Day M167: …And Then There Was SIX!

Mon 12.03.12:

It may have taken me the best part of two months to get here from New Zealand, but I’m proud to announce that I AM NOW IN NAURU!!!

The Scarlett Lucy arrived on schedule at 6am. I dragged my carcass out of bed around 7 and waited for cargo operations to commence so I could hope a lift to the mainland. Well, I say ‘main’land, but Nauru is unique in the Pacific – the entire country comprises of just one tiny island. All other independent Pacific nations consist of a chain or archipelago.

With less than 10,000 inhabitants, Nauru is the smallest member of the UN and has the dubious distinction of being the least-visited nation on Earth – more people visit Somalia – which makes it all the more remarkable that I got here at all.

There is no marina in Nauru, no yacht club, no cruise ships pass by, and as far as I can tell, The Scarlett Lucy is the only container ship that calls here, and she does that just once a month. If Neptune Shipping had said they weren’t going to allow me on board, it would have taken me much more than two months to get here: needless to say my debt of gratitude to Neptune, Swire, Reef, PDL and PIL is immense.

Nauru has two hotels, no capital and in the 1980s was the richest per capita country in the world. Today it’s one of the poorest. Strangely enough, its dramatic rise and fall is all connected to bird poo. Over hundreds of thousands of years, birds used Nauru, situated just 42 kilometres south of the equator, as a rest stop / breeding ground on their long migratory journey from the northern to the southern hemisphere and visa versa. For some reason birds don’t seem to like to poo in the sea, they hold it in like they’re at a music festival or on a long African coach journey. But when they got to Nauru it was bombs away.

Over the course of untold millennia, the accumulated crap from a million generations of seabirds became compacted. Periodic submergence of the island by the ocean washed away most impurities and what was left was incredibly pure, high-grade phosphate. Millions of tons of it. Ka-CHING!

Nobody knows exactly when humans made it to Nauru, but like Hebrews and Lemmings, apparently there were twelve original tribes. Much in the manner of tribes all over the world, they liked nothing more than to kill one another. In the 1880s a civil war on the island (fuelled by European weapons) decimated the population. Kind of like Battle Royale I suppose. Less than 900 Nauruans were left alive when in 1886 when the Germans surprised everyone by actually stopping a war rather than starting one. Although this did involve annexing the entire island, a process that the Germans are possibly a little more familiar with.

In 1900, a British chap called Albert was examining his doorstep. He wasn’t waiting for DHL or looking for miniature Jehovah’s Witnesses, he was a geologist and the stone had come from Nauru. And – By Jove! – he found to his surprise that the thing was entirely composed of high-grade phosphate. Ka-CHING!

After the Germans lost World War I, the allied powers decided that the best way to prevent another war would be to take all of Germany’s overseas possessions and dole them out between the British and the French – the UK got Nauru and all that yummy phosphate. France got Burkina Faso. Nice! Phosphate is used in fertiliser and explosives – the stuff is worth a fortune. In 1947, Nauru was declared a UN Trust Territory, administered by the Aussies, Kiwis and Poms, and in 1968 Nauru was given independence. Since the Nauruan parliament (all 18 members of it, including the speaker) knew they could make Brewsters out of this quality bird-turd, they chose not to throw their lot in with either Micronesia or Kiribati and instead go it alone.

For thirty years, this seemed like a damn good plan. In the 70s and 80s, Naurans were the richest people in the world. With up to two million tonnes of phosphate leaving the island each year, most Nauruans didn’t bother working, opting instead to make money by leasing their land to the phosphate company. The vast majority of mine workers were imported from Kiribati or Tuvalu.

Traditional subsistence farming and fishing techniques were forgotten as the population ran around their island in fancy sports cars and jetted around the world on their fleet of five jumbo jets. All was peachy.

That was until the late nineties when the easy-to-get-to phosphate started to run out. Gearing up for a post-phosphate world, the government promptly blew all of the country’s not-very-hard-earned cash on a series of ill-judged or ill-timed ‘investments’ – including buying dodgy property in Fiji, Hawaii and Melbourne, taking over the failing Footscray AFL team and a investing in a musical called ‘Leonardo The Musical’. The property was a dud, Footscray continued to fail and the musical was the biggest West End flop since Oscar Wilde’s wedding night.

In a riches-to-rags story to rival Enron, within ten years Nauru was broke. The mine shut down, the foreign workers left and unemployment hit an incredible 99% – in other words, there were only about 100 people left on the island with a job. And all because the poor old government listened to some moronic (or just plain evil) financial advisors, possibly from Australia.

That’s the economic disaster, now for the environmental disaster.

100 years of intensive mining has left the interior of Nauru irreparably scarred. The topsoil has been removed, as has the phosphate, leaving only bleach white coral pinnacles upon which not much can grow. Where there was once lush forest (Nauru was known in the West as ‘Pleasant Island’) there is now baking heat, rocks and inedible shrubs.

There are a few knock-on disasters as a result: firstly, Nauru now suffers terribly from drought. The reason for this is that the exposed white coral reflects sunlight back up into the air, creating a thermal updraft that pushes otherwise promising clouds away. As there’s not enough rain, there’s a major water shortage on the island. Secondly, the birds that provided the poo in the first place have all but stopped coming here – and no wonder – their habitat has been destroyed. Thirdly there is now not enough arable land for Nauru to return to the days of subsistence farming, even if they wanted to.

A painful irony: the country that for a century provided fertiliser to the world is now, well, pretty much infertile.

A similar phosphate-y situation occurred on nearby Banaba Island, the most westerly island of Kiribati. Only there, instead of investing in West End Musicals, fancy cars, jumbo jets and crappy football teams, the people of Banaba bought themselves a whole new island. They packed everything up, left a handful of people behind to feed the cat, and moved wholesale to a new South Seas Paradise in Fiji.

Things have improved slightly for Nauru in the last few years. The mine has reopened, although they’re moving a fraction of what they were in their heyday. Unemployment is down to just(!) 90% and there’s a chap here from Korea making a roaring trade collecting scrap metal from all over the island. There’s enough here to keep the world in Coke cans for at least another 20 years.

That said, Nauru is a little heart-breaker. A loveable tramp who drunkenly laments his lost millions to the other bums around the brazier. If only I had bet on black, he pines. If only…

It wasn’t until after noon that I managed to get onto the island. Once ashore I danced a goddamn jig – 195 countries down, 6 to go. I went for a little bit of an exploration, heading north along the coastal road. I walked past broken down warehouses, factories lying idle, the rusting remnants of yesteryear strewn about the place with reckless abandon. The barracks once used to house the hundreds of foreign workers now lie in a mournful state, graffitied and trashed, a few families remain, maybe squatting, maybe unable to return home.

Beyond the barracks is the RON Hospital – seriously underfunding and struggling to make ends meet. RON stands for ‘Republic of Nauru’. Again, I’d talk to the people in marketing. Call your own country what the hell you like, doesn’t mean you can’t razzle-dazzle the world with what you demand they call you. What sounds more enticing, ‘The Gold Coast’ or ‘Ghana’? ‘The Friendly Islands’ or ‘Tonga’? ‘Pleasant Island’ or ‘RON’? I know which one I’d plum for and I’m not even a copywriter (although I’d be damn good at it, I’m sure).

Up towards the interior now and it’s a bit of a trek up a hill. Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, apparently, and I’m seeing that more and more as I travel around. Here I am, 42km south of the Equator and I’m trekking up a damn hill: it’s so hot the sweat is stinging my eyes. There is nobody else around except for some kids swinging in the vines that hang in the shade of a giant buttress tree. I’m an idiot, obviously.

At the top I reached the former President’s residence. It was burnt down in 2001 by a rampaging mob, presumably pissed off that the government had blown all the country’s money on snake oil and homeopathic remedies. Now it stands abandoned, just a shell, but a shell with a cracking view over the harbour.

I then turned around and headed south parallel with the coast road, but inland and further up. I passed the shells of houses, the shells of cars, the shells left from World War 2… every type of shell except the ones that grow in the sea. After a good twenty minutes I arrived at the (amazingly) still functioning phosphate processing plant. Man, this place looks like somewhere Batman would go for a dénouement: broken windows, rusted metal, dilapidated conveyor belt housings, long-abandoned machinery… this entire island has this eerie ghost-town feeling about it – not that the locals notice. Every time a school bus goes past, the kids are singing like it’s Mardi Gras.

I made my way down the hill towards the coast, near the now-defunct first cantilever; a huge metal half-bridge that swings out into the sea. Conveyor belts transport the phosphate to the end of the cantilever where it drops down a large tube into a waiting break-bulk cargo ship, filling the hold like a disgruntled McDonald employee fills the coffee machine.

This cantilever is dead, hasn’t worked for years. A shame, really, there’s enough metal here to build a bridge over the River Mersey. One day it’ll probably fall into the sea. There’s another cantilever, one that is still in use. It sits opposite the Scarlett Lucy’s mooring.

There’s a part of me that can’t escape the fact that this place reminds me of growing up in Liverpool in the 1980s. The feeling of abandonment, the wastelands and disused lots. An entire industry reduced to rubble. The plans for a brighter tomorrow that went nowhere. Twisted metal left strewn about, covered in weeds. Warehouses filled with nothing but debris, factories that once ran 24 hours a day now running silent. The disused railway lines, the general feeling of malaise: the feeling that we had drawn the short straw. Somebody made a lot of money out of all this tragedy, but it sure as hell wasn’t us.

And so I find myself feeling an affinity for Nauru. Not in that wanky art-student ‘isn’t urban decay interesting, non?’ way. I don’t find people living on the poverty line in the least bit arousing, there’s no beauty in smashed windows, collapsed roofs and concrete shells, and as far as I’m concerned graffiti has all the artistic merit of a child drawing cartoon penises in his biology textbook. Like Liverpool, Nauru had one major industry: ours was shipping, there’s was phosphate. And like Liverpool, the glory days are over.

Back on the Scarlett Lucy there was much excitement in the water. It’s spawning season so once the sun sets and the moon comes up, millions of fish go ape-shit – the upshot being a) that the sea water started looking (and sounding) more like a Jacuzzi and that b) dozens of dolphins turned up looking for a feast. It was an incredible sight.

Day M168: The Bird Man of Nauru

Tue 13.03.12:

One of our cranes is broken. This means that yesterday, instead of unloading the 80 containers like we were meant to, we didn’t unload a single one. While the electrician and engineers worked tireless trying to fix the damn thing, I headed back to the island accompanied by the port agent, Chet Tatum (sounds like he should be playing American Football).

Chet was good enough to take me on a proper tour of the entire island in his old jalopy. From the port we headed north along the coast road, past abandoned houses and burnt out stores. On the north end of the island, there’s more of a feeling of what Nauru used to be like, the houses here are better maintained and there’s even some gardens. It’s still a far cry from the neat flower-speckled villages of Samoa, but it’s an improvement on the area around the port. Up there you’ll also find the only real supermarket on Nauru, Chappell’s. The family that own the place have rooms for rent if you’re looking for an alternative to the two hotels that make up the accommodation quotient of this tiny nation.

We followed the coast down to the Menem Hotel – an awful 80s construction, desperately in need of a lick of paint, which is about the best that it you can hope for if you find yourself staying here overnight. In fact, this is the case with every building, every house I can find. They’re all constructed out of cheap n’ nasty concrete and breeze-blocks. There’s no traditional materials, no traditional craftsmanship: this is something I’d expect to see in a third-world city like Accra or Birmingham, but for a country that used to be one of the richest in the world, wouldn’t you expect something a little more, erm, permanent? Or, better yet, beautiful?

Sadly, Nauru’s phosphate boom coincided with precisely the worst decades of architecture in recorded history, so it was either bargain basement tat or bargain basement tat – if only the boom had come in the 1880s instead – people would come from around the world to explore the beautiful and unique sprawling coral-stone mansions of Nauru.

Chet then took me to visit a guy he knows who collects frigate birds. Unlike the Nauruan national dish, noddy bird, they don’t catch frigate birds for food, they catch them to keep as pets. This is a tradition only kept by the people of two countries in the world: Nauru and Peru (which rhyme, wonderfully enough – like Zambia and Gambia, Suriname and Vietnam, France and pants).

This old guy catches these rather large birds, not with a net, but with a lasso. That alone is pretty damn impressive. Each of the island’s clans have their own distinct markings that they put on their birds to show who owns them. Once the frigate bird has been tamed they’re set free and tend not to leave the island ever again.

They tame them by keeping them in a giant cage for a few weeks and feeding them. Eventually, the bird decides that this is a much better way of life than all that flying around being eaten by sharks malarkey and becomes domesticated – you let them out of the cage and they stick around. The problem is you’ve got to feed the buggers and they eat a LOT of fish. Our man here had ten birds – he is recognised as the best frigate bird catcher in the land.

As we chatted under the shade of an old twisted tree, the old man was painstakingly cleaning thousands of fish eggs out of his fishing net – last night’s spawning may have been good for the dolphins, but it had been a nightmare for the fisherman. Although this guy isn’t catching fish for sale, or even for his family, they’re just for his birds. That’s some dedication right there.

After saying our goodbyes to the Bird Man of Nauru, Chet took me alongside the airstrip (like in Tuvalu you can just walk across the damn thing) and then we headed into the interior. We encircled the small lagoon, all that’s left of what millions of years ago would have encompassed the entire interior of the island.

Geologically speaking, Nauru is an interesting little beast. She’s not quite a coral atoll, and she’s not quite a volcanic island: she’s a raised coral island. These things are quite rare, but in a nutshell here’s what (I think) happens..

A volcano pokes its head above the ocean. A fringing coral reef is formed. The volcano sinks, leaving the circular reef shaped like a ring with a lagoon in the middle. So far, so normal. But then, over millions of years, the coral starts to fill in the lagoon as well. Soon you have a circular shallow completely filled in with coral, as though photoshopped.

The volcano continues to sink, and the coral builds up more and more, thicker and thicker, crushing the old dead coral below. Water levels rise and the coral keeps on growing and growing. With the polar ice caps completely melted, the sea level has risen several meters and now our coral reef is struggling to stay in the goldilocks zone in which it can grow – tropical water, no more than twenty metres below the surface. But somehow it pulls it off! So when the ice-caps re-freeze and the sea level drops a perfectly potato-shaped coral island emerges from the brine, looking from beneath the ocean a bit like rock formations of monument valley, only made of coral.

And coral is now pretty much all that’s left. After the lagoon, we went top-side. While a thin strip running around the coast still bears decent vegetation, the central area has been completely de-foliated like there’s been an Agent Orange foam party. With the trees, top soil and phosphate removed, all that remains are these white coral pinnacles upon which little can grow but hardy inedible shrubs. No wonder the birds of the world don’t flock here anymore.

Up past the nation’s rubbish tip are a couple of big guns left by the Japanese. From here you can see the whole island below and you can really get a grip on the devastating environmental effects that one hundred years of phosphate mining has had on this poor bedraggled mess of a nation. My heart goes out to the Nauruans – their tropical island paradise has been trashed, and they haven’t got a dime to show for their sacrifice.

Back on the ship, the crane was still out of order and the crew were getting impatient. Happily, at quarter to one in the morning, Peni, the second engineer burst into the mess, sweating profusely and wearing a big goofy smile. WE DID IT! It’s fixed! Cargo operations would start in the morning.

Day M169: The Smallest Parliament in the World

Wed 14.03.12:

Nauru has no natural harbour: its smooth potato-like shape does not offer the world any nooks or crannies to slip your vessel into. So like in Tarawa when some git has bagsied the only parking space, we have to park our craft out to sea. But unlike Tarawa, once you’re clear of the coastal shelf here in Nauru, it’s 300 metres straight down to the sea floor: so we can’t drop anchor.

Instead there are set up a few mooring buoys. That’s pronounced ‘boys’, not ‘boo-ees’, America! These float on the surface like people who crossed the Don and have big long metal chains which fix them to the bottom of the ocean. There are two possible mooring positions in Nauru: one is for the phosphate ship that comes in very close to the coastal shelf and then has the phosphate poured into it by a rather impressive cantilever that swings out over the shallows.

The other is for container ships like the good ol’ Scarlett here. It’s a bit further out and we’re only moored to two buoys, not four like the Phosphate one. This is not a problem so long as the wind doesn’t change. At night powerful lights from the ship project onto the mooring lines, and the engines are constantly on standby just in case we need to propel ourselves back away from the island.

You could theoretically have 2 ships moored alongside each other, but the huge variables involved mean that this never happens – it would only take a single line to snap for one ship to go barrelling into the other and then we’d all have pumpkin pie all over our gormless grinning faces.

You see, we’re moored out in open ocean here. Our position relative to the island gives us a little bit of a buffer from the worst swells coming in from the north-east, but that’s not saying much. If there’s a storm, we start to roll. Even when there isn’t a storm we’re still constantly bobbing up and down. And in the midst of all this madness, we have to unload cargo.

The are but two cargo barges here in Nauru, and they each take just one 20’ container at a time. Getting a box into a barge is rather like playing Operation with a swinging crane instead of a pair of tweezers, a metal box that weighs over 30 tonnes instead of a tiny plastic bone and a patient that’s lying on an inflatable lino in the wave pool of Rhyl Sun Centre. Like Sarah Jessica Parker’s face, it is at once hilarious and yet utterly terrifying. Especially when you’re on this damn tiny barge waiting to go ashore and a container-shaped wrecking ball is slamming down onto the piss-weak metal cage above your head, much in the manner of a T-Rex trying to get into a upturned jeep populated by incredibly annoying children. Eek!

Once ashore, I wanted to do my own thing so I tried to hire a motorbike to trundle around the island. Usually this is no problem, but at the moment the population are on petrol rationing, so you can’t really be letting a ginger rapscallion like myself loose on your 50cc.

So I ambled along to the garage down the road, a graveyard of twisted and mangled wrecks like you’d see on a don’t drink and drive ad. They apparently ran a car-hire business as well, but they were not immune from the petrol rationing, so no dice. I was advised that if I see a kid on a push-bike I should ask if I can borrow it. Sod that for a lark, it’s way too hot (and I’m way too unfit).

So instead I met up with Bese and Peni from the ship. Bese wanted to go internetting, so I thought I’d treat Peni to a beer (even though he doesn’t drink) at the Menem hotel. We hitched a ride with some nice Nauruans to the other side of the island. When I came here yesterday with Chet, we didn’t stop, which was probably for the best. The place is a mess: litter everywhere, the pool is empty and forlorn, the brown-windowed restaurant (when the hell was brown glass EVER a good idea, architects of the f—ing world) looks abandoned and – worst of all – the bar closed at 2pm. It was 2.30.


So we started walking back towards the ship. After a bit of a hike a car stopped ahead of us. The lady driving asked where we were going, I said that we were on our way to see the parliament building. Get in, I’ll take you. I like places like this. Here name was Mary and she told me something I wish I had known months ago: there is a cargo ship that goes Marshall Islands > Nauru > Marshall Islands. It also takes passengers.

If only I had known…! Oh well. I know now and I’ll be putting that fact into my upcoming book ‘How To Visit Every Country In The World Without Flying In One Year Without Making All The Silly Mistakes That I Did’.

After dropping us off, Peni and I needed to walk across the airstrip in order to get to the parliament building on the far side. The building itself is a bit so-so, but at least they have used native timber in the building of the main debating chamber – a chamber that only has room for 18 members, and that includes the speaker. EIGHTEEN PEOPLE running an entire country. At first it sounds nuts, but then when you think about it, there’s probably only about eighteen people running any given country. How many people are in the current cabinet in Westminster? How many members of Obama’s staff can you name? Eighteen? You’re doing well.

And that kids, is how the Iron Law of Oligarchy works 😉

Peni and I then hitched a third ride back to the port. We were met by Bese and Patrick. As we waited for the barge to come and pick us up, I suggested that I go to the shop to get some soft drinks. Patrick came with me, but what I didn’t know is that he had a secret assignment: to get some kava for the boys. What should have been a five minute trip to the shops turned into an hour-long hike looking for kava, stopping only to play a game of ping-pong with the local kids along the way (Patrick lost, by the way, I chose not to embarrass myself).

Eventually, with the sacred kava in hand, Patrick and I returned to a happy ship. The unloading process was all but complete and tomorrow we’re just going to take as many empties on board as we can until it gets dark, then we’re packing up the circus and high-tailing it back to Noro in the Solomon Islands.

Day M170: What Next?

Thu 15.03.12:

With any luck and despite the lengthy delays here in Nauru and last week in Kiribati, the Scarlett Lucy should be back in Brisbane by Saturday March 24.

Behind the scenes, my girlfriend/PA Mandy has been squirreling away trying to get me on board the Cap Serrat, a Hamburg Sud operated cargo ship that leaves Brissy on March 25. If successful, that ship will get me to Taiwan for April 4, giving me a few days before (hopefully) one of the Mariana Express ships heads off to Micronesia and Palau on April 8. At this stage of the journey, to knock two countries of the list – 33% of what remains – in one boat trip will be immense.

There is then a PIL ship that leaves from Hong Kong on a regular basis that could possibly take me to Sri Lanka, via Singapore and India. This would leave just three countries remaining. I am hoping against hope that there exists a shipping line that goes from Sri Lanka to the Maldives and then down to Mauritius or Reunion. If it does, and if I can get on it, I could feasibly be in Madagascar by June.

From Madagascar it would be a case of heading to the island of Nosy Be in the north of the country. There’s a rather large marina in the main city, Hell Be, and I should hopefully find at least one captain who is mad enough to take me to country number 200: Seychelles. Don’t forget, Odyssey rules state that I do not have to visit the capital, but must step foot on land somewhere within the contiguous boundary of the nation. The most southerly islands of the Seychelles are located just a couple of hundred miles north of Nosy Be: it ain’t going to be easy, but it is a viable option – and given the Somali pirate situation, it is possibly my only option.

Then I’ll have to head back over to mainland Africa via Comoros. Last time, this process took the best part of a month. This time, who knows? Realistically speaking, with Nauru out of the way and Mariana Shipping already being very helpful with getting me to Micronesia and Palau, the only big unknown is The Seychelles: once I have that ticked off the list, getting to the final country, South Sudan should be (relatively) easy: I’ve pretty much done that route once before.

Then I’m going to try and overland it back to Liverpool. Is this possible? Well yes, but it ain’t going to be easy. Getting a visa for Sudan from anywhere else but Egypt is said to be a bureaucratic nightmare of Gilliamesque proportions, but even when I get back to Egypt. the current civil conflict in Syria bars that way back to Europe. So then, two options remain – head back to Israel, take a ship to Cyprus, then Cyprus to either Greece or Turkey, OR waddle my way back through the now Gaddafi-free zone of Libya, get to Tunisia and take that infernal Grimaldi ferry (which I swore never to take again!) up to Italy.

Either way, once I’m back in Europe I could be home within the week. Of course I’ll be penniless and jobless with just my clothes on my back, but you won’t find me complaining. I’ll have finally finished my quest.

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.


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.