep a safe distance from the reef.

The Captain announced that any crew who had not been to Palmerston before could go ashore for the day and possibly even overnight, as the seas had layed down quite a bit. We would have liked to stay for a couple days and catch up with all the friendly folks, but the wind was not in our favour, coming unusually from the west making an anchorage impossible. The ship would have to heave to for the night, and needed some crew onboard to sail handle. Ten of us quickly packed up a small overnight bag with clean clothes and bathing suits. The exhaustion from standing watches and unloading cargo suddenly lifted as we took the slow ride in through the passage and across the turquoise lagoon to set foot on the creamy coral sandy beaches under the palm trees of Palmerston Atoll. Each of us were grabbed up by a wonderfully caring and generous homestay family. We swam, we played volleyball, we walked around the island, we carried little children around on our backs, and ate lots and lots of delicious homemade food.

Sunday morning a few of us joined our homestay families at church. It’s nice to see everyone dressed in their Sunday best, complete with Palmsterson-made hats, hand woven out of the spine of coconut palm and decorated with beautiful frangipani and tiare. Shortly after lunch we packed up again for the small boat ride back to our ship. The swell was big and our goodbyes short, as we set off for our next destination, the Kingdom of Tonga.

Ninja Daniel Hannah and kids
Pania and Captain coming into Palmerston
Rasmus aloft

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