British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by James Tedder
Big Trouble
Kira Kira
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 broke down.

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 spot.

Big Trouble
Graciosa Bay
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.

map of Nigeria
Santa Cruz Map
Colony Profile
Solomon Islands
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 59: April 1990


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