Paradise with a Purpose

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Originally published in Mahurangi Cruising Club Magazine, New Zealand and The Coastal Passage, Qld Australia 2009

Little did we think when we left the Louisiade Archipelago in Papua New Guinea October 2007, that we would be returning. Our sights were set on leaving from Darwin and sailing to Indonesia in 2008. But fate had other plans, or I should say, Eric Gray Had other plans for us! Christian and I have been sailing on Caesura since 2005 when we left sandspit New Zealand to sail overseas. Prior to this we had watched progress on Eric and Cathy Gray’s boat, Erica on our evening walks past the yacht club, never thinking our paths would cross again. However early in 2007 Erica happened to use the pile moorings on the river in Brisbane, Australia, just ahead of us. We have been sailing for three years together since then.

Our first cruise to the Louisiades was one of continual discoveries. We had never heard of the Louisiades until one night over a beer in the Irish Club in Brisbane I couldn’t contain myself. Listening to Eric and Cathy discussing their plans was just too much to bear. I wanted to go to discover this paradise almost on Australia’s doorstep too. So, we gave up our jobs and went. It was very much a getting to know you cruise where we visited as many of the islands as possible in the 150 nm long archipelago.

We had left Australia from Townsville which was a five-day crossing, until we made landfall at Panasia Island with its magnificent sheer cliffs and golden sands. However, the lagoon proved it could be treacherous as well as beautiful when we watched in horror as a yacht went up on the reef. Thank goodness she was a steel boat with a thicker than average hull. After 5 days of rescue work with the dim dims (white people) from 6 boats and a dozen or so islanders, using crowbars, chain and anchors she was pulled across the coral at 5m a day until she was safely afloat inside the lagoon. It proved a salutary warning of how quickly paradise can turn into hell.

The islanders live in poverty, living on average (this includes mainland Papua New Guinea) on one dollar a day. They are great mariners, building large outrigger sailing canoes to cover the distances between islands, using their boats to trade taro, tapioca, bananas, papaya, pumpkin and pigs with other islands. Sailing is a way of life. Islanders rarely get to a town and anyway do not have many opportunities to earn ‘kina’. There is a short ‘beche de mer’ diving season where these aphrodisiac delicacies are exported to Japan, Singapore and China. Some islands have small copra businesses, but the price for coconut oil is only just starting to go up and make it viable.

Unlike Tonga, Fiji and New Caledonia which we had visited in 2005 there is no tourism. In fact the Louisiades are remarkable for what they do not have. No power, no cars, no roads, no wheels. Just beautiful islands, clear waters and friendly people. 

As we sailed from island to island we noticed fiberglass banana boats lying on the beach, holed and useless from being dragged over the coral. Eric Gray, a boat builder, got to thinking about how he could put these boats to good use, as they obviously had cost someone a considerable amount of money. He came up with the concept of making a schooner, gaff rigged, Sharpie-like designed sailing boat out of two of them, by joining them stern to stern, widening the hull, and adding a cabin and a cockpit. No more running out of zoom (petrol). There is a market and a small hospital on the main island of the chain, Misima Island. Covered accommodation would be able to keep the goods and people dry on the way to market. Also, the sick and pregnant would be able to get to medical care in comfort.

Most importantly with this boat building project the islanders would learn how to use fibreglass, which is available on the mainland, so they could repair boats and water tanks. If they wished they could start a business fixing boats and water tanks on other islands. The more we discussed it, the more it seemed like a great idea. And a whole lot of fun too! So when Eric asked us if we would like to be partners in the project with Christian being responsible for the rigging, we talked way into the night before saying yes, and postponed the idea of our Indonesian voyage. 

Erica had talked about his vision to people on many islands before he received an enthusiastic response from one village, Valeha, on the island of Gigila. The Councillor there is a dynamic leader and he could see the benefit to his community. And, he had two holed banana boats. We said we would do all we could to raise funds and amass materials required and if we were successful, we would be back in a year or two. I felt sure the islanders did not expect to ever see us again. There were times when we, ourselves, thought we would never make it. But through kiwi ingenuity and perseverance, we did.  What a roller coaster ride!

We managed to get sponsorship from prominent Australian and New Zealand companies as well as from Lions and Lioness clubs where we gave talks. The year flew by. Cathy worked for many months as a nurse in outback Australia, I returned to New Zealand to work, whilst our men, Eric and Christian put our boats on the hardstand up the river at Maryborough on the Queensland coast to work on them for six months.

Pivotal to our success was the website I started with the help of friends to list our intentions and requirements for the project which created credibility and greatly assisted our funding efforts. I had bought the domain name ‘Cruise-aiders’ with the intention of starting a site as a coordination point for yachties with projects in the Pacific, so that people who wanted to help could, and those who needed assistance with things like transport or manpower or donations could advertise.

One problem was transport. How were we ever going to carry all the materials on our fully provisioned and already overloaded boats? There were six yachts in the cruise-aiders fleet departing from different ports in Queensland. In the end however, it was left to our two yachts to transport it all. On Caesura we had drums of resin, two masts, and some wood on the deck, rolls of fibreglass under the dining table and cans of paint raising the floor level in our cabin, and boxes upon boxes of school resources and used clothing. Erica had 24 sheets of plywood braced vertically against the housing for their drop keel which made access to the head into an obstacle course, and their guest cabin was full to bursting with boxes of donations.

We left from Bundaberg feeling the extra weight. It made progress slower and we were glad to arrive seven days later and have the village men come out and offload the materials. They were kept safely at Councillor Tony’s house as the boat shelter was not yet finished. Next morning we were trying to locate a huge bag of rags we had bought at an Op Shop for $5, only to find the rags all sewn together to make a huge quilt hanging on a clothesline behind the Councillor’s house.!

From that day, 23 July 2008, we were flat tack busy. Ten men, sometimes less as duty called, islanders and yachties, worked continuously on Toloyot as the islanders have named her. This means, yacht follower or groupie, those who trade with the yachties, in their language.

The first step was to put the two hulls stern to stern under the boat shelter and cut and separate the transoms, which we did with handsaws. The hulls of the two boats had their chines sawn off from stern to bow to increase the width to 2.2m. When the two hulls were aligned they measured 11.5m in length.

Next was the fiber-glassing. This entailed first erecting bamboo shelves and tables on which to work, as well as putting up extra shelter in the form of a couple of tarps. It rained often, probably more often than it was sunny. The islanders told us this was the wettest winter they had experienced in many years. Just our luck! It certainly held up work as well as making conditions unpleasant as the ground turned to a black slippery mud. Then the mosquitos would come out, so taking the ‘Mossie OFF’ along with our men’s smoko and lunch gear each day became the norm

Tony’s team of men did very well. They had not seen, let alone held, certain tools ever before. Holding scissors to cut the fibreglass mat was alien to some of them. They do everything with their bush knives, from cutting the grass, to cutting their hair and everything imaginable in between. 

They learned how to cut and lay fibreglass and how to mix (very carefully) our finite supplies of resin, catalysts etc. Naturally enough, mistakes were made which meant the resin went hard and was unusable. At some stage our stock became low. Luckily we were able to radio another of the fleet who was late leaving Cairns, for the them to bring us extra fiberglass and resin. Planning was difficult. Kiwi ingenuity did overtime. Erica and Caesura had to part with most of their own precious personal maintenance supplies of epoxy, glue, bolts, nuts, screws and plenty more. Because they have no electricity we also supplied our own generator.

We often had to improvise because the show just had to go on. Next the sole of the two boats were glassed together, followed by the stern hull sides where the transoms had previously been. Naturally there was a large gap between the sole of the boat and the newly separated sides which had to be filled. Waxed plywood was fitted, then used a mould to fibreglass and fill the gap. Frames and framing fiberglass were moulded and glassed to the hull. 

Whilst the general fiber-glassing of the hull was being done, a centerboard case was being made as a separate project, which included the making of the swinging centreboard.  Next, some bulkheads had to be made and fiber-glassed to make the hull rigid so it wouldn’t flex when we turned it over. Everyone in the village was keen to give a hand; men, women and kids.  This was a tricky operation with no crane and only a few logs to roll her on. 

It was then that the village held a celebration feast for us all. The village women spent all morning preparing big pots of taro, yams, tapioca, potatoes, huge mud crabs and plentiful lobsters. The men killed a pig. The dim dim  ‘white’ women made rice salad, bean salad and lots of cakes for dessert. Chocolate cakes were much in demand on such occasions. The feast was laid out on mats in the house of Tony, the head man, where we all sat down and enjoyed a social break together. After the meal we traded songs.  We dim dims were abysmally poor. The only song whose words we knew all the way through was Waltzing Matilda. We had obviously been away too long! However, the islanders sang song after song, effortlessly joining in with harmonies. The night rocked away to beautiful singing before we took our dinghies home under a magnificent canopy of stars. A magical end to a memorable time. 

Our bed times were usually not later than 20.30 hrs. Reveille was around 6.30am to share a dinghy to go into the village to work by 7.30am. The women listened to the yachties grapevine SheilaNet on the SSB to hear news of yachts on passage or at anchor and forwarded any newsworthy items. Then we women would walk along to the little bamboo school on the sand to teach, or visit homes to dispense medical care, explore the island with the medicine man/magistrate to leave them with a book we made of their ‘bush’ medicines or work on compiling a book with photos and words detailing the process of using fiberglass and the making of Toloyot. Meetings where plans for the day were discussed were held between yacht anchorages in the morning as we jumped from our boats into the clear water to swim and meet in the middle.  Also we would give a hand when needed at the building site.

Whilst the hull was upturned the aperture for the centerboard was cut and the case fitted. Before the hull could be turned right way up again, sacrificial wooden strips were glued and screwed on the bottom to protect the hull. More fiber-glassing and general faring was done then it was time for anti-fouling. 

As with most projects about half way through we hit a tired spot. It was time for time out. Roxanne, Erica, and Caesura spent the weekend at the blue lagoon, where we had all longed to go.  Another time we took some of the local men and sailed to an atoll on a reef with a lagoon that had a narrow entrance. Here we snorkelled and fished. Pure bliss!

Then it was back to work, refreshed, and onto the construction of the rudder system. Another separate project was making the masts, booms and rigging. Our rigging design was inspired by the well- known Optimist sailing dinghy, for its simplicity. We had been given two old masts and booms from 16 ft racing dinghies as well as some large aluminum tubes. First we had to deconstruct the masts and the booms before re-making them to suit our purpose for our schooner. Then we made the rigging out of what we could find in the bilges of Erica and Caesura, like cables, blocks, shackles, rivets etc. 

Another team was busy using scraps of plywood to make into recessed portholes. Meanwhile   the cabin was taking shape along with the comings, bulk heads and floors. The comings had to more than double the original freeboard. Many things happened to slow us down. We all got diarrhea as well as coral cuts which get infected very easily in the tropics. We had ongoing problems with dinghies and engines and lack of petrol. Our portable generator was called into use which exhausted our supply of petrol, so a shopping list was compiled for SV Swaggie when she went to the shop on Misima Is 24 hrs sail away. What was remarkable throughout the whole project was the goodwill of both yachties and islanders. We observed many acts of kindness and helpfulness, and many more I am sure we never knew about. 

In spite of difficulties, progress was good. We moved onto making the mast steps, collars, hatch and the three samson posts, and many more small parts. A substantial wooden rubbing belt was made for the hull and coming joints. Then came the fitting of the centreboard which enabled the boat to enter coral lagoons and glide onto the beach.  A stone wharf has been constructed next to the village around three prominent coral bommies, but will take a while to complete. It was an amazing sight to see the women carrying several heavy rocks on top of their head, backwards and forwards, hour after hour. The are used to carrying heavy basket loads of vegetables and washing on the head from a very young age. Not so the men, I noticed.

Finding ballast that would fit in the space available for the boat was difficult. We discounted the idea of stones because their awkward shape. In the end, with typical yachtie ingenuity we hit on the idea of raiding our own stores for empty rice bags and a dozen pillow cases which we filled with sand, and placed securely under the sole. The project became increasingly ad hoc as we ran out of supplies. It was essential that the boat be safe and strong. But we became practised at having to find alternative ways of achieving this. For example, Caesura had blocks which would have been perfect for Toloyot but they had no sheaves. We made them out of hard wood. They worked brilliantly. 

Almost two weeks before launch date the boat was looking like a yacht but still had a fair way to go. Progress was slowed because of more and more sightseers hanging around the site. So a difficult executive decision was made to lay off all men except the three dim dims and the core four village workers and have the area roped off. The dogs were still a nuisance as they ignored the ropes and couldn’t read the signs, but work went faster. The working days became longer. 

The flow coating of the interior and painting of the hull were held up through heavy rain that got blown in the open side of the palm-woven shelter. In fact the paint was still sticky on launch day. In the last few days the rudder was completed and the dim dim women came in to lend a hand with the sanding and painting. More yachts arrived by the day to help or simply to be there for the launching. Just a day before launching we were installing the rigging. In order for the boat to get into the water a few banana trees were cut down so the boat could be swung onto them, then heaved and rolled into the water.  The masts were installed and the rigging put in place. Last minute touches were being made right up to the eleventh hour on Saturday 20th September, launch day.

Launch day was something very special. Tony Baigewi, the councillor, was justifiably proud of his island being the first in the Louisiades to work cooperatively with white people on a venture of this size. Accordingly, several high ranked officials were invited to the ceremony. Everyone from the five villages of Gigila Island put on their best attire for the occasion. They had been busy for days making us polished shell jewelry and preparing food for the feast.

What a joyful day! Ceremonies of speechmaking and hand-crafted gift giving took the majority of the morning after the blessing of the boat and rolling her into the sea. The shrieks of joy were deafening as she hit the water! Then a shared meal, traditional dances, songs and lastly, fireworks on the beach. A great end to a great day. 

A few days later it was time to say farewell. This was painful for everyone. There was no doubt about the affectionate bonds that had been formed. Tears flowed. How different this trip was from our previous one. We really got to know these islanders over two months instead of stopping for just two days. Working together on a shared project allowed us to appreciate the differences and similarities between us. We grew to admire them and their quick minds, their openness and their generosity of spirit. We know they benefit from our visit in many ways, but then so do we.

If you are ever in the Louisades, take Toloyot for a sail. She sails better than we ever could have expected. We yachties have left other legacies too; we have sent one young woman to the mainland to train to be a teacher, seed funded a trading store and a pig farm, made a book on bush medicines and a book on the use of fiberglass and the making of Toloyot. What the islanders do with this is now up to them.

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