While it is very important for all of us who sail in this ship to understand and appreciate that our voyage around the blue ocean globe of ours is first and foremost a tarry, shippy, seagoing affair with plenty work and rigorous demands on us all; and if you think that spending a good amount of time at sea sailing before the mast in a large classic square-rigger rolling down with the tropical trade-winds pulling us along under canvas, with a crazy bunch of shipmates from all over might be a pretty cool idea, there is no real harm in admitting that we also put into some amazing places with the Barque PICTON CASTLE. Islands and ports you really can not get to any other way – or if you can a plane, it just simply is not anywhere near the same thing flying in, compared to sailing in, taking in sail, yards braced just so, and letting go the anchor as crew in your own sailing ship, having earned every mile of the hundreds and ultimately thousands of miles it takes.
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I remember one time as the young mate of a Danish brigantine deep in the South Pacific. The ship was inside the reef after a long sea passage and we were tied up stern to the beach, big anchor and plenty of chain set well out in the lagoon, stern lines secured to a couple of coconut palms and a stout breadfruit tree growing just above the water’s edge, bights of these thick hawsers dipping languidly into the still waters inside the reef with the light swell. We were all cleared-in by the local port authorities. After a wash-down and a swim over the side, the free watch was let go. From the shore looking back at our ship, I saw the brigantine’s yards neatly squared and sails furled in perfect harbour stows up on top of the yards. Her long jutting oiled pine jib-boom was burnished in gold of the setting sun, pointing out to sea and downwind towards the next palm covered volcanic islands over the horizon. We were four or five months into this deep-sea voyage and we had the callouses, tough soles, dirty fingernails and deep tans to prove it. We had not had any real contact with our old world since Panama some months back, I could not be sure how many months that was without figuring it. We had not forgotten where we had come from but it was getting a bit fuzzy for some. Maybe sharper for others. We had sailed and hove-to off steep islands with no harbours, pushed hard against strong rushing currents through narrow passes into obscure coral atoll lagoons, raced sharp wooden outriggers across these lagoons to go fishing, feasted on parrot fish, langouste and goat, dove on shipwrecks, swam with black-tip sharks, rowed big wooden long boats in huge rising surf, eaten far too many mangos and drunk many a coconut, collected carving wood for islanders, heard sea stories from old mariners, gone to churches, engaged in a medical evacuation, shortened down in nasty squalls, set sails in gentle sunny breezes, heaved up our heavy anchors by hand power many many times in the warm waters of the South Pacific. Maybe we had been to an island dance celebration or two. There had been some disappointments but there had been far more moments we had hoped and prayed would never end. It did not seem that they would – or could. And here we were.
This here island, tumbling down from tall steep forested volcanic mountains and surrounded by coral reefs, not far from the dock where some fishermen were selling their catch, had a small bar on the main road where a sailor could get a cold beer. A small scratch band was tuning up for the night’s expected customers in that wonderful fusion of guitar and ukulele you can still hear today in Fiji or Samoa or Tahiti. There may have been a couple ladies in the back having an argument about something. They had been customers all that day I was told. The bar was almost empty. The bartender was sweeping the place up before sunset when the crowd was expected. The light of the falling sun streamed in between the blinds hot and low from the west, almost always the lee side of the island. The abundant tropical flowers and palms lent their heady scents to the afternoon breezes and I had the afternoon off from the ship moored not far away. I was young, lean, fit, tanned, broke and happy as could be, content in my world as only someone who lives and breathes it every day can be. I was amazed at being where I was in these surroundings and at the same time found it completely the norm. Life was good and I was part of this sweet ship on a superlative epic expedition around the world and into my heart. I was nursing the one beer I could afford that day and just taking it all in. The occasional truck or Vespa rattled by from time to time outside on the waterfront road breaking up the quiet. I could see the dust churned up from their wheels in the afternoon sunlight.
This particular island also had an international airport. After a while, a middle aged guy from a country up north and to the east somewhere, wearing a seersucker jacket (yep, really) came in through the door and sat down on the bar stool near to mine. He was sweating quite a bit and seemed in some distress. We got to talking. Where are you from? What are you doing here? And so on. He said, and I paraphrase as it has been a long time since this evening in question; “I don’t know what the hell anybody sees in this place! Hot, cockroaches everywhere, dirty, and a bitch of a flight from San Diego. Airline lost my luggage, and the movies are a month old and can’t get a decent steak. And where do they have the luaus?” Well, I said, I didn’t know. I also didn’t know there were movies. Better check them out. Our conversation trailed off. He did not understand the local lingo. I did not so much either but found I was getting along just fine. After a while it dawned on me that we may be sitting on barstools next to each other, and that by definition this puts us in the same place, but it became clear to me that we were in two entirely different universes, different dimensions, and that try as I might I could not simply invite him or coax him into mine. It was not possible. I did not have the power. His world held no attraction to me. He ordered a second gin and tonic, maybe that helped. He went off somewhere after trying to extract from me what the hell I liked about this island, the tropics in general and this life in ships. I could not explain. I do not remember if I tried too hard to get it all across either. I stayed longer at this ramshackle old waterfront watering-hole. I had made a friend who worked there serving the tables and she had provided me with a second beer so I would not get embarrassed by not having a beverage in front of me. In time there was some good music and locals dancing for fun. Maybe we danced too. When the pub closed we went off on her bicycle to watch a dance troop practice for an upcoming big dance festival. The island was quiet that time of night and stars were sharp in a blue-black sky up above. We could hear the soft booming of the surf a few hundred yards off on the reef towards the ocean as we biked to the church hall where the practice was taking place. As we got closer to the church light coming from the doors and windows showed us a path for the bike and the pulse of the drums deepened. Pretty amazing dancing too. There is no jet aircraft yet built that can fly anyone to where I and the crew of that ship and the friends we had made were that night deep in the South Pacific.
So what ports are we putting into with the Barque PICTON CASTLE?
In addition to sailing about 30,000 sea-miles, crossing the Caribbean Sea, the broad South Pacific Ocean, the Coral Sea, the Arafura Sea, Timor Sea, the Southern Indian Ocean, rounding the Cape of Good Hope, crossing the long way over the South Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, making a north bound passage the length of the North Atlantic Ocean we also expect to put into Panama, Galapagos Islands, Pitcairn Island, Mangareva, an Austral island if we can, Cook Islands of Rarotonga, Palmerston Atoll, Vava’u in Tonga, Viti Levu in Fiji, Espiritu Santo, Malekula, Pentecost, and Maewo in Vanuatu, Benoa in Bali, a couple islands in the Southern Indian Ocean – there really aren’t many islands out there in the Indian Ocean – but great sailing and passage making there is beaucoup; maybe we get to put in at Madagascar, hope so but all depending, but certainly around the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Town, South Africa, the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, Napoleon’s last refuge at St Helena and then ride the southeast tradewinds crossing the equator bound for the magical green islands of the Eastern Caribbean. Islands like Grenada, Carriacou, Bequia, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Antigua, Anguilla and onward to Bermuda and home to Lunenburg.
I often get asked ‘what is your favourite island?’