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Pitcairn Sea Tales -- 6

"Can't be the fool is going to run it ashore?"

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

The yawl Trondhjem arrives at Pitcairn Island in fair weather from Mangareva, with a man, his wife and their young son aboard. The wife, who is ill, is brought ashore with her son. The weather turns from fair to strong winds and heavy seas. Roy Clark, Pitcairn’s Postmaster, tells the story of the next several hours:

“It was difficult to conceive how quickly the weather changed. . . . From the south the wind changed to the east and began to blow a half gale making the sea rough and choppy. To make matters worse, heavy swells rolled in from the west with the sound of thunder. At The Landing at Bounty Bay surf and seas in the passage seethed and foamed over the rocks into the harbour in a most threatening way.

“All through the night the Trondhjem was straining and tugging at her anchor chain and we learnt later that the captain was fearful that at any time his boat would be dashed to pieces on the rocks. In the grey morning light the captain was frantically waving for help. For a time no one ashore noticed his signals of distress until they saw a flag flying at half mast. Then it was that the knew something was amiss. . . .

“During the night the Trondhjem had rolled and pitched so heavily that two planks were torn off the bow at the anchor chain. Two deck planks were also loosened near the winch which was partly torn from the deck.

“Sails were hoisted and the Trondhjem was sailed to the lee of the Island with two Pitcairn boats following. The seas and surf in the lee of land was even worse than at Bounty Bay. Three islanders were aboard the vessel. They with the captain, nearly met disaster before the two boats caught up with them. Foolishly the Trondhjem’s sails were lowered, and the current must have been setting in hard towards land, for the vessel was drifting shoreward in great troughs of swells that were frighteningly large. Once again the ship’s sails were set, but being now dead to lee there was not a puff of wind or a squall to fill the sails and gain headway, even with the help of the engine. When the two Pitcairn longboats came around a point of land and saw the danger the Trondhjem was in the crews pulled to the vessel’s side – and just in time too. A line was cast to the boats and the crews pulled with all their might and managed to tow the ship into deeper water and free from the heavier swells. The sails filled with wind and all danger was over.

“Fearing some impending disaster, or having some foreboding of evil, I cannot tell, but the captain intimated to the (Pitcairn) Magistrate that his boat be run ashore at Bounty Bay. Parkin Christian (Magistrate) remonstrated with him and explained just what would happen to his ship when once it came through the passage and into the small harbour, that it would piled onto the rocks a total wreck. Mr. Markwalder (the captain) would not listen to the Magistrate’s advice. The two men reasoned pros and cons and finally Markwalder had his way, and it was decided to run the vessel ashore.

“Parkin said to the captain, ‘Alright Captain, you say run your boat ashore. I run it ashore for you.’ The Magistrate suggested that two boats be called alongside and transfer all his valuables and belongings into them, but the captain replied, ‘No, plenty of time to do this when we get into the harbour.’ This time never came, and because the captain refused to take Parkin’s advice, only a few things were saved out of the boat – nearly all the family’s possessions were lost.

“The wind increased, the sea swells grew larger. . . . That night brought many comments and conjectures as to whether the coming day would witness a shipwreck, or the captain had changed his mind. . . . At daybreak the Trondhjem was sighted about five miles off land and headed directly for Bounty Bay. . . . Some thought that in time the vessel would be brought up to the wind in preparation for a tack off land, and at the last the ship would be brought to head in the wind and await the boats from land.

“Nearer and nearer the ship came. Two miles, one mile, a half mile off shore. Now we were for certain that Parkin was at the helm. At the last minute would he swing the ship off on the wind and save it? No, onward it came. Now we knew beyond all doubt that the Trondhjem was sailing to its doom. As one man, those of the community who could rushed for the Landing place. I heard one man remark as we sped down to the harbor, ‘Can’t be the fool is going to run it ashore?”

“Onward came the little craft into the swells. It lurched from side to side as if in agonizing pain. The Trondhjem seemed to resent going to its destruction. It called for help, for rescue, but no – wave after wave caught at the stern and propelled it on. In a few minutes it was all over. The ship was on the rocks in the passage. It rose and fell with a sickening thud. The swells, as they broke, washed over the stern. Masts and spars and booms and blocks squealed and groaned each time the Trondhjem rose and fell, and the waves, foot by foot, floated the vessel further and further onto the rocks.

“Sails hung useless and flapped in the wind. Ropes dangled here and there and swung flying in the air to again come back to the ship’s deck, only to swing out on the other side. One could plainly hear the crunching of planks and timbers. Slowly now the boat was settling down to its final resting place. It lay broadside to the sea and breakers. One tremendous wave lifted it high and forced the ship between two large rocks, wedging it firmly, at the same time breaking a large gap in the hull.

“Those on board were tense with excitement and fear, and their faces looked wan and frightened. The ship now lay on its side at an angle of about 40 degrees. The crew hung onto ropes and wires – anything that could afford a hold, and slowly, painfully crawled to the bowsprit which faced the harbor. One of the crew reached the bot. It happened all in a minute. The lad poised on the gunwale for a second, lifted his arms in the air for a dive and plunged into the frothing harbour. A good swimmer he proved to be. We could see his arms in an overarm stroke, swimming for a rock above the water, his head bobbing up and down in the white swirling waves as they broke over him. He reached the rock and climbed on the top, but only for an instant. He looked behind and saw a huge wave rushing and breaking into foam and flying spray. For the second time he raised his arms for a dive but had no time to do so. The wave washed him off the rock and into the angry waters and he was washed and rolled ashore.

“I did not see how the second man made his escape from the vessel. The third man (Parkin) was climbing onto the bowsprit chains, getting ready to push himself into the harbour. He never did, for at this moment a comber caught the vessel with such force that Parkin lost his hold of the bowsprit chains and was thrown, twisting and turning, into the air. Parkin was a poor swimmer and I thought he would drown and be washed out through the passage by the strong undertow and current. However, the incoming seas were more powerful and he was literally washed ashore rolling and turning over at the mercy of the waves.

“The captain alone now remained aboard his ship. Voices from the beach told him to jump. He waved his arms as a signal that he understood and followed like the rest. He fortunately reached safety better than the others. None of the men received any serious injury. Parkin had a cut over his eye. . . .

“All this time the islanders were not inactive. They gathered opposite the wreck only a few yards from high water mark and some of the more fearless men managed to get onto the hull and take from the ship what they could. It was surprising what they did save. The next morning the sea had somewhat subsided. The harbour and along the rocks at water line was a scene never to be forgotten. There was wreckage everywhere. Spars, sails, ropes, wires, broken timbers and planks were strewn along the beach and rocks. There were boxes, canned goods, cooking utensils, tins, clothing, souvenirs and a hundred and one other shp’s paraphernalia.

“The Island Government claimed everything salvaged from the wreck except the personal belongings of the captain and his family. . . . The captain and his family bemoaned the loss of their sea home. They have no other this side of Switzerland. . . . The islanders and the Government have bought many articles salvaged from the wreck. The Church is also taking up a collection for the Makwalders. . . .”