Good company in the Louisiades

 Destination: PNG

Guy Chester, who helped organise the event, was among those who set sail in the first-ever official Louisiades Rally.

In 2002 I was sitting on the beach at Nanuya Lailai of Blue Lagoon fame in Fiji. I had just sailed from Australia and was discussing with a group of other cruisers the preparation a couple or family needed to head off bluewater cruising. The benefits of sailing offshore in company in an organised event as a stepping stone came up. Then someone pointed out how close PNG was to Australia, how many boats cruised Queensland, yet how few sailors visited the Louisiades.

“Why doesn't someone organise a rally?” someone suggested. The suggestion took hold and, well, now someone has. I started serious planning for a rally in 2008 with a five-week visit in 2007. The villagers were keen on the idea of encouraging more yachts to visit, for trading, aid and to learn about the “dim-dim's” (white folk) culture and technology.

Since the closure of the Misima mine and withdrawal of the port of entry service at Misima yacht numbers had dropped. I did not want to impose anything on the local islanders unless they wanted it, but they were vocal in their support.

The Louisiades
The Louisiades Archipelago is 100nm east of mainland Papua New Guinea. They are beautiful islands with numerous safe anchorages, comprising sand cays, lagoon reefs, limestone outcrops (up-lifted coral reefs) and continental islands. There is snorkelling, diving and fishing galore, plus skull caves and hills to climb and coral cays, coconut-shaded beaches and lush forests to explore.

The people are Melanesian and look similar to those in the rest of Papua New Guinea, the Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji. There are three languages spoken in different areas: Misima-Paneati, Nimoa and Sudest. Pidgin is spoken throughout PNG but in the Louisiades the majority of people speak their local language and English.

The locals are very friendly and as soon as you anchor someone is sure to paddle out to say hello and trade. They live a simple life, without great material possessions, and many places are self-sufficient with little reliance on cash. Most live in villages, which can range from one family to hundreds. There is no formal traditional chiefsystem, but every island has an elected councillor who sits on the local government. Many are Christian, many villages have a church and there are missions dotted throughout the islands.

Making it happen
After visiting in 2007 I thought it would be a simple matter of writing to people to confirm dates and details for each rally event. It was anything but. Virtually none of the letters I sent rrived, and the rally would not have happened without the efforts of Keith and Lynnette Parascos of the Bwagoia Bakery. They are the airline agents and manage a guesthouse and when asked if they could help run the rally pitched in without a second thought.

Rally attitude
We promoted the rally as a cruise in company with a mix of events, ranging from sailing canoe racing, feasts, singsings, skull cave visit, traditional dancing and a remote river trip to school and hospital visits. The aim was to have fun and leave the places and people in a better state than when we arrived. Embedded in this was the idea of helping the local community.

First major offshore experience
For many the rally would be their major offshore experience, and we geared up for this by providing as much help as possible: a comprehensive manual, safety briefings and an in-depth briefing on the passage and the islands. We also helped participants with the process of getting their yacht Australian registered, registering their radios, EPIRBs and, of course, insurance. By mid-September there were 28 yachts ready to leave Yorkeys Knob (Cairns) for the Louisiades.

The farewell party and parade of sail were attended by the PNG Consul General, who travelled up from Brisbane for the occasion. Two yachts dropped out at the last moment due to health issue, but 26 yachts – many new to bluewater cruising – set out in bright sunshine and a fresh SE wind on the 520nm passage from Cairns across the Coral Sea to the Louisiades.

Most headed for Grafton Passage to clear the reef but several headed for the more northerly Trinity Passage so they could stop over at Bougainville Reef. For the 3-4 days that most yachts took to complete the passage “Hewie” provided a constant 20-25 knot SE breeze. While this is the daily bread of experienced ocean sailors, for newbies on their first night, this wind – plus the two-metre swell and no moon – made for a nerve-racking experience.

The fleet experienced both gear and people failure. While the people issues were broadly limited to seasickness and a few bumps and bruises, the gear issues were more serious, including a a broken forestay on one yacht and under-bridgedeck delamination on a catamaran. Some chose to spend the their first night at Mission Bay, others rested at Bougainville Reef in the Coral Sea before retiring or choosing to push on through. In all 15 yachts made it to the Louisiades.

Six of the 15 yachts that made the passage were double-handers – although a higher proportion of double-handers were among those that retired. Interestingly, almost half the yachts were catamarans, the smallest cat being the 11.6m Cloud 12 Kooltandra and the largest a Perry 57, Zen II. Some smaller yachts started, but these were among those that retired.

Destinations
The fleet entered the archipelago at Duchateau in the Calvados chain and then moved on to Panasia Island, a spectacular island with 100m-high limestone cliffs formed by up-lifted coral. The locals from nearby Brooker Island hosted an evening and then the next day John, the island's owner, took some intrepid yachties to climb to the skull cave.

While in much of the Pacific the outboardpowered banana boat has replaced traditional vessels, in the Louisiades the traditional lakatoi sailing canoe is still the local car, bus and truck and the backbone of the lifestyle and economy. There is a canoe festival in Alotau on the PNG mainland but few of the Lousiades canoes make the long trip because it would be 120 miles to windward to get home again, so we decided it would be a great idea to stage a traditional canoe regatta in the area in conjunction with the rally.

In 2007 Julie and Millio at Panapompom had the event planned before I had even finished raising the idea and in 2008 the rally boats turned up to a major canoe regatta, singsing and sports events.
The island of Nivani was the venue and huts were specially built for the event. The locals put on a most amazing welcoming ceremony and traditional dancing. The swimming races were hotly contested, as were the outrigger and “gepo” (canoes without outriggers) races.

The sight of 20 lakotois at the “gybe mark” with the crew running the heavy yardarm from one bow to the other while the helmsman runs with the steering rudder to the “other stern,” then the canoe taking off at 15 plus knots to the next mark, was as spectacular as any Hobart Race or America's Cup!

Bagaman and Blue Lagoon
At Bagaman Island Chief Gulo, his son Moses and the Councillor Joel arranged the most fantastic one-day cultural festival, with dancing and handicrafts. A major attraction was the unearthing of the mumu (earth oven). The next day the yachts headed for the Blue Lagoon (the Louisiades version, not Fiji's) for a beach barbecue. A light shower did not hamper the event.

Festival Misima
The visit to Misima had been promoted as a quiet weekend of buying fuel and clearing customs. We had not anticipated the welcome of a major festival “Showcase Misima 2008,” which Keith Parascos and the locals had created.

The highlights were the “Miss Misima” competition, the pempewa and the Sunday outdoor multi-denominational service. With more than 60 young women from all over Misima Island in traditional dress, four women yachties were selected to be the judges, who then had to decide on a winner based on several criteria.

The traditional gift-giving ceremony, the pempewa, involved more than 200 local women put on an impromptu singsing for the yachties one evening followed by a feast prepared by the village. Such unexpected hospitality made everyone feel welcome. preparing gifts of baskets, handicrafts and local produce. The yachties reciprocated by making up gifts of sewing goods, soaps, kitchen equipment and other items. On my catamaran Sanctuary we ended up making up 18 baskets of goodies!

The overwhelming experience was capped off by Rob Robson from the cat 5:00 Somewhere leading a rendition of “Once a Jolly Swagman” to an audience of at least 1000 locals. As one of the yachties put it: “We could have sailed here on our own, but never had an experience like this!”

Pirates, waterfall and sports day
Following the intensive experience of Showcase Misima, the yachts had a week at leisure to travel around the islands before getting back together. Yachts went to Kamatal, Sabara and Gigila and many other places. Fishing, diving, snorkelling, being invited to feasts on islands, trading, fixing village water tanks and garden visits were all part of the adventures. A bunch of pirates met back up at Wanim Island for a barbecue and bit of a party, sharing their experiences. Again Rob got out his guitar to lead a few pirate songs. Then on to Nimowa, the Catholic Mission.

The first day was a waterfall visit, with all the yachties getting aboard banana boats to travel to the Fiori River and its waterfalls on Sudest Island.

Idling up the lush rainforest-clad river in a procession before arriving at a beautiful waterfall was an unforgettable experience. That afternoon the village invited us ashore, and we found that the local primary school had a singsing and feast for us – not arranged nor anticipated, just the locals hosting their visitors.

The next day was a visit to the local school and hospital then a sports afternoon. The local kids took on the (aging) yachties at men's soccer and women's netball. To see 8-12-year-old boys running rings around the dim-dim yachties was so funny. The score was 3-1. Netball was similar. “Our” ladies were head and shoulders above the competition, yet while they could maintain possession they found scoring difficult. The final score was not recorded.

Community support
The rally was fun, but there was a serious side – to give something back to the community.
Few yachties go to the Louisiades just to look – they get there and realise that they can help the islanders, who have so little. The rally provided welcome cash to each island we visited, with the rally paying well for dancers, feasts and organisation. Prior to the rally many donations of clothes and useful items were received and all yachties procured their own for trade or gift.

During the rally yachties were “fined”, and donations and fines raised more than $2,500 for the hospital at Nimowa. The auction of a model sailing canoe also raised more than $800 for a local aid post at Panapompom. The cash was sorely needed at the Nimowa Clinic and Sister Sara advised that her expenses budget for the year was less than $2,000, so the donation would allow her to do much more.

The rally fleet brought more than 30 bags of items for the hospital, ranging from a teddy bear and clothes to medical supplies. One of the most valuable was the almost-100 vials of local anaesthetic. Sister Sara had four vials of “local” left and had resorted to “vocal” anaesthetic – getting the patient to talk and distracting them from the pain – for surgical procedures.

The nearest doctor is at Alotau more than 100 miles away, and the seriousness of the Nimowa hospital's role was shown with the death, in labour, of a young anaemic women during our stay. Two doctors on the rally spoke with Sara, and we have established priorities for support of the hospital for the 2009 rally.

Where to now?
In a post-rally survey rally participants were very supportive of the event. Comments included: “The rally was professionally run,” “Gave me (and crew) the confidence to do an ocean passage,” “Experienced events not available to single cruiser” and “Hope it becomes a regular event.”

The islanders have also been consulted and, while some changes are being made to events, there is no doubt the consensus is the rally is of great benefit to the locals, and they want it to be an annual event. Here's to an even bigger and better rally this year!

The 2009 rally will run from mid-September to late October, starting at Yorkeys Knob (Cairns). As per the 2008 event, there will be general support, plus safety briefings and customs clearances. Events will include Cairns farewell, Panasia barbecue, skull cave visit, Panapompom canoe regatta, cultural festival, feasts, village visits and much more.

For more information visit www.louisiadesrally.com or call Roger on (07) 4055 8132.

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