We knew we wouldn't be able to see Henderson Island until we were close. Like, 5 miles away. But we'd been at sea a while, and after 18 days of nothing but ocean you'll start looking for even the lowest lying slab of land 20 miles out if you know it's there. For two or three days we'd been sailing pretty much dead downwind under a sail configuration known as wing-and-wing or goose-wing: the main all the way out on one side and the jib, held in place with the spinnaker pole, all the way out the other. Picture a cormorant perched on a rock, its wings drying in the sun. Kind of like that. The wind was light, the swell behind us had diminished, and we were being pushed along gently. From sunrise until about 11am, when we got our first glimpse of the waves colliding with the vertical walls that define Henderson, time passed slowly.
As we neared land more and more birds swooped in to check us out and then flapped along behind, staring down at the fishing lures we were trolling. Every couple minutes one of the smaller gannets would rise up a bit higher, hover for a second, and dive in. Generally they'd resurface empty beaked, or maybe fumble a bit with the plastic lure before dropping it back down where it would race along below the surface. The frigate birds would watch, waiting to see whether it was worth their while to descend and attempt to snatch away whatever the smaller birds may have caught. It seemed impossible that one of these things wouldn't hook itself so we watched nervously, except for Matt, who was focused solely on catching a fish. We were finally in a place where we knew they were just beneath us and the way he saw it, if a seabird was dumb enough to hook itself that was the bird's problem.
The cascade of hungry birds continued as the wind picked up, and as we altered course to give ourselves some room, and while we began to put the jib away and run under the main alone. Only just as we were furling the jib, one of the gannets got itself tangled in the line, so our furling job turned out a bit sloppy. We raced to the stern where the bird, totally helpless, was being dragged along as it flailed. Matt's feelings apparently softened and he quickly hauled the bird in while it tried to stop itself from being pulled underwater by spreading its wings (wing-and-wing style) and removed the lure. He got the bird to choke up a gallon of water and resume breathing. It sat on the aft deck barely able to support its own head while we redirected our attention to the jib, which had blown partially unfurled and somehow tangled itself up in its sheets. By now the wind was strong right on the beam. We tried bearing off and loosening the sheets, but they were a total mess and we realized it would take a lot more time and effort to fix it than it had to free the bird.
I nosed the boat into the wind while Loren and Matt worked together first to get the part of the sail that was unfurled straightened out, and then to come up with a plan for sorting out the rest. Now the problem was that heading into the wind meant heading straight for land. The swell lifted not in that gradual, wave rolling toward shore way, but more like a train ascending from a tunnel: a sudden, unstoppable force rising from somewhere deep down. So each time we got too close we'd have to bear off and circle around. We ended up doing half a dozen circles in order to unwrap one sheet and then the other and finally the sail. Our scenic cruise along the western coast of the island ended up being little more than a frustrating series of spirals on the chart.
We were tired, there didn't seem to be any place to anchor, the boat was a mess. And there was the bird. Over an hour had passed since Matt had saved his life and though he had regained his physical strength, he seemed to have suffered memory loss. He'd hold his beak open, threatening to snap it shut on Matt's fingers whenever he got near. The wind was irritating, and the chop seemed to come from all directions. This was not the arrival we'd been expecting.
Then we rounded Henderson's westernmost corner and were suddenly gliding through smooth, clear water. In front of us was a sandy anchorage that, while deep, was sheltered from the wind. And in front of that was a narrow white beach full of coconut palms. Still in disbelief, we decided to rest for at least a few hours and possibly overnight while we cleaned up the boat and checked the weather. We were determined to make it to Pitcairn and whether or not we would depended on the wind.
The blue of the open ocean had been deep and mesmerizing. But being underwater at Henderson and seeing straight to the bottom at a depth of 48 feet was almost more incredible. Fish that seemed tiny from the surface revealed themselves to weigh 12-15 lbs as we dove deeper. Sharks looked like remoras, patches of coral like little cauliflowers, and our anchor chain, instead of fading into the depths like it normally did, led to a miniature anchor that sat like a toy dropped in a sandbox.
As the sun started to fade it was becoming clear that we would be spending the night there. It was perfect. We cracked a few beers and broke out the fishing rods. The flying fish we'd collected during the crossing were fantastic bait. Within seconds of casting we'd feel the familiar tug and jerk of an unhappy fish on the other end. We pulled up several jacks who were deceptively strong for their size. Then we began feeling even stronger, more determined pulls on the line and were pretty excited at the thought of bigger, tastier fish. As the first one broke the surface we saw that it was certainly bigger.
“I caught a f---ing shark!!” Loren shouted. Sure enough, he was doing his best to hold a thrashing grey reef shark on the line, the rod tip bent 180 degrees and Loren's eyes and smile wide. The shark wasn't too happy, though, and pretty quickly freed himself by breaking the line. We didn't care. What's a couple of hooks and a few feet of line? And why fish for fish when you can fish for sharks? By this time the sharks had worked themselves into a bit of a frenzy so catching jacks was nearly impossible anyhow. We continued on with our shark wrangling and beer drinking.
The next morning, we woke to the same smooth waters and mild wind. We checked the weather and concluded that we had two options: we could either leave that afternoon in order to arrive at Pitcairn the next morning, but due to the steady ENE winds that were forecast – the same winds that were making our anchorage at Henderson so pleasant – there was no guarantee that we'd get ashore at Pitcairn; or, we could choose to stay at Henderson, skipping Pitcairn altogether.
Had Pitcairn been almost any other island the decision wouldn't have been difficult. But we'd been looking forward to getting there for months. It's one of the least visited islands on the planet thanks to its near-impossible approach. And this is what made it such an ideal hiding spot for Fletcher Christian and the mutineers from the Bounty in 1789, having sent Captain Bligh and those faithful to him overboard in a liferaft near Tonga. Today the island's 50 or so residents are all descendants of those men and the Tahitian women they brought with them (ie, kidnapped). The incredible story on which Pitcairn's surviving civilization was founded has lured sailors for hundreds of years, yet very few actually make it there. And we were within 100 miles with at least a slight chance of getting ashore.
On the other hand, almost no one gets to Henderson either, and we had just about the most ideal conditions we could have asked for. Henderson is a UNESCO world heritage site with over a dozen of its own endemic species. It's one of very few examples of an ecosystem free from human intervention. The water was the cleanest and most beautiful we'd ever seen. And while it would have been fun/weird/troubling to meet the residents of Pitcairn, Henderson's association with the survivors of the whale ship Essex was to us just as alluring. The whole place had a sort of Robinson Crusoe feeling to it. The craggy cliffs, the caves dotting the coastline, the pounding waves, sharks, coral reefs, hundreds of birds and lonely coconuts palms had all existed for thousands and thousands of years without people. Knowing that gave the place a special sort of aura. If we'd felt far away in the middle of the ocean, now we really felt like we were at the end of the earth.
Maybe you can see where I'm going with this... We ultimately decided to forfeit our one chance to visit Pitcairn and take advantage of the time we had at Henderson while the conditions lasted. I'd be lying if I said I didn't regret skipping Pitcairn. But I value the time we spent at Henderson even more. It was truly the coolest place I've ever been. Even Matt, who sometimes seems to have been everywhere, was in awe. We spent most of the next two days in the water and each evening relished in the knowledge that this place was, at least for the time being, ours.
Landfall after an ocean crossing is never dull. At whichever place you arrive your first hours there seem magical. No matter if the place is a run down town, a sleepy village, or New York City. Everything has this buzz about it that you often don't notice while you're living amongst it all. It's one of those things you don't miss until it's gone, and at sea it exists only as an element of some vivid memory. But usually after the first few hours back on land that buzz starts to fade into the background and the magic subsides. You begin to notice the dumpy parts of town, the absence of measurable action, and the presence of loud, grating noises. It sometimes feels like almost as soon as you arrive you're already looking forward to the next place.
We only stayed at Henderson for two nights before we had to leave. We would have loved to stay longer but the wind would be picking up in a few days and we needed to be anchored safely in the Gambiers before it did. So leaving was difficult. At Henderson the magic never subsided. I guess when you know you're someplace really special and that you'll never be back that's how it goes.