Captain’s Log – Sailing North From the Island of Bequia in the Eastern Caribbean in the Barque Picton Castle

After 25,000 miles, mostly deep sea, on this voyage it is something of a novel thing for the crew of the Picton Castle to be sailing among these wonderful eastern Caribbean islands. Sailing on and off the hook, experiencing close quarters sailing, lees, wind shifts, sail trim, squalls, inter-island traffic, yachts, delightful friendly ports -it’s all good and all part of the overall voyage plan.

We have sailed from little Bequia bound for French Martinique. As night engulfed us by St Vincent, aloft we had the Southern Cross astern and the Pole star ahead. Lights twinkled ashore on the island off to windward – and overhead in the sky between the scudding clouds. A warm gentle breeze over the starboard rail buffeted us softly.

Later at 0446 on this tropical, tradewind morning of June 6 we are 20 miles west of St Lucia, crossing the Martinique Channel. Bound for St Pierre. The feint loom of a coming dawn is making itself known on the windward bow. Picton Castle is braced up sharp on starboard tack, all sail set and drawing but the royals, which are snugly furled to their yards. Making 6 knots in warm soft breezes from the east and fetching our desired course of NNE in the lee of the island chain. It has been a fine night of good sailing with no squalls. We are sailing “by-the-wind”, making our way to windward, and not by a compass course, this is good for learning fine steering – and all are doing well at this new nuance. Watch the weather leach of the t’gallants, or the soft sheeted spanker. The flying jib will also luff if the helmsman gets too close to the wind. And, of course, if she comes to straight up from her modest heeling, you know you are about to put her aback. Which is not so good.

We sailed our barque off the hook from Admiralty Bay, Bequia yesterday just after noon. Under the leadership of Bosun Line, mates Spring and Dustin, all hands got the ship ready for sea again in the morning while I cleared out at the gracious, friendly and efficient Customs & Immigration office, and took care of final shore details. After a stay in port and the ambitions of the Bosun there are always things that need re-lashing or restowing. Line and her good gang have been hard at it at “nokkaroost” chipping and prepping steel work on the quarterdeck. Sailmaking or sail finishing carried on as well. Fire and other drills were carried out as well.

Ashore a good time had by all at Port Elizabeth, historically a very friendly welcoming West Indian waterfront town to sailors like those in Picton Castle. Bequia is a sailor’s island. Many Bequians, even today, ship out under sail and motor vessels. Former Brigantine Romance crew from here as well. Crew for Fantome, Mandalay, Flying Cloud and others including blue water yacht crew all hail from Bequia. Ashore we have plenty small island eateries and the Rendezvous Island pub with down to earth prices. Here and there at Bequia with a sharp machete and a pile of drink nuts ready to open one and quench a thirst. Mr. Noel and “The Fatman Taxi” (he is, in fact, very slim) got people around to take it all in. Lower Bay with The Reef. Princess Margarets Beach, Friendship Bay and more. Of particular note was the Bequia Heritage Foundation Museum which the crew all got a chance to visit. Friend and shipmate from years ago* Capt Jim organized a visit and lecture by Suny and Nicola followed by a swim at his place. These learned ladies offered in-depth insights into the history of Bequia. Who knew that Blackbeard the Pirate outfitted his Queen Ann’s Revenge here doubling her cannons to 40 (from captured vessels) making her the most powerful warship in the Americas at the time? I did not. There is more to Bequia but this fact stands out in any case. It did to young Dawson anyway. What is key and central to the peopling of Bequia is the fact that the bay here was -and remains – well protected, and, most importantly, that a sailing ship could both sail into AND out of Admiralty Bay without assistance. This was so necessary before tugboats and engines. Could still do so but for the many moored vessels and yachts in the bay. The museum also displays two of the old wooden whaleboats and a big dugout canoe, tools, and images. The whaleboats are 28’ feet long and direct descendants of those boats like the one in the museum that once came here on the davits of the sailing whale ships. One more historic craft that needs saving is the Iron Duke, the original, the first,  Bequia whaleboat, now languishing under a tree in town, rainwater and leaves in her bilge. Rebuilt many times, this double-ender, perhaps originally built in New Bedford, came to Bequia on a whaleship in the late 1800’s I believe. And we surmise that all the “two bow” boats up and down these islands are likely design descendants of this very craft. We can hope that she can be saved before it’s too late. By the way, Bequia still hunts whales under sail once in a while, allowed to take 4 whales a year by the IWC as indigenous whalers using original means. They may get one a year. Grim work to be sure. But no 48 million steel ‘mother ship’ for pointless industrial whaling. No mass frenzied slaughters in coves.

The town of Port Elizabeth bustles. Reggae music pours out here and there. A small group clusters around an upturned crate under the shade of a tree on the beach and cleans freshly caught fish at the water’s edge, spattering scales on anyone too close. Sundry Rastafari pass by with friendly greetings. Small table-top shops near the small boat jetty offer painted calabash bowls, local jewelry, and carvings. Another lady has hot roti for sale. At the big commercial dock, 8 or so large steel ferries come (former Scandinavian fjord craft) and go back and forth to St Vincent and elsewhere in the islands. Painted traditional Grenadine bright red or “pepper sauce yellow”, they seem to have plenty of work. Many of the schooners hereabouts a couple generations ago were painted bright red with white bulwarks.  The venerable 80-foot wooden schooner Friendship Rose lays idly at her mooring, a couple of heavy weed-laden lines float to trees on the beach, awaiting next year’s season. Once the only way to get back and forth from St Vincent, aka the ‘mainland’, she now makes day trips to the Tobago Cays. She is the last big real cargo schooner built (1967) in the Western Hemisphere. Built with no engine, they traded for a year under sail alone to earn the money to buy and install one. Captain Lewis, her long-time skipper passed away recently after 50 years at her wheel.

With main yards square, fore yards sharp on starboard tack and all sail loosed, the gang hove up the port anchor that had been holding so well in some stiff squalls piling over the mountain into the bay. Squalls done with, on this lovely sunny day with the yards backed the ship paid off to starboard as I had hoped, when the anchor broke out. A backed jib to help spin her around. Dan and Kim at the wheel. It was dead downwind out of the bay with yards squared. Soon all sail was set and the anchor catted on the port rail. Ship then braced up sharp against the easterly trade-winds, turn towards the north, and hands learning how to sail accurately by-the-wind. Keeping her up on the wind is critical to fetching the next island or port, instead of sagging off to Jamaica or Cuba. This is very different from deep sea steering downwind with no land about. Such is sailing in the islands.


Winds picked up and at times we were making 7 knots on our overnight passage to Martinique. Took in royals for the night, passing St Vincent and then St Lucia. We kept our breezes mostly, even under the lee of the islands. Winds have faired and we are making our course for St Pierre, once called the “Paris of the Caribbean”. Could also be called the “Pompei of the Caribbean” as well having been wiped out in a volcanic eruption. The volcanic cone of Mount Pelee, just above this attractive busy city, erupted in 1902 and despite clear warnings, destroyed the town of 30,000 or so in under a minute. Evidently, there had been plenty of warnings that were disregarded. Twelve ships were destroyed at anchor, a lucky 13th managed to get away. Two men survived the incendiary hot gasses. One fellow was in a dungeon of a jail that saved him. There today to be seen. But now again, amongst clear evidence of this horrible disaster, St Pierre has risen from the ashes and is a fascinating place to visit and enjoy. And so we shall. The lookout just spied some whales close on starboard here now under the lee of Martinique. Gently lolling in the small sunny seas as they head wherever they are headed. They are of course, safe from us, but they might be wise to give Saint Vincent a wide berth…

*in 1979 I was on a break from the Danmark. I was offered my first command as skipper of the original and strikingly beautiful Pride Of Baltimore, a 90’ extreme clipper topsail schooner, low and rakish. After sailing from Baltimore to Bermuda to the Caribbean we sailed the Pride into Bequia from Barbados, for Christmas. There was some sort of idea for her to sail the thousand miles to Jamaica, but those plans fell through, and we had time on our hands. So, there being no call for sailing so far downwind, and as so many of the shipwrights who had helped build her in the inner harbour of Baltimore in 1976 were from this island, it seemed a good idea to put into Bequia, show them their ship. Dropped an anchor by the stern and nudged her jibboom over the beach and tied her up to some trees right near the schooner Friendship Rose (and she sailing here today still). We got our small, smashed up lapstrake boat rebuilt on the beach under the palms at this time with steam-bent purple-heart wood, some sails repaired, a little deck caulking, had many of the builders and families aboard, so we started calling her the Pride Of Bequia. Down the shore Chris Bowman and Nolly Simmons were building a wooden schooner for Bob Dylan next to the Frangipani at Sir James Mitchell’s place. A beautiful thing named Water Pearl, later lost on a reef off Panama. Sweet thing. And here in Bequia, Captain Jim signed aboard as we sailed onward towards St Thomas and Key West. We were both 25 at the time. This period is still well remembered by those waterfront denizens old enough. Tragically the Pride was lost with four hands in 1986 not far from the eastern Bahamas.

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