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Remote corners: Voyaging to small, isolated islands

Oct 5, 2009

One of the great joys of ocean voyaging is to fetch up on small, isolated islands, preferably one without an airstrip. The inhabitants are usually extraordinarily pleased that you have gone to the trouble of sailing to their remote corner of the world. Customs and other officials, who can be the bane of more civilized ports, are usually absent or at least minimized and you can count on honest hospitality. Don’t, however, count on doing much shopping unless they have a few souvenirs for the occasional visitor. Although they may have radio and even satellite TV communication with the outside world, your old newspapers and magazines will be in great demand. There is often no harbor of any consequence and frequently you have to anchor in an open roadstead off the coast and the danger of dragging plus the uncomfortable rolling usually inspire you to move on in a day or so. The people you meet have an aura of self-reliance, they seem to be hanging on to a way of life that to the casual visitor appears to be too hard and complicated. I often feel like an alien from another world, arriving on Earth without the slightest idea of the social norms and hidden forces that must lie below the surface for these men and women living such an interdependent life. Like all small villages, they live with the history of past transgressions, feuds, even crimes, that are hidden from me. It doesn’t do to be too romantic, most young people born into these circumstances want out, and leave when they can. So perhaps these little outposts may not survive another generation or two, and I count myself lucky to see them before they disappear.



Pitcairn Island

Lying a few days’ sail east of French Polynesia, this island is certainly small, isolated and lacking a runway. We raised it sailing from Mangareva, the most easterly of the Gambier Islands. It was early in the morning and I gave them a call on the VHF. To my surprise Mr. Tom Christian answered, a descendant of the mutinous first mate who gave Capt. Bligh such trouble. I said we would like to stop for a few hours, but he was not too encouraging. Sail around the island, he suggested, and see if you can find a beach without too much surf that you can land on by dinghy. For the next hour and a half we chugged around the island, but it seemed very rocky and dangerous and before we knew it we were back at the Landing Point on Bounty Bay. We anchored in about 100 feet, a few hundred yards from the shore, rolling badly in the lazy South Pacific swell. Somewhat reluctantly, I thought, two young men came out in a roughly built longboat and took us to the shore. Timing it beautifully, they brought the boat to a steeply sloping ramp and hooked a rope to an eye in the bow. With a roar, an old car engine at the top of the ramp pulled us up the incline on small wheels attached to the keel as the next wave came thundering in.

We were met by Mr. Jay Warren who guided us up a steep, sandy path between verdant foliage. At his house his wife Carol was waiting with Kool-Aid and a slice of fruit. The house was simple — plywood with a corrugated tin roof. We discussed the pleasures and problems of living on Pitcairn; the roughly 60 inhabitants scratched a living making souvenirs, mostly small wooden models of Bounty, which are sold to tourists on the occasional cruise ships that anchor a mile or so off the island. Jay told us the island had been converted by Seventh-day Adventists in the late nineteenth century. They killed all the pigs and adopted a very high moral image. No alcohol was permitted and couples could not even hold hands in public. Only two forms of reading matter were allowed on the island — the Bible and Reader’s Digest.

The area was littered with rusting junk, especially 55 gallon oil drums which were floated ashore to run the central diesel generator for a few hours a day. We bought a few stamps and Jay offered to give us a tour on his Japanese ATV.

The tracks were rough and criss-crossed by gullies formed by rain. We stopped and met Tom Christian at his radio station, where he maintained communication for the small population with the outside world. He was a famous amateur radio operator and his QSL cards from Pitcairn were eagerly sought after by hams. At a headland on the east coast we stopped to admire the view and below I could see Fiona rolling heavily in the swell. I expressed some concern and Jay said it was a dangerous anchorage; only a month earlier an American yacht with a couple on board had dragged and crashed on the shore. “What happened?” I asked. “Oh,” he replied casually, “the woman was drowned.” My jaw dropped. “Perhaps we should get back to boat,” I suggested, “before the same thing happens to us.” I pressed some money on Jay to pay for the gas he had used and the same two young lads ran us back to the boat. She was rolling so violently that one moment I could see the propeller, but a few seconds later I could step directly onto the railcap from the longboat. I asked the boys if they wanted a beer to which they assented eagerly, and I passed over a couple of cold Buds from the refrigerator.

We were underway for Cape Horn by mid-afternoon and, as the island faded from view, I hoped I had not corrupted the morals of the two lads with the beer. Many years later I discovered I should have no fears on that score; seven adult men were charged with systematic sexual abuse of young girls on the island, Jay among them. He was acquitted after a long trial but the other six were sentenced, some getting up to six years in the clink. A special jail was constructed on Pitcairn, although the men did not serve their full terms and now it is a guesthouse.



Tristan da Cunha

We sailed to Tristan after an Antarctic cruise which had taken us to the Peninsula from Port Williams in Chile, on to Deception Island and past Elephant Island to South Georgia. Ten days out from Grytviken we raised Tristan.

We anchored in an open roadstead half a mile from the only settlement, Edinburgh on the north coast. As usual, we rolled violently. As kelp was a well-known hazard we put out almost all our chain, although fortunately the wind was light. We called on the radio to announce our arrival and were informed that the island policeman would come out in a boat to give us clearance. Sergeant Glass duly arrived and climbed aboard. I was delighted when he introduced himself as I knew from reading the early history of Tristan that the settlement had been founded by Corporal Glass in 1822. He was part of a British Army detachment posted to the island in 1816 to thwart any attempt by the French to spring Napoleon from Saint Helena, more than 1,000 miles to the north. When Napoleon died, the corporal got permission to stay. Sailors from whalers joined him over the years and women came from South Africa, 1,500 nautical miles to the northeast. Now I was meeting the man who was probably his great-great-grandson. He warned us how dangerous the anchorage was and we agreed to always leave someone aboard if we could get ashore. He told us there is a small boat harbor, made of concrete rip-rap.

When Sergeant Glass left we inflated the dinghy and two of us chugged ashore. The houses were built substantially of stone, looming over the village was a large hill of black lava. In 1962 the volcano behind the village erupted and the lava threatened the place with extinction. All the inhabitants were evacuated to England, but they were not happy. They did not like the climate and I suspect they were subjected to a good deal of racial discrimination in the U.K. of the 1960s. Visits by government scientists confirmed the lava flow had stopped just shy of the village, just one house had been damaged, and the volcano seemed dormant again. In 1963 the majority were happily repatriated to resume their lonely life on Tristan.

We visited the radio operator with whom we had talked when we first arrived. He wanted to know if we had any magazines we could put his way. I promised to bring him a copy of Playboy we had on board when I returned with the other crewmember. We paid a call on the government administrator who let us send an e-mail, in return I had to take a thick envelope of official letters which I promised to mail when we got to Cape Town.

He told us there were about 300 inhabitants; the government supplied a nurse and a teacher. About every three months a sturdy fishing boat made the 1,500-nm passage to Cape Town to trade lobsters for supplies. I found the only grocery store to be reasonably well supplied, although we did not buy anything. There was a small nook selling souvenirs, but I can’t imagine that there were many customers. We walked over to the graveyard. There we found a marble headstone, inscribed “William Glass. Born Kelso, Scotland, the Founder of this Settlement. Fell asleep in Jesus November 24th, 1853, aged 67 years.” Near the graveyard were half a dozen graceful longboats, drawn up on land. A few times a year they were sailed to other islands of the archipelago, which are uninhabited, to collect guano, used as fertilizer for their garden plots.

When we dinghied back to Fiona to exchange the crew so they would both have had a shot at visiting the settlement, I found the incessant rolling had made him seasick — was he glad to get ashore! We did not linger on our second trip to the village, I bid goodbye to the sergeant and we prepared to depart for Cape Town.



Kerguelen

Kerguelen is part of an archipelago called Desolation Islands. Covering quite a wide area they lie about 50° S in the southern Indian Ocean. They have been claimed by France since their discovery by Yves-Joseph Kerguelen in 1772.

Almost every writer about the island mentions the atrocious weather; the pilot even states gale force winds are common more than half the time. We were on our way around the world via the great capes when I decided to visit Kerguelen. There were two reasons; firstly very few yachts make it there and secondly when we were just north of the Crozet Islands one of the crew received a nasty crack on his skull from the staysail boom. It left a long gash on his scalp which I patched up as best I could, but I knew there was a doctor at the French research base on Kerguelen, which was about 1,000 nautical miles to the southeast.

Kerguelen has no runway; it is visited by a supply ship operating from Reunion Island about two or three times a year. Nobody lives there permanently; it is staffed by scientists and support personnel. The contrast with Pitcairn and Tristan could not be starker, these guys get paid for living there and they live in reasonable luxury, supported by a benevolent French government. At Port-aux-Francais the doctor examined our injured crew and changed the dressing. I was introduced to the director, who extracted a big fee, but in return we ate at the canteen which served wonderful food along with wine. We also bummed some fresh veggies and filled our jerry jugs with diesel.

There is a famous post office at Kerguelen, the franked stamps are so rare that collectors mail self-addressed envelopes to be mailed back to them. We were told that the job at the post office is eagerly sought after by ladies working for the French Postal Service; they are outnumbered by men about 10 to one. When we bought some stamps one of them asked if we had a boat stamp, I said yes and she borrowed it for a while; envelopes franked that day to be sent back to philatelists had a Fiona imprint.

Kerguelen, of course, is not representative of the self-reliant, permanently habited islands I so like to visit — but it is interesting, nevertheless. I found a similar atmosphere at Jan Mayen Island when we visited there during an Arctic cruise. The people on Jan Mayen maintained radio nav aids and a meteorological station. It has a runway, but they don’t get many visitors as it’s above the Arctic Circle.

Another remote island I’ve sailed to is Saint Helena. They are suffering from hard times and the reason is bizarre. A few years before our visit, the British Postal Office switched from using string to elastic bands. Turns out flax was the major crop of the island and the post office was their biggest customer. Saint Helena is not as remote as Pitcairn or Tristan. We visited the modest house where Napoleon lived during his exile.

Luckily, I don’t have to spend my life in isolation; with an oceangoing sailboat, the world is wide open.

Read more about Eric Forsyth’s adventures with Fiona at www.yachtfiona.com.

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