BUILDING A NEW LONGBOAT

 

The men of Pitcairn began building a new longboat in August of 1982the first new one in 10 years. 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), and that the actual working plans existed, not on paper, but in the minds of the various island craftsmen. And each had, to a certain extent, his own idea of what the boat should become.

Longboats take a severe beating in their day-to-day use. Since Pitcairn has no safe harbor, the boats must be towed up a steep concrete-and-steel incline into the boat house after each use. Then, when a ship stops, the men wrestle the boats into Bounty Bay, and tie them side by side at the jetty for loading, as incoming waves grind 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 must climb over breakers that launch them skyward, sometimes almost clear of the wateronly to have their 5-6 ton hulks (empty) crash down onto the sea with a bone-jarring impact. Running the boats through rough seas often causes waves to pound against the bows with the punch of a pile-driver, and when they tie up alongside visiting ships, they bump against steel plates as the swells rise and fall.

So Pitcairners endeavor 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, and stern-postare formed from naturally-bent wood to insure the greatest strength.

To find the right "sticks", as Pitcairners call them, the men tramped the slopes and canyons of Pitcairn for days, hunting for trees that were shaped to the proper bends. They chose Rata wood for the bow-stem and stern-post because it is not only tough, but easy to work when green. Burauknown locally as Pulauwas chosen for the ribs, because it dries light and tough. (The location of the school takes its name from the large number of these trees that grow in that area.) By the time the boat was completed the men would use 175 naturally-curved timbers in its construction.

After the timbers had been cut, they were carried by tractor to the maintenance shed at the Edgeoverlooking picturesque Bounty Baywhere the boat took shape. 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 speeded up its completion). Then they tied each pair of ribs together with another naturally-bent timber so that the two ribs became a single unit.

By the end of September the basic framing had been completed, and the men began to cover the skeleton with planking. Kauri wood, imported from Fiji, was chosen for its hardness and flexibility. But problems arose during the planking because the 3/4-inch boards tended to fracture easily. So the men 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 (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 men usually 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. And then it might suddenly break at some stress-point, making it necessary for the crew to begin the work all over again.

Such frustrating work could bring discouragement, and sometimes it did for a moment or two. But Pitcairners have learned that "tribulation worketh patience," (Rom. 5:3). So they continued to work cheerfully, 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.

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.

In customary conservative style various groups discussed such important questions as: Would they be able to move the boat out of the shed without removing some of the roof supports? Would it actually float? Would it be too large to maneuver on the open sea? Some asserted their confidence on one side or another, while others maintained a wait-and-see attitude.

When the day came for transporting 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, and pulled, and carried roll-pipes or skid-timbers, and 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 leaned over against one of the roof supports, breaking it about eight feet above the ground. Everything halted for a few minutes while various options electrified many conversations. But the men finally repaired 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.

Tongues wagged on every side discussing the various problems yet to be faced: Could the tractors pull such a heavy load up the short incline that led from the tractor shed to the main road? Would the boat begin to slide down the Hill of Difficulty, and fall over the edgetractors and all? Could such a long vessel be made to turn the sharp corners it would encounter on its way down the hill?

The job proved less difficult than they had expected. One tractor pulled, while the other alternately pushed on the incline, and 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, old people and visitors followed, some carrying cameras, others walking or riding bikes 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. Alas, 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.