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A Cruise on the Picton Castle

Chartering options span from bare to abundant with a boatload of choices in between. You can do-it-yourself for seven days or pay to be pampered for as long as your wallet can support. You can chase fish, race or relax. You can even experience a year-long, life-altering adventure.

The square-rigged barque Picton Castle is not your usual charter boat—and typical is not a word that describes those who sign on for the lengthy voyages the ship undertakes.  Most cruises are globe-trotting, year long events that alter the course of all onboard. The ship’s most recent cruise took 36 Sail Trainees along with 12 leadership staff from Canada to Scandinavia, Europe, Africa, through the islands of the Caribbean and to Bermuda before returning home to Nova Scotia.

Although trainees pay dearly to join the ship, no one gets to go along just for the ride. All hands are required on deck to raise sails unless they happen to be up in the rig lowering them from the yards. When not helping to set or stitch the 12,450 square feet of cotton canvas, they’ll always have a deck to scrub, the galley to operate and a never-ending list of chores. Simply learning the ropes can be an arduous task, since 175 manila lines descend from the rigging as sheets, halyards, braces and downhauls … and someone has to coil them.

Although the179-foot vessel looks like a perfect tall ship, it didn’t start out that way. Built in 1928 as a Swansea fishing trawler, it worked the waters off Wales until drafted into service as a World War II minesweeper. After miraculously surviving that ordeal, it went on to haul freight. In 1993, Picton Castle caught the attention of Captain Dan Moreland who purchased it with a plan to turn it into a square rigger. He and a small crew motored from Norway to New York and finally to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, where the vessel underwent a two million dollar metamorphosis.

Re-launched in 1997 with clipper bow and steel masts, it was placed into service as an alternative to standard, short-term sail programs.  Moreland explained, “It provides a real apprenticeship on the sea. It’s sail training driven by imagination. Our agenda is long voyages, going to interesting places. We want to have our trainees get a perspective on life.”  They also get a lot done. On the first world voyage the ship was completely scraped and repainted four times.

“It’s a square rigged ship in the purest and most traditional sense,” said Moreland. “We have full on participation in deep sea.”  Underway, everyone stands two daily watches and in between partakes in a myriad of educational opportunities that include navigation, seamanship, weather, meteorology and oceanography. Perhaps the most indelible lessons occur day to day, as individuals grow confidant in new found skills and form lasting friendships.

“We go to real places so our crew can have a rich experience. We love the South Pacific because it’s so extraordinary.”  In the first four circumnavigations, all under the command of Moreland, the ship and crew visited an impressive list of ports that included the Galapagos, Pitcairn,, Suva, Reunion and St. Helena. The ship teamed with UNESCO and NOAA to provide medical and educational supplies to numerous island nations.

It was in Antigua that I joined Picton Castle for a few eye-opening hours where I was greeted by a handful of satisfied customers and their Captain. Amidships sat the latest hands-on project, the construction of a small island boat, using grown frames gathered in Grenada. Occupying the foredeck was a mammoth, man-powered capstan.  Down below, the focsle and main salon were lined with double tiered bunks. The salon held dining tables and an impressive group of sea chests and artwork collected on journeys.

Moreland revealed the secret to the success of this unusual venture. “Applicants to the program are requested to first spend a long weekend aboard,” he explained.  “Everyone has a pirate fantasy but the ship is work. If they still have stars in their eyes after that, fine. My job is to try to talk people out of it.”  Luckily, for those onboard, he isn’t always successful.

Trainees vary in age from 18 up. “We like to take younger people,” said Moreland, but one of their most enthusiastic trainees onboard was 73 years young. “There’s a very distinct divide in motivation for being here. For the more mature folks, it’s a check in a box, something they’ve always wanted to do. For the younger ones, it’s more defining. It can set the rest of their lives. It will forever color and shade all they will do. With everyone, you see them become very strong people. They are not consumers but citizens of the world.”

More world citizens will be joining Moreland in May 2010 for yet another trip. You can, too. Visit www.picton-castle.com.

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