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