Home > Online Magazine > Online Magazine: Edition 57 - Spring (Sep-Nov) 2015 > The Ulawa Island Adventure (by W. Errol Wright)
The Ulawa Island Adventure
by W. Errol Wright
It was time to face another life threatening voyage on the choppy seas that separate the Solomon Islands. Most of the inter-island travel is by small ships or canoes. Canoes are convenient as they can negotiate shallow water and sunken reefs. They can also be dragged up onto sandy beaches out of harms way.
The thirty foot dugout canoes are the safest and most comfortable, especially in rough seas. But they are heavy, requiring a powerful motor and when loaded, rather slow. The alternative is a flimsy eighteen or twenty foot, fibre-glass canoe with a small cover over the front section for personal items that need to be kept dry. They are rather close to the water line so when the three seats are occupied and freight is added, it is normal to ship a quantity of water. These canoes are light, fast and dangerous.
This, my first visit to the isolated island of Ulawa was for a District Meeting. We would travel in our Mission's smallish, fibre-glass canoe which would be propelled by a forty horse-power outboard motor. We would be experiencing a long and treacherous journey that would include quite a distance of open ocean. We felt quite confident about the trip as we put our lives in God's protective care. However, it would have been wise to have had life preservers and even flares. But we were travelling the island way.
We left Honiara, the provincial capital of Guadalcanal just as the rising sun was casting shadows across the gentle waves. We knew it would be hot, as every day in the Solomon Islands is hot. But we had no idea how the weather would behave.
The fragile canoe was heavily loaded with bags of rice, our personal belongings, a fisherman's esky which occupied the centre space of the canoe and four spare containers of petrol.
Under the heavy lid of the esky, we had stowed away a portable generator, a video player, a projector, cables, a rolled up screen, lots of video tapes and various items for the meetings that would commence on Thursday evening. The program would conclude the following Sunday night.
Our team consisted of Henry, our experienced skipper, Pastor Newton Garlo and myself. It would be a full program with only Newton and myself to share the three days of intensive, spiritual and instructive meetings. Our only rest would be the Saturday night video show. It would be the local church pastor's responsibility to care for the morning devotionals.
The first leg of the journey would take us across Iron Bottom Sound to the Southern point of the Florida Islands which form a barrier between Guadalcanal and Malaita. The sea was peaceful as we sped along enjoying the flying fish, the occasional pod of dolphins and the many curious sea-birds.
We soon caught sight of the misty mountains of Malaita as we whizzed past the rocky out-crops of Southern Florida. Two hours later we arrived at Afatara our vocational school on the coast of Malaita. Here we enjoyed a rest and some refreshments while the staff topped up our petrol supply ready for the second leg of the adventure down the coast of South Malaita.
It was quite exhilarating, speeding along the coast observing the sea-side villages with the forested mountains in the background. The sea was like glass so we made good time. A small bay provided us with shelter while we ate our lunch and refilled the special tank which supplied the thirsty motor.
We were well into the afternoon when we reached the Southern tip of Malaita. Another quiet cove gave us the chance to refuel and prepare ourselves for the long stretch of open sea that lay between us and the faint shape of Ulawa. After prayer, we charged into a very different, badly behaved sea. We quickly discovered what it means to be out in the ocean in a small open canoe.
Newton sat at the front, holding onto the small bow cover sheltering the rice, which was wrapped in sheets of plastic. There was just enough space for an auxiliary motor and some bedding. His face was constantly covered with salt water as we plunged into the contrary waves.
We were now shipping water as there wasn't a whole lot of free board. From where I was sitting, on the esky, I didn't have to lean far in order to reach the waves that were sloshing over the gunwale. I sat facing Henry with my back to what lay ahead. It was my habit to face the driver as my peace of mind was influenced by the expressions on his face!
Most of my itineraries involved trips in canoes. Some good, and some just plain terrifying. The chartered voyages were always the scariest. The motors were always too small and mostly needed a dose of cough mixture. On one occasion, the motor was spluttering so badly that the driver decided to check the plugs. As he was removing the second plug, he dropped it in the water. We just sat and stared at each other. Not a word was said. How grateful we were for a passing canoe whose driver was equipped with a spare spark plug.
On this occasion, I wasn't in the mood to reflect on past adventures. The one on hand was looking bad enough. Henry looked quite relaxed but was kept more than busy bailing out the unwanted sea water. We were glad that we had a reliable motor that had been serviced in preparation for this voyage. It hummed encouragingly as we weaved and plunged in and around the churning sea.
After nearly three hours of battling the ocean waves, we came to the West Coast of Ulawa. None of us had been there before so we had no idea where the little cove was where we were to land. We were looking for a spotter who would be waving a white towel, however the rough, rocky coast-line kept us at a respectful distance. It was now late in the afternoon and our petrol supply was getting dangerously low. We had to make land fall before dark or we would drift around until we were smashed to pieces on the rocks.
It was a huge relief when Newton excitedly pointed to a moving object. There on a monstrous rock standing alone in the boiling surf, a small distance from the beach was a lad waving a white towel. Now came the tricky bit. We had to reach the beach without being swamped by the crashing waves. As we approached, we could see about a dozen strong men up to their waists in the shallows. When they signalled for us to shoot for the beach on the tail of a big wave, Henry gunned the engine and we raced for the sand.
As soon as the bow of the canoe touched the beach, the handlers grabbed the sides of the canoe and carried us out of the water and onto dry land before the next breaker could swamp us. We made it. I could taste the relief as I shook hands with the waiting crowd of happy, laughing islanders.
A quick meal, a cold wash to bath away the salt water and a clean dry outfit had us ready for the evening meeting. The "Clem Long" church (a pre-fab building designed and constructed by Clem Long a Sydney engineer) was filled to capacity with brightly dressed, friendly people who were most grateful for our visit to their isolated island. The singing was delightful as was the cool breeze that came in time to relax us after the long voyage.
While the locals were grateful for the bags of rice, we discovered that there was a shortage of home grown vegetables. Evidently they had experienced a hard winter which hampered their usually good growing season. They kept apologizing for the lack of variety. Henry and Newton were quite content with the rice and tinned fish meals but I hung out for vegetables. Even the papaws were in short supply and there were no pineapples or citrus fruits, so the menu was quite spartan.
By the time Sunday night came around we detected some grumbling in the kitchen. Even the chooks seemed to be on strike. It looked as though our plan to do some visiting around the villages needed to be revised. The sooner we headed for home the better for all concerned.
There was one problem. The Westerly wind that whips up the sea and usually comes in September was two weeks early. Our plan was to be in and out before the dreaded Westerly arrived. Now we faced a dilemma mainly due to the food shortage. We needed to be on our way in spite of the treacherous sea.
To stress the seriousness of our situation, the village elders came with serious warnings concerning the Westerly's effect on the sea. They declared that there wasn't a Ulawan who would venture out in the sea at this time of the year. We decided to have a prayer season to plead our cause and ask the Lord to make the wind die down. Very earnest prayers ascended upward that night.
When the elders left, Henry made a speech. He declared that we had to put our faith into action. We should prepare the canoe for an early departure in the morning. So we fuelled up the tanks, packed the esky, loaded the canoe with our gear and said our goodbyes. I must admit that sleep didn't come easy.
The howling wind woke us before daylight as it rattled the loose iron and shook the bamboo walls of our hut. It was stronger than ever. Newton's opinion was that our faith was about to be tested out on the sea as the wind hadn't died down. I looked at Henry. He was the driver. Did he feel confident about our chances out there in the boiling ocean?
We decided to pack up our remaining belongings and head for the beach. The canoe looked good as it sat on the beach ready for action, but the sea was awful. It was a really hard decision to make. As we deliberated there on the beach, the village chief shared his opinion regarding our prospects. He declared that only a fool would venture out in that wild and unpredictable ocean.
Newton and I both looked at Henry. The wind could last for weeks. We were out of rice and the gardens were almost depleted. Besides, we all had things to do and appointments to meet. If Henry was willing to face the ordeal, we were willing to put our lives in his hands and ask the Lord to protect us as we threw ourselves into a contest with the angry elements. As we stood staring out at what confronted us, it reminded me of a washing machine.
After prayer, Henry nodded his head. Yes! He was willing to face the onslaught. The people thought we were crazy and plead with us not to go. We thanked them for their concern and climbed into the canoe. The engine started first pull and chugged away in neutral as the men positioned themselves for the rush into the surf.
As soon as the observers shouted for us to move, the men rushed the canoe into the waves like a surf life-saving, rescue boat. After the first wave, Henry had the engine in gear and we were heading for the second boomer that threatened to swamp us there and then. But to our amazement, the canoe rose over the swell and dropped us down into the trough ready for the next angry wave.
Half an hour after leaving the beach, we were only a stone's throw away as we battled the worst sea I had ever experienced. Newton was clinging to the front cover with wide eyes as he expected the next wave to be our last. I sat clinging to the sides of the esky as the canoe banged and bashed its way over the crashing waves. I could still see the group of frightened islanders as they stood around the beach waiting for us to be swallowed by the cantankerous churning sea.
Henry sat bolt upright with his face bathed in salt water. He held the steering arm in one hand and furiously bailed out with the other. I tried to help with the bailing, but was forced to hold on with both hands as we rocked and rolled in a most alarming fashion. However the effort proved my undoing. Suddenly, I was overcome with sea sickness.
I had weathered rough seas, stormy seas and huge swells without a touch of squeamishness but this terrifying, ordeal was another story. As the island shrank in the distance, we found ourselves out in the middle of a vast ocean. The enormity of the situation struck home. For the first time, I tasted fear.
I could no longer balance on top of the esky and needed to be closer to the sea that was receiving all the meals devoured over the weekend. I slid down to the floor of the canoe where I sat in a pool of sloshing soup consisting of salt water, petrol and second-hand food. Very soon I got to the point where I didn't care if the canoe sank into the deep green depths. I was so occupied with my sickness that I forgot to be frightened.
As we struggled on, the bilge increased to an alarming hight. Henry wanted to know where all the water was coming from as his frantic bailing made little difference. He called out to Newton to check the covered area at the bow to see if there was a hole. What he found was not good news. The steering arm of the auxiliary motor had made a hole in the side of the canoe as big as his fist as it had bounced about with the bucking of the canoe. Newton quickly removed his t-shirt, rolled it into a wad and stuffed it into the hole.
My condition was getting serious as we were only two hours out from Urawa and it was still two hours before we came under the lea of South Malaita. Soon we would need to replenish the petrol tank that fed the motor but how to manage such a tricky manoeuvre in this sea was beyond imagination. We would have to pray that the tank lasted the distance. This would be the first miracle of the journey.
We were travelling at half our normal speed as Henry worked his way through the contrary waves. As he tried to follow lanes between the churning water, we wandered about instead of following a straight course. It was a great blessing that we had a reliable motor but it was drinking at a faster rate than normal as we battled a fierce head wind that was driving the swell straight at us.
At times I was close to losing consciousness as I rolled from side to side trying to focus on the horizon. I had nothing left to feed the fish but the dry reaching was giving me stomach cramps. Eventually I fell asleep and didn't come to until the motor stopped. We were a few yards from a sandy beach at the Southern end of Malaita.
As soon as we had refuelled, we sped up the coast of Malaita and into a large bay. It was wonderful to be speeding over calm water. We were heading for an Adventist clinic where we planned to spend the night.
The nurse and her Pastor husband came running when they heard our approach. After tying up to the wharf, we just sat while our minds and bodies adjusted to the peace and quiet of the beautiful surroundings. I tried to stand but was unable to get my legs working. I had to be carried to the little bush material home next to the clinic. The nurse's husband took me to their bath house where he bathed me in warm water.
After some tasty, warm chicken soup, I collapsed onto a clinic bed and slept the sleep of the just. The next day, after worship, the three of us sped out of the bay and continued to battle the rough seas declaring that never again would we go on canoe trips in August.
About an hour of bouncing about, I was back into sea-sick mode. As we were heading for Afatara to refuel our tanks, I decided to stay around the School until the evening flight from Honiara came to collect passengers. Henry and Newton agreed to continue the canoe journey back to Honiara.
On many occasions, the three of us shared our astonishment at how the Lord preserved our lives when we should have been swamped out in the ocean. Then there was the way the petrol lasted until we could fuel up in quiet waters. I was often reminded of the kind hospitality of the two faithful workers and their lovely family who cared for us with such compassion.
The Ulawa adventure has remained in my memory as though it happened yesterday. It was one of those experiences that firms ones faith in the Lord's promises. But maybe I can be forgiven if I still shudder when I contemplate how close we were to joining the many canoe travellers who never reach their destinations.
"Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honour him." Ps.91:14,15. ESV.
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