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Voyage to Banaba ‘Motley Crew’ In Successful Passage to Ocean Island

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"Voyage to Banaba -  'Motley Crew' In successful passage to Ocean Island"

  by Garry Hawkins, U.K. - Motley Crew Member


Taken from Issue No. 26 of the 'Banaba/Ocean Island News' - July, Aug, Sept '97


AT LAST, it was our day of departure. The truck picked us up at Tom Awira’s place, where the majority of the 'Motley Crew’ were billeted. The suspension groaned with the weight of the 'Crew' and their luggage. Conditions in the truck were mightily cramped, as everyone held on while it snaked its way through the dusty streets of Tarawa. The sun was at its hottest by the time the truck reached the toll booths of the Nippon causeway, which linked the islets of Bairiki and Betio. We were all baked alive by the searing heat as the truck driver paused to pay the sixty cent toll; everyone was grateful when we arrived at Betio Harbour.

The Marine Vessel "Marawan te Ota", a wooden twin-hulled catamaran of dubious vintage waited at the wharf. A floating gin palace it was not, with its yellow coat of paint faded with age and use. Down in the two engine holds, I saw a couple of filthy looking diesel engines. I could have sworn they came from a tractor.

‘Crew’ scattered in a myriad of different directions to buy those essential last-minute luxuries. Apples, oranges, cigarettes, cans of drink and bottles of mineral water; like junkies we needed our last fix of civilisation.

The Captain arrived and immediately set out his stall. The spread of tattered, well-worn charts and ancient navigational instruments may not have immediately inspired confidence but Captain Daniel had been at sea since 1947. He had started as a cook, then gradually worked his way up to Captain, gaining his Certificate in Suva, Fiji. Meanwhile, the ships Engineer had been tinkering with the starboard (right) engine. Repairs or maintenance? It was difficult to tell, as the alternator and fan belt were ripped out and replaced. The replacement components were as worn as those removed. As good omens go, this wasn't one.

Just before the boat was due to leave, we discovered that one of our brethren was missing and nowhere to be found. A search of bars, restaurants, cafes and flesh pots was launched, but to no avail. With a deep sense of charity and with great compassion, everyone said we should leave without him. This we were about to do until he arrived to ironic cheers from the Motley Crew.

At 3 P.M. our umbilical cord with Tarawa was broken, as the catamaran made its way slowly and cautiously through the harbour channel. Once outside, the sea was clearer and cleaner; a delicate shade of turquoise. In the distance, the coral atoll of Tarawa was a picturesque image that remains engrained in my mind. The sea was like an aquamarine millpond, with barely a ripple to be seen. Overhead, Alto Stratus clouds protected us from the piercing rays of the sun while on the horizon, rain squalls erupted from thick banks of black Cumulo Nimbus clouds.

Dinner was somewhat surprisingly included in our charter fee and was served by the cook, from the galley at the stern (rear). Corned beef hash was served curried in a pond of Rosella tomato soup with boiled rice and a soup of mixed vegetables. Strange but true: it tasted better than it looked. Washing up was 'Do It Yourself’, in a bucket of seawater.

The beginning of our Voyage to Banaba had been romantically idyllic, culminating that evening in the most glorious of Pacific sunsets. In the West, majestic cloud formations glowed scarlet, turning to red as the sun sank slowly towards the horizon. Storm clouds formed dark silhouettes as the light began to fade. In the East, the moon was rising; a pale white disc vividly contrasting with the wisps of pink cloud beneath. Simply stunning.

After sundown, most of the Motley Crew retired to their bedrolls, which covered every available inch of deck space. The braver ones among us slept upon the poop deck under the stars, cooled by constant sea breezes. Later that night, the brave became the stupid as they were soaked by a huge rain shower. Everyone was forced inside undercover. Now there was even less space, bodies lay everywhere at all angles. Being one of the stupid, I lay next to the starboard engine which hammered away remorselessly. It was like trying to sleep next to a tower of loudspeakers during an AC/DC (heavy metal) concert.

At 2 A.M. next morning, we hit trouble with the port side (left) engine. The Engineer lifted both engine hatches up, thus reducing sleeping space even more. The noise emitted from the (now unmuffled) engine was deafening to the point of being unbearable. Evil clouds of black acrid smelling diesel fumes filled the air. I smothered my head in a sweatshirt and my ears in cotton wool to keep the noise and the fumes out. The port engine wailed like a banshee, screaming well beyond Its rev. limit; something was going to blow. It did. The catamaran limped on, on one engine only until dawn.

At first light, much concern was expressed about the broken engine. After much agitation from certain individuals, a meeting was called following dark mutterings about turning back. We were by now eighteen hours into the voyage, with potentially thirty to go. Our speed was down to four knots from six, with only the one engine. The major concern, of course, was that in the event of a further engine failure, we would be adrift on the ocean. With our luck, like Captain Bligh wa would have ended up in East Timor.

Jack Haden pointed out to the Mutineers that "we should all put our trust in the Captain, he knows what he is doing". I said that "the day that twenty I-Matangs (Whitemen) take over this vessel, is the day I get off. You, people, know nothing about seafaring". Jack added that "the Captain is responsible for this vessel and for its passengers and crew". I added that "If the Captain turns back, we turn back. Leave the Captain to make the decisions".

The Engineer began the forlorn task of fixing the stricken engine. He entered the engine hold barefoot; a primeval briny emulsion of oil and diesel fuel slopped within. In minutes, the engine lay sadly disassembled all over what was once a clean pandanus mat. He poked, prodded, cleaned and hammered the engine for at least two hours until finally, we came to the point of restarting it.

The starter motor stuttered and pistons clattered. To our joyous amazement, the engine fired. Curiously the effortlessly-ale of the I-Matang rose in direct proportion to the engines fortunes. Emerging from the hold like the beast from the black lagoon, the Engineer beamed a toothless Cheshire cat smile. Cue: spontaneous applause for the Engineer.

At 5 P.M., twenty-six hours into the Voyage, the Captain called me over to look at the GPS (sextant). Together, we counted down the minutes of latitude North from 0.149"N to O" - we had crossed the equator. It was pleasant that evening up on the poop deck, though our attempts to sleep there were to be dashed again by rain.

The morning of Sunday 20th July found us still aboard the "Marawan te Ota". Time passed in the manner expected when travelling on a slow boat to Banaba. The engines droned on. Ron Davies and David Corrie broke the monotony then they caught a huge yellowfin tuna on their trawling line. Such was its size, several people were needed to bring it to gaff, Fresh fish for dinner! No such luck, as the catamaran crew helped themselves to it.

Banaba was sighted at 4.30 A.M. a dim grey silhouette against the background of a dirty black rainstorm. At last, I good omen - the Motley Crew had brought rain to Banaba. As the island drew nearer, you could see the surf pounding against the outside reef, spurting great white plumes of foaming water. The gloomy weather seemed to lift just as our Voyage was reaching its end. How green and lush the island appeared with recent rainfall.

Our mute into the harbour followed the contours of the reef. The cantilever gantry starkly dominated the skyline. It stood rusted and broken, its conveyor belt sadly flapping limply into the ocean, no longer feeding the once ravenous phosphate ships which used to be moored offshore.

The surf pounded on into the harbour entrance. We had started our approach when suddenly the starboard engine died, just before we'd reached the point of no return, where the catamaran would have been smashed into matchwood against the reef or harbour walls. The Captain, on his toes as ever, skilfully performed a nimble U-turn (on one engine). The engineer frantically tried to restart his stricken engine, which roared into life at full throttle. We steered heavily to port, missing the harbour wall by a whisker, then steering right full rudder as the engines screamed with the strain. To us, it seemed like disaster had been narrowly averted. I'm sure it was all in a days work for the Captain, a case of been there, done that! We cruised effortlessly into the harbour. But like most boats, it had no brakes and collided with a heavy thump into the harbour wall. The Captain was not amused; he was left to curse and castigate his inattentive crew.

Banabans and I-Matangs (from a previous journey) flooded into the wharf to greet us. Waves and shouts of "Mauri" (hello and welcome) filled the air. The boat couldn't dock, it was secured mid-harbour by ropes swum to shore by crewmen and fixed to bollards. Some of us couldn't wait to get off the boat, our Voyage to Banaba had taken us forty-six hours in all; they plunged straight into the water and crawled the green algae covered harbour steps.

We were transferred by rowboat using the fixed ropes to pull it to shore, hand over hand. Everyone parked themselves down on the harbour wall, under whatever shade they could find. Even though we were on land, the world was still rocking to the motion of the boat. We found ourselves surrounded by the friendly curiosity of the Banaban children. We waited for a lift to Banaba House in the islands one and only truck preserved from the mining days. We learnt that it had broken down. 

We would have to walk.


Copyright: Garry Hawkins: October 1997 

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