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.

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