Bound for the South Pacific

By Captain Daniel Moreland

Bound for the South Pacific in the Barque Picton Castle

Here at the Picton Castle office, we have been getting all sorts of questions from folks who have been thinking about sailing in our Barque Picton Castle. They tell us that they are looking for that amazing deep-sea, blue-water seafaring, square-rigger voyaging experience. Kind of right up our alley. They want to haul braces with new shipmates in a proper square-rigged ship in the balmy tradewind breezes. Sail small boats in among tropical coves and bays to little islands on camping expeditions. And they said they want fine warm breezes in the south seas, frigate birds and flying fish. They want to visit legendary islands and make friends living on these islands. Coconuts and mangos and breadfruit might be on the menu in the shade of coconut palms perhaps. “Why don’t you sail back to Pitcairn Island if it is so great there?” Good question. “Why not sail to Tahiti and Bora Bora too if you can? You have a fine, sail anywhere, steel barque, you know the way, why not sail back to the Pacific?” Another few reasonable questions. Got us to thinking. So, in late spring of 2020, the Barque Picton Castle will be setting sail for the fantastic South Pacific Ocean, our ship’s (and crew’s) natural seagoing habitat. The South Seas call, a call that cannot be denied.

New Crew Join the Ship

All new crew and trainee crew will be joining the ship in May next spring at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada to stow the ship, bend sail and otherwise get the ship ready for sea – and train themselves up too. Lots to do and lots to learn; lots of practice and drills and much to go over before setting out to sea the first time. It can be (will be) a demanding and at times confusing period – all new people soon to become shipmates, ropes and lines everywhere, boxes and crates to load and stow. Tons of food, rope, paint, rigging gear, fuel, lumber and lots else to be hoisted aboard and stowed. Supplies for Pitcairn Island that have been ordered by our friends there to be packed in the 100-ton hold. Figuring out 205 lines, braces, halyards, sheets and downhauls – there is much to be learned – boats to load onboard, boats to get oriented in, ten yards, bending 21 sails, anchor drills, emergency training and follow up drills – fire drills, life raft drills, man overboard drills, damage control techniques, and all sorts of other stuff. There is lots to do before setting sail for the first time.

Outward Bound

Then on or about June 1st, we will cast off from the salty old seaport of Lunenburg, set sail and point our jibboom due south down the North Atlantic, looking for the Southern Cross. Crossing the Gulf Stream, we are bound for the brilliant tropics and the delightful tradewind islands of the eastern Caribbean about 2,000 miles away before sailing along the ‘Spanish Main’ bound for Panama, the Panama Canal and out into the broad Pacific Ocean. Cool at first, soon we will be in shorts, t-shirts and barefoot.

The Island Nation of Grenada – “The Isle of Spice” 

Lush and green, the best introduction to tropical seafaring and Caribbean life and one of our favorite islands anyway. A second home to Picton Castle (we have a few of these). Beautiful harbour carenage of St George’s, exquisite silver beach of Grand Anse, reggae and calypso music, 17th century sugar plantations still making rum, Jack Iron, mountain waterfalls, spice tours, roti and home to Picton Castle’s great cook/seafarer Donald. We will also put in to Carriacou, a smaller island to the north, where wooden sailing and fishing vessels are being built to this day (see the film Vanishing Sail).

Bonaire 

Bonaire is a quiet small Dutch West Indian island off the coast of Venezuela which we will visit as we sail on our way west across the southern Caribbean towards the isthmus of Panama. Laying in the strong tradewinds belt, beautiful clear waters, low, dry and interesting old structures dating from the age of infamous piracy and slavery. Small wooden ships bring in fruit from the mainland to our dock in Bonaire. A lovely stop for us. Then out and downwind for Panama.

The San Blas Islands of the Kuna 

After what could well be a strong tradewind romp along the coast of South America, along the Spanish Main, we will put into the San Blas Islands along Panama’s coast. Picture perfect palm-fringed islets in crystal clear sparkling turquoise blue waters. Wooden dugout canoes sailing by, paddling to the ship and some with outboards too. The San Blas Islands are an autonomous region of Panama, owned and managed by the indigenous Kuna who have called this area home for centuries. They farm on the jungle-covered mainland and live on these tiny islands, at one time for security and safety from the colonial powers. Looks like it worked as they are still here and still in charge. Beautiful setting, beautiful waters, powerful indigenous autonomy – you’ll see…

Portobello, the ‘Gold Port’  

Columbus anchored here and named it the ‘beautiful harbour’ – this quiet little bay, harbouring a sleepy little Latin American waterfront town on the way towards the Canal Zone, was once the main port for Spanish transshipping of melted down Incan gold and mined gold and silver back to Spain back in the days just after conquest, and very much in the ‘golden age of piracy’. And among other things a keen target for the likes of Francis Drake and Henry Morgan's depredations. Abandoned stone forts and big iron cannon laying in place where their carriages rotted out ages ago are scattered about the bay. 'Drake' is still a dirty word in these parts. And a sweet gentle introduction to Panama. A daysail away from the Panama Canal zone where things ramp up for the seriously awesome canal transit. We overuse the word ‘awesome’ today but here the term is quite apt. You’ll see.

The Panama Canal Transit

This is a big job to prepare for and then a long but fascinating day as we make a daylight transit of this technological wonder. A study in superlatives in amounts of dirt and rock moved, people dying to disease, the moving of huge populations to make a workforce, the vast volumes of waters to make it work, the tons of ships that go through every day, month, year. Amazing, literally. Hard to imagine pulling anyone building such a canal today. But there it is and it makes this voyage possible. Take the locks up to Gatun Lake, steam through the jungle of Central America and locks down to the other side and the Pacific Ocean. One day instead of three or four months and we get to skip Cape Horn. And this is a day you can never forget.

Panama is amazing in and of itself and we will spend some time here, and more on the way home. Strong indigenous cultures, clear evidence of piracy of the old style, ancient Spanish fortifications, great food, and lovely folks. The ruins of Old Panama City, sacked by Henry Morgan, are easy to walk through and impressively intact. Once Morgan wrecked the place and stole all he could, this old stone city was abandoned and the Spanish just built a new Panama City towards the west and left the old one to crumble. A fascinating visit bringing old pirate history right to us. Old neighborhoods of Casco Viejo, music, dining and markets full of local crafts.

On towards Galapagos

After transiting the techno-wonder of a Panama Canal we will head southwest and across the equator bound for Wreck Bay in the Galapagos Islands. Wreck Bay is a small Ecuadorian fishing town on the island of San Cristobal and gateway to many of the treasures for which the Galapagos is famed. And great Latin American cooking and music. Marine iguanas everywhere and we will have to shoo big sea lions out of the skiff after they take their naps if we want to get ashore.

Passage to Pitcairn

From these equatorial ecological gems, we set sail for storied Pitcairn Island. Home to descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their island consorts who settled there in 1790, Pitcairn is 2,800 miles away and usually a grand tradewind sea passage. Here we find the rhythm of the ship at sea. Flying fish join us and maybe a whale or two, perhaps a few pods of dolphins from time to time. And we find our own rhythms too as the ship becomes our world.  Day after day, week after week we steer the ship at the big teak wheel aft upon the quarterdeck, stand forward lookout at night, learn our lines better than ever, practice sail handling, helping in the galley, keeping the ship clean, figure out our knots and splices and really “learn the ropes” as the saying goes. Maybe some will get their sextants out to see if they can find out where we are. For those interested, they will learn to bring down the sun. So far from land, the night sky can be dazzling with stars. We become seafarers on this passage. The sea becomes our world. And then over the horizon, Pitcairn Island grows up in front of us off the bow.

Pitcairn’s Island

A small island, less than two miles long, it is also quite high and sometimes you can see it from many miles away. The big powerful 40 foot long launches will come out from Bounty Bay to meet us, take us ashore and if the weather is good enough, unload supplies for the island. Hopefully, we can find a place to put the anchor down. If not the Picton Castle and half the gang will be hove-to offshore as the other half goes ashore – again, if the weather holds. Just out the tropics at 25 degrees south, the weather is not as steady as it is in the tradewinds belt. The weather can be dodgy. But if we are lucky, we will get a few days at Pitkern Island. The gang will be split into two watches, one watch aboard to look after the ship, one watch ashore to mix it up with old friends of mine and the ship. Climb up to Christian’s Cave, take the longboat into Bounty Bay. Maybe get to swim at St Paul’s Big Pool, walk the secluded wooded paths first cleared by members of the Bounty’s crew ages ago. Make friends you cannot ever forget. It is hard to get to Pitcairn, it’s harder to leave, but sail on we must.

On to the Marquesas

1,200 miles to the northwest lay the Marquesas and back into the tropics. Sailmaking, rigging, ship's carpentry, celestial navigation, and other skills will be pursued by the ambitious seafarers aboard this passage. Herman Melville jumped ship here almost 200 years ago from a whaleship and gathered enough stories to write Typee and other books and stories. Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa, and Fatu Hiva are on our list of Marquesan islands to put into. Tall mountainous islands, even today the populations have not caught up with pre-contact days. But walking through the quiet forest you can stumble on lone tikis in the woods, part of old house foundations. Of particular charm to me as Captain is the fact that some of the anchorages are actually pretty good, a rarity in the South Pacific. Google these islands up and learn more. We are keen to see these islands again.

Onward we sail… ever deeper into the islands and atolls of the South Pacific Ocean and into French Polynesia.

The Tuamotu Archipelago – The 'Dangerous Archipelago'

From Marquesas, we sail southwest through the Tuamotus – aka, the Puamotus or the 'Dangerous Archipelago.' Known as the ‘Dangerous Archipelago’ as these islands are low, low, I mean, low, coral atolls, sometimes hard to see until only a few miles away – quite a change from the high islands like Pitcairn and Nuku Hiva visible almost 40 miles away when the atmosphere is clear. Combine low islands with poor charts and plenty currents, at times no wind, and dubious navigation you could be forgiven in thinking these islands are a bit ‘dangerous’ to navigate about. We’ll be okay though, not our first rodeo. One atoll for sure we will try to get to is Takaroa. A classic Polynesian atoll living the enchanted atoll life. And also, high up on the beach almost in the coconut palms is the wreck of the huge iron full-rigged ship County of Roxburgh, lost in a cyclone in 1906. Just sitting there, wrecked and yards and masts laying in the coconut palms just inshore. Much more to say about Takaroa and life on low coconut palm covered coral atolls but enough for now. Better to experience it anyway. Fishing, diving, exploring, making friends, sailing in lagoons, dancing…. don’t forget that big shipwreck either.

The Ship Comes First, Life Aboard

With all the charms of land and these legendary islands, we are seafarers first and the ship comes before all. If we do not take care of the ship, she cannot take care of us. While we have plenty of time ashore, all hands stand watches at sea and in port, sharing out the duties of sea-folk so all hands can both learn the way of a ship and also explore and enjoy the islands. At sea, we are on three watches: 4 hours on, 8 hours off duty around the clock. In port, we also take turns and stand watches onboard while half to two thirds of the gang head shore to explore.

Duties at Sea on Watch

Our four hours watches usually include a trick at the wheel, some sail handling, maybe a stint at forward lookout. Certainly there will be some ship cleaning, washing down the decks followed by some kind of ship’s work such as painting, varnishing, tarring or one and more of hundreds of other tasks that keep the ship moving. Maybe work aloft in the rigging or sailmaking on the quarterdeck. Taking turns helping the chief cook in the galley and of course, there will be dishes to wash. Yet out of the 24 hours in the day, only eight hours are regularly called for on deck. Except in unusual moments, the rest of the day is yours to do as you wish.

Duties in Port

When the ship is at anchor or alongside a town wharf we always keep a navigational watch aboard. This ain’t no yachting tour. We always look after the ship. And thus the ship always looks after us. And with a watch aboard it allows our shipmates either half or two thirds at a time to explore ashore at the many amazing ports we visit. Managing the ship’s boats, skiff runs ashore, shopping with the cook, painting, rigging, sailmaking are ongoing. Keeping the ship safe should weather change. Anchor watches at night are standard procedure.

Back at sea… under sail… bound for…

Tahiti and the Society Islands

Tahiti. If ever a name evokes the south seas it must be 'Tahiti'. There is nothing quite like making landfall at Tahiti. The mountains break through the skies and clouds. The fragrance of rich land as we get under the lee of land will be in sharp contrast to the salty sea.  Sailors say that you should have been to Tahiti (fill in the blank) years ago; 10 years ago, 30 years ago or whenever. They have been saying this ever since Captain Cook’s second voyage. But having been to and enjoyed spending time at Tahiti since I was a young man 40 years ago, the right answer is that the time to go to Tahiti and experience and enjoy Tahiti is always 'right now'. Thus, we are be bound for Tahiti. Sounds good to me! Yes, much more modern and up to date, and always bustling. The Gauguin Museum is a highlight. Waterfalls in the mountains, surf along the reefs, round island treks, plantations, coconut palm-fringed beaches, black pearls, the beautiful old market, amazing singing in the churches. Of course, the nightlife and cafes in Papeete call us in. Baguettes and the best coffee and French wines. The night market of food caravans near the docks offers the most delicious French and Polynesian cuisine. Matavai Bay, host to Captain Cook’s ships and the infamous HMS Bounty (as well as a few movies of same) is a short bus ride away, curving black volcanic sand beaches with surf rolling in. This is where Bligh and Christian and generations of European sailors landed their longboats and more generations of Tahitians over centuries launched their voyaging canoes, their ‘vakas,’ and set out to sea. Tahiti is also great for shopping for the ship and fueling up. Then we can explore the legendary Society Islands.

Mo’orea. Beautiful, elegant, quiet and serene and quite near to Tahiti. An amazing backdrop of mountains at anchor. Some call it the most beautiful anchorage in the world. Huahine. Bastion of independent traditional and an equally independent Polynesian outlook on life. Friendly in the busy village and accommodating. Small 'Chinese stores,' cafes, farms, and lagoons for exploring. Bora Bora. Stunning mountain skyline, a good anchorage and great place for sailing our ship’s boats all around inside the lagoon.

Sailing the Ship’s Boats

One of the many excellent things about sailing a ship just the size of Picton Castle is that we can carry a number of sizable ship's boats to use when we wish. And what is more instructive (and actually quite fun) than sailing and learning to sail a small sloop, cutter, dory or motor skiff in the lagoons and coves of tropical islands? Whenever we can, we launch these boats and sail them in the bays and harbour in which we anchor. Everyone gets a chance to do this and it is highly encouraged for all. There is some book study, hands-on instruction and then lots of practice and exercise around the ship. Sometimes we make expeditions to smaller islands, motus, and cays. Even overnight expeditions when circumstances allow. Small boats are not just good fun but are powerful teachers of seamanship. Small boat competency is essential to the accomplished mariner.

South to the Australs

From Tahiti and the Society Islands, we plan to sail for Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island by way of Raivavae, in the Austral Islands, a rarely visited island inside a fine barrier reef of coral and motus. A motu is a small islet, usually on the fringe reef but can be anywhere. Did you see the Disney film Moana? Moana means ocean and the island of Motunui, the home island in the film, means big islet. I have never been to Raivavae and am extremely keen on visiting this island with Picton Castle and our crew. Looks amazing from here and have heard great things.

Then the long sea passage to Easter Island or Rapa Nui. Big Rapa. Good to get our sea-legs back. Good to get into the rhythm of the ship and sea again – steering at the big teak wheel, standing forward lookout, handling sails and braces as needed, tarring the rig, painting, varnishing, making new running rigging here and there. A long passage to be sure but it will go quickly. Rapa Nui is the Polynesian name for this intriguing island. 'Nui' means big or greater. There is a Rapa Iti (you guessed it, 'iti' means ‘small’) about 2,000 miles away. Everyone has heard of Easter Island and seen pictures of the great and mysterious statues – few have sailed there. But we will. And this is the first time Picton Castle has been to Rapa Nui. After checking out this easternmost outpost of Polynesia, huge statues and all, we will catch the southeast tradewinds again and sail for the islands of the Gulf of Panama.

We love them so much we will put into Portobelo and San Blas islands for the second time on this voyage. Why not, they are right there? Maybe explore parts we did not get to the first time. Or visit old haunts familiar. For new crew, it will all be new anyway.

Cartegna, Colombia just to the east of Panama is an amazing old Spanish city with tremendous fortifications and outstanding cuisine and rich Latin American music and culture.  The Spanish were here to stay, so to speak. The city is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its military fortifications, built in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, which are the most extensive in South America and one of the most complete, and for its historic importance as a West Indies port.  The Old Town is surrounded by a high stone wall that’s 13 kilometres long.  Elsewhere in the city, there is a mix of old and new architecture. In the past, travelers have had to exercise a great deal of caution for personal safety in Colombia. This naturally has kept people away.  Yet in the past five years, the public safety situation in Colombia has improved significantly and is now once again a welcoming destination.  Nowhere on earth is without risk, but we expect to see a huge increase in tourists visiting Colombia shortly.  We’re looking forward to getting to Cartagena before the secrets of this incredible city are out of the bag. 

The Yucatan We will sail north to anchor at Cozumel, Mexico. A main reason for choosing Cozumel is to give many of the crew a chance to visit the Yucatan with all the Aztec pyramids, temples and other ruins of this lost civilization.  From Cozumel, there is a ferry that runs many times a day to Playa del Carmen on the mainland of the Yucatan peninsula.  From there, it’s a fairly short trip to see Tulum or a longer trip to see Chichen Itza.  While the area surrounding the cruise ship terminal in Cozumel is quite touristy, the beaches of the east coast are quieter, where the locals hang out and offer some amazing local foods.  Diving and snorkeling in Cozumel are also spectacular. 

The Gulf of Mexico and Tall Ships is where we’re headed next.  We don’t yet know exactly which ports in the US we’ll visit but will update you as the details come together.  The reason we’re headed for the Gulf of Mexico is the Tall Ships Challenge.  This is a series of port visits and sailing races between ports for tall ships. An exciting opportunity for the Picton Castle crew to mix it up with other tall ships in a festive atmosphere. The Challenge is organized every year by Tall Ships America and moves around from coast to coast.  Picton Castle participated in the first-ever Tall Ships Challenge in the Gulf of Mexico in 2018, just before we began our seventh world circumnavigation voyage.  At that time, we visited Galveston in Texas, Pensacola in Florida, and New Orleans in Louisiana.  We expect a similar number of ports will host the tall ships fleet in 2021.  These events are a good chance for our crew, who by then will know Picton Castle very well, to share the ship with the public as we welcome folks from these cities aboard for deck tours.  It’s also an opportunity for our gang to meet some other tall ship sailors.  We’re unlikely to see any other traditional sailing ships until this point in our voyage so it will be a pleasure to meet and interact with other crews. 

The Bahamas 

After the tall ships festivals in the Gulf have folded their tents, Picton Castle will be homeward bound.  We’ll sail down around the southern tip of Florida, hitch a ride on the Gulf Stream and make our way to the Bahamas.  We all remember seeing videos and photos in the news about how hard Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in late summer of 2019.  Buildings were flattened entirely, trees uprooted, all manner of things washed away, and many, many people lost everything they had.  A natural disaster like this is tough anywhere, but especially tough in a place like the Bahamas because they depend so heavily on tourism for their economy.  Without visitors, they can’t make any money to survive and rebuild, but visitors are scarce there after something like this.  In the immediate aftermath, there’s not much in the way of infrastructure, and people are scared that the devastation will happen again. They’ll be about a year and a half into their recovery at the time we plan to visit, and like so many of the other islands we’ve visited that have been recently hit by a hurricane or cyclone, they’ll be on their way to rebuilding.  It won’t be the same.  But they’ll be making a comeback in their own way.  And our visit will take place before hurricane season starts. 

Bermuda will be our final port call before returning to Lunenburg to complete the voyage.  Bermuda is a sweet spot for a visiting vessel.  Seemingly semi-tropical, its location makes it an ideal place to stop on a passage north or south from Lunenburg.  But more than its geographic location, Bermuda is a welcoming place, especially for a ship like ours.  We’ve made many friends over the years in Bermuda and have a number of Picton Castle alumni who are from there (including the Chief Mate on our most recent world circumnavigation voyage).  It’s also a final chance on this voyage for our crew to visit beaches and swim in tropical blue waters. 

This final passage of this voyage will bring us back to Lunenburg.  Every time Picton Castle sails into Lunenburg after a long voyage is a big event.  Even for those who didn’t join the voyage in Lunenburg, it’s a homecoming.  The working waterfront is always full of well-wishers, including friends and family of those aboard as well as local friends of the ship.  Lunenburg marks the completion of a voyage, the accomplishment of big goals and dreams. 

In many ways, this voyage will be different than any other voyage Picton Castle has made before. But is so many other ways this is a simply classic and unique Picton Castle deep sea, tradewind voyage putting in at iconic and difficult to get to islands and ports in the tropics. The South Pacific is such an enchanting place for a square rig sailor.  The guys who used to sail in ships commercially around bitter cold and stormy Cape Horn carrying goods all over the world dreamed of a voyage like this.  Lots of time to make the miles under sail, time to explore ashore in both big cities and remote outposts, trade wind sailing on flying fish passages.  Pretty much the dream of any square rig sailor. 

For more details on the Voyage to the South Pacific, including dates, ports and costs, please click here

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