British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by James Tedder
Canoe Capers
Solomon Island Canoes
It was a grey bleak dawn. The surf had been noisy on the reef all night and now as we came from the houses for our ablutions, clouds scudded low across the sky, swept along by a persistent SE wind. Hardly the SE trade winds that inspire romance in the novel. This was a very persistent wind which had already travelled several thousand miles and was not about to lose its strength because the island of Santa Cruz lay in its path.

I made rather tentative inquiries from various villagers, on my way to wash in the stream, as to whether it was safe to set off by canoe. Shouldn't be any problem was the general answer. Others, perhaps more like my careful nature, suggested it would be rough but we might get through. It was not much comfort and I found eating my porridge rather dull and uninteresting as the noise of surf on the reef and the movement of trees from the wind increased appreciably with each spoonful of gooey porridge eaten. A number of villagers carried our gear to the coast where the waves were indeed ebbing and flowing strongly across the fringeing reef. The Assistant Medical Officer, David Dawea, almost a local as his mother was from Santa Cruz, remarked in his lugubrious tone that we would probably get wet. But I had faith in David's judgement and again asked if we should go or spend a quiet day in the village. "We'll try it", said David, so we tied some of our gear into the two canoes while the village people took the balance a few miles down the coast to the lagoon entrance. Better not get your bedding wet, was their comment. But the track was too rough for the District Commissioner to walk; he must go by canoe they said. Now, the canoes were only fifteen feet long, two feet at the widest part and had a free board of four inches with three of us aboard. At least the canoes were of solid construction being hollowed from a tree trunk.

Instructions were now issued as precise as any issued by Santa Cruz people. We were to stand by the canoe in our allotted place - I was amidships in one, David amidships in the other, and we would walk onto the reef holding the canoe at waist height. When the steersman gave the word we were to drop the canoe, push, jump in, and paddle (like mad). We heaved the rather weighty canoe up and clambered down to the reef. One minute no water, the next minute water to our waist, as the waves ebbed and flowed across the porous coral platform. The steersman with an eye on the wave formation shouted "Now!" and away we went downhill into the next wave. But we had successfully left the shore and though the sea was rather choppy we settled down to paddle along the coast some 50 metres off the reef.

The first hour was comparatively easy. The sea was rough but the canoe rode well and I only baled every few minutes. But as we approached the point, a tidal race suddenly surrounded us and the sea became very steep with breaking tops. Then I was baling continuously - one-handed, as one hand was reserved to hold me in the canoe as we dropped and rose almost vertically in the short steep swells. The steersman, when I chanced a glance behind, appeared in control but very concentrated and intense and it was obvious he was too busy for a discussion as to whether we should turn round, if we could, or continue, if we could. I shouted my concern to David in the other canoe as it appeared on wave tops. But it was as I expected - "Well probably make it". Soon after we drew away from the other canoe and within twenty minutes had passed into the calm of Blamoli - the eastern lagoon. It was bliss - the noise had abated, we got most of the water out of the canoe, we rested on our paddles and took in the peaceful scene as we awaited the other canoe. But they must have dropped a long way behind and just as we were becoming anxious they appeared through the entrance. "That was a fine performance D.C.", said David, "We turned over and though we shouted, you people continued on". We had to admit to not hearing or seeing the

Canoe Capers
Lord Howe Island
The next day we were to canoe from the village called Nugu lying in the shelter of Lord Howe Island to a bay from where we would walk along the south coast. This time we had one large dugout canoe but all of our gear as well. As we left Nugu a sail was hoisted - a simple affair but effective for the fresh following breeze. A mile short of the bay, a mile to sea and fast losing the shelter of Lord Howe Island the following seas became lumpy and began pooping us. With such a load of gear and people - there were eight of us, there was not a great deal of room for baling. Within minutes it was obvious not all was going to plan. The sail was dropped but too late, a series of waves filled the canoe and we all hastily jumped into the sea to stop the canoe from capsizing and throwing my food, mosquito net, camp bed, and more importantly my cash imprest to the bottom of the Pacific. But one person did stay in the canoe and though we suggested he join us he declined as we rocked the canoe to empty the water. Eventually we all clambered back and paddled slowly but thankfully ashore. I was upset about the man who stayed in the canoe and remarked upon it to this Nagu villager when we had spread ourselves and gear on the beach to dry. "Yes, I wasn't going to join you in the salt water because as I do a lot of fishing in this area I see plenty of sharks that cruise in that place." Or that was the English version of his excuse in Pidgin phraseology.

map of Nigeria
Lord Howe Island
Colony Profile
Solomon Islands
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 62: October 1991


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