By Fr. Hilary Fischer, M.S.C.
The people of Papua New Guinea (PNG) have many different means of traveling on the sea, from tiny canoes carved for five-year-old children by their fathers, to giant 40 foot long mons powered by 40 horsepower outboard motors, with many different variations in between, powered by paddle or sail. I remember watching the children from Sori Island playing endlessly with tiny canoes, racing them, sinking them, and jumping from one to another. Such play is the beginning of their education in the ways of the sea, and how to travel on it.
At the other end of the scale were the mons, carved from giant logs that were the main means of their freight transportation from time immemorial. In the early days they were powered by paddles, with or without an outrigger. They were made from a single giant log, or used a hollowed out log for a keel,and then had several planks added. They punched holes in the keel, about an inch from the top, opposite similar holes in the bottom of the plank, binding them together with bush rope, and then sealing the holes and joints with a sealant made from local plants, called kit.
The planked mons usually had two or more intricately carved framing pieces to keep the mon in the proper shape. They could travel for days from island to island, with cargoes of pigs and other food for shared celebrations. The people of the Tanga islands tell many stories of the adventures they had in these mons.
Now it seems that people cannot even paddle to the nearest shore when their outboard motor breaks down. They often drift down to the Solomons or to Micronesia when this happens, with great suffering and loss of life. To remedy such helplessness, one Australian, who was in charge of the Kavieng fisheries, told me that whenever he got a new boat, he would take along enough paddles for the whole crew. Then when they were far from shore he would shut off the engine and tell them to paddle back home. It was a good lesson for his crews; though they traveled incessantly around the islands, buying crabs and crayfish for export to Australia, we never heard of them getting into trouble.
Once, Br. Tony Freitas went adrift while traveling as a paying passenger on a speedboat from Namatanai to Rabaul. They were still within sight of the New Ireland coast when the outboard motor died, but they had no paddles in the boat. There was a canvas and several poles to use as a shelter whenever it rained. Brother Tony used these items to rig a sail which he put up whenever the wind was onshore and took it down again when the wind was offshore. In the tropics, in good weather the wind is usually onshore during the day, and offshore at night due to the heating and cooling of the jungle while the sea stayed a constant temperature. In this way they gradually got closer to the New Ireland coast and within three days they were spotted from the shore and canoes came out to help them. So in this case there was a happy ending to the story!
In my life as a missionary, I got used to drifting rather early on. The first times were in the little pinnace that I had inherited from Father Maurer, my predecessor at Tanga Islands. With it came a pair of long oars, which I made sure were firmly fastened to the roof whenever I went on patrol. The little two-stroke inboard engine was very unreliable and hard to keep running. Many times the engine would break down in the middle of the passage to the outlying islands. I would always try to get it going first, but when that didn’t succeed, the boat crew would have to take the oars and pull back to Amfar. On one occasion, I actually made a new venturi for the carburetor out of a fish tin, which worked quite well for a time.
When I got tired of rowing home, I asked my neighbor at Lihir to lend me the M.V. Robert every couple of months or so. On one of these occasions the Robert went first to Anir Island with some cargo, and then back to Tanga to pick me up. The first day went fine, and we stopped at the nearest village on Malendok Island. The next day we set out for Put Nonu Plantation. About halfway there the engine quit. It was obviously overheating, so I disconnected the freshwater metering pipe leading to the engine. On Gardner engines, the metering was done with small holes at the point where the pipe was connected to the engine heads, and in one of those holes was lodged a small pebble. I asked the crew if they could explain the presence of that pebble. They admitted that the boat had dragged anchor at Anir, and wound up on the beach during the night. They got it free, but obviously the water system had taken on some pebbles from the beach. This also meant that the heat exchanger, used to separate the freshwater in the engine from the cooling saltwater, was broken, and saltwater was getting into the engine. After removing the pebble, we put things back together, but the engine was still seized up. Just then we noticed another boat, which belonged to the Chinese plantation on Amfar, in the distance. We lit an emergency flare and flagged them down. As their boat was much smaller than the Robert we asked them to take our boat to the nearest harbor on Malendok. One of the crew had friends there, so he stayed with the Robert, and the rest of us went back with Ah Teng’s boat to Amfar, where I contacted Lihir by radio with the bad news. We made arrangements for the Raskai, the mission ship, to tow the Robert to Rabaul for a complete overhaul. Several months later it was back in operation.
Be sure to check back next month for Part Two of Sailing in Papua New Guinea!