Out­rig­ger re­vival

An epic 6300km jour­ney in­spired by an age-old craft com­pletes the first recorded cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of New Guinea in a tra­di­tional sail­ing ca­noe.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY PAUL KER­RI­SON

An epic 6300km jour­ney around New Guinea.

WHEN THOR JENSEN VIS­ITED the 2015 Kenu and Kundu Fes­ti­val in Alotau, in south­east­ern Pa­pua New Guinea, he was cap­ti­vated. The an­nual event cel­e­brates the tra­di­tional sail­ing ca­noes (kenu) and drums (kundu), which are of great cul­tural sig­nif icance to the lo­cal com­mu­nity of Milne Bay, where the event is held.

Sea­far­ing ca­noes have a long his­tory and are still in use to­day. Sim­ple and el­e­gant in de­sign, the ca­noes’ hulls are made from large hol­lowed-out hard­wood logs. These are joined to out­rig­gers by sturdy tim­bers carved from lighter branches. Bam­boo is lashed across their frames, cre­at­ing small deck spa­ces, and masts, rud­ders and pad­dles are hand-carved from lo­cal wood.

The ca­noes are made al­most en­tirely of ma­te­ri­als found in the lush tropical forests that cling to the re­gion’s moun­tains. But their sails, which were tra­di­tion­ally wo­ven from pan­danus leaves, are now typ­i­cally made from mod­ern tar­pau­lins that dry quickly and are more eas­ily main­tained.

In­trigued by the crafts and the skill with which lo­cal sailors ma­noeu­vred them, Thor wanted to learn to sail one. Hav­ing pad­dled 1300km around Den­mark in a kayak and sailed across the North At­lantic, the Dan­ish ad­ven­turer, film­maker and il­lus­tra­tor had proven sea legs but had never sailed a tra­di­tional dugout ca­noe. He be­came de­ter­mined, as the three-day fes­ti­val pro­gressed, to sail a Milne Bay ca­noe and ex­pe­ri­ence life on the wa­ter like the lo­cal peo­ple. Milne Bay Prov­ince has some of the world’s most re­mote is­land com­mu­ni­ties, and ca­noes have long been essen­tial to ev­ery­day life. Lo­cals still use them to f ish, move pro­duce between is­lands, and as trans­port.

Thor’s mis­sion was born when he be­friended a lo­cal sailor, Job Siyae. Thor then set about as­sem­bling a small team with whom he’d em­bark on a 6300km jour­ney around New Guinea in an at­tempt to com­plete the is­land’s f irst recorded cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion in a tra­di­tional sail­ing ca­noe.

With less than op­ti­mal plan­ning, al­most no locked-in fund­ing or spon­sors, lim­ited ca­noe sail­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and per­haps un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions about the re­sources and time he’d need, Thor re­turned to Alotau in mid-2016 to be­gin the epic jour­ney.

From the out­set he har­boured safety con­cerns both for him­self and his prospec­tive crew­mates. Hospi­tal­ity is a cen­tral pil­lar of com­mu­nity in Milne Bay; the is­landers are wel­com­ing, warm, friendly and gen­er­ous, per­haps due to cen­turies of ca­noe-based trad­ing between them. But mod­ern PNG has de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for vi­o­lence, and when trav­el­ling through the coun­try it’s diff icult to avoid har­row­ing tales of rob­bery and mur­der, car­ried out mainly by the ‘raskols’, or ban­dits, es­pe­cially in the cities.

Job Siyae was Thor’s f irst ex­pe­di­tion re­cruit. As a for­mer raskol, Job’s cre­den­tials were en­hanced by his che­quered past. He no longer led a life of crime but un­der­stood how the raskols op­er­ated and would be able to han­dle any­one who might give the crew trou­ble along the way. Job hails from the rugged and moun­tain­ous Nor­manby Is­land, lo­cated about 16km off the coast of East Cape, the most east­erly point of main­land New Guinea. A renowned Milne Bay sailor, he was en­thu­si­as­tic about the pro­posed jour­ney.

Thor’s sec­ond re­cruit was Sanakoli John – a charm­ing man who usu­ally sports a blood-red, be­tel-nut-stained smile and lives with his wife and chil­dren on Nuakata Is­land, just south of Nor­manby Is­land. Sanakoli’s vil­lage is tiny, re­mote and hemmed in by for­est, at the wa­ter’s edge and

with only five huts. The chil­dren walk three hours daily through the rainforest to and from school and its res­i­dents can of­ten only re­ceive a phone sig­nal by climb­ing a tree.

Justin John, Sanakoli’s brother, was Thor’s third re­cruit and lives even fur­ther away, on a dis­tant is­land. He’s a hard­ened sailor who is quiet and strong and he of­ten wears an ex­pres­sion that could be mis­taken for con­tempt. He rou­tinely sails between some of the far­thest-f lung is­lands in Milne Bay Prov­ince.

The three re­cruits were master sailors, known for their skills, and this ex­pe­di­tion of­fered them an op­por­tu­nity to cel­e­brate their cul­tural his­tory. They were all keen to en­cour­age lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties to pre­serve tra­di­tional sail­ing knowl­edge, because although sail­ing ca­noes are still com­monly used in New Guinea, they are being re­placed by dinghies with out­board mo­tors.

For all three men, this would be the long­est voy­age they’d ever em­barked on and their first jour­ney be­yond PNG.

JOB, SANAKOLI AND JUSTIN helped Thor lo­cate an ex­pe­di­tion ves­sel, a three-year-old ca­noe they bought from an un­cle. It was in no con­di­tion to un­der­take such a de­mand­ing voy­age, but was a good foun­da­tion on which to build – 9m long and big enough to fit the four men and their equip­ment, but small enough for a small crew to han­dle.

Job, Sanakoli and Justin sailed it back to Nuakata Is­land and set to work re­plac­ing deck­ing, lash­ings and f it­tings and made it as sea­wor­thy as pos­si­ble. They sewed new sails, in­clud­ing a large sail for lighter winds and a smaller storm sail, pre­pared ropes and named it Tawali Pasana. In many lo­cal lan­guages Tawali means reef and the mean­ing of Pasana – well, that de­pends on who you ask.

Af­ter a month of te­dious prepa­ra­tion and a f inal few days wait­ing out strong winds and dan­ger­ous sea con­di­tions, they f in­ally said their farewells and set off on 30 August 2016, pad­dling away from the dock of Tawali Re­sort, in Milne Bay. They planned to cir­cum­nav­i­gate New Guinea in an anti-clock­wise direc­tion and op­ti­misti­cally an­tic­i­pated ar­riv­ing back at Tawali between six and nine months later.

As they pad­dled out of the wind shadow and into the bay, a good f irm wind blew briskly across the wa­ter. They hoisted their brand new storm sail – sewn only days be­fore – and within 30 sec­onds it ripped apart and f lapped wildly in an oth­er­wise-promis­ing tail­wind. The ca­noe and its four sailors veered west into the rough sea, un­cer­tain of ex­actly what was in store for them but cer­tain their ad­ven­ture would take them to places none of them had been be­fore.

FOR THOR, THE ex­pe­di­tion was a steep learn­ing curve. Day one brought that torn sail. On day two, he man­aged to fall over­board, de­stroy­ing the phone he’d planned to use through­out the ex­pe­di­tion as a cam­era and au­dio recorder and for emer­gency satel­lite telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions (by link­ing it to an­other de­vice).

At this stage, the team still had more than 6000km to go. But they soon found their groove.

Re­gain­ing his sea legs, Thor quickly picked up sail­ing skills from his crew­mates and they started mak­ing progress.

For all four men, this was a jour­ney into the un­known. New Guinea is a wild place by any mea­sure. It’s enor­mous, cov­er­ing al­most 786,000sq.km – a land area al­most as large as that of New South Wales – and it con­tains some of the least-ex­plored ter­rain on Earth. It has vast tracts of vir­tu­ally im­pen­e­tra­ble forests, ac­tive vol­ca­noes, count­less coral reefs and some of the planet’s great­est marine bio­di­ver­sity. Its ex­cep­tion­ally rugged in­te­rior boasts steep, cloud-shrouded moun­tains, re­mote val­leys, gi­ant rivers, and even glaciers, which cap its high­est peak, 4884m Pun­cak Jaya.

New Guinea is also home to a great ar­ray of en­demic crea­tures, in­clud­ing many bird-of-par­adise and tree-kan­ga­roo species and an un­told wealth of undis­cov­ered or un­de­scribed an­i­mals and in­sects. Bio­di­ver­sity sur­veys here rou­tinely turn up species pre­vi­ously un­known to sci­ence. Cul­tur­ally, it is ex­traor­di­nar­ily rich: it has by far the great­est di­ver­sity of lan­guages of any coun­try, with more than 800 spo­ken on the PNG side of the is­land, and hun­dreds more in West Pa­pua.

For Thor’s team, sail­ing along the north coast of New Guinea af­ter they’d over­come their ini­tial hur­dles proved fairly straight­for­ward. They’d timed their launch to co­in­cide with favourable winds push­ing them from be­hind, and for the most part, sea con­di­tions were good, beach land­ings man­age­able and they were able to cover long dis­tances day af­ter day.

At one point they al­most came to grief on a reef in dan­ger­ous seas in the no­to­ri­ous Vi­tiaz Strait (the pas­sage between New Bri­tain and the Huon Peninsula), but man­aged to keep Tawali Pasana af loat.

IN NEW GUINEA, the sea­sons change late in the year, bring­ing head­winds and big seas, but Thor and his crew­mates were on sched­ule to make it to the far western end of the is­land just in time for the winds to shift and help them travel back along the south­ern coast. How­ever, un­fore­seen de­lays started to take their toll.

Less than two weeks into the jour­ney their out­rig­ger – one of the parts of the orig­i­nal boat that they hadn’t re­placed prior to de­par­ture – was al­ready so wa­ter­logged it could no longer f loat un­aided. The men spent a week in the small vil­lage of Bukaua, between Lae and Fin­schhafen, where they hiked into the moun­tains search­ing for a suit­able tree to re­place it. In Madang they were fur­ther de­layed, this time by more than two weeks, as they over­came bu­reau­cratic hur­dles while ac­quir­ing pass­ports for Job, Sanakoli and Justin. These would al­low them to cross to the In­done­sian side of New Guinea.

By the time Tawali Pasana reached PNG’s bor­der with West Pa­pua, the sea­sons were close to chang­ing but the ex­pe­di­tion­ers were only half­way along the is­land’s north­ern coast­line and just a quar­ter of the way into their jour­ney.

Then, af­ter sail­ing across the bor­der to the city of Jaya­pura, they were told their pa­per­work was not suff icient for en­try and they were turned back to PNG with a long list of ad­min­is­tra­tive tasks to fulf il be­fore they’d be per­mit­ted to con­tinue.

Days turned to weeks, then months as Thor strug­gled with the pa­per­work. Among other needs, the ca­noe had to be of­fi­cially reg­is­tered as a sail­ing ves­sel, which was an unconventional re­quest; a new cat­e­gory of ves­sel was cre­ated by PNG’s Na­tional Mar­itime Safety Au­thor­ity and the crew proudly painted their regis­tra­tion num­ber – C 0001 – on the hull of Tawali Pasana.

Af­ter more than two months camped on the PNG side of the bor­der, the team was f in­ally per­mit­ted to con­tinue to the In­done­sian side. But the sea­sons had al­ready turned and the go­ing be­came a lot tougher. Not only were they now be­hind by months, their progress was slowed by in­creas­ingly chal­leng­ing con­di­tions. Job also suf­fered med­i­cal is­sues that forced him to leave the ex­pe­di­tion.

WITH ONE FEWER pair of hands, they were now sail­ing into the wind, which re­quired a lot more tack­ing, in­creas­ing the dis­tance they had to cover. The seas grew con­sid­er­ably larger, and there were very few shel­tered places that they could safely bring the boat ashore with­out great risk to the ca­noe and them­selves. Each time they set out, they didn’t know where they’d be able to make land­fall again.

They rou­tinely sailed through the night, nav­i­gat­ing in the dark by sound – lis­ten­ing out for surf break­ing on the reefs – and spend­ing days at sea in rough weather, taking turns to snatch a bit of sleep if con­di­tions al­lowed.

At one point, in or­der to avoid a prob­lem­atic stretch of coast lined with un­pro­tected shal­low seas backed by dense man­groves and be­dev­illed by no­to­ri­ous cur­rents, they sailed for 72 hours across open wa­ter. Struck in the mid­dle of the third night by a par­tic­u­larly vi­o­lent storm, they feared the ca­noe would be torn apart while they hun­kered down and waves crashed over them.

The small boat pitched and strained in the black­ness, as the swell re­peat­edly sucked the out­rig­ger deep be­low the sur­face with the crew never know­ing whether the ca­noe would right it­self again or just break into pieces.

Round­ing the western end of the is­land and head­ing back along the south­ern coast, they were met by stub­born and sus­tained south-east­erly trade winds, mak­ing for haz­ardous sail­ing con­di­tions that stopped them from sail­ing at all for ex­tended pe­ri­ods.

De­spite the chal­lenges, the trio pushed on and their re­wards proved great. They glimpsed spec­tac­u­lar scenery as they passed stun­ning lime­stone karst land­scapes and many hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres of man­grove-lined coast, part of an ecore­gion that

con­tains the world’s great­est di­ver­sity of man­grove species. The men con­tin­ued past count­less is­lands as they coasted the Bird’s Head Peninsula, which forms the north-western end of the is­land, and were awed by the huge delta of the great Fly River, in the south, as they re­turned to PNG. Through­out their jour­ney, they were warmly wel­comed and hosted by vil­lagers, many of whom lived in re­mote com­mu­ni­ties.

FI­NALLY, 13 MONTHS AND 21 days af­ter they set off, they sailed back into Milne Bay on 20 Oc­to­ber last year, and were wel­comed back home with drum­ming, danc­ing and pop­ping cham­pagne corks.

For­tu­itously, the an­nual ca­noe and drum fes­ti­val was once again un­der­way in Alotau. Es­corted by an ar­mada of boats, Tawali Pasana sailed not only into the fes­ti­val, but also into the his­tory books. Thor, Sanakoli and Justin were awarded medals of hon­our in recog­ni­tion of their achieve­ment, with Sanakoli and Justin also being hailed as na­tional he­roes.

Through­out their ex­pe­di­tion, the trio had hoped to in­spire young New Guineans to make ef­forts to pre­serve their cul­tural her­itage, by show­ing that tra­di­tional sail­ing knowl­edge con­tin­ues to hold value to­day. They were dis­ap­pointed to dis­cover that only a frac­tion of the num­ber of sail­ing ca­noes that had been pre­sent when Thor first at­tended the Kenu and Kundu Fes­ti­val in 2015 were in the wa­ter. There was much fan­fare, in­ter­est and a great sense of en­thu­si­asm for the re­turn­ing sailors, but far fewer ca­noes than usual had made the jour­ney from the out­ly­ing is­lands to the event.

Then, in May this year, news sur­faced of an­other great New Guinea ca­noe jour­ney about to get un­der­way. A group of Pa­puans from Sorong, in far north-western New Guinea, de­clared their in­ten­tion to build and sail one of their tra­di­tional ca­noes the full length of the is­land in time for the 2018 Kenu and Kundu Fes­ti­val in Milne Bay, and then on to the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion sum­mit in Port Moresby in Novem­ber.

On hear­ing this, a sec­ond group, this time from the re­mote stretch of coast where Thor, Job, Sanakoli and Justin spent a week build­ing their new out­rig­ger, de­clared they would also join the voy­age in one of their tra­di­tional ca­noes – known as a kasali. The last time the vil­lagers built a kasali was in 1949, but they now want to re­vive their cul­tural skills and pre­serve their tra­di­tional ca­noe-build­ing knowl­edge.

So it’s pos­si­ble that the achieve­ment of Tawali Pasana and its crew has played a key role in re­viv­ing and keep­ing alive the ca­noe-build­ing and sail­ing cul­ture of New Guinea.

They re­turned to a wel­come of drum­ming, danc­ing and pop­ping cham­pagne corks.

The ex­pe­di­tion be­gan with a team of four – (right to left) Justin John, Job Siyae, Thor Jensen and Sanakoli John – but health is­sues forced Job to pull out part-way through.Gen­tle mo­ments like this, with their tra­di­tional dugout out­rig­ger sail­ing ca­noe, were rare on the gutsy record-set­ting jour­ney by Thor Jensen and broth­ers Sanakoli(at right) and Justin John.

Sanakoli (at left) and Thor pre­pare for their New Guinea cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion by re­build­ing a tra­di­tional dugout ca­noe with the help of a team of lo­cal sailors. Pre­vi­ous page: Paul pho­tographed lo­cals all along the jour­ney, from the start of it all at the Kenu and Kundu Fes­ti­val, to a re­mote vil­lage on an is­land, to a com­mu­nity cen­tre in Alotau.

Justin takes a well-earned break from sail­ing in a not-so-dry but com­fort­able spot on Tawali Pasana, while nav­i­gat­ing through the is­lands of the Tri­ton Bay re­gion .

The bio­di­verse marine wa­ters around PNG pro­vided Sanakoli with plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to sup­ple­ment the team’s diet through spearfish­ing.

Lo­cal boys play along the wa­ter­front dur­ing the an­nual Kenu and Kundu Fes­ti­val in Alotau, in Milne Bay Prov­ince. It was chil­dren like these whom Thor and his Pa­puan crew­mates hoped to in­spire by their jour­ney in a tra­di­tional dugout ca­noe around PNG. Thor guides Tawali Pasana ashore on one of the many re­mote is­lands in the pic­turesque but re­mote Tri­ton Bay, on New Guinea’s south-western coast

The tiny Tawali Pasana looks like lit­tle more than a piece of flot­sam as it glides across re­mote Milne Bay.

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