Travel between and around the islands of the Solomons has naturally depended
upon the sea, particularly before the arrival of aircraft. The islanders set the
scene very early as they obviously arrived by canoes and their skill in making and
sailing canoes has continued to this day. Many touring officers in the days of the
Protectorate took advantage of these fine canoes to carry out their duties. The
large ones often had thirty paddlers or more and plenty of room for your gear and
a small fire. Travel could be hot but a large towel draped over your head kept the
sun at bay. The skill of the paddlers were such that even in quite a rough sea their
ability to deflect waves which threatened to come aboard gave one confidence
that you would return home. And what is more they would break into song and
beat time on the sides with the paddles when time dragged.
The arrival of steel tools made the construction of these canoes much easier
and quicker and as a result there were in the early days more war parties visiting
other islands. The adze, the plane blade, and the axe were the main tools and late
into the 1970s men were still building fine canoes with minimum tools and lots of
skill and patience.
But there were others involved in building sea craft. Chinese traders and
Europeans began building small schooners and ketches for trading and soon
some of the Island men began constructing what became known as cutter boats.
When I was serving in Malaita in the early 1950s there were always a number
of these cutter boats under construction. These clinker built boats with an overall
length of some seven to nine metres were built with a combination of bush timber
and sawn timber from the small sawmill operated by the Catholic Mission at
Buma. A suitable tree would be pulled from the forest and adzed for the keel,
the ribs would be found in twisted trees and other logs would be dragged to the
sawmill where the mill would keep half the timber and give the other half back in
sawn planks. There were often delays while funds were collected to buy sufficient
copper nails and rivets and then further delays while the engine was bought and
installed. These boats were generally open but they carried bags of copra and
brave passengers 50 miles over often rough seas and returned with goods for the
We as touring officers wished for something a little more sophisticated though
prior to the Pacific war most of the administrative officers travelled around the
islands In similar craft driven by strong rowers and sometimes sail. But gradually
the craft provided for the administration improved with the construction of small
sloops built by Chinese boatbuilders. These sloops were some 12 metres overall
and though equipped with a mast and sails they also had a small diesel engine.
The Nellie, the Nancy, the Veronica and the schooner Hygeia continued valuable
service until well into the 1970s.
There was in the first three vessels a small cabin below deck but you had to
have no sense of smell and a strong stomach to stay below particularly in a sea. As the engines became more reliable the sails were used less and the cost of
replacing them too expensive. So the craft had permanent awnings erected over
the deck and that is where everyone travelled. In times of heavy rain and rough
seas the side curtains were lowered and some shelter was provided though it was
wise to remove shoes as the seas washed over the deck.
Most of the expatriate officers travelled at the stern sitting on a deck chair placed
on a coaming (when the sea permitted ) or sat on a mattress where you slept at
night. Toilet facilities were to lower a canvas screen at the stern and hang over
the rail. Quite hazardous in a rough sea. With twenty passengers, several pigs,
half a dozen fowls and a few bags of taro these craft always provided interesting
touring. Fish lines astern, crying children, driving rain, calm men hanging on
grimly to the rail, others lying on the deck house holding on to their possessions.
Meals were rather sketchy and it depended on the skill of your servant and his
ability to tend a primus as to what you may expect at sea but generally anything
but basic food was out of the question on such trips which kept us slim but rather
hungry on returning home.
During the war the US Army had constructed some small ships for carrying
supplies. These had a design based on - some said - American tugs. They
were very solidly built of timber with a large hold, a large deckhouse on a raised
after deck and measured some 20 metres overall. Somewhere the designers had
problems and many tons of ballast had to be inserted. With a wet exhaust the
Gardener diesel gave a speed of 8 knots and the ship rolled along like an ocean
liner. The 'M' class so-called were named the Margaret, Maureen, Mary, Myrtle
and the Marjorie. Several of these ships served in the Gilbert & Ellice Islands
but were gradually replaced with larger vessels more reliable for the long open
ocean voyages. One of the 'M' class was wrecked and the Maureen came to the
Solomons to join her sister ships the Mary and the Myrtle. In the early 1950s and
up to the 70s the latter two ships provided valuable service carrying passengers,
cargo and touring officers around the districts.
There was the constant hazard of running up on reefs but being so strongly built
the results were not disastrous though always an unpleasant situation particularly
at night. Several times when we ran a reef and lowered the life boat it filled rapidly
- not with people - but water. The Marine Department eventually fitted all ships
with modern life rafts which made us feel happier and set up a series of lights and
beacons to mark the worst reefs. On one trip to Tikopla I had the family on board
and second son aged three years was put to sleep in his cot on the top deck as
we left Vanikoro. A storm blew up in the night and we could not safely bring him
down to the cabin. Some Islanders were holding on grimly on the top deck and
they assured us he would be safe. At dawn and a slightly calmer sea enabled
his parents to rescue him. Apart from being soaking wet and with his skin all
puckered he was none the worse for his night. In fact he was still asleep.
Travelling on the top deck was a favourite for many passengers as it was cooler
than the cabin but there was a risk. If a storm blew up it was sometimes difficult to
climb down the ladder into the wheelhouse with your gear. One police chief forgot his shoes which went overboard. Very embarrassing when he had no other pair
and was to inspect the guard of honour.
Then there were the so-called 'B' class, the Bina and the Betua. Just as long
as the 'M' class these were a trawler design with the wheelhouse and small cabin
up forward and a small cargo hold aft. The Betua had been upgraded with a large
cabin over the hatch and designed for use by the Medical Department but it soon
became a vessel of common use and the High Commissioner used it for his tours
before there was a larger vessel.
But there were sometimes problems. On a voyage to Auki on Malaita from
Honiara one night the Kovala rammed the Maureen and then there were only two.
There was an official inquiry but the story which went around the districts was that
one of the crew had lent his guitar to someone on the other ship so when this ship
was sighted at night off the end of Gela they approached each other -possibly at
full speed - to shout greetings and exchange the guitar and one helmsman swung
the wheel the wrong way. Captain Sharp was sent out in the night to rescue. But
he only found one ship with all the crew and passengers from the sunken vessel
on board. The sea was too deep to salvage anything of the ship.
Government had meanwhile been arranging to buy new ships. One was the
Kovala which was built in Australia over a very long period and as told above was
one of the first. I was not privy to the discussions but the rumours were that two or
three officers had designed the ship on the back of an envelope after a pleasant
dinner and then other officers decided to make alterations so the builders moved
from one design to another. Eventually the ship sailed from Sydney and only
reached Ballina on the NSW north coast before having to put in to the shipyards
for engine adjustments. There were several cabins but little room for cargo but
it did have twin engines so was often used for longer voyages. Once or twice I
accompanied the High Commissioner around the Santa Cruz Islands where the
seas were anything but pacific. There was a tilt meter on the bridge and it used to
give up when the rolls were more than 35 degrees and that was most of the time.
As a result the after deck was always sloshing with sea and grew a fine crop of
weed. If possible meals were postponed until an anchorage was reached or taken
at sea as biscuits and tinned meat.
Perhaps the full story of the Marine Department will be told - and it will be