Lost at Sea

Here is a letter sent by Don Marshall to Rev. Brawn in 1969. Rev. Brawn is my wife Edna’s father.

I would call the letter “Lost at Sea”. I have spoken to Don Marshall who has agreed it can be published in the Una Voce. Don Marshall at the time was the Methodist missionary at Malalia, Nakanai, New Britain. Rev. Brawn was the Methodist missionary at the same place from 1932 to 1935. Actually he was lost at sea at the same time as man was landing on the moon. I have been told by Roy Mumu who comes from Nakanai that he was in school hearing about the moon landing while the villagers were crying for Don Marshall. Hope you find the letter interesting. Let us know if you have any questions about it. Hope you can use it in the next Una Voce.

Regards, George and Edna OAKES

P.O. Kwalakessi,
West New Britain,

Dear Arthur and Mrs. Brawn,

I sat down last week to write a letter giving some details of my little holiday at sea and it has developed into quite a lengthy screed. However, you will probably be interested to read a full account of what happened.

The news that we were adrift at sea for four and a half days seems to have travelled widely. We were all a bit concerned that it was reported on the A.B.C. national news that we were missing and that you would just hear this out of the blue. However John (the schoolboy who was with me) and I are very well and we are all back to normal again now.

We set out on Friday afternoon to go to Ewase about 35 miles from Malalia to bring back some women for a training course being held the following week. We were travelling in an open 14ft. aluminium dinghy with 20hp Mercury outboard motor. A Sth.E. wind was blowing but as I was anxious to get through the reefs off Ewase before dark I headed straight across Commodore Bay which is notorious for its treacherous Sth. E. winds. Preparation for the trip had been hurried – I just threw few things to overnight at Ewase into a patrol box. Annette packed some sandwiches, a tin of stew, some bananas and some coffee and condensed milk. In the rush to get away I forgot the gallon of water which is usually standard equipment when ever the boat goes out.

We made good time with such a light load and in less than hour we were about 4 miles from the point on the other side of the bay. Here the motor just died and refused to start no matter what I did. The SE winds made it impossible to paddle to land so a night out seemed inevitable.I worked on the motors long as I could but the bending overland the rise and fall of the boat in the choppy sea brought on a couple of severe vomiting bouts and I started off the drift with a completely empty stomach. It started to get dark at this stage so John and I made ourselves as comfortable as possible under a tarpaulin and settled down for the night. Before we went to sleep we put ourselves into God’s keeping for the night and a calmness came to both of us which never left us during the four days and four nights we were drifting. I am sure that the fact that we were completely relaxed the whole time helped a lot to keep our strength up.

We were anxiously scanning the horizon at first light on Saturday but found that we had drifted about 10 miles through the night and were about half way between the point and an island called Wulai and drifting slowly towards Wulai. At this stage we had high hopes that by nightfall we would reach Wulai and after eating our morning ration of food settled down for the day to pass. I worked in bursts of half an hour or so on the motor through the morning. I checked everything I could but I finally gave this up when I got down to the fly-wheel and found a neat little label giving the number of the special puller needed to remove the flywheel. I checked through my tool assortment of screwdriver, pliers and two shifters and found that I was not carrying that particular item.

By afternoon we were still a long way from Wulai and it seemed that we were now drifting on a course which would take us north of Wulai. We tried to paddle back on to a line with the island but did not make a great deal of progress. However as night came on again we still had high hopes of reaching Wulai next day. We knew there was water on the island and that we could find some sort of food there.

By now we had been over 30 hours without water and our throats were very dry as we again put ourselves into God’s care and crawled under our tarpaulin for the night. Just after dark the wind freshened and soon became very strong and we could feel the boat really moving along. The waves were rising up about 12ft. but usually the boat just rode them up and down but about every 10 minutes a wave seemed to come from a different quarter and broke against the side of the boat and gave us a good soaking. Every hour or so we had to be up bailing the water out. All night we were just carried headlong with the wind.

Our main concern through the night was that one of us might fall overboard as we tried to bale and would lose the boat in the heavy sea and the darkness. It crossed my mind that we could be thrown across a reef but I preferred not to think too much about that. By dawn the wind had died down a lot, we were a bit shaken to find that there was no land at all in sight and that we were completely ringed by the sea. I have since assumed that some of the higher land points which normally might have been visible were covered by cloud and mist. John comes from a mountain village and has had very little to do with the sea and it was very hard for him to be out in the middle of the sea out of sight of land. However, he showed no signs of panic the whole time we were out and a little whimpering at night was the only sign that he was upset at all.

We did not actually sight land again until midday Monday. I have estimated that on the Saturday night we drifted about 80 miles and when we saw the dawn on Sunday I didn’t have the faintest idea where we were. All day Sunday we drifted steadily. We had our last food in the afternoon and as another night came around our third was becoming serious. Several times I noticed John dip his finger in the salt water and suck it and it seemed that we in for a torrid night.

Right from the start we had decided that we must move as little as possible and try to conserve our strength as much as we could. We both still felt very strong but we realised that our lack of water was the big threat. As darkness came on we could see some black clouds building up but knew that the chances of rain on any given day during the dry season are not particularly good. We spent a lot of time through the afternoon praying for the wind to drop so that we might get a shower of rain. Before we settled down for the night I emptied my patrol box and set it up to catch any rain which might come. At about 9 o’clock I heard a very faint pattering on the tarpaulin and when I put my head out into the darkness I could feel light drops of rain.

It continued to rain very lightly and we had to wait for over an hour before enough collected in the patrol box for us to have a little drink. John was asleep unaware that it was raining and it is hard to describe my thankfulness as I shook him and said, “John, Water”. For the rest of the night we sat up in high spirits waiting for more rain to collect in the patrol box. As soon as our thirst was quenched we just watched our supply in the box build up. When the rain finished just before dawn we had enough to fill a small coffee jar, a condensed milk tin and still had about two cups in reserve in the box.

Our hopes were high on Monday morning as we thought that by then a plane might be out looking for us. However we scanned the horizon all the morning but saw no sign of a plane. Many times we thought we heard a motor but always found it was the wind. Sometime during the morning we were amazed to see a coconut bobbing in the sea not 10ft. from the boat. We paddled over to it and soon had it on board but decided to leave it in reserve for a while as we were feeling very fresh after the good drink in the night. About midday we spotted a line of hills lying on the horizon and soon worked out that we were drifting slowly towards the land.

We debated as to whether or not we would try paddling but decided not to attempt this as we thought it would soon drain our strength. I discovered later that at this stage we were probably about 20 miles out so it would have been a hopeless task. It grew very dull later in the afternoon with poor visibility. About 4 o’clock, just when we were becoming a bit despondent we had a few minutes of excitement and a big disappointment. We could not mistake the sound of a small plane coming and soon saw a Cessna flying low and heading straight for us. We waved frantically but the Cessna flew right overhead and just kept going. About 10 minutes later it came back and was again flying towards us but just when we might have been spotted it circled away and headed off. I realised too late that we had the blue tarpaulin spread out in the bottom of the boat as we were straightening things up getting things ready for the night. This combined with the very poor visibility would have made us very hard to spot.

We were not in such good spirits as we turned in on Monday night and it was a long, long night. Our water was finished again, we had not eaten since Sunday afternoon and those aluminium seats were getting hard. However, it rained again through the night and once again our water worries were over for a while.

Tuesday morning was bright and sunny with blue, calm seas and very good visibility. The line of land was very clear on the horizon now and we were hopeful that even if we were not spotted we would eventually drift to land. We now know that this would have been extremely unlikely. This was the first really hot day and the sun was fierce. After a few hours of hopefully looking into the glare, John’s morale started to sag a bit as I had kept him up all along with the hope of the plane that was just about to come and find us. I thought that now was the time to have the coconut. John laboriously ripped the husk off with his teeth and I cracked the shell open with a shifter. The coconut was just beginning to turn bad but it was good food and we enjoyed it.

We had enough water in reserve for about 2 more days but I realised that we would have to do something to find some more food. We noticed that there were hundreds of little fish swimming around the boat all the time. We tried to catch some on a line first using coconut for bait but the only hooks I had were huge things used for trawling. We then decided to make some sort of trap. I emptied the petrol out of 4 gallon drum, cut out the top of it with a nail and shifter, put holes in the bottom and attached a length of fishing line to the top. Our idea was to lower the drum into the water and try and pull up some of the fish that were swimming around in schools. However we did not even get to try the trap as at about 2 o’clock we very quickly forgot all about fishing. Almost before we realised it was coming, a white twin-engined Beagle was circling overhead.

We had decked out the boat with everything white we could find and waved wildly as the Beagle came overhead but I noticed its navigation lights were on and that I knew we had been spotted. I had planned empty a drum of petrol on the water and fire it if we were not seen by the first plane to go over.I was very relieved that I did not have to do this as I thought we might blow ourselves up in the process.

I won’t forget for a long time what I felt as that plane circled over us and I knew possibly I would be home that night with Annette and the boys and Janet. It was easy to see from John’s broad Ipana grin what a relief it was for him to know that we would soon be on solid ground. After circling for a few minutes the Beagle headed off but very soon came back with a Cessna and an Aztec and the three planes took up the circling.Every now and then one of them would dash off to the horizon and soon we could see that a ship was on the way. The Government workboat was searching only a few miles away and it was not long before we were taken on board and were heading for Talasea. Before we reached Talasea we met the government trawler ‘Arawe’ which had come down from Rabaul the day before to join in the search.

We transferred to ‘Arawe’ and I spoke to the Harbourmaster in Rabaul on the radio. He said that a plane was waiting at Talasea to take us to Lae or Rabaul for medical treatment but when I reported that we were both very fit it was decided that we should go straight on to Hoskins. We arrived at Hoskins at 9 o’clock on Tuesday night and were met by Annette and the boys and a lot of people from Hoskins and around. I will leave the next part of the story to your imagination. A lot of village people were waiting at Malalia when we arrived there and I never been so glad to be home in all my life.

Annette did not really become concerned until mid-day Sunday as she assumed that I had reached Ewasse on the Friday and was waiting for better weather to come back. On Sunday afternoon she went into Hoskins and reported that I had been missing since Friday. The Harbour Master in Rabaul was contacted immediately and the ABC in Port Moresby was asked to broadcast a request to outstation radios to come up on Sunday night with any information as to our whereabouts. No reports were received that night but it was planned that 2 air charters would be diverted to start a search first thing on Monday morning.

Annette was back at Hoskins at 7 o’clock on Monday morning and spent most of Monday and Tuesday there waiting for reports to come in from searching planes and boats. The 2 diverted charters found nothing and a special search plane was sent down from Rabaul. Through the morning a report came in that we had been seen on Saturday at Wall, between Malalia and Ewase. The boat sighted was not ours but the report made the searches think that we could be on land somewhere along the coast.

Speed-boats called at all villages between Ewase and Malalia on Monday and it was stablished that we must be out to sea. By mid-day on Monday two search planes had arrived from Rabaul, one from Lae and an army plane which was at Hoskins joined in the search with many boats, etc. Through the day there were numerous reports of debris being seen late in the afternoon and a ketch towing a speed-boat was seen heading for Talasea. Soon after 4 o’clock the air search was abandoned for the day due to bad visibility. (The Cessna which flew over us on Monday afternoon was making its last sweep for the day.) Nothing came of the ketch report and it was discovered in Talasea that the outfit belonged to a crocodile shooter.

Annette came back to Malalia to put in a very long, tense night before she headed back to Hoskins early on Tuesday morning. On Tuesday 5 search planes were out and all regular flights were diverted and numerous boats from Talasea, Hoskins and the Ewase area joined in the search. We have heard since that some of our friends from the Ewase area went out in a tug determined not to come in until we were found and in fact were not very far from us when the Beagle found us.

The first tentative report that we had been found came to Annette soon after we had been spotted and although everyone was fairly certain that it was us Annette was not told definitely just in case there was some mistake. John Robbins (Asst. to the Bishop) had come down from Rabaul that morning and was out in one of the search planes. When he came in he was able to tell Annette that there was no doubt at all that we had been found and that we still had plenty of kick left in us. It was all much harder for Annette than for me as I knew we were safely in the boat but Annette had no idea if the boat was still afloat, if we were swimming or what happened.

Her anxiety was not over either until we actually arrived at Hoskins as she had been warned that we might not be in very good shape. She soon saw that there wasn’t much to worry about on that score. I was told in one of the villagesI visited recently that everyone was convinced that the dinghy and John and I had all been swallowed by a tremendous snake which according to local legend swims about between the Kapiura River and Moi Moi Point (where we broke down).

We have heard that we were found by the Beagle really by accident. A passenger on a regular flight from Lae to Rabaul reported a floating object off Kimbe Island. The Beagle went to investigate, found only part of a coconut tree but decided to make a sweep out past the Talasea peninsula and found us. As someone in Hoskins said we will probably never know who that passenger was.

John Robbins conducted a service of thanksgiving at Malalia on Wednesday and a lot of people from surrounding villages came in. Annette and I fully intended to be at the service but we lay down to have a sleep in the morning and did not move until after 4 o’clock and of course everything was over.

This has been an experience which neither of us would want again but it has meant a lot to us in lots of ways. It has made us profoundly grateful to realise just how many people in Australia and New Guinea were praying for us and thinking of us during the 4 days. To say we are thankful for all that was done for us here would be a great understatement. Everything that could possibly be done was done both in efforts to find us and in looking after Annette and we are still hearing reports of what different people in different places did in trying to help us.

Annette and I have come through this with a stronger faith and have come closer to God – and I think a lot of other people too. Everything is quite back to normal here now. We are looking forward to the time left in the Nakanai Circuit, to leave in Australia at the end of the year and then to move to Kieta in April.

Blessings and best wishes. Sincere regards,

Don and Annette

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