x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Welcome to ... Tristan da Cunha

Among its unexpected attributes, ocean sailing can get you thinking about playing surfaces and see you wind up on the remotest of islands.

Tony Mutter and crew watching TV in the team's Tristan da Cunha housing.
Tony Mutter and crew watching TV in the team's Tristan da Cunha housing.

Among its unexpected attributes, ocean sailing can get you thinking about playing surfaces.

There's the football grass (100-110 metres by 64-73 metres internationally). There's the basketball floor (28.65 by 15.24 NBA, 28 by 15 internationally). There's the cricket pitch (20.12 by 3.05 with varying fields), the hockey ice (61 by 26 NHL), the rugby fields (112-122 by 68 league, roughly 144 by 70 union).

In this vein, golfers become daring adventurers, and in that vein, round-the-world ocean sailors become peerless.

Their playing field is the fifth-largest planet in the Solar System, and it refuses to remain stationary. It roils. It jostles. It specialises in mood swings.

It can force contestants into unimaginable scenarios.

Until recently, not even the geography freaks among us knew very much about Tristan da Cunha.

Yet here on the western edge of South Africa, the Volvo Ocean Race-minded among us suddenly have become Tristan da Cunha armchair experts capable of spitting out casually the phrase "remotest inhabited island on Earth".

Because the Puma boat Mar Mostro broke its mast out in the Atlantic and had to repair to Tristan da Cunha to await its ship, we have learned.

Some of us have even stood in Cape Town hallways trading Tristan da Cunha facts.

We know it lies idly 2,816 kilometres from South Africa and 3,360 from South America. We know it has no airstrip. We know it can be a chore accessing even by boat.

We also know one nearby island has one of the all-time great names - Inaccessible Island - and some know now of the Inaccessible Island Rail, the world's smallest flightless bird.

Some of us have wondered why Tristan's population gets listed at 262 and 264 and 270 and 275, as if they cannot just go out and count everybody.

Overseeing country: United Kingdom. National anthem: God Save The Queen. Governor: in Saint Helena, 2,430 kilometres away. Currency: pounds sterling but, until the Second World War, bartering (potatoes, cigarettes). Economic mainstay: lobster processing plant.

It has one full-time police officer, one expatriate doctor, five nurses, seven surnames that include "Swain," which caused inter-crew joshing of Puma's South African sailor Jonathan Swain.

It apportions livestock so nobody gets too rich.

A volcanic eruption in 1961 destroyed its crayfish factory, and residents got evacuated to the English village of Calshot, in Hampshire, where they first saw cars, and stayed two years.

They basically enjoyed it but they lacked immunities and caught flu.

"In England, if you ain't got money, you can't live," one evacuee told the BBC this year on the 50th anniversary. "In Tristan, you can kill a sheep, catch a fish or grow potatoes, and still have a happy life."

The Puma guys have hung out since Saturday morning, when Sean Burns, the Tristan administrator, and a fellow official motored out to greet them.

"They are now settling into their accommodation," Burns wrote in the Tristan Times, "in good spirits and busy freshening up and tucking into a good breakfast. We have opened up our shop [usually closed on Saturdays] so they can get emergency supplies."

The sailors, with two staying on the boat each night to babysit the anchorage, have extolled the meals, stayed in two adjacent guesthouses and awaited a ship from South Africa.

They hope to make Cape Town by December 6 but in the meantime, they have played the nine-hole, volcano-side golf course where, as the media crew member Amory Ross wrote, "Hazard = cows".

"And while the scenery certainly lived up to its reputation," Ross wrote, "we were insulted by some of the on-site manners.

"Several club members kept eating grass and among other things, the occasional golf ball. One bull of an occupant wouldn't get out of my way; he just stood there staring."

Locals have organised island tours. An internet cafe has three computers - a fishing boat brought satellite materials in 2006 - for an aching gaze at victorious Telefonica's Cape Town arrival.

And through this unparalleled playing field of an unwieldy sport, the rest of us can end up choosing a favourite official Tristan tourism warning from these candidates:

- "Please note the Island's Government allots visitors to appropriate guesthouses to ensure fairness."

- "Occasionally trust can be abused and islanders may well be shy and resentful to visitors who approach with a camera raised and whose purpose may appear to be to report to the outside world with very limited knowledge."

- "Be aware of the importance of the seasons in regard to wildlife: You will see no Rockhopper Penguins ashore in July or Atlantic Yellow-Nosed Albatross chicks until January."

They are talking Rockhopper Penguins and Yellow-Nosed Albatross.

Sometimes footballers can seem so limited.