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 The Amazing TRUE Story... Guns and Bandits

 Bob's Introduction to this article from TCP # 20..The cover photo of TCP 19 (above) was lifted from an old file by Cay Hickson who accompanied Lindsay Walkley of “Avalore” on a barely believable adventure originally published in TCP # 3. The couple that had owned the Aussie vessel in the shot, the “Spirit of Wychwood” saw it and got in touch with TCP and also sent along a story of their adventure. As soon as I read it I recognised the overlapping details from Lindsay’s account. I then sent Lindsay’s story to them, Roz and Bas Dolkens filled in more of the details, substantiating even more of the story. How could I resist?! So here is the whole story, one of TCP’s best and now better.
This is really, really good!!



 By Lindsay Walkley, SY “Avalore”
Photos: Cay Hickson

“Avolare” was launched in August 1999 and departed from Darwin on the first leg of a circumnavigation just over a year later. After a heavy grounding on a reef near the Thailand/Malaysia border, I realized that neither the boat nor I were quite ready for this trip. A leisurely cruise back to Australia to repair the damaged hull and attend to a myriad of other little things was in order. A quick about turn saw Avolare heading down the Malacca Straits to Singapore, east to Borneo, then, because it seemed like a good idea at the time, north into the Philippines. By the time I was ready to leave the Philippines I'd been away for two years and had worked out that single-handed cruising was not for me.

It was time to find a crew. “Must be easy going and adventurous” the (Internet) advert read. “A little crazy and masochistic” I should have added.

Now anyone who has looked at the Pilot Charts for the Western Pacific might conclude that it would be easier to sail right around the world than to sail from Cebu in the Philippines to Cairns, Australia. Light head winds and contrary currents were to be expected for most of the 3,500 miles, and these conditions do not suit Avolare's modest sail plan and 14 tons displacement. Being a little naïve, I thought I would give it a try, and Cay, my new found first mate, having cut her (sailing) teeth on the South African coast, just wanted to go anywhere the water was warm.

After a week wandering the back streets and markets of Cebu, it was obvious that Cay could cope with a little filth and poverty, and would therefore be right at home sailing on Avolare for a few months. The next big test came when we sailed into the Hinatuan Passage and saw the GPS top out at 11.8 knots with the engine idling, but out of gear. Going mostly sideways through what appeared to be boiling water, I was busy steering and hanging on. Cay on the other hand had her camera out and was getting a few happy snaps. It seemed that she had the nerves to cope with those 'out of control' moments that I often experience while sailing Avolare.

With knowledge of recent pirate attacks off the Mindanao coast, it's not surprising that Cay 'lost it' one afternoon when she saw three fishing boats approaching us at high speed, each from a different direction. In the dead calm conditions there was no possibility of outrunning these boats, which are only a canoe fitted with bamboo outriggers and a motor. With my handgun securely locked in the ships safe, and the key hidden somewhere in the aft cabin, I realized that we would have little chance of successfully defending ourselves if they were intent on boarding us. Cay was hiding below while I spent twenty minutes in idle chitchat with these 'pirates' before they lost interest in us and raced off towards the coast at twenty knots. Who knows, perhaps they really were fishermen.

After a week lazing on Helen Island, a tiny remote and uninhabited jewel surrounded by a large coral reef full of fish and turtles, and covered with thousands of nesting terns, we found we were running short of fresh food. It was time to move on. With a strong contrary current, no wind, and Papua New Guinea's closest port (Vanimo) still seven hundred miles away, we made for Irian Jaya. Unfortunately, through lack of foresight on my part, we didn't have the necessary Indonesian visas or cruising permit, but after three hours of interrogation by the Chief of Police in Manokwari, he was satisfied that we were just stupid sailors blown off course, and no threat to regional security. We explained that all we needed was fresh food and a few days rest, and he very generously gave us a letter permitting an unspecified passage along the Irian Jaya coast, with stops for food and fuel as required.

Manokwari, Biak and Jayapura are all very colourful and have multiple layers of history, but our real interest in this area was the spectacular bird life. Yopi, who had acted as our interpreter during the interviews with the Chief of Police, had befriended us and was very knowledgeable about the local Flora and Fauna. He suggested a small detour to the island of Miosnum as offering the best chance of seeing Bird of Paradise in the wild, with an alternative location on Yapen, where the local people had encouraged wild Bird of Paradise to come down to a jungle clearing by putting out food. A short overnight sail and we found ourselves in an anchorage with verdant jungle running straight into the sea, but after a few days of scrambling around in the jungle we had to admit that we really needed a guide. We could hear birds calling from all around us, but the jungle canopy is so thick that all we saw were occasional flashes of colour high in the trees. All was not lost as we still had Yapen Island to try, and a visit to this clearing early in the morning or late in the afternoon was guaranteed to get results. We arrived late one afternoon at Pom (World port index 52960), a tiny notch on the north coast of Yapen Island surrounded by a stilt village built over the mud flats, and having a rickety 'jetty' about ten meters long. We were immediately surrounded by thirty (I counted) canoes with three or four people in each. Unfortunately for Cay, who by this time was suffering severe nicotine deficiency, no one spoke a word of English, and her tyrannical skipper was not sufficiently interested in her plight to permit a trip ashore until after the level of interest in us had died down. It was well after nightfall before the last of the canoes departed and I started to relax a little, but that didn't help Cay get any cigarettes, so I was not her favorite person at that time.
We later learnt that the locals were familiar with motorized trading vessels, but the overwhelming interest in Avolare was because no one in this village had ever seen a boat with 'this big thing (mast) sticking up'. The next day, with the aide of the only person in the village that could speak a little English, we were able to obtain some fags for Cay, and organize a guide to take us into the jungle to see the Bird of Paradise. Though we tried hard to clarify with our interpreter every aspect of what we thought was to be a three or four-mile walk along the beach, followed by a short hike into the jungle, things started to go terribly astray. Our guide arrived at the appointed time. Accompanied by his father and a few others, it now seemed that we were all going on an overnight sailing trip up the coast to some place where there was no anchorage. There was much disappointment on both sides when we were eventually able to explain that it is just not possible to park Avolare on the beach, as they can with a canoe.
On to Biak, where we were finally able to see many of the 38 endemic Birds of Paradise, and numerous other equally spectacular birds, albeit housed in large aviaries. We wandered around the war memorials, scrambled through large caverns where hundreds of Japanese soldiers made a last stand during W.W.II, and generally acted like tourists for a few days before moving on to the Padidio Islands and then Jayapura, a bustling little city near the border with PNG.

While Jayapura may have it's attractions I was unable to find them. After a few days we were eager to move on, hopefully to catch up with friends in another yacht that were making the same trip, but were a month or so in front of us.

Now perhaps I should explain that following a couple of years cruising in South East Asia I had become a little tired of dealing with the language difficulties, the filth and disorder in many of the cities and the almost total lack of privacy. Neither of us could get used to people looking in through the portholes at any hour of the day or night, nor the annoying tendency of some people to climb aboard Avolare uninvited. However, not once in my travels up to this point had I felt any threat of violence, or been the victim of any theft or dishonesty other than a few minor attempts by officials to (unsuccessfully) obtain a little graft. Little did we know that things were about to dramatically change, and not for the better. We were both looking forward to a leisurely few months cruising among the beautiful islands of New Guinea and the Solomons, prior to heading for Australia before the start of the cyclone season. With the 'difficulties' of South East Asia behind us, and only the pristine Islands and smiling faces of Melanesia in front of us, we drank a toast to the Sea Gods as we sailed over Longitude 141 degrees East into PNG.

  As soon as we crossed from Irian Jaya into Papua New Guinea the language difficulties disappeared, the overcrowding and pollution problems were dramatically reduced, and our privacy was restored. On the other hand, crime and violence problems appeared to be everywhere, to the extent that it is now difficult for me to use the words 'leisurely cruise' and 'Papua New Guinea' in the same sentence. After five weeks in northern PNG coastal waters we had survived numerous threatening situations, and were more than a little jumpy. By the time we had been in Madang a while, our perception of the crime and violence situation got far worse. Unfortunately we were stuck there until Cay's Australian Visa came through. Our own recent experiences, and the numerous accounts of assaults on other cruisers in the area finally led me to conclude that my firearm would be more useful if it was not locked away in the ships safe.

Now it is not my intention here to get into the perennial argument about firearms on board cruising yachts, nor the difficulties involved should you declare a firearm to Customs in a foreign country. Suffice to say that I had a firearm, and I did not declare it on arrival in PNG. This in hindsight may have been a mistake, and turned what was to be a leisurely cruise into dash to the (relative) safety of Australian shores.

My perceptions of the social problems in PNG may not be accurate and I fully accept that I created some of my own problems by breaking the law, but never in more than twenty years as a Police Officer, have I experienced such a level of crime and violence. That may be a little harsh on the vast majority of PNG's gentle and honest people, and perhaps I have completely misunderstood the prevailing social standards. If that is so, then perhaps I should make my apologies, or offer thanks, to the following people encountered on the PNG leg of Avolare's cruise:

To the man who swam out to our boat in Vanimo (our port of entry into PNG) at 2am and against my warnings tried to climb board, I sincerely hope that your injuries have healed well. (This initiated unplanned departure No. 1).

To the young man on Kairiru Island who attempted to rob us of a watch and clothing, I hope you have recovered. You should be able to find your machete 100 meters off the beach, directly out from the hot water spring on the beach. (This initiated unplanned departure No. 2).

To the man in Wewak that one night paddled his canoe out to our friends yacht and attempted to cut their dinghy from the davits, it is sincerely hoped that you made it safely to shore, and regrettable that your canoe was reduced to match wood. (there is the connection... read on!)

To the five Police officers armed with automatic rifles that boarded us in Bogia Harbour, we thank you for your honesty, courtesy and sound advice. (This initiated unplanned departure No. 3).

To the unknown person near Jais Arben resort that stole one of our dinghy oars, if you need another one I have a spare that I no longer need.

To the woman fishing from a canoe in Sek Harbour, I hope you find a good use for the items you stole from our dinghy, however it is generally not acceptable behavior to threaten people with a machete if they approach you to recover their possessions. (This initiated unplanned departure No. 4).

To the crazy Expat Irishman in Madang, thanks for your guidance and protection during the volatile situation that followed the murder in the street, and further thanks for those Borowors sausages. They were delicious.

To those numerous drug dealers of Madang, I stand by my advice that the back yard of the Customs office is not an appropriate place to conduct business, and confirm that not every yachtsman is interested in purchasing your goods.

To the customs officers in Madang, I fully admit my guilt in not declaring the possession of a firearm, and was happy to be dealt with according to law. I sincerely hope that you were not trying use the threat of an inordinately long delay in bringing this matter before the courts to extort money from me, and I further hope that you had no trouble in accounting for my firearm in the subsequent investigation into your actions. (This initiated unplanned departure No. 5).

To Peter from Rabaul, who gave us the benefit of his experience, and advised us to move Avolare away from Ratung village to a place of (relative) safety, we thank you for your good advice, friendship and hospitality. (This initiated unplanned departure No. 6).

To the Customs Officer in Rabaul who used lies and deceit to get hold of my passport and then issued a receipt for it AND my Yacht. You should know that seizing a person's passport and his yacht might not always be effective in preventing the departure of that person and his yacht from your custody. (This initiated unplanned departure No. 7).

To the Police officer, also in Rabaul, that went out of his way to keep me informed of developments (or lack thereof) throughout this unfortunate incident. I regret that I was unable to say my good-byes but I can advise you that we made it safely to Australia without further incident.

To the five armed men that boarded our friends yacht and terrorized them in the Buka Passage one night, stealing everything that was not bolted down, and some things that were. Your actions, along with the numerous media reports of criminal and other social problems in the region, have finally convinced me that Papua New Guinea (and perhaps the Solomon Islands, though we were by then not game to continue on that far), are best seen looking astern. (This initiated unplanned departure No. 8).

To the very professional Customs, Immigration and Quarantine officers in Cairns, I thank you for your understanding and assistance upon our arrival in Australia.

And finally, to the staff of the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby, I thank you for recovering and returning my passport so promptly.

 And Now the Rest of the Story from the Crew of the Vessel, Spirit of wychwood" meets the Bougainville Bandits!

 Roz and Baz, the warriors of Wewak!

 By Bas Dolkens,
SY, “Spirit of Wychwood”
(at the time, now land bound)

Well, if the Australian supplier had not decided to use that Unbelievably Procrastinating Service to deliver our new oil coolers to Wewak in Papua New Guinea, we probably would never had a visit from the Bougainville Bandits. As it was it took the transport company more than a month to deliver so we left Wewak after the South East Trade winds were well and truly established. What was planned to be a somewhat boring but smooth passage along the PNG North Coast in the transition period turned into a battle against adverse currents and winds on the nose.

So it was that we found ourselves on Saturday, 24 August 2002 aboard our 45-foot ketch, Spirit of Wychwood, battling a 50 knot plus Southerly on our way South from Rabaul to Budi Budi. After three days and two sleepless nights, whilst the mountains of Bougainville beckoned us on the horizon and still no sign of a favourable wind shift, we radioed some yachties with many years experience in PNG and discussed whether it was safe to go there. After some assurances that the rebel situation was now under control and that Dive boats had resumed operations on Bougainville, we turned East and a few hours later anchored in the lee of a sandy cay near Buka.

Instant heaven! Despite the wind, still blowing 35 knots, the water was smooth and warm, clear as crystal and we were soon refreshed and sound asleep. The next day we were visited by some expats, an Australian working with an Australian charitable organization and his wife and children, a German establishing a copra buying business and an Englishman also in business. They also assured us that we were safe as houses anchored where we were and we would have no problems waiting for the winds to subside. Whilst there was considerable passing traffic from fishermen and others going to and fro about their normal business, unusually we had no other visitors apart from four young men in a “banana boat” asking for petrol. Having explained to them that our boat used diesel, they left.

It was Wednesday night at about 9 pm that Roz woke me to say that she could hear a boat coming our way. Then there was a thump as it pulled alongside and I went on deck to say hello to our late night visitors. I was not in the least bit concerned as it is not unusual for fishermen to call past after having caught some crayfish to trade for cigarettes, sugar or whatever else they might need. However, these were the same young men who had previously asked for petrol plus another, older, person. When I again explained that we had no petrol one of the young men shouted “We don't want your f*****g petrol, we're going to rob you, burn your boat and kill you, we hate whites, especially you Australians and f*****g Americans, now get into this boat!” Then, instead of smiling faces I was looking into the muzzles of four machine guns. Well, they looked like machine guns to me but I don't watch Rambo movies. Roz says they were semi-automatics and the pirates later proudly boasted that they had taken them from PNG Defence Force soldiers and that the weapons were from Australia. At that time I thought, “that's nice, our government buys weapons with our Medicare funds and sends them here so we can get robbed”.

The idea of getting into the banana boat and leaving Roz did not exactly appeal to me and I said to the loudmouthed lout, “No way mate, this is not just my boat, it is my house, it's all I have and I am not leaving.” He again shouted at me to get in his boat and I suggested that maybe we could help him some other way but I was not leaving my boat. He then had some discussion with the older man and announced that I could stay but he was coming on board. I didn't feel that I could argue with that and he, two of his mates and the older man boarded whilst one stayed on the banana boat. Roz, who came on deck armed with a winch handle, quickly dropped it when confronted by four semi-automatic weapons, and we were again yelled at to get into the banana boat and I again said, “No way, we're staying!” They then shouted at us to tell them where the guns were and refused to believe us when we told them we had no guns. “Yes”, shouted the loudmouthed one, “you have guns, we know you have many guns, where are they?” At this point the older man took over whilst one of the young men stayed on deck waving his gun at us and pretending to shoot us and imaginary enemies passing by, whilst shouting, ranting and raving incoherently about white bastards and redskins. The older man, who by now we thought to be either a customs official or a policeman, searched the Spirit of Wychwood from stem to stern looking for the guns.

The loudmouthed one came on deck and proceeded to lecture us on the evils perpetrated by white men against “His People” and claimed to be descended from Bougainville Royalty. He called himself Prince Something or other but refused to clarify his name when we questioned him further. We then tried to convince him that we would take a message for him to the Australian Government and Roz went down below to get pen and paper to record the details.

The loudmouthed prince soon became a puffed up prince but the process failed when he refused to identify himself. You couldn't be anonymous and famous at the same time could you? He resorted to raving and ranting, claimed he was going to rule not just Bougainville but the whole world, he was a good friend of Osama Bin Laden and hated President Bush and the Queen would bow before him. He went on and on until he went down below to do his bit of plundering.

Having established that there were no guns, the “Official” took over the role of guarding us whilst the lads spent the next four hours pulling the inside of the boat apart looking for things to steal. The official also told us not to worry about our safety, “Just go along with the boys when they talk” he said, “you'll be alright.” We spent the next three and a half hours talking about everything from family, to politics, religion and cruising. It also became obvious that he had received information that we were carrying a shipment of guns and he was disappointed to find that he had been miss-informed. We had previously been anchored alongside an Australian yacht [Editors note; that would be our boy Lindsay] that had been in trouble in Madang for having a pistol aboard. When a thorough search of that vessel near Rabaul failed to find more guns, it was decided that these must have been transferred to the Spirit of Wychwood. When we were spotted near Buka Passage officials had to make a choice; an official search would see the weapons confiscated and the profits would go to Port Moresby, but if they staged a pirate attack the proceeds would stay at home.

It may have gone on longer but then the Prince asked Roz to help him find the mobile phone. It was no longer in its charging bracket and when Roz said one of the boys must already have it, he suggested that it could be in the bedroom. At this point Roz immediately tweaked to the direction this was taking and rushed up the companionway ladder gagging loudly and complaining that she was going to vomit. The noise Roz was making was turning all five of our very black visitors a distinct shade of green. Then Roz, who had winked at me as she came up the stairs, announced that she “had soiled” herself. “What”, said the official, “what does that mean?” “That means that she has shat in her pants” I explained.

That was enough for them and they left soon after.

As they left they threatened to come back and kill us if we hadn't gone by 7 o'clock. Roz told them we couldn't leave until 10 o'clock because we could not see our way out of the reefs before then. “Alright” said the Prince, “If you're not out of here by 10 O'clock we come back and shoot you!” When they departed I noticed a large plastic container with boxes of breakfast cereal in their boat. “Hey,” I said, “we have a long way to go to Australia and we have no money, give me back my Weetbix.” And they did

 G'Day again Bob,

Thanks for that story from Lindsay. As you have no doubt gathered by now, it was Avolare that was the suspected "Gun Runner" after Lindsay was found to be in possession of a peashooter. The story about the unfortunate fellow that raised the wrath of Roz when he tried to steal our inflatable in Wewak was another of those episodes that, whilst it wasn't really funny at the time, has brought many a giggle since. If the man survived his backward summersault off his canoe, he has no doubt departed Wewak never to be seen again. After all, how do you tell your mates that a naked white woman hit you with a dolphin torch, stole your machete and then threw you off her boat when you were only trying to borrow her dinghy? For weeks after, Roz was the toast of Wewak. We have thrown away the machete, it turned to a lump of rust, but we still have his paddle. His canoe was converted to matchwood whilst I was inviting him to come back so that I could feed him to the sharks. He declined the invitation.

Over all, we had a lot less trouble than Lindsay and Cay on

 And that, dear readers, is how it sometimes occurs. Then other times it can end in tragedy. Click here for the report of the English couple attacked off Thailand.