MALDIVE ISLANDS 1978 – I grew up in the NSW coastal town of Nowra on the banks of the Shoalhaven River where, from a young age, I became familiar with sailing and the sea, sometimes accompanying fishermen on stomach churning early morning exploits beyond sight of land.
But nothing prepared me for the Maldives archipelago where, even for a picnic lunch, you had to travel by dhoni and the completion of any serious work around the country necessitated a sea voyage.
The Maldives is 26 atolls comprising 1,200 small islands spanning 900 kilometres of Indian Ocean. In the late 1970s there were no navigation aids and the main form of voice contact at sea was two-way radio.
In my two years based in Malé as UNESCO broadcasting adviser, two of my three long sea voyages came to grief. I don’t think I was especially unlucky, that was how things were.
When I first arrived in the Maldives in mid-1977, I’d been appalled at the poor technical quality of the broadcasting service. There were five old transmitters, one of which seemed to be using an empty gin bottle in place of a capacitor, and not much studio equipment. There was no portable gear.
The transmitters were fired up randomly throughout the day, changing frequencies every couple of hours, and nobody on the Radio Maldives staff had knowledge of what reception was like at the receiving end - on the distant scattered atolls and islands where 80% of people lived.
The only way for me to find out was to get aboard the 32-foot government cabin cruiser, Silver Beam, and travel the length of the country.
On my first trip, south to Huvadhu Atoll almost on the Equator, I was accompanied by the American leader of our three-man UNESCO team, Dr Jeff Huntington, and Maldives’ deputy education minister, Zahir Hussain, together with two broadcasters, Badru Naseer (later to become director-general of Voice of Maldives) and Mohamed Hussain (later a Maldives MP).
We would make good use of the trip: checking reception quality at different locations on the various frequencies, recording interviews, stories, music and dance, and trialling some of the educational pilot programs we’d produced.
As Radio Maldives had no portable tape recorders, we loaded on board a heavy Revox studio recorder, a generator to drive it and 100 meters of wire and lights to see by as there was no electricity on most of the islands we’d visit.
From the beginning, the voyage was unpropitious. One of the twin engines could not be started and after some unproductive messing around it was agreed we’d set off anyway. By late afternoon we reached Thaa atoll, where it was decided we would anchor overnight off the inhabited island of Kimhifushi.
The residents were delighted to see visitors, more so when they learned we brought a team from Radio Maldives and electric lights. So we decanted ourselves and the equipment into a small dhoni and were paddled to a beach where it seemed the entire population of 800 was waiting.
There was much laughing and shouting as the generator snarled into life and the lights we’d strung among the palm trees flickered and glowed. The islanders sang, danced and beat drums for us and we recorded their music, stories and poems.
Just before ten, with a light drizzle drifting across the island, we reloaded the dhoni to return to Silver Beam. The squall roared across the lagoon and caught us by surprise. The fully loaded dugout with scarce freeboard, threatened to founder in the chop.
Feeling apprehensive, I watched the only light I could spot, the luminescence of waves breaking on a reef, and wondered how I might make the swim back to shore.
The worst place to get caught in a storm at sea is in an overloaded craft in a shallow lagoon but the immediate relief we felt at eventually regaining the launch was soon extinguished by the fully-fledged gale which now blew replete with enormous waves.
Captain Mohamed Maniku let it be known that Silver Beam’s anchors were not holding. As one, Maniku, the boat’s crew and my colleagues threw themselves to the deck and began to pray. I was disconcerted there was no one handling the boat, but the genuflection seemed to work.
The storm passed, dignity was restored and Silver Beam motored slowly back to its anchorage
The next day was calm and sunny, the sea like a mirror and alive with dolphins and flying fish – but the mood on board was morose. I was told the near disaster of the night before foretold a voyage that would be stricken by ill fortune. I shrugged my shoulders.
Later in the day we crossed the wide one-and-a-half degree channel which, half way across shallows to about 12 meters being the peak of a submarine mountain. North of this the current flows west; south it flows east.
It was a beautiful day’s motoring. But there were to be no more beautiful days in a journey that dragged on for another two weeks instead of the one we had provisioned for, and that was wrought with high drama.
We anchored off Vilingili island and by the next morning the weather had worsened- heavy rain, gusting winds, low cloud and an unfriendly sea. We were stuck for a week, boxed in by weather, Captain Maniku unprepared to risk travelling further.
No fishing was possible, we on Silver Beam and the good people Vilingili started to run out of food. We lived on bananas.
Captain Maniku informed us that there was a Korean tuna fishing boat, Soogon,in the vicinity which was willing to take some of us back to Malé. The transfer was made; the crew and the broadcasters remaining on Silver Beam to wait out the weather.
It was a pleasure to be on a bigger vessel, even at 80 tons it felt like the Queen Mary, and the skipper, Captain Yu, drank Johnny Walker black label. Zaheer, being a Moslem, didn’t drink; neither did Huntington who’d had bad hepatitis. So I felt compelled to bat for the side.
Steaming through giant seas towards Malé the next morning, a message came in that Silver Beam, sensing the weather was going to ease, had set off to cross the one-and-a-half degree channel the night before only for the one remaining engine to give up the ghost.
The cruiser was adrift and being severely tossed around. Maniku was unsure of its location, whether in the eastward or westward current. He had sent out a mayday by two-way radio which someone had picked up and relayed to Malé. As the only vessel in the area, we immediately begin a search.
The captain calculated that Silver Beam would not have travelled far enough to gain the westward current, so we began a zig-zag pattern to the east of the Maldives.
Mid-afternoon a keen eyed Korean seamen yelled that he had spotted a vessel. In a rough dark sea flecked with millions of specks of foam, this seemed miraculous. But soon enough we could all see the Silver Beam. The cliché ‘tossed around like a cork’ was understatement. The boat was in diabolical trouble.
The dilemma for Captain Yu was whether he could get the crew and broadcasters off the launch or would have to take it in tow. His preference was not to drag a wildly gyrating sea anchor a couple of hundred kilometers back to Malé but, try as they might, there was no way, in the conditions, that the men could climb from the small boat up a pilot’s ladder to safety. After a couple of hours three thick tow ropes were attached and we began the slow haul back home.
There were some consequences, while bouncing around in the Indian Ocean the men on Silver Beam had not only transmitted a mayday but, in their desperation, asked that they be rescued by the president’s helicopter.
The skipper was later jailed for putting his vessel in danger and the man who asked for the helicopter confined to house arrest for embarrassing the president.
People weren’t meant to know President Ibrahim Nasir personally owned the helicopter any more than they were meant to know he owned the national shipping line, Malships.
My second voyage, to Baa atoll for the launch of educational broadcasting, was benign except for a massive swell and UNICEF’s Paul Ignatieff getting dreadfully seasick.
My final voyage to the far north of the country was part of what had become a major – and ultimately successful - project to improve the quality of radio transmission in the country. On board for the two-week trip was a Telecom Australia engineer and the usual team of broadcasters.
Early on the second morning of the voyage, as we were enjoying breakfast, the vessel struck a reef and was holed just beneath the waterline. We clambered ashore and spent a day on an uninhabited island waiting to board a replacement vessel to continue the journey, which we did. But that’s a story for another time.
Next - Cultural conundrum
In case you missed them.....
Earlier episodes of Broadcasting in Tongues:
1 – In the beginning
2 – Welcome to the ABC
3 – Into management
4 - Blood on the streets
5 – Brink of secession
6 – Komunisi and korupsi
7 – Building a corporation
8 – Fights between whitemen
9 – An Australian foothold
10 – Landfall in the Maldives