Good Medicine

February 3, 2007

January 29, 2007

This trip was good medicine. Giving it and receiving it ;About lessons learned and lessons taught and maybe even realizing lessons you already knew. It was about hard work, light hearts and good energy.

There are so many different ways to learn and grow. Its no doubt that we learned a lot about the Picton Castle, tallships and what it takes to make and keep a ship and crew going. We also learned invaluable lessons about ourselves and others; life. As I was standing at midships waiting for the skiff to be ready to take us to ashore for the last time, Captain said to me that the real purpose of sailing and sail training was to pull out an even truer you from you. He was saying that its not that you weren’t you before, just that now you have grown within yourself, you have emerged as more aware, stronger, spiritual you.

As our group headed to Fort de France to catch our flight all of our voices said that in our own different ways.

In summary of these past two weeks, I have to say: No shit there I was a sail trainee on the Picton Castle and I’ll never be the same. I loved going aloft. A hard day’s work of scraping and painting was completely worth every time I climbed the ratlines into the rigging. I learned how to run new lines through the yardarm braces to replace swollen old lines. I learned how to tie knots and whippings and then use that knowledge to make gaskets, complete projects and secure tag lines while we cleaned the outboard side of the boat from a skiff. I learned how to do little things everyday to make the 40+ other peoples’ lives a little easier, as a whole or individually. I learned to appreciate a real day off, a five minute break or the easy task. I learned how to think through a job, pay attention to a multiplicity of details by tackling a task, screwing up and doing it again, the right way.

Coming home was a slight shock, it’s cold and quiet and my bed doesn’t rock me to sleep at night. Two and a half weeks is long enough to feel like months, change the way you live, perceive life and open your mind to a whole world of knowledge and ways to live that you didn’t even know existed before you left. Without a doubt, I will keep the lessons I learned, about ships and life, and the energy we had close to my heart.  Picton Castle Crew and Trainees, Prof Pyle and MHC, thank you for this experience.

What happens on the ship

February 3, 2007

January 11, 2007
    Regardless of our blogging troubles, my blogging has been delinquent at best. Instead of spending all of our time in front of a computer, we’ve been busy learning the ways and tasks of the tall ship and exploring  amazingly beautiful islands; our adventures have been numberless and are getting better everyday. To give you a feel of life for us right now, there are basically three kinds of days, sail days, work days and adventure days. On a work day we wake up at 0720, have breakfast as soon as we roll out of our bunks and muster practically at 0800 everyday. 

Today, Port Watch lifted the anchor one third of the length that it was out.  Imagine a see-saw with a long bar for an oversized handle at the end.  7 or so people grab a hold on each side and on the call, “Down on Port! 2! 6!”  We being pumping the anchor chain up the side of the ship around the gear and into the chain locker. Every cycle, down on port, down on starboard, produces one 8 inch link of chain. We joke that it’s the Picton Castle gym program, but even when we do it twice or three times a day, like today, we’re proud of our hard work and team effort and we’re glowing from the adrenaline rush of achievement.
All day today we were on stand by on deck learning our knots and tall ship terms while stopping to ease this sheet, haul that clew line or adjust a sail. The best part is going aloft and on a day like today, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to go two or three times. Up to loose the sails, back up to furl them at the end of the day. As we finish dropping our anchor, like most days on the ship at anchor, we have a swim call. It’s the sweet summer rope swing into the lake or river intensified by the fact that the rope swing is tied onto the foremast lower topsail yard arm and you’re jumping from the bow of the ship.
Work days are every other day when we are at anchor or port and they’re just what they sound like – work. So far we’ve painted, cleaned inside and out, painted, mopped the decks, painted, cleaned out the fruit lockers, painted, made lunch for 42 people and painted some more. No matter how tired we are at the end of the day, our smiles persist and the bonds we’ve made with everyone we’ve been scrubbing next to are stronger than those made during the days when we just play.

Speaking of which…
Sailing is an adventure, we’ve had adventure with oil based rust retardant paint and we’ve had many adventures on shore. There’s a saying on board, “What happens on shore, stays on shore; what happens on the ship, stays on the ship,” this same saying should apply to this right here right now. To give you just a glimpse, 60 ft base jumps into waterfalls,night walks to perfect beaches, cokes and cokes on the beach, local people, great conversations and dare I leave out our Rasta friends Winston, Fire, Tom, Ben the bartender at Paradise beach – and every friendly island face we’ve ever seen.
    I can’t write about the dynamic of this group; 13 Mount Holyoke
students who know how to act like sisters on a boat with 14 pro crew lead seamen and almost 20 people with the same goal but not one from the same walk of life. It took no time for this crew to come together as a working unit, a family with the same positive energy. Our energy is awesome. The quietly spoken midday conversations to the late night intense ones, the ways you get to know the crew our family can change the way you think about life. I have to stop myself there or I run the risk of being too vague or trapping myself here for the next couple hours and I think Joe, the carpenter we picked up in Grenada, needs help playing his guitar.
Some people say you find yourself when you travel. I think that is true. On trips like this, with people like this, you can find a peace.


January 29, 2007

January 29, 2007

I first learned about square-rig sailing as a member of the American crew of Mayflower II, a replica of the Pilgrim’s ship. She was then under the command of Alan Villiers, the legendary captain and author who kept the hope of sail training alive during the hard years of the Depression, World War II, and their aftermath. It was on Villiers’ bark Joseph Conrad, now at Mystic Seaport, that the students in this course got their first taste of climbing aloft on a tall ship. In many ways, the Castle’s captain and crew are living out Villiers’ dream, sailing their trim steel bark around the world.

My first encounter with Villiers, as a 17 year-old apprentice, was nothing short of terrifying. I had been told by the second mate to ring out eight bells on the great bronze bell amidships, and so I did: ding, ding, ding . . . . I was at the fifth ding when Villiers stormed out of his cabin high on the poop deck demanding to know who was ringing that bell. It was then made known to me, in no uncertain terms, that I was a wimp, and that the proper way to strike eight bells was smartly in pairs: DING-DING, DING-DING, DING-DING, DING-DING. I also learned that deep water sailors don’t have to appreciate you simply because you are on board.

I was reminded of this long-suppressed embarrassment reading Captain Dan Moreland’s excellent handbook for his crew, which begins with a passage from Villiers’ book on sailing around the world on the Conrad. The description captures my experience on the Mayflower 50 years ago and, I think, my student’s experience on the Castle.

The young apprentice may have come aboard with his head filled with queer ideas about sailing ships and the sea, principal among which is a fixed notion that all he has to do is look on while old sailors explain things to him, and then later on give the captain advice about sailing the ship. His first month at sea may be a distressing experience, shattering illusions right and left until he sees only the bare bones of real life remain. He expected romance and found work; he expected a “great life” and found himself principally called upon to perform feats of almost superhuman endurance – feats which everybody did daily and nobody ever noticed. Then after a while, . . . he finds that there really can be romance in those bare bones of life, if one knows how to go about looking for it . . . . Yes, the sailing ship can be hard, and it is not always a pleasant process to have the edges knocked off you . . . . But the [ship] casts a spell over those who sail in her . . . .


“That’s Well!”

January 18, 2007

January 14, 2007

This trip is not a Caribbean vacation. We were warned several times during the interview process. We were promised tight quarters and long days of hard work. All promises have been kept. There are forty-six on board the Picton Castle today. We share four heads, two showers, and one galley. We are experiencing life aboard a tall ship with not much deviation from the way it was when this type of transportation began.

Over the past couple of days we have noticed several luxury yachts motoring along side us. One of those yachts is anchored about a mile of our port side right this very moment. I can’t help but wonder what amenities she contains. There are probably state rooms with pillow top mattresses and a private head for each. No doubt that she holds a staff to prepare meals and attend to mechanics and piloting. She probably has a electric winch to lift the anchor. (Something that I am sure that all the sail trainees aboard this ship wish the Picton Castle would install.) Lifting the anchor on this ship entails two teams pumping the arms of the windlass for what seems like hours on end. The torture does not end until the First Mate calls “That’s well!” All participants then collapse from exhaustion.

The yacht in question is anchored off the shore of Petite St. Vincent. At night her lights are brighter than all the lights on the island tonight. The yacht’s annual budget including staff and supplies may well exceed the budget of any one of these tiny islands.

The idea of income redistribution has become a heated topic upon the Picton Castle. There is at least one of us who believes that there are far too many people on this earth and inequality is nature’s way of thinning out the population. But more of us believe that yachts that big should be taxed out of existence and the revenues used to help those less fortunate.


Who died?

January 17, 2007

Who died?

We have been laid over at Petite (pron. “petty’) Martinique, a sleepy little island off the northeast coast of Carriacou, waiting for a front to pass through. Across the bay is Petit St. Vincent’s, a private resort, invisible but for the yachts out front. The contrast is palpable; $10 million Tupperware motor yachts on one side of the bay, tiny houses with tin roofs on the other.

One narrow cement road runs through Petite Martinique. At first examination there appears to be little to no commerce. Signs are not required. Everyone knows everyone else; what few goods there are can be purchased from tiny homes or shacks. Gloria bakes white bread and sticky buns, which are only available in the late afternoon. Maire McLean sells coconut oils from her home on the main street. The hills are alive with sheep and goats, which look alike, except that the tails of goats point skyward. The sheep and goats are for eating on special occasions.

In the late afternoon a half-dozen women set up their battered Weber grills, fill them with charcoal, and sell barbequed chicken and beer to single men who have no one to cook for them. There is a desalinization plant and a diesel generator that provide water and electricity to the entire island. The Internet service never works. The health center is run by a single nurse; serious medical care by Cuban-trained doctors is a long boat-ride away in Grenada. Elementary school ends at the fifth grade; after that the students a “bused” to Carriacou by boat starting at 6:00 a.m. If there is a library, I did not find it.

Most of the houses are made of cinder-blocks, with sheet metal roofs. The newer ones, built by retirees who earned pensions toiling up north, have concrete balusters. Some even have gingerbread rake boards under their eves. Wash water is collected in big plastic cisterns from gutters when it rains.

Scattered among the white, concrete houses are tiny, shingled shacks with steep roofs and multi-paned sash windows. Most are collapsing from rot. These are a legacy from the time that black sailors from these islands sailed with Nantucket whalers – again going off island to support their families. There is no historic preservation down here; these monuments to a bygone era will merge with the volcanic dust in a decade or two.

The islanders who do not seek their fortune up north fish off the surrounding reefs and sell their catch up the line in big Martinique. Then they smuggle rum, whiskey, or appliances on the return run. (In Grenada we could only find German-brewed Heineken; here we drink the Dutch brew, which is much better. Jack Daniel’s is cheaper here than at home.) If the government of Grenada were to end the smuggling, Petit Martinique would become a ghost town, until purchased by the Marriott Corporation.

However, the chances of ending smuggling here are not good. The story is told of a Grenadian police chief who felt the need to arrest a smuggler, possibly for killing a rival from Venezuela. First he directed his sergeant to make the arrest, but the sergeant resigned instead, so the chief went to the island himself. News of his mission preceded him and when he approached shore in the late afternoon he saw that everyone was gathered around the graveyard in their best clothes. As the anchor line ran out, a messenger swam out from the beach to plead: “Oh, commissioner, sir, please come ashore quickly.”

“I don’t want to disrupt a funeral,” he replied.

“But, sir, we don’t like to bury someone after dark.”

“Well, who died?,” the puzzled chief asked.

“No one yet,” the swimmer explained. “It’s your funeral; the coffin is ready and the grave is dug. But please hurry, because it will be dark soon.”

The chief wisely raised anchor and sailed home.

During the early 1980s, the People’s Revolutionary Movement officially governed this smugglers’ haven, but it is said that its officials, like the chief, always decamped before dark.


Laura in my heart

January 16, 2007

All tall ships have an extended family of former crew members; a network that spans continents and seas. The Picton Castle’s family is especially large, and many wrote in after last month’s tragedy at sea. Many wrote warmly of Laura Gainey, with whom they had sailed from Cape Town to Lunenburg and through the Great Lakes.
The most eloquent was a 12 year-old girl, Mikayla:

“The PC’s search ends today, the reports say. My head understands but my heart is going to explode, I think, because I feel so bad for the PC family, . . . crew on the ship right now, . . . crew not on the ship, and me too, and the Gainey family. I am very proud of everybody and very sad for everybody. . . .

I have been thinking and thinking and thinking and I though the world was sure gonna be a terrible world because of the loss of Laura, but now I am thinking the world will just have to be a better place because lots of us were so lucky to know her.

Laura who just sparkled; such a hard worker, always energetic and busy, but always willing to help a sailor in training learn the ropes. She understood why I want to be a sailor, because she loved it so much. She was a bit shy and quiet, too, so we were kindred spirits. She also taught me to make the best salad dressing ever, but I don’t know if I know how to make it for less than 40 people.

I am going to be a better person because she was my friend and she was a very good role model and the kindness she gave me. Laura wrote to me last Tuesday that I would be in her heart as she sailed the seas and that she would be honoured to sail with me some day.

My parents tell me that big things or sad things shape people, so I won’t ever be the same Mikayla. I do feel older already.

I am even more determined to be a sailor and to work even harder. I will have Laura in my heart as I sail the seas or on land the rest of my life.

— Mikayla”

What next?

Others wrote caringly of the crew, the ship, and the traditions of the sea. None was more understanding than Jeff Bolster, a master mariner.

“Now that the search has been called off, and the Gainey family and Picton Castle
have to accept irrevocably that [Laura] is gone, decisions must be made about “What’s next?”

One response is to head immediately for the closest port of call, say Bermuda. Some might say that anything else would be a mark of disrespect for Laura. Others might say that the crew will be unable to cope, and will need grief counseling. But the traditions of the sea . . . suggest just the opposite. The crew of the Picton Castle needs to resume their course for Grenada. . . .

The fundamental lesson at the heart of seafaring under sail is perseverance. For centuries men and women have tested themselves in the face of daunting weather, mechanical malfunctions, and physical and psychological hardship. It has never been a secret that there is a degree of danger in the deep sea. It is fair to say that with anything worth doing, especially in the realm of physical challenge or outdoor activity, a certain risk exists. How we handle the situation in the unlikely event someone is hurt says a great deal about us. The Picton Castle’s crew will terminate the search for Laura with a celebration of her life – a life re-energized and given direction by sail training – and then they will sail on. . . .

Ships have always been a metaphor for stability in the flux of life. In the primal chaos of the ocean, a well-managed and well-navigated ship sails a course that provides direction for those aboard. It is no coincidence that after being disoriented by the hardship that life sometimes delivers, we say: “We need to get our bearings.” The crew of the Picton Castle now needs to get their bearings, to resume their voyage. They sail with a new appreciation of the value of life, and what it means to take out-of-the ordinary challenges. They sail with Laura in their hearts and minds. They will not forget her. But they sail to honor her dream. It is what she wanted to do.

— Jeff Bolster, Master Mariner”

Dreams can come true

January 16, 2007

January 13, 2007

When I was small, in the drawing class at school, I liked to draw a tall ship sailing in the sea. I had no idea what a ship or the sea looked like, but I had some theories. I thought that the sea was an endless area full of water which started in China. I do not know why I chose China and not any other country. Furthermore, I was born and lived my whole life in the desert of Algeria, where there is no surface water and the drinking water comes from tens of miles away. I got to ride the desert ships (camels), but never thought I would one day sail on a tall ship.

Despite the fact that I lived in a desert, I loved water and always wanted to sail on a ship like the one I used to draw. This time my dream came true, I am sailing on the Picton Castle and in the Caribbean. This trip has been full of interesting things and surprises. When in Carriacou, which is a small island part of Grenada, I got to go to the beach and see the beauty of the Caribbean Sea. One of the most beautiful beaches in the island was Paradise Beach, which I really liked, and I got the opportunity to go swimming, but sadly I was not able to go snorkeling.

Even though I come from a totally different environment, but I felt the connection to the place and it seemed as if I have lived here for many years. After Carriacou, we are heading to Petit Martinique, which is even smaller island, and I am sure I will experience even more exciting things.


It’s a girl!

January 16, 2007

January 14, 2007

As a French person, calling the ship a “she” is very strange to me. In fact, I have always seen English as a very logical language because what is female will be feminine, what is male will be masculine and what is neither of them will be neutral. For instance, in French, a plane is masculine but an aisle is feminine, a chair is feminine but an armchair is masculine, and as a matter of fact, there are no rules when it comes to the gender of things. So why is a ship a “she” in English? I asked the bosun the question and his answer was very interesting.

A ship is feminine because she acts just like a woman, if you take care of her, she will be good to you, if you don’t, she may not listen to you and do whatever she feels like. You have to love her or she will let you down, if you make her happy, she will do the same for you. At the time when sailors were only men, she was their girl.

Moreover, the bosun told me that they are many parts of the ship that are named after body parts. Toilets are called the heads because before toilets were installed, sailors used to go on a little plank at the bow of the ship, and the name just stuck. The ribs are the structure of the ship, the middle part of the ship is the waist, the outside parts of the blocks are called the cheeks, some parts of some lines are called the eyes, etc …

The bosun is probably the fourth person in the hierarchy of the ship, after the captain, the chief mate and the second mate. The mates are mostly in charge of the sailing, whereas the bosun has to take care of the ship as his priority. Michael, the Picton Castle’s bosun, has his captain’s license and was first mate on the last ship he sailed on, but he wants to get some experience before starting as captain on another training ship next fall. He has lots of stories to tell us, with a very calm voice, and lots to teach us too. He told me his favorite part of the training is when people have just figured out the lines, and that for the first time they realize that they have pulled on the right rope at the right time.


Petite Martinique

January 16, 2007

January 14th, 2007

Imagine you are 80 feet in the air, standing on ratlines of natural fiber in bare feet, looking out over an expanse of blue and the green peaks and valleys of Petit Martinique and its surrounding islands. Now imagine you’ve got a weighty coffee can of tree tar strapped do your harness, which rides high and tight on your waist. The tar, however, is not just contained within the coffee can, but coats every exposed inch of skin on your body. You’re sticky, you’re a nice toffee brown color, and you’re loving it. This is what tall ship sailors call “tarring the rigging.”

Today, I began tarring at 10:00 am, climbing the mizzen mast under grayish skies. I began brushing the tar on the ratlines and shrouds, realizing very quickly that hands are far better tools than brushes. I massaged the sticky brown stuff (which smells remarkably sweet, like molasses), into the rigging, all the while trying not to let the goop rain down on the deck and on my fellow crew members who were working below. Standing on the ratlines, which are ropes about 1 inch in circumference, inevitably becomes hard on the feet for a land lover like me, so I found myself switching my weight from the balls to the heels of my feet quite often. As I moved tediously downward on the rigging, I clipped by belt harness onto the shrouds and soon found that leaning out against the resistance of the harness helped reduce the strain my left arm, which was holding my upper body as I painted tar with my right hand. I steadily moved down the mizzen mast and when I reached the bottom, Lindsey, the second mate and leader of our watch, gave me another assignment: the main mast. I climbed to the t’gallant, far higher than I’ve been yet, this time under a hot beating sun and a blue sky with streaks of impending Caribbean rains. The adrenaline rush was intense, but I took my time and began to get into a “zone.” Soon, I was able to take a few strokes with the brush and then pause to look all around me. The tiny picturesque and colorful houses, the yachts and fishing boats and dinghies in the harbor, the green hills of petit Martinique – all these things looked so much more beautiful from my new vantage point.

My feet finally reached the deck at 2:30 pm. I was coated in tar, I was sun burnt, but I was beaming. It took about an hour of scrubbing my skin with sunflower oil to get all the tar off. In many ways, this voyage has required me to test my limits. I’ve learned that jumping in the ocean can be a suitable shower, that walking on the deck of a ship while underway requires impeccable timing, that one really can “work up” an appetite. But most of all, I’m learning that I, along with my Mount Holyoke friends who are here, can do some pretty crazy things, some things that we would perhaps never have envisioned ourselves doing. And not only do we do these things, we enjoy them, we derive satisfaction from them. MacGregor hit the nail on the head when he said, “sailors work and play really hard.”


Life Lessons

January 16, 2007

January 11, 2007

It has been nearly a week since we embarked on this adventure of a lifetime. Among our Mt Holyoke group are ten traditional aged students and three Frances Perkins Scholars. One might wonder why someone my age (38) might want to take a trip such as this.

First of all, I am a visual learner. I have read all about bunt lines and clew lines, standing rigging and running rigging, but to tell you the truth it did not make much sense until I began tugging on them. Secondly, because I began my family before I went to college and am now a single mother with four sons, I am extremely self-sufficient, very rarely asking a neighbor for an egg never mind asking a sailor to save my life. For this past week it has been a necessity for me to learn to depend heavily upon others.

This ship is all about team work and trust. We learn the ships hardware in teams. We take orders, answer and obey each order in teams. The Captain expects this of us so that he can assure the safety and efficiency of the group as a whole. Each individual is responsible for the protection of the ship and crew members on a rotating watch schedule. We watch for fires, floods and unwelcome guests. We protect each others lives. The day might come when the members of this crew will have to depend upon me.

It felt so much like home

January 16, 2007

January 12, 2007

It is really busy here, even if you are off-watch. There are many things to do and see in the islands, and that is why I was not able to keep up-to-date with my entries for the blog. I have been accumulating them in my journal and never had time to type them up.

My second day in Grenada was amazing, touring the island with members of the MHC group, crew members Evan and Travis, and Sara, another sail trainee. The whole trip was full of surprises and fascinating things. In this trip, I got to see and taste fruits that I never even heard off. In addition, I got to see the beautiful landscapes of Grenada, such as mountains, forests and waterfalls.

I went to the market, which reminded me so much of the Friday market back home. This was not the only thing that I found in the island similar to that of Algeria. Though, the two countries are geographically located in different continents, they still shared many cultural similarities. For instance, when walking in the street, I felt safe. Moreover, the way people drove in the streets, high speeds and no organization, was another similar aspect. In addition, one of the most interesting things was that of Taxi drivers. One can get a Taxi very easily because you do not have to ask for it, the drivers would offer you a ride, but you would have to negotiate the prices. Nevertheless, there was a tradition different from home, the piping style. I found it an interesting way of communication between the drivers, they would pip every other five minutes. It was funny but interesting at the same time.

In just a day, I got to experience many things that I never thought would have the opportunity to experience. I really enjoyed and loved Grenada, which reminded me so much of home; however, it was really sad saying goodbye to the island and the people. It was an amazing and unforgettable experience, and I hope I would be able to visit Grenada again in the future.


Benito Cereno

January 16, 2007

It is always a puzzle to know what to assign for reading in this course. This year I chose Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, a wickedly devious story about a slave revolt on a Spanish ship off the coast of Chile in 1799. I was persuaded to do so by Chris Benfey, my colleague across the hall in Shattuck. Chris is a wise fellow, and when he makes a suggestion, I listen.

Cereno is about ships and the sea, and therefore qualifies for this course. But it is about much more, and most particularly the culture of non-inquiry that leads tourists to look upon these islands and never see what lies beneath. The Spanish largely passed them by – no gold. The French and British saw their potential and imported slaves, who frequently revolted. Their descendants – like the late Maurice Bishop of Grenada – continue to revolt in different ways. In previous centuries, the revolts were against a white planter class. Now they are more likely to be against the white-run hotel chains that create gated resorts to which they sell package deals, and thereby guaranteeing that few tourist dollars will be spent in local businesses. All that is left for the locals is to become chambermaids, and clean up, yet again, after the white foreigners. Melville would have understood this new form of colonization, backed on occasion by the U.S. navy and its marines.

In Benito Cereno, Melville’s American captain, Asa Delano, is refilling casks of fresh water behind a deserted island when the San Dominick comes into view, her sails in tatters. Being a good fellow, he visits the mystery ship to offer assistance. There he finds a largely black crew and a dispirited Spanish captain, Benito Cereno, closely attended by his faithful black servant, Babo. To Delano, the good-hearted Christian from Duxbury, Massachusetts, black Africans are like Newfoundland dogs, and he looks upon them as kindly as he would dogs. Gradually, however, it becomes clear that the good Captain is as dumb as a Newfoundland, and that the shrewdest men on the ship are the blacks. When Delano finally comprehends that the blacks have seized the ship in a bloody revolt, made possible by a naïve and kindly slaver owner, all he sees is the terrorism of dogs who have turned upon their masters.

Like most Americans of his time, Melville’s captain refuses to acknowledge the atrocities of slavery, for that would have required him to concede the rightness of their revolt. All Delano can see is the plight of his fellow, white, Christian captain, and the salvage award that will come if he recaptures the ship.

The only white to realize the awful truth is the troubled Spanish captain. Three months later, he dies in a monastery while Asa Delano sails home, serenely confident that he has done his Christian duty. Unlike Cereno, Delano still does not comprehend the enormity of the wrong he has done to the blacks. For all his republican values, he does not recognize that each of them had a right to freedom and that the only Christian thing to do was to aid their return to Africa, or at least stand neutral to their attempt, however impossible it might be.
Benito Cereno is a sly satire of the fugitive slave laws, as enforced by the Melville’s father-in-law, judge Lemuel Shaw, pillar of the Boston establishment Shaw was so enamored with the sanctity of law that he could not see the depravity in returning slaves to captivity. His counterparts today would be the state and local police officers who enforce the federal government’s efforts to deport illegal aliens, regardless of their circumstances.

But the novella could just as easily be a satire of how easily Americans accept what the U.S. military and CIA continue to do in the Caribbean, or in Afghanistan or Iraq. Like nineteenth century Yankees, we believe in liberty and national self-determination, but do not understand that these ideas – when we practice them – cannot be imposed upon people who, like the San Dominick’s slaves, don’t even share our language.

But Melville’s satire goes beyond that easy insight. Like his Puritan ancestors, Melville understands depravity. Years at sea exposed him to plenty of depravity, even among seamen of great courage. Melville shows us what happens to a good-hearted slave owner who gives the oppressed men and women he owns a chance for freedom. They repay his benevolence by flaying him alive and then hanging his skeleton below the bowsprit. Melville could have told the current captain of our ship of state a thing or two about bombing Iraq for ten years and then expecting its Muslim residents to welcome our Christian army as it grinds into Baghdad in tanks.

But Melville also could have warned Maurice Bishop of the dangers of carrying off a left-wing coup in Grenada and then not protecting himself against a revolt by fellow revolutionaries. Liberty, equality, and justice are grand ideals, but their survival depends, ironically, on the disciplined exercise of power.

— Chris

Turbid Waters

January 15, 2007

January 11, 2007

Our first week on the Picton Castle has been amazing. We have done things I have only dreamed of doing. After being daunted by the sheer number of lines when we first boarded, I am now familiar with nearly all of them.

I have been collecting data on the turbidity of the waters we have been sailing. Turbidity is amount of particulate matter that limits the penetration of sunlight and therefore what can grow and thrive. I have been measuring this simply by lowering a secchi disk into the water and recording the depth at which it disappears from sight. The data will be used as part of an independent research project. This trip has made me appreciate how much local, non-scientific knowledge can broaden my thinking about marine science.

Yesterday we hiked to a secluded beach where we snorkeled, swam, and chilled for the day. The scenery on both Carriacou and Grenada is endlessly green. Fruit trees abound. Hard to believe that just a few years ago Ivan blew every leaf off the trees and most of the roofs off houses. Our guide in Grenada sent us back to the ship with a pile of exotic fruits he picked for us along our way – mangos, bananas, nutmegs, coca beans, cashews.

The sailing has been awesome. Today we sailed off the anchor at Tyrrel Bay to sail north past Union Island and back to Hillsborough. The wind blew from the east at about 15 knots and we set all but the royals and a couple of staysails. Most of us have climbed aloft a few times; some have gone out on the man catcher net beneath the bowsprit to furl headsails. The pro-crew have now accepted us as friends, and are there to help us climb aloft, secure lines, coil the proper way, and generally become useful. The other trainees are also very nice and supportive and as a whole we have had many great times.

Tomorrow we will move to another bay, practice small boat handling, do more snorkeling, and barbeque on a deserted beach.


Teaching and Learning

January 15, 2007

January 11, 2007

Many of us did not know what to expect before boarding the Picton Castle in Grenada. After my first week of being on the ship, I can easily write that this experience has been much more than I could have ever anticipated. Although my initial goal was to learn how to sail a tall ship, my experience thus far has reached far beyond my own expectations.

Between the long days of sail training, domestic cleaning, ship up-keeping and the slow days of unwinding, relaxing and exploring the Caribbean islands, I have learned that there is much more to tall ships than just sailing.

As I sit here reflecting on the last week I have spent here, I can here Joe (our carpenter) singing and strumming his guitar. It is the moments like these when the work day is over and we are all together under the stars, that I tell myself to never forget this.

Although this trip has been filled with different physical and mental challenges, I have found that, in addition to learning all the “how to’s” with sailing, becoming integrated into the actual crew has been an experience all in itself. As we are all learning about the bunts and clews and braces to haul and ease, we are also gaining knowledge from each other—professional crew and sail trainees. To be on a crew is to be a part of a family. I personally sensed this almost immediately upon first boarding the ship when there was an initial reluctance from the professional crew to become close with any of the new trainees. This apparent attitude was understandably explained by the recent loss of a crew member in a man overboard incident that occurred in the North Atlantic within a few weeks before our scheduled journey through the Caribbean. However given the circumstances of long and hard working days combined with the beautiful atmosphere and vibrant cultures of the Caribbean islands, it became inevitable that the professional crew, sail trainees, and us (the Mount Holyoke students) would quickly bond. Through this, I have personally found that the professional crew has a lot of knowledge to offer that involves more than just the mechanics of a tall ship. The stories that some of the professional crew are willing to share are insightful and enlightening. As a sailor walks softly and speaks quietly, a sailor’s story is filled with volumes of journeys from the tragic to the spiritually fulfilling.

In my sail training I have felt the trust and respect that binds this crew together. I have found that my most favorite thing to do during sail training is working aloft. I never really knew if I had a fear of heights, but all of my anxieties about climbing up the ratlines and working my way across the yard standing on a line quickly diminished when I looked around and saw I was surrounded by people I trusted and respected, regardless of how long we have all known each other. Aside from learning that I am in fact not afraid of heights, I am convinced that working aloft was most comfortable for me because I knew I had been properly trained by a crew who cared about me and my safety.

Along with bonding over training, I have observed that the playing has also created a strong crew. Whether it’s swinging from the bow of the ship into the water during a group swim or jumping sixty feet off a cliff alongside a waterfall, we are all here cheering each other on and it creates a truly positive atmosphere for everyone to learn in.

The generosity and good humor of the island locals has made traveling particularly easy for all of us. I felt that the dynamic of the islands we have visited is somewhat similar to that of the ship. In a way, this ship is its own small island. On the islands, the locals take pride in their communities and are more than willing to show us around once we express interest in learning about their lives. Similarly on the ship, the crew is proud of what they are a part of and as long as we are willing to learn and see things from their perspective, they are more than happy to teach us.

A logo on a t-shirt in a stand on Paradise Beach in Carriacou read: “Live slow. Sail Fast.” We all enjoyed the logo and even talked much about it after which also lead to a quote mentioned by one of the trainees: “Lose your mind. Find your soul.” This trip so far has definitely reached beyond the academic winter term standards and entered a soul searching dynamic which often goes hand in hand with traveling.

I can’t wait to learn more. I can’t wait to see more. I can’t wait to find out more about myself with these wonderful people I have met!



January 15, 2007

January 9, 2007

We anchored in Tyrrel Bay, Carriacou, yesterday afternoon. Today was our day off; tomorrow we will stay on the ship and go back to the training. After going to the Internet café to check our e-mails and the latest news, we got one of those taxis to get to Paradise Beach. They are everywhere, and pick up people off the side of the road. They drive very fast on narrow, hilly bumpy roads, and how drivers honk all the time for anything: they honk at ladies, pedestrians, goats, sheep, dogs, other vans, turns, well anything you could think about! But we got to Paradise Beach and I thought it was amazingly beautiful. The scenery was great because of the turquoise colour of the water, the sand bar on the horizon, the little fishing boats, the shells and the corals lying on the golden sand etc… We had a great time there, swimming, tanning, the quiet Caribbean I guess.

Anyway, I cannot wait until tomorrow when we are going to learn more about seamanship and tall ship handling. Even if it has been tiring at some points, I am having a great time here. As you may know, there are a lot of lines (lines, not ropes, that’s what I have been told), I don’t know them all yet, and there are also many other things that I have not heard about, but the plan is that the day after tomorrow we will get going so we all have to get prepared. This will be the rousing Caribbean experience.


The Kindness of Strangers

January 15, 2007

January 7, 2007

I’m sad to say goodbye to Grenada. We sail off tomorrow to anchor out and do some safety drills (fire drills, man overboard drills, abandon ship drills). Next stop: Carriacou.

I think it’s easy to forget that people are kind by nature—really, truly, nice. I wasn’t expecting the locals to be so friendly, but we were definitely treated very well in Grenada, even catered to. Our cab drivers, Desmond and Andy, took me and some other MHC students, along with some crew members, around the island in their red van. They not only took us to the Concord waterfall, but made stops along the way to show us plants like cocoa fruit (they make chocolate from the seeds), sugar cane (delicious and juicy), and some local rum shops where spiced rum and rum punch were plentiful. Desmond and Andy even spent some time on the beach with us. We were treated like good friends and paid 10 American dollars for an entire day of learning about the island.

We are beginning to get to know the crew members. The more we learn about the ship, the more I respect the vast knowledge each one of them offers. These pro crew members are so deeply connected to the ship, and are so adaptable and versatile. I respect each one of them greatly and have already learned a lot from them. Michael, though a rough sailor on the exterior, is one of the kindest and most soft-spoken people I have ever met. He is so patient with us, and so even-tempered.


Operation Urgent Fury

January 9, 2007

It is difficult to think of this little spice island as a threat to the United States. Its population would barely fill the Rose Bowl and its chief exports are sugar, bananas, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. But after local leftists seized power in 1979, four years after independence from Great Britain, the U.S. government resolved to throw them out. The regime of Maurice Bishop had great ambitions for cooperative business ventures, education, and social welfare but committed the unpardonable sin of aligning itself with Castro’s Cuba. Bishop even endorsed the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The Reagan administration was not amused. It ordered our secret government to destabilize Grenada and plan an invasion.

Reagan’s excuse came October 19, 1983, when Bishop was deposed by a murderous band of rival Marxists. Six days later, “Operation Urgent Fury” was unleashed upon the island. U.S. paratroopers dropped from the skies, along with thousands of comic books prepared by CIA propagandists. You can read an especially silly one at Americans soldiers gave their lives so that Grenada could again become a banana republic.

Congress was not consulted about this invasion, President Reagan said, because time was of the essence. U.S. medical students in the island’s north end urgently needed to be rescued. That was false, as school officials later explained.

The attack was also needed, U.S. officials said, to prevent Communist Cubans from building an airport that Soviet bombers could use to strike at the Panama Canal. This, too, was bogus; Soviet planes could just as easily attack the Canal from Cuba. Cubans were part of the airport’s workforce, alongside Canadians and Finns, but the company that employed them was from Great Britain. Contrary to what Reagan claimed, the airport was never designed to be a military facility, e.g. with hardened bunkers, and after the invasion the United States finished the project, to accommodate tourists like us.

The President also claimed that a coalition of neighboring islands had requested the invasion, but their so-called request was drafted in Washington.

The invasion diverted attention from President Reagan’s decision to cut and run from Lebanon after 242 marines were killed by a suicide truck bomb. Some critics said diversion was the invasion’s chief purpose. What they did not know was that the invasion had been practiced by marines two years earlier on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

The attack violated the U.S. Constitution, the UN Charter, and international law, but was applauded by two-thirds of the American public. In Connecticut Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat, criticized Lowell Weiker, a Republican, for raising constitutional objections to the Grenadian invasion, and won the election. In Washington, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney saw how easily inattentive voters could be lied into supporting unconstitutional wars to depose foreign regimes.

After the invasion, Bishop’s agricultural cooperatives were shut down. Labor unions were reorganized, and a new right-of-center government welcomed American investors. St. George’s, with less than half the population of South Hadley, became home to 118 off-shore banks and a haven launderers, tax evaders, and swindlers.

Most Grenadians don’t like to talk about this invasion, known locally as “the intervention.” Most Americans little know or long remember what happened here, three years before most of our sailors were born. But the graffiti on local bridges urging “Americans go home” remains a fading reminder that the Caribbean is, militarily speaking, still an American lake. We are mere tourists, learning how to sail, but all around us are memories of recent military operations, including Panama to the west and Cuba and Haiti to the north. Remnants of covert operations surround us, too, in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Colombia. If “Kick ‘Em Jenny” lurks below the sea, “Kick ‘Em Sam” is just over the horizon.


Saturday Night, Jan 6

January 9, 2007

We’ve only been here a little over two days but I feel like we’ve crammed so many things into this short period of time. Since we got here (most anyway) Thursday, I’ve scrubbed the deck, learned how to cook in a galley, been hotter than I’ve ever been in my life, and done a ton of painting. This is all because we’re at the dock in Grenada. I’ve also been taught the lines by Emma and some others; there are a lot of them total but apparently only 13 different ones. I can usually figure out what lines are what by tugging on them and seeing where they go, but I have trouble with some of the sail names.

We’ve also been exploring Grenada bit by bit, when we’re let off watch (which is actually more often than I thought it would be.) This morning some of us had a half a day off so we went to this beautiful waterfall, Annandale, and a few brave souls jumped off the side into the pool below. It was about 60 feet and Becky made us all proud by beating both the guys up there to the punch. Evan and Travis jumped after her. To be fair, it took all of them a while to figure it out because there was a particular area you had to jump into. I shouldn’t be talking at all, I didn’t even jump. Our ride back was fun too, our guide/driver kept stopping and picking fruit and spices for us. I ate starfruit, peas, and a coco nut. Very tasty. Anyway, tomorrow I’ll be learning more about actually sailing the Picton Castle. Cheers for now


Vaseline on Eggs

January 8, 2007

The Castle took a terrible beating in the confluence of several storms, and we have been able to help with cleaning her up and packing in new stores. One of our first jobs was to scrub down all the heads with bleach. Several no longer work, and that too has become a challenge of a different sort. Then we wire-brushed rust and undercoated it with rust inhibitors. This required unlashing all sorts of gear and laboring in high heat and humidity. Then Senia and I were sent below to wipe Vaseline on 400 eggs before they were stored away in the hold.

Our group has been divided between two watches as we sit here at the quay. The port watch has done the lion’s share of the labor; the starboard watch has been able to see more of the island. Saturday morning the port watch got the morning off and grabbed a van and guide for a quick trip into the hills which, like everything else on the island, were devastated by hurricane Ivan. Seventy percent of the houses and nearly all the churches and municipal buildings lost their roofs. The trees were all stripped bare.

But Annandale Falls is a bucolic glen, unspoiled by the devastation. We were greeted by “Super Splash,” one of several locals who plunged 60 feet into the pool below. After a couple of demonstrations, he left it to us to climb the cliff and follow his example, and three of us—Becky Gavagan and two crew members, Evan Rickett and Travis Anderson—attempted the challenge. Evan and Travis studied the problem scientifically, ascertaining that the target hole underwater was about the size of a Volkswagen. Becky studied them for a while and then practiced her well honed leadership skills, leaped first, forcing the men to follow her.

Evan, I’m delighted to report, sailed with us on HMS Bounty two years ago. I’m hoping he will again become a guest blogger.


The Neighborhood

January 8, 2007

Grenada is a small island, about the size of Martha’s Vineyard, but looks larger, because of a mountainous interior, well-watered by northeast trade winds.

We landed at Point Salines, on the southwestern corner of the island, and took a twenty minute cab ride north to the capital. St. George’s harbor opens to the southwest, and has two branches: the deepwater Carenage to the north and a yacht-deep Lagoon to the east. We found our ship in the Carenage – where tall ships used to be careened on the beach to scrape, paint, and repair their bottoms.

St. George’s is built along the sides of an old crater. An old fort, built by the French, stands guard to the west. That’s where the leaders of the next-to-last coup were murdered in 1983. The murderers, deposed by US Marines, reside in a prison up the hill back of town.

On November 18, 1867, there was an earthquake in the Virgin Islands to the north, which caused the water in St. George’s harbor to drop five feet. The reef in front of the Lagoon appeared, and then disappeared, as the water rose four feet over its normal level and sloshed three or four times into the Carenage, wiping out many of the boats and buildings there. Fortunately, no one was lost in the slosh, but there is an underwater volcano three or four miles off Grenada’s north coast. It’s name is “Kick ‘Em Jenny,” and she is the southernmost active volcano in the Lesser Antilles.

Jenny’s summit, 4,300 feet above the ocean floor, rises and falls, but is currently 580 feet below sea level. Sailors pass over it without noticing, but it has erupted 10 times since 1939, sending six foot tsunamis into northern Grenada and the southern Grenadines. The last time it boiled was in 1979, flooding Grenada’s beaches with dead and rotting fish.

Grenada is one of the Windward Islands, on the easternmost arc of a long string of volcanic protuberances. The trades blow in from the east and north east, which puts Grenada and Barbados (further to the east) to windward of the other Antilles, which arc up torwards Cuba. Those further west and north (like the Virgins) are called the Leeward Islands, because ships sailing downwind from Europe reached them later. The Windward Islands are also called the Lesser Antilles, because they are dwarfed by the Greater Antilles of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and Jamaica.

We will sail north through the Grenadines to Martinque – a former French colony, which will put the prevailing winds on our steerboard side, if you happen to be a Viking. For the most part, we will be in the lee of the islands, sheltered from the trades and deep sea swells. But not, of course, from Jenny – the old troll under our sea bridge.



January 8, 2007

The trip here was long. One of my row mates on the plane from Boston was rather upset about something. Her emotion made me think about all that I was leaving behind. Even though it is only two weeks, it might as well be two months. It took me a while and a phone call home to work myself out of that train of thinking. My life back home can surely survive without me for two weeks. Of that I am sure.

So far I have seen little of the island of Grenada. The taxi driver who drove us to the ship from the airport pointed out some of the “not to miss attractions”. However, I was put on watch from 8 am to 8 pm the first full day I was here. A watch is a group of people who are given tasks to complete during the time on watch.

Our group scrubbed every deck of this ship at least three times over. We were given some line training today so that when we do eventually leave the harbor we will know what lines to pull. There are about 180 lines on this ship and evidently we are supposed to know the name of each one and what it does in addition to being able to find it in the dark. I learned all that my brain would allow today. I also had an opportunity to learn about meal preparation aboard a ship. Making meals for a group of forty is a complicated task in and of itself. When you add in the fact that the scullery (pantry) and the stove are on opposite ends of the ship, the ship lacks a professional cook (deckhands are filling in), and the diesel fuel operated stove has no way to regulate the heat it throws with in its makeup, meal preparation can be a great challenge.



January 2, 2007

On Friday, December 8, the Picton Castle was sailing south from Nova Scotia to meet us in Grenada, when she was caught in a gale 475 miles east-southeast of Cape Cod. The wind was gusting to 40 knots; seas were running 25 feet or more. At 9:30 p.m. the ship’s stern was struck by a freak wave and Laura Gainey, a 25 year-old crew member, was washed overboard. The deck watch heard her shout and immediately threw life saving gear into the darkness. Then the crew brought the ship around and began a search that would last until the following Tuesday. The gear was found but Laura was not.

First news of this tragedy reached me at midday on Saturday via the tall ship network and HMS Bounty. I immediately informed our crew and offered them the option of backing out. No one took it. I offered to talk with concerned parents. No one called. In the midst of this tragedy we had become members of the tall ship family; Laura Gainey was one of our own. So I informed David Robinson, the ship’s agent in Nova Scotia, that we were standing by, ready to share the good and the bad with his crew, should they decide to sail in January.

We were not ignorant of the risks. In October we had driven to Mystic Seaport, to set a topsail the Charles W. Morgan and climb aloft on the Joseph Conrad. In South Hadley we watched Irving Johnson’s daunting film of the Peking, a larger version of the Picton Castle, rounding Cape Horn during a hurricane. So we knew what the sea could do. But we also knew that our ship had circumnavigated the globe four times without a serious accident, and that our little voyage would be in the lee of Caribbean islands in January. Our concern was for the Castle’s crew. They would be hurting, big time.


Hours to go….

December 23, 2006

I noticed the news story about our trip on the front page of the MHC website. There is so much I don’t know about the group of women I will be sailing with. I did not know that one of us has never seen the ocean nor did I know that one of us thinks we have a dynamic group with a lot of chemistry (which I agree with). I am baking christmas cookies tonight which I will be including in the box I am sending down to the Piction Castle in Grenada. Having survived the loss of a younger brother, I can imagine how they are feeling. I hope they will understand how much we care about what happened and that we all think about Laura often.


About This Course

December 15, 2006

Piloting, Seamanship, and Tall Ship Handling
January 2007, Mount Holyoke College

Thirteen students and Professor Chris Pyle of the Politics Department will book passage on the 300 ton steel barque Picton Castle for a 14-day voyage from Grenada to Martinique, with stops at Cariacou and Bequia. Students will be integrated with the ship’s crew of 16 (on a three-watch system) as sail trainees, and will learn the arts of piloting, seamanship, and tall ship handling, much as sailors did in the late nineteenth century.

This will be a working voyage, not a Caribbean cruise. Trainees will be expected to participate fully in the ship’s operation, working aloft, walking on ropes 80 feet in the sky to set and furl sails, hauling lines on deck, manning the helm, navigating, standing watch, helping in the galley, and doing basic maintenance. Students will also write a running weblog, transmitted daily via satellite phone. Sleeping accommodations are in tiers of narrow bunks; there is no hot water for washing or bathing.

The Picton Castle is a three-masted barque (square sails on the first two masts). She began life in 1928 as a Welsh fishing trawler, served as a minesweeper during World War II, and was extensively rebuilt in 1993 as a sail training ship along the lines of a German Cape Horner. She is 179 feet overall, with a riveted steel hull, oiled pine decks, steel masts, and steel and wooden yards. She carries 12,450 square feet of canvas, including studding sails, and a 690 hp diesel engine.

The Castle has completed four 18-month round-the-world voyages. She is owned by the Windward Isles Sailing Ship Co., and is registered in the Cook Islands. Her North American home port is Lunenberg, Nova Scotia.

Students will board the ship on the evening of January 5 at the former British colony of Grenada and disembark at the French colony of Martinique on the morning of January 21.


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