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A canoe goes missing


DAGUA - Recently I was with a few of my colleagues when the evening conversation evolved into tales of real life cases of people lost at sea - and those who survived to tell the tale.

A colleague from Karasau island near Wewak related experiences of Karasau islanders who went missing in the waters between Kairiru, Unai and Karasau.

These unfortunate events happened when strong winds tore sails from the mast leaving canoes and mariners to the mercy of sea and tides.

In 2018 a family of six from Karasau, returning from Kairiru in the afternoon, had their canoe sail ripped off by strong winds, whereupon they drifted out to sea away from their island home.

Much of what happened next was told by the surviving members of the family, all young children.

When the family left Kairiru to return to Karasau, strong winds and rain met them midway and broke both the sail and the mast. They were left at the mercy of the sea, and then worse: as the children later recounted an argument broke out between their father and mother.

What happened next is not totally clear, but as they drifted away from Karasau towards Walis and Tarawai, the mother somehow died on the canoe leaving just the father and the young children.

The tide was now pushing them further away from the mainland and islands. As they drifted past Walis, the father urged his two sons to swim to the island. After much urging, they entered the water and he gave the younger of the two a piece of plank to use as a float.

He urged the elder to try his best to reach Walis and get help. As the two swam towards Walis, the father, a toddler, a younger female child and the corpse of the mother continued to drift.

After struggling with the tide, the cold and the wind and sea, the boys were able to reach Walis and were spotted in the evening by an islander who thought they were spirits.

He alerted his family and they helped the two children with food and a warm fire and alerted other islanders of the situation out at sea.

The islanders quickly dispatched search parties on motorised boats and went out to find the drifting canoe. The search was futile at its first attempt because of the dark. But on the following morning, after some time, the drifting canoe was located further west towards West Sepik Province.

When the search party approached the canoe, they saw the mother's corpse lying there, naked and bloated, with the toddler and the young girl.

Both children were alive but they saw no sign of the father.

Further searching could not locate the body. Indeed, it was never found.

When the search party asked about her father, the girl said while they were drifting she noticed her father was not in the canoe but was in the water with his hand on the side of the canoe.

As they drifted in the night, he had urged her to sleep. As she rested her head to sleep, she saw her father move to the stern of the canoe as if intending to leave.

That was the last time she saw him.

After their rescue, the children were asked about the death of their mother. They mentioned the argument between their parents but nothing about how their mother died.

Another baffling incident was that they had watched as their father fought off a large bird, most likely a 'tarangau', that tried to take the mother's corpse.

All the accounts of that fateful voyage came from three very young children. It is a tragic tale which leaves us baffled and mystified. But it is also a tale of bravery.

It seems the questions about what happened to the mother and the father will never be answered. May their souls rest in peace and may the children find peace and comfort beyond this terrible event.


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Robert L Parer CMG MBE

Alan John (Jock) Marshal,l known as The One Armed Warrior, was a renowned Australian writer, academic and ornithologist (1959 Foundation Chair of Biology at Monash University) who lived in the Aitape District for a year in 1935.

He was at Matapau Village on his way to Aitape when he noticed many houses were empty and falling into ruin. The people told a tragic story about why it was such a sad and silent village.

Entire families had been lost in the tragedy of their trading canoe caught in a wild storm half way back from Tarawai Island.

He related the story in a very interesting book about the Sepik District and it’s people, 'The Men and Birds of Paradise', which was published in 1938.

Five kilometers offshore from Aitape is Ali Island and the people are expert canoe-makers.

In 1935 the Matapau village people engaged the Ali people to make a great ocean-going canoe for them.

The Ali people lived for a year slowly turning a forest giant tree into a high-decked sailing canoe. She was a grand craft when finished, one of the largest ever seen - carved and decorated, bright with pigments.

After months of celebrations, a social and trading-trip to Tarawai Island was planned for her maiden voyage. On the way out the majestic craft sped over the 30 km of open sea.

After much gossip and bartering, the Matapau people began the return crossing to the mainland.

But a fierce gale sprang up unexpectedly: it was a pitch-black night and they were only halfway home. Soon the heavy, overloaded canoe was enveloped in a flurry of wind and driving rain.

Frantically they paddled for the mainland, bailing in a desperate effort to keep the canoe afloat. The lashing began to loosen; the leaping outrigger came adrift, and soon the canoe was at the mercy of the wild sea.

Some say the great hollowed log split completely in two.
Anyway she capsized and broke to pieces and children began to disappear. The parents made desperate efforts to save them.

Two days later half a dozen men and a single female came ashore at Ulau, 20 km up-coast from the scene of the wreck.

Nearly a week later two women were washed ashore at Aitape, 70 km away. One had been badly mauled by sharks and died soon after her rescue.

After leaving Matapau, Jock met the famous ADC of Aitape, JK McCarthy (by 1965, the Territory's powerful Director of District Administration) at the next village Suein.

There, Macca warned him about the crocodiles, as he had lost one of his carriers at the Nigier River a few days before.

Bob Cleland

Yes, I think all coastal people in PNG have stories involving dolphins.

South of Lae, there's small bay tucked into the mainland close to Salamaua.

At the head off the bay there was (1963) a village of only 60 or so people. A pod of dolphins used the bay as a sort of safe haven where the females would give birth to their young.

The villagers claimed a close affinity with the dolphins. When they swam daily in the waters, the dolphins would frolic with them. They had names for them all.

I was on patrol, camped at the resthouse at Salamaua. The local villagers came and told me of an old man who'd gone fishing, alone, the day before and had not returned.

I said I would organise a search from Lae but they were curiously unconcerned for his welfare.

Early the next morning, they told me not to worry about a search because "the dolphins had brought him home during the night". His problem had been that he lost his paddle.

Roger Simpson

Goes to prove that even dolphins have a higher porpoise in life...

Chips Mackellar

I can tell of another canoe which went missing, and of an even more amazing rescue. It was a canoe from Manam Island.

A family went fishing in the canoe just off Manam Island, mum, dad, and a few children. They intended to return to Manam as soon as they caught enough fish for dinner that night.

But a storm suddenly blew up and it blew the canoe away from Manam and it never returned. That is, the canoe never returned.

What had happened was that when the canoe was discovered missing the village people on Manam Island raised the alarm, and an air-sea rescue was organised, but the canoe was never found, and after a few days the family was presumed lost at sea.

But about two weeks later, the family walked into Bogia and asked at the Sub-District office if the station work boat could take them back to Manam Island.

When told we had searched for them for days without result they told us how they had survived. They said that the heavy seas caused by the storm slowly broke up the canoe, and left the family struggling in the water clinging to the debris, and slowly drifting away from Manam with no likelihood of ever making a landfall there.

When the storm abated the family was still there in the water slowly drifting away from Manam with no means of return. Then they saw some fins approaching through the water and they thought they were to be attacked by sharks. But the fins were not on sharks, but on a pod of dolphins.

They said the dolphins approached them close enough to be touched, and by a series of whistles and squeaks the dolphins were trying to communicate with the family.

By now desperate for food and water, the family eventually got the message, and each clung on to a dolphin in the pod. The dolphins then towed the family members towards the PNG mainland shore near Potsdam plantation, and as soon as the family could stand up in the surf, the dolphins departed and left them there.

Village people near Potsdam found the family on the beach and cared for the family until they had recovered sufficiently to walk to Bogia, and that is how they were rescued.

Bogia people told me there were myths and legends of dolphins rescuing people lost at sea but this was the first time that they knew of such an event actually happening.

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