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Pitcairn’s Island

By Captain Daniel Moreland and Maggie Ostler

The Picton Castle is only about 9 miles from Pitcairn Island -we can see the moon setting over the west end of Pitcairn, we are still under full sail including studding sails and the sun rising in the east makes the clouds and our sails look like gold. We are THRILLED to be so close…

After a voyage around the world folks often ask our crew which port or island is their favourite. There are a variety of answers, but it’s often prefaced by “after Pitcairn?…” filled in with Bali or Reunion or somewhere else, all amazing places.

Pitcairn Island is a small, remote patch of land deep in the South Pacific Ocean, about 25 degrees south and 130 west, only a mile and 3/4s long by 3/4s mile wide, but quite high at 1,200 feet. About 3,000 miles from the west coast of South America, 1,200 miles from Tahiti and almost 3,000 miles to New Zealand, lots of ocean all around. As many people know, the folks who call Pitcairn home are mostly 6th to 9th generation descendants of the mutineers of the HMS (or more properly HMAV for HM Armed Vessel) Bounty and their Tahitian wives (Do you know who your gggggreat grandparents from 1790 were and what they were doing?). Others have joined the island over the years from both European and Polynesian backgrounds but not all that much. The island is steep, rocky and lush; it seems that anything can grow in the rich volcanic soil there – the climate is delightful being just subtropical. As small as it is it seems much larger and could easily take more than a day to walk around. It is a stunningly beautiful island with a rich variety of landscapes and dramatic vistas. There is also great fishing all around the island. And two springs of fresh water as well as good rainfall.

‘Pitcairn’s Island’ was first discovered by Europeans in the form of a British Navy vessel HMS Swallow on a voyage from
England around Cape Horn in 1767 and named for the young midshipman who was on lookout and saw the island for the first time. Young Pitcairn’s father later fought at the famous Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston at the beginning of the American War for Independence. This new island was reported as uninhabited at this sighting with no harbour. When the Bounty gang showed up at ‘Pitcairn’s Island’ some 33 years later they found lots of signs of earlier Polynesian inhabitants but no people. More recent archaeology is making the case for a very large settlement of Polynesians perhaps up to two thousand. These studies are suggesting that the island was an important Polynesian settlement from maybe around 700 AD to sometime in the 13-1400’s or maybe even a bit later. On the south edge of the island up in the
cliffs, in an area known as “Tautama” there is a particularly hard grade of stone perfect for the making of adzes and many loose adze heads laying about. Ancient adzes from Pitcairn Island stone are found in archaeological sites all over Polynesia today we are told. But in April 1790 the island was without people and after the mutiny and unsuccessful attempts at settling at populated islands elsewhere, that is just what Fletcher Christian was looking for. Although recorded in some of Bligh’s few books on the South Pacific with a position, Christian
also had every reason to know that the island would have been mis-charted for longitude as only in the years since the islands discovery had mariners been able to readily and accurately determine longitude through the use of recently invented accurate and portable chronometers. The Bounty had one of these early and precious chronometers supplied by the Royal Navy. It would be decades again before such instruments were commonly available to navigators. Back to the Bounty…The band of settlers, ex-mutineers and Tahitians unloaded and stripped the ship at Bounty Bay- we guess they had pretty good weather for a spell – in short order they ran their stout little wooden ship (about 90′) up on the rocks shore right near the current landing at Bounty Bay under “Ship Landing Point”. They
dismantled her some more and soon set the old Bounty afire so as to get rid of the evidence of a stolen Royal Navy vessels hull,
masts and yards sticking up and avoid encouraging any possible passing Royal Navy ship from looking too closely at this island refuge of theirs as Christian, Young and the rest knew they would be pursued by the mightiest navy in the world, and they were chased indeed but that is another story as is the history of Pitcairn Island and her people since.

While the population of Pitcairn has fluctuated over the years, getting as high as 250 or so, there are presently about 55 people living on the island. When Picton Castle, with our 52 crew members, shows up, we double the population. In order not to overwhelm the island’s resources (as well as to look after our dear ship anchored or hove-to offshore), half the crew go ashore at a time. We have friends and connections in many ports, but the connections we have in Pitcairn are particularly strong. Captain Moreland first sailed to Pitcairn as mate in the Danish built Brigantine Romance under the command of renowned sailing ship master Capt Arthur M. Kimberly in the 1970s and has stayed in touch since then. When our ship heaves-to off Bounty Bay after three or so weeks at sea and over 2,700 miles, one of the massive and powerful Pitcairn aluminum longboat comes out to meet us with a big gang of islanders; Steve Christian, Jay Warren, Dennis Christian, Dave Brown, Pawl, Brenda, Meralda, Terry, Randy, Brian and the good Mayor Cookie will be aboard (ashore will be waiting Len, Tom and Betty, Royal, Mavis, Nola, Reynold, Daphne and others). Likely in large heaving seas we will unload some of the supplies we’ve been collecting for the islanders in Canada and Panama, and half of our crew pile into the long-boat and tear off bound ashore.

This boat trip into the jetty or landing can be quite a ride at times. Sometimes the boat has to wait in the enormous Pacific swell before she races in right past where the HMS Bounty was scuttled and burned in on the rocks. Catching the right wave the boat surges around the jetty into the boat landing and lines fly ashore to catch the boat before she rides up on land. At the Landing, which has the boat sheds where all the boats are hauled up when not being used is at the bottom of a very steep mountain known as the “Hill of Difficulty”, things are a bit hectic as the packed boat is unloaded, almost the whole island will be down there to greet us, old friends reunite and crew members there for the first time are chosen out of the crowd with a friendly, “You’ll stay with me.” Where there are no hotels or restaurants on Pitcairn, our crew are taken in by families, to share their homes, eat meals with them and generally become part of the family life. We do what the islanders do more or less; ride around on 4 wheel ATVs, go swimming at St Paul’s (beautiful natural sea pools at the east end of the island), clamber ‘Down Rope’, go fishing, participate in community events in the village square, visit from house to house. But this is also very much a week long holiday for the islanders as well. When we show up is a bit like the circus coming to town! They don’t get so many visitors, not like this anyway. Hey! It is two islands colliding!

Pitcairn is one of the most anticipated ports we ever sail to, the current crew have heard stories from crew who have been there before, they know something of the history of the people or at least the legend. Pitcairn only gets supply ships two or three times a year, so anything they need or want that they cannot make or grow themselves can only be shipped in every few months and those supply ships are expensive too. Part of the excitement of our visit to Pitcairn is that the people who live there look forward to our visit perhaps almost as equally. For months, we’ve been in contact about placing orders for cargo, but also getting updates on islanders planting gardens, cleaning
out spare bedrooms and otherwise preparing in anticipation of our sailing over the horizon. Picton Castle will be at Pitcairn Island in a couple days – It may be hard to get to Pitcairn Island but the Captain says it is harder to leave…

Supplies for Pitcairn: heaps of treated lumber, 6x200L barrels gasoline, 35 miniature turtles, over 11 cases of tinned goods, 300 pounds flour, 90L cooking oil, 14 lawn mowers, 10 pair oars, about 25 machetes, kitchen knives, 85x25kg bags cement, one digital camera, 3 car batteries, 20 band saw blades, tiller, 14 mixing bowls, 48 web belts, 100kg raw sugar, 150kg white sugar, 3 bedside lamps, 31 packets vegetable seeds, 4 hammocks and more…

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