Captain's Log

Archive for October, 2019

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SUMMER 2019 HOMEWARD BOUND (Part 2 of 7)

We sailed from Lunenburg on June 15, a beautiful sunny day, in company of the magnificent schooners Bluenose II and Pride of Baltimore II in a spectacular departure under sail. And while all that was going on, we had our magnetic compass swung, a necessary thing to do after completing a 30,000 mile voyage spanning 360 degrees of longitude and a majority of time spent in the Southern Hemisphere.

During the run up the Nova Scotia coast, we continued preparations for the upcoming passage of the St Lawrence Seaway with its strong currents and numerous locks: wooden fenders were lashed to the ship’s side, boats stowed on the galley, boat davits and brace bumpkins were housed, the course yards cockbilled and all braced up sharp-sharp. The port bower was triced for’d out of the way. Nothing protruded over the ship’s side. We were ready, albeit looking not quite the ship we all knew. Things a sailor gets to do in Picton Castle!

Picton Castle went through the Canso lock without a hitch. It was but a glimpse of what was still in store for us this summer.

At Les Escoumins, halfway up the St Lawrence River, a Seaway pilot came aboard, and Picton Castle had a pilot aboard from then onwards at all time she was on the move, until her return to Les Escoumins almost 3 months later.  Those are the requirements for a foreign-flagged ship her size, no matter how often she may have done the passage without a pilot required in the past.

The St Lawrence River threw strong currents at us. Winter and Spring had been wet ones. Water levels in the Great Lakes were at record high levels, and the resulting outflow down the Seaway and river was enormous. A quick stop at anchor in Montreal for a Seaway inspection (which we passed with flying colours), and off we went to conquer the locks. Up and up, seven locks in all to bring us to a level close to Lake Ontario. The final lift at Iroquois, at under 6 feet, was only small compared to those prior, being somewhere in the region of 40 to 50 feet. Strong crosscurrents in the approaches to the locks made lock entries a bit like attempting to thread a needle with a gale across the deck, the thread flapping in the breeze.

Having docked at Clayton, NY, we could look back at an eventful 38-hour passage from Montreal. Quick, grab an ice cream, for we must off to Toronto, undoing all the lock preparations as we go.

It was a beautiful, warm and sunny day that saw us coming into Toronto under full sail. Picton Castle ghosted to her dock, taking in the final scrap of canvas as she slid alongside under a canopy of trees. Gangways out, clearing Customs and Immigration, a safety inspection from the Canadian regulator, and off we went, head first into our first tall ship festival for the summer: the Redpath Waterfront Festival held over the Canada Day weekend.

Perfect weather and a steady stream of visitors to the ship made it easy for us to get our festival routine fine-tuned and settled. By the end of the weekend, we had it well and truly sorted.

Next stop: Buffalo, NY. Well, not quite.

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SUMMER 2019 HOMEWARD BOUND (Part 1 of 7)

Imagine coming home from a long, successful voyage: that warm feeling of accomplishment, the looking back, the winding down and, inevitably, the parting of ways. Then, deservedly, the sitting down and stretching one’s legs in a comfy armchair. Right?

Well, think again. Sailing home from World Voyage 7 in Picton Castlewas all of the above, sure. Only slightly compressed. Condensed. Like a zipped-up file. For the ship, port stops are a transitional period. There is hardly a clear-cut line between the end of one voyage and the beginning of the next. True, crew pays off and a fresh lot signs on. But the ship remains in commission.

Planning for the summer campaign had, in fact, started many months earlier during WV7. Preparations were well advanced by the time Picton Castle made Lunenburg on June 1. The usual end-of-voyage routine of administrative tasks, cleaning and re-stowing went parallel with necessary modifications for the summer and our regime of planned maintenance. Seeing the ship and her crew idle? No chance.

The engineering department was burning the midnight oil. An additional 4 septic tanks were installed in the engineer’s hold, increasing our holding capacity from 530 gallons to a whopping 1600 gallons. The plumbing going with this had to be installed, re-routing every single sink, shower, floor drain or head to the tanks. Prep work for this had commenced at Cape Town, but the bulk of the work could only be undertaken once the tanks were installed. And the tanks were waiting for us in Lunenburg.

Long hours indeed, for engineers and deck crew alike. But the perks of being in port must not be forgotten: Getting some rostered time off; seeing families and friends; stretching one’s legs ashore; meals at a restaurant; long showers; no night watches; and the modern conveniences of shops and internet.

We had a fortnight for the turnaround. A fortnight to transform our barque from a long-passage maker into what is possibly the centrepiece of the Tall Ships Challenge Great Lakes 2019. Was the ship ready when she sailed from Lunenburg for the vast interior of North America on June 15? As ready as any ship could be.

New hands had signed on for the first leg towards Toronto. Training and ship familiarisation was conducted under the watchful eyes of the Mate. Drills in emergency preparedness and response. Sail drills. Ship’s routine. All the things we do to prepare for going to sea. Sailing PICTON CASTLE is so much more than knots, splices, and terminology.

Picton Castle went to anchor in Lunenburg harbour on the evening prior to departure. Good thing to do. No more distractions, and a pure focus on the ship and the passage ahead in the settled quiet of our anchorage.

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How to Handle Rough Weather

As I sit at my desk in Picton Castle’s shore office overlooking the street and harbour in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada, I can hear the wind swinging the sign on the side of the building and whistling through the nearby trees.  It’s been raining on and off throughout the day and the sun hasn’t made an appearance at all.  Picton Castle is tied snugly to the wharf and even though the wind is coming pretty hard, near gale force, from the southeast, the only direction from which Lunenburg Harbour isn’t well protected, the mooring lines and winter anchor set out in the harbour are holding fast and Picton Castle is riding the swells just fine. 

One of the questions that is often raised by people considering a voyage in Picton Castle is about bad weather.  What do we do about it?  How do we handle it? 

Picton Castle herself is a very strong ship, having been designed and built to fish year-round in the North Sea and North Atlantic Ocean, and refitted with a powerful sailing rig with ocean voyaging in mind.  Watertight bulkheads (which means the area below decks is divided into small sections, each one watertight on its own) and excellent stability are part of what make her extremely seaworthy. And we have tools and procedures that we use in different weather conditions.  However, the number one goal is to avoid bad weather in the first place.  Captain Moreland often says that the single biggest technological advancement in the past hundred years that has benefited ships is in weather prediction.  Forecasting has come a long way and we check forecasts frequently then make plans accordingly.  Major bad weather systems can be avoided to a large extent.  But you cannot avoid every gale, every time. 

There are a few different options for avoiding bad weather and we’ve used them all over the years.  Sometimes we extend a stay in port so we can see how something that looks suspicious in the forecast will play out, or wait until it has passed before we get underway.  Sometimes we get underway from a port earlier than we planned so we can get out ahead of a system moving through and allow it to pass behind us.  If we’re in port, what we do will depend on the port – sometimes we set an extra anchor and ride it out, sometimes we move to a more secure berth, sometimes we get underway and get out of the way.  If we’re at sea, we often change course to avoid the system and stay out of its path, or sometimes slow down or heave-to (which means stopping the ship at sea) to allow it to pass ahead or make a clear indication of direction. 

Even though we avoid the worst of the weather, not every day is sunny and beautiful.  There are squalls, wind shifts, and days of overcast, rain, and big waves and swells.  How do we deal with these?  Again, preparation is key.  And not only do we prepare the ship physically, we prepare the crew with extensive training.  We practice sail handling so we can do it quickly, even in the dark.  We practice getting around the ship when the decks are moving.  We practice using safety equipment like handlines and jacklines that run the length of the decks, harnesses with tethers that can be attached to the handlines and jacklines, extra netting, and watertight doors and hatches.  The crew hone their skills in situational awareness so they can anticipate things before they happen. 

We simply can’t guarantee that every day aboard will be comfortable.  In fact, we guarantee that there will be some days that aren’t.  Sleeping, eating meals, even drinking coffee can all be more difficult with the ship moving beneath you.  You might at times feel soggy and tired.  But oddly, it’s often those moments that test us and cause us to rise to the occasion that bring the crew together and make the most vivid memories of the voyage.

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A valuable and essential tool in advancing the learning of seamanship, and an integral part of Lunenburg’s Bosun School, is small boat work. Understanding and competently working small boats is essential in becoming a proper seaman and, eventually, a Bosun. And a Captain for that matter. All the decisions made by the small boat skipper are those that get made by the captain of a larger vessel with often more immediate consequences. So small boats it is.

Our fleet of small boats comprises a variety of craft from a dugout canoe to dories, skiffs, open sloops and a longboat for pulling and sailing, to a modern fibreglass sloop and a beautiful 26-foot wooden schooner.

Now “small boat work” does not solely denote jumping in one of these, messing around and becoming a proficient boat handler. Bosun School starts with inspecting and preparing the boats for launching, fixing whatever needs to be fixed, surface prep and painting, rigging them up as required, then launching them.

Learn to determine and assemble boat gear as necessary and then be instructed to use the boats while, well, using them. This is hands-on. Learn to row, scull or pull; sail in small open boats or larger sloops and schooners; practice in outboard powered skiffs… all the while hearing and understanding sound principles of small boat work: areas of operation, weather considerations, limitations and capabilities of boats, gear and crew. Instruction, followed by practice and more instruction followed by more practice. Several hours a day of we can.

While the boats are in the water, tend to them as they demand, and care for the gear. They may need their moorings overhauled, so check them frequently. The boats may need bailing due to rain or maybe even just old fashioned leaking. Pump them out. If heavy weather is on the way – its October isn’t it? – deal with them. And at the end of the season, recover them all, label and stow the gear, clean and winterise the boats in sheds or on hard stands in the yard at the Dory Shop. The whole seasonal cycle condensed into eight or so weeks. If you were awake during all of this, you are well underway to becoming a cox’n.

Last week, we rigged and launched BLUE BOAT, a modern 24-foot fibreglass sloop. She needed little work, just a couple of fibreglass patches and a lick of paint. To step her mast, sheer legs were stepped on the ground either side of the mast step, next to the cradle, and crossed. The mast, laying fore and aft along the deck of the sloop, with all its rigging attached, was hoisted horizontally by a tackle from the sheer legs, then canted vertical and lowered into position and secured by shrouds and stays.

With the sheer legs knocked down, a system of runner and tackle was rigged between two fixed points and the boat cradle. With all hands clapping onto the tackle, we dragged the cradle over wooden bearers towards the water over the soft slope of the Dory Shop’s black beach. Once in the water, the cradle dug into the soft shale, so with a system of levers and a tackle upon the tackle, the cradle slid slowly into deeper water, floating off the sloop. It may be how they set up Stonehenge but we did it with our own hands, not a travel lift in sight.

Yesterday, we took BLUE BOAT sailing for the first time. Her rig was fine-tuned and secured, sail bent and the boat kitted out. We sailed her off the mooring and alongside a floating dock, changed the small jib for the racing jib, loaded a couple more hands and sailed into Lunenburg Bay in 10 to 15 knots of Easterly breeze in glorious afternoon sunshine. After a couple of boards between the Lunenburg docks and Battery Point, we spotted MR. BONES’s unmistakable green and orange sails. MR BONES had just been finished that afternoon and launched for its first sail from the beach at the Dory Shop. Our silver-bali skiff was also out as a chase boat. What a way to spend the afternoon!

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The Bosun School at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia- 2019

It is now mid-October, the Picton Castle is back from her very successful tour of the Great Lakes with the grand fleet of Tall Ships Challenge®, a hurricane has come and gone, and the eighth session of the Bosun School of Lunenburg is well underway at our wharf in this old seafaring town. We have a great gang of young mariners from all over in attendance putting in long tarry and salty days. Canada, USA, Denmark, Australia, Greece, and Germany are represented in this session. They have been learning and doing massive amounts of rigging, wooden boat overhaul, heaps of learning how to move heavy things and now sail-making as well as small boat handling every day as we can. Lunenburg Harbour is perfect for small boat sailing and handling. And small boat handling is perfect for learning ship handling.

There is no substitute for and nothing better than real sea time under sail in a proper ship to gain critical experience and advance the skills for a young mariner. But oftentimes on these hard-working ships sailing today, there is little time to focus on advancing these critical skills for the professional mariner. Skills such as wirework and sail-making, ship and boat carpentry and so on. And rarely does the opportunity roll around to actually be part of rerigging a square-rigged ship so extensively, or lay out and make a sail with a professional sailmaker. Or build a dory properly learning or rebuild an historic watercraft under the direction of a master boat builder. And critically, it is very difficult to get the time and access to boats to develop comprehensive small boat handling skills. These things we do at the Bosun School.

The purpose of the Picton Castle’s Bosun School is to provide this opportunity to young dedicated mariners to advance their skills in a concentrated fashion without the entirely natural demands and distractions of being underway at sea standing watches and tending the job every minute of the day. Conducted by myself, the crew of the Picton Castle and special guest instructors, the Bosun School pushes our students to significantly advance their skill levels, making their chances at the best berths in good ships of their choice all the more likely. And also, with simply being better at the job of being a mariner they get to enjoy the job more. Once signed aboard the next ship they will have that much more to offer and will be a greater contributor to helping the ship on her mission – which is, after all, what being crew is all about. These young mariners will simply be more appreciated and thus more in demand. In this year’s course we are also offering a Transport Canada certified Marine First Aid course and an Industrial Rigging certificate.

Stay tuned for updates…..

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The Sweet, Sweet Smell of Swedish Pine Tar

Today we’re wishing that smell-o-vision was a thing.  As I walked through the gate towards the warehouse, I could smell the most lovely, smoky aroma that could only be one thing – Swedish pine tar.  Pine tar is used liberally in Picton Castle’s rigging maintenance, it coats various parts of the standing rigging and helps protect the rope or wire from drying out in the UV rays of the sun. 

Bosun School students are working on overhauling parts of the yards that have already been sent down (the royal, t’gallant and course yards).  Specifically this afternoon, they were working on repairing and replacing servings on footropes.  The footropes are made of wire rope, which is covered by a serving, which means marline (a natural fibre line) very tightly wrapped around the wire rope, often using a serving mallet which is a tool to help with the tight winding.  There are a couple of layers under the serving (worming and parceling), but the focus this afternoon was on serving.  Once the marline is tightly wrapped around the wire rope, it gets slathered thoroughly in a generous coating of pine tar.  And smells sooooo good. 

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Inspecting Royal & T’gallant Yards

After a week or so of site preparation, Bosun School students started downrigging Picton Castle last week.  All sails were sent down, then much of the running rigging.  Sails came down quite quickly, it didn’t take much more than a day to get them all down to deck, bundled up properly, and stowed in our sail loft ashore. 

Sending down royal and t’gallant yards was next.  Bosun School students had all done their training to climb up in the rigging, called going aloft, prior to sending down sail.  They worked in the rigging to get the big cotton canvas sails cut free from the yards and lowered carefully to deck.  But handling the heavy load of a wooden spar with a lot of rigging bits attached to it requires even greater attention to detail to be sure it’s done right.  Yards came down smoothly, with lots of instruction and coordination as it went. 

Now that the yards are sitting on sawhorses on the wharf, it’s time to inspect them.  As Captain Moreland explained to the students this morning, this will determine what work needs to be done on them.  He started by pushing on the yards to see if there are any obvious cracks in the wood, which we’d hear and see if they were there.  Then he looked at the condition of the footropes and identified some areas where the serving needs to be renewed.  He checked the shackles and their mousings that hold the footrope to the ends of the yard and checked the stirrups and the seizings that hold them to the yard.  He explained that shackles always need to be moused and that the seizings for the stirrups are very important and must be made with strong material, and must be watched constantly for chafe.  He also looked at the backropes, which on Picton Castle are made of typhoon wire and their seizings to the yard.  Then he looked at the lifts, which could use a wire brushing and fresh coating.  Captain Moreland also pointed out how important it is to label every piece of rigging so when they’re taken off the yard so the surface of the yard can be repaired if necessary then sanded and varnished or painted, the parts can be identified later and put back together more easily. 

With four yards on the wharf, the fore, and main t’gallants and royals, students then split up into two groups, each taking a pair of yards to inspect and document their findings.  The yards will be moved into the rigging workshop and any repairs or replacements that have been identified will be carried out there. 

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Planning a Voyage Itinerary

One of my favourite parts of my job is working with Captain Moreland to plan Picton Castle’s voyage itineraries.  It’s a fairly long process to get it just right, which means we’ll draft something, review it, amend it, review it again, then amend and review a few more times before we are happy with it and are ready to release it to the public. 

Voyage itineraries start with a general concept of where we want to go and for how long.  In 2020-2021 we are making a year-long voyage around the Atlantic, starting and ending in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada and visiting ports in Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. 

Looking at patterns of weather and wind come shortly after that.  We try to design our itineraries to follow wind patterns, which is why we’re making our circle around the Atlantic in a clockwise direction rather than counter-clockwise.  We want to ride the winds from Lunenburg on the east coast of North America across to Ireland in Europe taking a more northerly route (hopefully with a stop at the Azores on the way), then make our second Atlantic crossing on a more southerly route from the coast of Africa at Dakar to the southern islands in the Eastern Caribbean island chain.  This allows us to take advantage of prevailing winds.  We’re mindful of hurricane and/or cyclone seasons in the various waters we sail, avoiding certain areas at certain times of the year. 

Mariehamn Åland Islands

Then it comes time to choose ports.  We usually have ideas of a few must-do ports and we work the itinerary around getting to the places we can’t miss.  On this upcoming voyage, there were a few ports we chose early in the process.  The Aland Islands were key on this voyage; we felt we absolutely had to plan to get there.  A few big tall ships festivals in Europe also made the list – we had very kind invitations from both Sail Amsterdam and Sail Bremerhaven, and we like participating in at least one of the Tall Ships Races ports.  We’re keen on bringing Picton Castle to Milford Haven again, which is a port in Wales that’s closest to where the actual castle for which our ship Picton Castle is named.  Captain Moreland has strong ties to Denmark, so of course, a few Danish ports made the list.  Morocco can’t be missed, the cultural experience ashore is a rich one.  Senegal is also on the must-visit list, seeing the places where slaves were loaded aboard sailing ships to be sent across the Atlantic to the New World is a powerful experience for our crew.  Grenada is the home of our long-time ship’s cook Donald and can’t be missed.  Carriacou is the best place to see outdoor Caribbean boat-building.  If the timing works out, it would be great to participate in regattas in Antigua and/or St. Bart’s.  Of course, there are other places we want to visit too, and the list often is far longer than we have time to visit.  We try to include them all in the first pass, then slowly whittle down the list. 

Every port needs to be researched to see if they can accommodate a ship of Picton Castle’s size, what our options are for anchoring or going alongside, the safety and security of the port for our ship and crew, prevailing weather patterns, access to shoreside facilities, and interesting things for the crew to do on their days off duty ashore. 

We also put thought into the ship’s operational needs like fueling, provisioning, and trainee crew changeovers.  We make sure that we are in ports where fuel is available every so often, and in ports where we can buy food and supplies on a regular basis.  On a year-long voyage with four legs (each about three months long), we know we’ll need to have three ports along the way that have airports with decent flight connections so that trainee crew members who are sailing on just one or more legs can join the ship or leave the ship.  We try to space these ports out as evenly as possible. 

Then comes the math.  We use an average speed of advance of 100 nautical miles per day.  We measure the distance between all of our desired ports, then calculate the length of each passage.  We also estimate the number of days we’d like to stay in each port.  With all of that information, we mark the itinerary on a calendar, working forwards and backwards from any fixed dates we’ve already established (like start and end of the voyage, and any events we want to be part of, and any dates related to entering or exiting certain waters to catch or avoid certain weather). 

Then comes the reviewing and amending.  We will switch the order of ports, drop some ports and pick up some others, and keep going until we have an itinerary that looks operationally sound, cohesive, and interesting to prospective trainees. 

We’re excited about the itinerary for the upcoming Atlantic Voyage.  Aboard, the training program and what trainees do all day every day when they’re on duty will be much the same as any other extended, deep-water, ocean-crossing Picton Castle voyage.  The ports and waters on this voyage have a great deal of diversity and when put together in the order in which we’re sailing to them, tell the story of sailing ships in the Atlantic for centuries.  There are reasons that we’re sailing the same routes as ships that have gone before Picton Castle – the winds and currents prescribe which way to go. 

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