Ship-shape on Portland Harbor, 'hard knocks' on the high seas

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PORTLAND — Thousands of people lined the city’s waterfront and nearby parks Saturday and Sunday to see 13 tall ships and the crews that sail them around the world.

Some of the ships that visited Portland’s harbor for the Tall Ships Portland festival included the U.S. Coast Guard’s regal white Eagle, and El Galeon Andalucia, a replica of a 16th century Spanish sailing vessel.

The general impression from people waiting in line to tour the Picton Castle, a large sailboat that was built in 1928 and just arrived from a voyage up the Eastern seaboard, was that they were getting rare access to a culture very different from their own.

“I’ve always been interested in old ships and never got the chance to see one before today,” said Brian Sanders, a visitor from Vermont. “I can’t wait to see what life is like on board.”

Others said it was interesting to step aboard vessels that had traveled the globe, serving as floating homes for modern mariners re-creating the experiences of past seafarers who shaped history and deepened human knowledge of oceanography, astronomy and geography.

“Some people have to live on these ships for weeks,” said Vickie Handler from Saco. “I find it really amazing and commendable.”

Handler also said that she’s familiar with the 179-foot Picton Castle because she saw it when it came to Portland 15 years ago. Since 1992, the Picton Castle has circumnavigated the world six times on trips designed to teach a crew of international students the ins and out of deep-sea sailing.

“That ship is beautiful,” Handler said.

For the festival visitors, the massive sails, miles of tangled rope and constant rocking back and forth are novelties. But for the 40 crew members on board the Picton Castle, they’re just aspects of everyday life.

The crew is a mix of employees, instructors and trainees, brought together by their love of sailing and, in many cases, their desire to learn and be a part of an adventure.

Since taking to the waters in 1928, the Picton Castle has served as a floating classroom for a range of nationalities and age groups interested in learning the ins and outs of transatlantic sailing. Students who want to learn the ropes pay $1,000 a week for what usually is a several-month voyage of square-rigged sailing. According to the official website, the Picton Castle is looking for crew members with a strong back and a willing heart.

Gabe St. Denis of Ontario, Canada, has been sailing with the Picton Castle for several months and described himself as both an instructor and a student because the learning never stops.

“I’m teaching the basic things, but at the same time learning more complicated nautical maneuvers,” St. Denis said. “It takes your whole life to truly learn.”

According to St. Denis, the hardest part of a voyage isn’t seasickness, loneliness or isolation-induced paranoia, but rather, dealing with people, specifically his own crew.

“The challenge isn’t really the ship itself, it’s managing the team that makes this giant machine work,” he said. “After a long time, people can’t hide their character. So if they have some growing up to do, then they’ll end up having to do it here; there’s no other way.”

St. Denis said that the younger members of his crew often have to be pushed harder, because they underestimate just how much work is involved in sailing a ship of Picton Castle’s size and complexity, with its 12,000 square feet of sail.

“The most challenging was having to adjust to the extreme amount of work,” said Julian Peck, a 16-year-old who signed up for a 12-day voyage. “We wake up every day really early and work about eight to 12 hours a day. There’s no leaning back and relaxing; it’s all work.”

Peck said the he finds the work rewarding and that it builds character.

“It’s a school of hard knocks,” St. Denis said. “When you go back to land, it feels like a vacation.”

One of the instructors on the ship, Erin Greig, said that the hardest part of her job is when her trainees refuse to push themselves to the limit.

“The ship will test you in a lot of different ways,” Greig said. “The longer you are here, the more likely you’re going to show every side of your personality. I like showing people what their real potential is.”

Topher O’Brian, an experienced sailor who voyaged to Tahiti in 2012 on the Picton Castle, said that by far the thing that students struggle with the most is learning the 200-plus nautical terms and how to apply them.

“Also, communications is key,” O’Brian said. “When people aren’t talking to each other, there’s chaos. Sometimes it can be dangerous. If someone accidentally casts off a sheet, you can lose control of the sail and people can get hit.”

After the Picton Castle docked in the Portland waterfront Saturday, it stayed overnight for visitors to tour its deck. Now the boat and its crew are planning to sail to its home port of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, where it will undergo repairs for a couple weeks and then be switched out with a new crew that’s ready to learn how to harness the wind and sail the deep seas.

Sidebar Elements

A Portland Fire Department boat welcomes the schooner Bowdoin during the parade of sail at the opening of Tall Ships Portland 2015 on Saturday, July 18.

Crowds pack the waterfront at Bug Light Park in South Portland on Saturday, July 18, to watch the tall ships enter Portland Harbor.

The U.S. Coast Guard barque Eagle, accompanied by a tug, passes by Portland’s fan-filled Eastern Promenade.

The crew of the Picton Castle secures a line July 18 while docking the ship at the Portland waterfront.

The Picton Castle has three masts and is 179 feet long with a riveted steel hull and clear oiled pine decks.