The following events took place in 1956 when I was District Commissioner, Eastern,
in the then British Solomon Island Protectorate. I was the only administrative officer
but there was an assistant administrative officer and three clerks all Solomon
Islanders. Other staff on the station were a Solomon Island Police Inspector, fourteen
constables, a postal clerk who also operated our communications transreceiver, and
an assistant medical officer with a staff of four medical dressers at the hospital. The
District covered 145,000 square miles of which only some 2,500 square miles were
land. At that time there were some 14,000 Melanesians living on the "high" islands and
2,000 Polynesians living on the small islands and coral atolls of the Protectorate.
Transport was by the District ship, and where conditions permitted, by canoe or
foot. No airstrips were then in place in Eastern District and the capital, Honiara, on
the island of Guadalcanal, 130 miles west, was served by a fortnightly service by an
Australian Airline Dakota flying down the islands from New Guinea. At times this
aircraft was chartered for search purposes, provided officers going on leave could be
persuaded to wait a day or two.
Given this sort of background it is easy to understand the concern when the ship
it all began at the end. That is, at the end of the 250 sea mile journey from the district
station at Kira Kira on San Cristobal. Just at daybreak we breathed a prayer of thanks
as through the haze in the east there appeared the low hump of Santa Cruz. As our
small ships did not have skippers with knowledge of deep sea navigation it was a case
of carefully following the compass and hoping that the currents were not too adverse
during the thirty or so hours for the crossing.
But our prayer for the accurate course had not included the extra phrase for a safe
anchorage and before this could be added the engine stopped. I was not worried as we
wallowed in the large swell. We did have Willie Kongo the best engineer on board and
nothing serious ever went wrong with a Gardener diesel engine. Time went by while I
stood on deck gaining the distinct impression that we were drifting west away from
land at an unpleasant speed. That impression was not improved with the sight of Willie
climbing up from the engine room waving the broken shaft of the fuel pump and
muttering about "big trouble". It was a major workshop job and meanwhile unless we
could move the "Myrtle" into anchorage we would join the hundreds of castaway
canoes which, over the years, have drifted in all directions around the Pacific,
sometimes ending up on other islands within days, at other times fetching up months
later with a reduced complement.
The "Myrtle" was sixty feet overall but weighed in at approximately 100 tons so the
effort required to move it in the direction that we wanted to go would be considerable.
There were two ships boats and these were lowered over the side, given lines and told to
start pulling us towards Santa Cruz. Nothing much happened except that the crew in
the lifeboat spent more time baling than rowing.
Meanwhile I had, after the usual difficulty of persuading the Honiara radio station
that our message should be accorded some priority, managed to speak to the Marine
Superintendent. He was most helpful, suggesting that if we could persuade the District
Commissioner, Malaita, to release his ship it might be possible to have us taken in tow
within three or four days. The question would be of course from where, as our
knowledge of deep sea navigation was nil and our drift direction was anyone's guess.
The Marine Superintendent was prepared to leave that problem to the man on the
By the flashing of mirrors towards the shore we attracted the attention of the
residents of Venga village and soon we saw a small fleet of canoes being paddled across
the five miles of sea toward us. I was not certain how we would use them but it was
comforting to know that some at least of the passengers could be ferried ashore.
During this time the two boats crews were pulling on their lines and some passengers
declared we were actually moving. So to help, we took the spare boat oars and with
them pushed through the washports, some of the stronger passengers were put to
work. Then someone else had the idea of lowering the larger passengers, Polynesians
from Tikopia, over the side on slings with canoe paddles. As usual they thought this
was a huge joke and eagerly joined the rush for such positions. The first canoes had
reached us by then, and they were given whatever lines that were left - lead lines,
heaving lines and fishing lines. But it was working, the ship was now moving noticeably through the water and hopefully towards the entrance of Graciosa Bay. But
would the south east trade wind begin blowing and take us and the male population of
Venga out to sea before the harbour was reached?
Some five hours later with no wind but only occasional gales of laughter and a great
deal of exertion we were at anchor. Twenty four hours later a cyclone moved down the
coast delaying the rescue vessel and giving us even more cause for thankfulness.