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.

June 19th

First of all, I apologise that the following is entirely concerned with the somewhat uninspiring subject of the weather. Those of you who are in the UK will perhaps sympathise, since the weather is usually miserable and frequently therefore a convenient point of reliable conversation. It’s mildly soothing to gripe and moan about it after all, and usually a safe subject since the odds are that the person you are griping and moaning about it to more than likely shares your views on the topic. ‘The weather’ is perhaps the most talked-about subject in the UK, not least because it serves as a convenient launch-pad from which to initiate a conversation, sound-out ones prospective conversational partner and, if conditions are favourable, henceforth diversify and expand cautiously into topical areas of greater controversiality. Or not. Compared to the standard quintessentially British weather-based gripe however, my situation is somewhat sadder. I am going to talk almost exclusively about the weather because the weather is almost exclusively what has occupied my mind in one form or another for the entirety of the last 6 days.

We’ve been at sea now for 6 days and have made good progress. Our noon position was 10 degrees 12 minutes south, 099 degrees 12 minutes west. That puts us 780 miles from our point of departure from the Galapagos Islands and 1980 miles from Pitcairn Island. That’s almost the same distance remaining as the entire width of the USA from San Francisco to Washington. The closest mainland is the coast of Peru, 1200 miles upwind to the East.

If you are British and tired of hearing about the weather, you can stop reading now.

We’ve been exceptionally lucky so far. Having caught the trade winds after less than one day they have remained consistent and moderate right up until now and we have been able to log some fast days. 148 miles between the 14th and 15th; 150 miles between the 15th and 16th. Unfortunately we have slowed down a touch now and only managed to log 118 miles over the last 24 hours. The reason for this is that we have encountered a greater and greater number of squalls. They haven’t been particularly strong ones – perhaps 25 knots of wind at the most, but in between the squalls winds have been light – between 5 and 12 knots, and this has made choosing an appropriate amount of canvas to carry a challenge. With a large crew it would be no trouble to take in sail as each squall approaches and then re-set it once it has passed, or at least turn down-wind with each squall and run with it. With only two of us however, and squalls hitting every half an hour or so, such tactics would quickly tire us beyond reasonable limits. There are therefore two choices – either carry the appropriate amount of sail for the light patches in between the squalls and accept being overpowered during them, or, more conservatively, carry appropriate canvas for the squalls and then be under-powered the rest of the time. On a voyage such as this, we simply cannot afford breakages, so the more conservative option has been decided upon, however frustrating it may be to crawl along at 3 knots while rolling uncomfortably in the cross-sea. Despite this tactic of essentially doing as little as possible, I was up at least 10 times during the night to tend to one thing or another and did not greet daybreak with particularly great gusto or enthusiasm.

It is now 2pm and someone appears to have taken pity on us. Following a period of an hour or so when visibility dropped to about 2 miles and the world seemed to be made up entirely of dark, brooding clouds, they have broken and for now at least we are enjoying a pleasant beam-reach romp in consistent 18-knot winds.

We have just downloaded some updated weather information and it looks fairly encouraging. The forecast is for winds to drop to 12 knots and come aft, then build to about 20 knots but stay behind us. Provided the seas aren’t too great that should with luck make for a comfortable down-wind ride for a few days. Fingers and toes are crossed. Pitcairn is looking a little more likely now – maybe 70%. If only these squalls wouldn’t mind taking their business elsewhere. Permanently!