At about 1300 on the 22nd of June PICTON CASTLE stood out past the Boston Light, set to the t’gallants. After five busy days in the port of Boston we are sailing out to join the Tall Ships fleet for the start of Sail Training International’s race number 4 of the Rendezvous 2017 Tall Ships Regatta from Cape Ann, Massachusetts to the northeastern end of mainland Nova Scotia.
Warm summer weather had been on order while we were in Boston but as we motor sailed out with the light and building southerly into Massachusetts Bay the crew quickly felt the cold breeze off of the 65° F water and ran to put on some warmer clothes. 19 vessels gathered for the race start, which was set about 10 miles to the east of the storied fishing town of Gloucester. It is always quite a sight to see a fleet of ships this size sailing in close quarters, especially on occasions such as this with a moderate breeze that allows the ships to set much if not all of their sail and get a good turn of speed going as well.
In an only somewhat serendipitous nod to the latter half of the Age of Sail, amongst the fleet are the Barque EAGLE, ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT II, GUAYAS, EUROPA, the 4 Masted Barque UNION and of course PICTON CASTLE making seven out of the nineteen ships in the fleet cut quite a scene of square riggers standing offshore until the fading evening light. To cap off the evening a spectacular sunset over Cape Ann bid the fleet farewell from the USA on our way to Canada.
Winds went fairly light on the first night, we kept all but the flying jib and gaff topsail set. Most of the fleet dispersed during the night, a group of ships like this with very different sailing qualities don’t stay together for long. The next day the Gulf of Maine began to show its true colours and as the day went on the wind began to increase, the air got colder and the fog set in.
Of all the times I have been across the Gulf of Maine, I don’t think I have ever actually seen it, there is almost always fog here. By midday we were shortened down to the main t’gallant in a Force 6 breeze. In this sort of weather, charging through the fog, extra care must be taken with the navigation, extra lookouts posted and a close watch kept on the radar and AIS. We are passing just to the north of the George’s Bank, and there are many fishing vessels in the area, over the years more than one vessel has come to grief from not paying close enough attention around these waters. A sobering reminder that we must be on our game.
As the day wore on the seas began to build and by evening we were shortened down to topsails and the foresail. Even though the weather is cold and wet the gang is kept busy about the deck, we had a full third of the crew change over in Boston so there are many new hands to teach the way of the ship to, learning lines, bracing, sail handling evolutions, all of this must be done in order to sail the ship. As it is, the ship comes first and we must sacrifice some comfort for the good of the ship and all onboard.
Two days we spent with a fresh fair wind and almost zero visibility, until the morning of the 25th when off of Halifax the wind eased, hauled southwesterly and the fog lifted. We again set to the royals and as the black hull of the ship began to warm the off watches came up from below to enjoy the sun. After two days of staring into the fog it felt good to get back the fair weather routines of work in the rig and about the deck. The on watch getting tar into the rig, oiling blocks and renewing ratlines, a carpenter finishing up our new fruit lockers and the sailmaker roping our new outer jib. In the afternoon we had an all hands workshop to teach seizings, allowing more of the new crew to get their hands on some of the ship’s rigging work.
On the afternoon of June 26 we crossed the finish line for the race and wore ship to bring us into Chedabucto Bay, the head of the waterway that separates Nova Scotia from Cape Breton Island. As our pilot for the Canso Strait and lock wasn’t due to board until the next morning we stood on towards an anchorage just outside the town of Arichat on the south side of Cape Breton. As the sun got low in the sky over Nova Scotia, PICTON CASTLE took off across the bay. With a fresh breeze but no seas to slow her down in the calm water of the bay we were able to carry every stitch of canvas full and drawing, clicking off 6.5 to 7 kts. It’s in these conditions one can really feel the power of a sailing ship rig like this and the energy it takes to get a heavy ship like this moving under wind power alone.
As we neared our anchorage for the evening the wind began to die off and we squared away for Arichat Harbour. At about 2230, just after last light the ship very quietly glided up to the anchor, apart from the soft spoken commands and the light rattle of sheets as the hands got in all sail forward it felt almost as if the ship were suspended in space, quite a contrast to the afternoon’s sailing. As the main yards squared away and the ship brought into the light breeze the sound of the anchor chain thundered out and all remaining sail was taken in. Arichat is a familiar spot for PICTON CASTLE from years past and it’s always good after a fresh passage to be anchored in a peaceful little spot such as this.
As morning dawned clear and flat calm, the engineer fired up the trusty B&W Alpha main engine and we hove back anchor to pick up our pilot for the Canso Strait. While the Strait is a natural channel it wasn’t really navigable until a lock was put in near the town of Port Hawkesbury to keep the currents down to a minimum. It was a pretty morning running up the Strait and the crew kept busy shining up the ship and getting ready for our next port visit. Just after 1200 PICTON CASTLE cleared the lock and dropped off the pilot as we steamed into St George Bay, now on the Gulf of St Lawrence side of Novas Scotia. Not too long after a light breeze sprang up from the east and the crew, now getting more confident with handling the rig, quickly made all sail and the main engine was shut down.
That evening we wore ship around Cape George and shaped up for the Northumberland Strait to the south of Prince Edward Island. While the Northumberland is pretty wide it’s still a lot more confined than sailing in the open ocean and as a result, it takes a little more effort and attention for everybody onboard. While passing Pictou Island in the night the breeze came on to a southerly Force 5 and the watch on deck quickly got in the royals and upper staysails. But with the wind easing a bit toward morning and the current setting the ship to the north the next watch got all sail set again to keep the ship on course.
Having made good time up the Strait it was decided to anchor for another night before passing under the Confederation Bridge, which connects Prince Edward Island to the mainland at New Brunswick and entering the Port of Summerside. As PICTON CASTLE approached Cape Tormentine all hands were called to be the ship ready for sailing onto the anchor. Though the same manner as had been gone through the other night, there was more wind this time and the evolution had to happen more quickly. But as we approached the anchorage at Rock Reef under Cape Tormentine the wind quickly shifted, in a short scramble the ship was made ready to come about and tack back up to the spot most ideal for the ship to anchor. It’s not an easy task to marshal 46 people to complete a manoeuvre most have never even heard of before. But the mates and lead seaman did a good job and this ship got through stays quickly without a hitch. As the ship began to gain speed on the other tack it was soon time to bring her head to wind, down with the headsails, in fore upper and lower topsails, midships the spanker and hard down the helm, as the ship came up smartly into the wind hands aft squared the mainyards to put on the brakes and the starboard anchor was let go. After all remaining sail was taken in the crew swarmed up into the rig to get sail securely stowed for the night.
As is always the case, a ship like this is more about the journey than it is the destination. As exciting as it is to come into a new place it is always good to be able to have a night at anchor before going into port with the hustle of going alongside and the hectic excitement that can be at the start of a new tall ships festival. It’s important to have a moment, to be able to sit with the ship at rest without any outside distractions, to look up at the rig, ready to spring to life again at the call to loose sail, and say “we did that, we sailed this ship here” and as Irving Johnson said “with our own hands”. That’s the accomplishment, and that is the important part of this journey.