Lessons Learned at Sea

Bronwen here, I am one of the SPV Picton Castle Shore Crew.

As a quick introduction, for those who don’t know me.  I sailed as a Deckhand on the Picton Castle in 2007, and then joined the crew again as Voyage Coordinator/Purser/Deckhand during World Voyage 5 (2010/2011).

After almost seven years away from the Tall Ship World, I was invited back to join the shore crew in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in the spring of 2018. In this job I work with Picton Castle on ‘Special Projects’, and I also work with the Nova Scotia Seamanship Education Society – a Charity dedicated to supporting mariners gain access to education and mentorship in seafaring and seamanship. I am happy to be a part of such incredible organizations and teams.

Like Captain Moreland, Tammy, Dawson, Maggie, and Danielle, I am now working as much as possible from home – we are all doing our part to flatten the curve.

The world is facing something very hard together, and I believe we are united in that strange and hard unknown.

We have been asked to isolate -to stay home, avoid gatherings, avoid public places – to stay calm and create a new normal for ourselves in a world that feels literally anything but that.

I had been reflecting a lot lately on some of the lessons that I learned while sailing on the Picton Castle, and I had written a draft of a Captain’s Log with that in mind last week – before I knew that Maggie Ostler had been inspired to do the same, and had written a Captain’s Log about it. That is connection, and also says a lot about what sailing teaches us.

I loved reading Maggie’s Captain’s Log about the lessons she learned at sea, lessons that may lend their use in this time. I also found it very interesting that we were both thinking about different lessons learned. It is not surprising, just neat. There are so many lessons taken from time spent at sea, with your fellows, the space, the connection, the rhythm.

With further pre-amble, here are some of the lessons I learned onboard that might resonate with you, and help, as we adjust to this new reality for a bit, a while, a time.

Lesson #1Patience

Lesson 1.1 – ‘There will be wind again’

When you sail through the Doldrums, days upon days of an ocean so calm, reflection of an impatience- to move forward, to move on, to move beyond, to something else, to something known, to something comfortable -bounces back from the surface, staring you in the eye. In those moments it is good to remember that there will be wind again.

It is also a lesson about being in the moment, in the present.

Lesson 1.2Patience is a Virtue

I don’t think I have ever understood this proverb/commonly used expression in quite the same way as I do now, nor do I think I have embodied it at all times as of late, during the ‘adjustment period’ especially.

As one can imagine – whether you have sailed, or haven’t *yet – when you work and live together on a ship, you need to learn to be patient, and you also need to learn how to mitigate and minimize drama. Drama does occur, on ships, like everywhere else where humans co-exist, but you learn to talk more, and listen, even better.

Our patience with one another right now will be tested, but we must learn to be/remember to be patient.

You could be isolated with family, or a roommate, or living by yourself. You could have kids that you are trying to homeschool, or pets that are demanding extra belly rubs and wanting walks and attention because you are home more than usual. You could be trying to study, while your isolation buddy has decided to do their cross fit via zoom in the living room where you have set up your laptop for school.

Be patient with those that we love far away as they go through the ebbs and flows that this is bringing.

Regardless of your situation, we need to learn to be patient with one another, and with ourselves.

Lesson 1.3Patience with yourself as you learn a new skill

In the time now, you may be wondering about learning a new skill like; cooking, carpentry, gardening, meditation, Spanish, knitting, sewing masks for Healthcare workers. Do it. It is a new skill, a new language, but with practice and time, you will learn, and you will be enriched for the knowing moving forward.

I remember being so incredibly nervous when I stepped aboard the ship as crew for the first time. Staring up at rigging, the lines (all the lines!). I remember thinking that I didn’t want to let the Captain down, that I didn’t want to let my brother down, that I didn’t want to let the crew down.

I was so excited to be challenged to learn new skills, but I was alsoterrified that I wouldn’t understand. The sextant was intimidating to me, plotting was intimidating to me, wire splicing, learning knots, sail making– well, pretty much everything was intimidating at first.

I thought of my weaknesses, instead of my strengths. Think of your strengths and be patient with your weaknesses.



Breathe…just not on people ; )

You will learn the new skill, the new language. Like most languages, it has a sense about it, a structure. Be patient with yourself, observe, trust the crew to be patient with you as you learn. You will not learn how to be a good sailor overnight, and impatience will not do anything but frustrate you. The pieces of the puzzle will come together, and those moments of learning, the breakthroughs in how you observe the connections, how you learn to see the wind, how you start to see the whole that you are a piece of….those are moments to live for.

Lesson 1.4Connection

It can be an adjustment to be away from loved ones – friends and family – whether you are at sea, or right now…

When I sailed it wasn’t the time of the smart phones (or I didn’t yet have one…yeah probably that), and the technology for worldwide connection that currently exist was not where it is now, by a long stretch.

I skyped when I got to land when I could, from internet cafes. I sent a lot of letters when we reached port and received love from afar. Letters, they were beautiful to send and receive, and still are. I shared my incredible journey with people I loved, and there wasn’t a beat missed when I returned. True love is always there.

Now, of course, we have so much more ability to reach out with technology. Reach out as you want and can. Send that e-mail, Skype, Zoom (dance parties?), text, WhatsApp, Instagram and LinkedIn – and all of the other ways to send love to your loved ones and colleagues.

Know that even if you can’t see them right now in person right now, they are on the other end of a letter, a phone call, and the other side of your love for them.

Lesson #2Space – How we think about and define its importance

We are currently adjusting to a different idea of space. Your house or apartment may have seemed big enough, but now your family or roommates may all be at home. Your space may have seemed big enough, but you could go outside when you wanted; you could go to work, and then return, and have a separation between work life and home life… Now all of that has changed. We need to learn to create space within the space we have. We need to learn to think about space in different ways, and to learn how to help carve out space for other people.

Those who know me know that I am both an incredibly social person, and a complete hermit. This duality was easily managed on land, but I did wonder before joining the Picton Castle, especially for my first voyage, how I could possibly create that space. When sailing on a 179-foot ship with 50 other people, where could I go, where could I hide when I needed to be alone?

My bunk seemed impossibly small at first, so much smaller than my room. A curtain, not a door, separated me from my fellow crew.

*It did turn out it is quite big for a bunk on a ship.

I learned to create space, and I was not alone in that creation. We all seek a balance, how we work to balance the scales, the only real difference. There was honest conversation between us as we went from strangers, to crew, to family. My family at sea respected my need for some space.

Lookout, as you observed the ocean, scanned the horizon, looked to the sky above for signs of changing weather, also allowed for a quiet space within.

In all honesty the idea of space changed for me over the course of my time onboard. So much so that by the end of the voyage, and as I returned home, to a room, and a house, I didn’t know what to do with all of that space…and it took a while to adjust to the ‘normal’ again.

We can do this.

Lesson #3Sleep is important

Sleep is important.

I think that this has taken the wind out of a lot of our sails, and we need to be able to rest, when the work or study or the day is done. We have another day ahead, another watch, another chance to learn the lessons. We need the time to allow it to soak in, and allow our minds some rest from the racing, and our hearts some time to beat slowly. We earned it.

Lesson #4 – Get creative with what you have 

On the ship we learned to get creative with what we had on hand. Whether that was meal preparation, Holiday and Birthday presents, entertainment, or ship projects. It was glorious.

The creativity I saw from my fellow-ship mates still baffles my mind.

For a sample of presents I saw given, received, and made: An old egg-beater made into an incredible head scratcher, island style coconut bras, necklaces intricately carved out of rocks and peals (yes, black pearls ; )) and shells, leather books (I made one!), with engravings…thoughtfulness, and resourcefulness.

For entertainment we learned one another’s dances like the Maori Haka or practiced our Polynesian dances we learned in Palmerston, in the Cook Islands, or learned and created ones together; we donned wigs, put on plays, created competitions between watches; we wrote songs, played games, read the books we wanted to, wrote journals, talked, learned one another’s languages and histories; we learned carpentry, learned to sew, took on extra ship projects…so much more….

When we are faced now with a time of isolation, we should try to look to the projects around us, and the materials we have on hand.

We don’t need non-essential shopping stores to get creative. Don’t forget what made you happy in your downtime before.

If you are a musician, write songs, get better at your instrument. If you are a writer and have paper, or a computer, write!! Anything and all.  If you are a gardener, can you create a living wall or plant a herb garden, if you don’t have a yard? Dance with friends on one of the online video services. Learn or improve a language with a friend online. Have a friend teach you a skill online you have always wanted to learn but haven’t yet. If you are a nerd, like me, look up some classes online to see free academic and skill sharing resources. If you are an artist, find your artist friends, or look out the window, or to the light within your home and get ridiculous with paper, playdough, anything (…toilet paper rolls…?).

If you are a dreamer, dream of a better world, a connected world ; )

We’ve got this. Together. The oceans may connect us, but we can also bind one another in hope.

Lesson #5The Rhythm at Sea, Mindful thinking

I think that we are now learning to find our rhythm in all of this on land, and it is not easy.

At first seeing the exotic ports, meeting new people, hearing new languages (and trying to learn the basics), exploring the ridiculous and mind-boggling diverse world in which we live, was what I was most excited about. I was a land vagabond (and I had studied Anthropology between my explorations to find a global and local community) before I joined the Picton Castle as crew.

Picton Castle changed that (and more to come on my love of long sea passages in future logs). We had a few 20-30 days passages, during my time onboard. It hard to describe, but I never felt ready to reach land when we knew we were approaching. In part that was because we had started to establish a rhythm, and we knew that land would disrupt that for a bit, and we would have to establish it again. Which you do, and it does get easier every time.

I am definitely not saying that we won’t be happy to get to the other side of this voyage that we are currently on as a world, all in our individual boats, sailing the same ocean of uncertainties. Be in the moment, as hard as it may sound, and it is hard. Be in the moment with your work, or tasks, or those you love, or just with yourself. It is easier at sea to do that, for sure – but we are, all, in a way at sea together right now. Our shared experiences may make us stronger, more united.

My hope is that we learn to find a rhythm within ourselves and our lives right now. Find the beats, the bass, the tempo – because we too can beat this.

If you know of anyone who didn’t know if this was a possibility, to sail the oceans and be a part of a crew, and maybe, if they love it, pursue the incredible opportunities this maritime world can offer – please spread the word.

The Picton Castle is accepting applications for trainees for the upcoming Voyage of the South Pacific. When the tide is right, the ship plans to set sail. At the current moment still aiming for the 1st of July to begin the 1st leg, but we have been and will be adjusting to realities, and updates will come on the website, and social media, and through correspondence.

Please take care of yourself and one another!