It’s hard to believe that we’ve been in Vanuatu for almost a month already. We’ve crammed in so much that time has simply disappeared as though swallowed by a black hole. It’s entirely possible that we’ve done and seen more of this country in the last month than we did in Marquesas over 6 months.
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.
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
Precursory disclaimer: None of the bad news is overly tragic or terminal!
Bad news: The freezer has broken. It broke about four days ago and is quite an inconvenience because at the time it was absolutely crammed full of frozen food – mainly meat – along with some vegetables that we had chopped up with the intention of eating them once the fresh stuff had run out or gone bad. So much for that plan!
Good news: We’ve eaten like kings for the last 4 days. Chicken in a tomato sauce, deep-fried chicken wings and now a huge, tasty beef stew. Furthermore, Sarah has somehow managed to magic space in what was the fridge and we have turned the temperature right down. It’s successfully keeping frozen stuff frozen. We have not yet had to throw much out at all.
Bad news: The last three days have been pretty tough. The weather forecast predicted max. winds of 19 knots but we’ve been in a solid force 6 (about 25 knots), and last night a force 7 for a while (about 30 knots) with largish seas and a lot of general unpleasantness. Most of the waves were taken on the quarter and have been OK, but every now and then a large one would come in from the side and slam into the topsides. One such specimen crashed onto the deck and forced it’s way underneath the dodger (a piece of canvas which forms a protective cover over the forward part of the cockpit and ostensibly shelters us from wind and waves), tore the bottom edge off its mounts and then proceeded to pour down into the cabin through the main hatch. Everything on the navigation table got soaked. The fridge-come-freezer got soaked. All my tools got soaked. The charts got soaked. In fact, everything in the after starboard section of the boat got soaked. So, we cleaned/mopped up, hung various things up to dry and decided that from then on the hatch would remain closed. It did. All day in fact, and no more waves even came close to crashing up underneath the dodger and into the hatch again. Until I was sitting on deck rinsing off my tools and had the hatch open for no more than 10 seconds as I was about to go back down below. CRASH! It happened all over again. Now, we scurry in and out in a decidedly furtive manner.
Good news: By some stroke of extraordinary luck, none of the dwindling supply of expensive electronic stuff was on the chart table at the time of either of the wave incidents. This really is a stroke of extraordinary luck since one of the laptops is used primarily for navigation and spends 90% of it’s time in that very locale. Sarah’s iphone has already been the victim of some poor judgement on my part when I tried to take us in through the surf onto a beach in San Cristobal and ended up flipping the dinghy over. My ipod now has a smashed screen from when I dropped a jar of pickled cockles on it. We haven’t got a whole lot left, and what we do have we’d quite like to keep working!
Good news: The forecast is for the wind to drop. It is dropping.
Bad news: It has dropped out very quickly, leaving us with no wind and a large, confused, lumpy sea rolling us about all over the place, causing the genoa to bang horribly as it empties and fills repeatedly with wind with every roll. Ah well, the sea can’t be too far behind. It has already come down a lot since last night.
Bad news: We had a bit of a mini-drama last night. I awoke to the unpleasant sensation of being hurled over sideways, followed by a crash of water from the side and a jet of saltiness coming in through the hatch. The movement was not as it should be. A glance up through the hatch onto the deck revealed why – the wind vane was not standing upright as it should be, but rather hanging precariously at a below-horizontal angle while the moving parts at the top attempted to wrench it free and cast it off into the sea. I really do wish people would make expensive things well. We’re very, very happy with our new wind vane on the whole – it performs better than any other wind vane I have ever had experience with – but this is now the second incidence of a bit of it not being quite as strong as we think it should be. The first incident was when the bolt supporting the rudder sheared through. The only thing that prevented us from losing the rudder on that occasion was that, after my experience in the North Atlantic with the Fleming wind vane, I had attached a safety cord to this one tying it onto the boat. This time (last night) it was the mechanism for securing the wind vane itself into its bracket. A plastic hand-screw contains at its centre a bronze threaded section. It kept coming loose so I’d screwed it down as tight as I could. The bronze part had simply pulled itself out of the centre of the plastic part, making the whole thing ineffective.
Good news: The designers had at least thought to design a slight lip into the wind vane fitting so that it is still captive with this screw slacked off. Sarah took the helm for half an hour while I removed the fitting, hammered the bronze bit back into place, drilled and tapped through both the plastic and bronze bits and installed two bolts to keep them lined up. In my view, something like this should have been done at the factory by the manufacturers. It wouldn’t have taken much extra machining. Unfortunately I stripped the threads putting it all back together again, but it’s on strongly now. I’ll deal with how to get it off again when the time comes!
More good news: As of about 2200 last night we are half way there! 1380 miles from Santa Cruz and 1380 miles to Pitcairn. It feels like we should be further along, but it’s wonderful now to be getting closer to somewhere rather than consistently further and further away.
As of 1030 this morning (1730 UTC), June 24th, our position is 15 degrees 53 minutes South, 108 degrees 59 minutes West.