Captain's Log

Archive for the 'La Grande Traversee' Category

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The Making of La Grande Traversée

Back in the summer of 2016, Picton Castle sailed on a transatlantic voyage where we filmed a television series on the way from La Rochelle, France to Quebec City, Canada.  The show was called La Grande Traversée and followed the lives of 10 “colonists” who lived life on board as it would have been for their ancestors coming from France to the New World circa 1700.

Well, mostly as it would have been for passengers crossing the Atlantic circa 1700. At that time, passengers wouldn’t have been involved in sailing the ship. But for the sake of television, the “colonists” stood watches alongside our crew and spent a lot more time on deck than their ancestors would have.

The passage from La Rochelle, France to Caraquet, New Brunswick, Canada, the ship’s first port of call in Canada, was 39 days. From there, Picton Castle sailed up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City, where the “colonists” and film crew disembarked.

Picton Castle was crewed by her usual professional crew complement plus a number of trainees. They sailed the ship from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada to La Rochelle, then sailed back to Canada with the “colonists” and the film crew. In addition to the ten “colonists”, we also had eight film crew aboard.

The film crew had the main salon as their living and working area. We took out one of the tables that it usually there and replaced it with a sturdy plywood table so that they could screw their equipment down to it. The rest of the salon with filled with camera and sound equipment.

The “colonists” lived in the area where the cargo hold is, in a special set that was built for this project to resemble the area below decks on a wooden sailing ship circa 1700. The set was built sturdily in Lunenburg, finished on the way across the Atlantic to La Rochelle, and fitted out with all the items the “colonists” would need before they boarded in La Rochelle. It had doors and ports that could open so cameras could look into the set from a number of different angles. There was a temporary wall built just forward of the foot of the stairs down to the salon so that the “colonists” would be kept separate from the salon and could not see the film crew and their equipment.

Our professional crew and trainees had their accommodations in the foc’sle, forepeak and aft cabins.

The director, Francois Balcaen, has put together a few short films from this voyage that show a bit of what it was like behind the scenes.

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La Grand Traversée Airs Starting April 11, 2017

Picton Castle played the role of L’Esperance last summer as the French-language documentary La Grand Traversée was filmed on board while crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

We will get to see the first episode when it airs tomorrow night, Tuesday April 11, 2017 on Radio-Canada.

La Grand Traversée tells the story of ten “colonists” who made the voyage from France to New France much as their ancestors would have done in the 18th century.  They wore clothing, lived in accommodations, cooked and ate food appropriate to the period.

Colonists sailing from Europe to the Americas at that time would not have participated in sailing the ship, but on this recreated voyage they certainly did.  The colonists stood watches alongside Picton Castle crew and contributed to sailing the ship.

The passage from La Rochelle, France to Caraquet, New Brunswick, Canada, which was the ship’s first port of call in the Americas, took 39 days.  From there, Picton Castle sailed on to Quebec City, where the colonists signed off.

We’re eager to see how this exciting voyage is portrayed on film.  Be sure to tune in tomorrow night to watch!

Picton Castle as L’Esperance in Quebec City 2016


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Captain’s Log – Early September in Lunenburg

12 September, 2016

Early September in Lunenburg

On the morning of the last day of August, Picton Castle sailed quietly in to Lunenburg Harbour.  As Captain Sam Sikkema explained in the last Captain’s Log, royal yards, the mainsail, t’gallants and all upper staysails had all been sent down before the ship made her entrance, so although there was less canvas to set, the ship came in under what sail she had and looked good doing it.    20160831_092107_resized

The crew wasted no time once alongside the wharf in Lunenburg.  We knew that many crew members had to sign off the ship very shortly after their arrival in Lunenburg, so we wanted to get sails sent down right away while we still had many hands.  It’s possible to send down sails with a smaller gang, but the sails were good and dry so we wanted to take advantage of the conditions and get it all done in a few hours.

Picton Castle’s sails are made of cotton canvas.  This means that when they get wet, and particularly when they’re stowed wet, they start to mildew which causes them to rot.  In order to prevent this, we have to dry the sails.  When the sails are bent on and we have a big crew, it’s easy.  We just go aloft, loose the sails from the gaskets that secure them to the yards, shake them out and let them hang in their gear, then the sun and wind do their work to dry the canvas.  At the end of the day, we stow the dry sails again.  When the ship will be in port for an extended stay and we have a small crew, rather than constantly drying sails we simply send them down and stow them away in a dry storage place.  It’s one less thing for the crew to look after, and allows us to turn our attention to other projects aboard.  It has the added benefit of allowing us to do proper inspections and inventory of our sail collection, making note of the condition of each sail and any repairs that may be required.

By mid afternoon, all sails were stowed away properly below decks.  We had a ceremony aboard where everyone officially signed off, receiving their sea service certificates.  Particularly for the cadets who sailed with us this summer from the Nova Scotia Community College’s Nautical Institute, these certificates are valuable.  To earn certifications as a mariner, classroom work is important but documented hands-on practice aboard ships is also essential.  These cadets will return to class this September with a significant portion of their required sea time earned.

Over the next few days, crew packed their sea bags and dispersed by car, plane and train, on to their next adventures.  We have a small crew still aboard, working away at various projects including preparations for the Bosun School which begins next week.  We’re looking forward to welcoming a number of young aspiring mariners who are coming to spend three months in Lunenburg in a land-based skills development program.  They’ll do a combination of classroom learning and hands-on practice (with heavy emphasis on hands-on practice), covering a wide variety of seamanship topics.  We’ll bring you more updates on Bosun School and what the students are doing throughout the next three months while they’re here studying in Lunenburg.


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Captain’s Log – 30 August, 2016

At 2230 this evening Picton Castle dropped anchor in Rose Bay, in the same spot we lay four months and a little under 10,000 nautical miles ago. Quite a contrast to the blustery cold morning when we set out into the North Atlantic in May, the ship now lays calm and still, the only noise around being the occasional low rumble of the long northwest swell rolling into the other side of the bay. The peace and the long glow of the anchor light on the water gives us our last moment to reflect with the ship, a lot of miles coved this summer and a lot of sailing.

We left another secluded harbour early this morning, at sunrise, sailing off the hook. Gliding out with sail set to the t’gallants, we got under way from Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia where we had holed up for a night to let a fresh southwest wind blow through before continuing down the coast. Having been anchored there for the better part of a day we got a head start on down rigging soon to follow, down came the royal yards, off with the mainsail, upper staysails and gaff topsail.

Sailing off in the morning was the perfect way to have our last sail of the voyage, and we have been lucky the last week, every time we got sailing we were sure it was going to be the last chance. Crossing the Gulf of St. Lawrence with every stitch set going 6kts with a quartering breeze and a lovely sunny day, or running out of Toronto down Lake Ontario at 8kts sailing all the way up into the mouth of the river and sliding in under Sodus Point late at night under a clear starry sky.

Thing got pretty busy at the end of our west bound Atlantic crossing, one last gale off Cape Breton shot us up into the Cabot Strait, then around into Caraquet, New Brunswick. After a short stop we went screaming out of Chauler Bay under topsails after sailing off the hook, then up into the St. Lawrence River, for a stop to enjoy the old world feel of Quebec City and then on up through the Seaway to the new world of Toronto.

And so now we sit with just the occasional shuffle of the anchor, watch diligently looking after the ship, to reflect on all the different moods we have seen in the ship; crossing the Grand Banks in the fog, up and down with the sails, studding sail booms and yards, sailing on the same tack set to the royals for two weeks strait, short tacking the ship out of the roads leaving La Rochelle, 50 people busy about the ship then only 22 crew, getting the ship through 15 locks and another flurry of activity for a special project in Toronto, sperm whales quietly swimming across the path of the ship and humpbacks breaching in heavy weather off Cape Breton, the roar of the gales in the rig to the still calm of a quite anchorage.

At anchor in Rose Bay - Photo by Grant Oxner (thank you!)

At anchor in Rose Bay – Photo by Grant Oxner (thank you!)


Tomorrow morning we heave up the anchor one more time and work the ship back into her berth in Lunenburg harbour and the voyage is complete. Many of our cadets are right off back to school with some of the best seatime a young mariner could hope for. A few crew will stick around to get the down rigging complete and then Picton Castle will go into drydock for some much deserved love. And in a few months time a new group of people will come onboard to bring her back to life again and begin in the ship the next voyage to come.

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Captain’s Log – Bound for Toronto

Picton Castle set sail from Quebec City on Tuesday August 2nd, bound for Toronto.  The ship gained a number of admirers in Quebec City and some were on the wharf to see the ship get underway and wave goodbye.  We’ll be back in Quebec City again in 2017 for a big tall ships event called Rendezvous 2017, along with a fleet of other tall ships.  Although we weren’t able to welcome the public aboard on our visit this year, next year our decks will be open for people to come aboard.

Anywhere in the St. Lawrence River west of Les Escoumins and throughout the Great Lakes, vessels with a foreign flag that are over 35 metres long require a pilot according to Canadian regulations.  Picton Castle is flagged in the Cook Islands, which makes us a foreign flagged vessel, and is just over 47 metres long on deck (54 metres including the bowsprit), so we require a pilot.  Pilots are experienced, licensed ship captains with specialized local knowledge who come aboard to advise each ship’s captain on local conditions, currents, hazards to navigation, traffic schemes and harbours.  Every time Picton Castle has been underway since Les Escoumins, we have had a pilot aboard.  There are a few places in the world, like in the Panama Canal, where the pilot actually takes command of the ship, but in most places, like the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes, the pilot is an advisor and the ship’s captain has the conn (meaning he or she is in command).

We had pilots aboard from Quebec City to Trois Rivieres where we did a pilot exchange, and those pilots carried on to Montreal with us.  Picton Castle anchored in Montreal for an afternoon so we could have our inspection for the St. Lawrence Seaway.

All ships that go through the locks of the Seaway need to be inspected for seaworthiness and to make sure the ship is ready to transit the locks.  For Picton Castle, one of our biggest jobs to prepare for the seaway is to make sure nothing protrudes beyond the width of the ship.

The boats we usually have hanging in davits over the sides of the ship needed to be brought aboard so the monomoy was lifted atop the galley house and the skiff was lifted on top of the main cargo hatch.  The davits were then swung in to be flush with the sides of the ship.  All of the yards were braced up sharp to get them within the width of the ship, but even fully braced the main yard and fore yard still protrude so they had to be cockbilled.

Yards Cockbilled Photo credit to @SeawayNNY on Twitter

Yards Cockbilled
Photo credit to @SeawayNNY on Twitter

We also had to add fenders to the sides of the ship to keep the ship off the lock walls.  These fenders are made of 8″x8″ pine cut into lengths of about 5′ with holes drilled in the top and bottom.  The fenders are then placed vertically, four on each side of the ship, and securely lashed over the rail and through chocks or freeing ports.  The fenders take quite a beating, scraping along the cement lock walls as the water fills each lock chamber raising the ship, but it’s better to beat up your fenders than your ship.

After a successful inspection in Montreal, the crew went to bed early, spending a night at anchor in anticipation of a long day of transiting locks.  The next morning, all hands were woken early to raise the anchor and get underway, with another pilot aboard, at 0445.  We started the day early in order to use all the daylight for transiting the locks of the St. Lawrence Seaway.  Before dawn, Picton Castle was at the first lock, the St. Lambert lock.

The locks of the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959 to allow ships to pass from the Atlantic into the Great Lakes.  The locks work like a series of elevators, raising ships from sea level to the level of the Great Lakes.  Each lock has two sets of doors.  On the way up the locks, the bottom doors are open, the ship advances into the lock and the bottom doors close behind it.  The lock is then filled with water to raise the ship.  When the lock is full, the upper doors open and the ship advances out of the lock.  While in the lock, there are lines going from the ship to the shore which are constantly tended.  As the ship rises, the lines aboard need to be heaved in to keep the ship snug against the lock wall.  Picton Castle passed through seven locks starting with the St. Lambert lock and ending with the Iroquois lock and the transit took a total of 22 hours.

Once through the locks, the ship carried on sailing in Lake Ontario and arrived in Toronto harbour on Saturday August 6th.  We’re docked at the eastern gap entrance to Toronto harbour, which means we see most of the traffic coming and going from the harbour including all of the bigger vessels.  There have been many tugs and barges, lots of sailboats, canoes, kayaks and other pleasure craft. From our berth we see the ferries going from the mainland to the Toronto Islands and we have an excellent view of the iconic Toronto skyline.

in Toronto

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Captain’s Log – Quebec City

Picton Castle made a grand entrance at Quebec City on Thursday July 28th.

As you may remember, we have been working on a project that involves a historical re-enactment, and this is the final port for that project.

Families of those aboard were standing on the shore at the harbour entrance, watching Picton Castle pass by with sails set up to the royals, shouting and waving at their loved ones aboard.  The ship continued up the St. Lawrence River to do a sail-past of Old Quebec, creating an iconic image for anyone taking photographs from the south shore of the river with a square rigger pictured in front of the old city walls and fortifications.  The ship then turned and came down the river, into the outer basin of the harbour, turned 180 degrees and came alongside the commercial pontoon at Quai 19 starboard side-to.


Picton Castle’s arrival in Quebec City marks the culmination of an epic voyage.  The passage from La Rochelle, France to New Brunswick, Canada took 39 days, following a route that took the ship as far south as 28 degrees latitude.  After a brief stay in New Brunswick, it was another six days at sea to reach Quebec City.  While this was a re-enactment, it was also very much the real thing.  Sailing transatlantic in a square rigger is rare these days and everyone aboard seems bolstered by the confidence of having done just this.20160728_095245_resized

Quebec City is a fitting end for a “historical” voyage.  It’s one of the oldest European settlements in North America, founded in 1608 by explorer Samuel de Champlain and it maintains much of its historic architecture and layout today, making it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Quebec is also the site of one of Canada’s few battles, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, where in 1759 the British defeated the French.

The walls around the old city, which still exist now, were first built in the 1600s and built upon and improved over the coming centuries by both the British and the French, including the construction of a citadel.

It’s also a fantastic port for a sailor on his or her day off duty.  The narrow streets and old stone buildings have many hidden corners and alleyways to discover.  The food and drinks are excellent and there seems to be something interesting going on at every corner.  We’ve seen street performers in the evenings juggling fire, slacklining and doing acrobatics (although not all at the same time).  Quebec attracts thousands if not millions of tourists every year so people are welcoming and readily offer assistance.


Our ship is drawing quite a crowd in Quebec, with a photo in the local newspaper on Friday with a brief story about our arrival.  Picton Castle will be back in Quebec in 2017 for the Rendezvous 2017 tall ships event, as part of a large fleet of ships.  Although we haven’t been able to welcome the public aboard during this visit, we look forward to doing that next summer.

As usual, ship’s work continues as the crew on duty look after our ship.

As I type this in the ship’s office aboard (my favourite work location!), the crew are taking advantage of the good weather to oil the decks on the quarterdeck and foc’sle head, after yesterday’s on duty watch sanded and varnished the two aft deck boxes and the taff rail at the forward end of the quarterdeck.20160730_114409_resized


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Day’s Run – 12 July, 2016

And the next low pressure system comes through bringing near gale force winds for the day. PICTON CASTLE is crawling along upwind under short sail trying to make the best of these conditions.

Fortunately for us this was only to last the day. In the late afternoon the barometer began rising again and at the evening watch change we had Upper Topsail set again and continued to work our way to the North, looking forward to a wind shift and the forecast southerlies late in the week. It’s amazing how quickly the Ocean can change. Just a few days ago on the other side of the Gulf Stream we were all in t-shirts and shorts still marvelling at the deep blue water; now it’s all hats, jumpers and sea boots. The water temperature has fallen considerably since we left the Gulf Stream and the colour of the water has gone grey, similar to what we remember from the start of the voyage, we must be getting close to land again.

SHIP’S WORK: Move and re-stitch leather on MONOMOY oars; Lashings about deck and below.

FROM: La Rochelle, France

TOWARDS: Quebec, Canada


NOON POSITION: 42°42’N / 053°49’W

DAYS RUN: 83nm




WIND: W, Force 7 – 8

WEATHER: Rain and Squalls, air temp: 20°C, water temp: 18°C

SWELL HEIGHT & DIRECTION:  W’rly, 11 – 14ft

SAILS SET: Lower Topsails, Foresail, Fore & Main Topmast Staysails and the foot of the Spanker

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Day’s Run – 11 July, 2016

Another day working through the Atlantic, to the North this time. Breeze filled in westerly in the morning and has been a steady Force 5 for most of the day.  All of the safety gear got a quick overhaul: as we know we will need it again, we must keep it in top notch condition.  With the fresh weather we take some time to do some extra cleaning jobs and take any opportunity when the wind lightens up to set more sail.

SHIP’S WORK: Clean aloha deck overhead; replace chafe gear on forward topmast shroud legs; continue shaping MONOMOY main boom; repairs to Lower Topsail ‘C’.

FROM: La Rochelle, France

TOWARDS: Quebec, Canada


NOON POSITION: 41°20’N / 053°54’W

DAYS RUN: 86nm




WIND: SW x W, Force 6

WEATHER: Overcast, air temp: 22°C, water temp: 24°C


SAILS SET: Topsails, Courses, Inner & Outer Jibs, Fore & Main Topmast Staysails, Main T’gallant Staysail and Spanker

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Day’s Run – 10 July, 2016

Weather forecasting has been an amazing advancement to safety at sea: to be able to have a heads up to what’s around the corner and being able to plan accordingly. But as complex as weather systems can be, the forecasters and computer models don’t always get it right. While we were expecting the breeze to freshen today we got a little more than we bargained for in the early morning. Having gotten the kites in around midnight and the T’gallants in around 2am, we were riding nicely under Topsails, Courses and a few Staysails when with a very sharp drop in the Barometer at 0330 the wind built to a solid Force 9. All hands were called to get in Upper Topsails and the Mainsail and rig safety gear.

Being in the upper part of the Gulf Stream the water was still pleasantly warm, and despite the wind the air was making the work much more bearable. This also meant however that we were in an area with the wind against the current which built up the seas very quickly. As soon as the necessary work was complete the off watches were sent below and the on watch stayed snug on the quarterdeck while we rode out the wind and seas.

And just as quickly as it came on, it went away. The Barometer shot back up and by 0830 the wind had abated to Force 6 and we set Upper Topsails again. But, unfortunately for us, as the day wore on the wind continued to decrease, but the seas did not. By late afternoon we again had the fore & aft sail in and the Courses clewed up drifting in the Gulf Stream waiting for a breeze.

The only thing we didn’t have was a flat calm! Despite this, it was a good day for sail handling, testing the skill of a crew now having sailed almost 7,000nm in square rig on the North Atlantic. We have come a long way since that rainy Thursday departure in early May.

SHIP’S WORK: Sunday at Sea!

FROM: La Rochelle, France

TOWARDS: Quebec, Canada


NOON POSITION: 40°04’N / 054°08’W

DAYS RUN: 115nm




WIND: WSW, Force 4

WEATHER: Overcast and squally, air temp: 22°C, water temp: 24°C

SWELL HEIGHT & DIRECTION:  Mixed, 8 – 13ft

SAILS SET: Set to the T’gallants and the Inner Jib

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Day’s Run – 9 July, 2016

With conditions continuing to be fresh over night we got in T’gallants early in the morning. The day dawned warm and sunny and when the wind moderated enough we set all sail except the Studding Sails and went charging off on a close reach at 6kts. As we know sunny dry days will start becoming very few, today was a day for many small jobs aloft and on deck. The carpenters were busy with adze, slick and hand saws cutting the taper into the new Royal yard. The Sailmakers, while working on repairs to the light weather sails that had just come down, were also admiring the new Main Upper Topsail, which we have to admit, looks pretty good and is set well.  All in all, a good day to be at sea.

SHIP’S WORK: Replace STBD Main Lower Topsail brace; clean and organize sole stores; shift buntline blocks on both masts; replace ratlines on the main topmast shrouds; shorten Main Topmast Staysail tack pennant; continue on new Fore Royal yard; strip iron work off of old royal yard; Sailmakers finish repairs on Spanker ‘C’ and continue seaming new Main Topmast Staysail.

FROM: La Rochelle, France

TOWARDS: Quebec, Canada


NOON POSITION: 38°48’N / 054°08’W

DAYS RUN: 139nm




WIND: W, Force 5

WEATHER: Sunny, air temp: 22°C, water temp: 25°C


SAILS SET: All Sail, except Studding Sails

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