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Sailing in the Tropics

Picton Castle and her shore crew are in the grip of winter here in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada.  On this Blue Monday, which is considered the saddest day of the year, we’re going to bring some sunshine into your life (and our lives) by writing about sailing in the tropics. 

First, let’s clear up what we mean by that phrase.  The tropics are geographically defined at 23 degrees north by the Tropic of Cancer and at 23 degrees south by the Tropic of Capricorn.  The band around the globe between these two lines are the tropics, and it’s generally sunnier and hotter here than anywhere else in the world. 

For sailors, the tropics are known for mostly good, pleasant sailing because of the trade winds.  They’re consistent easterly winds that in the northern hemisphere come from the east or northeast and in the southern hemisphere come from the east or southeast.  Sailing ship routes were established not because someone long ago decided that’s how they should be, but because of the consistent wind patterns.  We design our voyages to make best use of the winds, which is why we’ll be sailing from east to west in the tropics on our upcoming voyage and sailing from west to east much further south in the southern hemisphere.  It’s better, especially for a square-rigged ship to go with the wind than into it.


Trade winds also push weather systems along, which is useful to know when looking at weather conditions and weather forecasts.  We keep a close eye on weather and forecasts while sailing to see what might be headed in our direction, carried by the trade winds, and how we can avoid it if it’s something we don’t want to experience ourselves. 

In terms of day to day real life on Picton Castle’s deck, sailing in the tropics using the trade winds to propel us forward is pretty pleasant business.  If the wind force is consistent, we can keep the same sails set and just adjust braces (which control the angle of the square sails) in slight shifts in wind direction.  Usually, we make these small sail adjustments in the mornings at first light and again before sunset, so the 4-8 watch takes up on any lines that have become slack overnight, or in cases where no adjustment is really required, they brace by just an inch or so in order to not have the lines of rigging feel friction at the same spot for days on end. 

It’s not to say that sailing in the tropics is always pleasant.  There are squalls, wind shifts, rain, even gales.  We dodge what we can, but we will experience some.  At those times, we’re required to be more quick and attentive to sail handling and to anticipating conditions in general. 

But for the most part, sailing in the tropics is pretty fantastic.  Weather is warm, we can wear shorts and t-shirts, sandals or bare feet on deck.  Maybe a long sleeve shirt on night watches.  When winds are consistent we can be under sail alone, so the sounds we hear are the rush and gurgle of water against the hull, the wind moving the rigging, and the voices of shipmates. 

Do you want to experience sailing in the tropics for yourself?  Trainee applications are now open for the Voyage to the South Pacific in 2020-2021. 

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