Sunday, 27 January 2008


The legendary Graeme (King) Carson of Nuguria had ordered the construction of what became known simply as The Big Canoe, and it was ready to start work.

Lloyds of London received some unusual proposals from our Rabaul office from time to time, but a request for insurance on this small ship was too much even for that un-flappable British institution.

"Sorry old chap... This is a bad connection. For a moment there, I thought you said the hull was built from a solid log"

"That's right…standard construction material out on the atolls, and very good for boatbuilding."...
long silence

"I'll run it past a few brokers and call you back"

He never did !

The Carson Family's Malekolon Plantation was on Anir Island in the Feni Group off the south-eastern coast of New Ireland.

Salat strait, Feni Islands from Malekolon Plantation.

Unlike Nuguria, Anir is a high island with big tropical hardwood trees. One of these was felled to be transformed by canoe-builders from the atolls into one of the largest dugout canoes ever seen there. Two smaller canoes were got from the same big log.

The half-finished hull. The three figures on the right are an indication of its size.

Electric power tools replaced traditional hafted adzes and carefully controlled fire for the initial work on the felled log, but final shaping of the sides and bottom was done with hand-adzes, using the sound made by a tap on the hull with the tool's wooden handle to determine when the correct thickness had been achieved.
The part-finished hull sailed from Anir to Nuguria after a diesel engine turning a three bladed propellor was installed. An outside rudder, a traditional ship's wheel and standard instrumentation including compass and binnacle
were then added inside a fully enclosed wheelhouse. giving the helmsman full control from there.
She was completely decked in, with a long covered hatchway, under which copra or general cargo could be kept dry and secure in all weathers.

Never registered or in survey, she served for many years in Nuguria Lagoon as the plantation's main work-boat .The canoe would probably have been seized and impounded had it ever entered Rabaul Harbour or Buka Passage and it never did, but discrete and un-announced open-water voyages were sometimes made from Nuguria to Nissan Atoll and Malekolon.

Graeme Carson, ( right ) .

Frank Darcey Jr. inside the part-finished hull .

The Big Canoe at work. Tekani Island, Nuguria


* The men from Takuu and Nuguria
who built The Big Canoe included :-
Possiri Popi, Apoke Sione, Teloma Mani,
Tumau Fariki,Tepiko Heia, Tonegina,
Tewavia Tehoru, Kipu Sieki, Trakoa
and Aruka.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008


In 1987, we were anchored at the western entrance to Nuguria, close to the island after which our yacht, Tekani was named. It was a sentimental return to this isolated South Pacific atoll where we had enjoyed many previous visits as guests of plantation owner Graeme Carson and his Nugurian born wife Tetau

S.V. Tekani. Nuguria Lagoon. 1987

During this, our last visit, we were fortunate to be once more invited to join the people of Busuria Village for live-bait fishing in the lagoon.

Tekani, the home island.

Live bait fishing involves many people and is carried out using traditional methods and materials; the end result is a canoe filled to the gunwales with fish, but many hours of intense effort by thirty or more people precede the final frantic few moments, when fish after fish is landed by casting small baitfish on barbless hooks into a milling school of trevally.

The water in the lagoon is crystal clear

The bait drive starts at low tide on the crown of the reef by dragging a long sweep-net into an ever-decreasing circle. The net is made from coconut fronds, twisted and bound together. It reaches from the surface of the water down to the shallow, sandy bottom in a dark, threatening curtain and is kept floating on the reef, when not in use. The net lasts for many months before being discarded and left to drift away. Small silver wrasse and other bait fish flee before it into a bamboo mat which is then emptied into a long split-cane basket hung on the side of the canoe .

The net is deployed

and dragging starts

driving small bait fish into an ever shrinking area

into the mat floating at its end

The mat is lifted carefully out of the water,shifting
the bait fish into the floating basket alongside the canoe

In former times, the canoe with its floating basket of live bait secured alongside, together with two or more other canoes, would be sailed or paddled across the lagoon to a deepwater reef entrance on its eastern edge, where schools of golden trevally are known to gather. An outboard motor now speeds this part of the live bait fishing operation, but everything else stays as it has been for generations.

After locating the school of trevally, the head fisherman first sprinkles the canoe with salt water in a traditional gesture of recognition to the ancestral spirits of the lagoon, then scoops up a bailer-load of bait fish and casts them in a wide circle around the canoe.

The fish start feeding on the live bait, undeterred by reef sharks which soon appear.

Fishers using bamboo rods with fixed lines impale live wrasse from the bait basket on barbless hooks and cast them into the school which is now in a feeding frenzy. Hook-up is immediate, as soon as the bait hits the water.

Bait casting

Five or more rod-wielding fisherman in the canoe soon fill it with a load of flapping trevally, fresh from the sea, more than enough to feed the entire village. Surplus fish are smoked and preserved for later meals.

A fish is quickly landed before it throws the barbless hook

From time to time, tales of a food shortage on Nuguria and similar atolls East of Bougainville, circulate in the electronic media. While the reports are genuine enough, they fail to point out that the shortage is of imported tinned fish and rice which have displaced taro and fresh fish as the staple diet: easier to open a bag of rice or a tin of Taiwanese mackerel-pike, than to toil in a mosquito laden taro pit or spend all day fishing under a vertical tropical sun; but, unlike its its Australian predecessor, the PNG Government is not always prepared to deliver shiploads of food to the atolls on request. Fortunately, the traditional hunter-gather skills of the Nugurians are still remembered, to be used again when hunger prompts.

Camera: Ivy Darcey


Monday, 7 January 2008


The American whaler, Abgarris, first reported the atolls in 1830 and located them, not quite accurately, 120 nautical miles off the east coast of New Ireland, and 200 miles south of the equator

Nuguria Atoll. Satellite Image

Fead was the name given by cartographers to the larger one of the two island groups, but the original inhabitants knew it as Nuguria

Tekani, the Home Island,

There are two separate atolls with a deep-water passage between them. Both wear a thin necklace of low islets perched only a few feet above sea level on the outer rim of the lagoon. The highest point on every island is only a few feet above the high tide mark and, in common with other low-lying atolls in the Western Pacific, Nuguria, the larger of the two, is experiencing a disturbing rise in sea level: whether this caused by global warming or by subsidence of tectonic plates on the seabed is currently being disputed by a myriad of experts, most of whom have yet to actually set foot on these, or any other atolls.

Tekani Island boat harbour with dugout canoes

Before the arrival of European sailors, Nuguria's only contact with the rest of the world had been the occasional arrival of sail-driven canoes from Kapingamarangi, 600 miles to the North, and other arrivals from Nukumanu, Nukutoa and Luainia to the East. Some visitors remained, and infused Polynesian and Micronesian genetic material into the Indo-Asian DNA of the original arrivals.

Nugurian girl. Busuria Village

Fishing was, and still is the Islanders' main source of food, supplemented by Taro which is cultivated in excavated pits in the coral sand of the larger islands. The fertile soil in these artificially created food gardens has been laboriously built up over many years with organic vegetable material which replaces the nutrient-poor coral sand and rubble of the atoll.


There are no large trees anywhere on these islands and traditional canoe builders were entirely dependant for suitable material for canoes on the infrequent arrival of drifting logs from the rain forests of New Ireland 120 miles to the West. The canoe-building skills of the craftsmen of Nuguria are legendary: they transform a raw tree trunk into a hollowed-out, graceful canoe using hand tools only.

Canoe from Busuria Village en route to fishing grounds in the lagoon.

Before the discovery of the atoll by European sailors, hafted adzes with sharpened clamshell blades; the hardest available material on these stone-free islands, were used after deliberate use of fire, to remove all but a thin outer shell of timber in the hollowed out hull with a thickness at the gunwale of only two centimetres, gradually increasing to ten centimetres or more at the bottom for added stability.

When finally finished, this huge log canoe was powered by an inboard Diesel engine and was used as a plantation work-boat in the lagoon. She made regular open water voyages to Nissan and to Malekolon Plantation near New Ireland from Nuguria.

Canoe sails were originally made of woven tapa cloth using traditional looms. Rigging to support the single mangrove pole mast and sheets for the sails came from coconut fibre. A species of tall mangrove supplied the mast and was also used for the outrigger which was attached to its booms by sharpened bamboo spikes and split cane lashings

20th century canoe with traditional rig near Tekani Island

The canoe builders of Nuguria now use imported sailcloth and power tools, but the final finishing cuts are still delivered using hand adzes with frequent pauses to guage the thickness of the hull by listening to the sound made by a gentle tap from the wooden handle of the adze; the same method used by their forebears here on these lonely islands at the edge of the world.


Wednesday, 2 January 2008


In 1955, I had just returned to Sydney from a trans-Tasman crossing to New Zealand in Kylie, a steel ketch which had taken up the previous two years of my young life as we built her in the sand dunes of La Perouse on Botany Bay

The author at La Perouse before launching Kylie

As a newly married man, not yet gainfully employed, I was faced with two choices: Longreach in Western Queensland where a job as radio announcer awaited, or Port Moresby in what was then Australian Territory where Steamships Trading Company had a ship needing a supercargo, (Code for sea-going clerk/handyman/dogsbody)

Port Moresby (which I had never seen) seemed the better alternative and I left Sydney with a one-way ticket to Port Moresby aboard a vintage DC4 leaving my new bride behind to follow 'later', when my employers would hopefully pay for her to join me.

Port Moresby signalled my arrival with a shattering metallic clatter as the aircraft touched down on the wartime runway at Jackson's Airport, still covered with the ubiquitous marsden matting ; interlocking steel plates which the post-war territory used for purposes never dreamed of by its American inventors. Tank stands, pig fences, security barriers and fishtraps were just a few.

I had invested in a new officer's cap complete with snow-white cover to complement my reefer jacket and long trousers; appropriate attire for my new career, or so I thought. Sweating profusely in the humid air, I went straight to my new ship, MV DOMA which was moored alongside Port Moresby's only wharf, fully loaded needing only its new supercargo before departing for Daru across the Gulf of Papua.

'Duali'. Sistership to Doma

Her shirtless skipper David Herbert, brother of Australian author Xavier, raised a bushy eyebrow at the appearance of this new Supercargo in wildly inappropriate attire and wordlessly poured me a very large glass of Negrita rum before turning to the Chief Engineer with what I later learned was his invariable signal for immediate departure…."Kick 'er in the guts Lofty!" he said, and we sailed for Daru without further ceremony.

Doma was part of a fleet of small ships bought by Steamships Trading Company for peppercorn prices from the Australian Government, which disposed of the huge mass of machinery and equipment left behind by departing U.S forces to anyone with a cheque book.

She was 120 feet overall. Flat-bottomed. Powered by twin diesel engines but without the usual benefit of contra-rotating propellers, which made her almost uncontrollable when going astern. She was designed by a general in the US Marines as a water tanker and general cargo carrier: if these small ships survived one beach invasion, this was all that was expected of them. Doma was fully loaded with a mixed cargo of rice, tinned meat, sugar, flour,tobacco and other staples below a single long hatch. The deck was completely covered with 44-gallon drums of highly volatile fuel, and this in turn was overlaid by over one hundred deck passengers, complete with pressure stoves, which were lit from time to time directly on top of the fuel drums.

Foredeck of Doma at Daru. Papuan Gulf

Navigation equipment was minimal. Depth sounding was by leadline. Other aids were completely absent. No Radar, no Radio Direction Finder; and no buoys, lights, or any other indication of position or depth for the hundreds of miles of shallow, mudstained water of the Papuan Gulf. The success (or otherwise) of a voyage was entirely dependant on the local knowledge of her officers and crew, mainly the latter, whose seagoing antecedents had sailed these seas in huge claw-sailed Lakatoi canoes for centuries.

Doma successfully completed this, my first voyage, with no more than the usual number of groundings and missed landfalls. On return to Port Moresby, she was immediately loaded with an almost identical cargo for the reef strewn East Coast of Papua. Destination, Samarai, at the Southeast end of Papua.

Loading copra and rubber at Otamata, Papuan East Coast

More appropriately dressed now for my job, I approached the shipping manager for an advance on my princely salary of sixty pounds per month for an airfare for my new wife Ivy who was patiently waiting in Melbourne. To the astonishment of Skipper "Dave" Herbert, Steamships Trading Company agreed. "Yer must have caught them off guard by turning up sober," was his percipient comment.

The voyage to Samarai was our honeymoon and attracted the close interest of planters at ports along the coast. They had been attentively listening to ships' radio Skeds carrying my messages to Ivy which included sentiments and detailed promises of connubial bliss better expressed in more privacy than that afforded by an open radio circuit !

Heat, dust, and an overall air of makeshift dilapidation pervaded Port Moresby, still showing the effects of years of military occupation, which ended in 1945.
The streets were potholed. Traffic was chaotic, and wheeled transport was salvaged army jeeps or trucks and battered sedans with the occasional new car driven by one of the newly rich entrepreneurs of this frontier town.
We set up our first home in an apartment in the dusty outer suburb of Boroko. Ivy started work as assistant to Dr Joan Refshauge in the Health Department and I went back to sea for two more trips on Doma. Sufficient sea time now accumulated, I sat for the rudimentary examination of the times, gained a Ships Master's Certificate and was immediately offered command of a small 85 foot motor vessel M.V. Moturina.
I managed, with the considerable assistance of my Papuan crew, to safely negotiate the entire coast of Papua for the next three months. I will be forever grateful to those Papuan seamen for their help in keeping me off the reefs and mudbanks of their home waters.
A tactful, discreet cough, followed by meaningful inclination of a bushy head translated as " Turn now boss or we'll all be swimming ! "

Canoes at Pari village. Papuan coast

Moturina, like Doma, was another wartime legacy. Single-screwed with a high deck house aft. I first took command while she was on the slipway after a refit and proceeded to move her all of half a mile to the small ships wharf, where an official group consisting of the managing director, the shipping manager and the all-powerful harbour master, whose signature was hardly dry on my new masters certificate, awaited the arrival of the new Captain.

For six months of the year, the Southeast Tradewind blows across Port Moresby harbour at 25 knots or better, and it was directly behind me as I approached the wharf and its assembled dignitaries.
'Slow Astern,' rung down on the rickety telegraph to the engineer two decks below, had no discernable effect on Moturina's headlong charge at the wharf… 'Half Astern,' followed by 'Full Astern!' had no time to take effect before wooden ship and solid timber wharf met with a rending crash, sending the welcoming committee down in a confused heap of white-clad limbs and bulging eyes, accompanied by a roar of alarm from the local wharf workers.

Damage was confined to a few planks stove in above the waterline, which were repaired much sooner than the ego of her chastened skipper, who retreated to the Snakepit, the mariners' retreat at the nearby Papuan Hotel.