Escapade in Woodlark waters


SAMARAI-Murua electorate in Milne Bay is a vast and isolated area with hot tropical and romantic Islands scattered over the Solomon Sea.
These islands range from the rugged mountainous, thick jungles with fresh rivers and water holes like the Woodlark and Misima Islands to white sandy flat atolls lined with coconut trees like Egom that frequently face water shortages.
This electorate is abundantly blessed in history, people, gold, rare black ebony wood and marine resources. The electorate also borders Solomon Islands and has many far-flung inhabited atolls surrounded by tranquil lagoons, like Budibudi in the Woodlark group of islands.
But the main ones are Samarai, Woodlark, Misima, Sudest and Rossell. And it is very challenging to travel to any of these Islands which the only means of transportation is by sea craft (boats, dinghies and traditional sailing canoe). And dangers like rough seas and pirates await anyone who dares to cross the open high seas between Alotau and these Islands.
I experienced a near mishap on Jan 14 when the boat mv Arona which I was travelling developed engine problems and stopped on the high open seas with swells of about 1.5 meters and wind speed of about 20 knots. And it was about 6pm with night falling. I was in the company of Samarai-Murua MP Isi Henry Leonard, Post Courier journalist Frank Rai, four Port Moresby-based Lands officers and four Alotau-based policemen plus the nine crew and nine other passengers including a baby.
And that was a frightening time of my life as the hapless Arona tossed dangerously on the swells as I hurried out to the stern while balancing and bracing my self-against the wall of the boat.
We had developed engine problems about eight nautical miles out after leaving Guasopa station on Woodlark Island bound for Misima. The Arona was traveling at a top speed of eight knots when the water pump broke down. The function of the pump is to pump out water from the engine as part of the engine cooling system.
And so the engine overheated and stopped leaving the vessel and at the mercy of the swelling waves forcing the boat to list heavily on any side as it was tossed around like a plastic container. I must admit that I really prayed for the safety of all the passengers on boat as it took a very lo-oong 20 minutes for the engineers to get the engine working.
While the engineers were working in the engine, the boat was dangerously tossing around and everyone on board had to brace themselves and hold on to whatever firm frame on board. My mind was already into survival mode, working out how I would wear a life jacket and how to board the life raft … and, well how I would swim in the sea and get rescued, if we capsized.
On board also were some Woodlark islanders who wanted to go to Misima for a traditional ceremony and they brought a pig and baskets of yams, taros and bananas. There was a mother and her baby on board as well. And I can tell you that it was every one for him/her self.
We were really at the mercy of the waves and at that instant. I became expert in determining the height of the oncoming wave and calculated how high the boat would rise and fall if that wave hit the boat. The captain could not do much because with the engine operating, he would maneuver and balance the boat by navigating the swells, current and wind. Without the engine, the boat was vulnerable to the angry sea.
Finally a very welcoming sound of the engine coughed to life but was not functioning to the fullest. And so the Samarai-Murua District Development Authority Chief Executive Officer Wilson Henry advised the captain, Rey Eli to cut short the trip and turn back to Woodlark, in order to completely overhaul the engine to function to its full capacity. The five day trip was supposed to go from Alotau to Woodlark to Misima to Samarai and back to Alotau.
The trip was for the Lands officers to resurvey the state leases of these islands as these lands were obtained by the British Crown in the 1800s especially the Woodlark Island where about 80 per cent of the land, without the knowledge of the natives, was obtained. It was because of the rich gold deposit and the black ebony trees. Also the state lease on Misima and Samarai had to be resurvey for these lands to be free in order for the DDA to carry out developments for the people.
And so the engineers reduced our speed from 8knots to 6 knots to minimise the pressure on the fragile engine and we returned back to Woodlark and anchored at Waviai atolls just off shore of the main Woodlark Island at about 10pm.

Egom Islanders greeting the visitors with warm smiles.

So the engines took about four hours to fix it as we anchored at the shelter of the atolls. The crew prepared our late dinner and we had it. We drank coffee, told stories, fishing just to pass the time. MP Henry advised the captain that we just had to cut short our trip and return to Alotau as he has to attend the first provincial assembly meeting to pass the budget.
All of us dozed off while the engineers were thoroughly fixing up the engine. And so at about 3am on the Jan 14 the Arona’s engine revved into full capacity and we headed for Alotau on an 18-hour trip. Along the way we stopped at Egom Island to cook our lunch because the sea was rough so the crew was unable to cook while sailing.
At about 2pm, the Arona raised her anchor and once again set off to Alotau. We were too tired that we slept in whatever cramped up space we could find aboard.
Finally we sailed through the bay and berthed at Alotau at about 6am on Jan 17.
We came out of the boat very relieved as we stretched our legs and hands because we were cramped up in there while travelling for five days. We also scrambled for the mobile network to make calls, text, what sap or surf our Facebook to catch up with families, friend … basically to find out what was happening in the world while we were cut off sailing because there was no network coverage on Woodlark.
MP Henry Leonard also made arrangements for the Woodlark passengers to continue to Misima on a dinghy with their pigs and yams.
This was an experience for me to understand the hazards of travailing in coastal provinces like Milne Bay where unfortunately many passengers lost their lives traveling in such manner.

Leave a Reply