Captain's Log

Archive for February, 2015

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Day’s Run – February 27, 2015

Part three of the rigging workshop this afternoon and celestial navigation classes and practice continue. The weather is consistently hot now – it’s getting to the point of needing shoes to take noon sights or dancing about to stop your feet burning on the hot decks.
SHIPS WORK: Work continues on the new royal yard: the ends are now being rounded out ready for the irons to be fitted, and it’s being planed down to its proper shape making a big pile of curly wood shavings on the deck – have to be careful when we sweep them up that a cat doesn’t get thrown out with the shavings! The inside of the monomoy got a coat of primer today and sailmaking continues in force.
BOUND FROM: James Bay, St Helena, South Atlantic Ocean
TOWARDS: Grenada, Windward Islands, Caribbean Sea
NOON POSITION: 08°25.3’S /013°32.4’W
DAYS RUN: 103 nm
COURSE AND SPEED: North North West, Course made good 318° true, 4.5 knots
WIND: Wind Force 4, South East by East
WEATHER: Fair, 2/8 cloud, barometer 1016 millibars and steady,
visibility very good
SWELL HEIGHT & DIRECTION: South South East 1-2m
SAILS SET: All square sails set. The main is set now, but goosewinged up on starboard side. We also have some fore and aft sail set: the spanker is sheeted way out to port, and main, fore and mizzen topmast staysails and gaff topsail are all set now the wind is coming over the starboard quarter instead of dead astern.
The gang practicing serving at yesterday's workshop
The crew practice serving at yesterday’s rigging workshop

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Day’s Run – February 26, 2015

Part two of the rigging workshop this afternoon with advanced serving techniques. Celestial navigation continues – Emil, Nikolaj,and Alex joined Bruce, Sam and Bob shooting local apparent noon today, and some of us are taking sun lines and sights from stars and planets too. The sun is almost directly overhead now as we run down the latitudes towards the equator.
SHIPS WORK: Sent down the main upper topsail and sent up an old one in its place. These patched old sails are not the prettiest, but I think it looks cool: patchwork evidence that the sails have been lovingly cared for by so many different people over the Picton Castle’s many years and miles of ocean wandering. Work continues on the new royal yard. We also started work painting the small boats today – got to have your boats ready to sail and looking good by the Caribbean!
BOUND FROM: James Bay, St Helena, South Atlantic Ocean
TOWARDS: Grenada, Windward Islands, Caribbean Sea
NOON POSITION: 09°37.9’S /012°20.1’W
DAYS RUN: 91 nm
COURSE AND SPEED: North North West, Course made good 313° true, 4.2 knots
WIND: Wind Force 3, South East by South
WEATHER: Fair, 6/8 cloud, barometer 1016 millibars and steady,
visibility very good
SWELL HEIGHT & DIRECTION: South South East 1-2m
SAILS SET: All square sails set except mainsail. We’re still running dead downwind
Aaron_ Scott and Nikolaj hoist the upper topsail aloft on a gantline
Aaron, Scott and Nikolaj hoist the upper topsail aloft on a gantline

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St Helena, Part Two

Ann’s Place

The Picton Castle crew always find a meeting place in every port we sail into. Ann’s Place is a sweet café set deep into a lovely park near the waterfront under tall shade trees with cats sleeping lazily in the sun and birds chattering away high above. It was closed on Sunday but Jane saw the Picton Castle come to anchor and she knew two things: 1) we would want her to be open and; 2) we would have no St Helena pounds. So she opened up and extended credit to the free watch ashore. This was extremely nice of her. Over the week we were at St Helena many a fine meal (great fish) and cool drink were partaken at Ann’s Place. Hats off to Jane and Richard for their excellent hospitality and fond greetings to Ann who has retired from trade.

The Consulate – Sailmaking

An outstanding spot in Jamestown is The Consulate. This is a wonderful old grand hotel that was once the US Consulate in 19th century whale ship days when many whale ships from UK and the US put in there. This lovely old hotel is owned and operated by Peter and Hazel whom we first met in South Africa some years ago. Beautifully appointed and with ancient teak floors, bits and pieces of old sailing ships elegantly fused into the architecture and décor, lovely rooms, sitting and meeting spaces and best of all, a ballroom with a beautiful wooden floor, made from the decking of a full-rigged ship lost to fire not far from where we were anchored. This Peter offered to us as a sailloft as there were no fancy dress balls on the schedule that week. So here the sailmakers laid out and sewed up some sails for our small boats which we intend to rig up and sail in the Caribbean soon.

The Pancake Race

Now being a small island far from any others one might think that St Helena lacks for major sporting events. Not so. It turns out that a big sports spectacular was to take place, and it was of such a dimension that the police needed to shut down the streets for public safety. Calgary has its annual Stampede, Monte Carlo has its annual rally; Jamestown has its annual Pancake Race.

With streets cordoned off, music blaring, vendors selling hot dogs and cool drinks the announcer warned all of the first heat of this race series. The test was for the determined contestants to run the length of the Main Street, with a frying pan in hand. In the frying pan was a recently cooked pancake. At the bottom of the hill the racers, mostly out of breath had to flip the pancake ten times then run back up the hill to the finish line amidst much cheering and fanfare. The 3 to 5 year olds class came first. Some pancakes made it to the bottom of the hill, few made it to the top and it was a bit like herding cats with this lot anyway. Next came 6 to 9 year olds, then 10 to 13. After that it was 14 to 16, but perhaps they were too busy thumbing their phones or whatever that age group does. It seems that they rarely race for pancakes as none showed up for the starting line.

The last heat was all hands repeating the whole race all over again in a mêlée of whoops and shrieks and detours over parked cars, delayed only by the need to cook up some new pancakes. The cheerful but winded contestants, both victors and last across seemingly equally pleased with events dispersed peacefully without any hooligan activity which sadly so often mars great sporting spectacles such as this.

The Airport

The big project on St Helena is Her Majesty’s government building an airport. Never had one before, but in a few hundred million pounds the island will have one that connects St Helena with the world. For so long the only way on and off the island has been the R.M.S. (Royal Mail Ship) St Helena, a handsome cargo passenger vessel. In fact she came in while we were there, even brought us some mail from Cape Town. The idea seems to be that once the airport is fully operational to retire the RMS St Helena and just use planes to service the island. Seems to me they will still need a ship from time to time. Those big cranes on the jetty and those many Land Rovers are not going to come on planes. Big discussion and worries abound that the air connection will hurt the character of the island. No doubt will change it some but probably more for the good on the people in long run. But I am glad we got to sail here in the days before air travel, just like Cook and Dampier and how many others over the centuries during the age of sail.

Sailing Off The Hook

It is simple enough for a sailing ship (or yacht) to sail away from St. Helena. It is just a broad roadstead anchorage in the lee of the island off the town. Just up anchor and drift off into the ocean, nothing to it. No rocks, not points of land, no reefs, no obstacles of any kind, no way to hit land without working hard to do it, as long as the wind remains offshore as is the norm here. Seems so odd to see yachts fire up engines and motor a mile or more out away from the small seas of the lee and into the large ocean swell to bang and slat about in order to round up under power and set sail, when literally all you have to do is heave up and get blown offshore setting sail at your leisure, and with no fear of hitting anything until you get near Ascension Island 700 miles to the northwest. This the crew did, heaved up four shots of chain and the anchor from 35 metres. Loosed and set sail and we were off bound for the West Indies in fine fresh trade winds.

Crew, including John, visit Napoleon’s tomb

Our favourite hangout ashore, Ann’s Place

Jamestown, St Helena

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Day’s Run – February 25, 2015

Rigging workshop this afternoon on worming, parcelling and serving over an eye splice to protect wire or rope underneath from chafe, weather and sea water. Celestial navigation continues.
SHIPS WORK: Fresh stone paint on the forepeak scuttle today makes the workshop up forward look much tidier. Sailmaking continues in between pesky rain showers, which send the sailmakers running for tarpaulins – can’t let the new sails get wet! Carpentry repairs to the door of the forward head and fixing up the tabernacle for the monomoy mast. Watch Officer Alex did some work on the monthly safety equipment inspections – in the photo she’s re-marking one of the flares canisters. Riggers are wire splicing new sheet pennants and serving them up.
BOUND FROM: James Bay, St Helena, South Atlantic Ocean
TOWARDS: Grenada, Windward Islands, Caribbean Sea
NOON POSITION: 10°41.1’S /011°15.4’W
DAYS RUN: 112 nm
COURSE AND SPEED: North North West, Course made good 315° true, 4.2 knots
WIND: Wind Force 4, South East
WEATHER: Fair, 7/8 cloud, barometer 1018 millibars and steady,
visibility very good
SWELL HEIGHT & DIRECTION: South East by South 2m
SAILS SET: All sails set except mainsail and spanker as we’re running dead downwind
Watch officer Alex checks safety gear as part of the monthly inspection

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St Helena, Part One

St Helena Island: 15-56 South and 005-43 West, 1700 miles from Cape Town, Africa and 1800 miles from Brazil. And 3,600 miles from Grenada in the West Indies. Right in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean with nothing nearby.

We had an excellent passage from Namibia and made landfall and came to anchor off Jamestown, St Helena in fine sailing weather. Saint Helena is one of the very few islands in the South Atlantic Ocean. As it happens it is right on the sailing ship road from Cape Town northwest to the delightful West Indies, is inhabited and is quite lovely and welcoming. So, lucky us, we get to anchor off in a fair anchorage, perfect for sailing ships with no engines (this fact features prominently in the island’s human history) and our crew get to visit this remarkable and inaccessible island in the Picton Castle.

A British island, St Helena is about five miles wide by ten miles long, steep rocky terrain rising dramatically from the sea with sheer barren cliffs broken by steep V-shaped valleys or ‘guts’ as they are called on the island. Not much flat land but still enough for farming which drew ships here in the age of sail for fresh provisioning and of course, fresh water.

This uninhabited island was discovered by Portuguese mariner Joao De Nova in 1502 while on his way back from a voyage to India. The Dutch figured it was theirs for a bit, brought goats and sheep which did a number on the island ecologically (can you imagine such a pristine Galapagos-like environment with no outside introduced species ever? Well, until…) then after a tussle the British have called it theirs and run the island ever since.

St Helena was a very important British military and naval outpost for the longest time and battlements all over the cliffs attest to this. The island was also an important port of call up through the 19th century for ships heading back and forth from the Far East to Europe before the Suez and Panama Canals provided the oceanic version of a highway by-pass. It remains a popular way-point for sailing yachts to this day, and the occasional world voyaging barque. St Helena is certainly important to the 5,000 folks who live here, and another 15,000 “Saints” who live elsewhere.

After watching it appear on the horizon and grow larger all day since dawn we sailed under the lee of the island and dropped the anchor off Jamestown about mid-day, the settlement nestled into this canyon cutting through the cliffs. A picturesque collection of whitewashed stone buildings dating back to the mid 1700s, often with floors of teak, Jamestown is nonetheless a modern small old-style English town with shops and eateries, small pubs, parks, police station, a nice museum and even a public swimming pool. Harbour Master Steve got us sorted out quickly and could not have been more helpful to us.


Most famously St Helena is known for being the final domicile and island of exile for the deposed Emperor Napoleon after losing his last battle at Waterloo Belgium. This battle being only 100 days back in command of his army after his escape from an earlier isle of exile. Seems he rallied the old guard and gave European unity (under him) another shot. Did not work out and European unity would have to wait for some time. But pretty impressive to put together an army in less than 100 days.

I have often wondered, if the English hated him so much, and the English used to call him many bad names, why they did not just dispatch him instead of setting him up on St Helena with many courtesies. At any rate, his former residence of Longwood is beautifully restored and maintained and flies the French Flag to this day. And a very worthy visit for all our crew who pile into a cool old 1922 convertible bus and see this and the beautiful countryside of the island as well. Napoleon lived here from 1815 to 1821 when he died, apparently of stomach cancer, although alternative theories as to his demise are a popular source of speculation. His body was repatriated to France in 1840 but his former tomb remains a venerated spot. It’s not everybody that gets two well attended burial sites.

The French take on Napoleon is a quite different one than the one found in English sea novels that feature Hornblower, Jack Aubrey or Nicholas Ramage. Interesting man, studied to this day by War Colleges around the world and introduced a legal code in France that simplified and rationalized matters immensely in France. It could easily be said that Napoleon had a great deal to do with creating modern France. He probably would have done well to pass on the march to Moscow though. A story beyond the scope of this Log entry.

Picton Castle crew take the convertible bus tour to Longwood

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Day’s Run – February 24, 2015

Sailing along in fine tradewinds. Blue seas following us along. Had some odd clouds lately. Getting into the swing of a long sea passage. Celestial navigation classes coming along.
SHIPS WORK: A sailmaking bonanza today – six people working on five different sails at the same time this afternoon! Tarring aloft in the rig, and oiling blocks on deck. Some small woodwork and paint jobs in the Monomoy are keeping the carpenter busy, while the bosun and riggers are wire splicing and serving new sheet pennants for the headsails.
BOUND FROM: James Bay, St Helena, South Atlantic Ocean
TOWARDS: Grenada, Windward Islands, Caribbean Sea
TIME ZONE: GMT on de button
NOON POSITION: 11°57.8’S /009°52.3’W
DAYS RUN: 126 nm
COURSE AND SPEED: North North West, Course made good 307° true, 5.0 knots
WIND: Wind Force 4, South East by East
WEATHER: Fair, 7/8 cloud, barometer 1019 millibars and falling slowly, visibility very good
SAILS SET: All square sails except mainsail and inner jib, we’re braced square away running downwind
Vai works on the port main shrouds

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Day’s Run – February 14, 2015

Happy St. Valentine’s Day! We’re expecting to make St Helena tomorrow morning, so we had an impromptu Valentine’s marlinspike party this evening since we’ll be in port tomorrow night. We retarded the clocks last night to Greenwich Mean Time. A clear night and almost no swell made for a great evening for star sights tonight – Sirius, Canopus and Betelgeuse are at good angles at the moment to make an excellent fix.
SHIPS WORK: Primer on the hardware for the royal yard, splices on the outer jib sheet pennants, more quaterdeck holystoning, minor repairs to the wooden Pelorus stand, which attaches to the taff rail on the quarterdeck for taking bearings, and more sailmaking on the hatch.
BOUND FROM: Luderitz, Namibia, Southern Africa
TOWARDS: James Bay, St Helena, South Atlantic Ocean
NOON POSITION: 17°20.5’S /002°52.5’E
DAYS RUN: 191 nm
COURSE AND SPEED: North West a half North, Course made good 302° true, 8.4 knots
WIND: Wind Force 3, South by West
WEATHER: Fair, 3/8 cloud, barometer 1020 millibars and falling slowly, visibility very good
SAILS SET: All square sails except foresail; inner jib and maintopmast staysail set.

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Day’s Run – February 13, 2015

At 12:43 and latitude 18°47’S Picton Castle crossed the Prime Meridian and passed into the Western Hemisphere. It’s been over a year since we last recorded our longitude in degrees West of Greenwich, then we were in the South Seas, somewhere to the east of Fiji.
SHIPS WORK: Sailmaking, carpentry and holystoning continue. Work on the cap stay is making progress: wire splices went in today
BOUND FROM: Luderitz, Namibia, Southern Africa
TOWARDS: James Bay, St Helena, South Atlantic Ocean
NOON POSITION: 18°50.0’S /000°05.6’E
DAYS RUN: 179 nm
COURSE AND SPEED: North West a half North, Course made good 309° true, 8.2 knots
WIND: Wind Force 3, South East by South
WEATHER: Fair, overcast, barometer 1021 millibars and steady, visibility very good
SAILS SET: All square sails set except mainsail and royals, braced square as we run down wind
Crossing the Prime Meridian
GPS in the charthouse shows crossing the Prime Meridian

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Caribbean Bound

We understand aboard the Picton Castle here in Namibia, southern Africa, that there have been some serious proper winter going on in North America. Seems that there has been a big old winter storm in New England and Ontario that went on to Nova Scotia – even made the news here on the radio in Luderitz, Namibia. The radio news report goes on to say (as we gaze out at dry burning African desert) that this snow storm is huge and headed for the UK.

While we have many miles yet to sail, now having rounded the Cape Of Storms and sailed from Cape Town after a three week stay, we are excited to be heading soon for the fantastic islands of the Caribbean, and what promises to be an excellent tradewind trans-Atlantic passage on the way. Only 8,000 bluewater miles to go until we get to Grenada. And then heaps of sweet islands only daysails apart. But first we will be putting into very isolated St Helena way out in the middle of the South Atlantic, most famous for being Napoleon Bonaparte’s island of exile after Waterloo. Then on to the Grenadines, and Windward and Leeward islands of the Lesser Antilles of the West Indies, and Aruba, Bermuda and then into Lunenburg after over two and half years at sea and all over the South Pacific. All is well aboard. We have a good gang. The ship is in great shape and plenty good rigging, carpentry and sailmaking projects going on.

The Picton Castle has been alongside at Luderitz, Namibia after a nice but short four day passage from Cape Town with fair winds. The pilots here are from Cuba or Russia. A very lovely, friendly and interesting spot. A well protected harbour, a rare thing along the coast of Africa. And a good thing with the screaming winds around here. Just not many coves or bays in this part of the world. This is a small, low to the ground earth-tone town surrounded by the most desolate desert. Sailing these waters give enriched respect for those early Portuguese explorers who made their way here. Easy enough to say; “they sailed down along the coast of Africa, never getting out of sight of land”. Sounds easy, and safe. Well, there is no sailing ‘down’ the coast hereabouts. Strong north setting currents and screeching southerly winds the norm making navigation and piloting extremely difficult; and as for ‘not getting out of sight of land’, well not so easy that either with a very low coast shrouded in fog much of the time, or shrouded in sand storms most of the time. You can barely see the low coast around here and it would have been hard to get in ‘sight of land’ without wrecking your ship, if not for GPS and radar. It is quite difficult to remain in sight of land without risking the ship seriously. And then, there are bloody few harbours for hundreds of miles. In short, it would be a damn tough challenge to explore this coast come from the north in little caravels, or anything else either. So the Portuguese explorer Dias and company were probably pretty tough and savvy guys. There was nothing easy about ‘sailing down the coast’ around here.

Luderitz is a small town set on this long bay behind rocks and barrier islands at the edge of the sea. Cold water, warm desert winds making for plenty of fog at times. The land configuration makes this an extremely windy place at times too, wind can scream in from the SE at 65 knots at times. Sand is everywhere, as outside the town may as well be the surface of the moon. In spite of losing Germany as a colonial power here after WWI, Luderitz remains redolent of its colonial German heritage in a number of ways. The architecture is turn of the last century German with must stucco buildings built between 1906 and 1916 all so dated in gothic numerals prominently. Many still speak German here as well and dining ashore will remind anyone of Germany in short order with robust German dishes. There is an oyster company here that has a small hideaway oyster bar and restaurant overlooking their docks that is a hit. 50 cent oysters, $1.40 pints of good (German type) beer, not so bad. Lobsters, oysters and fin fishing, along with diamond mining are the jobs around here. Diamonds are a big deal here, and almost a forbidden topic. I will see if I can get some for my treasure chest. The story goes that ALL the diamonds already belong to DeBeers, even if they are lying on the beach or in the gravel by the side of the road. Hiking off the roads is FORBUDT for the same reason, no one is allowed to pick up diamonds. Seems a bit odd that they already own them prior to mining. I get it that it would be forbidden to sneak into or around their mines but off the beach? Big fines and jail time if they find a rough diamond in your pocket. Big diamond mining vessel just pulled and tied up astern of us. The stories they tell of diamond security aboard are insane. We are told that they vacuum the dust aboard to recover small diamonds and so on.

Hot African sun here but cool, even cold, ocean sea breezes calling for jackets, and surrounded by desert. Not just arid and dry but full on big sand dune desert. Nothing green in sight. Yet there is evidence of the Kalahari Bush people having been here on their wanderings. Stone paintings deep in the Kalahari of what can only be lateen caravels and also whales. Although how they could see a whole whale to paint it
accurately is another mystery. You sort of have to swim with them to pull that off. An old diamond camp ghost-town is not far away. Curious spot. A German mining camp ghost town remains as a museum from the early 20th century when they just raked diamonds off the surface and carried them off in buckets.

The long central jetty in the harbour berths a couple dozen beautifully built wooden fishing trawlers that would look at home in the North Sea. Treks into the desert by the gang left us with a new appreciation of the notion of survival where it is so baren and desolate.





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Day’s Run – February 12, 2015

Another 24 hours averaging over 6 knots and we’re making good time, running down the miles to St Helena.
SHIPS WORK: Holystoning the quarterdeck continues, as does sailmaking down on the cargo hatch and work on the new cap stay. Carpenter Joe is working on dutchmen on the quaterdeck by the chart house. Chief Engineer Billy has Diana helping out this week as engineering dayman, and Bruce as dayman navigator is taking star sights morning and night, and sun lines throughout the day too.
BOUND FROM: Luderitz, Namibia, Southern Africa
TOWARDS: James Bay, St Helena, South Atlantic Ocean
NOON POSITION: 20°19.4’S /002°49.4’E
DAYS RUN: 145 nm
COURSE AND SPEED: North West, Course made good 286° true, 5.1 knots
WIND: Wind Force 5, South by East
WEATHER: Fair, 7/8 cloud, barometer 1022 millibars and falling slowly, visibility good
SWELL HEIGHT & DIRECTION: South South East 2-3m
SAILS SET: All square sails set except mainsail and royals, braced square as we run downwind.
Sam_ Norma_ Alex and Sian holystoning the quarterdeck
Sam, Norma, Alex and Sian holystone the quarterdeck

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