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Picton Castle

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Three Village Historical Society historian Beverly C. Tyler on the Picton Castle.

By Beverly C. Tyler

The 19th century was the era of the romance of sail. Full-rigged ships, such as the Flying Cloud, set sail-powered speed records for ships of commerce voyaging to and from ports around the world that would never be eclipsed. These beautiful and awe-inspiring ships were just a fraction of the sailing vessels that transported goods locally, regionally and around the world.

Sailing on board the Stephen Taber in Penobscot Bay, Maine.

On Long Island Sound and up and down the East Coast of America smaller cargo vessels, sloops, schooners, brigs and barks kept residents supplied with many of the products they needed to sustain life. However, today as reported in the Oct. 23 edition of The Guardian, “[Modern vessels] fan out across the seas like a giant maritime dance, a ballet of tens of thousands of vessels delivering the physical stuff that has become indispensable to our way of life: commodities and cars, white goods and gas and grains, timber and technology.

“But shipping — a vast industry that moves trillions of pounds-worth of goods each year — is facing an environmental reckoning. Ships burn the dirtiest oil, known as bunker fuel; a waste product from the refinery process, literally scraping the bottom of the barrel, the crud in crude. It’s so thick that you could walk on it at room temperature. As a result, shipping is a major polluter — responsible for about 2.5% of global carbon emissions.”

A good friend from Auckland, New Zealand, Joan Druett, is an award-winning maritime author, who has written many books about the sea including “Hen Frigates,” the stories of women in the 19th century who went to sea with their ship captain husbands. The book includes a number of Long Island women including two from Setauket. Druett also has a blog “World of the Written World.” It was through her blog that I learned of the article “Winds of change: the sailing ships cleaning up sea transport” by Nicola Cutcher in The Guardian.

There are now a number of sailing ships and maritime companies working to ship products, especially those that cannot be grown locally, to other countries in sailing vessels that have a very low carbon footprint and are environmentally responsible; in other words shipping that does not contribute to the pollution of the oceans and the air.

Companies around the world like Shipped by Sail, Timbercoast, Fairtransport, New Dawn Traders and TransOceanic Wind Transport are working to provide clean, ethical and sustainable transportation of goods.

In April of 2018, I spent a week as a crewman on the Picton Castle, a 150-foot, three-masted bark, a square-rigged sail training ship that has, as of July 2019, made seven circumnavigations of the globe. I first boarded the ship as a visitor in October 2013 in Auckland and found out that Picton Castle was then based in the Cook Islands in the Pacific. Picton Castle crew member Kate “Bob” Addison wrote these observations July 12, 2013.

“Barque Picton Castle is just twenty miles off Atiu, a raised atoll in the southern Cook Islands, the first island call of this cargo and passenger run to the outer Cook Islands. We departed from Avatiu Harbour, Rarotonga yesterday morning to start this second inter-island voyage; this time we’re heading up north to Penrhyn, Manihiki and Rakahanga after a short call at Atiu in the Southern Group. And then back to Rarotonga in August for the start of our next long South Pacific Voyage.

“These cargo and passenger operations are a fascinating chapter in the history of our ship. Running a cargo operation under sail is definitely complementary to our core mission of sail training and adventure travel, it adds depth and purpose to our experiences and provides a true hands on training opportunity on board. The ship has always been about being part of something greater than yourself, of doing things that need doing whether you feel like it or not, simply because it needs doing. And now we have pressed our barque into a service that is bigger than the ship.

“At the moment the ship’s hold is about two thirds full of cargo, about fifteen tons of which is building materials that will soon become new water tanks in Atiu. We are carrying a mother, and daughter and their dog back home to Atiu and a commercial diver up to work on the pearl farms of Manihiki. In a small way we are contributing to the workings of the Cook Islands, our home in the South Pacific.”

My week on the Picton Castle in the Gulf of Mexico, as she prepared for her last round-the-world voyage, helped me understand how dedicated the ship and crew are to teaching us, not only how to work on a sailing ship but how to be environmentally aware of our surroundings and how important it is to respect the seas and harbors where we work and live.

In 2008 my wife and I spent a few days on the Stephen Taber, an 1872 Long Island-built schooner in Penobscot Bay in Maine. During the week we had a lobster and clam bake on one of the uninhabited off-shore Islands. We were told not to collect any driftwood. We brought everything we needed to the beach including the wood for the fire and when we left everything we brought was removed as if we had never been there. I am thankful for what these experiences have taught me.

Beverly C. Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

A parade of tall ships into Galveston, Texas, includes the Picton Castle, left, and the Oosterschelde, based in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

In “Two Years Before the Mast,” R.H. Dana Jr. wrote in 1840, “However much I was affected by the beauty of the sea, the bright stars, and the clouds driven swiftly over them, I could not but remember that I was separating myself from all the social and intellectual enjoyments of life.”

Sail handling aloft the Picton Castle is accomplished by its experienced sailors. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

I spent a week this April as a crew member on the training barque Picton Castle. This square-rigged sailing ship is similar in size and function to the Mary and Louisa that my great-grand-aunt Mary Swift Jones sailed on to China and Japan in 1858.

I wanted to experience, in a small way, what my Aunt Mary experienced and observed as the wife of Captain Benjamin Jones on their three-year voyage. I know, of course, that a week on the Picton Castle is not really comparable to an almost round-the-world voyage, but I also knew that it would have to do. I came away from the experience with a new understanding of life aboard one of the many tall ships that travel the world today with crews learning sail handling and working together to achieve the goal of maintaining a historic ship under sail.

Having visited the Picton Castle in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia; Auckland, New Zealand; and Greenport, Long Island, between 2011 and 2015, I felt the romance of the old sailing ship and hoped I would have a chance to sail on her. I thought that seeing and feeling her with full sails moving almost silently through the water would be the part I would enjoy the most.

After a week on board, handling lines under close supervision and doing all the necessary chores that keep this tall ship functioning, I came away with an appreciation of the crew members with whom I worked. This is a hard-working and dedicated group from the officers and lead seamen to the advanced trainees who together instructed the new trainees in the basics of safety, line and sail handling and the myriad of jobs that have to be done every day. One I became fairly good at — whipping the bitter ends of lines to finish them off and prevent unraveling.

John the sailmaker works every day to maintain Picton Castle’s inventory of sail and teaches sailmaking to some crew members. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

My first days on duty I shadowed one of the trainees who had been on the Picton Castle for a year, including a winter trip through the North Atlantic when ice covered much of the running rigging, making it very difficult to move the lines through the blocks that control the sails. There were no beginning trainees on this leg of the voyages to and from Lunenburg, the home and training port for most of the regular crew, as they had to function quickly and decisively under severe conditions.

I asked my instructor why he chose this type of work. He told me that he had been boating along the Atlantic coast with his grandfather since he was a child and growing up had done all the things that were expected of him — an education, a degree and a resulting steady job. By the time he was 30, he realized he needed a change and the sea was calling him back. He said he has found what he wants to do with his life — he loves to be at sea and he knows he is good at it. He has picked up the routine and the skills quickly and is proud of the work he is doing on Picton Castle, working the deck and teaching new trainees.

On watch we worked lookout and helm together as well as working lines from the complicated array of gear — lines and equipment — that controls the spars and sails. We were fortunate to have our watch group of 11 assigned to the 4 to 8 watch, both a.m. and p.m., on the trip from Galveston, Texas, to Pensacola, Florida. My instructor noted that this was the best watch this time of year since we are on duty for both sunrise and sunset. On the first 4 to 8 a.m. watch after two days of rain, wind and 4- to 6-foot seas, we were in the Gulf of Mexico 60 miles from the nearest land.

During his trip learning how to be a ship crew member, historian Beverly Tyler experienced two days of rough seas. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

The sky was clear, and the stars were brighter than any sky I had seen since crossing the Atlantic in the U.S. Navy in the late 1950s. The Milky Way shone brightly, and there were so many stars it would be difficult to add more stars between the ones I could see. It made me realize how important the sky was to the ancient civilizations who observed it every night that was not overcast. All the various constellations were easily identified along with the planets.

After a week on the Picton Castle, I had to reevaluate what I had gained from the experience. The most important to me was the people I met, especially the officers and crew who spend countless hours instructing and reinstructing us no matter how long it took and how many times they had to go over the same information. My fellow new trainees, many of whom became friends for a week, were dedicated to learning and the hard work that went with it. Next in lasting importance and wonder was the night sky and the changeover from dusk to dawn in the morning as the crescent moon rose followed by the sun. Next was this beautiful sailing ship itself that inspired all of us with its abilities, functionality and beauty.

Beverly C. Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.