Passage to Pitcairn

Our mantra for the previous 7,000 miles was, “make easting, make easting.” To do so was a constant struggle, and we were on our last 1,000 miles to weather, sailing aboard our 59-foot steel ketch Havaiki. We were en route from the southeastern Marquesan Island of Fatu Hiva bound for tiny Pitcairn Island, just to the east of the southern Tuamotu atolls. Pitcairn, of course, was famous for being the isolated isle where some of the HMS Bounty mutineers settled (see accompanying story).

We had left Hanavave Bay on Fatu Hiva on a Thursday morning with light winds out of the east. By the time the sun had set we had been headed a few degrees, but we still had a long way to go so we kept everything strapped in. Once again our daily running fixes proved that the GPS was within five miles of what it was readingand during that time the inevitable happened. While waiting to give our position on the Pacific sea-farer’s net one evening, we learned that a yacht in the North Pacific had suffered a double GPS failure. As most of us who still practice celestial navigation had predicted, the idea that GPS means you don’t need to know celestial was proved wrong. Just like many voyagers out there today, the captain of the boat in question didn’t have any plotting sheets on board, and his only plotting had been making X’s on his small-scale, large-area North Pacific chart.

Saturday morning, two days after we had departed Fatu Hiva, I spoke to Meralda Warren from Pitcairn Island on the mid-Pacific coffee klatch net thatmeets Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday at 1800Z on 14,282.0 kHz. She informed me that the weather in Pitcairn was pretty bad. The skies had been overcast for days, and there was a strong 25-knot-plus easterly wind blowing. She told us she hoped conditions would improve for our arrival, because, as it stood then, the seas were too high for them to launch their long boats.

We still had 800 miles and a week to go, so we had plenty of time for the weather system to pass and for the seas to calm down. We were enjoying Force 3 and 4 winds, each day as pleasant as the one before, and our ETA for Pitcairn was the following Sunday. This would work out fine as the Pitcairn Islanders are Seventh Day Adventists who consider Saturday as their Sabbath.

By Friday we began getting headed, the skies were overcast, and there were many more lower clouds and rain showers around. The seas were growing and lumping up, although we still only had Force 4 winds. I dropped the mizzen just before sunset on a hunch, and in a few hours I was glad I did as we started pounding into the seas. The winds were beginning to ratchet up a notch into the Force 5 to 6 range, and, as they were coming directly out of the southeast, I decided to roll up the genoa and crank up the engine. With the full main sheeted in hard we were able to motorsail comfortably at four knots. The seas, though, seemed to indicate a lot more wind somewhere ahead. They were growing steeper and closer together, but the tops were falling off them as there wasn’t enough wind to hold them up.

Knocked down by a wave

Shortly after turning in at 0100, we took a knockdownnot from the wind, which was by then in the 25-knot range, but from a combination of seas that probably created a “rogue wave.” In any event, all of Jas’ cookbooks had been thrown to the cabin sole, along with a number of our cups and glasses, some of which broke. While she was busy cleaning up the mess and vacuuming up the broken shards of glass, I turned on the deck lights and took an inventory of the topsides. From all of the water that had come rushing through every gap in our sliding pilot house cabin top, it was apparent that we had taken a lot of water over the boat. Nothing that I could see had been washed overboard, although the bolt rope had been torn out of the foot of the main, and we were flying a loose-footed main that had not been designed for that purpose. So, in between rain showers, I put a deep reef in the main, lashed it down well, and turned in for a nap.

Saturday morning was still overcast with many showers and low clouds. The seas were very confused, large, and close together, and the wind had inched up again, now to between Force 6 and 7. Still, there wasn’t enough wind to maintain the seas, and the waves kept collapsing all around us, making the ride very wet and sloppy. I spoke with Meralda on the net that morning, and she told me that things were still pretty grim at Pitcairn, with overcast skies and winds out of the east in the 35-knot range. By then we were staying as close into the seas as we could in order to ease the ride and decrease the amount of water that was coming across the deck. With the engine just ticking a little above idle, we were making a comfortable two to three knots, with very little water coming over the pilot house. At that speed, though, it would take us until Tuesday morning to make it to Pitcairn.

Jas and I had a crew (family) discussion. Pitcairn had been in the throes of bad weather for more than a week already, and it couldn’t last forever. And the longer it took us to get there, the more chance we had of the weather moderating in our favor. Although the seas were large and close, and the wind was still increasing, the barometer was leveling out, so the end seemed to be in sight with probably no more than 35 knots of wind to put up with. Down below the ride was very comfortable, and we had plenty of fuel. The only other alternative would be to fall off a bit and make for Mangareva, but that put Minerva Reef between our position and Mangareva, and with the low visibility I didn’t really relish heading that way. Finally, it would be a shame to come all this way and turn around with only 200 miles or so to go. At the least we’d be able to get some photos of Pitcairn as we sailed by and say hello to the residents on the VHF radio. The decision was made to continue.

Sunday morning Jas woke me a little early to take a look at the sunrise. The color was beautiful but was only about two inches wide and a quarter inch high. That was all the sky we saw that day, although the sun brightened the overcast enough in the late afternoon that I could have grabbed a quick sunline had I not been too lazy. By sunset I swore that the seas and winds were moderating, but it may have been wishful thinkingI tend to be one of the world’s greatest optimists.

Before going off watch at midnight, though, I swore I saw a staror was that only our tricolor light reflecting off a low cloud?

Raised by ‘Radio Pitcairn’

Monday dawned just as gray as the past few days had been, but the wind had certainly dropped, as had the seas. The larger waves were farther apart and we were beginning to move a little faster. The overcast clouds were much higher and there were fewer low clouds and rain showers. Throughout the day we began to see spots of blue sky, and on half a dozen occasions the sun looked like it was trying to burn though a layer of fog. By sunset, however, it was obvious that the winds and seas had come down considerably, and, after reporting my position to the seafarer’s net on the HF, I turned up the volume of the VHF in time to hear “Havaiki, Havaiki, this is Radio Pitcairn, over.” I replied and learned that I was speaking to Steve Christian. They had been calling us off and on for the entire day because the last I had spoken with Meralda, I had given her an ETA of Monday morning. Steve confirmed that conditions at Pitcairn were improving, and we made arrangements to call him the next morning at 0700. The islanders do maintain a 24-hour-a-day radio watch, but it wouldn’t be necessary for us to call them any earlier than 0700 since darkness would prevent them from determining whether or not they would be able to launch their long boat.

Shortly after 0200, Jas awakened me by telling me that she had an object on radar, but couldn’t see any lights. After speaking with Steve the night before, I had heard him talking to another yacht, and although I could only hear Steve’s side of the conversation, it was obvious that the other yacht had decided to continue on to Mangareva rather than chance bad weather the next day. Jas thought that perhaps what she saw on radar was the other yacht. When I got up in the pilot house and looked at the return on the 12-mile range it was too large to be a yacht. Then I realized it was Pitcairn. I knew that Pitcairn was small, but I didn’t realize it would be that small. It only measures about a mile and a half long and a mile wide, with an area of close to two square miles.

When I went back on deck two hours later, we were only three miles offshore, and after heaving to for an hour the sky lightened enough for us to discern the outline of the high island. We worked our way to the northwest corner off Young’s Rocks and then eased along the north shore past Adamstown and Bounty Bay. The boat shed was in full view, and we took our photos, all the time thinking of the seamanship displayed by the original Bounty mutineers. They not only found the island that had been charted a few hundred miles off its actual position, but then they had to locate the only strand of land on which it was possible to make a precarious landing and then get their belongings ashore and up to high ground. All in a square-rigged ship with no power and no GPS. It’s really impressive and humbling when you take the time to think about it.

We made our radio contact with Steve and Meralda. They told us to go around to the lee of the island and anchor between a black rock and Christian Point, and they would come out in the long boat. They asked if we wanted to go ashore, but as we were both pretty exhausted and there was still a large swell running even in the lee, we opted to stay on board. It retrospect it was the proper decision.

They told us that they would be coming out with some fruits and vegetables that we wanted, as well as some T-shirts and woodcarvings in which we had expressed interest. The original plan was for Steve to drop a few people off on board the Havaiki, and then to take the rest of the men out fishing for a few hours. “By the way,” he asked, “do you have any books you’d like to exchange?”

As I was dropping the mainsail well offshore, Meralda came up on VHF to tell me that I should anchor closer to shore. I had intended to do just that, but it was nice of her to go to the top of the mountain to check on us.

Expert boathandlers

While we were anchored and cleaning up the boat, Steve came back on and told us that they’d be around in about an hour, but half an hour or so later we heard, “Westbound freighter passing north of Pitcairn, this is Radio Pitcairn, over.” When the freighter answered, Steve asked their destination, and when informed it was New Zealand he asked if they would take some mail with them. Shortly afterwards the freighter appeared a mile to seaward of us, and we could see the long boat approaching from their stern. The Pitcairn Islanders spent about an hour aboard the freighter and then called to tell us they were coming our way and asked what our hull construction was. We told them steel, and they informed us that they would try to do as little damage as possible coming alongside.

What great boathandlers they are. They never touched us as we got bow and stern lines aboard and half a dozen people scrambled onto Havaiki. Jas passed small gifts to them, and they passed a can of cookies to us. Meanwhile we met so many people in such a short time that I’ll never remember all of their namessuffice it to say that they are all so very friendly and gracious, speaking with an old-fashioned English accent. We met Pastor John of their church, who gave us a “piece of the rock”a small stone from the island glued to a nice card from the church. There was Meralda Warren, our ham radio friend (VP6MW) who is the police officer and handles the passports, and Steve Christian, whom we spoke to on the VHF and who told us where to anchor, and on and on.

Meralda loaded us up with a large box filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, including some of the most delicious sweet potatoes we can remember eating. Jas even made a sweet potato pie out of some of them. It was really nice to be able to enjoy fresh lettuce again for our salads, as we hadn’t found any since leaving Hawaii.

We purchased a number of T-shirts and woodcarvings, for ourselves as well as for gifts. The woodwork is outstanding, carved out of very hard Milo wood; the carvings of sharks even have small sharks’ teeth imbedded. A nice touch is that the fins are all made with mortise-type fittings so they can be disassembled for shipping. We ended up buying all of the carvings they brought aboard, and then we were told that they had a model of the Bounty. How could we turn that piece of art down?

Before long, it as time for them to go ashore and for us to get underway. They scrambled aboard the long boat and shoved off to the east. While Jas busied herself putting the food and souvenirs away, I got Havaiki ready for sea. We had a tussle getting the anchor up from the rocks in all of the surge, and upon leaving I had a minor mechanical problem to overcome, so by the time that was finished we were about three to four miles offshore, as far as we had been at sunrise, and now the sun was setting. We both remarked at how small the island looked. We called Meralda on the VHF and thanked everyone for their kindness, watched the island until darkness fell. Our next stop was Mangareva in the Gambier Islands.

By Ocean Navigator