Voyaging with Children as Crew

[From The Marine Quarterly, Issue 24]  School Trip    –   Jon Tucker

The Chatham Islands are a seldom visited small group of islands in the roaring forties about 450 nautical miles downwind of New Zealand’s South Island. Vessels bound for Cape Horn seldom bother to drop in. The islands are generally shrouded in cloud, and offer only one dubious all-weather anchorage. Scattered near Pitt Island (the smaller of the populated pair) are a number of small rocky islets, barely accessible by boat. ‘The Fort’ and ‘The Castle’ derive their names from their topography, and the nearby Mangere Islet became famous overnight during the late 1980s with the discovery of three birds belonging to a species assumed to have become extinct several decades earlier – the Chatham Island black robin. One was an elderly female – soon to be named ‘Old Blue’, and her feathered companions were both males, one of which was later to be proven infertile.

From this precarious gene-pool bottleneck was to be developed arguably the world’s most successful breeding exercise, bringing a species back from the most extreme brink of extinction. A team of ornothologists was assembled by NZ’s Conservation Department, relocating the breeding pair to the slightly larger South East island half a mile south-east of Pitt Island. With them came some special recruits –  a dozen similar-sized Tomtits which were to become surrogate parents for the ever-so-precious clutches of eggs produced by Old Blue.

Five years after the inauguration of the breeding programme a small group of Kiwi yacht-racing enthusiasts came up with the idea of an ocean race which had never before been attempted. The ‘Inaugural Napier to Chatham Islands Race’ was publicised throughout New Zealand, and at the peak of its promotion was hoped to field as many as fifty vessels in the line-up. However to put the concept in perspective, the Chatham Islands have a less-than enviable history of maritime loss of life. During the 1960s, a boom-and-bust crayfish frenzy saw large numbers of Kiwi coastal fishing boats attempting the Southern Ocean passage from NZ in casually arranged convoys. A significant number failed to arrive, and the resultant loss of life has cast a pall over these waters ever since.

Our ketch New Zealand Maid may be a gaffer, but she is solid, seaworthy and no slug on a reach. A nice downwind race like this was too good to be true. With our five keen boys as crew along with Barbara as skipper and my sister as bosun, we filled in the entry form and went about the business of meeting the NZYF Cat.1 safety criteria.

One by one the anticipated ultra-light yachts pulled the pin. The finish-line, at Chatham Island’s principal small settlement – Waitangi – is essentially an open roadstead with an occasionally usable big-ship pier and a few huge steel mooring-buoys. It was a no-brainer to deduce the unsuitability of the lightweight ground-tackle and removable anchor cleats aboard the thoroughbred race-yachts, for use in this destination. In addition, several applicants were declined on the grounds of skipper inexperience. The final line-up (rather to the chagrin of the organising committee), consisted of two cruiser-racers and our family-crewed gaff ketch.

As offshore races go, it was a fun passage. While the two favourites match-raced their way into a windless hole, we worked our southing on an overnight land-breeze, and rather gleefully invited the race-favourite’s crew to an on-board barbecue late next day as we crossed tacks. Needless to say, they declined.

Schoolwork was on the back-burner as we crowded on sail during day three. To compensate for our lack of spinnaker, the boys managed to rig a total of ten sails, including tops’ls, watersails, mizzen stays’l and three heads’ls. Highlights for me were a partial solar eclipse and the joy of watching fifteen year old Ben calculate a star-fix, self-taught, within three miles of the position shown on our second-hand Satnav. Our 2200hr arrival at Waitangi in a force seven norwester – hooking up to one of the enormous steel buoys in a four metre swell – revealed that we were only a few hours behind our rivals, and winner on general handicap by fifteen hours.

Next day, while the rival crews reputedly drank the only Waitangi pub dry of rum, we busied ourselves landing our unusual cargo through the surf at the most protected end of the beach. It was an awkward object to row ashore in our eight foot dinghy – an emergency basket stretcher donated to the island by our local Lions service club. We had communicated with the island’s sole police officer some weeks earlier while we were at the proposal stage for this gift back in central Hawkes Bay. In the flesh he proved to be a thoroughly personable cop – perfect for this island community. And he had something up his sleeve for us in return.

Clearly our visit could not have been timed better. For the first time since the black robin programme’s inception – as a gesture of gratitude to the Chatham Island community – the conservation scientists stationed on South East Island were offering an ‘open island’ for locals over a three day period during the following week. In their own gesture of gratitude to us, the islands’ emergency team was offering New Zealand Maid’s crew the status of honorary Chatham Islanders.

There was a catch, however. Getting to South East Island was not a simple ferry ride. ‘Ferry’ is not part of the vocabulary in this part of the world. Travel here entails either climbing aboard a small plane to NZ, or hitching a ride on a fishing boat. Furthermore, the weather prognosis was clearly not looking good for the three days set aside for this opportunity. Over at Flowerpot  – the Pitt Island haul-out beach for fishing vessels –  the handful of crayboats were already retrieving all their pots before being dragged well above the HW mark for the immediate future. Meanwhile the three small Chatham Island fishing communities (Port Hutt, Kaingaroa and Owenga) had most of their fleets either high and dry or well tethered on their massive moorings.

Big swells and foul weather are a fact of life in these waters. (The compensation for local fishermen is that despite the many non-fishing days, there is an abundance of fish generally waiting to be caught on the good days.)  It’s a ninety mile return trip between Waitangi and South East Island, doubling Cape L’Eveque, crossing Pitt Strait and rounding the south end of Pitt Island. The local lack of enthusiasm was hardly surprising. When our yacht showed up in the lee of South East Island on the final day of their three day invitation, our VHF call was met with a rather startled voice and a long wait, while we watched our depth-sounder fluctuating between 42 and 48 metres at seven second intervals.

Eventually a rather breathy voice came on air, explaining that the normal (tenuous) rocky landing beach on the eastern side of the island was unusable in this big swell. However, the voice continued, during the next hour a team of three would be attempting to launch an inflatable from the sheer rock face midway down our western side of the island.

I recently googled this island out of curiosity, in an attempt to understand the reason behind this choice of location. It is a scary satellite derived image, surrounded by a mass of white water, kelp forests and rock. The slab-sided nature of the cliffs and rock walls on the western shores are a stark reminder of the task which faced our brave hosts.

It seemed a long wait. Not surprisingly, the boys were excited. This would be a school field-trip unlike any they had previously experienced. We discussed the logistics while we stood off, alternating between drifting downwind and motoring upwind. Clearly one of us would need to stay aboard and continue standing off while the others were ashore. A hasty lunch was eaten while Barbara selected the warmest woollen gear to be worn under wet weather gear and lifejackets. Our adrenaline was up.

When one of the boys spotted three wet-suited figures inflating a zodiac on an exposed cliff-top, we motored closer and watched, intrigued. Huge kelp streamers sucked up and down the rock-face like writhing brown snakes. It seemed an alarmingly precarious exercise, and we held our breaths as the inflatable was hurled clumsily over the edge at the top of a swell, followed instantly by a wet-suited figure. Two more figures joined him on the next swell, seven seconds later, followed by some frenzied activity involving oars and a reluctant outboard motor. I caught Barbara’s eye briefly. Clearly – like me – she was hoping that these guys knew what they were doing!

The explanations came when the inflatable cruised alongside a short while later. Three tense but exhilarated biologists tossed us a painter and clambered aboard.  Apparently nobody in the dozen-strong team on the island had expected a visitation on this final open-day – the six metre swell made landing anywhere on the island virtually impossible. After our VHF call, these three had man-handled the zodiac nearly for hundreds of metres across the island to the only obstacle-free location for the spectacular launching we had witnessed. The technique planned for our delivery approximated one used by traditional albatross nest-raiders on the local islets – nose up to a sheer rock-face and jump ashore at the top of a swell.

“Rule number one: aim to jump onto barnacles, not kelp!” directed the leader, eying our two youngest boys with a wry grin. “Two of us will be up there to grab your arms,” he added, noting Barbara’s slightly ashen face.

It was to be a three hour field-trip, with us adults arranging a switch in an hour or two. With no chance of anchoring here, one of us had to continue standing off aboard the boat. I watched apprehensively through binoculars as all six members of my immediate family made the wild landing during a succession of big swells. It was times like these that I was glad that we had encouraged our boys to climb trees and live an adventurous outdoor life. Barbara was the last to land, stumbling slightly but recovering with apparent confidence. The wet-suited inflatable driver soon joined me aboard for a long wait and several cups of tea, as the landing party disappeared from sight.

The dedication of field-scientists like these is truly impressive. Tag-teaming with others from a pool of conservationists, they would spend upwards of two months at a stretch camped on this isolated island barely a mile long. Aboard our heaving yacht, between cups of tea, I gleaned a detailed picture of the black robin recovery programme. During five years of intensive hands-on nurturing, Old Blue and her boyfriends had been busily procreating despite the blanks fired by the dud male. There was now a population of nearly a hundred of their offspring on the island, and this was the first season in which the decision had been made to not interfere with the course of nature. Having spent several years hand-feeding and nursing sick chicks, some of the team were finding it heart-rending to simply observe any struggling young robins without intervening.

One issue from the tomtit surrogacy programme was an identity crisis, with some young robins attempting to behave like (and bond with) tomtits rather than their own species. Another concern for the team was the entire population’s genetic identical vulnerability to a single disease or virus. The team would shortly be relocating small populations of breeding pairs to other islands in order to reduce the devastation of such a pandemic.

By the time my turn came to take the leap ashore, the tide had dropped somewhat, and the swells did not quite reach the top of the rock-face. I was certainly thankful for a pair of hands grasping my arm as I struggled to avoid the slippery kelp and gain a foot-hold. As I was led to the basecamp hut, I passed my own five exuberant offspring, accompanied by a pair of earnest young ornothologists, on their way to extract some of the fluffy young shearwaters for a weighing and tagging exercise.

It was mid-afternoon and mid-tide when the time came to re-embark. We had quite an audience this time, with several of our new-found friends accompanying us to the clifftop ostensibly to help recover the inflatable, but particularly to observe the spectacle. This time our instructions were to simply aim for the centre of the rubber craft below and jump exactly when told. Apart from a bruise or two this proved very successful, although one of the wetsuited team left his leap too late and missed the inflatable entirely.

None of our boys have grown up to become field scientists, but all look back on their schoolwork afloat with appreciation. In particular they speak of the flexibility and variety throughout their childhood which they have carried into their adult lifestyles.

And not surprisingly they all now have yachts of their own.

 Jon Tucker married the girl next door and began building their gaff ketch when they were teenagers. They still spend much of their life in the South Seas aboard New Zealand Maid, cooking up adventures for their six lively grandsons while Jon writes his ‘Those Kids’ Ransome-genre series of environmental themed novels.