Chapter 4

The New Boat . . .

From Tree to Sea

 

For months there had been talk about the need for a new longboat launch, but many feared that the island's 13 able-bodied men were too few in number to accomplish such a task. Over the years the Island Council had wisely assembled the planking and keel, along with other needed materials, for the time when a boat could be built.

Now the need for a new boat seemed urgent as the two aging vessels in service couldn't have much more life in them. For this reason, the council decided to go ahead with the project.

Soon afterwards I went with the men to cut timber for the new longboat. "The kind of wood we're looking for to make the ribs," Tom told me, "is from the Burau tree. We call it Pulauthe area where school is built was named Pulau because there's a lot of these trees there."

Charles overheard us and ambled up. "The wood is strong and tough but dries very light."

"See how light it is," put in Warren as he handed me a log that was three to four inches in diameter and about eight feet long. "That log can't weigh more than five or six pounds."

"Yes," returned Charles. "It's very nearly like Balsa wood."

The Burau leaf is heart shaped and people painted scenes on them for curios. They also used its bark for making grass skirts.

Behind the Coop building while several men gathered "sticks" (any size piece of wood), Tom sat in a tangled grove of Burau trees.

"Pastor," he said with a sad face. "All this place used to be inhabited. There was a house right here, (he pointed to the ground where he sat), and one over there (he pointed past me toward the sea), and another back there (he hooked his thumb over his shoulder back towards Vula's house). It seems so deserted now."

We collected several timbers from behind the store and then went on to a place near Ivan's house.

"Why don't we push this over with the tractor instead of cutting it down," suggested Steve. "I reckon we can do that," replied Jay as he headed for the tractor shed.

We waited about 20 minutes while Jay alternately pushed at the tree and then pulled it. Before it was over we had to hand-push the tractor out of the ditch it made with its front shovel. We never really felled the tree because at 4 p.m. we quit for the day. (They did pull the tree over the next day.)

As the work continued, the men didn't just cut any tree. They were after trees or limbs that had the curvature they needed for ribs or other timbers in the boat. When they found a limb that would fit their need, they cut it and removed all excess branches and twigs. When they had gathered a number of "ribs" they transported them to the tractor shed where they planned to build the boat.

We ranged over the whole island cutting Burau limbs wherever we found them. The number of limbs they needed was so great  that we even had to go down Tautama. (The boat took 175 naturally-curved timbers before it was finished)

The limbs gathered in the Tautama area had to be carried up the hill and across a tenuous trail to the road head where the tractor was waiting. The jaunt netted only a few ribs.

Two of the most important timbers in the boat were the bow stem and the stern post. The men decided on wood from the Rata tree because it is not only tough, but easy to work when it was green. These trees grew in large groves in the past but had been largely killed off by the Rose Apple tree―an arbor weed that is overgrowing the island.

Pitcairn men seem to have an almost limitless knowledge of their island habitat, and make mental note of trees they see that might be of future use. It was to one of these trees that the group trekked one Sunday morning. Gathering at High Point, we carried our tools and cameras along the ridge overlooking Ginger Valley. The ground literally dropped away on the left at better than a 60 degree angle, falling over a thousand feet before reaching the rocks at water's edge. The view almost hypnotized me, but I concentrated on following the leader down the ridge before me.

After trudging several hundred feet we left the trail, turned right and plunged down a steep hill through dense undergrowth. We shortly reached the tree of choice and about half of the men set their tools down in order to make a plan of attack on what was to become the bow stem. The other group continued on down the hill toward another tree that they would use for the stern post.

Most of the men sat around talking and commenting on the work, while the others began trimming off limbs and whatever wood they wouldn't use. Michael, 15, climbed into the tree with his axe and began to cut off a limb. He stood, barefooted, on the 4-5 inch limb and began swinging his razor-sharp instrument at the wood―between his feet!

"Better watch out for you're big toe," laughed Brian. But Michael finished his job without incident.

After cutting down the tree the men removed as much wood from the log as they could to make it lighter for transport to the tractor shed. They attached a rope to the "stick" and the entire crew began pulling it downhill. It didn't need much encouragement. Because of the steep angle it soon took on a life of its own and continued to slide for about 50 yards. The tractor driver brought his mount close enough to pull it to level ground and, after much straining of muscle, grunting, and sweating, the crew loaded it into the cage mounted on the rear of the vehicle.

(On the way up the Tedside road with the bow stem timber in the cage of the little blue tractor, Dennis ran into a mud bank. He tried 4 times to get by the oozy stuff before he made it. But then, about 25 feet beyond, the unbalanced tractor lifted up its nose, whirled to the left, and dropped its front left tire over the edge―a cliff that would have rolled the tractor a good 100 ft before it would have come to a stop. Dennis was white, but with that embarrassed grin he often wears. He got the tractor out by backing up and making a new start. Charles and I rode in the front scoop the rest of the way―more or less as ballast to balance the load.)

 

Ribs Rise in the Shed

Actual construction began in August of 1982the first new boat in 10 years. This was also the first time in the history of the island that a boat would be built indoors. The size of the project staggers the imagination when you remember that only 13 able-bodied men lived on the island at the time (excluding teacher and pastor).

An interesting aspect of the job was that the actual working plans existed, not on paper, but in the minds of various island craftsmen. And all the plans had significant differences one from another. The bow crew had an idea of the way the boat should turn out, while the stern crew saw it differently. It speaks well for craftsmanship and teamwork that the boat met in the middle and looked as though it had all been planned that way.

Longboat launches take a severe beating in their day-to-day use. Since Pitcairn has no safe harbor, the boats have to be towed up a steep concrete-and-steel incline into the boat house after each use. Then, when a ship stopped, the men wrestled the boats into Bounty Bay, and tied them side by side at the jetty for loadingas incoming waves ground them against each other with surprising force. (I accidentally caught my hand between them on one occasion, fracturing three fingers.)

When leaving the bay the boats had to climb over breakers that occasionally launched them skyward, sometimes almost clear of the wateronly to have their 5-6 ton hulks crash down onto the sea with a bone-jarring impact. Running the boats through rough seas often caused waves to pound against the bows with the punch of a pile-driver, and when the crew tied up alongside visiting ships, the boat bumped against steel plates as the swells rose and fell. (They used old tires as bumpers to minimize the damage.)

So Pitcairners endeavored to build their longboats tough enough to survive this punishment and remain afloat. For this reason all of the basic framing timbersbow stem, ribs, ties, gunwales (pronounced "GUN nels"), and stern postwere formed from naturally-bent wood to insure the greatest strength.

Work teams cut each timber to size with a chain saw, and then smoothed it by hand plane before nailing it to the keel. (Power planes arrived in the mail about half-way through the project, and greatly sped its completion). Some of the older men cut the ribs with their axes, just as their fathers had done before them.

After the builders nailed opposite ribs to the keel they tied them together at the keel with another naturally-bent timber so that the two ribs became as strong as though it were a single unit.

By the end of September the basic framing had been completed, and workmen began to cover the skeleton with planking. Kauri was the wood of choice, imported from Fiji. Though Kauri is hard and flexible, it presented problems during the planking because the 3/4-inch boards tended to fracture easily. So we had to use great care when clamping and nailing each piece, so as not to break it.

Each plank had to be clamped into place (some Pitcairner's say "cramped"), marked for size, removed from its place, cut, shaped with hand or power planes, and then re-clamped into place again. The boat-builders often went through this process several times before the board fit exactly. Only then could they drill holes and carefully secure the plank to the ribs with four-inch galvanized steel nails. It was not unusual for four or five men to consume two to four hours installing a single plank. Even with such care a plank would sometimes experience such uneven stress that it would suddenly breakmaking it necessary for the crew to begin the work all over again. (It happened to me once: embarrassment; mortification!)

Such frustrating work could bring discouragement, and sometimes it did for a moment or two. But Pitcairners have learned that "suffering produces perseverance" (Rom. 5:3). So they continued to work, looking forward to the day when this hulk that was fast becoming a longboat would carry them safely upon the waters of the moody Pacific.

 

A Completed Boat and the Descent to the Landing

By early December the new boat stood in the shed, essentially completed and painted with red, marine wood preservative. Everyone stood somewhat in awe at its size47 feet long and 11 feet across: the largest longboat ever built on Pitcairn.

"Will we be able to move the boat out of the shed without removing some of the roof supports?" asked Jay.

"Do you think it'll actually float?" grinned Dennis.

"I'm not worried about that," put in Charles, "but do you think it will be too large to maneuver around the rocks?"

Some men asserted their confidence on one side or another, while others maintained a wait-and-see attitude.

When the day came to transport the boat from the tractor shed down the Hill of Difficulty to the landing, the entire population turned out for the occasion. Every able-bodied man pushed, or pulled, or carried roll-pipes or skid-timbers, or tugged at ropes, or drove one of the tractors.

Inch by inch they rotated the boat in the shed, first moving it forward six to eight feet, then pulling the stern around toward the opening, and sliding it backwards out of the shed. At one point the boat shifted on its keel and leaned over against one of the 4x4 roof supports, fracturing it about eight feet above the ground. Everything halted for a few minutes while various options electrified many conversations. But the men finally decided to repair the broken support before completing the removal of the boat. When the vessel at last stood free of the shed, however, everyone breathed much more easily.

Chatter fluttered through the onlookers finding its perch wherever the vocally curious stood.

"Do you think the tractors can pull such a heavy load up this hill?" asked Loraine pointing to the short incline that led from the tractor shed to the main road?"

"Yes, they can," answered Carol. "But I wonder if the boat will begin to slide down the Hill [of Difficulty], capsize at the bend in the road, and fall over the edgetractors and all?" (Her husband Jay drove one of the tractors.)

"I don't think so," countered Dobrey. "But it might have some trouble making it around the sharp corners going down the hill."

The job proved less difficult than any had expected. One tractor pulled the boat while the other pushed it up the incline. Then the second tractor braked from behind as the procession proceeded down the steep hill to the landing. Sometimes the aft tractor had to push the boat's stern sideways to enable it to maneuver around the sharp bends in the road, but the boat reached the landing without mishap.

What a parade! The blue tractor led the way, pulling the boat like David leading Goliath on a leash, while the red tractor applied the necessary push and pull from behind. The mammoth bark was surrounded by men, sometimes walking beside her, but more often steadying here, pushing there, carrying pipes or skid-timbers from stern to bow, and shouting instructions that were more often ignored than heeded. The train continued as women and children, grandpas and grandmas, and visitors followed. Some carried cameras while others walked or rode their motorbikes or ATCs.

Moving the monster over the cement platform at the landing and into the bay proved a bit tricky. Before the craft could be put into the water, the men had to maneuver it up into the boat-house far enough so that it would lie in one of the steel launching channels. Inch by inch a dozen men wrestled the 6-ton craft across the concrete, up the incline, and finally into the troughwith the aid of roll-bars, levers, both tractors, and the diesel-powered boat-winch.

But at last, amid shouts of triumph, the boat slid down the slipway into Bounty Bay. Dozens of people swarmed over the new vessel as it lay alongside Longboat No. 4, which was in turn tied to the jetty. The engine had not yet been installed, so oars soon materialized from the boat shed, and the new boat moved under man-power toward open water.

But trouble arose before it passed the end of the jetty. In spite of the efforts of the eight men who tugged at the oars, the boat wouldn't go any further.

"Hey," shouted Terry, as he jogged toward the end of the jetty. "We forgot to untie the stern rope."

Alas, it was true. In the excitement someone had forgotten to untie the stern rope from the jetty! So amid laughter and blushing faces, the boat finally reached the open sea.

The crew of No. 4 fired up her engine, and presently drew alongside. Attaching a line to the new boat, they towed it through the water for a few minutes while those aboard checked for leaks and general handling characteristics. They were soon satisfied that everything worked well so, under oar-power again, they rowed back into the harbor and stowed her in the shed to await the arrival of the necessary parts for installing the motor.

Smiles on every face expressed pleasure at their success. A minor leak here and there, a slight pulling to starboard, and some minor adjustments were noted for fixing later. But on the whole, the boat was a triumph of individual and collective engineeringa tribute to the noble race who have survived against all odds on tiny Pitcairn.

 

The Winner!

Pitcairners take pride in their accomplishments as much as anyone else. So on May 11, 1983, most islanders showed up down at the landing for the sea trials of the new longboat. The hull of the boat, finished in December, now had its engine and a new coat of paint. At last The New Boat was completed and ready to cruise.

The launching procedure went without a hitch as the boat slid backwards down the iron channel and into the bay. In fact, those who pushed it down the slipway had difficulty keeping up, and most of them quit before they reached the slippery, algae-covered lower ramp.

Boat No. 4 already lay beside the jetty as the men jockeyed The New Boat into position so that its bow pointed toward the harbor outlet. Then they tied it to No. 4, ready for its first sea journey. (The designation, The New Boat seemed, at the time, to be its unofficial name. Later it was dubbed Stickas opposed to Tin which became the name of the first aluminium [British spelling] boat.)

The island engineering staff worked for about 30 minutes putting the new motor through its starting paces, as this was the first opportunity they'd had to run it for any length of time. Unlike the air-cooled engines in Longboats No. 3 and No. 4, the new motor was water-cooled. So the boat had to be in the water whenever the engine is run for more than a few minutes.

When the engineers had satisfied themselves that the motor operated according to specification, they invited the restless crowd aboard. For the sea trials the men launched two craft so that if any trouble did develop, the passengers could be taken off The New Boat and brought safely ashore. Some chose to ride in The New Boat, while others preferred not to hazard such an experience and boarded No. 4 instead.

Everyone fidgeted through the tense moments while the watchman scanned the seas, waiting for a lull in the breakers. When the prime moment came he gave the signal and the engine roared into life, propelling the new longboat through the harbor mouth and out to seawith hardly a bounce from the waves. No. 4 followed quickly in its wake.

Once at sea everyone marveled at the strength of the waves. Large swells rolled in from the east, and the water surface was choppy. No. 4 followed The New Boat at a great distance and got further behind when Allen (the New Zealand teacher) caught a fish on his trolling line. So No. 4 came to a stop while he landed a medium-sized King Fish (of the Tuna family).

As The New Boat breezed towards Adam's rock Martha lost her cap. Len immediately swung hard to starboard, and for a minute all aboard thought they would come to grief on one of the nearby rocks. But Len skillfully maneuvered his craft amidst the boulders, and retrieved the soggy cap.

No. 4, again under way after Allen's catch, now trailed far astern as The New Boat headed east toward St. Paul's. Both boats pounded into heavy seas and the dense, wind-blown spray drenched the passengers in No.4 within minutes. But because the angle of The New Boat's hull sent the spray far enough away from its sides, its occupants remained comparatively dry.

As The New Boat rounded St. Paul's point and headed for Tautama, Allen caught another fish, so No. 4 stopped again, this time within a stones-throw of the Pillars. This fish was twice the size of the other, and Allen had considerable difficulty getting it aboard. Meanwhile the angry seas splashed into his boat, sopping everyone to the skin.

By this time The New Boat had already rounded Tautama, fully a mile ahead, and No. 4 gave chase. Len must have eased up on the throttle of The New Boat, for No. 4 pulled up alongside by the time he drew opposite Ginger Valley. For several magnificent minutes the two launches skimmed the quiet seas in the island's lee side by side. What a sight! The New Boat rode the waves with marvelous grace.

Both longboats stopped at the Northern Lights yacht which had anchored off Christian's Point. Some of the passengers in No. 4 took this opportunity to crawl over into The New Boat before getting under way again.

Skirting the point, the two diesel-powered vessels cavorted in the Western Harbor for a time before passing Matt's rocks on the homeward stretch. Bow-to-bow less than three yards apart, they raced for home, splashing each other as they bounded over the rolling waves. But from the start The New Boat held first place, pulling easily away from No. 4.

Safely back in Bounty Bay, everyone smiled with pride at the successful journey. And though some spoke more conservatively than others, all agreed that The New Boat ranked among the best ever built on Pitcairn.

(Throughout the trials cameras clicked, and videos recorded the action. Brian stayed ashore throughout, speeding from one high point to another on his ATC to make shore-side video recordings of The New Boat from various locations. The crew of the Northern Lights also recorded the event.)

Chapter 5