Abemama

The story of Moanaraoi by comparison is well defined and finite.

She was built with dimensions 59.9m x 9.68 x 4.01m by the well-known German small ship builder JJ Sietas at Hamburg Neuenfeldt in 1957, as the Ingrid Horn for the German Heinrich C Horn Linie, a subsidiary of the well-respected Hamburg-Süd shipping line. She spent her first ten years engaged on the worldwide tramping reefer trades, carrying the likes of bananas or frozen fish from out-ports around the world to rendezvous with main line ships for on-carriage to the world markets.

In 1967, she was purchased by the Wholesale Society of Tarawa, the commercial trading arm of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony government, converted at her builders, and re-named Moanaraoi, the third colony ship to carry this proud name. Conversion for island trading included the installation of a stronger, un-stayed mast and longer, stronger derricks, together with a 10 tonne heavy lift derrick; the installation of two additional lifeboats on deck amidships to accommodate deck passengers; and additional crew accommodation with accompanying deck house in the after end of No 2 ‘tween deck to house an enlarged crew, necessary to work cargo in the outer islands. These modifications are clearly depicted in the 40c stamp.

Moanaraoi arrived in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in the latter part of 1967, and took up her role delivering island supplies and bales of sacks (to receive copra) from her base in Tarawa to the outer islands, bringing back copra – the sun-dried flesh of coconuts – and empty fuel drums. A typical two-month roundvoyage embraced initially a loop around seven ‘ports’ in the Northern and Central Gilbert Islands in the course of which she visited Majuro in the US Trust Territory of the Marshall Islands. Then, having discharged copra from the Northern and Central Islands at Tarawa, she would take on supplies for the Southern Gilberts and the Ellice Islands, together with empty fuel drums for Suva, capital of the Fiji Islands. She then similarly worked up to twelve ‘ports’ in the Southern Gilbert and Ellice Islands, discharging general cargo, and loading copra and empty fuel drums, all of which were taken down to Suva, where the drums would be discharged for refurbishing and filling, and the copra would be discharged for transhipment by the Bank Line’s round-the-world service to the UK. At Suva, the vessel would load a full general cargo, including drummed petroleum products, Pacific biscuits (a staple food), sugar, cement and transhipment cargo from the UK. From Suva, the ship would return to Tarawa via Funafuti, the ‘capital’ of the Ellice Islands, making calls northbound at whatever islands as might have been missed southbound due to inclement working conditions.

The ‘ports’ in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands fell into two broad categories, lagoon ports, which the ship could enter and anchor within, some of them accessible by night by radar; and reef ports, where the ship had to stand on-and-off outside, unable in the main to anchor because of the depth of water, and hold up to the western side of the atoll in way of boat passages blasted by the Royal Marines to facilitate work boat access. Apart from Majuro and Suva, there were no ports in the vessel’s island itinerary where she could go alongside; and at all ports apart from Tarawa, Suva and Majuro, the crew worked the cargo using a miscellany of work boats carried on board – two carvelbuilt surf boats, two large lagoon boats, a heavy towing launch and a couple of light skiffs.

It is worth noting that the Gilbert and Ellice Islands are coral atolls, the maximum height of which above sea level was in the region of three metres. The atolls are geographically configured with their ‘land masses’ bordering the eastern and southern sides of the lagoon, the remaining sides of the lagoon being bordered by coral reefs with the occasional reef islet. A few islands had no lagoon at all. The prevailing trade winds bear down on the eastern sides of the atolls, making working on that side virtually impossible. On the sheltered western reefs, the entrances to the lagoons, sometimes navigable, sometimes not, and the blasted boat passages were situated. The physical conditions imposed by the geographical configuration of the islands made for interesting challenges in terms of cargo operations and voyage planning.

The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were a crown colony, embracing two different ethnic groupings – the Gilbertese were Micronesians, while the Ellice Islanders were Polynesian, the two groups speaking different languages. The isolation of the colony was emphasised by the fact that we only had one cargo service from the outside world a month, the Hamburg Süd’s Columbus Line en route from Australia to West Coast North America, and we had a mail plane from Fiji every fortnight. This placed high emphasis upon the service offered by Moanaraoi.

On all her inter-insular voyages, Moanaraoi carried up to 100 deck passengers. These people lived on deck under a tarpaulin tent stretched over No 2 hatch. While the arrangement might seem primitive to modern tastes, the tented passenger space was essentially a maritime maneaba, the traditional Gilbertese village meeting house. Under the tent, the passengers spread their woven mats, and talked, often all night. The deck passengers tended to be accompanied by their chickens and pigs, and their canoes, such that the ship in the islands frequently took on the aspect of a menagerie.

My passage to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and command of Moanaraoi followed an inexorable path over some fifteen years. In the early 1950’s, as an end of term treat, the geography master at the Bishops Stortford College where I received my education, used to read us chapters from Sir Arthur Grimble’s classic book A Pattern of Islands; the spell was cast. As an officer in the New Zealand Shipping Co, our outward passage to New Zealand sometimes took in the Pacific Islands. At Suva, the capital of the Fiji Islands, there would often be in port chunky little white ships, immaculately maintained, deploying the defaced blue ensign of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony; the spell was enhanced! On one such visit to Suva, the ageing survey frigate HMS Cook was in port.

Harbouring a desire to specialise in hydrography, I went on board at the invitation of her CO, Commander Frank Hunt RN. The ship had just returned from the Gilbert Islands, where she had run several lagoon surveys. I was shown around the ship by a general service officer who had been seconded to the hydrographic service and loathed every minute of his time so deployed. He recounted in revulsion having been 2/I/C of a detached survey party comprising two officers and six ratings, living in tents on the atoll of Tabiteuea South in the Gilbert Islands for six weeks. He could not get out of the survey service and back to the G&T navy quickly enough; my reaction by contrast was how could I get a slice of such action? I little realised then, that in just five years’ time, I would be in command in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands using HMS Cook’s excellent chart of Tabiteuea South lagoon.

Then in early 1968, while working ashore in the NZSCo’s head office in London, bored to tears and with containerisation about to change everything, a Crown Agents’ advertisement appeared in the Daily Telegraph for a ‘Marine Officer (Ship’s Master)’ to work in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony. The bottom line was an Atoll Allowance of Aus$200 pa, usually tax free. What’s more romantic than an Atoll Allowance…? I was away!

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - September 2017 Issue
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