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Pitcairn Sea Tales -- 4

"We put the distress signal up . . ."

--from Pitcairn - Port of Call, by Herbert Ford

In the month of December, 1915, the Pitcairn Islanders, urged on by resident missionary Melville Adams, renew their efforts to build a small ship in which they can go on trading voyages to Mangareva in the Gambier Islands, and to Tahiti. The vessel, it is decided, will be called Messenger.

The New Zealand Shipping Company’s steel, twin-screw steamship Ruahine calls at Pitcairn on November 26, 1916. Aboard the ship is J. B. Kattern, a soldier returning to New Zealand from European service in World War I. He, Captain E. T. Smith of the Ruahine, three other soldiers and several fellow passengers go onto the Island.

“Ashore we took a good look at the schooner Messenger being built,” writes Kattern. “It is 45 feet long, with a 15-foot beam. The vessel is a credit to the builders. We also saw a life-boat presented to the Pitcairners by Queen Victoria. It is in good repair, and is reserved for special duties such as rescue work. . . .”

On January 15, 1917, the Messenger, 30 tons, is launched. Almost immediately she sails for Tahiti. The Islanders decide to give the ship to the Seventh-day Adventist mission in Tahiti for missionary use among the islands of the South Pacific. Aboard are Parkin Christian and George Warren, two of Pitcairn’s most skilled seafarers. When these two arrive in Papeete they then work their way on ships to Australia to visit relatives and friends before working their way back to Pitcairn. Because the Messenger is built almost exclusively with donated materials and labor the Islanders estimate her cost at $1.50 (15 schillings)!

On June 4, 1917, the Messenger arrives at Pitcairn Island, having been gone for four and a half month in her maiden voyage to Tahiti. At a public meeting two days later it is announced that the schooner is being returned to Pitcairn by the acting consul in Tahiti with the request that it be run and operated by the government of Pitcairn Island.

The Messenger begins making trading voyages between Pitcairn and Mangareva, and on April 8, 1918, she returns from one of her voyages with Pitcairn George C. Warren as her Master. On January 19, 1919, Messenger, along with two Pitcairn longboats, sail to Oeno Island to salvage material from ships wrecked on that atoll. In May, 1919, Pitcairner E. R. McCoy reports that the Messenger “was badly broken up in a gale, but at present she is more than half repaired. She will be ready to sail for Mangareva the end of this year or the beginning of next, if nothing unusual happens to prevent it.”

On April 10, 1920, it is reported that the Pitcairn schooner Messenger is lost returning from Mangareva while in sight of Pitcairn Island. Walter Fisher Young, who was aboard, tells of the loss:

“We stayed at Mangareva only seven days, then left for home. . . . We were in sight of Mangareva for about four days owing to a calm, then a light wind blew, but not fair for Pitcairn. Afterward the wind increased to a strong head blow and it lasted for a long time. This seemed to strain the vessel, and it began to leak very badly.

“On account of the strong head wind we made very slow progress. We sought the Lord that He would favour us with fair wind that we might soon reach home, but it seemed as if the fair wind would never come. . . . Our food supply was fast running out. We were fifteen or sixteen days out before we sighted Pitcairn.

“The day we sighted land was Sunday and we were that evening many miles to leeward of the island. Our last known food supply was cooked and eaten that evening. Though many miles from shore our captain lowered the boat and sent five men to row ashore to let the Pitcairners know of our present condition on board.

“Floating on a leaky ship, without provisions, the few men left on board having to be at the pump day and night to keep the water from overflowing the ship, and working without feeod, we were growing weak and feeble.

“Day and night the boat from the shore tried to reach us, thus bringing relief, but this was all in vain, for they never found us. From Sunday till Tuesday we were there in an almost helpless condition. The wind was contrary for us to make the land. In our distress we on board sought the Lord. Those on shore assembled in the house of God to seek help in behalf of those left on board the Messenger.

“On Wednesday morning we sighted a steamship. We put the distress signal up, but the captain of the steamship did not see it, so it passed us by. That same steamer passed close to Pitcairn. The Pitcairn boats made for her and succeeded in getting aboard. They presented the condition of the Messenger to the captain, and God used that captain to answer the prayers of His people.

“The captain turned his ship around and went in search of the Messenger until he found it. He saw the condition of the ship as well as those of us on board, and he took it in tow, trying to get it to land. But the Messenger was fast filling with water, and would not be able to get to land. All cargo was taken from her and placed on board the steamer, and all hands left the Messenger. Not a life was lost.

“The Messenger, which was now nearly filled with water, was sent adrift and has probably gone to the bottom. . . .”

In his book “The Romance of Pitcairn Island, “ W. Y. Fullerton names the American steamer Sassenach as being the vessel that came to the aid of the Messenger. During her lifetime the little ship made a dozen successful voyages to Mangareva for both commercial and religious purposes. Not one of Pitcairn’s better ship-building efforts, the Messenger was characterized by Pitcairner Fred Christian as going “just as fast sideways as forrard!”