Monthly Archives: November 2008

73. Off the Coast of Morocco


November 29, 2008, 8 AM
When I woke up at midnight, I immediately sensed that the ship’s movement was different.  It was more sudden and dramatic than usual, pitching and rolling, more like that of a much smaller vessel in the seas.  I knew immediately that the gale we had been told was coming was upon us.  I dressed in a fleece vest, sea boots, hat, and foul weather jacket over my clothes and added my safety harness and knife belt.

On deck I found the ship hove to, as she had been when I went to bed, on the port tack under main lower topsail and maintopmast staysail.  It was blowing hard, maybe around 40 MPH, with higher gusts.  Particularly in the gusts the wind made a roaring sound, not quite as loud as a freight train but more like a nearby subway. The two sails set kept the ship’s bow into the wind a little, so the wind and seas were coming from just forward of the port beam.  This would be a test for our sailmaker’s first new sail, the maintopmast staysail—new a month ago—in its first storm.  A lifeline had been stretched across the starboard side of the main deck to give us something to hold onto as we crossed the deck, and netting had been rigged along the starboard (leeward) breezeway to catch anyone washed overboard.

Our watch was assembled on the quarterdeck and given instructions: we were to stay on the well deck forward or in the galley, we were not to go anywhere except for a purpose and then after informing the mate or AB, and we were to go in pairs.  There would be no one at the helm, since it was lashed, and lookout was to be done from the bridge in half-hour increments.

I had the second lookout turn.  By then we had been told to stay in the galley. Geoff walked with me to the bridge and then escorted Sarah—who I was relieving—back.  It was a very dark night, fully overcast, obscuring any moonlight.  I could see the whitecaps on the approaching waves.  Sarah reported that she had seen the lights of a ship intermittently on the port quarter, but I had only a few quick glimpses of it.  Otherwise, the black horizon—what I could see of it in the darkness through the rigging in the directions not obscured by the chart house and rescue boat—was empty.  In the gusts the wind made my pant legs flap around my legs furiously, and it was strong enough that it was hard to look directly into it since it made my eyes blurry.  Below me the rest of the watch strung a lifeline down the port side of the main deck.  Paul said it was blowing up to Beaufort Scale Force 9.

The ship was riding well, rising and swooping over the waves like a duck, with no solid water coming on deck and only a little water dipped up by the lee scuppers as she rolled sloshing on deck.  Paul, the mate, was moving about the deck—his usual restless energy intensified—checking on things.  At the end of my reasonably brief half-hour the person who escorted my relief went with me as I toured the ship to do a ship check.  I found some small items rolling around but nothing amiss.

Back in the galley I sat with my watchmates wedged in against the movement.  My perch was sitting athwartships on the galley counter, my back to the wall and my feet in the sink, a relatively secure and comfortable position.  Others sat on buckets or counters and braced themselves as well as they could.  We told ghost stories, other tales, and read from a book of funny Canadian short pieces to keep ourselves amused.  People came and went as needed to rotate the lookout or do other things, always in pairs.

The lower foretopsail had been hauled up in its gear but not stowed (furled and tied in a tight bundle) and there was speculation as to why it had not gotten furled before the weather got nasty.  I assumed that it was so that sail would be available to be set from the deck, if necessary.  At one point Paul came by in his periodic rounds and named Sam and Tjetl, the two strongest men in the watch, to go aloft and furl this sail, a somewhat perilous undertaking under the conditions, but necessary if the sail was not to flog itself to pieces (we had already tightened its clew and leach lines, but it was still flogging too much.)

Since Sam was aloft I took his turn at lookout.  The seas had increased, and although we were not taking any water over the rails, more water was coming aboard through the scuppers and washing across the deck, and spray came over me and coated my glasses—15 feet above the water—with salt.  Paul was a silent, restless presence and the Captain appeared at one point and conferred with Paul.  It was a longer half-hour and I was ready to go at the end, my glasses fogged with salt and my pants wet with spray and rain.  Deb accompanied me on my ship check—done since it was on the hour—and moving around the ship took work.  Everything seemed in order in the engine room and scullery except for a muted clatter as things readjusted with the roll, but in the foc’sle where the professional crew sleep it looked like there had been a major explosion, with sea chests shifted around and loose gear all over the place.  The forepeak below it was a more minor version of the same disaster.

I was happy to see Sam and Tjetl back on deck.  At the end of our watch we gave up our places in the galley to the oncoming watch and stood outside with water swirling around our ankles until we were dismissed.  Carefully hanging on, we made our way below and shucked our jackets and gear.  I was grateful to make it into my bunk.  I wasn’t sure I could sleep, but I lay on my stomach with one knee out to brace myself, and my back against the rail that keeps me from falling out, and was soon asleep.

I awoke this morning to feel that the ship’s motion was even more violent, rising to a wave and then rolling heavily to starboard.  The 8 to12 watch was preparing to go on deck and people were saying that the scuttle—the usual hatch that we use to go on deck from the salon where I sleep—is off limits, which indicates that there is a lot of water sloshing across the deck.  John said that we would be wearing ship—turning it so the wind would be coming from the other side—at 8 AM.  As I write I can hear shouted orders on deck that indicate that maneuver is underway.  I can hear the main engine running, ready to help if needed.

November 29, 2008, 9:30 AM
The 4 to 8 AM watch didn’t come below until 8:45.  By then the two watches had turned the ship so that we are now on the starboard tack, underway carrying main and fore lower topsails and main and fore topmast staysails.  This means that we are leaning to port rather than starboard.  The helm is no longer lashed, but manned by someone steering the ship on her course.  From the sound of water swishing back alongside the hull we are making fairly good speed under these sails, assisted by the main engine, which I can hear still rumbling.

The 4 to 8 watch came below pumped with adrenalin, excited from their experience and exertions.  Two chests have come adrift in the salon—a third was returned and re-lashed as night after a journey across the cabin—and I helped re-lash one that had pulled the screw-eye it was lashed to from a circle to almost straight.  The galley crew brought cold cereal and milk for those hungry, some of which made it inside the eaters and some of which was scattered around the cabin.  I climbed the steps of the scuttle and looked out of the porthole in the closed door.  On deck it was sunny, but the ship was heeled to the gale and rolling in big seas.  Nets have been strung down both sides of the main deck and straps cinched down over the main hatch to reinforce the cover—all standard storm precautions.  Since I have to go on watch in about two hours I will crawl back in my bunk for a little more rest.

November 29, 2008, 4:30 PM
My 12 to 4 watch was an interesting one.  The wind and seas began to moderate a little but were still strong and high and the ship is still pitching and rolling as she makes her way through the seas.  We were still instructed to stay off the main deck as much as possible, to stay on the quarterdeck, and to travel in pairs.

I had the second hour lookout, still done from the bridge.  At times the seas reached the height of my eyes, 15 feet above the waterline, and spray spattered me every few minutes when I stood on the windward side.  My eyes scanned the horizon for ships.  I saw a lot of lumps on the horizon that caught my eye but they all quickly disappeared, being only waves.  In the entire hour I saw no ships; we must be well out of the shipping lanes by now.  I did manage to take a few quick pictures with the little waterproof camera I had stashed in my
Hove to under topsail and staysail.                               pocket.   The ship check afterwards was a laborious process of moving across heaving decks, going through closed
watertight doors that must be wrestled open and closed and controlled against the roll of the ship, and trying not to slide or get thrown around.  Afterwards my escort and I were remonstrated for not noticing that the galley stove had gone out because the engineer forgot to fill the tank.

Mostly we sat on the quarterdeck watching the big waves and trying not to slide off our perches.                                  Working on deck.
Occasional tasks gave us things to do, and before the end of our watch I went around the ship again to wake the members of the oncoming watch.  I was glad for the end of the watch, but uncertain what dinner will be like given the conditions and stove problems, and wonder what our night watch will be like.  I’m told that we are now around 180 miles from Essaouira, Morocco, our next port.  At this rate it will take two days to reach it.

November 30, 2008, 4:15 AM
Life on board during the tempest has been reduced to the basics.  Meals are rudimentary and hard to eat without food, bowl, or self, sliding across the table or the cabin.  Toileting is a challenge trying to brace yourself in a space the size of a phone booth held at an angle and constantly moving.  An extended toe is necessary to hold the windward corner of the curtain if you don’t want to be on full public view and a bowel movement is a major athletic achievement.  Sleep is difficult in an angled and moving bunk, and with my watch schedule must be gained in 3 or 4 chunks rather than a single night’s rest.  But I sleep pretty well once I get braced in my bunk and have gotten enough sleep partly because there is little else I can do off watch.

I came on deck a little before midnight to find the ship motoring into the wind to the southwest with no sail set.  To port I could see several glowing areas on the Moroccan coast over the horizon, one of which I was told was Casablanca.  But I soon found myself caught up in a whirlwind of activity working in the dark with people I couldn’t really see or identify trying to follow orders I couldn’t really hear.  With time and work the ship was turned to the northwest, the yards braced around and the main lower topsail and foretopmast staysail set.  The new course gives better motion and lets us move faster, its just 90 degrees from where we want to go.  My watch was gathered on the quarterdeck and told to stay there.

My third-hour trick at the helm was a challenge, taking great concentration and considerable physical effort to keep turning the wheel to keep us on course.  Too far to the left and the sails began to luff and flog.  Too far to the right and we are going away from our destination.

The gale blew with renewed fury with gusts up to Force 8, we had a rainsquall or two, and I could see the lights of other ships around us.  I was glad when the watch was over and I could retreat to my bunk, despite its lively motion.

November 30, 2008, 9 AM
I awoke a little before eight to find the ship quiet, the engine shut down.  At the change of watch at 8 AM I heard the shouted orders and sounds of a maneuver.  When they came down I got up to have breakfast with the 4 to 8 watch, who said they wore ship and we are now motorsailing again under lower topsails and fore and main topmast staysails—hopefully in the direction of Essaouira.

November 30, 2008, 4 PM
The afternoon watch started with a sense of déjà vu.  After sailing northwest for part of the night and heaving to for a while, we were again motorsailing in the same area, in the same strong westerly winds and high seas, carrying the same staysails and lower topsails, on the same course: southwest by west.  I felt like Bill Murray’s character in the movie Ground Hog Day, doomed to repeat the day until he got it right.  On lookout, even from my viewpoint 15 feet above the waterline on the bridge, the horizon was often obscured by waves higher than my eyes.

But the winds had started to moderate, the seas were further apart, and at the mid watch we set the main upper topsail and foresail, which lessened our rolling some and gave us a little more speed.  We were making 5 or 6 knots in the right direction, the cat came out of hiding and came on deck—a sign of improved weather, and spirits rose.

December 1, 2008, 9AM
Last night’s watch was relatively benign.  The seas were still high but the ship’s motion was slower both because the seas are further apart and because we are carrying more sail—the pressure of the wind against sails helps steady a sailing vessel.  We were still motorsailing, a bit south of southwest, making a steady seven knots in the right direction.  Paul said that at that pace we should reach port around noon today, but that the plan is to get close to port, shut down the engine to sail for a while, and anchor mid-afternoon.  We could see the glow of the lights of Moroccan towns over the horizon and there were more ships.

This morning it is partly sunny, with a light wind and leftover sea.  We haven’t been at sea that long, but it has seemed a long time and I am ready for this passage to be over.  I am also keenly anticipating being in Morocco, where–word has it—we should be for three or four days.


72. Sailing South – to the Sun?


November 28, 2008
When we all joined the ship in Lunenburg last May 1st it was just a couple of weeks after the snow melted in my yard at home.  Lunenburg, being a similar climate, was cold, with nights in the 30s and 40s and days in the 40s and 50s.  On an unheated steel ship surrounded by cold water, that’s cold enough to be uncomfortable.  At the time, someone said, “Another month and we’ll be warm.”  That statement has been repeated numerous times in the six months since, and we are still waiting.  To be sure, we did have a few nice days with t-shirt weather in the Gulf Stream crossing the Atlantic, but then it got cold again.  And we had two or three warm weeks when we were in Copenhagen, Sweden, and our first port in Norway, but then it became cool again.

When we turned south I August from Bergen, Norway, again we all said, “Another month and we’ll be warm,” but it hasn’t happened.  And when we left Mallorca the phrase was repeated again, but the reverse has happened.  In both Palma, Mallorca and Gibraltar a cold front came through a day or two before we left and sent temperatures plunging.  We seem t be losing our race with the sun.  Long underwear and heavy jackets have reappeared over the last month, and have become prevalent again.  We are not as bad off as my friends Pete and Diana who are living in an un-insulated cottage in Maine in temperatures well below freezing while their new house is built, but as one shipmate put it, “These aren’t the balmy tropical breezes I signed up for.”

Our first two days out of Gibraltar as we sailed out of the Straits of Gibraltar and headed southwest, we had good following winds, we made good progress, spirits rose, and we all started thinking about stopping in Morocco and it being warm there.  (Actually, my personal guess is that it won’t get warm until we get to the Cape Verde Islands around Christmas.)  But then the winds got light and shifted a lot, the skies grew gray and foreboding, and spirits sagged as we worked hard with sail handling for little gain.

A number of us lobbied to celebrate Thanksgiving, since we have had several turkey dinners over the months and this seemed like a good excuse for a nice dinner.  This move caused some grumbling among the Canadians, whose Thanksgiving passed a month ago uncelebrated after they were told “we don’t celebrate holidays,” and confusion or indifference among those of other nationalities who have no tradition of Thanksgiving. the Captain, an American who lives in Canada, decreed that we would celebrate Thanksgiving On Friday, November, 28.  Pies and cakes were baked the day before, and preparations were made all day.  I was delegated with two others to come up with suitable table decorations.  We put scraps of white canvass sailcloth down the center of each table and Sam made some grommets (rope spliced into a circle) that were placed in the center of each table.  Into the grommets I put the most colorful collection of fruits and vegetables I could find: red and yellow apples, oranges, lemons, and red peppers, and the final touch was supplied by Deb who scattered some caramels in brightly colored shiny wrappers on the sailcloth.

Before dinner we took in sail and wore ship so that she was hove to with the helm lashed under foretopmast staysail and main lower topsail balanced so she was essentially parked and would only drift slowly, so everyone could participate with only one person checking things on deck.  The festivities began with a “Marlinspike,” a drink of Coolaid laced with rum, on deck and then moved below where the Captain and Donald each carved a turkey and we sat at tables presided
The Captain’s table.

over by the Captain or one of the mates.  It was an impressive and merry feast, with copious amounts of food and some wine.  After dinner the guitars came out and I helped the galley crew wash dishes until the Captain came to order us to join in the festivities.  I ended the day with that comfortably stuffed Thanksgiving feeling.

One of the other tables.

71. Gibraltar


November 26, 2008

Gibraltar is truly a unique place: it has an extraordinarily strategic location, an unusual and dramatic topography, and a very interesting and varied history, all in one package. The Mediterranean Sea was the cradle of civilization and was most probably the origin of seafaring and water-borne commerce, but it has only two outlets. At its eastern end the relatively recently man-made and much fought over Suez Canal is an outlet to the Red Sea. At its western extremity the narrow Straights of Gibraltar open to the Atlantic Ocean and separate Europe from Africa. This outlet is so narrow and has such strong currents that for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, sailors were afraid to venture through it for fear that they would be unable to return. Thus this entrance, sometimes referred to as the Pillars of Hercules, was for a long time the end of the known world. Eventually explorers did venture forth through the Straights and went north to Spain, Portugal, France and Britain, and south to Morocco and later on to black Africa. Just inside the Straights, on the northern or European side, lies Gibraltar. It is a peninsula several miles long, whose principal feature is the Rock of Gibraltar. Gibraltar at dawn. There is archaeological evidence that Gibraltar was inhabited by Neanderthals who lived in some of the many caves. It may have been one of the last stands of this northern species as they were forced southwards by an ice age and lost their competition with our humanoid ancestors. Much later, Gibraltar was used by the North African Arabs as a stepping stone as they invaded, conquered, and held the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) for hundreds of years. With the advance of seafaring Gibraltar took on huge strategic importance, not only as the gateway to Europe from Africa but also as the gateway from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and the rest of the world. Gibraltar’s position relative to the Mediterranean might be described by imagining a wine bottle whose cork has been shoved down into the bottle and lies just inside the neck of the bottle. Gibraltar would be the cork of the Mediterranean bottle. Plug the neck with the cork and you control the contents of the bottle. The Moors recognized this and built fortifications and a settlement at Gibraltar. Remains of their civilization can still be seen in a Moorish Castle on the hillside above the town, last rebuilt in 1333 and now used as a prison. The Gibraltar Museum is built over—and incorporates—the well-preserved ruins of a 14th century Moorish bath house. When Spain eventually expelled the Moors in the 15th century, they took care to take Gibraltar from them, and replaced Moorish forts, mosques, and settlement, with their own fortifications, churches, and town. They built on the basic layout of the Moorish town and added a huge wall around the town. But Gibraltar’s strategic location meant that it was much sought after by other countries as well. In the 17th century a joint English and Dutch assault took Gibraltar and it has been held by the British ever since. It is not that Spain hasn’t wanted Gibraltar back. The Spanish have made several attempts to re-conquer Gibraltar, most notably in 1779-83. During those years Spain laid a continuous siege of the enclave, and the outnumbered British garrison held on with only the support of three British Navy convoys that managed to break through with supplies, ammunition, and reinforcements. The garrison dug tunnels in the solid rock just behind the cliff face high on the rock. From this tunnel they made periodic windows in the cliff to serve as gun-ports for heavy guns, making the Rock into a fort. The Spanish were trying to attack across a narrow low isthmus backed by a tall cliff out of which the British were firing at them with heavy cannons hundreds of feet up the cliff. No wonder the Spanish were unsuccessful. The English used Gibraltar as a fortress to control sea traffic in and out of the Mediterranean, and as a strategically located naval base. It seems like every well-known British naval officer of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century, real and fictional, stopped at Gibraltar at least once in his career. Horatio Nelson, the most famous of them all, passed through many times as he fought Napoleon’s navy in the Mediterranean and Egypt. When Napoleon assembled a combined French and Spanish fleet to try to win control of the sea so he could invade England, Nelson left from Gibraltar with the English fleet to chase them all the way across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and back before he caught up with them and had the climactic battle off nearby Cape Trafalgar. After that battle the dead were buried at sea, except for Nelson himself whose body was preserved in a cask of brandy for burial in England, but his shattered flagship and fleet retreated to Gibraltar to refit. Many of the wounded who later died are buried in a graveyard just outside the city wall. Napoleon went to Plan B and attacked Russia, where he reached Moscow but had to retreat, defeated by Russian tenacity and the frigid Russian winter. During World War II the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was sympathetic to Nazi Germany but—for reasons not entirely clear to me—refused Hitler permission to cross Spain to attack Gibraltar. The English further fortified the Rock and used their base to control shipping in and out of the Mediterranean and as a waypoint for their campaigns in North Africa. My first and most lasting impression of Gibraltar was of the sheer, huge, presence of the rock, which rises 1500 feet above the ocean and is about a mile long and maybe half that in width. When we sailed into the Mediterranean and again when we returned and anchored near it, there was no mistaking the Rock, and no ignoring it. Wherever you are, in the anchorage or anywhere in the town, the Rock looms over you. My first day ashore was when I was allowed to go ashore to have my vermin-ridden laundry done. Since the Laundry said it would take all day, Gary and I took a tour of the Rock with a guide in a minivan. The tour took us to an overlook above the Pillars of Hercules with a view across to Africa, to St. Michael’s Cavern festooned with stalagmites and stalactites, to an overlook with a view down off the Rock into the Mediterranean, and to the tunnels used by the British in the siege of 1779-83. It was well worth it. At several of the locations we saw troops of the famous Barbary Macaques, apes who are the only non-human primates native to Europe. These tail-less monkeys hang out waiting for a handout. We learned from our guide that today Gibraltar’s strategic importance has waned. The military has declined from being 90% of the economy to 10%, and tourism, gambling, and the bunkering (refueling) of ships are now the economic mainstays. Spain still wants Gibraltar back, and British hints that they might consider a joint administration are controversial. I saw a “Keep Gibraltar British” T-shirt. Walking around the town I saw that the population is quite cosmopolitan, with both English and Spanish accents prevalent and a smattering of Muslim and Orthodox Jewish garb in evidence. The peninsula has been widened with much new land reclaimed from the sea by landfill, most of it covered by upscale condos. The isthmus that connects the enclave with Spain has been widened and the airport runway now crosses it as sort of no-mans-land at the border. The only road onto the peninsula crosses the runway, so traffic must stop when a plane takes off or lands. The main street of the town has many shops catering to tourists selling souvenirs, jewelry, liquor and clothing way out of proportion to the population. There are many bars and restaurants, including English style pubs—we had lunch at the Lord Nelson—and in a section called Irish Town, Irish style pubs—we had dinner the second day ashore at one called The Clipper. The harbor and anchorage are filled with ships, most of them tankers—no doubt waiting to load or unload at the nearby Spanish oil refinery, or refueling—like us, with an occasional yacht. Altogether, I found Gibraltar a fascinating port.

70.5 Out of the Med Part 2 (update)

70 OUT OF THE MED, Part Two

November 24, 2008
After feeling like a homeless person for several days, two days ago I moved back into my bunk.  I had cleaned my bunk mattress and framework with bleach, and got special permission to go ashore to get my sheets, sleeping bag, blanket, and effected clothing washed in a laundry.  I arrived back on board to feel a chill from my fellow crew.  I learned that in my absence ashore the Captain had ordained that everyone must empty their bunk, wash their sheets, air their blankets, swab down their mattress with water with bleach in it, as well as their regular work.  I don’t know how much of the silence was fatigue and how much was resentment towards me.  I went to bed stressed by the whole ordeal, discouraged that my stock with my shipmates had fallen to a new low, but hopeful that the problem had at last been solved.

I awoke yesterday morning at 2:15AM to find two fresh bites on my arm.  By themselves, two bites aren’t much—quite different than the dozens I had before—but I felt depressed that the problem remained and could still proliferate.  Garry and I searched my bunk for nearly and hour but could find no trace of insects, so we still had no idea what sort of bug was biting me: fleas, bedbugs, or spiders.  Bedbugs would be expected to proliferate, which they have not, and fleas or spiders would be easier to kill, but this was cold comfort.  I felt very down and thought hard about whether or not I should make plans to leave the ship and go home.

Since I had spent much of the previous day ashore getting my laundry done while my watch worked, yesterday I stayed aboard when my watch went ashore and worked with the other watch.  We were instructed to take our bunks apart and clean them as the other watch had the previous day.  I used a stronger solution of bleach on my mattress and bunk frame and then rinsed it and let it dry for the day while we did other work.  The ship looked different festooned with laundry hung on lines strung above the deck.

Fortunately the members of this watch were in a good mood joking and laughing as they cleaned their bunks and two even thanked me for instigating a much-needed cleaning.  I spent a pleasant day working with people I don’t normally work with.  At the end of the day we took our dried sheets off the line across the deck, hauled our mattresses off the deck, and reassembled our bunks.  I had dinner with a group of five and Gary broke out a bottle of wine.  After dinner I asked Mike, the first mate, if I could go ashore for a few hours.  To my surprise he told me I could have the next day (today) off.  I didn’t argue, stayed aboard last night.  I went to bed feeling more optimistic.

This morning, I am happy to report, I woke up bite-free.  I am optimistic that my efforts yesterday and earlier have killed the bugs.  My mood is infinitely better.

I came ashore today with a group and directed everyone to the Laundry I know so well, and Gary and I went to the local history museum.  But I will write about Gibraltar—as well as get back to writing about Mallorca—another time.   Tomorrow we will raise anchor to come alongside a wharf to take on fuel and then sail for Morocco, so I probably won’t get a chance to write and send more journal entries for almost a week.  I did want to send this update to let you know how I have fared in my war with the bugs.

70. Out of the Med

Or, My War with the Vermin

November 18, 2008, 4:30 PM
We left Mallorca mid-morning today motoring under sunny skies with calm winds.  A few miles outside the harbor we ran through the drills we always practice after leaving port: man overboard, fire, and abandon ship.  After the drills my watch caught a quick lunch and started our 12 to 4PM watch a half-hour late.  I helped stow things in the hold and reorganize the freezers before my third-hour helm.  Tjetl, the able-bodied seaman in charge of my watch, asked me at one point where we were going.  “I haven’t a clue,” I answered, “but I’m steering west-southwest.”  He smiled and said, “Good answer.” “I’ve heard rumors of Gibraltar,” I said, and he replied, “I’ve heard the same.”

Clouds gradually covered the sky, and a breeze slowly filled in from east-southeast.  After my helm we set fore-and-aft sail and lower topsails.  For some reason, I felt like a tiger today, and jumped into the sail handling more quickly and confidently than usual.  It felt good.  Once we set sail I wire-brushed, greased, and wormed the treads at one end of a turnbuckle—they are being cleaned and recovered—before doing the final ship-check before the end of the watch.

Black clouds gathered in a long line to the north, gradually advancing towards us blotting out Mallorca astern in the process.  I stayed on deck to help when there was a sudden wind shift and we had to quickly take in some sails and re-trim others, getting a bit wet in the process.           Serving turnbuckle threads.

Now I will try to get some sleep before dinner in preparation for my midnight to 4 AM watch, though I am a little hesitant to crawl into my bunk.  I have gotten some bites on my stomach and legs the last two nights while I slept.  They raise welts and itch considerably, somewhere between a mosquito bite and a black fly bite.  I am mystified as to their source, since they have only appeared after 6 months in that bunk. I suspect fleas from the cat, who crawled into the storage area under my bunk a few days ago and lay on one set of sheets before I put them on my bunk, but others vehemently defend her saying that she gets monthly shots for fleas and usually wears a flea collar, though she doesn’t have one on now.  It’s aggravating to have my one little private space made no longer safe.

November 19, 2008, 10:00 AM
My midnight to 4 AM watch was interesting.  I came on deck to find us carrying all sail to the t’gallants, close hauled on the starboard tack.  To port three lighthouses, a scattering of lights, and a ridgeline silhouetted by the glow of lights behind it marked the island of Ibiza to leeward.  To windward a long line of black clouds, some with rain beneath them showed an approaching front.  When we took over the watch the ship was sailing at 2.9 knots, but as the wind increased with the approaching front, our speed picked up to between 5 and 6 knots.  We were often busy bracing the yards around to best catch the wind, trimming headsails and staysails, and taking in the main t’gallant staysail during the four hours.

During my second hour lookout, there were flashes of lightning fine on our starboard bow that became brighter during the hour, and I watched the approaching dark clouds to windward.  It was a rare lookout when weather was of more concern than shipping, though I spotted and reported several ships.  At one point the clouds parted for a few minutes to reveal a half-full moon, which silhouetted the sails and cast a silvery light on the water on our port quarter.

My war with the vermin continues.  When I slept from 8:30 to 11:30 before my watch I slept in my sleeping bag—which normally just sits on top of my sheets as a blanket—in an attempt to avoid them, in hopes that I can starve them out.  But I acquired several new bites anyway, on my leg and back and the old ones are still very itchy. This means that whatever the creature is, it is in my sleeping bag as well as my sheets.  After having been bitten again during the first part of the night, I had no desire to return to my bunk and become breakfast for the vermin.  I have been driven out of the only personal and private space I have, a major loss.  Instead I slept after my watch in my clothes in the only empty bunk, an athwart-ship bunk at the aft end of the salon.  Or at least I tried to sleep, but I was cold with not enough clothes on—since I was reluctant to add any clothes that might have bugs in them.  Trying to sleep fully clothed on a cold and wrinkly plastic mattress cover was uncomfortable, my multitude of bites constantly itched, and the different motion of the thwart-ship bunk—which alternately raised and lowered my head every few seconds as the ship rolled made it like sleeping on a seesaw.  I got precious little sleep, but as far as I can tell, I received no new bites, which means that the vermin may have been confined to my bunk, at least for now.

After breakfast I consulted again with Gary and we read up in his medical books on      Running toward Gibraltar.
various kinds of vermin.  From the small amount of information they give, we have narrowed the suspects down to fleas or bedbugs.  Much of their scant advice is impractical for our situation, since I can’t fumigate with petroleum products or avoid wood-to-wood joints or rolled seams where they could hide.  Gary said that several other people have what could be flea bites.

`    The defenders of the cat insist that she couldn’t be the source, and point to people who have much closer contact with her than I and have no bites.  But I have been in my bunk for 6 months and change my sheets as much or more than anyone.  The only thing different is that the cat went ashore for the first time in a long time and was then in my storage cubby on top of the sheets I then put on my bunk.

Escalating the war, I have just bagged up all of my bedclothes, towel and other clothes that have been close to my mattress in garbage bags in an attempt to seal up my tiny intruders until I can wash all of this stuff in the next port and hopefully eliminate any pests they contain.  I have also swabbed down the rubberized cover of my mattress and the wood beneath and around it with a solution of half bleach and half water to hopefully kill any stragglers, and I’ll sleep in the spare bunk until we reach the next port.  I’ll now take a shower and put on fresh—hopefully bug-free—clothes, though I think they are in my bunk rather than on my person.

November 20, 2008, 9:30 AM
“David, this is your wakeup call.  It’s cold, windy, and there’s a shitty rain.”  The soft but insistent voice was Susie’s.  When I first met her in Halifax a year-and-a-half ago, I saw her small stature, little girl face and voice, and thought she was twelve.  She is a decade older than that, but even now she looks fourteen to me.  She didn’t lie.

For my night watch I donned my long underwear, workpants, and foul weather pants and rubber boots, and over my T-shirt and flannel shirt I wore my heavy fleece jacket and foul weather pants—my sweater and vest are quarantined in a plastic garbage bag with all of my other possibly vermin-ridden clothes and my bed clothes.  I then struggled into my safety harness and knife belt.  The ship was rolling deeply and the louder than usual sound of water rushing by the ship suggested that we were moving fast under sail, so I already knew a lot about the weather before I even got on deck.  The afternoon watch had been sailing fast before a strong wind, and it seemed like we were doing the same only more so.  In the afternoon we had winter light, with a painterly sky of large puffy clouds almost black on their bottoms but bright at the edges with the light coming through them, and interspersed with occasional patches of blue sky.  As the watch progressed the sky gradually became more overcast and leaden, and occasional rainsqualls came through.

On deck it was very dark and the rolling was more evident.  Water picked up as the ship rolled her scuppers under swept across the deck in streams and occasional torrents.  Lifelines had been strung across the deck by the previous watch so we had something to hang onto as we moved about the deck.  A blast of wind-driven rain hit me and I was glad to be wearing my foulies and boots.

I was given the first lookout and climbed up onto the foc’sle head.  Spenser, whom I relieved, gave me a quick orientation to the two lighthouses visible on the Spanish coast and the three vessels in sight before he scurried off to join his watch in an end-of-watch muster and get out of the weather and go to bed.  With the greater than usual darkness and motion I didn’t feel as secure as usual on the foc’sle head, and was thinking of clipping the tether of my safety harness to the rail when someone brought me the word that the mate was moving the lookout to the bridge at the forward end of the quarter deck.  I moved aft and felt more secure on the bridge, though it is harder to see through the masts and rigging from there, particularly straight ahead.  “This is the kind of night that radar was made for,” I said to Paul, the mate.  Nonetheless, I was able to spot a number of ships making their way up and down the Spanish coast during my hour.

The ship was sailing fast, running almost dead downwind under only lower and upper topsails, foresail, and a couple of headsails, before a strong wind, making 6, 7, or even 8 knots, unusually fast for the normally plodding Picton Castle.  It was rough enough that—for safety sake—Paul had us stay on the quarterdeck and only leave for a specific purpose and then in pairs.  Sarah went with me when I did my ship check.  As ordered, I omitted checking the hold to avoid wrestling with the heavy watertight door, which was closed due to the conditions.

Sitting on a locker on the quarterdeck I could just make out the masts, yards, and sails in the darkness as they waved back and forth in the darkness like a slow metronome.  The moon rose, and although it was obscured by the clouds it made them a slightly lighter shade of charcoal and made it easier to see.  This scene made it easy to think of the old square-riggers heading towards Cape Horn.

All through the watch we raced along, making excellent time.  We mostly sat on the quarterdeck lockers and took in the scene, talking some.  People came and went as the lookout and helmsperson changed on the hour, and the hourly ship check was done.  I left when we all went to trim the foresail, again to clean up the scullery while others lit the stove and made coffee in the galley at the end of the watch, and to accompany Sam on the last ship check.

At last the watch was over and we mustered to be dismissed by the mate with a curt “Watch below.”  We straggled below and began to peel off our foul weather suits, safety harnesses, and boots.  I didn’t take off any more since I am sleeping temporarily in an empty bunk and it has no sheets or blankets and I needed the rest of my clothes and heavy fleece jacket for warmth.

As far as I can tell, I have not had any new bites since I moved out of my bunk, though the old ones still plague me with incessant itching.  This morning after breakfast I swabbed my mattress and bunk structure with fresh water to try to remove some of the bleach I swabbed on them yesterday.  I won’t sleep there for another couple of nights while it dries out—which could take a while in this weather—and on the theory that if I can’t kill the fleas I may be able to starve them out.  When the cat appeared at breakfast I glared at her, willing her to stay away.  At this rate we may make Gibraltar sometime today after a fast passage.  Then I can look for a laundromat.

November 21, 2008, 9 AM
Yesterday the winds moderated some and the sky partially cleared, the temperature rose, and we kept sailing towards Gibraltar at a good—if not quite as fast— pace.  Most people’s mood rose with the improvement in the weather.  Not mine.  It was a wretched day for me that brought me to the emotional brink.

I am still driven out of my bunk by the vermin, which leaves me with no personal space, with no access to most of my belongings, and with great difficulty sleeping.  Gary and I continue to puzzlee over whether the pests are fleas from the cat or bedbugs.  He reported that several other people on board have the same affliction. We have little information on pests, so we must wait until we get to Gibraltar to get further knowledge from the internet.  Several people have ventured the opinion that what I have are bedbugs—though I have no idea as to why they should appear now—with clusters of bites on the abdomen.  If this is true, it seems from our meager knowledge that the only way to eliminate them may be fumigation, which I doubt would ever happen.  If so, I see no way I can get rid of bedbugs, a pest I would guess will only get worse as we get into the tropics.

Since we have had training workshops all along and have been asked what subjects we want covered, this morning when I saw the chief mate, I asked if we could have a workshop on vermin identification and elimination.   He told me to eat my breakfast.  From this I get the impression—perhaps erroneous—that this is considered a personal problem of mine and I should not bother those in charge with it.  In fact, I get the impression from a number of people that this is nothing and I am a whiner, and should just be a man and suck it up and ignore it or deal with it myself.  I have talked about it little publicly and will do my best not to talk about it at all. Perhaps my only hope is that what I have is fleas that can be eliminated with my current plan to fumigate with bleach and starve them by not sleeping in my bunk to provide food.  Bedbugs, from what people have said, are a much more persistent pest, however, able to hide, go long periods between feeding, and lay eggs that will hatch sometime in the future.

I am worn down by lack of sleep, itching, and the stress not having access to my clothing and tools and by not knowing if and when I may be able to overcome this pest.  The last straw for me was the bosun.  Kolin is a very nice man, organized, efficient, with a ready sense of humor.  But just below the surface lies a great deal of anger that can burst forth abruptly with intensity.  He was probably in a bad mood from something else yesterday, since he lashed out at a colleague at the beginning of my watch.  During the watch he lashed out at me repeatedly for minor things.  When I was told to sandpaper the rust off of an old machete, I asked how obsessive he wanted me to be, which I thought was a reasonable question.  His sharp reply was that he couldn’t watch me and tell me minute-by-minute how well I was doing, and that I should sand the whole thing and he’d tell me when I had done enough.  Later when I was on lookout on the foc’sle, I helped set some headsails.  He was hauling on one sheet and told me to haul on another, then yelled at me for not using two hands, which I should have been doing but couldn’t since he was blocking the belaying pin with his body and I couldn’t reach with both hands.  A little later I was walking back along the main deck to report a ship I had seen and met him coming the other way calling for hands to take in the flying jib, a job that takes several people but not the whole watch.  When I didn’t instantly respond, he yelled at me, “David, I said take in the flying jib.”  I replied, “I am on lookout reporting a ship, should I not do that?”  He then got right in my face and screamed at me with rage for not responding when I was only doing my job.

That brought me to the emotional brink.  I was so rattled that I lost track of the more than half-dozen ships scattered around the horizon that I had been monitoring but had moved while I was helping with sail handling.  I felt tears welling and if I could have said “Beam me up Mr. Scot,” I would have been off the ship in an instant.  I stumbled through the last few minutes of my watch, listened to a workshop on Damage Control, and went to my borrowed bunk and skipped dinner.  I was able to sleep until 11:30 and the rest helped, as did a busy midnight to 4 AM watch and some more sleep.

Time will tell whether the vermin problem can be solved.  If not, I will have to think hard about whether I want to continue to put up with the vermin in an environment where I am more than twice the age of half of the crew, and don’t fit in well with those who are younger, bigger, stronger, faster, and more dedicated than I, and where I feel close to only few people.  Stay tuned.

November 22, 2008
We arrived at Gibraltar late yesterday and anchored among a number of large tankers and other commercial ships just west of the Rock.  No one was allowed ashore.

This morning, when the watch schedule was posted, it was the worste possible for me.  Instead of the usual arrangement of one watch on board and two ashore, which would give me two days ashore, we were divided into two watches, and my watch had only Sunday off.  Since everything would be closed on Sunday, I would have no chance to get my bed clothes and clothes washed and vermin-free.  I spoke to the mate regarding my urgent need for a laundry and asked if there was any chance I could go ashore to do laundry.  He said he would see.  I prepared myself to be told no, and if so, to leave the ship, since the situation had become intolerable for me.

The mate evidently talked to the Captain, and I was summoned.  Captain Dan Moreland is not a person you can discuss or reason with, he wants you to answer his questions as quickly and concisely as possible and then wait for his pronouncement.  When I mentioned the possibility that I had gotten fleas from the cat, he quickly became defensive and flatly denied the possibility.  I was dismissed without a decision, and I began to plan my packing and departure.

The Captain then summoned and consulted with Gary, the medical officer, and called a general muster to find out who else might be affected.  Two other people admitted to having strange bites.

Afterwards, the Captain took me aside and said that “of course,” I could go ashore to get my laundry done.  Since the skiff was leaving in a few minutes, I qickly put together my two bags of condemned laundry and a third of other items that might be affected and threw them into the skiff, with no chance to change out of the grubby work clothes I have worked and slept in for days.

Ashore, Gary helped my carry my stuff to the gate of the port and we got a taxi to a laundry.  As I write, it should be in the machines.  I have no idea how all this fiasco will effect my already tenuous standing with the Captain and on the ship, or if laundering and swabbing my mattress and bunk with bleach will eliminate whatever vermin have been biting me.  I still have no idea where they came from, what they are, or why they have affected me principally.  Time will tell.

69. Frederic Chopin and George Sand


November 14, 2008
In the beautiful little village of Valldemossa in the Tramuntana mountains near the northwest coast of Mallorca is an old monastery.  Its construction was started in 1399 on the site of an even older Moorish governor’s palace.  The building was given to the Carthusian monks by King Martin the Humane and the order renovated in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.  The monks were forced to abandon the monastery in 1839, as a result of the Law of Disentailment.

On my second trip to Valldemossa, with my friend Gary, his wife Karen and son Michel, we stopped to wander the streets of the town, looking in shops, tasting the local port and brandy, and visiting the monastery.  The monastery is famous because during the winter of 1838-39, two years after the monks left, the Polish composer Frederic Chopin and the French writer George Sand spent the winter there with her children.  Despite the name, George Sand was a woman, and the two were a couple.

We started our tour with a brief concert in the chapel, and visited the monastery’s courtyard, library, apothecary, and public rooms.                                                                       The chapel ceiling.

A statue in the courtyard.                           The library.

The cells where Chopin and Sand played out their apparently stormy relationship have been left largely intact.  Actually, calling them cells is misleading, since their cells— numbered 2 and 4—are each suites of three fairly commodious rooms.  Chopin is said to have composed some of his best preludes and nocturnes here, on a piano his lover complained was inferior, but which remains in the room.  Sand wrote what was then a somewhat scandalous book about their time in Valldemossa, titled A Winter in Majorca, in which she apparently described the island, their time there and their relationship.  A veranda outside their cells gives a view of the valley below the town and contains a small garden including some late-blooming roses.  I found it interesting to be in a place where            Chopin’s cell with a bust of the composer and his piano.
such different historical strands come together.

The view from the terrace outside Chopin’s cell.                    A rose from the terrace garden.

68. Mallorca, The Northwest Coast


November 17, 2008
The island of Mallorca is shaped like a slightly flattened diamond, about 45 miles on a side.  From reading the only guidebook on board I learned that there is a mountain range paralleling the northwest coast.  From the pictures and descriptions, this seemed one of the most interesting parts of the island, and I decided to rent a car to see it, and actually managed to spend two days exploring the area.  On my first day, Gunner, a young shipmate from Texas, asked if I could take him to UPS to pick up some boxes that had been shipped to him.  After renting the car we spent half the morning searching through the alleys of the modern industrial part of Palma—a very different part of the city—before we were successful in that quest.  We then headed north out of Palma on a highway that took us through the suburbs and across the plain.  We could see the rugged mountains ahead of us and it wasn’t long before we began to climb on increasingly twisty roads.

We passed through the very pretty little mountain town of Valldemossa without stopping, eager to get to the coast, and kept climbing and twisting through some lovely little mountain villages.  Although the day was threatening rain the scenery was magnificent.  I kept seeing Things I would have loved to photograph, but there was no place to stop on the narrow twisty roads, and                                A mountain village
since I was driving I got only a glance.

At last we saw water through a cleft in the mountains and soon were twisting our way along the coast.  Inland, the wild, steep, rocky mountainsides with much bare rock, reminded me of the area in the southwestern U.S. around Zion Canyon.  To seaward the cliffs dropped away steeply into the slate blue Mediterranean.  We stopped for lunch in the old village of Deia, a place of great but unconscious beauty with its brown stone buildings and red tile roofs.  More twisty roads brought us over a mountain to the town of Soller and the Port of Soller, where I wanted to see the maritime museum.  Unlike Deia, this was a modern tourist town on the off-season.  The little port is the only natural harbor on the northwest coast, and originally flourished from fishing and the export of locally grown citrus fruit to mainland Europe.  Until the mid 290th century there were no roads that reached here from Palma, so the area functioned as a disconnected and autonomous economy.  The harbor and museum showed the distinctive and lovely little fishing craft native to Mallorca.

From Soller another winding road took us inland over a rugged mountain past some reservoirs, giving us countless vistas of the town below and the mountains around us in the misty afternoon.  At the top of a rise we took a little side road towards Sa Calobra.  This turned out to be perhaps the most twisty road I have ever driven, starting with a switchback so tight that the road actually did a complete twist and passed under itself through a tunnel.  Tight switchback followed tight switchback on the narrow road.  Since it was downhill, I had put the little diesel Citroen I had rented into neutral at the top of the rise and we continued downward purely on the momentum of gravity on our steep descent for over five miles before we reached the bottom.  Here we parked and followed a path along the shore under high cliffs and through a long unlit tunnel—where I found my way by brushing the fingertips of my extended arms against the walls—until we emerged.  Our goal was the Torrent de Pareis, where a spectacular canyon meets the sea through a narrow opening in the cliff.  Our return up the precipitous road was challenging since it had begun to get dark and there was fog and rain—I just followed the lights of the car ahead of us.  We turned southeast and I was glad when we finally got out of the mountains to cross the island through Inca, Sineau, and Manacor to Sant Llorenc near the east coast.  The towns we passed through looked interesting, and in one we had to detour around what looked like some sort of market or fair with livestock and other wares and throngs of people.  I would have loved to stop and explore them, but we had a commitment.

We were going to rendezvous with our shipmates at a party at the home of our shipmate Nadja’s family, transplanted Germans.  Our directions were from Palma but we were able to get close following our map.  From Sant Llorenc they were a little vague, and I was driving slowly through the little town looking for our turn when Gunner said “There’s John and Gary!” We stopped and found two cars of shipmates parked along the road.  They told us they had been unable to find their way and had called the house  and Nadja was on her way to show us how to get there.  More cars arrived until there were five and we then drove in caravan to the party.

Nadja’s family has built their house over the last decade on a low hilltop with a distant view of the sea.  Below the house a bonfire blazed encircled by people talking, drinking beer, and roasting sausages on sticks.  The house above has a large covered patio where a fire blazed and chicken was on the barbeque.  Nadja gave us a tour of the large house, with common living areas and separate suites for the parents, kids, and guests.  The building is a work of art, a tribute to the craftsmanship of Nadja’s father, who showed off beams of wood up to 300 years old that he had salvaged from demolished buildings, and beautifully laid and inlaid floors he had done.  I thanked Nadja’s parents for their hospitality in taking in 25 rowdy sailors.  It felt very good to be off the ship and in a home, and it was a great party, but I had to work the next day so Gunner and I left fairly early to take the highway back to Palma.

My second day exploring the northwest coast of Mallorca was a few days later when I joined Gary and his visiting wife Karen and son Michael.  Again we drove northwest to Valldemossa but this time we stopped to wander its streets, explore its shops, taste the local port and brandy, visit a monastery (which I will write about separately), and have a wonderful picnic lunch of wine, bread, cheese and pastries.  When we reached the coast this time we turned south and followed the coast through Banyaibufar, Estellencs, and Andratx.  (Don’t ask me how to pronounce them.)  It was particularly nice for me to share the trip with Gary and his family, and to have him do the driving.

Again we drove through rugged mountains with cliffs dropping to the sea below, reminding me of the Big Sur area on the California coast.  Again we passed through beautiful, old, little towns.  On this route we saw more agriculture, practiced on narrow terraces cut into the hillsides, often with what looked like what might be olive trees growing on them.  We stopped and climbed an ancient lookout tower with dramatic views up and down the coast.  And it seemed that all too soon we were again entering the suburbs and outskirts of Palma.