British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by James Tedder
Solomons and Ships
Buka Island, 1800
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.

Ships and the Solomon Islands Protectorate
Large Canoes
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 local stores.

Solomons and Ships
Schooner, 1928
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.

Solomons and Ships
Trading Vessels
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.

Ships and the Solomon Islands Protectorate
M.V. Tulagi
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.

Ships and the Solomon Islands Protectorate
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.

Ships and the Solomon Islands Protectorate
The Coral Queen
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 Interesting.

Solomons Map
Administrative Districts Map 1918
Colony Profile
Solomon Islands
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 103: April 2012


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