By Fr. Hilary Fischer, M.S.C.
My second mission station was Bundralis, on Manus Is. I have already told in another story how the air cooled engine in the M.V. Martin had seized up from betel nut skins clogging the cooling fins, leaving the Sisters adrift, and myself as well, until I discovered the source of the problem. My successor at Bundralis was Father Jerry Schaefer. He did not like the air cooled engine and got his family to help pay for a water cooled Gardner, a much better British engine than the air cooled Listers. About eight years later I took over Papitalai parish,also on Manus Is. I had to borrow the Martin to go on my patrols to the Rambutyo island group, which is about 30 miles southeast of Manus. Fr. Jerry had died in a tragic tractor accident right at the end of a five year term at Bundralis. The new Pastor at that time did not like to maintain the boat. Several times I had to repair the Martin in the middle of the ocean. This was rather frightening to me, since I could never be sure that I would be able to repair it without spares, and would wind up drifting to the Carolines or somewhere. This was a fear that all of us who traveled on the sea had to face. I decided I had better get my own boat, so that I would be able to maintain it properly. In addition I wanted it to have sails so that I would have some way of getting home in the event of an irreparable breakdown. The purchase and delivery of the sailboat I bought in Bougainvile, and renamed the “Star of the Sea”, I have told in another story. (We will take up the story from there.)
The “Star of the Sea” was a 35 foot steel hulled ocean-going yacht. Her draft was slightly over 6 feet, which I feared might cause some problems getting into certain landings. She had a 40 foot mast, but the mainsail was not well shaped. I overcame this problem partially by buying a new Genoa, so she could hold a point closer to the wind. It was thrilling to go sailing along at 10 knots on a broad reach, but torture to beat into a headwind at 4 knots, which was the best she could do in those circumstances. It made little difference whether I used the engine or not, since it had only 13 hp., and the ship was a six tonner. When there was little or no wind, the engine could get us to where we wanted to go.
From Manus, Rambutyo Island lies straight in the eye of the prevailing Southeast winds, so it was always difficult to get there but great fun coming back home. There was an island about halfway there called Pak Island, which I used to visit first,as it was an easy one day’s journey. There were several families of Sepik people living there who were Catholic, and there was a fairly well-kept plantation house right near the wharf, so we would make that our first stop. However, after about six years, the Sepik people had to return to their home on the mainland which made Pak an unnecessary stop, as none of the people were Catholics. The next day we would go on to the Hornos group where in the past I had slept in some of the people’s houses. I remember one time when Sister Marina came along to do catechetical work, that we stayed at the chief’s house. In the middle of the night I heard a little scream from her room. I went in to see what the trouble was. There she was with a look of horror on her face, shining her flashlight at a big bug on her bed. I assured her that, yes, it was a bedbug, and it had probably just bitten her, because it was full of blood. This would be the last time we would stay at the chief’s house. With the new boat, we had sleeping quarters on the ship; we could stay aboard, cook our meals on the gas stove, take real showers, use the toilet, and fear no mosquitoes or bedbugs out on the lagoon. Heavy curtains could divide the interior into several compartments.
The third day I would go on to Lenchou, where we could sail the ship into the mouth of the river. This river was known for the cool breeze that would come down the river at night, called the Sasaun Lenchou, so we anchored midstream and put up a piece of sailcloth fastened to the boom that would funnel the cool breeze down into the cabin. That was really a pleasant stop. In all of these places, we would call the people together in the evening for instructions either in a simple bush church or even someone’s house. In the morning I would hear confessions, have Mass, then we would pack up and move on to the next place. The last stop was Lenkau, or Mouklen, actually two large villages together. Many of these people had joined the Paliau cargo cult after the war,and were now coming back to the church, so we usually had many baptisms and marriages. After two or three days there, I would pack up and catch that following wind back home, usually getting there in about six or seven hours.
I did visit other islands in the Star of the Sea. I once went to Baluan Is., to fill in for Fr. Leon while he was in the USA on vacation. An Australiian sailor, Ian, from Lombrom Base wanted to come along. With him and three other crew, we had great sailing on the way out, mostly on a broad reach which got us there quickly. Apart from the pastoral work, we were able to bathe in the hot springs, for which the island is famous. Our stay was prolonged by a storm that lasted for several days. Finally, about the fourth day the wind seemed to have abated, and we decided to take a chance and head for home. While going around Lou island which is near Baluan, I decided to take a shortcut through a passage near shore. We had one of the crew at the bows to guide us through the passage. About midway through, he signaled us to slow down so that he could see the passage better, and I was going to put the engine in reverse to slow us down a bit. Then Ian shouted: “Don’t do it, you will dismast her.” That left us all in confusion, but just then the lookout signaled it was safe to go ahead. Out on the open sea the waves were still rather high coming right from the stern and bowling us along at great speed. We went into Hyane Harbor, on our own island to wait for better seas to bring the ship around to Papitalai. The son of one of the crew was there and he informed us that the New Guinea Islands were still under storm warning, that is, no small ships should be out of harbor. No wonder those waves seemed so high.
In spite of all my efforts at maintenance, they were still times when I had to make repairs on the ocean. Once it was a siezed idler pulley that chewed up the water pump drive belt. I could not repair that without spare parts, and we had to have the water pump, so we got home on sails alone. It was always difficult to get all the way to Papitalai on sails alone once inside Seadler Harbor, because it meant sailing into the wind in a passage that was rather narrow in places. My first tack would take me past the wharf at the Navy base and all the way back into Lombrom bay. Coming about, we would run as close as possible to the corner of the mission property, and then all the way over to the far side of the passage. One more tack would get me into our own little harbor, where we could anchor.
Sometimes we had to do rather unusual things to be able to keep going when problems came up. Once when the engine stopped we discovered that the pressure line to the oil gauge had broken and all the oil from the sump spilled into the bilge. We stopped the leak by bending over and squeezing tight the end of the copper tubing that broke, but we didn’t have enough extra oil along to fill the sump. The bilge was dry except for the oil, so we scooped it out, strained it through an old T-shirt, put it back into the engine, and continued on our way. I could tell many other stories but these should give you an idea of the way we had to do things then in Papua New Guinea.
It is very different now. Almost everybody gets around with outboard motors and fiberglass banana boats, made right there in PNG. Running with two-stroke engines is much more expensive then sail or diesel, so travel is much more expensive now. They buy ready mixed gasoline, that is: already mixed with oil for the outboard motors. Whenever the pastor of Bipi, for example, comes into town he has to buy two 55 gallon drums of it to get back home, and then back into town the next time. A banana boat can carry less than a ton, because it has to plane. My sailboat or the Martin could carry about four tons, but more slowly. Their maintenance is more complex, but getting an outboard motor repaired is far more expensive and frequent. The banana boats do have the advantage that they CAN be rowed, if they bring oars. It’s too bad that my sailboat and the Martin have now been scrapped. They would provide a far less expensive way to bring home their cargo.