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From Newport to Halifax – by sea

Posted by astamatt on July 13, 2007

July 13 –

The festival in Halifax is in full swing and I am updating this blog to bring things up to speed now that I am back on shore and have internet. We just arrived in Halifax in a haze last night.  What follows is the updated journal:

July 3, 2007

Here we are in New Bedford, Massachusetts. It is my third day on my third leg of the Picton Castle’s summer voyage. We left Newport last Sunday. Us ASTA interns got lucky: ASTA is letting us sail to Halifax, Nova Scotia instead of ending in Newport according to plan. The pro-crew were pleased to see that Heather and I  got to stay. We wanted to be there and they want us to be there with them as well for the next passage. The voyage continues! I am truly looking forward to visiting Nova Scotia. While I am excited about seeing Halifax, Lunenburg is by far the port I want to see most. Everything on the Picton Castle seems to have been made and tagged by makers in Lunenburg (particularly the Lunenburg Foundry, makers of our fine windlass). The pro crew talk about how beautiful the place is and how interesting it’s “working waterfront” of traditional maritime businesses is.

Sunday we left on a “Parade of Sail” for Newport. It was quite a spectacle as can be expected, but I think the one in Norfolk was a bit better. I’ve been spoiled apparently. We now have a whole new batch of trainees on board. More than half have had prior experience. They seem, as a whole, to be catching on quite well. Quicker than me at least. It is interesting though, many of them are overwhelmed and confused. Either by culture shock, or the apparent complexity of the Picton Castle’s square rigging. It is interesting because I can look at the expressions on their faces and remember how my face matched theirs a month and a half ago. Now I know what to do when it comes time to do sailhandling, I understand how the lines work with the sails. The pin-rail is no longer a jungle of seemingly random tethers. They are moving parts to a larger creation. When I haul or ease lines I am not oblivious to what that line is doing in the rig above, or how it interacts with the lines associated with it. Bit by bit the pieces have come together to form a familiar understanding of how the rig on this sailing ship really works. I used to think that I would never figure out how the ship works. With 170+ lines it seemed like a lofty goal to just simply know what to do, in the right way, at the right time. Now though, I do know my lines. In fact, I teach them now. Instead of following directions and trying to keep up, I find that I often now am leading groups of newer trainees through tasks.

Annie, one of the newer trainees, paid me an interesting comment today: She asked how long I had been on the ship. When I told her that I had only been on seven weeks she was genuinely surprised. She thought that I was on the professional crew because I seemed to know what to do and looked like “a fixture to the ship”. I think that was a nice way of referencing how much more unshaven and rough my appearance has become over the weeks. I remember when I first got on ship how everyone who had been on for a good length of time seemed dirty and their clothes dingy, their hair wild. Apparently I look like that myself now. Spend enough time here and you take on the personality of the ship. The Picton Castle, when compared to the other more polished tall ships, seems a bit rougher on the edges and a bit wild looking with its multi-ethnic decor which combine to give it a sort of unique, wild, rough and fun personality. When you compare the crew of the Picton Castle next to the more polished crews of the other tall ships ,that same analogy, at least to me, holds true. It is that sort of personality match between the person and ship that Annie saw in me that would make her think I had been a more permanent fixture to the ship.

I have come a long way since day one, but there is still so much more to learn. I have learned a lot, but its a mere scratch on a surface really. That just shows how much there is to be learned. Just a beginning step, but a big one at that. Seeing such results is a real confidence booster and emboldens me to do and learn more.

Today was our second day in New Bedford. We are waiting for a gale near Maine to pass so that we area not caught in it. Apparently it passed slowly, enough so that we might get caught in it tommorow after exiting the Cape Cod Canal. So we wait as the Captain exercises caution with the weather. New Bedford is quite the fishing town. It has hundreds of smaller fishing vessels who collectively net more money in this port than in any other on the East Coast. New Bedford in the past however used to be home to more than one-half of the U.S. whaling fleet. You can tell the people love their whaling background. Numerous images on signs in the town depicting or alluding to whales, ships and harpoons. We even see teams of people practicing the rowing of small whaling boats in the harbor regularly. Their boats match our monomoy rowing boat very closely. They race them at this time of year and their skill at their oars surpasses ours I believe. Not that we are bad, sometimes we oar like a “drunken spider” but often we can get a good rhythem and make a good showing of ourselves. I need to sleep now so I am calling it a night.

July 4th, 2007

It is a rainy fourth of July. A real bum one as far as fireworks are concerned. We are at Martha’s Vineyard now. I can’t remember spending a fourth of July away from the family.

Big news today: The captain promoted me and Heather into assistant deckhands. We are no longer trainees! Very exciting. He did make it clear that we would have to work harder and that more would be expected from us. I will definitely try my hardest. It is what I’ve been doing all along. It’s a real benchmark for progress and very rewarding. We left New Bedford today, but not for Lunenburg. Bad weather conditions (mulitple low-pressure systems converging north of us) forced us to stay local. We sailed for a bit with a nice wind into Martha’s Vineyard. Pretty alright, although another super-touristy place. Very expensive so I can’t do too much. I’ll have to write more later – too tired to continue for now.

July 7, 2007

Today has been a good day so far, pleasant really. Woke up for the 12-6 watch around noon to the ship with nearly all its sail set and no engine. Our watch put out much of the sail just before 6am but the relieving watch put out even more. We are well on our way to Nova Scotia, it’s south shore being 75 miles distant and our destination of Lunenburg being 180 some miles away. Rebecca predicts that we will be there Monday morning. This afternoon was wonderful, sailing with the wind, sunny weather and light ship’s work. It was fairly cold on last nights 12-6 watch  – nobody is working on their tans anymore, we bundle up. My bunk is below the waterline and tonight I can really hear the water moving past the hull. The ship sails so much smoother on sail, rolling with the waves. When she is being pushed by the engine she plows through the waves instead of over them and the engine causes everything to vibrate.

Yesterday we had some choppy seas: seven to nine foot tall swells. The ship was rolling and heaving a good bit. Apparently though we are getting the “better” deal. Ahead of us where the weather is more sour are fourteen foot swells. I’d like to see that myself but Rebecca assures me that such weather is really quite miserable. I believe it, I was getting minorly seasick after five hours of being on watch.  Been really easy lookouts today – clear weather and nothing to see but birds. The helm was easy too, even though we had the “weather helm” of wind trying to push the ship to port. Although some disagree, I think that she is generally easier to steer when under sail then motor. With the sail, once you compensate the wheel turns for wind then you can use that wind as a steadying “wall” to line her up with. When under motor she simply responds to steering and drifts easily. We are making a steady 3-6 knots on sail today.

Lookout duty yesterday was slightly harrowing. We had awful fog and could not see more than two and a half ship lengths in any direction. We were in an area heavily trafficked by fishing vessels and had to use foghorns often to make our position known and to find other ships by their returning foghorn calls. Anything the lookouts could see with their eyes would materialize almost instantly out of the fog, and quite near to the ship. We normally post one forward lookout, but that day we had three total. Two on the bow and one on the bridge.

So far being an assistant deckhand isn’t too different, but we help with much of the harder work such as securing the skiff, laying down gear for sailhandling and working with the more difficult lines that are more particular to certain sails (tacks, course sheets, halyards etc.) helping manage small work teams for tasks 

 When word got around that we had entered Canadian waters Mary Anne ( a wonderful woman in her elder years who has been away from home on the Picton Castle for eight months) was nearly dancing with excitement. We are on our way. I hope the next week or so goes smoothly, I want everything to end well when it finally has to. Time for bed, I must get my four hours of sleep before the next 12-6 watch.

July 8, 2007 “Onward to Nova Scotia” 43.05.08′ N x 066.13.8’O

Just finished the all-night 12-6 watch. Looked bad in the beginning but it turned out to be pretty good actually. Rainy at first, plenty cold. Gloomy all night until a really gorgeous sunrise. We sailed all night without engine or generator. When watch started, we were making a good 6.5 knots. We ended it making about 4 knots. Nova Scotia, according to my measurements in the chart house (made one hour ago) is 30 miles away of our Port bow. Rebecca still thinks we will get there by Monday – sometime during the day.

The night was very dark on our watch. The moon was obscured by an overcast. We could not even see our faces between ourselves on deck. Dark clouds hung everywhere and there was not a single ship or light in sight that was to be reported all night. The sea was gray and glimmering only when swells would catch a glint of the moon through a cloud. In fact everything was gray. It seemed like the entire world was in gray shades, like a black and white movie.  The clouds ahead of us near the horizon were brightly illuminated by a hanging moon. At a distance, as our ship rolled and yawed with the waves and creaked in the shrouds, as we made our way toward those glowing clouds it seemed as if we were all alone in the world and that we would find all the ghosts of world on that horizon ahead of us. The only things that could be seen that were familiar was our ship and the brightest stars that could force a meagre silhouette through overbearing clouds.

While the world seemed eerie and gloomy, things in the galley were a complete contrast. Headed by Nadja (lead seamen on our watch, and an excellent baker!) our watch crew decided to make cookies in the night. The galley stove kept us warm and the cookies cheered all spirits considerably. The cookies were finished baking while I was on helm. They were chocolate chip and a dark chocolate with almonds. ( “Cookies by night, a helmsman’s delight” ) After helm ,I charted our position and I could see how the helmsmen prior to me put us off course considerably. I kept her steady enough that we made our course well again.

A glorious sunset painted vibrant colors onto our gray world by 0430-0500. A fitting end and hopefully a portent to a good day to come when our 12-6 watch is up on deck again. Time for shuteye.

July 11, 2007

It is our last night in Lunenburg. Yes, I made it to Nova Scotia! It was definately a proud moment coming into Lunenburg harbor and seeing just how beautiful the place is. It has green hills all around the harbor, covered in pine and dotted with colorful homes set over a calm, blue-black water. It has been especially atmospheric because there has been serious fog and wet mist in thge air – the weather, even much of the scenery is very reminiscent of South Wales to me (particularly the misty weather).

It is a real relief to walk on the misty wharves of Lunenburg and be thankful that I got to experience it.  I wasn’t supposed to be able to sail to Nova Scotia but, through luck and debts, arrangements were made.

Been really busy, so I have been behind on my writing. I’ll have to start from where the last entry left off.

The next day at sea on watch was eventful…for the other watch! They found a  large life raft alone on the waves. Apparently a fishing ship went down a few days ago. The crew were, thankfully rescued. The Canadian coast guard came to pick it up. The life raft we found was automatically launched from the ship as it went beneath the waves. Ours have a similiar auto-launch system. That was their morning watch from 6am-12pm. Their evening watch had a strange event. As the weather turned foul a flock of birds took refuge from the waves onto our ship. Some crashed into the ship or into its sails. One even crashed into John Kemper (their lead seaman) on the quarterdeck (he was convinced someone hit him at the time). Another hit Nancy as well. Little did the birds know it, but their anticipated refuge turned into a trap – Chibli, the ship’s cat had a field day hunting them down left and right. Some of the crew were stepping on dead birds.

Our day watch, by comparison, was more placid. All we had was rain, fog and chill (in generous doses). It was a cold passage to Nova Scotia in the North Atlantic waters. No more am I walking around all day in just shorts, now I bundle up as if for winter – in mid-July. Me, Shawn and Nadja were furling the royal and t’gallant sails in the slick and the rain early in the morning – tedious, careful work, but it got done. We could look over the fog all around the ship from our perch 110 feet in the air and see a hazy coastline of Nova Scotia that we were skirting by early that morning. Our night watch was also quiet – a good thing. It was also very cold, so as an excuse to run the galley diesel stove for warmth we baked Rice Krispies treats and breadsticks (made into knots and nautical objects). Delicious, seriously. We unfortunately only got two hours of sleep after that night because the ship soon after was near Lunenburg and all hands needed to be on deck to bring our ship into her home.

Lunenburg is a fantastic place. It’s a World Heritage Site – which doesn’t mean much of anything unless you visit to see why. It was home to a fleet of Grand Banks fishing schooners in the past – including the revered icon of Nova Scotia: the Bluenose. Now it is home to the Bluenose II, a replica of its very famous racing predecessor. It is also home to our barque, Picton Castle. Lunenburg is inundanted with seafaring culture. Every building has something to do with ships or is promoting them. Coffees in the cafe’s are named after specific fishing schooners, as are street signs.

I can hear the lighthouse at the mouth of the harbor emitting a foghorn every minute or so. The fog here is so thick. It has been foggy every day since I have been here. Among the wharves and homes of Lunenburg I can hear the pounding of hammers and the hum of machinery – the sound of the working waterfront. Next to the Picton Castle’s wharf is the Lunenburg Dory Shop which specializes in making the unique, flat-bottomed rowboats of Nova Scotia that once were stacked on Grand Banks fishing schooners. It is not unusual to see a person or two, early in the morning rowing a Nova Scotian dory in the harbor. We have secured one to our ship actually – it is all polished and varnished mahogany riveted by hand with brass. Worth about $8000. We are bringing it to Halifax for display and sale.

In Lunenburg I have been mostly touring and eating. Buying gifts for the family and such. I visited their Atlantic Fisheries Museum. Very cool museum focused on Grand Banks fishing history and methods. They also have the schooner Theresa Connor to tour. Nova Scotia is obsessed about their Bluenose schooner for winning so many sailing races. Every store here has tons of Bluenose gear, there is a large exhibit devoted to it at the museum, food and drink specialties in town are named after it. The license plates feature its silhouette. There are probably hundreds of hand-made models of the ship gracing store fronts and mantles all over town.  

Lunenburg also loves its Picton Castle. Not only are paintings, pictures and models of the ship gracing prominent places in town (as well as unusual nooks and crannies) but every establishment also seems to have ethnic goods that the Picton Castle brought back to Lunenburg from its circumnavigation voyages. Among all the traditional nautical decor of Lunenburg it is not unusual to see leering carvings from Bali mixed in, as well as large carved tam tam instruments from the South Pacific and even more exotic items. Most of these items probably disseminated from the Picton Castle’s store in Lunenburg but…surprise! The entire third floor of the Picton Castle’s wharf warehouse is awash with worldy treasures. They are piled all over, as if they have more than they know what to do with. Dugout canoes, carvings, stylized objects, screens and more make up a colorful menagerie of exotic objects. Apart from these treasures are stockpiles of the ship’s supplies: sails, miles of rope, blocks, etc. The warehouse also has stockpiles of western goods (scissors, machetes, school supplies) that the ship brings to remote places in the world in exchange for the treasures that are brought back to Lunenburg. It must be amazing to sail around the world and find and trade for those objects. Anyone you talk to in Lunenburg brightens up when you mention the Picton Castle. It seems everyone has some connection to the vessel at some point. The town is very accomodating to its crew and we get numerous perks throughout town.

Tommorow morning we have to leave early for Halifax. The city is about sixty miles away. The captain didn’t want to leave today because the fog was awful and he did not want to anchor off a rocky coastline in such thick fog.

July 13, 2007

Turns out that we did not leave as early in Lunenburg as we expected. When we woke up the weather was even worse – dense rain and a strong wind strained our docklines while the ever-present fog seemed thickest yet. By 1100 the weather had calmed considerably and the fog, for the first time in days lifted. We then left Lunenburg and headed back out to the coastline to make our way to Halifax. Thankfully, a favorable wind was present and we got about half the sails set. This was almost certainly my last summer cruise on the Picton Castle and it was good to have sails present to bring the wind with us to Halifax. The sea was fairly choppy and I got minorly seasick, as did others, but we got by. Not long after we left, the fog descended again in thick amounts. As we neared Halifax around 7pm, we brought a pair of pilots on board to guide us into the harbor. They must have not been very good because we very nearly crashed into a  heavy buoy that materialized from the fog dead ahead of our bow. Were it not for the quick bell-ringing and shouting of the forward lookouts we might not have had time to turn “hard right” and miss the buoy by a mere 20 feet or so.  The same lookouts also got a good shock as a full-sized cruise ship also appeared on our starboard by no more than 4 ship lengths very suddenly. It’s white colors blended in with the fog very well, no one, save the radar, saw it coming.

Coming into Halifax was tedious. It was evening and beginning to darken and the fog was so thick that the city, even its lights could not be seen. After docking we spent a good amount of time rigging a gangway. In both Lunenburg and Halifax we have had trouble with our gangway and docklines because there is a 10+ foot difference in the tide. I had night watch after and the half of the crew who had to stay were in a mood to celebrate our arrival in Halifax. So we had a impromptu party in the salon while our other shipmates were out on the town. They joined us later anyway. It is fun to know I am in Halifax and there is a whole new city to explore. But unfortunately I know that I won’t be sailing her out of this harbor. It is bittersweet.

There were journalists on board while we came into harbor yesterday. Today there is a front page spread featuring the Picton Castle. Mary Anne is on the front page heaving on a line. Fun stuff! She is certainly unique enough to attract the attention.

(edit) I don’t know how I forgot to add this bit: On the first day we arrived in Lunenburg we decided to leave our sails out so that they would have a chance to properly dry. I came back to the ship for my watch after checking out Lunenburg at three in the afternoon. It was me and Joe on deck with Shawn hanging out – the rest of the crew were either in town or sleeping below. The wind started picking up and the sails filled with the wind and the ship started moving inland. Some of the docklines became very taut and were breaking chunks of wood from our half-rotten wharf into the water. One of the docklines was chafing terribly and fraying. It was obvious that we had to do something and after a quick clearance from the bosun the three of us took nearly all the sails as quickly as possible. I had to direct it because my other two companions were not as experienced yet in regards to sailhandling. We got it done, and better than I thought. I knew more than I thought I knew and we brought in those sails to stop the ship from damaging our dock. It was an impromptu test of my skills learned thus far and was unexpected.

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2 Responses to “From Newport to Halifax – by sea”

  1. P.A.M. said

    Thanks for the great posts and photos. Good job!

  2. Hotel Break Checker

    Thanks, Interesting read.

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