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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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