by JOE COOPER
It is a bleak and barren pile of rocks, ironbound shoreline and bird droppings. ‘Tis Pitcairn Island. In late July of 1999, I had what some might call the good fortune to be among the few in the world who have seen Pitcairn in the flesh. I was accompanying the yacht I was the master of, on a steamer, sailing from New Zealand to the U.S. and we passed by within the proverbial biscuit toss of this infamous island.
A couple of days earlier, the ship’s captain advised us one morning that in a day or so we would be passing Pitcairn Island and if we so chose we might compose letters, which would be passed to the islanders and so mailed, with the attractive element of having a Pitcairn Is. stamp franking.
I did and we did, passing perhaps a few hundred yards off in an 800-foot container ship drawing perhaps 35 feet. The island is one-one thousandth the size of a pimple on the surface of the globe in the middle of nowhere, with the depths vast even this close inshore. Possibly the nearest humans to the inhabitants are in the International Space Station, 200 miles above. As we arrived alongside the leeward side of the island mid-morning a shore party came off in a 25-foot long, double ended, whaleboat inspired, power-driven dory somehow fabricated in aluminum. This cockleshell was crewed by perhaps three or even four generations of descendants of the original settlers from the HMS Bounty, men and women. The coxswain was a largish man in shorts and a yellow fisherman Grundens-like slicker, grey hair and beard and dour look. Not unkind or mean, nor pleasing or smiling – just ‘another day on the rock’ kind of look. There were a couple of his contemporaries, a couple of younger men, perhaps the senior apprentices, a couple of teenagers, a couple of women and a child.
We were at steerage speed, about six knots for this class of ship, and from my aerie several decks up in the aft superstructure that houses the life support systems for the ship, culminating in the bridge on the summit of the wedding cake like structure, I could see the rocks, some vegetation, a few trees and the boathouse with its slipway built atop the boulders of which this stark and forbidding shore is composed. The dory had been pushed with small care down the ways and the crew had scrambled in, timing the break between surges of the slight, three- to four-foot sea with a practiced eye that made the action look like a prima ballerina doing Swan Lake: graceful and effortless in the extreme, with the impression given that the action was undertaken with nary a thought, young and old, male and female alike.
The unpainted dory motored off to us through the choppy sea in a large arc, approaching us from fine on the starboard quarter. Burly Coxswain had piloted his charge to within a few yards of the lower sides of our stern when one of the ship’s crewmen heaved over side an orange canister akin to the ones in which we keep our flares and other items requiring relative dryness. The boat crew came up to the bobbing canister with 200 years of skill and collected it without, I think, a word being spoken. They idled for a moment, looking up at the ship’s side dotted with the faces of the off-watch crew and the two guests, me and my shipmate and fellow passenger: a delightful lady from Philadelphia who was spending her golden years traveling the world on such cargo ships, as she had done in the 1950s with her husband, a business type with interests in South America. She was, she admitted to me over breakfast, a few days out of Auckland reliving the history of her marriage to her long departed husband.
One could feel the ship engine rumble back to life and the speed slowly increase. We pulled away from the lee of the eastern end of the island into the fresh southeast trade winds that cover the vastness of the southern Pacific Ocean in which this barren island is situated. As we steamed off, for a few minutes the dory remained keeping station, idling along just off-side of our wake, the dory’s crew gazing unemotionally at our diminishing stern. Finally they turned inshore and were busy preparing to land when I went inside for a coffee and a few notes in the journal.
The whole episode was perhaps 20-30 minutes from start to finish and left one with an odd feeling. I wondered to myself just how harsh it must have been on the Bounty for Christian and his colleagues to undertake the actions they did. I was reminded of the phrase about ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire.’
Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the US after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, teenage son, dog, two cats and several, mainly small, boats.