Tuesday, 20 November 2007


In the 1960's, The United Nations Trust Territory of New Guinea still included many places deemed to be too dangerous to allow access by anything other than armed patrols. The upper waters of the Sepik River had only recently been removed from this no-go category when I started regular flying visits to collect native artifacts for re-sale in our store at Toniva on Bougainville Island.

On the Sepik River en route to Hunstein Lagoons

I owned and flew my own aircraft and had the advantage over other seekers after Sepik carvings and artifacts, as most collectors baulked at the cost of hiring an aircraft, the only practical means of entry into this remote area.

Loading our aircraft at Ambunti for the return flight to Bougainville

I could leave Bougainville in my Aztec and be on the ground at Ambunti, hundreds of miles up the Sepik River the same day.
Leaving the aircraft tied down but otherwise unguarded at the end of the short, very slippery Ambunti airstrip, I would hire a large dugout canoe complete with a predictably unreliable outboard engine to penetrate the billabongs and narrow tributaries of this aquatic world where a treasure-trove of authentic carvings and ceremonial objects could be bought from willing sellers in the villages and hamlets.

Ceremonial Shield. Maprik. Lower Sepik

Sacred Flute stopper.Upper Sepik. Now in The British Museum. London

Lack of respect for the religious significance of these carvings was not an issue. Masks, drums, weapons were all ceremonial objects on the Sepik River. They were only ever used a few times then discarded to decay and rot under village huts and sellers were only too willing to dispose of them when their ceremonial use ended: the problem was to penetrate the maze of waterways and backwaters and find them in time and then get them back to what passed for civilization in the coastal towns of post WW2 New Guinea.

The dagger was once a human thigh-bone. Not for Sale !

Silver coins were the only acceptable currency. Paper bank notes did not long survive in this hot, wet climate and were usually rejected. I started every expedition with canvas bags, each containing several thousand dollars in coins, hiring young villagers to carry and guard them. No money ever went missing.
Anyone foolish enough to do what I did in today's lawless and violent Papua New Guinea would be lucky to survive more than a few days before being assaulted, robbed and probably killed. White men could be, and sometimes were attacked and killed in the 1960's, but never for robbery in the jungle and I was never concerned for my personal safety.

Autres temps, autres moeures.


Thursday, 8 November 2007

1956. Salvage at Sea in Papua New Guinea.


MV DOMA. Voyage No. 5. 1956

The Master
MV Doma
Port Moresby

Being in all respects ready for sea, you will depart Port Moresby for Morehead River with general cargo and passengers as manifested.

Return loading will be 1200 empty 44 gallon drums from the Australasian Petroleum Exploration Company base at Wasi Kusa River.

You will arrange with the Master of M.V.Melinda anchored 30 miles upstream in the Wasi Kusa to take this vessel in tow and deliver her to Port Moresby using every precaution against loss or damage to your own vessel and with due regard to the state of the river and associated hazards.

Melinda is said by her owners to be seaworthy but is unable to move due to a broken propellor shaft.

J.Buchart. Shipping Manager

Doma was flat-bottomed, and drew only six feet fully loaded, except for both propellers, which hung unprotected under the central rudder. This unconventional arrangement made running over one of the innumerable floating logs, which drifted awash on this coast at all seasons highly inadvisable. A bent blade was the best that one could hope for, but a broken-off propeller was more likely, with an even worse chance of a broken shaft which would spin backwards out of its housing taking the prop with it, resulting a high speed jet of water to rapidly fill the engine room and probably sink the ship.

Duali, a sister-ship to Doma

The voyage across the Papuan Gulf as far as Daru on the western shores of the Fly River Delta was uneventful, but from there on, for another 100 nautical miles across the top of Torres Strait, we would be in virtually uncharted waters. GPS Satellite Navigation gear, now standard on every sea-going vessel of any size was not even a twinkle in NASA's eye in 1956. Radars, Electronic Depth Sounders and Radio Direction Finders did exist, but not on Doma or any other small ship in these waters. We had a compass, a chart and a lead-line and were expected to use them to keep us afloat and on time along the entire Papuan Coast. The only certainty was that anything over five fathoms (30 feet) was not to be expected, and two fathoms was more likely. Lights, beacons, buoys and all the other usual navigation aids simply did not exist.
Doma crept slowly along the deserted mangrove-lined coast with a crewman heaving the lead from early morning to late afternoon; her young master hovering within instant grasp of the engine room telegraph, ready to signal Full Astern if the leadsman's voice rose an octave to match rapidly shallowing water. The anchor was simply dropped wherever we happened to be at sundown.
The exploration company was camped 30 miles from the Morehead river mouth close to what was then the Dutch New Guinea Border. We would have had no chance of reaching it without local knowledge and assistance. This was provided by a near-naked, painted tribesman who spoke neither English nor Pidjin nor the Police Motu. Hand signals and pursed lips pointed left or right directed the helmsman, and Doma arrived alongside the high mud-walled river bank which served as a cargo wharf, discharged the cargo and departed for the Wasi Kusa and MV Melinda, our prospective tow.

Emboldened by a successful passage right across the top of Torres Strait, we carefully retraced our outward voyage until the mouth of the Wasi Kussa River again loomed ahead.
This is a much deeper and more navigable river than most on this coast, and the base camp was reached without incident. Our highly dangerous cargo of empty aviation fuel drums awaited us. Full drums are (hopefully) properly sealed and leak-proof, but empties should be sealed again after thorough washing out with fresh water before being loaded as cargo. Needless to say, this nitpicking precaution was unknown in Papua in the 1950s, and the drums were loaded in whatever condition they were in at the time.

Busama, another sister ship to Doma, exploded in a huge fireball at Wewak before the Marine Department put a stop to this dangerous practice a year later.

Wreck of Busama at Wewak, PNG after her cargo of aviation fuel in drums exploded.

With 1200 empty drums stowed four high on deck, we steamed a few miles down-river where our tow awaited us. Melinda was a sorry sight, having swung to her anchor for almost three months waiting for a tow. She was manned by a mixed crew of Malayan and Papuan sailors and a Dutch engineer. The Master was a white-haired, cockney-accented Englishman,
Captain Salmon, known from Singapore to Sydney, I later discovered, as 'Sockeye Salmon.'

"Yer going to say its no go I suppose, young feller" was Captain Salmon's opening remark.
"My orders are to get you back to Moresby, and that's what I'm going to do."
This was greeted with a surprised snort and a swiftly poured glass of the inevitable Negrita Rum.
"We've got no power, no lights, and no towing gear," he said.
" I'll put you alongside down the river and then use your anchor cable as a towline with my chain as a sling from both quarters," I replied.
"Sooner you than me, young feller. Ever done it before?"
"Better have another then."
"No thanks…….lets go"
And we did.

Many months after it was all over, I was told that Doma was the fourth ship sent to tow the broken down old freighter back to Port Moresby. The masters of the first three ships sent to do so refused to risk it: "Far too difficult.": the danger being that there was a real chance of both vessels getting caught across current in the fast-flowing Wasi Kusa, and either sinking or rolling over before coming to rest permanently in one of its shallow bends. Doma's young captain had no such doubts but the same sailor, now grey-haired and much more timorous, would agree with the first three dissenters, and refuse to even consider the operation which now got under way.

Melinda, of similar size and unpredictable behaviour to Doma, was lashed alongside for a headlong dash down the Wasi Kusa, letting the swift current carry us along and using engine power ahead or astern to keep both vessels out of the mangrove-lined banks. Incredibly, we reached the open sea still lashed together and undamaged, and rigged both vessels' anchor cables for a long tow across the Gulf of Papua into the persistent Southeast Trade Winds and relentless breaking seas. Speed dropped to a bare three knots whenever the wind picked up and five almost sleepless days and nights passed, before I triumphantly docked both ships alongside the wharf in Moresby Harbour.

Doma, aground and used as a breakwater at Belesana in Eastern Papua. Photograph taken from SV Tekani in 1987. Author in foreground.

Unknown to me, the owners of Melinda had a commitment from their insurers that this was to be a final attempt at salvage before they could collect their money.
No-one, least of all my employers who were owed several thousand pounds by Melinda's owners expected us to even make it down the river, let alone across the notoriously wild Gulf of Papua.
This, and much more, was relayed to me by a panel of experts in tne Snake-Pit, the mariner's retreat in the Papuan Hotel. I should have consulted them before, not after, my first attempt at salvage at sea.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

My Short Career as A Servant Of The Crown


In 1956, MV Doma was only a few years out of her wartime origin, but was already showing signs of a hard life as the tropical climate ate away at thin steel hull-plating when I assumed command, as the youngest ship's master on the Papuan Coast.

A voyage across the Papuan Gulf into the Northwest monsoon, the last of many such operations was abandoned when the Chief Engineer dropped a heavy steel bar in the engine room. It penetrated Doma's single-skinned bottom and produced a fountain of salt water which he temporarily smothered with a cement patch over a hastily riveted metal plate.

The ship's owners were not unduly concerned and suggested that the patch would serve as a permanent repair. I disagreed and was ordered to "Get on with it and stop nit-picking." but the thought of another hull failure in the single skin of this rusting survivor of who knew how many wartime stresses and strains made resignation of my command an easy decision.
Her previous master had found another job as crash-boat skipper with The Department of Civil Aviation at the Flying-Boat Base on Port Moresby Harbour, and I followed, exchanging a slow-moving eight knot coastal freighter for a 30 knot crashboat.

The Port Moresby Marine Base was equipped with high-speed launches powered by twin V-12 Dorman-Ricardo diesels. They were there to guard and control the flying boat landing area used by RAAF PBY Catalina amphibians, now owned by Qantas. These slow-flying aircraft made a leisurely circuit of several thousand miles twice a week from Port Moresby, covering all of coastal Papua and New Guinea and most of the Solomon Islands as far as Honiara. The Catalinas carried less than a dozen passengers perched uncomfortably on canvas seats down both sides of the hull, with their feet in bilge water which sloshed from one end of the aircraft to the other after most take-offs. The launches, ( "crashboats,") would sweep the harbour for floating logs and debris and the occasional native canoe before every take-off and landing. The rest of the time was spent on standby, waiting for an emergency of any kind, with the crew busily cleaning paintwork and polishing and re-polishing the brass fittings, which were liberally fitted throughout the vessel.

I had been with DCA in Port Moresby for only a few months. Unaware of the traps laid for unwary newcomers by long entrenched government employees, I treated my transfer to Rabaul as Officer in Charge. New Guinea Islands as a welcome promotion and we left immediately for my new posting. The Rabaul Marine Base had its crashboat lying to a mooring a few yards offshore from two ex-wartime buildings. One had been converted into living quarters for the boss, while the other was a workshop and store with accommodation for the boats crew.

At Rabaul, the weekly Catalina arrived on Mondays from Port Moresby via Lae, Madang, Manus and Kavieng, and departed the following morning for a flight to Honiara in The Solomon Islands, returning to Port Moresby by the same roundabout route on Wednesdays after an overnight stop. This left half the week free. The only other task was a short trip down-harbour with the town's resident vulcanologist for an inspection of Matupi Volcano which smoked away day and night and contributed the occasional earth tremor: these were ignored by blasé Rabaul residents as something of no particular concern.

My short career as a public servant came to an abrupt halt when the decision to close the Marine Base and replace Catalinas with DC3 'Gooney-birds'; a decision made before I left Port Moresby, was conveyed to me for the first time in a brief official telegram.

The crashboat was sold; the base was closed; and I was unemployed with a wife and new baby daughter to provide for and a grand total of twentyfive pounds in the bank.

To be continued