Passage to Pitcairn Island
It was a real ordeal. Begonia was pitching up and down wildly, sending spray and occasionally green water over the bows. The wind made it hard to keep the boat straight unless I was actively steering her with the help of asymmetric power. The floats we had attached to the rode to keep our line and chain above the coral had a tendency to head for our propellers if they weren’t caught just as they went under the trampoline. In order to do this while Maryanne was operating the windlass, I had to take Begonia out of gear and run forward, to which she invariably responded by slewing sideways and threatening to turn the whole mess into a tangle. It was a huge relief when Maryanne reported that the anchor had left the bottom.
We left the anchorage in reverse so that the trip line float would stream forward and not toward the props. Maryanne pulled it in, we spun around the right direction, and we were out of there.
The wind was not favorable for the trip to Pitcairn, but since there was now no safe anchorage on Easter, we had no choice but to leave into the rain and strong headwinds of a passing front. It was miserable to be sure, but no more so than the anchorage and now we no longer had the stress of worrying about dragging ashore.
By noon, the wind shifted from NNW to SW and we were able to turn on course, ease the sheets and go fast. The wind held for four more days and we were able put in just under 200 miles for each of them.
Slowly the wind began to die off, and then it shifted back to headwinds again. They were short lived, but turned the seas into a sloppy mess. The new tailwinds weren’t quite as strong and our swinging mast caused the sails to bang back and forth as they alternately filled and collapsed.
We had originally planned our route to pass near to two uninhabited outlying islands in the Pitcairn Group, Ducie and Henderson, hoping to get a close look at them or possibly even fit in a stop. Updated forecasts indicated our window of tailwinds would be ending soon. That and our reduced speed made us scrap Henderson and limit Ducie to a quick pass. Ducie is a large atoll and we were hoping for at least a few hours reprieve from the relentless southern swell as we passed through its lee. When we got there late in the afternoon of Day 7, Ducie revealed itself as a low line of trees on the horizon, but did not seem to have any mitigating effect on the seas. It was now looking like we would have to sail as fast as we could on a direct course to make Pitcairn before sunset two days later.
We didn’t make it. Thirty miles out, with only three hours of daylight remaining, we called Charlene, the Deputy Mayor, to ask about conditions in Bounty Bay. We were really hoping she would tell us there is a huge patch of sand at such and such location, with no hazards, but we had no such luck. Once we were done with her, Nemo called us. They had arrived three days earlier and had been hiding from the winds on the far side of the island since. They had just moved to Bounty Bay and confirmed that it was far too rocky to be able to find a spot to put the anchor at night. Armed with all of this new information, we decided to slow way down and heave to just off the island until morning.
When Maryanne handed Begonia over to me at midnight, I thought about it for a while and decided it would be more fun and interesting to do some sailing. That would also help me stay awake. I decided to circumnavigate Pitcairn Island.
By morning, we were close hauled with two reefs in each sail as we came around Adam’s Rock into view of Bounty Bay. It was a mess. 2-3m swell was rolling through and exploding into spray on the rocks.
Nemo looked to be having a miserable time. They were pitching through about fifteen degrees and rolling sometimes up to forty. The spray on the rocks astern of them was often higher than their mast. It reminded us of something we had seen another cruiser write: Pitcairn makes Easter Island look like a marina.
Indeed it does. We deployed our anchor, all of our chain, all of our nylon rode and all of the floats and lines necessary to keep it all from getting snagged down there. Once we were settled, I took a swim to check it all out. Our anchor was too deep to reach, but the visibility was good, so I could see how it was doing. We had missed the sand patch and it was holding onto a small crevice in the rock with the tip of its fluke. That’s less secure than I would have liked, but the rest of the bottom looked no better, so it seemed unlikely that re-anchoring would produce a better result. At least there were plenty of other things for it to grab onto if it lost its grip. Since I was already in the water, I also swam over to Nemo and had a look at theirs. Their anchor was well buried in sand with no coral or rocks within the length of their chain. They seemed to have found the one good spot. When I got back aboard, I called them on the radio and gave them my report. They said they were uncomfortable, but knowing their anchor was well dug in would let them rest a little easier. We both decided to stay aboard for the day to keep an eye on things and made sure our boats stayed put.
We had plenty to entertain us. The quarterly supply ship had just arrived as well and the island’s two big longboats were shuttling back and forth with everything the island would need for the coming months. The longboats are like giant motorized canoes with hulls deep and wide enough to hold two or three mini shipping containers. The harbor at Bounty Bay is only large enough for one of these boats at a time. As they arrived from the ship, they would stop and wait for a lull in the surf blocking the entrance. The guy on the bow would then signal and they would go racing in. At the very last second before the wave caught up to them, they would make a blind ninety-degree turn around the corner, leaving the last of the curler to take a slap at their stern. Leaving was the reverse process. A lookout on the pier would give the signal to the helmsman and the boat would come booming around the corner out into the swell. Every time they passed by us, we would smile and wave and they would smile and wave back.
Work stopped at sunset and a couple of hours later, the generator was shut down and the island went dark. It loomed above us as a black velvet veil blocking the stars to the west. We listened to the crash of the breaking surf behind us and spent a restless night thinking about our anchor in its little crack and just how quickly we could get the engines started if it let go.