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Landfall: Pitcairn Island

By Kate “Bob” Addison

January 21st, 2013

For the sixth time in her distinguished sail training career, barque Picton Castle is in sight of Pitcairn Island, which grows larger and more distinct as we draw closer. It is a perfect South Pacific afternoon, with sparkling blue seas and a bright blue sky as a backdrop for our white canvas sails, spread out on their yards and filled with the southeasterly tropical trades.

The excitement on board is palpable, and it’s not just because it’s been almost three thousand miles and three weeks of ocean since we last saw land interrupting the infinite blue of our horizon. It’s not the thought of fresh vegetables either, (never seen a can or freezer? ooo!), or the promise of showers, cool coconuts and comfortable beds. It’s not even the thought of sitting on a genuine sofa – and that is truly one of life’s great pleasures after a month or so without. And a sofa with a view of Bounty Bay and the very broad South Pacific Ocean at that.

These are all good reasons to be excited, and they certainly add to the anticipation of getting ashore, but the main reason that people are so happy and excited is because that little dot of land, two points off the starboard bow is the legendary Pitcairn Island, famous generally, but especially famous in Picton Castle history.

Most people have heard the story of the mutiny on the Bounty, maybe they’ve seen the Marlon Brando movie, or perhaps the Errol Flynn, Clark Gable version or Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson version. Maybe they’ve read an account of the tale, or even sailed aboard the reproduction HMS Bounty that was built to star in the 1962 Brando movie. I expect most people have an idea that the story has something to do with an eighteenth century sailing ship and her crew of ordinary British sailors, that it is a tale of dramatic adventures in the beautiful South Seas, of their interactions with the friendly and beautiful Tahitians and the volatile, violent incursions at Tonga and Tubai.

Perhaps your average person would know it was all something to do with breadfruit, and that the mercenary goal of the expedition was to bring back breadfruit – a cheap food crop the Empire planned to bring back to the West Indies as food for the enslaved working the plantations there. The idea was that this would be free food so the slaves would not have to work their gardens to feed themselves. So the plantations could get even more work out of them. For some reason they thought the Royal Navy should fetch this breadfruit for them.

Maybe they have heard of the heroic and improbable journey made by Captain Bligh and his 18 men, cast adrift off Tonga in a 23’ open boat, with no charts, no shelter from sun or weather and virtually nothing to eat or drink. How they navigated their way across 4,000nm of open ocean to the nearest European settlement – Timor in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), and onwards aboard ships back home to England.

Maybe Pitcairn Island rings a bell too – something to do with Fletcher Christian and his band of mutineers seeking refuge on a tropical paradise there with their Tahitian wives. How Pitcairn was chosen because it was small and uninhabited, without a harbour, but fertile with a good water supply, and most importantly because its longitude (the jewel in the crown of colonial navigation) was not yet accurately known. How HMS Bounty was abandoned and burned so that her masts wouldn’t be seen by the Royal Navy ships that would surely be sent to capture and hang the mutineers. And how seventh and eighth generation descendants of those very people still live there today in a complex society that manages to be very English at the same time as entirely South Pacific.

Captain Moreland first visited Pitcairn in the 1970’s sailing as Chief Mate for Captain Arthur Kimberly aboard the brigantine Romance, and he’s been friends with the Islanders ever since. This gives us Picton Castle crew our own more personal legend of Pitcairn to go with the Hollywood version, and it also gives us a special and privileged access to the Island: we are willingly taken into people’s homes, and fed, entertained and teased just as if we were long-lost family returning from far across the sea.

There are about 50 people living on Pitcairn Island today, so our crew almost doubles the population and we go ashore in two watches so as not to overwhelm them, and to leave the ship properly manned.

One of our crew, Chief Engineer David “DB” Brown is actually from Pitcairn – we invited (pressed?) him to sail aboard Picton Castle the last time we were here, on the fifth world voyage, and so now he gets to do what so few people in the world ever get to do: to sail back to Pitcairn. Right now he’s pretty much going loopy on the foc’sle head at the sight of his beloved Island home coming into view. DB isn’t the first Picton Castle shipmate to come from Pitcairn either – Pania Warren sailed aboard Picton Castle on World Voyage IV, and the Atlantic Voyage, and is now sailing as an AB with the Norwegian full rigged ship Sørlandet.

Good times we had on Pitcairn the last time around on World Voyage V – starting with the the journey by boat from ship to shore – skilfully unloading cargo and people in the swell, and then a blissful few days, running around barefoot, visiting folks, exploring and eating too much, just to be sociable of course. Highlights for me were heading over to Tedside to feed bananas to Miss T the Galapagos giant tortoise, swimming in St Paul’s pool and Bounty Bay and helping Olive make her famous breadsticks.

Can’t wait to go back tomorrow – they say the only thing better than visiting Pitcairn the first time is going back for a second visit!

Pitcairn on the horizon

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