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Tristan da Cunha

Peter Holthusen fulfills a lifetime ambition, a long and arduous voyage to the remote island of Tristan da Cunha
The vision of Tristan da Cunha looming on the horizon on the morning of my twenty first day at sea was unquestionably, the highlight of my voyage

Tristan da Cunha, known colloquially as ‘Tristan’ is an isolated group of volcanic islands and the main island within that group.


It is the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, lying 1,243 miles (2,000 kilometres) from its nearest neighbour, the tropical island of Saint Helena, 1,491 miles (2,400 kilometres) from the nearest continental landmass, South Africa, and 2,088 miles (3,360 kilometres) from South America.

It was a bright spring morning as I slipped the  moorings of Portmagee harbour near my home on the extreme south west coast of Ireland, and set off alone in my trusted 40ft sloop ‘Tempest’ to brave the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, and a journey of over 6,000 miles.

She is a sturdy Spey Class motor sailer designed by G.L. Watson and built in 1965 by the renowned Jones Buckie Shipyard of Banffshire, Scotland, and with an impressive sailing log so I knew she was up to the task ahead of us ... a long and arduous voyage to the remote South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha.

For thousands of years the Atlantic Ocean was viewed by mariners with a mixture of awe, terror and amazement – an impassable barrier to the unknown. In recent times, as we fly high above it without so much as bothering to look down, this vast sea has been reduced to the status of a mere passageway between continents, but I was sailing to the uttermost south.

As I sailed past Bray Head towards the distant pinnacles of the Skellig Islands, there was a break in the mist and I could see the dark silhouettes of my family, friends and the local press standing on the cliff-top to bid me farewell. It was a sad yet sobering reminder of the life I have chosen to live. The sun was now well above the lip of the horizon and the icy-blast of a north-east wind blowing into my sails set me on a steady and purposeful course south into the open Atlantic.

I have always held a burning ambition to visit Tristan da Cunha ever since I read about the volcanic eruption on the island as a child in 1961. I was little more than 9-years-old at the time, but the story of its devastating eruption and the evacuation of its inhabitants captured my imagination.

Tristan da Cunha is an active ‘strato-volcano’ formed above a magma hot-spot some 400 kilometres east of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The volcano first erupted 18 million years ago from the 3,500 metre deep ocean floor, first forming Nightingale Island (an extinct remnant in the latter stage of erosion), then Inaccessible Island (a younger extinct cone in the middle stage of erosion), and finally the island of Tristan itself (having the classic conical shape of an active shield volcano).

Successive eruptions have built a cone 48 kilometres wide and 5,500 metres high, with the summit at Queen Mary’s Peak, 2,060 metres above sea level overlooking a heart-shaped crater lake. The Tristan volcano has many parasitic cones on its flanks, each representing a separate eruption of the main volcano.

On the morning of 10 October 1961, a fine spring day in the South Atlantic, the 264 inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha put to sea in open boats to escape the wrath of an eruption that threatened the settlement on the north western plain, which had already destroyed the little crawfish canning factory and the island’s two main landing beaches.

The islanders made their way to neighbouring Nightingale to await rescue by the ‘M.V. Tjisadane’, a Dutch passenger ship of the famous Royal Interocean Lines which was on its way from a port in South America to Cape Town. When they finally reached England there was a big press reception for what was billed as “the forgotten people from the loneliest island in the world”. They were welcomed with open arms, and settled in an old war-time Royal Air Force camp near Calshot in Hampshire, whose houses were far better than those they had been accustomed to on Tristan da Cunha.

But the islanders did not feel at home. They had been transplanted into a kindly society, but could not get on with the people from the nearby village and speech was a difficulty. The inhabitants of Tristan speak a dialect of English which went out of fashion in London’s dockland in the first years of Queen Victoria’s reign. Now they were confronted with expressions which they recognized but which in modern English have taken on a different meaning. When they ask the way, ‘right’ is ‘starboard’ and ‘left’ is port for them. It has always been like that on the island and always will be.

In 1962 a Royal Geographical Society expedition went to the islands to assess the damage, and reported that the settlement of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas had only been marginally affected by the eruption. Most families returned to Tristan in 1963.

Upon their return home the islanders renamed the sheltered harbour at Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, Calshot Harbour, in honour of the Hampshire village where they temporarily stayed following the 1961 evacuation.

There are a number of serious contenders for the crown of “the loneliest inhabited island in the world”, including Pitcairn, Easter and Christmas Island, who could all make a convincing case for the coveted title. On a purely geographical basis, however, Tristan da Cunha, literally midway between South Africa and South America in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean wins hands down.

The island is part of the British overseas territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, which includes Saint Helena to its north and equatorial Ascension Island some 2,318 miles (3,730 kilometres) to the north-west of Tristan.

The territory consists of the circular main island of Tristan da Cunha, which has a north to south length of approximately 7 miles (11.27 kilometres) and has a total land area of 37.8 square miles (98 square kilometres), along with the smaller, uninhabited island of Nightingale and the spectacular wildlife reserves of Inaccessible and Gough Islands.

Tristan has a permanent population of 297 (2014 figures), the majority of whom live in or close to the main settlement on the island, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas (known locally as “The Settlement”).

The other islands in the archipelago are uninhabited, except for the isolated weather station on Gough Island, which has been operated by South Africa since 1956 with a staff of six.

The islands were first sighted in 1506 by the indefatigable Portuguese explorer Tristão da Cunha, who was en-route to the Cape of Good Hope, although very rough seas prevented a landing. He named the main island of the group after himself, ‘Ilha de Tristão da Cunha’, which was anglicized from its earliest mention on British Admiralty charts to the island of Tristan da Cunha.

In 1643, the crew of the Dutch vessel ‘Heemstede’, captained by Claes Gerritsz Bierenbroodspot, made the first recorded landing on the island to replenish their supplies with fresh water, fish, seals and penguins.

The first permanent settler on the island was Jonathan Lambert, from Salem, Massachusetts, who arrived at the islands in 1810 with two other men to establish a trading station on Tristan which he re-named ‘Reception’ on what he wished to be known as the ‘Islands of Refreshment’.

Tomasso Corri (alias Thomas Currie from Livorno, Italy) was the only survivor of this fledgling community when ‘HMS Seiramis’ arrived in 1813, and he reported that Lambert, with two companions, had drowned in a fishing accident. Legends of Thomas’s hidden treasure are still talked about in the Tristan community and are explored in several books about the island.

In 1816, the United Kingdom annexed the island group, ruling them from the Cape Colony in South Africa. This is reported to have primarily been a measure to ensure that the French would be unable to use the islands as a base for a rescue operation to free Napoleon Bonaparte from his prison on Saint Helena.

In 1867, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and second son of Queen Victoria, visited the islands as commander of the Royal Navy frigate ‘HMS Galatea’.  The main settlement on Tristan, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, was named in honour of his visit. Further notable visitors to the island included the Rev. Edwin Heron Dodgson, Lewis Carroll’s youngest brother, who served as an Anglican missionary and school teacher on Tristan da Cunha in the 1880’s.

My own voyage to Tristan would take me south across the Bay of Biscay, via Madeira and along the coast of West Africa past Mauritania, Senegal, Sierra Leone and the Cape Verde Islands, before heading due south to Ascension and on to my final destination in the storm-lashed seas of the notorious  South Atlantic.

The first four days at sea were seemingly uneventful. We had very good weather, but there were obvious signs in the sky that a cold front was coming and the barometer’s falling needle confirmed this. I reefed right down on the mainsail and replaced the jib with the storm job. These last tasks were undertaken in a ferocious hailstorm and I was very glad to get below to examine the level in the brandy bottle. There was nothing else I could do until daylight, so I took a tot, folded the jib on the cabin floor and climbed into my bunk, listening to the waves increasing in power as they constantly buffeted the hull beside my pillow.

This sector of the North Atlantic was extremely busy with traffic, with countless freighters and container ships criss-crossing the ocean between the convenience ports of Monrovia in Liberia and Freetown, Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa to the Americas, so I had to sail with extreme caution especially at night, when I could at least see their lights.

The bad weather continued for the next two days and I was becoming a little concerned about the accuracy of my sextant, so I had very little sleep as a consequence. Day followed day on much the same pattern. I managed to get one shaky sun fix amidst the gales and my dead reckoning put me at about 130 miles south west of Fogo in the Cape Verde Islands, so I was making very good speed.

I was rather hoping to pass a little closer to Fogo, for the tortured topography of this small volcanic island is very similar to Tristan da Cunha. Nevertheless, at the rate of speed I was sailing I would very soon be in the waters of the South Atlantic and closer to the island I had waited so long to visit.

The next morning dawned bright and clear and to my astonishment the deck of ‘Tempest’ was strewn with flying fish. These remarkable fish can make powerful,
self-propelled leaps out of the water into the air, where their long, wing-like fins enable them to glide for considerable distances above the surface to evade predators. For the next three days my diet was sustained with my surprise catch.

The wind had now turned to north-west and I was running under working jib, genoa staysail, and trysail, and by the early hours of my tenth day at sea the wind had freshened so that we were now cruising at about nine knots. I was able to lower the genoa staysail without loss of speed.

Shortly after dusk that evening I crossed the Equator, but sailing alone I can respectfully assure my readers that I had no intention of staging the traditional ‘line-crossing’ ceremony, for fear of going insane. Had a passing ship seen me dressed in the attire of King Neptune, word would have almost certainly reached my family and friends, not to mention my dear editor. Regardless, later that evening I did make a point of toasting my progress with a couple of drams of Talisker.

It was now getting very warm and I shed my woollen sweaters and waterproofs for shorts. The wind continued light from the north-east, and we were close hauled the whole time, heading into a choppy sea,with a wet foredeck, so it made for a very refreshing shower every time a wave crashed into the bow.

Shortly after dawn the following morning my sleep was broken by the sound of low flying aircraft, and upon reaching the deck I could see the distant mirage of Ascension Island, a very welcome sight seemingly hovering on the horizon some 40 miles to the north-east of us.

Thanks to its location just a few degrees south of the Equator, the island is blessed with a warm tropical climate nearly all year round and must be a joy for the men stationed at RAF Ascension, which was used extensively as a staging base during the 1982 Falklands War.

Coincidentally, the island’s main airstrip is called Wideawake Airfield (named for the noisy colony of Sooty Terns nesting nearby), which seemed fitting given my own rude awakening earlier that morning by the arrival of personnel from RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire.

I was now less than 2,000 miles (3,218 kilometres) from Tristan da Cunha. The weather was hot and humid, the sea calm and placid, with a fair north-east wind maintaining my course through the middle of the South Atlantic. This was offshore sailing at its best, but unknown to me at the time, this spell of good weather was not to last.

That night I retired below, and barely had time to put the washboards up when a huge wave came aboard over the port quarter. It slammed straight over the open hatch under the spray hood, sending a great deluge of freezing water into the cabin below, soaking everything, including the chart table and open chart I had left on it. It was one of those unexpected freak waves that are commonplace in these latitudes, but the outcome could have been far worse.

I mopped up, dried my charts and cleared up below. For any yachtsman the calms are always the most frustrating periods, so I was perhaps very fortunate to have maintained such a steady course with moderate to strong prevailing trade winds aiding my passage more or less all the way south from Ireland.

The following morning I was blessed by the company of a solitary Wandering albatross circling us from astern. These extraordinary, almost mythical birds, with their enormous wingspan, great longevity and remarkable powers of ocean navigation and travel, almost transcend the very concept of what it means to be a bird. We had now reached its ocean realm and she would stay with us for the remainder of our voyage to Tristan, occasionally resting on the still waters beside us.

Two days later the vision of Tristan da Cunha looming on the horizon on the morning of my twenty first day at sea was unquestionably, the highlight of my voyage. It made an alluring scene, this precipitous, green island set like an emerald in the middle of the South Atlantic, nearly 1,500 miles from the coast of South Africa. When you spy an island on the horizon, a powerful force takes over. It’s as if the human psyche demands that we discover and explore.

I had at long last reached Tristan da Cunha, the island that had captured my imagination as a child and what is widely regarded as “the loneliest inhabited island in the world”. It was quite an emotional moment for I immediately recalled a poignant quote so often spoken by my old Latin Master, an accomplished yachtsman himself, who always made a point of reminding me: “the possible has been done, the impossible will be done”.

To my surprise, as I stepped ashore in the shelter of Calshot Harbour I was greeted on the jetty by Alex Mitham, and his charming wife Hasene, Tristan da Cunha’s new Administrator, and a small gathering of other islanders including Lillie Swain, Natasha Glass, Shirley Squibb, Iris Green (Head of the Post Office Department) and my dear “pen friend” Dawn Repetto (Tourism Coordinator), with whom I had spent so much time communicating before I embarked on my voyage and who assisted me with the detailed formalities for my landing.

I would spend the next seven days exploring Tristan, meeting the islanders and visiting the offshore islands of Nightingale, Inaccessible and Gough, where I discovered an abundance of rare flora and fauna that would sustain my curiosity until I set sail for the return voyage home.

Lawrence Durrell once wrote: “Islomania is a rare affliction of spirit. There are people who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are in a little world surrounded by sea fills them with an indescribable intoxication”.

If like me, you share a lifelong ambition to visit some far distant island such as Tristan da Cunha before they change forever, you’ll be well rewarded for charting a course to her shores.

- Peter Holthusen


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