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Reprinted in Guide to Pitcairn, originally published in Pitcairn Miscellany. Used by permission of author.
On December 6th, 1931, two boats containing twenty nine men and youths left Pitcairn on the seventy five mile trip to Oeno Island to collect beche-de-mer (sea grub) on behalf of two representatives of a New Zealand company who were residing temporarily on Pitcairn. Limited supplies of food were carried, and they intended to be home by Christmas.
Three earlier departures had been cancelled because of unsuitable weather; Oeno is a low lying atoll, difficult to see even in fine weather, and only under the most favourable conditions will the boats set sail for this island.
The weather turned fair and several of the remaining men and boys decided to take a third boat to Oeno for a pleasure trip. This party of six left on December 13th, planning to meet up with the first group for a few days’ relaxation before the three boats made their way homeward.
To those of us remaining on Pitcairn, the likelihood of sighting the boats at the expected time diminished as headwinds continued to blow steadily. Christmas came, then New Year, and another week passed. We began to feel anxious about our friends and loved ones for by this time their provisions would be low and they would be forced to live on a diet of fish and sea birds.
Two weeks overdue. Small groups of people would gather and talk - of Oeno, the missing boats, storms, accidents, starvation. Prayers were made without ceasing.
Three weeks passed and fear gripped the hearts of those who waited. Hope began to die and men and women moved around slowly as if in a daze. Dulled eyes scanned the horizon as the wind dropped but continued to blow dead ahead.
As the fourth week of waiting commenced, a cry was heard, “Sail ho!” Can it be? Yes it is it is! The boats had been sighted. But how many? Two. Which two? Where is the other boat? What has become of it? Despair took hold of every heart again.
A few men hurried to the Landing, collecting food and water as they went. A boat was launched and all haste was made to meet the boats as soon as possible.
As we came alongside the first, the sight that met our eyes is almost beyond description. Haggard and worn bodies, with starvation written on every face, were trying to row the boat to land. Some were faint with hunger and unable to move. We gave them food and water before acquiescing to their demand that we go to the other boat where, they said, the crew were in even worse condition.
I shall never forget the sight. As we drew near, one could tell by the lift of the oars that it was only will power that moved the arms. Some had already given up; stength was gone. Eyes had a vacant stare, cheeks were sunken and bone protruded. Pale as death, with boils erupting from starved flesh, they struggled on. One or two more days in similar conditions must surely have meant death for some.
We guided the two boats into Bounty Bay and helped the men ashore. Some staggered about, the, with assistance, made their way slowly homewards. Others were carried up from the Landing place. Rest and good food brought life back to starving bodies. All, by God’s grace, recovered.
Here is the story as I pieced it together from accounts given to me by several men.
The first two boats arrived safely at Oeno, but by the time they were joined by the third boat they were almost out of food. Even the supplementary supplies carried on this boat did not last long among so many. Food was rationed; two bananas, or fei, a day. Of course there were plenty of fish and birds but a continued diet of these became nauseating.
During their fifth week on the island the wind became almost fair and the decision was made to sail for Pitcairn, some smoked fish and a few biscuits their only remaining food.
Large seas broke over one of the boats as it went through the passage in the reef surrounding the island. The crew battled on but a larger sea eventually swamped the boat. Fortunately, it was loaded with timber, otherwise some of the crew would have drowned. One man dived for two others as they were going down; somehow he managed to tie them to some driftwood. Each man had to shift for himself, clinging to whatever he could find for support.
With the assistance of the other crews, the swamped boat was dragged outside the breakers where it was bailed out. Almost everything loose had been washed away. Men in the other boats shared their clothes with the soaked crew. Later in the day, the three boats set course for home, the swamped boat being towed because it had lost its sail.
After twelve hours of fair winds a sudden change developed and the wind blew harder. “The very demon was in it,” the men recounted. The boat under tow had to be abandoned and for four days the two remaining boats battled wind and sea. The fury of the gale equaled any the men had previously experienced. Rationed to two biscuits a day, wet to the skin, and bailing all the time the men fought on.
When the struggle became too great the boats turned and ran for Oeno again. In spite of doubt that they would find the tiny atoll, find it they did. Exhausted men collapsed on the sand. Only fish and birds to eat and some too faint to even look for these.
On the third day, the wind came fair enough to head for Pitcairn. These starving men and boys plucked up courage and again set sail for home. A wind change the next day forced them to lower sail, take up their oars and pull for the shore. And it was in this condition we found them. . . .
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