At 2am on a moonlit morning we left the Hermit Islands of Papua New Guinea, our sailing timed so we would have the sun overhead to safely see our way into the lagoon of the remote Ninigo Islands located sixty nautical miles to the north-east. More importantly we’d planned our arrival to coincide with ‘The Great Ninigo Islands Canoe Race’ which we had heard and read about and which promised much excitement.
The Ninigo Islands consist of thirty one small islands spread over a distance of around forty nautical miles. For as long as anyone can remember commuting between the islands has been undertaken in traditional outrigger canoes rigged with sails. The know-how for the building of these canoes has been passed down from generation to generation and much to our amazement we discovered they are built from driftwood. Literally driftwood – wood that washes up on the beaches, the canoe builders always looking out for the best quality wood coming ashore. The wood is claimed by the first person to see it, carving their name on the treasured log to mark ownership. Sails were traditionally made from woven pandanus leaves but are now made from more sturdy plastic tarpaulin.
The Ninigo Islands receive no supply boats but the government has provided a few of the islands with so called banana boats and outboard motors. These are low-sided seven metre long boats made of glass fibre. The locals brave open seas in these boats to travel to either the mainland or the large island of Manus, trips of 200 nautical miles and over a day each way to secure supplies. We’ve now met two sets of people who have experienced these boats capsizing and were lucky enough to survive to tell the tale; we’ve also been told stories of other boats and people lost at sea. Knowing the seas they travel on, these tales harrow us no end and we have vowed we must do something to help. Watch this space!Inside the lagoon we were met by Michael who is the Ward Councillor for the island of Mal, the island hosting the canoe race. Chiefs no longer exist and locals are elected by the people which from what we can gather is a more favoured arrangement. On board Michael’s banana boat is Willy who steps onto Adina to guide us to a suitable place to anchor. It’s a friendly welcome and we appreciate the assistance in finding a good spot to dig the anchor in. From the offset conversation flows easily and Willy is intrigued by our anchoring process as we take time to ensure we are secure and can sleep sound at night.
While canoe races are held annually on some of the islands within the Ninigo group this is the first time since the year 2000 that all the islands are taking part in one race and we later learn we will be the first yacht to see The Great Ninigo Islands Canoe Race. The government has agreed to sponsor the event and 97 canoes are entered to do battle for some serious money, all important on islands with no regular source of income.
We soon settle in and Michael comes out again with a teacher called Justin who is assigned to look after us and we spend time chatting and getting to know each other. Justin casually remarks that the racing committee would probably love to use Adina as one end of the finish mark. We joke back that they would be most welcome.
The next day we head in to the island in our dinghy and walk along an immaculately prepared path of white sand heading for the main village. Final canoe preparations are well underway with groups of competitors and their families working by the side of the path. We spend time stopping and chatting to people as we go. It’s fascinating to learn how similar their racing is compared to our racing back home. The emphasis is on making the canoes as light as possible to ensure they go faster. The outrigger hulls are beautifully carved by hand and much work goes into ensuring it will remain secured to the main canoe as any digging into the waves and the outrigger risks being ripped off.The biggest weight issue is water flooding into the canoe as it sails through the sea. The sailors deploy various techniques to combat the flooding from building shields that deflect the water or installing boards on top of the canoe or most humorously the use of an ‘engineer’. An engineer is a young boy whose job it is to bail the canoe – and it’s a job done with much pride.
The canoes have an array of different size sails which are selected from to suit the wind conditions. Stitching is all by hand and we noticed the double-stitching that make the joins that much stronger. Sails are treasured and the newer tarpaulins have been saved for the race only to be used for family commuting when they age. In the spirit of community the sails are shared amongst friends.
Michael proudly shows us his canoe which is yet to be painted. It’s a work of art and a labour of love. Handmade wooden nails (dowels) are still used to secure key parts, though the use of highly sought after brass screws have crept in and we make a note to donate any we have on board Adina. The workmanship is top notch, the making of a good canoe takes real skill. It still belies us these are all built from wood that drifts onto the beach.
The racers from visiting islands camp out on one end of Mal island and we go to meet them. Families are brought along – the wives and mothers do all the cooking with supplies they have brought with them from their own gardens. Sails double up as canvass to sleep under at night. Canoes are out completing test runs, making sure everything is in top condition and the crews are polished and ready to race. We talk to the different islanders with many of the men good naturedly assuring us sure they will win. We know how much the prize money is and it’s a lot in these remote parts where making money is difficult if not almost impossible. One man, Oscar, comes from Longan Island and we are told he is one of the great racers. Oscar reassures us with a big broad smile “Yes, I will win.”More visitors are due to arrive by plane and the seldom used airstrip has been cleaned to ensure a safe landing. One of the passengers is a man called John Dom who lived on Mal Island as a seven year old when his parents managed the Mal coconut plantation for one year back in 1971. Many of the locals remember him as a young boy and are eager to see him again.
An area has been set aside next to the airstrip for the visitors arriving by plane and ourselves to be officially welcomed and for the racing to be declared open. Stepping off the plane with Jon Dom are Betha, the daughter of the first Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, and a mother and daughter from Hawaii. We learn that the mother was a journalist who spent a month on Amik Island at the same time as John Dom lived on Mal with his family. A distinguished crowd. We enjoy some Kai-Kai, a welcome song and John Dom makes a warm speech in the local PNG language ‘Tok Pidgin’ about how happy he is to be back. A speech is made by one of the race committee and the event is declared officially open. Let battle commence.
The next day Justin comes up to tell us the racing committee would very much like to use Adina as part of the finish line. Her high mast makes a perfect mark for the competitors to see from a distance – no-one has a GPS, all navigation is done by sight alone. We are duly guided to a spot to anchor Adina. We use our iPad to show the racing committee the weather forecast and they make notes to relay the information on to the competitors. For our part we join John Dom and Betha in a banana boat so we can chase the competitors to take photos of the canoes sailing out on the course. John Dom is a cinematographer and was taking footage for a pitch with the hope of later making a documentary about this very unique race.The canoes line up on the beach, their starting position determined earlier by the drawing of numbers. No getting tangled up on the start line here! Anton on the racing committee has a loud hailer and loves to use it, encouraging the competitor’s non-stop until eventually he allows them to push their boats off the beach into the water. A count-down is given and they are off. The sails are swiftly unfurled and the canoes race away – it’s a real spectacle to behold. The crews are fully focused but the camera proves too much for one or two who can’t but help give a wave. It reminds us of racing in England when camera crews come up and we are all told to be serious and look the part. Just like in the Ninigo Islands, one person always breaks rank!
There are five classes of racing: six, seven, eight and nine metres and then the big guns, the Open class with double sails. Courses are set depending on the size of the canoe, the bigger canoes race longer courses. A race typically lasts an hour and a half and is sailed on a course to an island and back, chosen depending on the wind direction. The seven and nine metre classes are the most popular and have qualifying pools to reach the final. Each class has a ‘Grand Final’. The racing is planned out over a number of days, working through the qualifying pools first before progressing to the Grand Finals.We chase around and follow the canoes for the early part of the race, lapping it all up. Without doubt our favourite is when the outrigger lifts out of the water into the air and agile men run up and down trying to keep it skimming on the water. Oscar is out and in front, one of those individuals who can’t help give a big smile or a big pose – we cheer him on!
The canoes race on and we take a side trip to see the aptly named Bird Island. We talk to Betha who is a lovely and funny lady, seeing the lighter side of life in Papua New Guinea. Then it’s time to chase the canoes back to the finish. The leaders, sadly not our favoured Oscar, have a good advantage and celebrations start before the finish line with waving of shirts and shouts of joy.
Afterwards we mingle with the racers and then go to join the others on the beach. After a few minutes the journalist calls Susie aside. Five minutes later Susie comes up to me and says “Tom, I think we need to go back to the boat”, “Pardon?”, “Tom, I think it’s best we leave now”. Surprised, I follow her. Susie then tells me the journalist has told her we are not welcome and has stopped just short of asking us to leave. She tells Susie she has waited forty-four years for her return to these islands, that she does not want us around, does not want us socialising with her or the islanders, essentially implies we are free-loading and does not want us in her company. We are both stunned and shocked beyond comprehension. The last comment really guiles me; in a year of sailing to remote places in which we have given and given, running medical clinics, handing out school kit, giving anything we have to help out those in a less advantageous position. As most know, Susie is a gentle and soft person, she is deeply hurt but has stood her ground stating “We have been invited by the islanders and we will have to learn to co-exist here for the next week”. If the islanders knew what had been said they would be mortified, and would seriously wonder about us so called civilised western people. Too stunned, I see John Dom in the distance and as we have taken a liking to him, I want to know if he shares the same opinion and it is a group opinion. Very kindly he reassures us not at all. We retire to Adina, our heads spinning.
That night as we think about what was said, we agree with each other that as this is to be our last Pacific island and we have been warmly embraced by the locals we are going to stay. We will apologise to John Dom for troubling him as we want him to enjoy the trip of a lifetime going down memory lane and we will try to avoid the journalist but if our paths cross over so be it. We will not let it ruin what has been a life-changing few months for us, we will continue as always, we will engage with the islanders and we will try our best to help where we can.As it turns out things soon get busy. A daily routine starts: Justin stops by to tell us the plans for the day, Willy checks in to see how we are doing and then the race committee come up to chat and get the weather. Today I’m off with Willy to the half way mark while Susie stays on the boat and is joined by Slim who monitors the finish line. She serves endless coffee, juices and biscuits from the boat for the passing visitors from the racing committee.
Willy is a big dark-skinned Papuan and I like him, I like him a lot. We talk about our lives, he gives his thoughts on Papua New Guinea. And he is dead funny – “We know you white people, oh time is so important. Here we have Papua New Guinea time, not a problem”. But he is insightful too. “We don’t need your alcohol” he laughs. “We don’t know when to stop and we drink it ‘til it’s finished and then it hurts. It doesn’t suit us”. He teaches me more Tok Pidgin “You must tell Susie – U lover blong me!” And he has a ridiculously big heart – for this race we are using a marker, the racers don’t know exactly where the mark is when they start, just the vicinity and with the wind direction most will have to change course and struggle to make it. This worries Willy so he simply lifts the mark and moves it, shouting and encouraging the racers. We’ve taken our handheld radio and converse with Susie and Slim on the boat, also enjoying themselves and checking the boats as they cross the finish line.
That night we invite Michael, Willy, Justin and their wives for dinner on-board Adina. Of course we forget that in Papua New Guinea that means the children come too. It’s a crowded Adina but it’s a lot of fun. The big difference in quality of life here is that people take time to ‘tok-tok’, family and friends are everything, they look out for each other, help each other, spend quality time with each other. In fact they will claim to be related to as many people as possible “He is my cousin brother” is a common phrase heard, which really means the man is someone they grew up close to, not necessarily a blood relation. It’s a quality we admire; they are soft, gentle, kind and laughter is life’s medicine. The night goes on late and yesterday’s woes are soon forgotten.And so the days progress. We lend our handheld VHF radio to Willy to take with him out on the course every day. We show others in the race committee how to use the VHF on board Adina to communicate with Willy. We tell them they are free to board Adina whenever they like, even if we are not there, leaving the VHF on in the cockpit. They are our friends. We explore the island again talking to as many people as we can. They have a ‘give’ attitude like we’ve never seen before. One family who look after visiting yachts want to start a little yacht club and want to see if they can make a few pennies. We give them the usual ideas about cooking meals and making handicrafts. They find it hard not to just give things away – we tell its fine to sell or trade, that we expect it! Of course they give us gifts in the form of some beautiful shells. We insist on trading for any fruit and vegetables we are given but it is soon turning into a game of who can give who the most. Willy’s wife gives Susie a live chicken, we give them goods and clothes. Willy gives me a treasured whale tooth that I will keep forever, lobster is bought to the boat for us to eat and so it goes on. The racing heats up, close finishes happen right in front of our noses on the boat. Susie gets asked by the race committee about one particular finish she saw after one canoe put in a complaint against another, they use her photos to understand what happened. It’s highly competitive stuff. The show-boating gets more and more impressive as the canoes fly past lifting their outriggers high out of the water for a photo. One of the days it’s our pleasure to have John Dom on board and learn about his time in the Ninigos and how he wants to do something to preserve this unique racing. We retire to bed each and every day exhausted and happy.
The last race, the big double-sails, the big guns, the big money, but most of all, pride is at stake. Not just for the racers but for the island that the winning boat comes from. We watch the start as polished teams work hard to hoist the large sails and fly off. An hour and a half later, the winners come roaring in. Cue celebrations – the pride and joy is tangible, you can feel it. We shake hands with all the crew as they arrive back on the beach, congratulating them.There is a closing ceremony and yet again the visitors are the VIPs as dancers escort us to seats under a marquee. We’re each given piles of woven hats and bags as thank you presents and then both John Dom and Tom give speeches. We thank the people of Mal for their incredible hospitality, thank all the racers and encourage them to preserve this incredible heritage. Tom explains how apt the phrase “saving the best ‘til last” feels to us, this being our last South Pacific island and without doubt the best experience we have had. John Dom tells them it has been the best week of his life and it leaves a lump in our throats. We all take turns to hand out the prizes for the first to fifth placed canoes in every class and Tom is pleased as punch to give one to Oscar. Oscar didn’t win any races, but he still had a big smile and he was still the most wanted sailor in races, we lost count of how many races he was in. The next day the plane departs and it’s time for us to head on too. We’re off to another Ninigo island called Longan and we’re giving Justin and his family a lift as well as Oscar. We have a little time to squeeze in a visit to the nearby Ahu island. By now Willy and Tom are ‘brothers’ but Willy gets the last laugh when we discover he is just younger than Tom. “Oh my older brother Tom, how are you today?” It’s sad to see him go and we can only hope life is kind and our paths will cross again.
We lift the anchor and hoist the sails. Oscar is already on a winch wanting to trim the sails and within 5 minutes is asking if he can take the helm. Some people are in their element when out in the natural elements and Oscar is at one with the wind. Adina is very different to a wooden outrigger but he’s soon at ease. With his fishing line out the back and the plastic ring that holds the line around his arm he helms Adina, a permanent smile on his face. We wander way off course as Oscar sees an outrigger and is soon racing it. What is also fascinating is how Justin’s wife and children prefer to sit outside the cockpit, on the side deck. We realise they are so used to outriggers, it’s natural for them to be close to the water. With the sun setting, Oscar guides us expertly between reef and bommies to a good anchorage outside his village.We only have a short time on Longan Island and the next day Oscar sends his boys, Junior and Iggy Pop, out with a hand-written programme. Iggy Pop lives up to his name and is the coolest of kids. We eat with Oscar and his family before Oscar accompanies us on a tour of the island and the school being followed around by talkative happy children. That evening we host Oscar, Justin and their families again on Adina. Time flies pass and we have a lot of fun with Oscar. He’s a gentle giant of a man, caring and kind. He’s also a great ‘Tok Pidgin’ teacher.
We’ve asked if there is anyone who wants to clean the hull in exchange for some goods and expecting a few young men, the next day Oscar and Justin turn up declaring they want to clean our boat for us. Atypical! Susie has agreed to entertain a whole group of children and soon the boat is busy. By now we’ve gone through the entire boat and handed over everything we don’t need as an essential.
Oscar has built himself a little ‘clam garden’, literally a group of clams he has gathered to live together under the water, looking pretty and bright in a range of colours. He invites me to snorkel it with him. I’m touched when he says I am the first to see it.Finally all quietens down and we spend some last tok-tok time with Oscar and Justin. Eventually the dreaded words come from Oscar “We must leave you now”. Our eyes well up and by the time they are in their canoe, tears are positively rolling. Big brave sailor Oscar sitting on the front of the canoe looks up and says “I’m so sorry”, then lowers his head and sits like this all the way to shore, not looking up again. Justin paddling, turns every few minutes and gives a gentle wave. It is our last Pacific island, it was the best of times and it is the saddest of goodbyes.
Please do join the ‘The Great Ninigo Islands Canoe Race’ Facebook page, set-up and run by John Dom Stokes – https://www.facebook.com/greatninigocanoerace
We have also added more photographs on Facebook and they can be viewed here – https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10153728156520152&type=1&l=f1f260200a