Down to the Sea in
. . . Longboats
"Let go when I tell you," boomed a voice behind me.
Only a moment or two passed before he shouted: "Let go!"
I let go . . . and began to plunge . . . .
When we left Auckland, New Zealand, for Pitcairn Island in 1982, Martha, Joel, and I went as passengers aboard a Belgium container ship of the ABC line. The Antwerpen―named for its home port―was a medium-sized vessel 600 feet long, carrying about 1000 truck-trailer sized containers.
We cruised for seven days across 3000 miles of ocean at the grand speed of fifteen knots―about 16 miles per hour. (Imagine traveling from New York to Los Angeles at that speed, without stopping, and you get an idea of our progress.)
The ship rocked gently from side-to-side, and we found it a pleasant rhythm for sleeping. But about two days out of port, we ran into rough weather that tossed the ship back and forth with somewhat greater vigor. I began to be concerned for our safety*. What if the ship should sink? I wondered. But at dinnertime the captain and crew showed no concern other than to keep their dishes from sliding down the table. So we relaxed and joined their jostling game of "catch my plate and hand it back."
The engine and the propeller vibrated the ship constantly, and everything that could rattle obliged without resistance. We wondered how the sailors could stand such a situation. But we soon got used to it as well.
Although the ship was a freighter with no entertainment provisions for passengers―other than a VCR―we had no lack of things to do. Joel and I enjoyed strolling the deck forward to watch the bow slice through the sea. We especially enjoyed the view of the bulbous nose that helped break water far beneath the surface. Awesome! We also marveled at how clear the water appeared. At the bow too, the wind pressed steadily against our faces. Since we were far from the engine, we felt no vibration at all. Blessed silence!
We enjoyed watching flying fish dart out of the water in front of us and literally fly for many seconds before diving back into their natural habitat. I timed one sea/air creature that flew for 30 seconds. That fish flew over 700 ft before submerging once more. Fantastic!
Andrew Young, 84, and his daughter Dobrey traveled with us. We made only a small effort to get acquainted with them, as both Martha and I felt shy. But Joel spent a lot of time with them and began to call them grandpa and grandma.
Land Ahoy! . . . Pitcairn
This was our first time at sea, and I tend to be paranoid at times. I began to sense the frailty of even so large a vessel as the Antwerpen when it plies the surface of the moody Pacific. Doubt wormed its way into my head. What if the engine should break down (in a storm!)? What if the propeller should drop off (such things have happened)? What if a tidal wave should strike the ship and roll it over?
So imagine the excitement and foreboding that struggled in my heart when we disembarked at Pitcairn. In the predawn blackness, we descended a 20-25 ft. rope-and-board "Jacob's" ladder. We were leaving a 600-foot ship and descending into a 39-foot longboat that was bobbing about atop 12-15 foot swells. Stepping aboard is somewhat like trying to get onto an elevator while it rises and then falls a story-and-a-half . . . only to rise again―several times every minute!
I thought at first that descending the Jacob's Ladder would be somewhat like descending a regular ladder. Not so. A ladder has stiff sides that give the climber lateral support. A Jacob's Ladder is made of rope and gives no support when you tug on it. An uneasy feeling gripped my heart: "It won't hold me; I'll fall off." But even though my limbs quivered, I took one step after another until the bobbing boat bounded up at me―too close for comfort.
I released the rope when Tom shouted "Let go!" and felt strong hands grasp my arms and torso. Immediately the boat dropped fifteen feet. Whew!
I sat down beside Martha amid a dozen others in the boat. They chatted amiably in a language we thought we should understand. We recognized many English words, but their conversations made no sense to us. We were listening for the first time to Pitcairnese―a language found only on this tiny island. It's a mixture of 18th century English and Tahitian. But when they talked with us they spoke fluent English.
Longboats are sturdy craft, and manned by some of the most experienced seamen in the world. But I couldn't help thinking: How frail the works of man when we brave the mighty ocean.
The boat did a crazy jig on the waves―up and down; side to side; end to end; and several variations in between. The continuous gyrations soon caused stuffy ears and a sensation of lightheadedness, a prelude to sea-sickness. Fortunately for me the motion-malady proceeded no further than mere discomfort.
When everyone had at last taken their place in the boat, the group sang two songs to the crew―"There's a Land that Is Fairer Than Day," and the Pitcairn "Goodbye" song written by Rosa Young who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Now one last song we'll sing,
Time moves on rapid wings,
And this short year will soon be past,
Will soon be gathered with the last;
So as we part to all we'll say,
Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye;
So as we part to all we'll say,
Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye.
Though the people sang parts, they lacked true harmony because some sang accompanying parts louder than those carrying the melody. And to American ears they sang too slowly. But something about the warmth of their voices overshadowed the supposed flaws that would otherwise have been irritating to me, and I felt an inner joy as they sang.
As the last notes faded into the night, the diesel engines roared to life. The sailors aboard the Antwerpen dropped the lines that secured the boats to the ship, and we edged away from the huge motor vessel.
I thought we were near the shore when we first arrived, but now the pin-points of light sparkling across the sea appeared much farther away. We learned later that the ship had drifted out to sea, and that we had to motor about 5 miles to reach our new home. During the 45 minute trip the sky began to lighten, signaling the coming of day. It would be a pleasant day for the sky was cloudless.
Just before we reached the mouth of the harbor, our boat paused for a few moments until the boatmen assured themselves that the waves were far enough apart to grant them time to enter safely. Engines roared and we surged forward, veered to the left as we rounded the end of the Jetty, and drew up at the landing. When I stepped up onto the cement walkway I sighed. Safely ashore at last!
The day? Sabbath.
The time? Seven a.m.
We'd been up all night. What a day! I thought. We surely do need a Sabbath rest.
I stood on shore and watched the islanders unloaded our cargo, and then pull the boats into the shed. Psalm 107 flitted into my mind as I contemplated the experience:
"They that go down to the sea in ships,
that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord,
and his wonders in the deep. . . .
Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness,
and for his wonderful works to the children of men!" (Psalm 107:23-31).
*The thoughts that I express throughout this chapter never really reached the "frightened" stage, let alone causing me panic. But they did give me pause.