It was 3 a.m. and Xander Davenport was standing watch on the bow of the Picton Castle as it sailed off Cape Cod. The 17-year-old from Lyman noticed the sea was beginning to glow with phosphorescence when four dolphins suddenly went streaking below the green surface and swam alongside the ship for about 30 minutes.
It was one of many memorable experiences for Davenport during his time aboard the Picton Castle, which departed two weeks ago from Long Island, New York, and arrived in Maine on Friday to take part in the Tall Ships Portland festival.
The gathering of large sailing vessels, which kicked off Thursday and runs through Monday, also features music, food and tours all centered around the dozen original and replica ships temporarily docked in the harbor.
As many as 100,000 people are expected to attend, but some Maine teens had a chance to participate in the festival first-hand.
Davenport was among eight high school students from Maine to join the crew of the square-rigged Picton Castle, a 179-foot former fishing trawler. Several other teens sailed on a different ship, the Oliver Hazard Perry, from Newport, Rhode Island, as part of a program sponsored by Sailing Ships Portland, which organized the Tall Ships festival.
Students who signed on for a voyage got a crash course in seamanship, navigation, sail-making, oceanography and meteorology. They learned how to tie knots, hoist and furl sails and steer the ship. They worked long days, scrubbing the deck, splicing lines, painting, helping in the galley and keeping watch. “It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life,” Davenport said. “But it feels good.”
The Picton Castle is a steel-hulled, three-masted barque named after a castle in England. It was built in 1928 as a fishing trawler and was pressed into service as a minesweeper during World War II. It was converted into the sailing barque now used by trainees, when it underwent a $2 million retrofit in its home port of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, in 1996.
Capt. Sam Sikkema says sailing a square rigger requires a different mindset than traditional schooners.
“This is one of the most complex pieces of equipment that you could possibly try to understand,” he said. “It’s a wind machine that runs on people.”
Seeing people learn to sail the ship is a big reason why Sikkema was drawn to the Picton Castle.
“Watching that process unfold and seeing people understand sailing the ship, and all the benefits and side effects that come from that,” he said. “It’s character building, confidence building. Once you can actually do this, you can do anything.”
But he admits the learning curve can be steep.
“This is alien to everybody,” the captain said. “Nobody is born knowing how to do this.”
Mazie Linsmith, a sophomore from Casco Bay High School, said keeping track of the many lines used to adjust the sails was the most difficult part.
“Definitely, all the different ropes,” she said “That was very hard. It was challenging but … it’s a work in progress and every day you learn more.”
Ally Stewart, a senior at Cape Elizabeth High School, said there was a lot to keep track of on the barque.
“You don’t learn how to sail a tall ship in 12 days,” she said, adding that the hard work had been worth it. “It’s just so different than anything else that we’re able to experience in a classroom.”
Sikkema hopes the students from Maine had a positive experience aboard the Picton Castle and learned something they can take with them.
“What I hope they take away is that they’ve been exposed to this world, exposed to something different, something they may have never have done otherwise,” he said. “What I hope the most is that some of them might be inspired to do this again.”
Davenport, for one, could see himself aboard a sailing ship again in the future.
“I think it would be a pretty awesome way to see the world,” he said.
Greg Rec can be contacted at 791-6432 or at: