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Sailing Blue Water in Square Rig

Today there are any number of lovely sailing vessels making wonderful trips under sail that most anyone can join. Schooners, brigantines and the like. Most of these trips are for a week or two, even up to a semester long if you are a student seeking accredited school time while also sailing at sea. Many young people sign on such college bound programs. It is possible that the kids may be more interested in the sailing than the classes, but the parents are paying and that great experience at sea while accruing college credit is a desirable two-for. If you are bound for the Danish merchant marine the Danes have two great full rigged ships, the DANMARK and the GEORG STAGE making longer voyages and preparing their cadets for lives at sea in the best possible way. Shorter trips along the coasts in sweet schooners and the like for a taste of the sea can be found here and there in many parts of the world. Most of these vessels represent the dreams of those that put them together and usually own and sail them. From time to time I get asked about my ‘dream’ to make PICTON CASTLE come to life now 25 years ago. If pressed I answer. Folks are surprised to find out that PICTON CASTLE was not my ‘dream’. But it was a dream, nonetheless.

History tells us that the overall tonnage of the growing fleet of steam ships eclipsed that of sailing ships by around 1885. No doubt this is true. But this simple statement of fact hides an equally interesting statistic. Steam ships were bigger, a lot bigger than sailing ships, and had fewer crew. This means that while actual overall tonnage of steam may have passed that of sail at that time, the absolute number of steam ships would have had to have taken many more years to pass the actual number of sailing ships at sea earning a living. And the sailing ships with their large crews would have logically made up a greater portion of professional mariners for a long time after 1885. I do not know when steam ship numbers would have passed that of sailing ships on the world’s oceans. Nor do I know when the total number of steam ship mariners would have eclipsed the number of sailing ship seafarers. But it must have been well after the mid 1880s.

Sailing the world’s seas and in island groups there persisted a strong, if diminishing armada of trading sailing ships. Pockets of coastal trade under sail persisted here and there into the 1960s, even later in places. England, Finland, Haiti, Bahamas, the islands of the Eastern Caribbean and the Grenadines, the Indonesian archipelago, the Cape Verde Islands off West Africa, all had reason to depend on sail for moving people and goods about well into the later half of the 20th century.

Up until the Second World War there remained a fleet of large successful blue water, deep sea, square riggers, carrying cargo under sail around the world. Apart from a couple rusty old barques in the dying guano trade off the coast of Chile most of these ships made one voyage a year, in ballast under sail from Scandinavia, south around the Cape of Good Hope then east in the Roaring 40s to South Australia for grain, and then east again south of Cape Horn and back up north to Europe to discharge. These ships were of 2,000 and 3,000 gross tons, carrying up to 400 to 500 tons. These ships were the ones that the last Cape Horn seamen sailed in.

I used to know a lot of old Cape Horn sailors long ago. Men and women, who sailed in big ships and barks like the TUSITALA, PONAPE, POMMERN, PEKING, PADUA, ABRAHAM RYDBERG, MOZART, PAMIR, PASSAT, LAWHILL, and maybe a couple others. I met them in Cape Town while mate of the Brigantine ROMANCE, then met a few in Copenhagen and even New England. I sailed with a few as well. They all said they hated rounding Cape Horn. They spoke of climbing down from the rig after stowing the frozen remnants of blown out canvas upper topsails in a bitter winter passage. Then hauling thick swollen manila braces up to their shoulders in ice-water in the lee scuppers, and the ends of these swollen ropes trailing out the freeing ports and getting jammed and cut to shreds. Never mind the lives lost or bones crushed. The food was not so great either. Weevils in the hard tack. Salt pork and beef, something like eating salty wood that smells bad.

They ALL told me that their dream as mariners – if it wasn’t to be a bartender in a pub in Hamburg or Falmouth, or a chicken farmer somewhere – was to sail a topsail schooner or small bark slowly in amongst the balmy islands of the South Pacific, trade a little here and there, dance under the palms in the sand to a ukulele once in awhile, and then sail on to the next island. Well, that dream sounded good enough for me. I saw no need to conjure a new unique one.

In a very real sense PICTON CASTLE was established to, in some small way, be the descendant, a lone successor of these ships. Sail deep sea in a fine, strong steel square rigger any old Cape Horner would admire, with a bunch of young folks getting away from our soundbite, channel changing world. Soften some of the edges, throw in flying fish trade wind passages and palm fringed tropical islands, a little trading, and give Cape Horn a pass and you have a good idea what our ship is about. Our 300-ton barque is a vestige of, sort of an homage to, what came before us in time. Our ship is the embodiment of their saltwater seagoing sailor’s dream. We sail this dream of many Cape Horn sailors who came before us. As best as we can. So far, so good. What wonderful dream it is too.