As you are probably aware Sarah and I have been in Thailand for the last 6 weeks or so, bar a one-week side-trip to Cambodia for the sake of getting our Thai visas renewed inexpensively. It’s been wonderful spending time with Sarah’s parents and exploring places by land. There have also been moments of nostalgia. I’ve spent this morning looking through our photographs for the last two years
Well, it’s been quite a while since either of us posted a blog. To be honest, in comparison to Tsunami evacuations and medical rescues, nothing particularly out of the ordinary has happened recently. Writing about our exploits over the past month won’t be too dissimilar to writing a postcard to loved ones back home about all the jolly things you might get up to on your holidays. Things have been really pleasant and well, to be honest, we don’t want to rub it in by telling you about it. I suppose the good thing about a blog is that anyone who doesn’t want to read about that sort of stuff doesn’t have to. With that in mind, I suppose I’ll tell you about all the wonderful things we’ve been up to recently 🙂
We finally made it back to Pitcairn. I realise we’re very late in telling you so because we actually set off on 29th of August, arrived on the 31st August, were able to stay for a whole week and then returned to Gambier, arriving back on the 9th September! It was really wonderful to be back and to see everyone again after the medivac. Andrew came to collect us from Bob in his motor boat and we were greeted at the dock by a group of islanders, Ryan included, and a small round of applause. Of course they all lived up to their reputation and as usual, were all incredibly friendly and helpful. Not only did we spend a wonderful week seeing the sights, wildlife and enjoying great company – we also got a multitude of jobs done which we’d been trying to do for a long time (like acquiring wood to make shelves, get some bits and pieces from the hardware store, stock up on fresh fruit and veg, replenish our petrol supply, fill our dive tank and most importantly, replenish our alcohol supplies with the duty-free booze they sell there). Andrew and his mum, Brenda, were absolute stars and their help was invaluable getting all this stuff sorted. The various dinners and drinks, lifts to and from shore, the use of a washing machine and a hot shower are very much appreciated. Likewise Nadine and Randy for fruit and veg, Jay and Carol for the eggs and to Dave for the honey – thank you guys!
I should also thank Paul and Sue for being excellent company and lending us their spare bed for the night. Paul and Sue run the island’s bar, although unlike a normal bar you might find in England – you just show up at their house and if someone’s in, you sit and have a drink with them. As soon as we showed up, Paul put a huge glass of gin crush in my hand and made sure it was never empty. I also have him to thank for one of the worst hangovers of my life the following day! I don’t think it would have been possible to even make it back to Bob at the end of the night and being able to sleep in a motionless bed made the hangover at least bearable the next day!
The winds during our stay were relatively calm on the whole, but the swells were steep in Pitcairn’s exposed anchorage and being on board at anchor was actually worse than being at sea. It seemed that some sort of current was keeping Bob broadside to the swells (and the wind) and the rolling was worse than I’ve ever experienced before. Absolutely everything had to be stowed away. Cooking dinner was a complete nightmare! I never realised how many fruit and vegetables have a round shape. I tried getting out an onion, two potatoes, a cabbage and a couple of tomatoes for dinner. Before I’d had chance to cut up the first one, the rest were flung horizontally across the boat into various crevices and then proceeded to rapidly roll back and forth across the floor until Alex and I managed to eventually catch them and shove them back in their basket. Note to self – when in a very rolly boat – attempt to chop only one round vegetable at a time! Or even better, find flat vegetables (do they even exist?).
It wasn’t all bad on the boat however and we were fortunate enough to have a very pleasant visit from a family of humpback whales. We knew there were whales in the area and once, after moving to a different anchorage, Alex went for a dive to check on the anchor and heard whale song under the water. Although their songs sound much clearer and louder under the water, it’s possible to hear them from inside the hull of the boat as well – it was amazing! One of the locals had told me about a way to attract whales closer by tapping a piece of wood on the side of the hull in a slow, consistent manner (like the ticking of a clock). To my absolute amazement it actually worked! A mother, calf and large bull came right up next to us to see what was going on. One of them was slapping its tail on the surface of the water in a behaviour known as lobtailing. I’m still not sure if this behaviour is a greeting as if to say “hello, nice to meet you, let’s play”, or territorial aggression as if to say “if you don’t leave immediately, I’m going to lunge on you”. They seemed very calm however and got within 10m of the boat for a closer look, it was really impressive. The mother lifted the calf right out of the water on her back and we got to see them in spectacular detail. I even jumped in the water for a swim, but I guess that was too much for them as they swam off before I even got chance to see them. The songs I could hear in the water though were wonderful, so it was still worth getting cold and wet for. Ah well, hopefully I’ll get another chance to swim with them properly.
We’re now back in the Gambier Islands and whilst we were sorry to leave Pitcairn, it’s nice to be back in a calm anchorage and slightly warmer climes. We even arrived back in time to be invited to a traditional Polynesian barbeque hosted by our friend, Matthew, who is a sailor from Tasmania who had been renting out a house here for almost a year. After all this time he is finally leaving for New Zealand so the barbeque was to wish him bon voyage and a good onward journey. The tradition in Polynesia is to cook locally caught meat (pig and goat in this case) in a ground oven with banana and breadfruit. Everyone brought something with them and there were many other local dishes made from coconut, rice, bread, fish and more. It was a true feast and everything was absolutely delicious. Well….. almost everything. The traditional Polynesian fermented fish was less to our taste but we tried some in good spirit as a ‘cultural experience’. I had a small bit and wasn’t too keen, but Alex’s piece was much bigger than mine and it almost made him vomit. Even worse was that his breath smelt like dog-breath for the rest of the night, and a little bit the following morning too…. Urgh.
We’re now anchored off the west side of Taravai (the opposite side to John and Jessie’s farm) and are just about to visit another boat to have a drink and watch the sunset with our friends, Karine and Mehdi. The sunset is usually obscured by the land but as we’re anchored on the west side for a change, we should have a lovely view of it this evening.
**Answers to fruit photo
Okay, so starting from left to right, the pieces of fruit in the photo are:
Lime, orange, lemon, grapefruit, mandarin.
Bet you didn’t guess them all!
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