Boat people of Ambae

Saturday 30 September 2017
Asanvari, Maewo


Having made our promise to assist Chief Justin with the evacuation of his list of 28 people from Lolowai (Ambae Island) to Luganville (Espiritu Santo Island) – a journey of around nautical 55 miles – we first had to make it to Lolowai.

The agreed pick-up time was 8:00am, so we were up and away from beautiful Asanvari around 6:00am for the 10 mile hop across. There was still no sign of Chief Justin, who was expected to return from his “research-mission” trip yesterday afternoon, so we assumed he ended up staying the night in Lolowai. My many phone calls to him throughout the late afternoon and evening remained unanswered, but I assumed he was … “out of credit” … a familiar message everyone hears on their phones here.

We arrived at Lolowai around 7:45am, and made it into the narrow pass around the stern of patrol boat 02 RVS Tukoro, after first radioing our intentions on Channel 16. Entering the bay we saw two coastal traders already loading people and their belongings. One a red landing barge with her ramp down on the main beach below the hospital, the other a black vessel only it’s mother could truly love, anchored a little way off the beach, using its large dinghy – back and forth – loaded each trip with what seemed like perilously little freeboard. We were familiar with this black vessel, because it was tied behind us at the commercial wharf in Luganville a couple of days earlier when we’d refilled with water. We’d got to know Captain John and half expected to see him again this time.

Meanwhile, things appeared calm onshore, although there was a large number of people and their personal belongings onshore at the main beach, obviously waiting to be loaded onto the two ships and more that would inevitably come throughout the day. Otherwise it was a gloriously sunny morning, in one of the best anchorages to be found.

The phone rang, it was Chief Justin. “Hello Robert, I called a few times, I have your fruits, bananas and things, here for the petrol”
“Good morning Chief Justin, where are you?” I inquired.

“I am here in Asanvari. We came back last night. Where are you? ” came the reply

“I’m in Lolowai, as we agreed yesterday, for the 8:00am pick-up. Is everyone ready onshore do you know? Who was the contact person?_I replied

”Sorry tumas, it was very busy yesterday and we came back late. The contact man in Lolowai is a man called Lesley Mera, I will give you his number, he is expecting you. And my brother, Anthony is on the patrol boat Tukoro”.

I reassured Chief Justin that it didn’t matter about the fruit and 10 litre fuel container, but that I would call him once I’d got everyone aboard.

Knowing there would be delays in loading everyone, my “drop-dead-departure-time” to get away from Lolowai, was around 9:00am, in order to return to Luganville in daylight; and of course have time to unload everyone.

Finally, after maybe six or more trips to and from the landing beach, it was around 10:30 that we finally made our way out of the short Lolowai Bay channel, over the coral, and into open water,

All aboard Chimere was ready to receive our guests. Everything was packed away, we all wore our “official” MSM and PCV shirts. I even dug out some yellow fluro vests I’d bought at one time, in order to convey a greater sense of confidence and reassurance … plus I got to wear my “Captains Cap” … for the same reason … any other time it had just been a bit of a pretentious joke. Given the number of caps that seem to blow overboard, the latest cap I had been wearing said “Knackered Sailor”, which even I though a bit inappropriate given the circumstance.

The loading process started with maybe 5 phone calls to Lesley. The first around 7:45am along the lines of … “Good morning Lesley, I have been told you are the man in charge … how many people are there … and is everyone ready?

“Yes, good morning Robert, we are just finding a couple of vehicles to transport the people and their things, maybe we be there at 8:30”

Around 8:45am and still no sign of our passengers, my next call … “hello Lesley, we need to be away at 9:00am, are you nearly here … remember it’s not the main landing beach under the hospital, it’s the beach around the bay, under the trees, close to where we are anchored?”

“We are nearly there, just a few minutes”

Meanwhile we had two visits from the Maritime Police tender off the patrol boat to check on our purpose, intentions, contacts, that we understood the process of providing a list of all the people loaded and registration at the other end etc, and that we were in fact taking everyone to Santo, not places like Asanvari (where we’d come from that morning) where there was a perceived Tsunami threat in the event of an earthquake.

The men off the patrol boat were very respectful and professional, great blokes and one of course was Chief Justin’s younger brother Anthony. “Tank yu tumas for what you are doing, we really appreciate your assistance” each of them said.

“You guys have got a big job, how many people are you evacuating? I asked.

“About 11,000 people. We will be here till next Friday. Yes, it’s a big job. Tank yu tumas for your help”

Finally our people arrived at the beach and we began the process of loading – luggage first. Fortunately, the many medical transport missions we have conducted around the islands has made Chimere and her crew proficient at moving people and stuff.

But I hadn’t fully realised, 29 people (yes, 29, not 28 as originally suggested) have a lot of stuff! Not just bed-rolls, woven mats, carry bags, stripy bags and back-packs, but bags of rice, bags of bananas, bags of miscellaneous stuff, and a piglet in an old sugar bag. I first realised it was a piglet when someone stepped on a bag in the dinghy as were coming off the beach and the bag squealed something dreadful. “It’s a pig!?” I exclaimed … to the laughter of all.

Oh, and there’s the request I’m not likely to here again for sometime … “do you have a fridge that I can put my bats in?”. Yes, that’s right “bats”, not cricket bats, but tasty flying fox bats. Two of them in a plastic bag – dead mercifully.

Around 10:00am, with Chimere crowded with people, all finding their spot for the journey – mostly women and babies in the cockpit, boys and men up the bow and children and older women and men on the foredeck as I was gaining confirmation from Lesley that … “is this all?” … there was the call, there are two more people.

“where are they?” I half pleaded.

“They come soon” was the reply.

I returned to the beach with Lesley, as the big black coastal trading vessel left the bay loaded down with people and belongings, to hand over the written “final list of names” to the land-based police, who were assisting in the evacuation.

“Where are the two extra people I asked Lesley. We need to go. Are they coming now? Do they have much stuff?” I asked as we landed on the beach, the crowds of people (and piles of gear) increasing as more and more small banana boats began appearing to evacuate family and friends

“There’s the truck now, with the extra two people” called Lesley as we went off to let them know we were leaving and that they should put their stuff in the dinghy pronto. No wonder they had their own truck … they had a lot of gear … but we were so far into the process, it was now just a case of … “load it on, let’s go”

Meanwhile, as I stood in the shallows holding the bow of the dinghy, a French journalist from Noumea, who’d apparently come in on yesterday’s flight, approached me again for information on the situation and what we were doing. She then lifted her video camera onto her shoulder and pushed a microphone forward – this really was a one-woman travelling media unit – “can you tell me what you are doing ere …”

My impromptu “media commitments” complete … and more importantly, the dinghy loaded, the final-final list handed over (and photographed on my iPhone), Lesley and the two extras onboard, we made our way back to Chimere for the last time.

Chimere was still high in the water as I approached, which was a good sign, albeit down in the bow because of the big crowd and with a list to starboard on account of the gear on deck, but overall she looked good.

It was then a case of passing the last of the stuff up from the dinghy and tying her astern – there was definitely no room for the large dinghy on deck !

I did my “welcome and instructions” speech, covering everything except the… “brace position”, “tightening your safety belt”, “stowing the tray table” and “putting your seat in an upright position for landing” … but there was definitely a section on toilet use (and avoiding abuse), lifejackets, always hanging on when moving around and “look to the crew for instructions”. I think I might have said, the crew are in fluoro vests, but then as someone said to me earlier … “they’ll know who we are because we are the white ones” mmm… very true

It was then time for a short prayer … for safety and for those whose lives are being affected by the volcano and the emergency service personnel who are working so hard.

It was then time to up-anchor and away.

Out from land, we gained clear air and set the sails. It was then time to put up awnings as shelter from the sun for those on the foredeck. Cathy and Annette in their official PCV shirts, did amazingly with handing out drinks and snacks, and Cathy took charge of the piglet-in-a-bag, hanging it from a frame at the mast and providing some shade

The sail across to Luganville was a mixed bag … starting at 8 knots plus, with a steady trade wind up our stern quarter, followed by no wind, then wind on the nose, then a return of wind on the beam and slightly lumpy seas. It was these lumpy seas that coincided with me having a couple of hours sleep below, as Matt took charge.

My return to deck was greeted by Matt’s comment … “been a few sick boss” … Sure enough, there were a few suffering in silence, gazing out to space, lying listlessly, or with heads over the toerail.

Up on the bow and foredeck “the lads” were moistly laughing and joking when they weren’t sleeping.

The sun set as we approached the entrance Luganville harbour, with a general feeling of excitement and expectation settling over the human cargo, knowing that this part of their journey was soon at an end.

Chimere’s crew were also pleased the eight hour journey was at an end, it must be said, but as the “drop-off” wharf got closer and the sky grew darker the concern about docking in the dark grew. Fortunately we had been here before in filling the water tanks, but of course that was in daylight.

All the lines were made ready, the sails dropped and all fenders deployed on the port side as we made our approach. “Oh, the dinghy behind!!” came the call … “someone shorten the lines!”

With only one boat at the wharf, and the black ships mentioned earlier on our tail, in the end our “landing” was very respectable, with many hands there in the torchlit darkness to take our lines.

In fact on shore there was a marquee, men with clip boards, officials in fluoro vets (just like me), police, media with video cameras and crowds of others. Once secured a policeman came aboard and thanked us for our assistance and Lesley came over to organise the disembarkation through a roped off corridor to ensure the crowd and the evacuees didn’t mix. The luggage was then man-handled piece by piece into a sizeable pile, no doubt to be claimed and removed soon after.

The big black vessel made motions to dock in front of us and was getting closer and closer, but the system of people removal required that everyone needed to pass through the roped-off corridor, and they could not dock until we had departed, the “gate” being at our side.

An official man with a mega-phone, then began yelled very loudly something like “Yu NO STAP LONG PLES HIA !!!” … “Yu WAITEM NO MO” in short … DO NOT DOCK HERE … YOU MUST STOP & GO AROUND & WAIT”

By this time the black ship was very close but finally got the message and thought better of docking in the vacant space ahead of us.

Soon after all this we made the final checks … 1. Bats out of fridge 2. Pig-in-bag off boat 3. All bags collected 4. Sign final release with clip-board man concerning numbers delivered, vessel name, captain etc.

Around this time Jay, the PCV Luganville eyecare worker came down to the wharf to meet us in order to pick up his “test case”, but as he described later in his quiet way … “there were a lot of people and the security wouldn’t let me near. But I saw you drive away and the other boat had to wait for you to first unload”

Once away from the wharf we tooted our horn at the big black boat in fun and headed away to a quiet anchorage off the Beachfront Resort, our regular spot, passing the impressive tall ship “Tenacious” (out of Southhampton) tied up at the cruise ship wharf. Tenacious being a three masted, 200 foot sail training ship run by the Jubilee Trust for people with disabilities and a vessel we passed in March when she was anchored off Refuge Cove, Victoria.

The anchor down, Barry prepared a rice and out-of-the-can meal (chunky beef I think) and we sat around and relaxed, discussing the events of the day. It truly was a day to remember

Tomorrow, permission was given for everyone to sleep in, with our big plan being to buy more diesel – our supply getting short on account of the day’s activities – and start heading south to Port Vila where we are due on Monday or Tuesday.

Smooth seas, fair breeze and the boat people of Ambae

Rob Latimer

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