Trying to get to Pitcairn

After spending 23 days crossing the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, we arrived in Pitcairn on the 6th July and managed to anchor in Bounty Bay – even though the conditions were not exactly calm. We were taken to shore in the last few hours of sunlight by a local boat and were greeted by a group of what felt like 20 people – probably about half the islands inhabitants. The weather had been so bad around the island over the past month that others boats trying to land there had to leave without setting foot on shore. I think we were the first people in a good few weeks to physically make it to land. We were lucky that the weather conditions were just about good enough to enable us to leave the boat unattended, even for only a few hours. During those few hours we were loaded up with an inane amount of fresh fruit and vegetables newly picked from one of the gardens belonging to the locals. We took back to Bob more fresh goods than our provisioning’s for a month at sea when leaving Galapagos!

Our good luck didn’t last, however, as the forecast for the following 3 days were for heavy winds and large seas. It was nothing particularly dangerous and the conditions were perfectly comfortable to sail in, but the poor anchorages on Pitcairn meant that we couldn’t anchor safely. Even if we could, we couldn’t leave the boat for fear of the anchor dragging and something going wrong. We were stuck on board for another 3 days, only able to anchor a minority of the time and being constantly vigilant of our surroundings and looking for potential problems. We even went back out to sea for the final night because of anchor troubles. Rather than head to the Gambier Islands (which would have been the easiest thing to do) we were stubborn and decided to stick around, determined to make it to Pitcairn so we could see the island properly and get to know the locals a little better.

Finally, once the low pressure system had passed and the weather calmed down, we managed to anchor very well and make it to shore – finally! What’s more, the weather for the following week was for calm winds and seas so we would be able to stay for the whole week – or so we thought! Once on shore, one of the locals picked us up on her quad bike and took us to the main square where we were asked to attend a meeting at the medical centre. It turns out that one of the islands children, an 11 year old boy named Ryan, was diagnosed with appendicitis and needed to get to Mangareva as soon as possible in order to get a plane to Tahiti. Once in Tahiti he could get further tests and his appendix removed if necessary. Pitcairn is a small island (only a couple of miles long) and is located hundreds of miles away from other inhabited areas and separated by vast expanses of Pacific Ocean. It’s one of the most remote places on the planet and issues like appendicitis, which are rarely a problem in developed countries due to easy access to operating facilities, can become a serious and life-threatening issue. We were the only vessel in the area capable of taking Ryan to Mangareva. There is no air strip here for flight transport and the only other boat heading for Pitcairn is a cruise ship due to arrive in the middle of August – far too late given Ryans condition. Appendicitis is one of those variable diseases which could be very mild and even clear up on its own, or it could deteriorate very quickly and consequently be fatal. Even with our help, it would still take at least 3 days to get Ryan to a suitable hospital where they could operate if needs be. I know a lot of Brits moan about the NHS – at least help can be with you within a matter of minutes by dialling 999. The Pitcairn islanders have no such luxury.

We prepared to set sail, well actually, motor in our case because there’s no wind forecast for the next week – not ideal as our engine is over 40 years old and is often unreliable to put it kindly. To make things even more difficult – our electric autopilot broke on the way to Pitcairn, which means the helm needs to be manned constantly when motoring (opposed to sailing which could be helmed by David – our wind vane). Still, there was no other option so we prepared to leave with Ryan, his mother (Nadine) and another islander called Andrew who could help man the helm for us. The entire community got involved in helping us prepare. Within just a few hours we had container loads of diesel delivered and decanted into the fuel tank, enough food and drink to sustain an army and heaps of well wishes. We’ve started to realise that when someone from Pitcairn asks you if you’re in need of anything – whatever you ask for you’ll get 5 times what you expect. For example, we currently have a large box of oranges and mandarins on board, a large box of passion fruit, the contents of two banana trees, 10 coconuts, grapefruits and papayas the size of my head, 35 eggs (I was expecting maybe half a dozen!), 20 packets of crisps, 5 packets of Haribo and that’s not even half of it!

Somehow we managed to fit everything on board, including the luggage of 3 people who might not be able to return to Pitcairn for another 6 weeks. So, as of about 6pm on the 11th July we’ve been motoring as fast as our fragile engine will take us heading for Mangareva. Alex is constantly on the sat phone communicating with various doctors, family members, administrators, Bermuda radio and rescue coordination organisations on top of his usual skipper duties. He’s always vigilant for problems on the boat and has also kept a close eye on Ryan, regularly checking his vital signs with his ‘advanced medical first responder’ hat on. My job seems to be hosting, cooking and generally making sure everyone feels comfortable – so far so good I think.

Everyone on board has been really wonderful and is trying to help where they can. We’ve been doing watches of 3 hours on, 9 hours off between the four adults. Ryan himself even had a go on helm – but only for a few minutes under adult supervision 🙂  Ryan is absolutely adorable and a really lovely, intelligent, friendly child. I think he sees this whole thing as one big adventure and seems really excited to be travelling on a yacht, having never been on one before. Everything is new through his eyes, he is fascinated by everything on board and is always keen to learn more. His condition is more-or-less stable although the pain in his stomach was a little worse this morning than it had been previously. Still, he never complained and seems to be taking everything in his stride.

We got a call from the rescue station in Papeete yesterday who arranged for a merchant ship (Taporo VIII) to meet us at sea. They met us this morning at about 7am (120 miles from Mangareva) and picked up Ryan and Nadine. The ship can travel at twice the speed of Bob so will be able to get Ryan to land much quicker than we could. His condition, whilst worse than the previous day, was still stable and not yet progressed to anything serious. If his condition remains stable, he will get a commercial flight to Tahiti on Saturday where he can be properly treated. If he does deteriorate, then it’s possible to arrange for an air ambulance to take him to Tahiti sooner. I’m keeping all my fingers and toes crossed that he feels better and he gets to a good hospital as soon as physically possible.

For now, the three of us will continue to head for Mangareva. We would love to go back to Pitcairn but we have some work to do to the boat. Moreover, we could do with a proper rest having essentially been at sea for over a month now. Once we get to the secure anchorages of Mangareva, we can sleep through the whole night without the need to wake up every few hours to check on things.  It will be a very well deserved rest, particularly for Alex who has been going non-stop since leaving Galapagos on 13th June.

We hope to head back to Pitcairn in the next few weeks if the winds allow. Hopefully the third and final attempt to get back there will be a success! We’ve travelled thousands of miles to get here after all and I want to truly visit this island that I’ve heard so much about. Until then, we have the pleasure of Andrew’s company on board and as he knows Mangareva quite well, I’m looking forward to him showing us around.

—Update 17th July—

Ryan’s condition remained stable and he flew out to Tahiti on Saturday with Nadine and Andrew. He seemed well and everyone was in good spirits. He’ll now be able to get the medical attention he needs and I hope to hear from them soon.

Meanwhile, we’ve been enjoying a week of celebrations in Mangareva for the Bastille festivities (Charline I was thinking of you!). There is normally internet here but it’s currently down and has been for about a week, probably due to the public holiday. Once it’s back up I’ll try and post some photos from our recent exploits.

Update from Bob!

Hello all,

This morning at first light, 1515UTC, we successfully transferred Ryan and his mother Nadine to the merchant vessel Taporo VIII in order to expedite Ryan’s arrival in Mangareva. At that time our position was 23 47S, 132 57W, about 120 miles from Mangareva and 180 miles from Pitcairn. After some discussion we have decided ourselves to continue on to Mangareva rather than returning to Pitcairn as we could use a rest in a secure anchorage. We hope to return to Pitcairn at some point in the next few weeks if weather conditions promise to be conducive to that.

On board now we have me, Sarah and also Andrew, the Pitcairn Islander who came with us to help stand watches. I have re-installed the wind vane auxiliary rudder (which i removed prior to departure in order to be able to motor at higher speed) and we are finally under sail with the wind vane once again doing the hard work. We hope to arrive in Mangareva some time tomorrow afternoon if all goes well and the wind gods are kind. Ryan and his mother should arrive there this evening at about 9pm and, if his condition does not deteriorate rapidly, will catch the commercial flight to Tahiti on Saturday. If it does deteriorate however, once in Mangareva they have the option of dispatching an air-ambulance to take him to Tahiti sooner. When he left us this morning Ryan was experiencing more pain than yesterday but his appendicitis (if indeed that is what he has!) had not yet progressed to the acute stage, so things are looking good for him.

All is well. Sarah is taking a well-needed nap, I’ve just had one and now I’m having a glass of rum 🙂

Hope all’s well with you guys!

Lots of love

Us

Letter to Family

Just a quick email to let you know what we’re doing. We are underway as fast as our little old engine will allow bound for Mangareva. We have on board an 11-year-old boy suffering from appendicitis, his mother and, because our electric autopilot is broken and we are therefore obliged to hand-steer, another islander so that there can be 3 of us standing watches. We are coordinating with the marine rescue coordination center in Tahiti and hope to be able to transfer them to a faster boat but at the moment there is no traffic of any kind anywhere nearby, except us. We’re full to the brim with diesel and there’s a distinct possibility that we will sink due to the weight of all the food the islanders have given us. The forecast is for no wind – not great. That makes our ETA some time around Thursday evening.

Lots of love

Us

Pitcairn Arrival!

At 2300 UTC (3pm boat time) we dropped anchor in Bounty Bay, Pitcairn. The morning of our arrival was a touch frustrating – dead down wind in light air. There was a huge swell from the south west – indicative of something large spinning around down there in the Southern Ocean – so we were rolling back and forth violently and had to motor in order to maintain just a shred of sanity (let’s face it – we can’t have much of the stuff at the best of times, otherwise we wouldn’t be here to begin with!). Alan Jr., our apparently not-so-trusty tiller pilot, then gave up the ghost when his motor cooked itself so we now have no automatic pilot while motoring. Not to worry – we do at least have hands, and can even use them if forced.

The Pitcairn Islanders have lived up to their incredible reputation. Having called us on the radio and offered their greetings we explained that we would be unable to come ashore in our dinghy since the conditions would not allow it (our dinghy would quite simply have been swamped and then turned upside-down by the breaking waves coming into the landing. Jay Warren, with whom I had the honour of staying when I last visited back in 2003, jumped into one of their boats and picked us up within half an hour. A good 10 or so people (20% of the population of the island) were waiting on the dock for us. First we were given bead necklaces as a welcome gift, then immediately following the decidedly informal formalities we were whisked off to Jay and Carol’s gardens and orchards and given an incredible amount of food.

The islanders were genuinely happy to see us. Apparently they have had 3 yachts come by over the last few weeks but none have been able to land on the island because the weather has simply been too bad for them to anchor, let alone get ashore. Only last week they had a large storm here, with 50 knots of sustained wind and gusts of 70 to 90 knots.

These figures are on the one hand comforting to me because they mean that my estimates of wind speed over the last few weeks have not been wildly inflated. We had consistently experienced higher wind speeds than those that were forecast. I estimated, on average, about 5 knots higher. On the other hand, given our current predicament this is slightly worrying. The highest wind speed forecast for us over the last 3 weeks was 19 knots. We experienced about 25 knots at that time. The storm that I just mentioned that was here a week ago was something that I was following closely and the highest wind forecast was 34 knots. As I said, the islanders clocked 50 knots sustained.

Our situation currently is that we are anchored in a very precarious spot (there are no anchorages in Pitcairn that could ever be considered even remotely protected) on the south side of the north west bit of the island. We are in 66 feet of water and are experiencing 15-foot swells from the South West as well as 6-foot swells that are continuing to build from the East. The wind speed, forecast to be 15 knots at this time, is closer to 25, and the forward cleats and anchor chain are under some serious load from the shock loading imposed on them due to the combined efforts of the wind and, more importantly, the swells. The chances of us being able to raise the anchor in these conditions without ripping the windlass out of the deck or breaking the chain are 50:50. It’s 1730, half an hour before sunset, and we are fervently hoping that the wind will do as it is forecast. It is forecast to build to 22 knots (read – 30 knots with gusts to 45). Not good. However, it’s also forecast to back quickly to the North, which would leave us nicely in the lee of the land albeit with those large residual swells from two different directions.

The problem is that a nasty little low pressure has sprung up over Southern French Polynesia and is due to pass over the Gambier Islands and then proceed toward us, passing overhead about 24 hours from now. There’s nowhere for us to go since the wind speeds don’t get much less until you get several hundred miles from here and the thing is coming at us directly from the one place we might wish to head for anyway. So, here we are, bobbing in Bob, me getting progressively more agitated as the wind and swells build and Sarah doing her best to placate me and stop me worrying about stuff that is beyond our control. It’s a valiant effort, and I commend her for it! As I write this the wind is whistling through the rigging and Sarah is calmly chopping up garlic to go with a lovely vegetable stew for dinner. She really is incredible

Almost 3 weeks at sea

The motion of the boat is really starting to get to me. Just as I was beginning to get used to it and my sea sickness subsiding, the wind changes direction and I find myself back at square one – lying in a horizontal position trying to hold back the vomit. We do, however, have some wonder patches (Scopoderm) which are small patches you stick behind your ear to suppress the feeling of sea sickness. They really are brilliant and it’s largely thanks to them that I can function at all on board. The only downside is that they don’t stop my nausea completely if conditions are bad. Also, one of the side effects is that they leave a foul, frothy taste at the back of my throat, so I feel the need to brush my teeth a million times a day. I suppose the dentist will be happy at least.

Over the past 24 hours we’ve turned up wind and are now heading into the swells. This means that even the simplest of tasks, like sitting down, becomes much more difficult as the boat gets picked up by a swell then slammed back down again on the other side. About an hour ago I felt a particularly steep swell pick the boat up as I was sat on the toilet. As the boat was lifted by the swell, I felt the downward force push me into the toilet seat, as though it was trying to suck me through. Then, as the boat dropped back down to earth again, for a split second I was levitating clear off the toilet seat, the pee going everywhere!

We’ve had typical British weather for the last day or so which is now starting to get a little better. All day yesterday the sky was full of dense grey clouds which rained on us pretty much constantly. Now the grey skies are subsiding and even though the sun is now shining, the wind is from the south and feels pretty chilly. I’ve not showered in about 5 days because I just can’t bring myself to stand on deck, in that cold wind, and wash myself with cold water. I’ve noticed that Alex is doing more things independently today…. I must smell pretty awful!

Anyway, it’s not all bad. In fact, overall there is a lot more good than bad. I feel like I’m getting to know the boat much better and I’m finally starting to understand how everything works. It’s nice to actually feel useful when we’re doing manoeuvres rather than Alex having to go out of his way to show me every little thing. I also saw my first whale the other day, it was probably about 50 feet from the boat and quite small as far as whales go. I’m not sure what species it was, maybe some sort of pilot whale? I’ve also had a lot of time to read, play games and watch tv series’ which is very relaxing. I can’t remember the last time I got to relax and rest as much as this, it’s very pleasant.

Alex has been wonderful company and a great skipper. He’s gone out of his way to look after me when I’ve been feeling ill and has been very patient with me learning the ropes (literally as well as metaphorically). This lifestyle is very different to the one I had planned a little over a year ago. If someone would have asked me back then where I thought I would be in July 2016 – I think ‘the middle of the Pacific Ocean’ would have been the last answer I’d have given. However, I feel completely at home on Bob and that old lifestyle seems so far in the past that I can barely see it. It feels so alien that it must have belonged to someone else – not to me. It’s been a difficult road to get here and in many ways I was heartbroken for the life I was leaving behind. Now I’m fully settled in and couldn’t be happier. I think that says a lot for two people stuck within 36 feet of each other for 3 weeks, with no one else for company. It feels like I’ve hit a big personal milestone and I can’t wait to see what else is in store over the coming years.