Travelogue 4: Pitcairn and outliers (13 July 09)
On leaving Easter Island after another tiresome inspection by the Chilean Navy and International Police, we encountered
doldrum-like weather – hardly any wind – for several days and had to motor more than we wanted, using fuel that would be
impossible to replenish for around 2000 nm. We spent the Fourth of July drifting, making little headway towards our next
port, Pitcairn, but having now opportunity for baking bread and accomplishing other chores that are difficult with the poor
footing offered by the greater motion of peppier weather.
Pitcairn was about 1200 nm away, and under normal conditions we should have made it there in about a week, but our slow
advance – hardly more than walking speed for several days – and a couple of diversions drew this leg of our voyage out to
almost two weeks. The diversions were two island dependencies of Pitcairn: Henderson Island and Ducie atoll. Both of
these places are uninhabited, Ducie never having permanent residents, only the occasional shipwrecked sailor, while
Henderson was colonized by Polynesians around 900 AD, with the colony later dying out sometime before European
discovery. We had read about these places – some of the most remote islands in the non-arctic world -- and as they were
more or less on our path we decided to at least skirt them, anchor if we could, and if very lucky, go ashore.
First was Ducie, a low-lying atoll made up of a barrier reef, some islets (or “motus” in several Polynesian dialects) around the
north and western sides, and a lagoon in the middle. Our charts showed a boat passage on the southwest side that leads
across the barrier reef into the lagoon, so after reconnoitering the shore a bit, we anchored on the south side with a nice
north wind of about 15 knots blowing us offshore in case our anchor didn’t hold. We used our binoculars to search for the
alleged nearby boat passage so that we could enter the lagoon in our inflatable dinghy but found nothing but very
intimidating rollers and breakers everywhere. Even after a search in our dinghy we could not locate the boat passage and
found only big white seas smashing over the barrier reef with spume and spray 20 feet high in places. We contented
ourselves with our first snorkeling since leaving Valdivia, 3500 nm and more than a month back. I took along one of our new
spearguns and managed to bring back a nice grouper that we consumed for lunch. The surge near the barrier reef was quite
strong and made movement in any direction difficult, and retrieval of the grouper from a small chasm a good challenge.
Later aboard Anna, I got out our strongest binoculars – 14 power and stabilized -- and scoped out the shoreline as well as I
could through the roaring surf. To a certain degree, I wish I hadn’t, for instead of seeing a pristine beach I saw the most
trashed-out one I’ve ever had the misfortune to lay eyes upon. From just above the surf line to the line of the thick
vegetation, there were yellow plastic tubs, white plastic buoys, red plastic containers, blue plastic barrels, and numerous
shiny objects that I took for glassware. And this was everywhere – I would estimate a piece of trash every 10 square yards.
The unpleasant realization then came to me that uninhabited islands are trashier than inhabited ones because there is no
one there to pick up all the plastic and other human flotsam that has drifted ashore, and instead it all just accumulates.
I am sure that Ducie must also have reeked of guano because it was the home of many thousands of birds, mostly dark-
colored terns as far as my non-trained eyes could tell, but also frigatebirds soaring high in the sky, and some sort of white or
partially white birds that skimmed the surface of the sea like the terns.
We spent the night at that anchorage with the constant roar of the nearby breakers keeping us watchful all night long. The
next morning two of us went scuba diving. Whereas the area near the barrier reef where we had gone snorkeling the day
before had lots of chasms in the coral, the hundred yards or so back where we were anchored in 40 feet of water was
relatively level, with low-lying coral extending out in all directions. At first sight the coral seemed pale, maybe even washed-
out, but on getting down to depth and seeing it up close it was more colorful and thicker than I originally thought, and while
we didn’t find great schools of beautiful reef fish we did find the usual colorful array, as well as white-tipped reef sharks,
moray eels, and even giant clams.
On leaving Ducie rather than heading directly to Pitcairn we determined to go a bit out of our way to Henderson Island,
even though the north winds and rolling seas would probably not allow us even to anchor, much less go ashore, since the
best anchorage is on the north side of the island with deep waters just offshore. Henderson is not an atoll like Ducie, but a
regular island with a steep shoreline about 50 feet high increasing in the interior to about twice that height. It is also rather
large, about 35 square miles, and dense with trees and vegetation. On our approach we knew instantly that we would only
be passing by because of the waves crashing onto the shore, so we used our binocs to observe the north shore as best we
could and noted tens of caves in the steep cliffs. According to what I read, these caves were where the Polynesians largely
lived, and when an archaeologist from New Zealand studied the island he found their skeletal remains and artifacts in many
caves, as well as those of some shipwrecked sailors in one. We also noted some palm trees in two places along the little
beach area available on the island and, again from what I read, these stands of palm were likely planted by the Polynesian
colonists, although there is the possibility that coconuts floated there. We saw little trash as most of the shore is a wall of
rock straight up, but we did notice a few pieces along the small beach we saw. The Pitcairners, we understand, make trips
to Henderson to harvest a special wood, miro, that they use for carving, and land at that beach.
The major problem of colonization at Henderson Island was the lack of a good source of fresh water – there is, by the way,
absolutely no freshwater on Ducie – with only a spring along the shore available at low tide. Also apparently the trees are
not the sort one can make canoes from, nor is the rock good for toolmaking. The big attractions, on the other hand, were the
immense reserves of shellfish, including lobster, as well as seabirds as on Ducie. The archaeologists theorize that when
trade among Henderson and Pitcairn and Mangareva ended with the destruction of the forests on Mangareva around 1400,
the few dozen colonists at Henderson were left to die out, like an endangered species incapable of adapting to a changing
We continued on and ultimately reached Pitcairn. It is a high, mountainous island with the highest point about 1100 feet,
and very rich soils and lush vegetation, but with less than one-tenth the overall area of Henderson. It was originally settled
by Polynesians around the same time as Henderson, and was prized for its obsidian and other rock resources. Pitcairn also
suffered the collapse and elimination of its first civilization about the same time as Henderson lost its. Then in 1790, after
Fletcher Christian led a band of mutineers to take over HMAS (the “A” for armed) Bounty under the command of Captain
William Bligh, it was re-settled by many of those same mutineers plus some Polynesians they had captured in Tahiti and
forced to accompany them, especially women. There have been some accretions to the population from shipwrecked
sailors over the years, and the island has had an up and down history since. Many Pitcairners now live in New Zealand, and
there are a few non-natives, New Zealanders mostly, living on Pitcairn. The total population is 55 with the latest baby being
born in 2007. Pitcairn is now the only dependency of Great Britain in the Pacific.
There is no real bay at Pitcairn – indeed that is why Fletcher Christian chose it as the lack of an easy landing spot would not
attract others, especially His Majesty’s Royal Navy. Supposedly the first ship sighted by the new settlers on Pitcairn after their
landing in 1790 was in 1805 – and then the ship just passed by. It was only in 1815 that the first ship – an American whaler
– landed a party, and they stayed only ten hours. It was not an easy place for us to come ashore, either, and we had to time
our approach on the back of a breaker and then inside the tiny breakwater make a hard left, and once there still a wave
rounded the corner, picked up our stern and slammed us into a truck tire used as a fender along the concrete breakwater.
Had we been in a wooden dinghy rather than an inflatable, we would have definitely damaged her.
We had arranged earlier by radio for our arrival and were met there at the landing by local authorities who were a New
Zealand police officer, the medical officer (also a Kiwi) who took our temperatures as a precaution against H1N1 influenza,
and the immigration officer, Brenda Christian, a local. They charged us US$30 per person to come ashore. Brenda gave us
a briefing on the sights around Adamstown, the only settlement, and told us to call her on the radio if we would like her to
show us around the more distant parts of the island. We walked up the considerable hill to the main road, the only paved
one, and soon stopped by the quaint general store and met Stephen Christian, the manager, and another local, Ken, then
continued to the square where the church (Adventist), the island offices, the post office, and the museum are all located, all
of which we visited. In the post office my crewmen, John and Dale, bought postcards and stamps, and upon filling out
postcards for delivery were informed that they would not be sent out until the supply ship arrived in September, over two
months away. Because of its small, mountainous nature, Pitcairn has no airstrip, so it is only accessible by sea. The
postmaster even asked me if I would mail an envelope from him to a German stamp collector when we reached French
Polynesia, and I assented. At the museum we met the curator, 24 years old, who showed us their small but interesting
collection and told us some unusual facts, like that he was descended from a mutineer on his mother’s side, and on his
father’s side a survivor of an American whaler shipwrecked in the 1880s about 75 nm away on the atoll of Oeno who made it
with other survivors to Pitcairn in a small boat. Everyone we saw wore shorts and, we noticed, slipped off their shoes before
entering a building. The natives were a curious mix of European and Polynesian, some more of this or more of that. They
usually travel to New Zealand to find spouses.
After the visit to the hub of the island we continued down a trail shaded by massive banyan trees, planted by the original
Polynesians, that led to Christian’s Cave. Dale was feeling weak from an upset stomach he had suffered so he and John
remained behind as I climbed the fairly short but steep and difficult path on loose rock to a tall but shallow cave favored by
Fletcher Christian to brood and watch for the British Navy ships he was certain were searching for him. He was murdered, by
the way, within four years of arriving at Pitcairn in unclear circumstances as the mutineers and their Tahitian captives
engaged in a civil war, more or less. There was also a cemetery on a nearby path that surprisingly had no old graves, and
public vegetable gardens where a friendly elderly lady was picking wild beans. After exchanging pleasantries, she loaded
her baskets and zipped off on a four-wheeler, which is the only type of vehicle we saw and certainly the most suitable
vehicle to negotiate the steep earthen paths that lead around the island.
On return to Adamstown we used the public marine-type radio located at the square to call Brenda Christian and inquire
about a tour. She said she would fetch us on her four-wheeler in two trips and take us first to her house for lunch and later on
a tour. While waiting for her on the second trip, I met the Adventist preacher, Dave, who happened by on his four-wheeler, a
very outgoing, chuckling sort who uses Powerpoint presentations instead of the normal oral-only sermon. (I had taken a photo
earlier of the inside of the church and, sure enough, there was a large projection screen in the front of the sanctuary.)
Brenda lives up high and away from Adamstown with her husband, Mike Lupton, an Englishman and the island’s auditor,
whom it turns out we had met in the Post Office earlier. They are near me in age, I would guess. Besides acting as Pitcairn’
s immigration officer, Brenda is also a police officer. She is strongly Polynesian in appearance and goes barefoot
everywhere and often wears a knife for cutting open the many sorts of fruit that stand along the side of the paths throughout
the island. On tour with her later, she stopped her four-wheeler and in the blink of an eye bounded up an orange tree and
began picking and dropping oranges down. These oranges had to be peeled with a knife but were more intensely sweet
than the ones we buy in the markets in the US. Later Brenda loaded us down with a cornucopia of local fruits and
vegetables, and now we have hanging in our workshop area aboard the boat a bunch of about 30 bananas, most still unripe,
and have re-stocked our larder with cucumbers and eggplant and lettuce and oranges and even passionfruit, which John
and I both have come to love. Brenda does most of the gardening while Mike is a beekeeper, a couple of jars of whose
honey we also procured.
The tour of the island consisted of Brenda, John and a 7-year-old boy on a four-wheeler, and Mike and I on another (Dale,
wanting to rest, did not come). They first took us to the far east end of the island called St. Paul’s where there is an amazing
pair of rock towers that serve as sentinels over a sizable natural pool of shallow turquoise water, with the ocean crashing in
and over the lava barrier that separates the pool from the sea. We also saw at Down Rope (the name of which explains the
only way to access the area in the early days of the mutineers’ settlement) the large obsidian and basalt quarries favored by
the original stone-age inhabitants which is on the south side, as well as the highest point on the island located on the west
side of the island, from where we saw a whale spouting water in the ocean below. And quite impressively to me, Brenda in
her bare feet scampered over the terribly jagged lava rock at these sites as if she was wearing army boots. She is tough and
nimble like no woman I have ever seen, and goes out on the fishing boats, even has her own small one, knows all about the
other islands from fishing there, and has a framed gory photo in her home of her lying in a fishing boat with a harpoon
jabbed into her foot and a man with cable cutters preparing to extract it. Yet, for all that, Brenda is definitely female with
flowing Polynesian hair and performs all the domestic functions including baking bread and preparing all the meals. Mike
was recovering from back surgery and was not as nearly as frisky.
During the tour, from a lookout about a thousand feet over our boat at anchor below, we noticed that the wind had changed
and now was coming from the east, our favored direction since we were headed west, so we determined that we would take
advantage and sail from Pitcairn that evening. Before leaving, though, we re-visited the store and saw and met more of the
locals, a friendly, happy bunch, eager to visit with us outsiders. Even at the store the patrons removed their shoes at the
After loading the dinghy with our produce haul and store-bought goods, we reluctantly said goodbye to Mike and Brenda
and then, after waiting for a gap in the oncoming breakers, gunned the engine on our inflatable and made a perfect
departure from the precarious landing, although we later got wet when waves crashed over us on the way out to Anna,
anchored nearby. We departed just at sunset and as we sailed away with the smooth following seas, we could look back for
miles and miles and see the dark hulk of the island, and a few lights. I really liked Pitcairn and rather regret leaving it.
But on a sour note, Pitcairn is notorious for a sex abuse scandal involving many of the men taking advantage of young girls.
A schoolteacher discovered the abuse which ultimately led to the conviction of a large percentage of the adult male
population and the disclosure of a long-practiced tradition. The men were given rather light sentences and, since last
December, all are now free. Brenda as a police officer had to investigate and even serve warrants on members of her own
family, including her father and brothers (Mike was not involved). Several previous preachers – the present jolly soul was not
on the island at the time -- were even involved. All but two of the victims have moved off-island with most vowing never to
raise their own families there.
From Pitcairn we headed to the uninhabited atoll of Oena, part of the Pitcairn group, about 75 nm away, hoping to be able
to anchor and enter the lagoon with our dinghy, but as Brenda warned us happened with east winds, on our arrival there
early the next morning the boat pass was awash with breakers and impassable. As it was rainy and the sky overcast, and Dale
still felt weak, we skirted the atoll, saw little trash, and kept moving towards Mangareva in the Gambier islands, our first stop
in French Polynesia, about 250 nm away.
We have now traveled over 4000 nm.