As a missionary to Solomon Islands many years ago, I experienced many challenging situations that stimulated my nervous state. There were overcrowded canoes propelled by undersized outboard motors, leaky boats, overloaded small planes that gave the coconut palms a haircut at the end of the airstrip and pilots who got lost in clouds.
But a trip to the isolated island of Ulawa topped them all. August was selected as a safe time of the year for open ocean travel because conditions were usually calm, it wasn’t the hottest time of the year and there was little chance of rain.
Three of us left the capital, Honiara—my two companions, Henry and Newton, and I—on a perfect morning. The sun was poking its head over a bank of white, fluffy clouds, the sea was like glass as we sped over the surface of Iron Bottom Sound, there wasn’t a breath of wind and we had the sea all to ourselves.
As we passed the southeastern point of the Florida Islands, we had a picture-perfect view of the island of Malaita with its cloud-covered mountain range, the dark green of its forest and spirals of smoke rising from the villages scattered along the coast.
We stopped briefly at Malaita for refreshments and fuel, then followed the coast down to the end of Small Malaita. From there we could see Ulawa Island sitting aboard the horizon. The sea was choppy, but nothing that our five-metre fibreglass boat couldn’t handle. We were now in open, dark-green ocean, about as far from anywhere as you can get. We felt the loneliness as we gazed out over an endless sea.
The rugged, mountainous island of Ulawa didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get closer. As the hours dragged by, the monotony was interrupted only by the steady humming of the outboard motor and the splashing of the sloppy waves against the hull of the boat. Having never been to Ulawa before, we had no idea how we would find the little cove where we were to land. But one thing was certain: we had to find it before dark or the journey would end in catastrophe.
Just as darkness was closing in, we spotted a boy waving a white towel, perched high on a rock a few metres above the rocky shore. Nearby was a small beach crowded with people. About a dozen men were standing in the surf ready to manhandle our boat up onto dry land.
Henry, our pilot, waited for the signal, then gunned the engine straight for the handlers, who watched as we surfed in on a wave. Then they lifted us out of the water and ran us up onto the beach. Before we could get our breath back, we were surrounded by friendly islanders who calmed us with their traditional welcome song.
We spent four days meeting with the locals, sharing with them from the Bible. The days went by all too quickly and soon it was time to prepare for our departure. We had fuelled up the boat the day before and packed the boat, ready for an early morning start. But just before midnight we were awakened by a strange noise. As we listened, it got louder by the minute. Then things started to rattle, and the walls of our thatched hut began to moan.
“What’s happening?” someone called out.
“It’s the westerly wind arriving early,” came a reply.
“Oh, no!” groaned Newton. “This is a disaster!”
Our hut was soon full of concerned village elders, who suggested that we pray for the wind to die down so that we could leave in the morning. This we did, very earnestly. All three of us had appointments back in Honiara and we had to leave the next day.
The chief’s last words as he left our hut didn’t calm us. “If the wind gets any stronger,” he declared, “you may be stranded here for six weeks.”
This was bad news. Apart from the appointments we wanted to keep, our need to be fed would put a strain on the islanders’ gardens and there is also a limit on how much white rice I can consume. One more prayer was followed by fitful sleep for the rest of the night.
We awoke in the morning to a howling gale. We learned that it was a wind that stops all sea traffic and isolates those living in the islands for up to two months. Its early arrival was a mystery, but it came as a challenge for us. A quick breakfast, then down to the beach we went, where a scene confronted us that would cause even a lifeguard to tremble. The breakers were crashing on the beach and behind them the sea was a churning cauldron of foam and swirling waves that had no sense of direction.
The bystanders were shaking their heads and looking very downcast. The chief declared that he would never consider putting a boat in to that angry sea. We would have to abandon our departure. Another problem arose that we hadn’t considered: There was no way to communicate with Honiara from this island, so if we didn’t turn up as scheduled, it would be assumed we had died at sea.
For a few moments, we just stared at the sea and thought about all the implications. Then I turned to our pilot. “What do you think, Henry? Are you willing to challenge the elements or do we settle in here for five or six weeks? It’s all up to you. If you’re willing, Newton and I will back you up.”
“We will go,” he declared.
With that, the three of us climbed aboard and waited for some strong men to pick us up and race us into the surf. It wasn’t a matter of picking the right time, because there wasn’t one.
The men hesitated, then rushed us headlong into the waves that threatened to swamp us as they came barrelling into the cove.
Henry had the engine running before we hit the water and as soon as we were afloat he revved it up and we were rising and falling like a surfboat at a beach carnival. Newton was sitting behind the small cover that protected our luggage while I sat on top of the icebox with my back to the horror that came at us with a roar.
Twenty minutes later, we were still within shouting distance of the beach. The chief told me later that they couldn’t believe we stayed afloat. But we did. Our prayers for the wind to die down weren’t answered, but our prayers for God to keep us afloat surely were.
Soon, the island began to recede in the distance and we were out on a lonely, ugly sea that fought us all the way.
An hour out and I was in trouble. I’d been tested on many occasions in the open sea without losing my lunch, but this was different. We were rocking and swaying in a most disorganised manner and although I tried to keep my eyes on the horizon, it was all over the place.
Eventually I had nothing left to share with the fish and was feeling dizzy, so I slid down onto the floor of the boat and sat in a soup consisting of salt water, oil, petrol and my vomit.
I was staring at Henry, who was steering with one hand while desperately bailing with his free hand, when suddenly he shouted, “Hey! Newton, where’s all the water coming from?”
Poor Newton was holding on to the cover with salt water sloshing over his face, looking about as miserable as I felt. He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
“Check the auxiliary motor,” Henry shouted again. “Something’s not right.”
When Newton moved the luggage, he found that the steering arm of the spare motor had smashed a fist-sized hole in the side of the boat. Newton quickly rolled up his T-shirt and stuffed it into the hole. That helped to reduce the bilge considerably.
The next problem we faced was the rate at which the petrol was being used up as we battled the head wind and contrary sea. To refuel the tank from spare containers at sea is quite a feat in calm waters, but in the conditions we were facing, it was almost impossible.
“We need a miracle,” Henry yelled. “We must pray that the good Lord will make the fuel last until we get to the coast of Malaita, where there may be some sheltered area where we can refill our tank.”
And pray we did. Soon after that, I was floating in and out of consciousness and not caring whether the boat went down.
I came to as Henry and Newton were refuelling the tank. They had found a sheltered place away from the wretched wind. After that, we cruised up the coast a little way and into a large bay where there was a clinic staffed by a minister whose wife was a trained nurse. They carried me into their bathhouse, where the minister washed me and helped me change into some dry clothes. We truly appreciated their hospitality and the warm stew that helped us enjoy a sound sleep. The next day I still couldn’t walk straight, but we eventually made it back to Honiara.
Friends and staff shared many prayers as we related our adventure on the high seas. We learned later that the Ulawans had organised prayer groups for God’s protection over us as we battled the elements that almost took our lives.