High Seas and the
Supply-ship day fell on Sabbath, and we expected the vessel to reach us about 8 a.m. We canceled church services for the day, as every available person would be needed to off-load the 20-30 tons of cargo from the ship.
As we surveyed the seas we knew they wouldn't cooperate with us. Winds gusted to nearly 50 knots and choppy swells topped 20 feet, sporting whitecaps on their bonnets.
When the ship broke the horizon, it appeared different than any we'd ever seen before. At a distance it resembled a square-rigger with its sails rolled up. I fetched our binoculars and peered at it for a long time. As it drew nearer we understood why we'd been confused: the ship had three tall booms on deck, one each fore and aft, and one amid-ship.
The Hemskerkracht had been built to carry heavy cargo―steel, ore, bulk solids―and measured in as one of the smallest supply ships we'd seen. She didn't take kindly to the wild seas either: she pitched and rolled wildly on the tempest.
I'd have been tempted to send her on, hoping for more languid seas on the return trip. But cargo not off-loaded immediately has been known to disappear and Pitcairners feel loathe to let a supply ship pass if they can get any of the cargo at all.
"We'll try it," seemed to be the general feeling. "If it's too rough, we'll just have to hope for the best next time."
The men launched the longboats and tied them together at the landing. Even in the comparative shelter of the harbor, the craft bobbed wildly about. Gear stowed, and crew aboard, the coxswain** waited for a signal from the lookout at the end of the jetty. If the boats surged ahead at just the right time, they could leave port without charging over a breaker. So signalmen needed to be acquainted with the rhythms of the sea in order to give the best call.
On this day there could be no best call. As Longboat No. 3 rounded the end of the jetty and made for open water she climbed headlong over a comber, which thrust her all but clear of the water. With a bone-jarring "THUD" six tons of longboat, with its gear and crew, slammed onto the water again. A few minutes later, Longboat No. 4 repeated the scenario.
Hemskerkracht drifted without power about a mile out to sea. The choppy, mountainous swells pitched the longboats wildly as they climbed skyscrapers of water only to slither down their other sides. Passengers grasped tightly whatever they could find to keep from being thrown into the frothing sea as the boat did its erratic ballet toward the ship.
After what seemed an eon, the boats drew alongside the ship and tied up to the ropes dropped to them by the crew. The ship looked even smaller as they lay beside her. Leaving part of the crew to steady the boats, the others climbed the swinging Jacob's ladder to the deck.
"I don't know how much we'll get ashore today," hesitated Tom. "That's a murderous sea."
Ivan Christian, the magistrate, climbed the stairs to the bridge to contact the captain on behalf of Pitcairn Island. He made arrangements to release the cargo, and then remained on the bridge to advise the chief officer about the off-loading of freight.
The Hemskerkracht had only two cranes, each rated at 25 tons. Their engines and gears had been designed to lift heavy cargo at dockside, and moved at a snail's pace as they lifted cargo from the hold. In quiet waters this would cause no difficulty. But with the ship pitching about like a leaf in the rapids, it seemed impossible.
One of the first items to emerge from the bowels of the ship was a new ATC―all-terrain cycle―still in its crate. It swayed somewhat as it cleared the deck, but began to swing about wildly on the end of the line―like a yo-yo on a string. Hoping to stop the motion the crane operator hoisted it higher. But the higher he raised it, the more wildly it gyrated, until it swung uncontrollably in horizontal circles several stories above the sea. At that point no one believed that the owner of that cycle would ever ride it on Pitcairn!
But to everyone's delight, the ATC finally settled enough so it could be lowered into a longboat, as did two-dozen drums of diesel fuel. Every person aboard felt drained of all energy, and the captain agreed to pull off the island and wait until the next day. "Perhaps the sea will be better," he said.
Pulling away from the Hemskerkracht, the longboats motored slowly toward Bounty Bay. The weight of the boats steadied them somewhat, but they still danced about on the heavy seas. As Longboat No. 4 crested the razor-edge of one wave it dropped down the other side so quickly that it left the crew and cargo weightless for a moment. I had been sitting atop one of the fuel drums that were stacked like cord-wood in the belly of the boat and became a small mountain that rose above the gunwales by almost three feet. The sudden weightlessness left both me and the drum briefly suspended in midair. We both crashed into place again, and I nearly caught my finger between drums as I fought to keep from being tossed overboard.
"You'd better get down from there," chided Jay, an amused smile tugging at the corners of his lips. "It's a bit dangerous sitting on those drums."
I got down.
When the boats reached the mouth of the harbor the engineers put the propellers in neutral while we waited for a opportune time to enter. A lookout on board surveyed the seas astern to watch the swell pattern. He hoped to find a trough wide enough so that our boat could slip in without a breaker creeping up from behind. Such a situation could lift the rudder out of the water and turn the longboat into a giant surfboard with no way for the coxswain to control it. The wave could then drive the boat, and all of us, onto the rocks on the far side of the harbor. People have gotten killed that way!
The crew waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Twenty-five minutes. The lookout at last felt he'd found the wave pattern he wanted.
"Full ahead!" shouted the coxswain.
The engine roared to life. No one tensed (except me), for this was a common occurrence for those who've spent so much time on the sea. The boat gathered speed while the lookout watched the building of the swell behind us. They still had time to abort if necessary.
The boat passed the point of no return and roared past the end of the Jetty as the tiller man steered hard left. One of the crew threw a coil of rope to a man on the pier and he quickly wrapped it around a steel piling.
"Full astern!" shouted the coxswain.
The engineer shifted gears in an instant, and the propeller reversed direction. The rope stretched taut―and held. The craft slowed to a stop just as the next breaker pounded into the harbor. Crewmen sprang from the longboat and quickly tied the bow cord to the forward pile. The longboat lay safe―securely tied to the Jetty.
The wait for Longboat No. 3 lasted equally as long, but finally it too sprang for the harbor, gathering speed as the boat advanced. But as the tiller tried to turn the boat left into the tiny harbor, the stern rose on the following wave lifting the rudder out of the water. The man almost fell overboard with the sudden slack of the rudder control arm. The boat surfed toward the rocks, and everyone on board stiffened for the blow. At what seemed the last second, the rudder bit the water again, and the boat lunged to the left.
"Full Astern!" cried the coxswain, but the engineer had become so excited by the imminent disaster that he mistakenly rammed the throttle to "full ahead." The boat lurched forward, side-swiped Longboat No. 4 as it lay at its berth, and then rammed head-on into the end of the concrete ramp―where it came to an abrupt stop.
Dennis looked over the side at the place where the boat had brushed No. 4. "The boat's stove," (has a hole in it) he called, his excitement beginning to subside.
After inspecting the boat, the crew knew that even if the weather calmed, No. 3 couldn't go back to sea. Later they had to spend several days repairing the damage.
Oddly enough, when the Hemskerkracht returned six months later, the seas around Pitcairn were as stormy as they'd been on her first visit. Again, the men could only retrieve one load. The rest of the cargo sailed away with the ship, never to be seen again.
*Some parts of this story happened on other supply-ship days, but have been included here to emphasize the difficulties and dangers Pitcairners face as they seek to survive on their remote island.
**Pronounced "COX-in." He acts as captain; leader of the boat.