Days M156-161: SolBrew For The Soul

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!

Days M171-174: An Express Elevator to Hell!

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.

Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

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.