Greetings from Cape Town, South Africa!
For the next four months I will be riding waves rather than diving beneath them. Two weeks ago I joined the crew of the Picton Castle, a 179-foot, square-rigged tall ship that has been circumnavigating the earth for the past 12 months. We will be sailing across the South Atlantic to Grenada, then north through the eastern Caribbean Islands to the ship’s final destination in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada. I plan to scuba dive in a few of the Caribbean islands along the way and will share underwater video from future and past dives during my voyage.
I originally planned to arrive in Cape Town the day before joining the ship. Instead, with ship delays to avoid a tropical cyclone near Madagascar, I was given a prophetic gift: spending two weeks exploring Cape Town and southwestern South Africa. The temperate climate, steep topography, and geographic proximity to wine and coast country remind me of the San Francisco Bay Area, but instead of Asian influence, I was treated to African influences.
I have joined over 40 sailors of all experience levels, including five fellow new trainees, for the 3.5-month voyage. We are scheduled to set sail today, following the northerly currents to Ludertiz, Namibia before traveling with the trade winds to the island of Saint Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic. It will be my first sea voyage lasting more than ten days, including a few 2-4 week long passages. It has been a life-long dream of mine to do long distance sailing and develop my seamanship skills, and I will get both through experiential education on the ship.
For the last few weeks the ship has more resembled a floating construction site and they have put me to work. Lacking any specific seamanship skills, I have been doing more hard labor than ever before. I helped haul a pallet of schoolbooks from below deck to donate to a local school for children from poor neighborhoods, sanded tables, varnished floors, painted ship parts, cleaned the heads (toilets), helped cook meals, hauled on ropes, and carried countless heavy objects to and from the dock and below deck.
Much like Ralph Macchio in Karate Kid (“wax on, wax off”), I have inadvertently learned more carpentry and ship maintenance skills that I had originally planned - all of which will be of good use as we ply our way through the waves to the other side of the Atlantic. From what I have heard, day-to-day life aboard ship is not as labor-intensive once we set sail, so I feel physically primed for whatever comes next. The whole crew is adaptable and engaged, showing a strong work ethic as our Mates and Bosun (e.g. head of ship maintenance and equipment) assign us duties. Life on the ship is different than a normal day on land. Mealtimes and work are on a regimented schedule, there is no Wi-Fi, my personal space is a bunk-bed and storage bin, we need to hand-pump the toilets after use, and when you’re on duty as ‘watch’ you can’t leave the ship.
Preparing the ship has given me clues about my upcoming life at sea, but things will change soon. We are each assigned to one of three “watches”: 12-4, 4-8, 8-12. If assigned to the 12-4 shift I would be working from 12-4 am and pm on a daily basis until the foreseeable future. Each watch has different duties and while I will gladly assume whichever watch I am given, I am secretly hoping for the 8-12 shift. This would allow me to enjoy some nighttime hours sailing, steering and handling the ship, still allow for a full nighttime rest, and keep me out of the sun during the hottest times of the day. Once docked, we switch to a ”one watch on, two watches off” system, whereby each watch gets two of every three days to explore our next destination port.
Another factor I am excited to experience is the lack of Internet at sea. Like many of you I have grown accustomed to checking social media, news and other online explorations 1-15 times a day. It sometimes feels hard to let go. Let’s face it: Smartphone use can be addictive. But at the same time, whenever I go without it I am very happy. I have been busy downloading podcasts, Spotify music and Netflix documentaries to fill my downtime, but I also look forward to honing my navigation skills, learning more about reading the wind, currents and weather, and spending as much time as possible with a harness doing rigging work high above and amidst the sails.
Speaking with the Captain the other day, I expressed my passionate interest in learning everything about ship navigation – celestial (by the stars), maps and more. I am going to need it if I plan to sail yachts in the future. My longer-term goal is to sail for much of 2019 as crew on multiple ships until I have the required sea time to apply for my Captain’s license. I have been eyeing 40-50 foot catamarans as a future home, but that’s another story. I look forward to sharing the first week of life at sea when we arrive in Luderitz, Namibia in 7-8 days.