We set off in the secretary’s car, picking up boatmen on the way. They lived in thick-walled, squat stone cottages, which once housed prison officers; before our knocking finished echoing, a door would open, and out would come a man, rubbing his eyes with one hand, and chasing elusive buttons with the other. These men were descendants of the Bounty mutineers who had come on to Norfolk Island from Pitcairn Island sixty-six years after Christian and Co. had landed at Pitcairn.
As soon as I got on board the seaplane, I tried out the compression by swinging the propeller. No. 4 cylinder was bad enough, but No. 3 had no compression at all. That meant that I should have to try to get off the water with a full load before starting on an eight-hour flight across the ocean with a defective motor. Possibly No. 3 would regain compression when warmed up. I finished my engine drill, checking the tappet clearances, inspecting the petrol filter, replenishing the oil, etc., then finished loading the petrol, and packed away my tools and gear. In the hope of a faint off shore breeze, I taxied out to sea, to fly back into it.
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The seaplane ploughed through the water and bumped, but never approached take-off speed. Then there seemed to be a sea breeze, so I tried heading out to sea. At the end of a long run, hitting a succession of larger swells, the seaplane swerved to starboard, and I felt that I was beginning to capsize. I closed the throttle, quickly, mopped the sea water off my face, and wiped my goggles clear of water and the evaporated salt. With the motor ticking over, I let the seaplane move on slowly seawards. The pounding must have been a terrific strain. Turning was oddly difficult; I thought that this was because of the lumpy sea, but really it was due to the starboard float’s being half full of water, though I did not know about it at the time. I had to use bursts of motor at full throttle to turn, and then, with the floats settled in deep, the propeller time after time hit heavy spray, or nearly solid wave crests with a crack which made the seaplane quiver from end to end. It was nervy work, watching the rough water ahead, and closing the throttle every time I saw a curling crest in front of the propeller. I had to keep on wiping the spray from my goggles.
I reached down for the thick volume of Raper’s Log Tables on the bottom of the cockpit, and sat on the books to get a better view. The seaplane felt heavy in the water, like a log of wood. She would get up speed on the crest of a swell, and perhaps shoot off it, only to strike the rise of the next swell. There the floats ploughed in deep, and the seaplane slowed down again. How about trying across the swell? I remembered the words of the seaplane training manual, ‘A cross-wind takeoff along the line of the swell is an extremely hazardous proceeding, and should not be attempted except by the most experienced seaplane pilot, and only then in cases of emergency.’
But I should never get off into the swell, so I headed along the line of swell, and opened the throttle. The seaplane gained more speed than before, swayed and rocked, knocking the waves. It was much harder to control, made a big jump into the air, yawed to the right, and came down slightly across its course. A bigger jump, and a worse yaw made me realise that little more would be needed to sheer off the floats, or to capsize the plane. I was now well out to sea, picking up rough water of a deep-purple blue. It was solitary out there. I had a feeling that my personality had split, and that I was watching myself futilely struggling. I was weary all through.
After one more try, I decided to make for Duncombe Bay, 2% miles farther on from Cascade. Off Bird Rock, between the two bays, I had to nag at the controls the whole time, to get through the cross sea safely. Suddenly I heard a loud scream behind my head, and twisted round as if I had been stabbed! This was one place where I felt sure I was alone, and I was more startled because I had never before heard a noise above that of the engine roar. It was a large bird, with spread wings, outstretched neck and pointed bill, swooping at my head. (The bird was a sheerwater, called ‘mutton bird’ by the islanders.) I ducked, but the bird swept on, turned, and then flew straight at the propeller. I watched anxiously, wondering if it could see the flying blades. It spun round when a few inches from them. Dozens of the birds appeared, whirling, screeching, and just missing me, while I cursed at them, knowing that the propeller would be smashed if it hit one. When at last I reached Duncombe, the water was smoother, and I decided to try once more before testing the bilges. Here the breeze was parallel with the cliffs, and to get the longest run as close under the cliffs as possible, where the water was calm, I threaded a way through craggy rocks to the far side of the bay. But these efforts to take off failed too. I switched off the motor, and wondered how I could test the bilges. I had no bilge pump, and if I removed the manholes, the floats would promptly be swamped by the waves. I dug out a rubber tube, and pushed one end down the pipe leading to the bottom of a float compartment. The other end I sucked, but there was no water in that bilge. From the fourth compartment I sucked a mouthful of water. I began sucking the water up three or four feet, and spitting it out. I was squatting in my socks, with one knee on the float, my feet awash, and waves lapping me to the waist. Now and then the floats submerged with a gurgle, and broke surface again like toy submarines, with water streaming away each side. The water was not really cold, but clammy. My mouth began to ache, my cheeks grew sore where they were drawn against my teeth, and soon my jaw muscles began to cramp. After half an hour’s sucking, I reckoned that I had drawn up four gallons, and my jaws ached as if they had been hit with a pole. I no longer had the strength to spit the water out, but could only open my mouth, and let it fall out. Then my mouth jammed altogether with cramp. I could think of no other way of pumping the bilges, so replaced the cap on that bilge pipe, and left the rest unplumbed.
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