Ad­ven­tures in Pa­pua New Guinea

Tom Par­tridge and Susie Plume have the time of their lives at an out­rig­ger ca­noe re­gatta when they sail to the re­mote Ninigo Is­lands in Pa­pua New Guinea

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Tom Par­tridge and Susie Plume have the time of their lives in the re­mote Ninigo Is­lands

Ap­proach­ing the Ninigo is­lands, we spot­ted a large out­rig­ger out at sea, steam­ing along with full sails up, com­ing in our di­rec­tion. Ad­ina de­manded all her sails be set so she too could stand proud and we raced along. As we passed the ca­noe, all hands waved fu­ri­ously; then and there we knew this was go­ing to be a spe­cial place.

The Ninigo Is­lands con­sist of 31 small is­lands stretch­ing over 750 square miles. They lie iso­lated 140 miles north of main­land Pa­pua New Guinea. When we planned our sea­son of sail­ing Ad­ina, our Hy­las 46, through Van­u­atu, the Solomon Is­lands, Pa­pua New Guinea and In­done­sia, we’d ear­marked these is­lands as a ‘must-do’. We’d read tales of hos­pitable peo­ple who use out­rig­ger ca­noes to sail be­tween beau­ti­ful is­lands and, come the south-east trade wind sea­son, use them to race. As we got closer we learnt these races were to be held over the fi­nal week of Au­gust; we passed on a mes­sage that we’d like to at­tend and speeded up.

Once in­side the is­land la­goon we were met by Michael, the ward coun­cil­lor for the is­land of Mal, which was to host the ca­noe race. Chiefs no longer ex­ist here, and coun­cil­lors are elected by the lo­cals. On board Michael’s boat was Willy who stepped on to Ad­ina to guide us to a suit­able place to an­chor. From the out­set, con­ver­sa­tion flowed eas­ily and Willy, who had never been on a yacht be­fore,

was in­trigued by our an­chor­ing process as we took time to en­sure we were se­cure and could sleep soundly at night. On his ca­noe he had a large rock tied off with polyester rope that did the same trick for him.

Later we were re-joined by Michael who in­tro­duced Justin, a teacher ap­pointed to look af­ter us dur­ing our stay, and we spent time learn­ing more about the races. Races are held an­nu­ally be­tween var­i­ous is­lands within the Ninigo group but this was the first time since the year 2000 that all the is­lands were tak­ing part in one race. We later learnt we would be the first yacht to see what was grandly called ‘The Great Ninigo Is­lands Ca­noe Race’. The gov­ern­ment agreed to spon­sor the event and a whop­ping 97 ca­noes en­tered to do bat­tle for the prize money, all-im­por­tant on is­lands with no reg­u­lar source of in­come.

The fol­low­ing day we headed in to the is­land by dinghy and walked along an im­mac­u­lately pre­pared white sand path to­wards the main vil­lage. Fi­nal ca­noe prepa­ra­tions were well un­der way with groups of com­peti­tors and their fam­i­lies work­ing by the side of the path. There was a buzz of ex­cite­ment in the air. We stopped and chat­ted to peo­ple as we walked along. It was fas­ci­nat­ing to learn how sim­i­lar their rac­ing is to our own rac­ing back home.

The rac­ers from vis­it­ing is­lands camped out on one end of Mal Is­land and we went to meet them. En­tire fam­i­lies were there; the wives and moth­ers do­ing all the cook­ing with sup­plies they brought from their own gar­dens. Sails dou­bled up as can­vas to sleep un­der at night. Ca­noes were out com­plet­ing test runs with crews prac­tis­ing drills, mak­ing sure ev­ery­thing was in top con­di­tion. It re­minded us of many happy days train­ing and rac­ing in the So­lent.

We talked to dif­fer­ent com­peti­tors, many of the men good na­turedly as­sur­ing us sure that they would win. One man, Os­car, came from neigh­bour­ing Lon­gan Is­land and we were told he is one of the great rac­ers. You wouldn’t think it; he wasn’t lean or mus­cu­lar like some of the sailors but Os­car calmly re­as­sured us with a big, broad and friendly smile, ‘Yes, I will win.’

The is­land has an airstrip, built in the days when there was a trade in lob­sters. It is sel­dom used now but a small char­tered plane was due in and the airstrip had been cleared. An Aus­tralian, John Dom Stokes, who lived on Mal Is­land as a seven-year-old

when his par­ents man­aged the co­conut plan­ta­tion back in 1971, was fly­ing in to see this famed race. Join­ing him was Betha, the daugh­ter of the first Prime Min­is­ter of Pa­pua New Guinea, and a re­tired jour­nal­ist and her daugh­ter. Food, known as kai-kai, was laid on; there was a wel­come song, a speech was made by one of the race com­mit­tee and the event was de­clared open.

Justin came up to tell us the race com­mit­tee very much wanted to use Ad­ina as part of the fin­ish line for the five days of rac­ing, would it be pos­si­ble? Her high mast made a per­fect mark for the com­peti­tors to see from a dis­tance – as no-one has GPS, all nav­i­ga­tion is done by sight alone. We felt hon­oured and ex­cited to be in­cluded. And yes, there is a race com­mit­tee; they set the rules, run the races and there is even an ap­peal process. We couldn’t be­lieve these friendly is­lan­ders would protest against each other but they do! Race day ar­rived. From on board

Ad­ina we shared the weather fore­cast with the com­mit­tee who re­layed it to the com­peti­tors. On shore, strate­gies were dis­cussed in group hud­dles, sails were se­lected, sup­port­ers sat in groups on the beach, com­peti­tors milled around wear­ing match­ing foot­ball shirts to de­note a team.

For each race the ca­noes lined up on the beach, their start­ing po­si­tion de­ter­mined ear­lier by the draw­ing of num­bers. No get­ting tan­gled up on the start line here! All were set to go, and you could feel the ten­sion in the air. An­ton, who was head­ing up the race com­mit­tee, had a loud hailer and loved to use it, en­cour­ag­ing the com­peti­tors to do their best, talk­ing non-stop un­til even­tu­ally he al­lowed them to push their boats off the beach into the wa­ter. A count­down was given, they jumped on and were off. They swiftly un­furled the sails and the ca­noes raced away – it was a real spec­ta­cle.

Out on the wa­ter the crews were fo­cused, work­ing hard to get the most out of the ca­noes. That said, our cam­eras proved too much for one or two who couldn’t help but give a wave. Again it re­minded us of rac­ing

in Eng­land: when cam­era boats come up, the skip­per shouts at the crew to look the part but just like in the Ninigo Is­lands one per­son al­ways breaks rank! There were five classes of rac­ing: six, seven, eight and nine me­tres with sin­gle sails and then the big guns, the open class with dou­ble sails. Cour­ses are set de­pend­ing on the size of the ca­noe; the big­ger ca­noes raced longer cour­ses. A race typ­i­cally lasted an hour and a half and was sailed on a course to an is­land and back, ex­actly which is­land is cho­sen de­pends on the wind di­rec­tion. The seven and nine me­tre classes were the most pop­u­lar and have qual­i­fy­ing pools to reach the fi­nal. Each class has a ‘grand fi­nal’. The rac­ing was planned out over a num­ber of days, work­ing through the qual­i­fy­ing pools first be­fore pro­gress­ing to the grand fi­nals.

We chased around in a small boat and fol­lowed the ca­noes, lap­ping it all up. With­out doubt our favourite thing was when the out­rig­ger hull lifted out of the wa­ter into the air and ag­ile men ran up and down try­ing to keep it skim­ming on the wa­ter. Os­car, the ‘fa­mous’ sailor, is one of those in­di­vid­u­als who can’t help give a big smile or pose and we cheered him on. The ca­noes raced off un­til we lost sight of them and waited for their re­turn. On their way back to the fin­ish line, the lead­ers had a good ad­van­tage and cel­e­bra­tions started be­fore the line with the wav­ing of shirts and shouts of joy. And this was just a qual­i­fier.

A daily rou­tine es­tab­lished it­self: Justin would stop by to tell us the plans for the day, Willy checked in to see how we were do­ing and then the race com­mit­tee came up to chat and get the weather. One day I headed off with Willy to the half-way mark while Susie stayed on the boat and was joined by Slim who was mon­i­tor­ing the fin­ish line. She served end­less cof­fee, juices and bis­cuits from the boat for the pass­ing vis­i­tors from the com­mit­tee and a bond was quickly grow­ing be­tween us and the is­lan­ders.

Willy was a big, dark-skinned Pa­puan and I liked him, I liked him very much. We talked about our lives, he gave his thoughts on Pa­pua New Guinea. And he was funny. ‘We know you white peo­ple. Oh, time is so im­por­tant to you. We have Pa­pua

‘A bond was quickly grow­ing be­tween us and the is­lan­ders. We liked them a lot’

New Guinea time, not a prob­lem,’ and laughed out loud. He taught me to ‘tok pid­gin’. ‘You must tell Susie, “U lover blong me!”’, he said.

For one of the races, our ten­der was used as a marker and the rac­ers didn’t know ex­actly where it was when they started. With a change of wind di­rec­tion many of the boats were strug­gling to make the mark, and this wor­ried Willy, so he sim­ply lifted the an­chor and moved it, while shout­ing en­cour­age­ment to the sailors.

As the days pro­gressed, we lent our hand­held VHF ra­dios and gave the race com­mit­tee free ac­cess to Ad­ina, as they were now firm friends. The rac­ing heated up and the fin­ishes grew ever closer. In the fi­nals, the fin­ishes were right next to Ad­ina and af­ter one race re­sulted in a protest, the com­mit­tee turned to Susie’s cam­era to clar­ify ex­actly who won. The show-boat­ing on the fin­ish line be­came more and more im­pres­sive as the ca­noes flew past, lift­ing their out­rig­gers high out of the wa­ter for a photo. We re­tired to bed each day ex­hausted and happy.

The time for the last race ar­rived, with the big dou­ble-sails and the big guns. There was big money up for grabs but most of all, pride was at stake, not just for the rac­ers but for the whole is­land from which the win­ning boat came.

Ev­ery­one was down on the beach for the start. They set off. Pol­ished crews worked hard to hoist the large sails and the ca­noes sped off. It was no dif­fer­ent from watch­ing su­pery­achts in ac­tion. An hour and a half later the win­ners came roar­ing in. Cue cel­e­bra­tions – the pride and joy was tan­gi­ble. The beaches filled with crews, and we shook hands with them as they ar­rived back on the beach, con­grat­u­lat­ing them. It was the same as any re­gatta any­where else, just mi­nus the beer tent.

For the clos­ing cer­e­mony, they de­cided that we were VIPs and dancers es­corted us to seats un­der a small mar­quee aptly made from sails. We were each given piles of wo­ven hats and bags as thank-you presents. In re­turn we gave speeches, thanked the peo­ple of the Nini­gos for their in­cred­i­ble hos­pi­tal­ity, and en­cour­aged them to pre­serve their very spe­cial her­itage. We all took turns to hand out the prizes for the first to fifth placed ca­noes in ev­ery class.

And with that, it was all over far too soon. With their farewells com­plete, peo­ple packed up and headed home to their own is­lands in rac­ing boats con­verted back to fam­ily boats and laden with be­long­ings.

We opted to visit Lon­gan Is­land, where Justin our guide and Os­car the famed sailor both live, to spend some time and learn more about vil­lage life. We of­fered to take them and their fam­i­lies on Ad­ina and they quickly ac­cepted. Os­car asked for a turn on the helm. Ad­ina is very dif­fer­ent from a wooden out­rig­ger but Os­car soon tuned in. He spot­ted an out­rig­ger and wan­dered way off course so he could race it. We could only sit and watch in ad­mi­ra­tion. Some peo­ple are sim­ply at one with the sea, finely tuned into the way of the wind and the waves.

Our hearts had been truly warmed by this ex­cep­tional place, and we'd had the time of our lives.

‘ Some peo­ple are sim­ply at one with the sea, finely tuned to the wind and waves’

Susie chats with the com­peti­tors, ac­com­pa­nied by new small friends

Ad­ina forms one end of the line as two boats race neck-and-neck for the fin­ish

Moth­ers cook for the fam­ily at the re­gatta camp

Boats line up in po­si­tion on the beach for the start

The win­ning open class dou­ble-sail boat charges over the fin­ish line, mak­ing them over­all Ninigo cham­pi­ons

The clos­ing cer­e­mony was a full-scale party with tra­di­tional dances and singing

A mem­ber of the race com­mit­tee watches the fin­ish line, as rac­ing was in­cred­i­bly close

Willy holds a flag up high to show the half­way mark

Sail­ing Ad­ina on pas­sage to Lon­gan Is­land, Os­car soon had the feel of the helm

We were show­ered with gifts, as Susie re­ceives a tra­di­tion­ally wo­ven hat

Rac­ing fin­ished, an out­rig­ger heads into the sun­set and home

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