The Papuan Chief ploughed a course through Iron Bottom Sound: the watery graveyard of hundreds – if not thousands – of ships, aircrafts and soldiers killed in the Pacific War between Japan and America. Our target was Guadalcanal – the main island of the Solomons. On the bridge the shipping chart marked off all of the wreck sites… and there were many.
There’s a bit in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line in which the American troops, armed to the teeth, are marching through long grass and a native Solomon Islander glides past them as if they were never there. That image has stuck in my head for years.
We arrived in Honiara on Saturday afternoon. By the time the ship had been pulled alongside and the usual formalities had been worked out, it was 4pm. Captain Santos had given me a Papuan Chief ID to get me in and out of the port and – with no mobile phone reception on my UK, PNG or Oz SIMs – asked me to check in with the ship tomorrow at noon, but doubted whether we’d be underway before 6pm tomorrow. So under a heavy sky I tip-toed down the gangplank and finally – FINALLY – set foot in my 185th nation, The Solomon Islands.
The Solomons, along with PNG, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, make up the island group of Melanesia – if you’re suspecting that’s got something to do with melanin, then you’d be right: ‘Melanesia’ loosely means ‘Islands of the Black-Skinned’ – essentially to differentiate the people here from Polynesia (Many Islands) and Micronesia (Small Islands) – islands we now know are populated primarily by sea-farers originally hailing from what we now call Taiwan, while Melanesians are more closely related to the Australian Aboriginals.
I made my own way out of the port, with a couple of the guys from the side of the Papuan Chief shouting out which way to go in the maze of cargo containers, a bit like the TV show Knightmare. After a quick chat with Luciano, the security guy on the main gate, he gave me a port pass and I strode out, a little unsure of what to expect, onto the streets of Honiara.
Poor old Honiara. A dirty, dejected port town – although ‘village’ might be more apt a word – which, I’m told does not reflect the rest of the Solomons one iota. The street (there’s only really one) was filled with people milling about, sitting, staring, waiting for godknows what. Like PNG and plenty of other countries I’ve visited, the mood was one that you could call hostile until you crack a smile and then it’s all smiles back.
The town has quite a dramatic setting, with green hills surrounding the wharf in a pleasant arc around Kua Bay, but the concrete catastrophes that constitute buildings these days do little to alleviate the air of squalor and wretchedness about the place. Another country trampled in the stampede for the poison chalice we call independence. The security here is provided by Australia and New Zealand – a group called Ramsi: the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands. The last couple of decades have not been kind to the Solomons – ethic tensions between islands never before brought together as a nation resulted in brutal acts of violence and threatened to destabilise the region – even plunge it into civil war. Just a few years ago, an unfavourable election result brought about the burning down of Chinatown and days of rioting. Honiara is a tense place. I held my camcorder and laptop close to my body as I walked.
The first thing I wanted to do was to buy a Solomon’s SIM card so I could call Thomas – my CouchSurf host (one of two in the country) for the night. I walked all the way up Mendana Avenue, stopping into every store on the way asking to buy a SIM and getting a frosty reception from the Chinese owners who invariably fobbed me off somewhere else. As the minutes ticked by towards 5pm I realised my task would be in vain – the two phone shops were closed and wouldn’t be open again until Monday.
As a result of the mobile phone revolution, public phoneboxes are increasingly difficult to find, and in places like Honiara at 5pm on a Saturday it’s harder than trying to find a person who hasn’t seen Star Wars and doesn’t brag about it at parties. So I figured I’d pull my tourist card and headed over to the nearest hotel.
The Merdana Hotel is a lovely place, done out in traditional wooden style; a breath of fresh air after plodding up and down that hideous main street for the past hour. I went to the reception desk and asked if I may use the phone to make a local call. The guy behind the desk said okay and dialled the number for me. Thomas was at another bar and said he’d pick me up in ten minutes.
One of the things that made Lae a tricky place to like (aside from the ‘never walk alone, even during the day’ rule) was the lack of young ex-pats living there. As the ‘never walk alone’ rule made it difficult to ingratiate myself with the locals, ex-pats were my only source of entertainment. While Lae’s yacht club and the golf club more than satisfied my needs in the two weeks I was there, if I was staying longterm I would probably prefer to see more of my age group knocking around. Honiara has no such problems – thanks to Ramsi, the EU, the UN, NATO, SPECTRE and The Man From UNCLE, there’s plenty of young guns willing to grab a beer and spend a night on the tiles.
Thomas’ first act was to take me to another bar where a girl called Katie was celebrating her 39th birthday. So far so good. There were a good thirty-odd young ex-pats there from Australia, New Zealand, the UK and other assorted countries that feel a pang of responsibility when it comes to how wretchedly the last fifty years have treated the undeveloping world. Thomas introduced me to Patti, his delectable ladyfriend from Barcelona, as well as a team of his mates who would take me under their wing for the night.
There was a slap-up feast in the offing, but as I would have to pay Captain Santos back the 100 Solomon Dollars (10GBP) he lent me, I elected to stay at the bar and meet Thomas later on… at a house party, no less.
So the one night I spent in The Solomon Islands revolved around a house party. Some might say that was just good timing on my behalf, and they would be right. Thomas’ mates drove me to the party after the pub and I got to stamp my foot on the ground when I exclaimed that this was the 185th country of The Odyssey Expedition: the gears in my brain-counter a little rusty from months of being stuck on 184. I got chatting, the way you do, putting the world to rights and generally walking the thin line between being knowledgeable, interesting and funny all at the same time – the walk that we all expect alcohol to facilitate, when we all know it probably doesn’t. The trick is to ensure that everybody else is equally as squiffy.
The end of the night morphs into a melty mess of mushy memories – I seem to recall a club called Club Extreme, a dancefloor and some tunes. I don’t remember what they played or what havoc I may or may not have caused… I just remember feeling happy and drunk and wondering if I’d still have my hat on in the morning.
23.10.11: Thomas woke me up some time after ten to tell me that he was going out with Patti for a bit. I dragged myself out of bed and marvelled at how wonderful the world is when one goes CouchSurfing, stumbled into the shower and held on for dear life – as far as my sense of equilibrium was concerned, I was still at sea. Downing half a keg of beer last night probably didn’t help.
I was still shaking the cobwebs out of my pickled brain when Tom and Patti returned looking irritatingly fresh-faced and wholesome. I was feeling lower than a rat that ratted on his pals and that steady tide of nausea that accompanies an epic hangover was starting to kick in. Fresh air was what I needed, but first, the internet!
I hadn’t managed to get online since I accidentally broke Stan’s internets a week last Thursday. There were emails to send to shipping companies, questions to answer on my website and, most importantly, blogs to upload with marvellous pictures of bare-breasted PNGers and my ridiculous moustache.
I opened up Yahoo mail and the first message was from Captain Santos on board The Papuan Chief.
“URGENT – SHIP TO DEPART EARLY AT 1130. RETURN TO SHIP AT ONCE”
I looked at my watch. It was 11.45.
Thomas and Patti, to their infinite credit, stayed as calm as cucumbers as I pegged it back into my room and flung my stuff into my bag.
“Any chance of a lift?”
Tom said hell yeah and we bundled into his car and shot off towards the port. By 11.50 we were there. I told you Honiara is a small place. The good news is that The Papuan Chief was still in port.
I felt dreadful. Not just physically (damn you demon drink!), but not only was my website going to reach a month with no updates, I had promised Tom that I’d do a radio show with him this afternoon – he’s a radio DJ here. Not only that, but I had done bugger-all filming of Honiara. I didn’t want to get my camcorder out on the main street last night as I was on my own and feeling a little exposed, and by the time the house party kicked off it was too dark and I was too drunk to get any decent shots anyway.
There is a chance I may return to Honiara in the next couple of months: one of the Reef cargo ships that goes to Nauru stops in the Solomons on the way back to Fiji. I hope I will and so do this place justice. We will have to see, but for now I said my fond farewells to Thomas and Patti and set off towards the ship, breathing a sigh of relief that a) it was still there and b) the gangplank was down.
I clambered on board. Captain – what gives? It seems that there hasn’t been a ship in Honiara for a week, so the stevedores had all the containers for loading hosed down ready to go (Oz port rules, don’t ask). All three of the ships cranes had been used and some of the containers had been taken up in twos. The operation, which usually takes two days, had taken just over 12 hours.
Best laid plans eh?
So within the hour we were blowing the air horn and saying Lukim iu to The Solomon Islands. I watched as we sailed out of port. We headed west along the north coast of Guadalcanal, then once we were clear we set course South-West towards Australia… nation 186. All being well, we would reach Melbourne in a week.
Dinner was a bad idea. I ate, I felt wretched, I stood out on the wing of the bridge in the warm night air in a vain attempt to shake off my nausea, but sometimes you just gotta bite the bullet and take that porcelain bus for a drive around the (toilet) block.
It was around 1600 on the 29th that we arrived in the town of Noro on the island of New Georgia in the Western Province of The Solomon Islands. It was about an hour before were able to disembark, and I set off with Fijian Engineer Peni and Solomon Islander Deck Cadet Kent for a stroll around the town.
Noro is famous (if that’s the right word) for being the home of The Solomon Islands’ tuna cannery. Not be confused with a tuna canary, which is (probably) a kind of flying fish. Unfortunately (again, if that’s the right word) the cannery was a bit out of town, a good 35 minute walk, and as the sun was setting we thought better of going for a spot inspection.
You don’t need me to tell you that tuna is one of the most overfished fish is the sea. Some estimates that worldwide stocks are down to less than 3% of its natural abundance and the reason for this is fairly obvious: if you use the kind of nets that trap 100% of the fish in any given shallow (deep water is to most fish what a desert is to most men), there’s going to be no fish left to spawn for next year. Plus whatever happens to be swimming along in that area (and some of these nets can stretch over a square mile) gets dragged up by the fishing net as well. That may well include your friendly neighbourhood dolphins, an endangered species of shark or a lost scuba diver.
There are a couple of ways of getting around this problem. Long line fishing involves one long line with a hook and bait positioned every couple of feet. These lines can run for miles and catch a hell of a lot of fish – and as the bait is carefully selected to entice just one type of fish, not dolphins and the like. However, they also ensnare sea birds eager to eat the fish. Also, they fail to differentiate between adult and juvenile fish.
The best option, and one that is currently being practiced in The Solomon Islands, is head back to square 1: fish with a rod. With a team of 30 or 40 skilled anglers sitting off the prow of a ship, these guys can catch over a 1000 fish an hour. They only catch the correct species, they throw back juveniles, no dolphins or seabirds where harmed in the making of this tuna butty. Nice.
But this practice is very much in the minority. Most of the world’s fishing fleets use nets and very soon we could start seeing a premium slapped on tuna like what Australia experienced last year with their bananas (which trebled in price almost overnight). The sooner we start treating the sea as a farm rather than as a all-you-can-eat buffet the better.
It’s usually not fair to single out one country for criticism, especially considering most decisions are made at the top and pretty much everyone on this planet is guilty of eating food without enquiring where it came from, but I have to say that while the Chinese government desperately needs to change its attitude concerning human rights, the Chinese people in general need to change their medieval attitudes towards the utter gobbledegook they – and only they – consume.
The powdered rhino tusk trade, the shark fin trade and the bear bile trade are all powered by the Chinese: nobody else is particularly interested – and it’s not that these things even taste good, it’s that they are supposed to (but don’t) contain magical healing properties or increase sexual prowess. I would say it’s our job in the West to laugh off such foolish notions, but, because we’re all idiots, we go along with it, hey – it’s part of their culture after all. And, well, we don’t know everything, modern medicine can’t cure cancer…
Have to stop you there. Modern medicine can cure cancer, not all forms of cancer yet, but with cervical cancer vaccination and earlier and earlier detection and treatment of breast, bowel and prostrate cancer, we’re getting there. Powdered rhino task didn’t help anyone get a stiffy in the time of Confucius, and is sure as shit doesn’t help anyone now. Try Viagra my oriental chums. Or a better looking wife. Chinese medicine is utter bullshit, based on the thinking of the dark ages when a solar eclipse was a dragon eating the sun who could be scared away by banging pots and pans. You know what we call alternative medicine that works? That’s right ladies and gents: “MEDICINE”!
I find myself feeling increasingly isolated, at once fending off the idiotic religious, libertarian, big-business loving, conspiracy-theorist, global-warming denialist nutjobs on one side and the new-age, anti-science, mumbo-jumbo believing, snake-oil consuming, Reiki-healing, crystal twirling, anti-vax crackpots on the other. I hate it all and I hate it because I can see it’s a con, I know it’s con and yet everybody else in the crowd seems to be blathering on about what incredible lace-work has gone into the Emperor’s New Clothes. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right… to put to mildly. But that’s a rant for another day.
Back on topic, the Chinese are not only the world leaders at consuming endangered species, they are also the world leaders at the smash-and-grab school of fishing. The small island nation of Tuvalu has over one million cubic kilometres of open ocean to patrol to check for illegal fishing. It has one ship (kindly donated by the Aussies) with which to do this. When I was in Tuvalu last December, the Tuvaluan Police, in collaboration with the US Coast Guard, had found two ships in one day of patrolling jut a small percentage of these waters. One was Chinese, the other Taiwanese. This came as little surprise to anyone. Ships that are caught fishing illegally are more likely to originate in China than any other nation on Earth.
But this isn’t a problem that merely concerns the Pacific Island nations, it is a problem that can have a domino effect on the rest of the world. Last year, piracy in the Indian Ocean cost the shipping industry over 10 billion dollars. Pretty much all of these pirates come from Somalia. We don’t see this as surprising because Somali is a failed state and of course people are going to turn to piracy, right? Well, no. For fifteen years without an effective government, the fishermen off the coast of Puntland in northern Somalia were happy to ply their trade doing what they were best at: fishing. This is because the waters off the coast were abundant in aquatic life.
Around the year 2000, Chinese trawlers began fishing illegally off the coast of Somalia. As Somalia has no navy (it’s barely got a government), there was nothing the Somali’s could do to stop them. The Chinese trawlers would haul in fish by the ton, scraping the ocean floor until it was bereft of life, then freeze their bounty and sail it back to China.
As fish stocks dwindled, the fisherman turned to whatever they could to make ends meet. They had boats, they were accomplished sailors, they had easy access to AK-47s… and so the Somali Pirate Industry, which now gainfully employs over 12,000 people, was born. It’s grown year on year since 2005 and now encompasses pretty much the entire Indian Ocean northwest of Mauritius.
So, yes, I will single out China as a country that really needs to get its obligations to the rest of the world in order – especially when it comes to the fruits of the sea. But that’s not to diminish our own responsibilities. The reason many of the 55 states of Africa are in the dire straits they’re in is not the fault of the Chinese – it’s the fault of Western Europe. The 18,000 drug-related murders in Mexico in 2010 are pretty much entirely the fault of the USA. Australia’s coal industry, the UK’s arms industry, Canada’s tar sands, Russia’s oligarchs, Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women, the Japanese fondness for eating whale… like the man said, nobody’s perfect. If only there was some kind of governing body that could bring the governments of the world together, punish them for acting like yahoos and reward them for doing the right thing. If only…
Noro is situated on the eastern side of an almost perfectly icicle-shaped inlet, an ideal place to watch the sun set over the water, the jungle on the opposite bank reaching out to green low-laying hills beyond. The Western Provinces were in line to receive a Unesco World Heritage listing, but insensitive logging in the area put that idea to bed. The Scarlett Lucy would be setting sail for Honiara at 2200.
Thu 01.03.12 – Tue 06.03.12:
We arrived in Honiara a at 8pm, a little later than expected, and thanks to our proximity to the equator, it was already dark. I headed over to the King Solomon hotel to try and contact my CouchSurf chum Thomas from last time I was here, but my email had no reply and his phone was off or disconnected. There’s a good chance that he’s left The Solomons for green pastures. I had a quick chat with Mandy – she’s trying her best to organise my passage on the Cap Serrat – a Hamburg Sud cargo ship which leaves Brisbane on March 25 bound for Taiwan… arriving just in time for me to (possibly) jump on the Mariana Express Ship that leaves April 8 bound for nations 196 and 197: Micronesia and Palau.
This year, if I manage to get to one nation a month I’m doing well.
Afterwards I settled down at the bar with a glass of SolBrew and my laptop, catching up with one of a zillion things I had planned to finish while on the Scarlett Lucy.
Rusi, the ship’s welder, came to meet me for a swift half. The bar was quiet, it being Thursday, and the big night out I was hoping for seemed unlikely. A shame as the ship wasn’t leaving until 1500 tomorrow – plenty of time to shake off a hangover. We headed back to the ship before midnight (the start of Russi’s shift) and I ended up in the mess watching videos until the wee small hours.
The next day I hurriedly threw a couple of blog entries up online and then headed over to the yacht club to see what (if anything) was going down. There I met a lady from Formby (Scousers! Everywhere!), a guy from Sydney and a couple who had motorbiked all the way from Australia to the UK, only to get their motorbike stolen in Wales. Oops!
On the other side of the wharf, the Scarlett Lucy blew her horn to say ALL ABOARD! I had to down my last glass of beer and race off, once again, from Honiara, a place that wish I could have spent a great deal more time in – really exploring the island of Guadalcanal would be a real treat.
And so within the hour the gangway was pulled up and once again we were at the mercy of the constant swaying and vibration that constantly reminds you that you’re sea. For the next four days we plotted a course North East to Tawara and I lost myself in a world of books and writing, confident that the outside world would not interfere.
As I write this we’re scheduled to arrive in the capital of Kiribati at 1500 tomorrow. If I had known now what I didn’t know then (I didn’t know that the Scarlett Lucy even called in on The Solomons or Kiribati), I could have jumped ship from the Papuan Chief last time I was in Honiara, clambered on board the Scarlett Lucy, knocked Nauru off the list back in October and be well on my way from Taiwan to Palau and Micronesia by now.
Then again, if I knew back at the beginning what I know now I would have:
1. Not tried to get into Libya and Algeria without a visa
2. Not taken a leaky wooden boat to Cape Verde (I should have waited for a yacht)
3. Not got ratty with the police at the checkpoint in Brazzaville
4. At least tried to get to The Seychelles from Nosy Be in Madagascar
5. Visited South Sudan while I was in the area
6. Got my Saudi Visa sorted before I got to Kuwait
7. Got my Indian Visa sorted before I got to Dubai
8. Tried harder to get to Sri Lanka from India
9. Visited Palau and Micronesia the first time I was in Taiwan
10. Definitely not wasted nine months in Melbourne waiting for a magical yacht that probably didn’t ever exist to take me around the Pacific.
But hey, thems the breaks, kid. If I thought this was going to be easy, I would have had a mental breakdown years ago.
Here we go: the final seven, the magnificent seven, the seven samurai, lucky number seven, the seven nation army… the end of this rather epic quest starts with nation 195, Nauru – the smallest UN member state in the world. With any luck, I’ll be there before the week is out… and then there’ll be SIX!
Fri 16.03.12 – Mon 19.03.12
We left Nauru at around 7pm, and I was disappointed that customs didn’t come back on board before we set sail. I would have liked a Nauru stamp in my passport, but hey-ho. There’s a number of countries that I haven’t got entry or exit stamps for, including every country in the EU, so it’s not something that keeps me awake at night.
As we drew our course west towards the setting sun I looked back over Nauru. There can be no doubt that this country, like so many others in the world, would have been better off if there were no natural resources for The West to plunder. 100 years of high-grade phosphate mining and nothing, NOTHING to show for it… except a ruined interior, periods of man-made drought and tons of scrap metal littering the countryside. This is the sad fate that awaits most other resource-rich cash-poor countries in the world – a paradise lost and what did the local people get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville.
Then again, somebody probably would have had the great idea to use the island to test nuclear weapons as happened in The Marshalls and French Polynesia. Oh look – paradise! Let’s destroy it! You know the old joke/truism that if Jesus came back we’d kill him again? To compliment that, if heaven did exist, there’d be a never-ending queue of people attempting to f— it up. I guess, like the fable of the frog and the scorpion, it’s our nature.
The three day voyage back to Noro was uneventful. I drank a lot of kava with the boys, sitting cross-legged on the floor while they played the guitar and sang Fijian songs. You sleep well after a few bowls of grog, although it is definitely an acquired taste.
We arrived back in Noro in the Solomon Islands on Sunday evening. We had got news a couple of days before that Captain Sireli would be getting off in Noro and the Scarlett Lucy would be getting a new Master, Captain Bob – who I’m reliably informed is a fellow scouser. To fix the faulty crane in Nauru, Peni and Lecky had purloined the control circuit board from the second crane. As we required both cranes to get the job done in Noro, Captain Bob would be bringing a brand new board for number two crane.
The only snag was that he wouldn’t be arriving until Monday afternoon. This meant we would probably leave Noro on Wednesday. It takes four days to get to Brisbane from here and a quick bit of mental arithmetic told me that if we left on Wednesday, I’d miss the Cap Serrat sailing to Taiwan on Sunday. I might miss it by a few hours or even a day – but one thing was for sure, I’d miss my connection.
Given the numerous delays we’ve had on board already, I decided not to risk it. I called up Mandy on Sunday evening and asked her to tell Hamburg Sud that I wouldn’t be able to make it. She told me that they were planning to bring it up at a board meeting tomorrow morning and that they were very confident that I’ll be allowed onboard. That nagging doubt crept into my mind – but what if I do get there in time?
No, I don’t want to give these guys the run around. Mandy sent an email explaining that I had been delayed and that was that.
That night we had a bit of a leaving do for Captain Sireli. As the sun went down we sat on the deck drinking grog and peeling casaba. Rusi, Douglas, Labe and Cookie left with me to visit the Flying Angel, one of the only two bars in town, just to the left of the port. We sat on the step outside, putting the world to rights as Venus and Jupiter continued their dance that begun over a week ago when we were in Kiribati.
The next morning I was woken at 7.30am by Rusi barging into my room. “Graham – get up! Drill drill! We’re testing the drop boat!!”
I knew this was happening this morning, but I thought it was at 10.30. If I had known it was going to be at 7.30, I would have drank a lot less last night.
I threw my trousers and shoes on and headed to the muster station, rubbing my eyes in the piercing morning light. The Scarlett Lucy is the eleventh major cargo ship that I’ve been on to have a drop boat, but this would be my first time to actually ride in one. If you haven’t seen one of these things before, they’re a solid fibreglass lifeboat that is completely sealed top and bottom. They have about 20 seats in them and they’re positioned at a 45 degree angle high up off the back of most modern container ships. This one was on the third floor up from the poop deck, and there’s a good few metres down from the poop deck to the waterline.
Hee hee! Poop deck! Every time I see the sign I giggle.
It was all very exciting. You sit backwards to the front of the craft so you don’t jolt forward when you hit the water. I took my seat and waited. After a few minutes I realised my second biggest mistake after drinking too much last night was not bringing any water on board with me this morning. Designed for all weather conditions, in the blazing morning sunshine of The Solomon Islands, the drop boat was excruciatingly hot.
I sweated magnificently (I recently found out that humans actually sweat substantially more than pigs, so let’s put that misapprehension to bed. And while we’re at it, being hung like a gorilla is not something that you’d really want to advertise – their willies are tiny.) and thought this must be like what’s it’s like waiting for the space shuttle to take off. After what seemed like an age, the drop boat slid off the back of the ship and into the sea.
It was all very gentle. A bit perplexed, I got out of my seat and climbed out of the aft access hatch to find out why. Then I saw: we were still hooked to the ship. The davit extends all the way down into the water, as you can see in this video:
This wasn’t the theme-park rollercoaster ride I was expecting! I wanted an express elevator to hell! What happened to the free-fall?
Ah, oh well, at least I got to ride in a drop boat. Unfortunately for me, we then had to test the engine and steering were working correctly. This meant scooting around the bay a few times, not the best idea when you’re hungover and swelteringly hot. All I could do was grit my teeth and bear it.
We then hooked the drop boat back onto the davit and jumped on a local’s canoe to the shore. When I got back to the Lucy, I headed straight for the mess and drank my own body-weight in orange cordial. I then took myself back off to bed. I was in the land of nod before I knew it.
DRINNNNNG! DRINNNNNG! DRINNNNNG! DRINNNNNG! DRINNNNNG! DRINNNNNG! DRINNNNNG! DRINNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNG!
Seven short blasts and a long one. It was another drill! I put my shoes back on and headed to the muster station to see what was happening this time. It was now 10.30. Rusi was beaming. “Graham! Get in the drop boat! We’re doing the free-fall this time!”
I wouldn’t have missed this one for the world. Once again, I clambered on board, the last to get in (somewhat heroically, I’m sure). Not everyone needed to be in the boat for the drop test, so everyone but myself, Chief Mate Tarawa, Third Mate Bessey and Engineering Cadet Peter scarpered after the seating drill had been completed.
We were unhooked from the davit and Chief Mate Tarawa had to physically pump the hydraulic release from inside the vessel. It felt a lot like waiting for a rollercoaster to start. Only with a much greater risk of something going horribly wrong. There’s no countdown timer for this – no way of knowing when the hydraulic release is going to give way. One second you’re halfway up a big container ship, the next CHUGACHUGACHUGA you’re speeding backwards down a ramp, then SPLOSH! you hit the water. In less than three seconds, it’s all over.
With a couple of triumphant whoops and woo-hoos, we opened the back of the craft and I climbed out. This time, the trip around the bay felt like a lap of honour.
That night Rusi, Meli, Bessey, Douglas and I headed over to the Noro lodge to down some SolBrews. I think we deserved it.
Tue 20.03.12-Sun 25.03.12:
We’ve got a new captain, Captain Bob, originally from North Liverpool. Old guy, smokes like a chimney. I’m three floors down and I can smell it through the air conditioning. For some reason, Captain Bob supports Man United. Well, to be fair he did leave Liverpool when he was five and back in his day Manchester United were about as successful as a rapper with a lisp, so at least you can’t accuse him of being a glory-hunter.
With a flurry of activity that seemed almost impolite for somewhere as laid back as the South Pacific, the loading operation finished a day early, on the evening of the 20th. This means that there is a very good chance that I’ll be getting into Brisbane – you guessed it – just BEFORE the Cap Serrat is due to depart. I’ll probably see it in the port as we come in. *Face Palm*
But do not fear! I thought that missing the Cap Serrat would mean missing the April 8th ship to Micronesia and Palau. Not so! That ship, the Mell Singapore, isn’t calling into Micronesia and so is no good for me.
Another ship, the delightfully named Mell Sembawang, does stop in Micronesia (and Palau!) and it leaves – get this – on April 15th. This means I have a bit of breathing space to get to Taiwan to make that connection… and IF I can make it up to Townsville in North East Australia, and IF the ship owners let me on board (the charterers have already given me the thumbs up) there is a ship leaving next Saturday for Taiwan’s second city of Kaohsiung.
This ship hasn’t quite got my name on it yet, but we’re working on it. The only sad thing is that there won’t be enough time (and it would be too expensive) to see Mandy before I leave Australia for what will probably be the last time this year. The next time I’ll see her will be in the UK next August for Dino’s wedding – IF I make it. The clock is ticking…
The voyage back to Brisbane passed rather pleasantly. The sea wasn’t too rough and I’ve been on the ship so long (over a month!) that I might as well be a part of the crew. Captain Bob and I got on like a house on fire – I got to bang on about my favourite topics of conversation: politics, history and the city of Liverpool. On Thursday morning I was woken up by Cookie (who is also taking on the role of Ship’s Steward), who had a bag of goodies for me – toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner – everything a good backpacker needs. It was like he had just popped out to Boots for me. Incredible!
The good cheer continued over the weekend, in the evenings drinking kava with a few of the lads and spending the days writing, editing or watching some of the vast array of VHS tapes on offer in the crew’s mess. The only slight irk was one of my external harddrives decided to go the way of Monty Python’s parrot, taking with it some excellent photos and a rather hilarious travel video that I had been working like crazy on. Bah!
Oh well, some things you have to lose along the way…
On Sunday morning at 7am we reached what’s called the ‘pilot station’ of Brisbane. This is where a local guide comes on board your ship to help steer the ship into port. Usually pilots come on board around half an hour before we come alongside, but because the entrance passage is so long and narrow coming into Brisbane, the pilot is usually on board four hours before we reach the quay. As we’ll see in a moment, our pilot was onboard for a lot longer than that.
Our pilot was booked for 4pm, and so we dropped anchor and waited. Nearby, another five cargo ships sat waiting for their respective pilots to come on board. The sea was fairly settled today, but if the weather was unsettled, we’d be rolling like crazy. Captain Bob told me that back in the day, they used to wait in a nearby bay in order to shelter from the worst of Neptune’s ire. But (and this is PRICELESS) the millionaires who live along the coast complained to the Brisbane authorities that the cargo ships on the horizon were ‘spoiling their view’.
Oh my giddy aunt.
I’m minded of the same godawful people who purchase a flat above a nightclub, then complain about the noise.
Hey! Millionaires!! If you don’t want to see ships, DON’T BUY A F—ING HOUSE ON THE COAST BY A BUSY SHIPPING LANE!! Bloody Nimbys.
For some reason (that I never quite got to the bottom of) the pilot came aboard early, at 2.30pm. We pulled up the anchor and started making our way towards the main channel. There was a fantastic view looking back to the shore – the magnificent Glass Mountains rising like ancient pyramids against the setting sun. And no nasty boats in the way mucking it up.
But with the tide going out as we were going in, the poor old Lucy could only muster 9 knots. You can probably walk faster. Doing a handstand. By 7pm we had finally got fairly close to Moreton Island – the second largest sand island in the world – but before we could enter the main channel into the Port of Brisbane we had to wait for two ships, a container ship and an oil tanker, to depart before we could enter it. It was 9pm before we were cleared to go in. It was around 10pm before we come alongside. And guess who was waiting for us in the neighbouring berth? The Cap Serrat. It wasn’t departing until 3am.
I could have made it…!
Bugger. Now I’m left with a dilemma. As I was at sea, I didn’t get a chance to email the owners of the Mell Seringat, the ship leaving for Taiwan from Townsville, any earlier. The charters, Mariana Express Shipping, are happy for me to hitch a ride, but without permission from the owners in Germany, I may very well go all the way up to Townsville (it’s $200 on the coach), get there and basically paint myself into a corner. Also, it’s actually leaving next Thursday… eek!
If I don’t get to Taiwan by April 15, I’m going to lose a month waiting for the next ship that’s going to Micronesia and Palau – and that means I’ll definitely be missing Dino’s wedding in August.
It’s cross-your-fingers-and-bite-your-nails time people!!