Sunday, January 26th, 2020
Sailing from Nova Scotia southbound for the tropics can be quite the treat as well as a challenge in a big old school square-rigger. Any kind of vessel really. We sail southbound for the Caribbean Sea in the Picton Castle in June. South to the Caribbean for the summer? Is this crazy? Not at all. In fact, the very best practical time for a sailing vessel to head south from up north hereabouts is actually April, May, and June. The only reason most yachts or big schooners and sailing ships do not normally do this, and usually can be found sailing north at this time instead is because the summer-time is THE TIME to be sailing in New England or around Nova Scotia. So they all come north for the summer. Nice time to come north too. Just not so delightful heading back south in the late fall. But that is another story. But for pure passage making smarts, head to the Caribbean in May or early June. And so we do.
It is almost 2,000 miles from Lunenburg all the way down the North Atlantic to Grenada in the Eastern Caribbean, our first planned stop and we all just love the island nation of Grenada, The Isle of Spice and so much more. But wait, first there is the passage south. Our first blue-water passage under sail. And that is what this voyage is about. That and islands. And learning to be a seafarer. And a shipmate. A good one.
The first few days at sea out of Nova Scotia can be pretty cool sailing. Your first time at the helm, trying to get the lubber’s line on compass near the big S as it seems to dance and swing around in front of you as you learn to steer the ship. You are at the teak wheel all the way aft on the quarterdeck turning her massive worm screw steering gear that has kept this ship on track for maybe 300,000 nautical miles over the last 24 years. The same wheel that has been handled by a couple thousand crew on those many deep-sea miles. Only 250,000 miles to the moon.
Yes, we will be bundled up for a few days, seeing our breath and the like. Maybe wondering if it was such a good idea to do this. By ‘cool’ I mean cold. Or so it seems anyway. It won’t be snowing anyway. And it will stay this way for a few days. Until we cross the famous Gulf Stream. Then in short order, we will be peeling off the layers and getting sun-burned. Quite astonishing is the shift. The Gulf Stream is quite literally a river of very warm water that that formed in the Caribbean basin, all those seas having been blown in from Africa. It piles up and heats up in the Caribbean Sea. It piles up so it must go somewhere. So it gets shoved north between Yucatan and Cuba, makes a circle, filling and heating up more in the Gulf of Mexico before sneaking around Key West and starting a rapid slide right along the coast of Florida and it’s moving fast. Around Cape Hatteras (North Carolina along the east coast of the USA) this powerful and pretty hot ocean river gets a bump offshore. The continental shelf guides the Stream from a northerly direction and gives it a kick to more of an easterly direction. This current will cross the Atlantic Ocean as it spreads outs and cools off in due course. But not so much that palm trees do not grow in southern Ireland and SW England, because they do. If ever the Gulf Stream gives up, the British Isles and northern Europe are going to freeze up hard. Even Iceland is made livable by these warm African/Caribbean waters warming that island up. But we cross this Gulf Stream well east of Cape Hatteras and due south of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Now we are in teeshirts and shorts most likely.
After we get through a high-pressure system, which can bring calms, that often (not always) lingers over the central Atlantic, there we should pick up some easterly tradewinds. Well, not much that I love more in this ship than a good tradewind passage. Warm, with sparkling seas and blue skies. Them soft fluffy clouds scooting overhead. The wind is in from Africa and we are headed for the islands. You are learning to steer, finding your sea legs, the 200+ pieces of manila running rigging becoming more familiar every day. Knots and splices. It’s warm now so we can again smell the Stockholm tar of the rigging. Ambrosia. Maybe we will see dolphins and flying fish for the first time. We will be learning to do all the things that watchkeepers in a sailing ship must do. Starting with walking. Some have to learn walking all over again it seems, as the ship rolls. Learn the lines, the sails, how to brace the yards, set up for meals, help in the galley, turn to for the four-hour watch on deck. Keep a good lookout and the points. It will all come. It always does.
After a while at sea, we will make landfall. That’s what mariners call seeing land for the first time and heading in. And we will be heading into one of my favorite places anywhere, right off the bat, Grenada, at the bottom of the chain of the eastern Caribbean. Most northern people think that they can see and experience the Caribbean any old time – or if they have been to St Thomas or bare-boated in the BVI, they have ‘done’ the Caribbean. Nice places to be sure but the answer is NO, you haven’t even scratched the surface. And, NO, the Caribbean is not actually all that accessible unless you enter the right way. That’s what we do. Frankly, the best way to see and learn these islands is to sail to them, earn our way we do. Be of the islands. Once we get anchored and cleared in at Grenada or Carriacou, one watch will look after the ship and the other two can head ashore to start exploring. Forests, boat building, dances, reggae and calypso music, BBQ by the side of the road, the best you have ever had, rum shops (not just rum but community pubs), dominoes, beautiful turquoise waters, diving, swimming, small boat sailing, waterfalls in beautiful bays, old slave era sugar plantations still harvesting cane and making rum with gear from the 1700s, jungles, waterfalls, markets, fresh drinking coconuts, and yes, palm-fringed sugar beaches so perfect too. But the best thing is the people. That’s always the best thing wherever we sail. I will leave it at that. Do not want to give it away completely, do I?
Cold and snowy here in Lunenburg right now. Stacking firewood, taking out the garbage for pick up early in the morning. Scraping ice off the truck. Dripping slush off my boots coming inside. Thinking about the passage to and being at Grenada warms me up.