PERIL AT PITCAIRN ISLAND
"We're sinking!" shouted Magnus over the storm. "The bilge pump has stopped working, and water is filling the boat!"
I glanced at the knot of people clustered around the engine house at the stern of our 47-foot open longboat. Thirty-foot, white-capped waves towered all around, tossing us violently about while 50-mile-an-hour gusts whipped salt spray into our faces.
"Come away from the bow!" yelled one of the crew as he waved us back with his arm. "Hurry!"
Our weight was pressing the bow too low into the sea, causing it to drive into the mountainous swells. So we clamored aft over drums of fuel, a stack of plywood, boxes, and boards―all covered with yellow canvas―being careful not to break one of Brian Young's new windows.
As I crawled carefully down the port side, I noticed that the water line nearly reached the gunwales (pronounced GUN els). I settled atop the plywood, next to Carol Warren, and rested my feet on a side bench, while sea water cascaded over the side, soaking my shoes.
SUNDAY MORNING―May 15, 1983―had dawned windy and clear on Pitcairn Island, located midway between South America and New Zealand. We expected a ship to bring supplies from the United States about sundown, but high seas caused many islanders to doubt that we could safely exit from stormy Bounty Bay. As island pastor, I called a prayer meeting and read Psalm 107: 23-31―God's promise of divine protection for those who "go down to the sea in ships." Several Pitcairners prayed, and then we separated to prepare for the evening.
At 4:30 p.m. the village bell rang five times―the traditional signal proclaiming the sighting of a ship. The steep road down to the jetty soon bristled with people, some on foot, others on motorbikes or three-wheelers, each carrying baskets of hand-crafted curios to sell to the ship's crew.
Pitcairn's population has dwindled in recent years, until now only 60 people inhabit this isolated semi-tropical paradise―only 14 able-bodied men. Usually they take only two hand-made wooden launches out to meet a ship, but this day they planned to put three boats to sea because they expected more cargo than usual. Then too, the men had launched the newest and largest boat only a week before, and they simply wanted to try it out.
THE CHEMICAL TANKER, STOLT SINCERITY soon arrived― operated by Stolt-Nielsen Co., of Greenwich, Connecticut. The ship was one of several vessels of that line which carry limited cargo without charge as a good-will service for remote Pitcairn. We tied our boats to ropes dropped us by the ship's crew, scrambled up the board-and-rope ladder onto deck and went to work. The women sold curios while we began off-loading supplies.
The SINCERITY pitched and rolled in the heavy seas while our boats rose and fell on the swells―about 20 feet three or four times every minute. This oceanic ballet frustrated the crane operator, who had to lower 60 drums of diesel fuel into the longboats without punching holes in their bottoms or crushing the men who worked in them. The intense struggle required four-and-a-half nerve-racking hours to complete. We off-loaded other cargo more quickly―100 sheets of plywood, 100 boxes of groceries, and many small items. We tied ropes around each package and lowered it―hand over calloused hand―over the ship's rail and into our boats. By half-past midnight our weary people were ready to disembark.
Since Pitcairn has no harbor, and Captain Skog was unable to anchor on account of the violent seas, he had to let her drift. Twice he had maneuvered back to the vicinity of the island, but by departure time we had drifted about six miles southwest from the two-square-mile rock we called home.
WHEN OUR BOATS CLEARED THE SINCERITY we faced a "force-8 gale" that threatened to swamp us. I stood at the bow of the new boat with our teacher, New Zealander Allen Cox, listening to the purr of the engine, and reminiscing about the months I'd spent helping build this craft. She rode well, even in those vicious seas, climbing one wave as high as a three-story building, and swaggering down the other side―only to climb the next.
We chatted while we basked in the power of the angry deep, while each of us anticipated the dry sheets and warm blankets of home. At this moment Magnus, a visiting yachtsman from Sweden, had interrupted our reverie by announcing that our boat was sinking.
AFTER WE HAD TAKEN SAFE POSITIONS near the engine house, I listened to the excited voices of the crew, and watched Clarice Brown flash an "SOS" with a spot-light. Terry Young scrambled forward to retrieve the walkie-talkie from the bow-house, but he tried in vain to reach someone on shore. No help lay nearby either, for the storm had separated us from the others.
I was startled at first by our predicament. We bobbed about in an open, heavily-loaded boat, which carried about 15 people, and was taking on large quantities of water. We were still two or three miles from land, heading into a 50-mile-hour wind and into a strong current. We had no life jackets or life boat, and if we lost our launch now we could never swim ashore. If we did manage to stay afloat, the current would carry us 4000 miles before we reached land. We had only one bailing bucket and a plastic bag: not much when the boat shipped a couple of tons of water.
I felt helpless at first, for I knew little about sailing or the sea. But even though I was sea-sick and shivering as the autumn wind tugged at my spray-soaked rain gear, I summoned those near me for a short prayer during a lull in the activity. I asked for God's help, and then placed ourselves into His hands.
Could this be our last night on earth? I wondered. As I prayed silently for myself and for others, I felt a peace flood over my mind. I thanked God that He and I had experienced such a good life together, and asked His forgiveness for all my stupid mistakes. By faith I felt assured that He had accepted me, and so I prayed for my family and for others in the boat.
A RED FLARE PIERCED THE DARKNESS FAR ASTERN, revealing that another boat also floundered in the storm. What a pickle! We were fighting for our own lives, and now others needed our help! If we drove hard for land we might make it, but if we turned out to sea again to save our brothers, our own chances would probably disappear.
Our crew overlooked their own frustrations, and gave up their race for survival in favor of trying to rescue those in greater peril. The helmsman steered hard to port, and we headed back out to sea at full throttle. After about 15 minutes we came upon struggling longboat No. 4.
The three men in that ancient craft not only had water coming in over the sides but also through cracks that were forming between the planks. The bailer, 60-year-old Jacob Warren, was near exhaustion. We didn't dare maneuver our boat in close enough to transfer crew, for the wild waves would have smashed the hulls together, making splinters of them both.
Steve Christian shouted from our boat, "Dump your diesel!" wanting them to throw some cargo overboard to lighten ship. (Terry and Meralda had already jettisoned about 1 1/2 drums of fuel from our cargo.) But the storm garbled Steve's message, and No. 4's Coxswain (COX in) Jay Warren, Jacob's son, thought he'd said "Pump more diesel." So he had engineer Dennis Christian rev the engine, and they roared for land at top speed―a risky measure in such high seas, for the bow could slice into a high wave and swamp the launch. We turned around to follow them, but at a much slower pace, and they soon disappeared into the darkness ahead.
When we turned back, I noticed that our sides stood much higher out of the water. The engine continued to purr―a reassuring sound to us whose lives depended on it―and Pitcairn Island grew slowly in size until it filled our entire horizon. The sea became calm when we reached the lee of the island, and to our amazement we found No. 4 safely anchored in that sheltered spot.
JAY TOLD ME LATER that within 30 seconds of gunning the engine his boat had reached the still water of the island's lee. We marveled, as we compared stories, for the new launch had consumed nearly an hour in traveling the same distance.
"Our crew's unselfish rescue attempt saved our lives," reckons Jay's wife, Carol. "While we headed west to go help them, we were running with the wind and the waves. During all that time our boat didn't take on any more water, so it gave our bailers time to catch up."
Our hearts filled with joy at the new life God had granted us. He had once again fulfilled His promise to bring us to our desired haven. "Oh that men would praise the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men." (Psalm 107:31).
(For epilogue to the story, see Only Two Square Miles, chapter 9)