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The accidental hero – how Cornish sailor saved islanders

Since it was first claimed by a British whaling ship nearly 200 years ago, Europeans and Americans have been drawn to the remoteness of Kanton Island, a speck of land nestling in the Pacific between Hawaii and Fiji.

The development of long-range jet engines put an end to Western interest in the atoll, however, and its tiny population was consigned to a life of splendid if precarious isolation, reliant on regular supplies delivered by ship from the outside world.

Yesterday, a British sailor described how he discovered the "desperate and starving" inhabitants of Kanton after the vessel that was due to bring them food was delayed in port at Christmas Island for six weeks.

Alex Bond, from Penryn in Cornwall, was delivering a 33ft yacht from Hawaii to Brisbane when he went ashore at the World Heritage Site, only to be met by astonishing scenes. The 24-strong population – 10 of whom are children – were in dire need of food after being forced to survive on fish and coconuts for more than two months.

"They said to me 'Captain, we have no rice, please can you help us?'" he told The Independent. "They have no starch, no calcium, no bananas; all they have is fish and coconuts. These islanders are very resilient and stoical – a bit like we are in Cornwall.

"But this is the second time in four years that they really have been down to nothing. Nobody is dying, but the children have got very bowed legs, very serious calcium deficiencies and really bad teeth," he said.

Mr Bond, 46, alerted his home coastguard in Falmouth to the plight of the Kanton Islanders, who passed the request for help to the United States Coastguard, which is now planning to airlift supplies such as cooking oil, flour and sugar from its base on Samoa.

"These people are the caretakers of our world heritage. To think they are suffering and supplies are just a one-a-half-hour flight away is completely shameful to us as a world population," Mr Bond said. The sailor, who has worked with the Cornish humanitarian charity ShelterBox, said he and his two crew members planned to stay on and help the locals, having shared what supplies they could with them.

The island has plentiful stocks of harvested rainwater and its fishing waters are bountiful, having never been commercially exploited. But the population depends on imports for a balanced diet and needs supplies to keep its only radio transmitter in working order.

Britain and the US vied for control of the island before the Second World War, when it was a vital stopping off point for the Pacific Clipper flying boat service. During the ensuing conflict some 1,200 troops were stationed there and it was used as a base to attack the Japanese. The island is little more than a thin ribbon of coral enclosing a large lagoon, measuring just 14.5km from end to end, but it still has its airstrip.

The airlines pulled out in the 1960s and, after a short period when it was used by the US Air Force to track missiles, the Western powers packed up and went home. The British closed the post office in 1976 and Anglo-US condominium was ceded three years later when Kiribati became independent and assumed sovereignty.

The atoll was repopulated from other islands and in 2008 Kanton became part of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), the world's largest marine protected area.