Captain's Log

Archive for May, 2019

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Passage to Bermuda, North Bound

This has not been the finest sailing passage from the British Virgin Islands northbound for Bermuda and Nova Scotia. Winds started out light as Picton Castle and crew sailed north out of Jost Van Dyke and past Anegada into the North Atlantic for the first time in a year. Still warm, it remained so all the way towards Bermuda. But light winds called for motoring. Or motor sailing. But North we must. And not all that far really. We sailed on a Thursday noon and we found ourselves off St David’s Head, Bermuda, picking up our pilot at noon five days later.

The weather has not been bad at all. Seas have been modest, not cold yet, winds light but fair, flying fish in abundance, dolphins in attendance from time to time. Pretty sunsets. Apart from the motoring, altogether quite pleasant. The gang finishing up personal projects, ditty bags, sea bags and such. Work on deck carries on. Mates making rig surveys. Engineer making shopping lists. Sue seizing ratlines. Carlos, Katie, and company cleaning all the nice crooks felled at Jost Van Dyke. Stephanie painting the chart house and here and there, and tarring, caulking, sailmaking on the quarterdeck. Chief Mate Erin (of Bermuda, by the way) led a series of classes in chart work and basic piloting. The dedicated navigators had their sextants out every day. In between cleaning Sargasso weed off the fishing lines trailing astern, we have even landed a few fish. A big barracuda the other day making a dinner for all those who eat fish.

Once out of these tropics, watching the North Atlantic weather forecasts becomes of great interest. From about the Tropic of Cancer some 500 nautical miles south of Bermuda and to the north, any kind of weather can be expected. Well, snow would be unusual. The steady trade winds become a memory. Right now we are looking at an extremely early season tropical low about 300 nautical miles SW of Bermuda. Even got assigned a name: Andrea. Does not look like it will amount to much but you never know with long term forecasts even as they have improved so much in recent years. More than 48 hours out it is still an attempt at foretelling the future, a dodgy business. Four or more days out, it’s reading tea leaves. Better than that but… There is another low pressure expected to boil off southeastern New England and head our way in a couple days. This will influence when we sail onward.

If ever there was a divinely inspired place in this ocean to put a pretty island with deep protected harbours it would be exactly at the very spot where Bermuda emerges from the sea. Settled about the same time as the Jamestown settlement was founded in Virginia, and with far more success, Bermuda has been a siren call to sailing ships and their crew for centuries. Privateer base, coves for smugglers, Navy base and the put-in island for north and southbound yachts and sailing ships, Bermuda knows how to host a crew. And especially the charming historical town of St George’s, just a little over a mile in from the sea through Town Cut. A lovely place for crew of a northbound vessel to have a run ashore in familiar yet changing surroundings. Bermuda will let you think you are still in the tropics with the lovely pastels, swaying palm trees, warm waters, pink sandy beaches, and coral reefs. But then again, a cold northerly can disabuse us pretty quickly on that score too and out come the sweaters, jackets and rain gear. And Bermuda is also a great place for a sailing ship like Picton Castle to stage for the final 700+ nautical mile passage to Nova Scotia and the end of our voyage around the world.

At about 0930 we made contact with Bermuda Harbour Radio at 20 nautical miles distance, confirmed pilots boarding time and heard the latest weather forecast. Looking to blow some here at Bermuda soon due to Andrea. Calling for gale force gusts.

At noon right off St Davids’ head, Captain Mario Thompson boarded the ship from the pilot boat with two able trainee pilots and we headed for the channel.

With pilot aboard, our Bermuda Chief Mate steers the ship through narrow Town Cut. Water so clear it looks dangerous, sharp coral outcroppings on either side, but 30,000-ton cruise ships navigate this channel routinely, if with nervous trepidation. With white knuckles if a strong cross wind. Then the almost landlocked turquoise harbour of St George’s opens up in front of us. We had to manouver around a large yacht anchored in the fairway. With jib and spanker, we slid the Picton Castle sideways to berth starboard side to the key at Ordnance Island and get tied up for the duration. Or until we move to Penno’s Wharf after a cruise ship sails. Or go to anchor when the winds die down. Anyway, welcome to Bermuda.

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Day’s Run 21 May 2019

Pilot aboard. Headed into Ordnance Island at St George’s, Bermuda to go alongside to clear in and dodge the winds.

Date: May 21, 2019

From: Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands, West Indies

Towards: St George’s, Bermuda

Noon position: off St David’s Head, Bermuda at 29°-30′ North Latitude / 063°-34′ West Longitude

Course and speed: SWly, motoring along making good speed and taking on Pilot

Wind force and direction:  ESEly force 3 winds

Seas/swell: moderate seas mostly SE, 1 metre or less

Barometer: 1020 and steady

Sky: light overcast and light rain, warm

Water temperature: 23C – 74F, getting cooler

Distance made good in 24 hours: 180 nautical miles

Passage log: 872 nautical miles

Distance to the next port:  we are there, at the pilot station off St George’s Town Cut, Bermuda

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Day’s Run 20 May 2019

Motoring along in light winds, could sail (slowly) but want to get into Bermuda and secured before this low pressure to our west catches up with us. A very early season tropical circular system. Should fall apart soon, but should not exist at all…

Date: May 20,  2019

From: Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands, West Indies

Towards: St George’s, Bermuda

Noon position: 29°-30′ North Latitude / 063°-34′ West Longitude

Course and speed: SWly at 7.8 knots, motoring along making good speed

Wind force and direction: fresh ESEly winds

Seas/swell: moderate seas from NW, NE but mostly SE of 1 metre or less

Barometer: 1020 and steady

Sky: mostly cloudy, some sky

Water temperature: 25.3C – 79F

Distance made good in 24 hours: 155 nautical miles

Distance to the next port: 176 nautical miles to the pilot station off St George’s

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Day’s Run 19 May 2019

Motoring along here in light winds, could sail (slowly) but want to get into Bermuda and secured before a new low-pressure system passes over and makes winds all contrary.

Date: May 19, 2019

From: Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands, West Indies

Towards: St George’s, Bermuda

Noon position: 27°-02′ North Latitude / 062°-13′ West Longitude

Course and speed: SWly at 7 knots, motoring along

Wind force and direction: light SEly winds

Seas/swell: steady organized ENEly seas 1 metre 

Barometer: 1020 and steady

Sky: mostly cloudy, some rain squalls about

Water temperature: 25.3C – 79F

Distance made good in 24 hours: 163 nautical miles

Distance to next port: 340 nautical miles to the pilot station off St George’s

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Interlude at Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands

The Picton Castle sailed in and anchored under sail at Jost Van Dyke, in the British Virgin Islands, after a short two-day passage. We had been in the Saints just south of Guadeloupe. And a small rendezvous with Carriacou Sloop Genesis off Nevis. Jost (as we call it, pronounced Yost, although lately we are hearing it said Just) is a small island only three miles long, just north of the bigger island of Tortola. Maybe 350 people live here. It is a port of entry. The island industry is making sure visiting yachties sailors have a good time under the palm trees with sand in their toes. Swimming, snorkeling, sailing, diving, calypso, reggae and country western music, plenty cold rum drinks for the grown-ups. A few small goats for the ‘boy’ to chase. This works out for the Picton Castle crew at the tail end of our voyage around the world. But first, we must clear in.

While all hands are furling sail (followed by a swim call) Tammy, Dirk and I head into shore to clear in. Lots of bare-boat cruising yachts in line to clear in also. Happy sunburned faces. Tilley hats and sunscreen. The BVI Customs & Immigration staff all very gracious, courteous and professional, and soon all papers were done. As we left the air-conditioned office and stepped on to the shade of the second-floor verandah with a fresh trade wind blowing, some folks on sailing holidays waiting their turn at clearing-in asked us about the big ship in the harbour (us) and where were we headed next. Told them, Bermuda. They were astonished that we might be sailing so far. Smiles came to our faces. We think we are almost home with only 830 nautical miles to get to Bermuda and another 700 to Lunenburg. These folks thought this was “far”. It’s all in the perspective. We radioed the ship to let them know to take the Q-flag down and off watches could come ashore (the Q-flag stands for quarantine, so it is raised before we enter a port to signal we have not yet cleared Customs and Immigration and is lowered once we have).

One of the best things to do around Jost Van Dyke is to sail small boats. Clear water, nice winds, small seas, blue skies, nice reefs and sandy beaches to sail to, all close by. We have two fine vintage wooden boats just for this purpose. Soon both the longboat and dory Sea Never Dry got launched and anchored off Foxy’s Tamarind Bar at the head of the bay. Over the next three days all who wanted to got to sail all around.

Foxy’s? Simply the most famous and original barefoot beach bar in the Caribbean. Established in 1968 by Philliciano (Foxy) Callwood. To meet Foxy is to meet the Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Paul McCartney of Caribbean Calypso and then some. Making up riotous songs seemingly on the spot, full of social and political satire and fun. Foxy is also a great leader in historical and cultural preservation in the Caribbean. So much so that Foxy was made an MBE by Queen Elizabeth a few years ago. The Fox is an international hero. Nice article in Soundings magazine on Foxy by Jeffrey Bolster not long ago. Married to Tessa since 1971, it was great to see them again. But I get ahead of myself. Much else to think about.

What else to do at Jost Van Dyke? Well, great snorkeling here and there, any number of classic and very relaxed reggae beach bars/snack shops and restaurants serving great Caribbean foods. In addition to Foxy’s with its beachside hammocks in the shade, there are Cool Breezes, Corsairs, Rudy’s and a couple of others. And usually some good place to dance at night. And it is so Caribbean blue beautiful around here. All day long, all night long. And the lovely trade winds blowing almost all the time. Part of the charm is the creamy sandy road through the village of Great Harbour. Feels good on the toes.

We sent the fore top gallant yard down for some close inspections and overhaul. Mate Erin brought it down, the gang overhauled it and up it went the next day ready for plenty more service. And then a swim call. Not bad a swim call after a day on watch at anchor.

As most might know, Hurricane Irma swept through the BVI in 2017. Did some pretty serious damage to most of these islands. Thinned out the bare-boat fleet some. A few called that part a “cleansing”. And also the islands to the east like Anguilla, St Martin, St Bart, Barbuda and Dominica and so on. And then to the west. Puerto Rico, Dominican Rebuplic, Haiti all got hammered hard. Here at JVD seemed like it sort of sand blasted the place. Most big trees down. Some buildings all gone, some showing remnant foundations, Some only needing new roofs. The hills are speckled with white/graying stalks of dead trees. Seems that this kill-off of flora was from wind velocity and a high salt water content going higher that it had for ages. It is dry season now anyway so the hills looked pretty parched. In a month or two some rains should green things up a bit.

But one small positive of all these dead trees is that we were told by Foxy to cut any of this wood we wanted for boat building. As we are always on the lookout for crooks to make knees and breasthooks out of, Dirk took a gang of young stalwarts (Kimba, James, Dustin, Johnny, David, and Gabe) into the bush near the shore, scared off some lizards and cut away for a couple of hours. Foxy and Tess had a big old mahogany tree come down and that got cut up too. Hot work, maybe they had a cold beer at Foxy’s after. Not Johnny, he had a Ting. Ting is a refreshing grapefruit soda.

BVI is our last time shop for groceries too. Donald took brother Jon and Katie and got on the ferry to West End, Tortola and headed for the market. Don’t need much, but fresh stuff on a sea passage is always welcome. Dawson, Tammy and I got some shore time in. Dawson was literally in small boy heaven, if a small boy likes to swim in turquoise waters and find a conch and see pretty fish swimming around an old tree trunk in bay.

It always comes to time to sail. That’s the nature of a voyage, isn’t it?  Decks get put away. Boats get hoisted. Sea Never Dry up on deckhouse, the longboat in its davits, loose sail. Last goodbyes ashore on a quiet balmy day at Jost Van Dyke and we hove up and sailed away downwind south of the island, past White Bay with its brilliant beach and packed with day visitors from St Thomas reliving their glory days of spring breaks a long time ago. Loud and fun in the sun at White Bay, and a whole different world than cool serene Great Harbour, the last of the West Indies in the Virgin Islands for us. From West End Point, Jost Van Dyke, the course for Bermuda is North.

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Day’s Run 18 May 2019

Still pushing. Rainy and squally. Not bad though. In the old days of my youth with all this rain we would be out in it with a bar of soap getting squeaky clean. But we have freshwater showers now so why bother… Trainee Sue is getting her ratline seizing done. Sue is a strong sailor.

Date: May 18,  2019

From: Jost Van Dyke, BVI, West Indies

Towards: St George’s, Bermuda

Noon position: 24°-20′ North Latitude / 063°-00′ West Longitude

Course and speed: SWly at 7.5 knots, motoring along

Wind force and direction: light SEly winds

Seas/swell: steady organized ENEly seas 1 metre

Barometer: 1020 and steady

Sky: rainy and overcast

Water temperature: 26.5C – 80F

Distance made good in 24 hours: 164 nautical miles

Distance to the next port: 467 nautical miles as the Pole Star pulls

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Day’s Run – 17 May 2019

Wind petered out this morning and was light all night. At 1000 Engineer Deyan fired up the main engine and we are pushing. Weather is perfectly nice, just light winds. Crew are sanding and painting the chart house. Dirk is making a plank for ANN, the 16′ Palmerston Atoll cutter we are restoring. Lists are getting finished for Lunenburg. Sailmaking is ongoing on the quarterdeck. Navigators are still with sextant in hand. Erin is leading lessons in charts and piloting. We bought 700 eggs in Grenada and we are eating them.

Date: May 17,  2019

From: Jost Van Dyke, BVI, West Indies

Towards: St George’s, Bermuda

Noon position: 21°-39′ North Latitude / 063°-27′ West Longitude

Course and speed: SWly at 7.5 knots, motoring along

Wind force and direction: light SEly winds

Seas/swell: steady organized ENEly seas 1 metre 

Barometer: 1019 and steady

Sky: sunny, partly cloudy, very nice

Water temperature: 26.5C – 80F

Distance made good in 24 hours: 76 nautical miles

Distance to next port: 639 nautical miles in a straight line. But, of course, we are not sailing in a straight line.

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Landfall – British Virgin Islands – May 11, 2019

With the Saintes and Nevis well astern we kept sailing for the British Virgin Islands and Jost Van Dyke. At dawn, the day came in cloudy and warm. Wind was fair on the starboard quarter, seas modest. On the misty horizon ahead we could see the tips of the many Virgin Islands, so named by Columbus a long time ago after St Ursula and her 11,000 virgins. I have no idea who St Ursula and the girls were. But it sure looks like a lot of islands as we approach. And then it becomes clear that there are fewer as the multiple peaks turn into one island or so. Still plenty islands though. From the east we see Virgin Gorda, Ginger, Cooper, Salt, Deadman’s Chest, Tortola, Peter Island, Norman Island and the US island of St John towards the west. St Thomas is off in the distance and out of view.

Into Sir Frances Drake Channel we slip in to Salt Island Passage at about 0830 and sail almost over the wreck of the RMS Rhone, a famous wreck of a big iron steam and sail mail ship lost in a hurricane in 1867. A horrific loss at the time. Hurricane Irma was a reminder of how bad a hurricane can be hereabouts. Once past Salt Island and Deadman’s Chest (yep, that’s its name) we squared the yards for the run down the channel between the islands. Many bare-boats sailing or motoring around. For reasons we do not understand many of these sloop rigged catamarans under charter seem to prefer to motor downwind instead of unfurling a big genoa and sailing along quietly. A mystery. 

The Picton Castle sailed gently down Sir Francis Drake Channel pointing out various islands and anchorages and introducing a bit of history. Piracy, free-ports, sugar, slaves, rum, terrible tropical diseases of yore, islands changing flags with frequency, the post-colonial era. The islands are dry. They seemed scoured from Hurricane Irma. But rebuilding well underway it seems from afar. Soon enough we came up to the narrow pass at Soper’s Hole and West End Tortola. This we need to negotiate to get to the north of Tortola and to Jost Van Dyke’s Great Harbour. The gang braced up on the starboard tack and remained at the braces and for quick sail handling. Chief Mate Erin took the wheel and sailed the ship through this dog-leg slot without using the engine. Then it was only three and a half miles to Jost. With all sail trimmed just so, Erin sailed the ship right up to the anchor. With some swift sail handling and backing of the main yards to stop the ship from hitting the island,  we let the anchor go in four fathoms and backed the ship down under main topsails until the hook got a good hold. Clew up and furl the sails. The passage was done. Next, launch the longboat and the beautiful Lunenburg/Senegal Dory known as Sea Never Dry. Jost Van Dyke is about as good as it gets for ambitious small boat sailing.

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Îles des Saintes

Two days after sailing due north from St George’s, Grenada, the small group of islands known as “the Saints” lay on the horizon ahead. The Picton Castle had sailed past Bequia, St Vincent, St Lucia, Martinique and Dominica to make for the charming Saints. A decent passage it was. In the lee of the bigger islands winds died down even though these islands were almost 40 miles away. In the lee of the passages between islands both the winds and seas picked up again. Just about 0800 we closed with the narrow pass that would lead us into a nice anchorage off Terre De Haute. Anchor down, skiff in straight away to get cleared in as quickly as possible. We wanted to make the most of this short stop. Time is running out and we must get north to Lunenburg for June 1. Hard to imagine that after more than a year and over 30,000 miles that we are in a hurry now.

Back to Les Saintes…

Once anchored Tammy and Dirk scooted into the town, got us cleared in (and out) the free watch went ashore. Terre De Haute is a beautiful small town, on a sweet little bay, once a sleepy small French West Indian fishing village, now, while still fishing, very much a destination for travelers coming from Guadeloupe and, no doubt, France. And thus plenty of shops, cafes, restaurants and so on. The beach in town is clean and welcoming. Excelent dinghy docks. A perfect place to do nothing at all. Not cheap though. The Euro has made its claim here. So, the gang wandered through the village, enjoyed French style and French island dining. Some walked the half mile over the island to a beach on the windward side. Some found places to snorkel. Picnics with baguettes and cheese and salmon made lots of sense. Dawson found a beach right near the fish cleaning station and a grocery store so he and his family spent most of a day there in the shade of an almond tree listening to French reggae music and watching people going by. The very definition of “limin”. Then we sailed NW for the British Virgin Islands. And Jost Van Foxy’s. From here we will sail north for Bermuda and out of our beloved tradewinds and tropics into the North Atlantic.

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Rendezvous at Nevis

The Picton Castle gang sailed the ship off the hook from Terre de Haute, Les Iles Des Saintes, Guadeloupe and got all canvas on in the channel between Guadeloupe and Terre de Haute. A sweet sunny Caribbean day. We made our way NW along the lee drawing away from this big island for awhile and shaped up to sail along the many islands over the horizon but nearby. Montserrat, St Kitts, Statia, Saba and Nevis all lay up ahead. Along our course for the British Virgin Islands and Jost Van Dyke, to which we are bound, we would be passing by the smaller Islands of the Leeward Islands of the Eastern Caribbean. Out of sight would be Antigua, Barbuda, St Barts, St Martin, and Anguilla. But we would sail close to Montserrat, Nevis, St Kitts, Statia (St Eustatia) and Saba.

Overnight found us in the lee of Monsterrat. A small high island with an Irish and African heritage. And also equipped with a live volcano which blew some years ago causing destruction and evacuations. As we sailed to leeward of it we could smell the sulfur coming from the vent. Some years back we even got fine volcanic grit dusting the ship. This time just the odor from the firey deep. Smelled bad. On we sailed.

As a way of introduction to the islands before we arrived in the Caribbean, the crew all watched a wonderful film called “Vanishing Sail”. This is a documentary on traditional boat building on the island of Carriacou, part of the nation of Grenada. It is a lyrical and poignant tale beautifully, artfully told by Alexis Andrews of Antigua. And Alexis was at Nevis with his Carriacou built 42′ wooden sloop Genesis after a big sailing regatta in St Barts for West Indian built vessels. I was trying to get him to sail to the BVI with us. Maybe take our gang for some sails once there? Too far for him to get back to Antigua but as we were sailing right by Nevis, why not just have a rendezvous in the lee of Nevis? Great Idea. And right on the way.

At dawn, we could easily see the tall dark cone that is Nevis, the top lost in cloud. Nevis is famous for being the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton of early American fame. I remember the days when these big 60-70 foot open lighters sailed back and forth between Nevis and St Kitts across the small passage. They carried everything, food, cargo, beer, people, empty bottles back to St Kitts. Big rough old open sloops, but very effective at their trade.
A bright blue morning was upon us. Once under the lee of Nevis in smooth waters, we saw Genesis in the distance off Charlestown. In short order, we hove the Picton Castle to by bracing the main yards aback. Launched the skiff and under Dirk took a replacement crew of three to Genesis. Picked up Alexis and his son – they came over for a “gam”, breakfast and a short visit. Alexis told the crew something about wooden boat building in Carriacou. 30 to 60 foot and bigger, sloops and schooners used for trading to Trinidad and Grenada and smuggling from St Barts and St Martin. And fishing and for just getting about. In the 1970s 50-foot sloops without engines were still one of the main ways to get back and forth between Grenada and Carriacou for goods and people. Wonderful vessels they were. And from to time, another gets built over at Windward in Carriacou.

Well, places to go, things to do. Genesis off to Antigua, Picton Castle bound for Jost Van Dyke, BVI. We called Genesis closer and made the crew switch, hoisted the skiff and we sailed our separate ways. Both vessels “vanishing sail’, each in their own way. A fine West Indian rendezvous.

Onward…
(photo credits: Alexis Andrews)

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