Getting out Alive: The tough romance of inter-island shipping.


  There are situations that would drive a person to risk their lives. Some people seem to find themselves in these types of situations more often than others. Ben Brookman, once again, doing it rough out in the islands, shares the joy and discomfort of his adventures.

The sort of vessels that most people think of when in the South Pacific, are elegant sailing craft and the super yachts of the super wealthy. While these represent a large chunk of the harbour population, the real workers and the ugly movers are the ones than keep the islands alive, the flat-bottomed cargo cruisers rubbing hard up against the working wharfs of any South Pacific port.

The functional chaos of an inter island shipping terminal is something that should not be missed. Buses and trucks packed with people, yams, bananas, pigs, kava, rice, building materials and church groups, compete for space with everything else that is being sent out or traded back in. The yelling, the cavalier use of heavy machinery, the sweet ocean smell against that of rotting fruit and leaking fuel are all an assault to the more sophisticated senses. Somehow, amidst all this chaos, a barge is unloaded, loaded and then lazily waddles out to the sea with a harassed Supercargo checking his manifesto, and counting his vatu. Somehow it works.

In my Vanuatu life and my varied roles of eel hunter, sandalwood hustler, coconut oil maker, and fuel trader, I often had the need for barges and their crews. Usually it was a load of manioc or the ever hopeful unload of sandalwood. On occasion you were called to babysit some special delivery or you just needed to be somewhere that was a nowhere to all other sea and air transportation.

A lot of these trips had a seedy, musty, loose timeframe sort of romance to them. There was killing time during the trip trolling for fish, reading, counting flying fish or just lying around in the wheelhouse talking trash with the crew. There was the cooking of weird but tasty meals and just watching the endless blue roll on by. I liked that you got to be part of the colourful personality dynamics of a working vessel. You also get to know a lot about people during a 28-hour passage and every trip was an adventure in amateur psychology.

Early in my yearlong career as a manager of a coconut oil mill on Epi, I was due for furlough. I had been away from home for three weeks and was in great need of some ‘civilized’ time back in Vila. Lust and longing are very motivating human conditions and I was deep into both. I had been living a monastic life with the other 20 coconut oil disciples and it was time to go home. The only way home was the barge and it arrived on a Friday morning. It was raining and there was a full load of cargo to be unloaded and then it had to be reloaded with copra meal and a mass of fence posts. As mentioned, I was driven – so the stench of wet copra meal, the rain, the soft sand, the heavy hardwood posts and general lack of enthusiasm of everyone else did not deter me a jot.

After a full day of brutal labour in the sort of conditions endured only by the desperate, we had her stowed and squared away for sea. I cleaned myself up, grabbed my sea bag and curled up on the captain’s bunk with a bottle of scotch. My plan was to combine exhaustion with alcohol and just fall into a sort of time travel coma and wake up in Vila, in the loving arms of my wife, with a hamburger with the lot. Now it should be noted that we had a ten-hour window to steam back to Vila before a front rolled in with some nasty weather. Ten hours I was thinking, plenty of time, the captain was confident – I was home free.

I don’t think we had cleared the first headland and I was out. The rolling of the boat and the hum of the diesel engine was the final maritime sedative – sweet, satisfied, oblivion achieved.

The first fluttering thoughts of dawn were that I sensed we were not moving. I lifted my puffy head and through dry eyes fully expected to see Iririki Island and the familiar skyline of Vila. It was with incomprehensible demoralisation that it became evident we were still on Epi – Laman Bay, Epi – we had hardly moved. The crew was all splayed out in a deep post-kava comatose state and I guessed that what was meant to be a one shell of kava stop, must have turned into ten. With a groggy rage born of deep disappointment, I roused them all, the engines started and we headed out to sea.

The wind was up and continued to rise. A grotty sea was running and we laboured hopefully into it. Barges are built for function, not speed, not comfort and definitely not 35-knot winds. An unspoken uneasiness hung in the wheelhouse as we lifted then slammed into endless growing swells. Then things started to break. A barge’s loading door is held in place both by hydraulics and mechanical locks. The mechanical locks began failing one by one, with nasty metallic cracking sounds. This is not a pleasant feeling, because you know that if the engine stops, the hydraulics fail, the door will drop and you will go to the bottom like a giant fishing lure. That was it. Game over. We ran for the shelter of Emae Island and while the sea was calm in the lee, the wind still howled and heavy rain spattered the cabin windows. As I considered our safety from shipwreck, the immensity of what the future looked like took shape.

A crew of five plus the accidental tourist was six of us in a four by two cabin. To sleep, eat and hide from the squall while waiting for the wind to back down. Figure three days. I managed two.

There are things that happened during this time that I am not fully ready to talk about yet. By day two, the walls were closing in a little tighter every minute and just when I thought I was about to have a full mental breakdown, a single text came through telling me a plane had been kindly chartered to retrieve me.

Did I care that all other air traffic had been grounded due to high winds? Did I care that the pilot was a notorious French bush pilot willing to push all boundaries of safety? The short answer is, I would have clung to the wing. The cabin was filthy beyond redemption, we all stank, we had rice and tinned meat every meal and the weather was so bad you only left refuge when absolutely necessary. I was ready to take my chances.

I grabbed my sea bag and walked through some muddy tracks to the grass strip. The hum of a Cessna over the wind made it real. The plane hit the grass at twice normal speed and slid to a stop. The pilot had an unhinged sort of gleam in his eyes and was laughing in way that indicated he just received a massive dose of adrenalin.

The take off was the most memorable part. We lifted above the tree line and the wind seized the plane like a piece of origami. One wing tip lifted so violently that we were no longer sitting in a horizontal plane and a moment of near inversion made me question my atheism.

True to form, Francois righted his craft and we lugged into the head wind to Vila.

Approaching Bauerfield airport I was told in broken English to tighten my seatbelt. Down we went, into a sort of dive bombing landing required to maintain airspeed greater than that of the wind. The plane hit the Tarmac like a winged crate and slewed drunkenly to a taxi. When we finally unbuckled, I was effusive to a degree that made people uncomfortable.

I can still clearly remember driving through Vila and marveling at what to me looked like the sophistication of New York. Home, hot water and Egyptian cotton sheets. No place like it.

By Ben Brookman.