My Journey Aboard the Tall Ship Picton Castle

I have sailed some of the world’s oceans, and my recent sail aboard the tall ship Picton Castle was as exhilarating as any ocean cruise. In one intense week, the Picton Castle crew taught me everything I needed to know to crew the ship. I didn’t actually learn everything they were teaching me – it was just too much.

However, with another week on board, I could have practiced what I learned enough to be a valuable crew member.

Training is the primary purpose of the Picton Castle.

Proving our mettle aboard the tall ship

Some sailors, like me, want to learn the old ways of sailing or prove their mettle. Others are preparing for careers in the maritime industry. Even in an age of push-button controls on cargo ships, the maritime industry is seeking employees with varied experiences at sea. Candidates who can evaluate changing conditions and devise creative solutions are taking an important first step to a successful career.

Setting sail to Ontario

Sailing the Picton Castle was as exhilarating as any ocean cruise I’ve experienced. In one intense week, I learned how to crew this remarkable ship.

We entered Lake Huron on our way to Sarnia, Ontario. The wind was coming from our aft starboard quarter at about 20-25 knots. Sails were set beginning with the Main and Fore Topsails: Upper and Lower. All four jibs were flying. As the wind abated and Picton Castle slowed, the T’gallants were set and finally the Royals. The Spanker and Gaff Topsail were finally set, as well as the 3 staysails for a total of all 19 sails up. The crew was giddy as Picton Castle was again cruising at 6-7 knots. As the day wore on, the winds continued to moderate and our speed eventually fell to 3.5 knots. Sails were reduced, and we prepared to go back to engine power.

Celebrating with a shot of Smooth Sailing Rum

Although the winds weren’t cooperating, the crew was still in good spirits. The Captain wanted to celebrate this great day and asked me to donate a couple of bottles of rum for the occasion. Since Picton Castle is a “dry” ship, the case of rum I brought on board was immediately confiscated and placed in the ship’s safe. The Captain decided that after such a great day on the water, the crew deserved a special treat. What could be better than a shot of Smooth Sailing Rum after such a smooth sail?

Raising a toast to a memorable day

He poured out a jigger for all who were interested. As he poured, he spilled some on deck (for dead sailors) and poured a shot overboard (as an offering to Neptune). The crew loved Smooth Sailing Rum, and we toasted to a memorable day aboard the beautiful tall ship.

Please join me on the voyage!

Testing My Limits Aboard the Tall Ship

The Picton Castle is a training ship that simulates the actual conditions of a tall ship in the 1800’s, and my weeklong voyage on the ship tested me in so many ways. This was no pleasure cruise! As a trainee crew member, I experienced the exhilaration of sailing this amazing tall ship, but I also faced extraordinary challenges.

Arriving at Beaver Island

Arriving at Beaver Island was an awesome experience. All eyes were on us as we came into the harbor. Boats of all kinds began to surround us. The Pilot and Captain were on deck with their binoculars preparing to make landfall at St. James Harbor. I’ve come into many strange ports over the years, and I always have a feeling of respect, fear, and hope when entering a new port.

Luckily, I brought my binoculars, and I enjoyed bantering with the professionals. As we got close, a small boat came zooming out, and we could see its zigzag course showing deep water. Soon the buoys became visible, unfolding a dilemma. We had to go farther north to safely enter the harbor. It was odd steaming right toward the obvious shallow water to the buoy and turning sharply to enter St. James Harbor.

I was hoping to go to ashore with a bottle of Smooth Sailing Rum, meet some locals and learn about the local culture. The locals on Beaver Island go Boodling, which is to drive around the island at about 5 mph and drink. Unfortunately, the Picton Castle is not a cruise ship, and security watches went on through the night. Luckily, my watch was off in the early evening, and this was the perfect time for me to swing into action for a Smooth Sailing Rum photoshoot under the setting sun. It was a glorious evening.

Going Ashore at St. James Harbor

The next day the crew was divided into 2 crews: Port and Starboard. I was on the Port crew, and I had the opportunity to go to shore for 3 hours. My first stop was to a hardware store to buy a red flashlight that I could use on the ship for night vision. The town seemed to be asleep as I began to explore it, but as noon approached, it became quite lively. I returned to the ship for Lay Aloft training, one of the most challenging tall ship experiences of my week.

Meeting the Challenge of Lay Aloft Training

Captain Lorenzen began the lay aloft training with a stern talk about the seriousness of the task and how it wasn’t for everyone. To be considered for laying aloft, I had to pass a physical test of dangling from a horizontal line for 30 seconds. I went right for it first. After all, how hard could it be? It was hard, and I was tired in just 15 seconds, but I made it.

The ratlines begin about 5 feet off the deck and terminate on the mast about 5 feet below the first platform. Continuing onto the platform means traversing an inverted section. This inverted section of the ratlines is challenging because you’re climbing outbound, then reaching around the platform for an unseen handhold. As the climb continues and your head is now over the platform, you have to feel for unseen footings. A misstep or lost handhold here will likely mean a 40-foot fall to the deck. Unlike rock climbing, there are no safety lines. You only have your wits. The harness isn’t useful until you reach a work location on a yard and clip-on.

Going down was equally challenging. From the platform, I held on while feeling around with my foot for that unseen foothold, began the descent, and felt around for the next foothold. Upon reaching the deck, I was tired. Yet, those of us who completed the training were elated.

Climbing the Ratlines of the Tall Ship

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As luck would have it, the very next day was a chance to use this training in real life. We were reducing sail, and I was assigned with Hendrick to the Upper and Lower Top Sails, port side. I learned several new techniques to complete our task. Having to climb farther than the first platform, we had to step out onto a wire. It’s a 3-foot step out onto the wire, which was really scary. Once on the line, I hugged the yardarm, clipped my tether on and was frozen from fear.

Hendrick said, “I’m going to lay on.” He put a little weight on the wire so I could feel that the extra weight made the wire more taunt and made me surge upwards. He asked if I was OK, and I lied and said, “Yeah.” He said, “Laying on,” and the line surged up as I was hanging onto the yard for dear life. I hugged the yard so tight that the brackets on the yard were digging into my chest.

He said, “OK, let’s haul in the sail.” We reached down, pulled up a piece of the sail while trying to stay balanced on the wire and hanging onto the yard. We continued to pull up the sail, a couple feet at a time and layer it into the pocket on the yard. We were to continue to move down the wire, but I was fearful and unable to move much more than a few feet in either direction.
Then we wrapped a line around the sail and the yard to secure it to the yard. Hendrick moved all the way out on the yard and was doing some tasks while I was busy hanging on for dear life. Of course, he had to lay off the wire and lay back on again. These shifts in my relative position to the yard were unnerving. My legs were shaking with fatigue, my footing on the wire was strained, and my calves ached.

Hendrick said, “The lowers are done, let’s move up to the upper.” As we climbed farther up the ratlines, I shifted my weight differently, making my calves feel better. I gained confidence as I stepped out on the wire of the upper topsail.

Finally, Hendrick said we should head down. I was glad to be climbing down the ratlines and onto the deck. This was a crazy 58th birthday for me!

Experiencing the Routines of the Picton Castle

The tall ship Picton Castle is run in the traditional way. Days are an unending cycle of standing watch, working, sleeping, and eating. During my time onboard, three watches were established: Red, Blue and Green. Each watch is 4 hours on, followed by 4 hours off and sometimes a Dog Watch of 2 hours in the evening. The Dog Watch is generally easy-going, and it’s the only chance crew members have to socialize. All Hands Muster can be called at any time, and we had to be dressed and on deck soon after it is called.

Just because you are not on watch has no bearing on whether you will be called upon to work. The watches are on a rotating schedule, since all 3 watches only add up to 18 hours per day. You sleep whenever possible, and 2 or 3 hours of sleep in a day is not uncommon. A couple of days of limited sleep quickly takes its toll, and experienced crew members quickly hit the rack after a watch.

Keeping the Night Watch

The deck at night was so dark. The only light came from the navigation lights, but it was near-total darkness. Luckily, I had a couple of days of wandering around the ship and had a feel for her and where the steps and obstructions were. Still, I had to walk carefully.

I had a couple of one-hour watches at the bow. The first was on a night in the middle of the lake, with not a boat or shore to see. I was so tired. The only things to keep me awake were the hard bench I was perched on, the rain, and the cold. It was torture.

My second night at watch was on a warm, clear night. We were close to shore with quite a bit of boat traffic. The shore was lit up by cities and a myriad of red blinking lights from wind turbines. There were fishing boats, a tall ship 2 points off our Port bow, a barge coming our way, and a barge overtaking us. I made several trips to report to David, the mate, alerting him of boats in the vicinity, the direction they were traveling, and the vessel towing a barge in the distance. He was impressed with my knowledge of navigation lights.

Hoisting Up the Anchor

I was talking to the Captain and mentioned that I was looking forward to raising the anchor. I thought it would be fun. I have fond memories of raising anchor on my own vessels (the sorrow of leaving, the uncertainty ahead, and prospect of a new destination), but I may have forgotten how hard it was and the toll it took on me, especially in deep water. Captain Lorenzen looked me square in the eye and said, “Fun? Well, Curt, just let me know how fun it is.” I never got back to him on that.

We were in 42 feet of water and they put out a precise 3 to 1 all-chain anchor rope. That meant we had 141 feet of anchor chain deployed. The windlass was a big winch propelled by something that looks like a teeter-totter with long handles on each end. Each handle had room for four people to push down. The device is operated by 2 groups each pushing down on their side of the teeter-totter. The trick is to push down with the palm of your hand and not grip the handle. Each time a group completes a full thrust down, five inches of the chain is recovered.

We put out an extreme amount of energy pushing down, and I was fatigued. My buddy Andy stepped up and relieved me. I probably looked like I was about to die. After a couple more minutes and what seemed like 1,000 huffs and puffs, Andy began to look peaked. I relieved him, but after only another 90 seconds I again asked for Andy’s assistance. Thirty seconds after that, it was done; the anchor was back in its spot. I figure each group pushed down 169 thrusts in almost 6 minutes plus about 2 minutes with it hung up and working to free up the stoppage with the quick pumps down. The captain was correct. This was not fun.

After the anchor was stowed on the tall ship, I was told to grab a long timber and place it in a huge capstan (another winch where 3 to 6 crew members walk around to drive the winch). A secondary anchor had been readied for deployment in case the primary anchor dragged. This task was extremely difficult in the chaos of the foredeck. We needed to hop over an anchor chain twice each time around and avoid other gear. Three of us were going around so fast, jumping, jumping. I don’t know how much help I was at this point. I seemed to be giving more effort just trying to survive, using the timber to steady myself. Eventually, the line was brought in.

Answering the Dinner Bell

Shortly afterward, the Dinner Bell rang, and I was first in line. You dare not miss a meal because you’re putting out a tremendous amount of energy onboard the Picton Castle. I always awoke when I heard the meal bell, even if I only had an hour or so of sleep.

The trick is to eat fast, wash your bowl and spoon, and gather with your watch mates ready for new orders, all in 20 minutes. If you’re really quick, you may get a bathroom break, which is trickier than you think. There are only four heads on board, one for the Captain and one for the senior staff, leaving only 2 for 40-plus of us. One of those 2 actually had a shower.

Entering the Port of Sarnia

The call to Muster on deck was given when I was sleeping, just off a late-night watch. It was cold and windy. The wind was again blowing right off our bow. Crews were scampering all over the deck on little projects to prepare for the Port of Sarnia. Luckily, my watch wasn’t given orders, since I wasn’t really sure where I was from lack of sleep. I even contemplated abandoning ship when we got to port. The thought of getting a warm hotel room, a whole night’s sleep in a real bed, and some good food were tempting. A steak and a long, hot shower seemed to be powerful motivators. I resisted the temptation and stayed on board.

Sailing Aboard the Tall Ship Appledore IV

Once we were tied up and secured, the Captain Lorenzen told us we had been invited for a day sail aboard the tall ship Appledore IV. The Appledore’s big sails proved difficult to get up, even with the heft of the seasoned sailors from the Picton Castle, but we were successful. It was such a beautiful sail into Lake Huron. Now, this was my kind of boat. She was a sloop, and she was fast. The Picton Castle’s professional crew was giddy, like children at Christmas.

Steering the Picton Castle

I’m the type of sailor who sets the autopilot first then sets the sails and attends to crew comfort. I create drinks and eats while underway, while keeping an eye on our heading and tweaking the sails. For this reason, I knew that sailing on the Picton Castle would be challenging as there is no autopilot and someone is always manning the wheel when she is underway.

Every day I had an hour of instruction on the wheel. It was incredibly difficult. I was consistently told to watch the horizon, not the compass. The horizon was void of any land or reference point, so the idea of watching the seas seemed ludicrous.

I spent many free-time hours standing near the wheel trying to get a feel for what it looks like when the ship is turning. After the third time at the wheel, I was very discouraged. On my fourth and final lesson at night, I finally got it and was actually steering her by the stars.

Turning the Picton Castle

Turning the tall ship Picton Castle takes time. After a small adjustment, it takes 30 to 90 seconds to come back to the course. Sometimes the correction doesn’t work and adds more correction after a couple of minutes, which is frustrating. Large adjustments may overshoot your course and you are off course the other way.

When the mate gives an order to change course, he comes out of the chart house and tells you the new heading. Sometimes a new heading is given because you are consistently steering off course. Making it back to the Rhum line could be followed by another visit by the mate. Either way, a visit from the mate is a bad sign meaning the boat has been consistently off course.

Course is not given in degrees, but rather compass Boxing points: North by East, quarter-point North is a heading of about 8 degrees. Yes, it seems overly complicated, especially when you are attempting to keep her on course. When orders are given, the orders need to be repeated back to signify that you understand the command. This was extremely difficult, trying to comprehend what the command was and then parrot it back in what is akin to a foreign language. There is always so much to think about, and I was reminded again that this was no pleasure cruise.

Finally, Graduation Day!

As the week drew to a close, the 40 of us trainees were eager to depart. The lack of sleep, physical exertion, and small meals took a toll on me. I looked like an old man after just a week. Thankfully, I quickly recovered after a couple of good nights’ rest and big meals.

At our graduation ceremony, I thanked the Captain and crew for the excellent educational experience. The crew was very good at its job. In one short week, I had learned and experienced so much. I had sailed into new harbors, faced new challenges, and tested my limits. I departed with my certificate for crewing on the tall ship, plus memories of life as a 1800’s sailor.

A Close Call While Buying Cigars in Cuba

Tobacco farmer in Cuba where sailor bought cigars

In 1999, the Naegeli family sailed away from deadlines and the daily grind, seeking a simpler existence and a better way to raise a family. From 1999-2001, Curt, his wife, Nancy, and their two daughters, Sarah and Amy, cruised the high seas in their 27-foot sailboat, Voyager. While experiencing the Smooth Sailing lifestyle, they visited  the Cuban islands.

One day I rode my fold-up bicycle into town and found an agricultural market. I bought all the vegetables I could carry. I also changed money with a local. He threw out 20 pesos and I threw out a $1 U.S. bill. We exchanged 7 times, and he was very happy. I bicycled the 3 miles back to the dinghy and unloaded my pack. I headed back to town for more shopping.

While I was buying cigars inside a house, a man from the Guarda Frontera walked in and told me I had no permission to be there. I told him I did have permission, and my sailboat was anchored nearby at Bahia Honda. I was completing my purchase while the Guarda said something in Spanish I didn’t understand. Everyone in the room started defending themselves, and one man who spoke a little English put his hands on his wrists like handcuffs and said, “You go with him now!”

With me on my bicycle and the Guarda on his bicycle, I was escorted back to my dinghy. I kept thinking that I was going to a Cuban prison! When we arrived, I noticed an army jeep and three officials looking over my dinghy. One of the officials asked what I was doing, and I told him that I bought food, cigars, and bowls. He asked what I paid for these items and what currency I used. I told him that I paid in Pesos and produced a wallet full of them. Everyone sighed, relieved.

Tobacco growing in Cuba where cigars were urchased

The government controls the exchange of all foreign currency. If I would have been caught changing U.S. dollars with the locals, I would have been jailed. It was a close call.

Cubans can only buy certain things with the peso. For other necessities, they need to pay in U.S. currency. If Cubans have relatives in Miami that send USD in the mail, this is not a problem. If they don’t have relatives like that, they went without much-needed items. One of my goals in Cuba was to help the people get U.S. money. I brought $450 in $1s and $5s.

The Ports of Cuba at a Glance

In 1999, the Naegeli family sailed away from deadlines and the daily grind, seeking a simpler existence and a better way to raise a family. From 1999-2001, Curt, his wife, Nancy, and their two daughters, Sarah and Amy, cruised the high seas in their 27-foot sailboat, Voyager. Their cruise included a visit to the Cuban islands.

Marina Hemingway

Our first stop in Cuba was Marina Hemingway, and upon entering a port, the Guarda Frontera boarded our vessel. Many cruisers have a problem with the long and intrusive entry and exit process at every port in Cuba and head to a different country. I treated it as a challenge, an obstacle to overcome.

Bahia Honda

Port of Cuba Smooth Sailing Rum

After leaving Marina Hemingway, we anchored at Bahia Honda, where we felt most unwelcome. After finishing the 3-hour clearing-in process we were told not to inflate the dinghy, and we were restricted to Voyager. The next morning, my wife, Nancy, inflated the dinghy, and I went to shore to “negotiate” with the Guarda Frontera. Packed with my charts, guidebooks, and my cheat sheet of 75 much-needed Spanish words, I negotiated for almost two hours.

I told them that I needed food, and reluctantly, they allowed me to go into town to provision. I told them I needed a beach for the girls to run, and after much arguing and grunting, the Guarda picked out a beach we could use and said I could take the kids into town. Nancy also had permission to take the kids into town, but not both of us. One of us had to stay with the boat. I argued until I was blue in the face about this point but to no avail.

I tried to make the negotiation last as long as the clearing-in process, but I finally ran out of things to gripe about. The Guarda seemed relieved to see me head back to my boat.

In the anchorage, Voyager’s crew was the only one with permission to go inland. Tranquillia radioed to the Guarda day and night for water to no avail. On one of my trips to the mainland, I hauled water for them.

Cayo Paraiso

An official approached me one day after one of my trips to the mainland and told me I didn’t have permission to come ashore. We sailed for Cayo Paraiso the next day. This island is the former home of author Ernest Hemingway and a base for anti-submarine activities during World War II. Cayo Paraiso is only half the island it was back then, literally, as half the island washed out to sea during a hurricane several years back.

Exploration of this cay by Voyager’s crew was extensive. Many trails wind through its interior, and a beachcomber’s paradise lines its windward shore. Our daughters Sarah and Amy got a pet here, Hermy, a hermit crab. I got a lot of fish and lobster here, as well as vegetables and rum from the Cuban fishermen.

Cayo Levisa

Cayo Levisa

Cayo Levisa was a short (9 mile) sail away. This resort island has one of the best beaches in Cuba. We spent almost a week here and met many interesting Europeans who were vacationing on the island.

Puerto Esperanza

We checked in at Puerto Esperanza next. The small town was home to so many nice and helpful people. It’s the kind of place I’d like to raise my children. After the first day, I announced to the family, “I say we stay here for the rest of our time in Cuba,” and everyone agreed. We spent the next 4 weeks there.

Experience the Smooth Sailing Lifestyle.

ABOUT: Smooth Sailing Rum is a premium, toffee-flavored party spirit that is perfect for sipping and mixing. Meticulously crafted in small batches, Smooth Sailing Rum is distilled without the harsh bite of alcohol or a sharp aftertaste. Smooth Sailing Rum is available at Festival Foods stores, Woodman’s Markets, and other fine stores in Wisconsin. Ask for it.

Imagine yourself sailing…

Imagine yourself sailing along in light winds on a sunny day. You hear the sound of the boat slicing through the water and the gentle winds whispering at your ears. The sun is bright, and you can see deep into the water. Smooth Sailing implies the steady wind forcefully pushing you to your next destination. Dolphins frolic at the bow, seemingly playing in the wake the bow makes. A dolphin swims on its side and looks you right in the eye, which creates the feeling of a deep emotional connection to the ocean. Birds drift effortlessly overhead always searching for that next meal.

boat with a smooth sailing rum sail

Now you’re enjoying the tranquility on board after the anchor is deployed and secure. Time to enjoy Smooth Sailing Rum. You’re startled by a great splash off the port side as a giant Eagle Ray comes crashing down after an extraordinary leap into the air. You closely watch the sunset and hope for a glimpse of the illusive Green Flash. You’re mesmerized by the stars as the heavens just seem to open up, drawing you closer. Motion in the water creates bio-luminescence, a beautiful blue-green neon glow.

You launch the dinghy for the trip ashore as part of the Smooth Sailing lifestyle. Feeling the easy motion of surfing along through the waves, you arrive on a new shore for the first time. Trudging off to find the first adventure in this place, you hope to this exploration leads you to meet new and unique people and a chance to learn how the locals earn a living and make their way in the world. Getting invited to dinner at a new friend’s house is one of the highlights of the Smooth Sailing life. No day is complete without a frolic on the beach.

Your search for food continues with a short fishing expedition or snorkeling for a conch, lobster or another scrumptious morsel. The feeling of slipping into the salt water is warm and inviting. The underwater world is a new dimension with new creatures. You effortlessly glide through the reefs witnessing the industrious activities. A Barracuda is your escort on this underwater excursion, always watching. Back on board, you grow your own vegetables, a variety of nutritious sprouts. Anchoring close to an onshore population means that you can buy vegetables, and some may be rather unique.

Follow along with Smooth Sailing Rum’s adventures as we explore the world. View the pictures and read the stories of Smooth Sailing Rum’s adventures on its quest for places off the beaten path. Meet new people and experience a different way of thinking: through the eyes of the native peoples and foreign cultures. View the natural world from unique perspectives.

When we speak of drinking Smooth Sailing Rum, we say, “Anchor’s Up!” whether we’re drinking a shot with friends or having a drink with a loved one. Introduce your friends and family to this exciting new rum, and dare to live on the edge.

Anchors up – may your sails always be full.

Ask for it at your neighborhood liquor store!

Be Smooth: Live Responsibly

ABOUT: Smooth Sailing Rum is a premium, toffee-flavored party spirit that is perfect for sipping and mixing. Meticulously crafted in small batches, Smooth Sailing Rum is distilled without the harsh bite of alcohol or a sharp aftertaste. Smooth Sailing Rum is available at Festival Foods stores, Woodman’s Markets, and other fine stores in Wisconsin. Ask for it.