By DAPHNE WANI
IMAGINE living at a time when there were no compasses, mobile phones, satellites, maps and other navigational tools and you were sailing against the high ocean swifts in a traditional canoe.
Your rations are running short, you have no money, no fresh water and there is no sign of green pastures or human habitation nearby. Crocodiles and sea pirates are a common danger.
Around you big waves come crashing down, throwing your canoe up and down and letting water in. You stand the test of time to bail out the water and are about to sail on when dark clouds assemble above the once clear blue sky.
You have no time to waste but ascend to your local knowledge of the weather and the survival tactics to sail around the second biggest island of the world – the island of New Guinea, home to Papua New Guinea to the east and the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua to the west. With roughly 6500 kilometres to cover, the island is still regarded as very remote and some places are downright dangerous.
The changing geography also demands very versatile sailing techniques and skills which is very challenging.
This is the story of 36-year-old Danish adventurer and illustrator Thor Jensen, who threw up his life in Copenhagen to embark on circumnavigating the whole island of New Guinea. His journey, which began at the Tawali Resort in Alotau last year is different in that he will be sailing in a traditional canoe.
Jensen claims he would be the first person in the world to attempt the trip not using a modern vessel.
His trip out of Milne Bay was on the canoe Tawali Pasana or reef flower in the local Milne Bay dialect. The name, Tawali Pasana, was adopted in gratitude to the Tawali Resort in Milne Bay that helped him launch his dream journey.
Jensen was accompanied by two of Milne Bay’s finest sailors Justin and Sanakoli John who assisted Jensen, live and sail like a local.
“I was very emotional and feels unreal (sic) as we set out on August 30, 2016 at 11pm,” Jensen said of the time the canoe was launched. For him a big dream was actually taking place but the prospects of success looked slim, as he had no money left and it was late in the monsoon season.
“The condition was very hard and the winds came down from the mountains with such velocity that the sail ripped as it was hoisted.”
He shed a few tears and laughed with joy and madness with the locals before they sailed out. Members of the crew were excited.
“After a few hours in rough seas I almost sank the canoe when I stepped out on the front of the outrigger. A wave made the whole canoe to dive into the waves and scoop up a lot of water. After 10 minutes of intense bailing we were sailing again.
“For a second, I thought it might be a bad omen but there was so much good energy on the canoe that I soon discarded that thought.”
One of the best parts of the trip for him was visiting Biem Island, situated 4km off the coast of the mighty Sepik River which he described as “a dream come true.” During his four years of research in Denmark he had wondered whether this small volcanic island truly existed as there was very little information about it.
“I was thrilled when we decided to aim for that island and avoid the big outflow of the Sepik River which might cause us some trouble. We arrived at the 685m-high island at night. There is no beach so we had to anchor.”
“In the morning all men from the village had come down to greet us. I was taken to the chief’s son and later I climbed to the top of the volcano with two of the locals.
“It was fascinating to see how they lived on this remote island that seldom had visitors from the outside.” On their second night on Biem, it rained heavily inland and the next morning everyone went out in their canoes searching for things drifting out to sea from the Sepik River.
Besides driftwood, the villagers found lots of valuable plastic items and sometimes even canoes or dinghies.
“Reaching this island was a dream come true, and psychologically a confirmation that my dreams could actually materialise – I was on the right track.” Jensen said.
After five months of navigating the Indonesian Papua, the Tawali Pasana and her crew will soon be crossing back into the PNG border in Western province. From there, they have only 1500km left to complete, the first known circumnavigation of the island of New Guinea in a traditional sailing canoe.
Jensen said they had been sailing through Papua during the least favourable time of year.
First it was against the might of the monsoon and its great Pacific swells, and second was when rounding Sorong (Indonesia) where saltwater crocodiles were a serious threat.
“The whole north coast of Indonesian Papua, from Jayapura to Sorong, was a great challenge, with two-metre rolling waves from the Pacific and the monsoon wind against us.
“Justin and Sanakoli really showed their exceptional skills as sailors and the capabilities of the canoe,” he said. Jensen said a desperate lack of funding has been a constant concern and the trio has had to rely on subsistence foraging to sustain them.
The people they encountered en route – from tribal chiefs to the Indonesian navy – have shown the three sailors great kindness, but, in the absence of promised funding from a provincial government, what has made possible the continuation of the record attempt were donations from loyal Facebook followers, thus ensuring that permits were secured, insurances paid and broken equipment replaced.
Despite dangerous seas, treacherous currents and an acute lack of funds, Indonesian Papua has been a great experience, rich in wonderful people, exciting cultures and pristine natural beauty.
The trio also left many new friends behind and are left with the feeling that they can easily spend a week more in most locations – especially now that their Bahasa Indonesia is improving.
The two PNG sailors are especially looking forward to being able to speak Tok Pisin again and getting a little closer to a reunion with their families in Milne Bay. But entering PNG does not mean the trio can “rest on their laurels.”
The first challenge is to cover the coastline from Merauke to Daru, which has a fearsome reputation for piracy. Then, the Fellowship of the Tawali Pasana, as their Facebook friends know them by, must safely navigate the delta of the biggest waterway on the island, namely the Fly River Delta; and after this there are hundreds of kilometres of exposed coastline before entering the waters of the capital Port Moresby and onwards through the treacherous seas of the rocky Suau coast.
Tawali Pasana has covered about 4400km. The last bit is expected to be completed in nine months.
“It is all about mentality, I have dedicated myself fully to this project, so I don’t see quitting as an option,” Jensen said.
There is constantly a problem, and we are always struggling for money however, the people we meet are so supportive and the island and sea is so beautiful, we also get a lot of good energy from our faithful supporters on Facebook: “The Fellowship of the Tawali Pasana.”
“This voyage might be undertaken by three men, but it is the people we encounter and our online community that makes this feat possible.”
Justin and Sanakoli are motivated by leaving a testimonial to their skills, showing the world what their canoes are capable of, and not least, doing their country honour.
And for Jensen, what does he get out of this trip?
“Things that money can’t buy – an unforgettable adventure, new friendships, experience, knowledge on how to sail and live like a PNG canoe sailor.”
By DAPHNE WANI