International Writers Magazine: Sailing Java
DRIFTWOOD TO ONTONG JAVA.
the morning of 15th September 1974, a twenty-seven foot, wooden
sailing boat named Driftwood, set sail from Gizo harbour bound
for the remote atoll of Ontong Java, most northerly of the Solomon
Islands. On board this bright blue and white vessel were three
young adventurers: Ray Dark, twenty-seven, my wife Kajsa, twenty-one
and myself, twenty-four.
ISLANDS stretch from the Shortland Islands bordering Papua New
Guinea to Anuta in the Santa Cruz Group. Six large islands, Choiseul,
New Georgia, Isabel, Guadalcanal, Malaita, and Makira, form the
core of this vast country, which is second only to Papua New Guinea
in size among the South Pacific islands.
Ray, the owner
of the boat and the only sailor amongst us, had estimated that it would
take a week to navigate from Gizo in the Western Province, weaving through
the northern group of islands, out to Ontong Java. We had planned to
spend another week on the atoll, anchoring in the L-shaped lagoon, and
visiting one of the two small villages.
Kajsa and I had been living in Gizo for three months, where we had been
helping Phil Palmer, the son of a resident Englishman, set up the only
mechanics workshop on the island. We had met Ray by chance in
the expatriates bar by the sea, where we came to exchange stories
with foreign government workers, on contract to help the Islanders towards
independence. Ray had sailed into the harbour that day, conspicuous
by the fact that Gizo then only had a trickle of visiting private boats.
The bar itself was a simple shack, selling only one brand of beer, advertised
by the mountain of empty Castlemaine XXXX bottles piled against the
Are you just passing through? I asked.
Yes. Ive been here before and Im just preparing a
journey north. Ray replied. I noticed his intense brown eyes and
prominent full beard. What are you guys doing here?
Long story really. Always wanted a big adventure, and this is
it. I laughed.
That evening we all three got on well. Ray was English, quite eccentric,
yet practical and down to earth. He had been working as a refrigeration
engineer in Indonesia and was used to sailing around in his twelve-year
old boat. The beer had relaxed us, and by the end of the evening Ray
had invited us to sail with him to Ontong Java, leaving us both excited
at the prospect of more adventure.
Watch that boom Chris! Ray yelled, as we lurched to avoid
one of the many coral reefs out of Gizo harbour. We were on our way
at last, after two weeks of busy preparation. Although I was practical,
I knew little about sailing. We were, however, to learn more than we
had bargained for in the following weeks.
It was beautifully sunny and cool in the morning breeze. We slid easily
through the water. I was gazing dreamily at the multicoloured coral
beneath the clear sea, when, suddenly, Driftwoods keel grated
over the reef. We slowed almost to a halt. I had even been musing over
the shallowness of the water, but had not thought to mention it.
Sorry! Ray shouted. Tricky waters.
As long as weve got life jackets on board, I dont
mind, I joked. Kajsa was a good swimmer, but I was hopeless in
Dont have any of those on board mate. Cant you swim?
I thought for a second that he was joking, but I was to learn that Ray
carried little equipment on his travels. He had no communications radio
and preferred sextant and charts for navigation. On clear nights he
sailed by the stars.
By early afternoon we had reached the straits between the small island
of Kolombangara (known locally as Sleeping Princess due
to its silhouette) and the large island of New Georgia. Ray had warned
of choppy seas ahead, where currents from deep channels met. Nothing,
however, could have prepared us for the storm we encountered. Just as
we thought we had reached the roughest part of the sea a sudden squall
hit us. Black clouds had raced towards us at unbelievable speed. Ironically
I, the landlubber, was at the helm of poor Driftwood. Ray had been teaching
us to share the helm for the long journey ahead. I remember the wind
hitting us full broadside, tipping the boat until the sails were almost
parallel to the water. The wind died quickly, and Driftwood started
righting herself. Then came a new, almighty gust of wind. The old timber
mast could not withstand such force. The top third snapped like a dry,
dead branch, trapping the sail. The wind hit the flapping sailcloth
and tossed the boat around like a cat with a defeated mouse. But we
remained afloat, and just sat, shaken and dazed. Ray soon responded
by slackening the sail as best he could, and we waited, bobbing up and
down on the angry sea. When the storm had passed, I helped Ray to lash
the sail. He then started the small inboard motor to get us limping
back to Gizo, bedraggled and miserable. At least we would have a good
story for the bar.
We got back just before dark, and spent the evening recovering in the
bar. We resolved to get the mast fixed and try again, even though the
Solomon barman warned of the impending cyclone season.
Ray, ever resourceful, managed to locate some Oregon pine suitable for
the mast via Brother John, a Catholic missionary and mine of local information.
Ray and I set to work on the long timbers.
day came to drop the mast into Driftwoods hull. With no cranes
available, we had to cajole the skipper of a vast cargo ship anchored
in the bay to lift the mast vertically and high enough for the operation
to be successful. He was a kind man, only there to pick up shipments
of copra for the Lever Brothers.
Somehow we had to
get the mast alongside the ship. Ray commanded me to row
Driftwoods tiny dinghy out to the ship, towing the floating mast
behind me. Although I was growing used to fear now, I confess I was
terrified as I rocked in the dinghy beside the towering, rusty steel
side of the ship. My mission was to grab a giant hook as it descended
from the ships crane, then attach it to the rope noose around
the top of the mast. The dangling hook swung menacingly above my head.
Somehow I managed to do my job without falling seaward and drowning.
Ray and Kajsa did the rest.
Here we go again! Ray chuckled as we set sail once more.
I was beginning to feel like a hardened sailor as we slipped past the
velvet green rain forest of the islands. The day and the sea were calm.
Flying fish, chased by larger fish, escaped by whirring above the smooth
water. Frigate birds wheeled high in the cloudless skies above. Terns
raced to splashing shoals of fish and the frigate birds dived like Stuka
bombers to steal their share.
That night we anchored in a small inlet at the northern tip of New Georgia
and were rocked to sleep like babes in a crib by the gentle motion of
The anchors damn well stuck, complained Ray when we
tried to leave the following morning. He dived over the side and disappeared.
Stuck between rocks, but I worked it loose! he grinned as
Soon we were heading out across New Georgia Sound, aiming to reach Wagina
on the far side before late afternoon. The sea was moderate, but we
soon hit a strong swell as we left shelter of land. A good wind helped
us along, and a school of dolphins came to play with Driftwood, momentarily
dispelling our concerns about the journey ahead. We crossed the Sound
without mishap, even managing to catch fish by using trolling lines
behind the boat. Once I felt a heavy weight on one of the lines.
Probably a sea-mackerel, Ray suggested.
But the line went slack. I turned to see a shark stealing most of the
fish, leaving the head gripped to the hook. It stalked us for a while.
I could see the white tip of its fin way behind the boat, but eventually
it slunk off.
afternoon found us sailing peacefully up the channel between Rob
Roy Island and Wagina. However, to our horror we saw that the still
water was alive with large, writhing yellow and black sea snakes,
wriggling up to the surface then diving back down into the clear
depths. We hurried on and arrived at Wagina village in the late
afternoon, unsure of the nature of our welcome.
We were met by a
group of men, women and curious, laughing children. Luckily, the village
was inhabited by Gilbert and Ellis Islanders, Polynesians who were renowned
for their friendliness. They proudly showed us their village of pandanus
huts. A small stream ran through it. I was sad to see a large sea turtle
tied on its back by the water. I asked in my bad Pidgin English
Why you fella taeim thisfala turtle?
Mifala keepim turtle an eatim by an by, one smiling
Shame they couldnt keep it in water at least, I whispered
That evening we were amazed to find that the entire village wanted to
hold a party in honour of our visit. We were ushered to the large maneaba
or meeting hut, where we were asked to sit on freshly cut fronds of
coconut palms. The whole village seemed to arrive. Old and young, men
and women, took places on mats in the centre, whilst four men sat around
a large tin tea chest at the front. A group of dignified elders sat
at the far end. The men started beating a rhythm on the tin with bare
hands, and the entire throng erupted in polyphonic song. Grannies at
the top of their shrill voices, men with deep bass and tenor, children
and women with warm high voices. A line of swaying young women appeared
at the hut entrance, adorned with garlands of flowers, bearing parcels
of food wrapped in banana leaves. They danced towards us, lay the food
in front of us, and placed garlands round our necks. Never had I felt
so honoured. The food, hot chicken, sweet potatoes and plantain, was
delicious. We expressed our thanks.
The party began in earnest. Dancers, dressed in grass skirts, beads
and flowers, sang and moved, acting out stories. I was even asked to
help play the drum. We were then invited to display our dancing skills!
We did our best, feeling indebted by their hospitality. Eventually,
exhausted by the days excitement, we told one of our new friends
that we needed to head back to our boat to sleep.
Mefala mus askim olfala bilong us', he replied. Apparently they
had to go up to the group of overseeing elders to ask their permission.
The old men conferred and graciously gave us the nod. We offered profuse
thanks for our welcome and in return were given giant bunches of bananas
and more sweet smelling garlands to take back to the waiting Driftwood.
Next morning we set sail early, bananas tied to the back of the boat
and flowers in our hair.
Now for our real trial, said Ray, looking faintly comic
in his frangipani tiara. Well head for the tip of Santa
Isabel and then direct north to Ontong Java. Should take four days.
Soon we had reached the deep swell of the Pacific. Santa Isabel was
fast disappearing behind us, and a palatable sense of fear hung over
us. We could not touch our meal of fresh butterfish that evening.
Kajsa and I learned to navigate by the stars at night with Sirius as
our lodestar. We had never experienced night skies such as these. We
gazed in wonder at the thousands upon thousands of blazing stars.
Although the swell was deep, the sea was not rough. On the third night
we noticed the distant lights of a companion boat heading north. We
were later to learn that they were keeping well clear of Roncador Reef,
where many ships had been wrecked, and that we were perilously close.
Ray had miscalculated our sideways drift. This became worryingly apparent
on the fourth day, when although we should have arrived, Ontong Java
was nowhere to be seen. But Ray had the knack of somehow finding his
way. After a couple of hours he shinned up the mast and eventually yelled
out Land Ahoy with all the breath he could muster. All three
of us shouted with relief.
It was late in the afternoon when Driftwood surfed on foaming waves
through the tricky southern mouth of the atoll and we finally dropped
anchor in the tranquil lagoon of Ontong Java. Minutes later several
outrigger canoes, manned by smiling Polynesians, darted through the
water towards us. They shouted something about Sing-sing pati
bilong mifala and we sensed they wanted us to hurry ashore. We
climbed into their canoes and were escorted like visiting royalty to
the beach, where dry coconut palm fronds were being set alight. That
evening we would again experience a warm-hearted Polynesian welcome,
this time dancing and singing with the islanders to a mighty, crackling
blaze somewhere on a sandy beach in the vast, remote Pacific.
© Chris Parrish Oct 17th 2006
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