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Sailing the Solomons

Mad Englishman sails on a boat called the Driftwood through the Solomon Islands to Ontong Java in the ’70s – facing the perils of the reef and the pleasures of the natives along the way.

On 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. 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 outside wall.

‘Are you just passing through?’ I asked.

‘Yes. I’ve been here before and I’m 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.

In the evening the three of us got along 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, Driftwood’s 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 we’ve got life jackets on board, I don’t mind,’ I joked. Kajsa was a good swimmer, but I was hopeless in deep water.

‘Don’t have any of those on board mate. Can’t you swim?’ Ray retorted.

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.

The day came to drop the mast into Driftwood’s 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 Driftwood’s 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 ship’s 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 water.

‘The anchor’s 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 he surfaced.

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.

That 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 man explained.

‘Shame they couldn’t keep it in water at least,’ I whispered to Kajsa.

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 day’s 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. ‘We’ll 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

Chris is an extremely well-travelled woodworker and guitar-maker who lives with his family in England.