Alison Innes left behind the corporate world last year to sail with her partner around the islands of Papua New Guinea. She shares with us the adventures and stories of the islanders they met along the way.
Alison, you used to work at Macquarie Waters Boutique Apartment Hotel for several years but have been on the high seas for the past 6 months. Where did you sail to?
My partner and I left Port Macquarie in August 2011 and have sailed over 5,000 nautical miles around Papua New Guinea, West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya) and through islands of Indonesia, including Raja Ampat, Komodo, Lombok and Bali.
We are back home for a couple of months and will return to the boat (a 54 foot cruising yacht) in Bali to continue our cruising of South East Asia.
What made you leave the business world to undertake such an adventure?
My partner is a passionate sailor who has always wanted to cruise around the islands of Papua New Guinea. We heard about a yacht rally to the Louisiades Archipelago off PNG, so we joined the month long rally in September last year with 12 other boats.
All rally participants raised money and sought donations prior to leaving, and the boat was loaded with clothes, medical and educational supplies. We then planned to continue around the top of Papua New Guinea and to Indonesia after the rally to explore a beautiful but rarely visited landscape.
What sailing experience did you have before leaving Port Macquarie?
I am a novice sailor and had only been on the boat in the Whitsundays a few times. However, I did undertake training courses in navigation, sea safety and survival, marine radio and basic yachting skills with Master Class Sailing, Lake Macquarie.
I am a country girl from Tamworth, and I was most worried about getting seasick. But to my delight, I adjusted well and was never ill!
What was the purpose of the Louisiades Rally?
The Louisiades is a chain of spectacular islands lying 100 nautical miles east of mainland PNG and comprises sand cays, lagoon reefs, limestone outcrops and continental islands.
It truly is paradise, with friendly people and an abundance of coral reefs providing endless opportunities to snorkel, dive, fish and explore. The Rally aims to highlight this stunning region as an emerging tourism destination and to provide assistance to several of the island communities that lead a very simple life.
What were some of the projects you undertook in PNG?
The Rally was in its 4th year and Guy Chester, the organiser, had identified the most immediate needs for the communities.
We participated in purchasing and building water tanks, repairing school buildings, providing medical equipment, supplies and money to hospital island clinics and giving much needed educational material.
The PNG government does not support these island communities in any way, and unfortunately these beautiful people face a daily battle of getting fresh water and food. Malnutrition, AIDS, high maternal and infant mortality rates are just some of their most pressing health issues.
And with all of those challenges, what are the people like?
We experienced a race of people who are warm, genuine, happy and do not complain about anything. They are very family oriented and have little use for money. They live day to day on subsistence farming and fishing, with sailing canoes as their only transport.
They invited us into their villages and were delighted to share whatever they could spare. I enjoyed learning how to make baskets and cooking with local families, and in return I would cook some western food for the villagers.
We invited an island chief and children from his village to the boat for a movie night – the 20 children were mesmerised, as they had never seen a TV or movie before!
The children of PNG were a highlight; most of them were extremely poor, with little clothing and food, but they were very happy and spent their days singing, laughing, fishing and paddling in their canoes.
I understand trading was a way of communicating with the islanders. Can you explain?
There are over 700 different languages spoken in Papua New Guinea and almost every island has their own dialect, so trading became a universal language. When we were anchored off a village, the locals would paddle out in their canoes, wanting to trade for their goods.
Some of the bounty included fresh lobster, fish, crabs, mango, papaya, pineapple, limes, bananas and coconuts. They would rarely ask for money, but would request a T-shirt, exercise book, pens or fishing line and hook.
On one occasion, we were given 29 lobster tails on one day after saying we would like some! The locals don’t eat lobster, as they find it too rich for their basic diet.
After being in the busy corporate world, were you bored at all during the 6 months at sea?
Never! I can honestly say that I was too busy to be bored. There are always operational jobs to be done, such as servicing the engine and generator, navigating, scrutinising weather forecasts and the mundane tasks of maintenance, cleaning and provisioning.
Not once did I lay on deck reading a book with a glass of champagne in hand – despite my friends and family thinking this was all I did!
The weather was very hot – on most days it was 30 degrees before 7am and with humidity consistently in the high 90s. As we got closer to the equator, the temperature increased to an average of about 35 degrees.
What were the top 5 items you could not live without on the boat?
Water maker, iPad with navigation app, iPod and e-Books (it was fantastic even without the internet), yogurt maker, hydrogen peroxide for infections and stinger suit.
Where did you travel to after the Rally finished?
We continued up the coast of Papua New Guinea and visited several islands, including New Britain, New Ireland and the remote Hermit Islands and Ninigo Islands. We then undertook a 1,000 mile passage to Indonesia.
Unfortunately at 4am on the third day, we were 200 miles from land when a large floating tree hit the boat and damaged the rudder and shaft. Thankfully, we were not sinking and were able to dislodge the tree (these floating logs are caused by the logging industry in both PNG and Indonesia).
We desperately needed to get to the closest port to get repairs done. However, Indonesia is not an easy country to enter by boat, and the red tape is enormous. Thankfully, we had engaged an agent for Indonesia before leaving Australia, and she negotiated on our behalf to allow us to enter the port of Sorong, Indonesia, for emergency repairs. After spending 8 hours at immigration, we were allowed in the country.
How serious was the damage to your boat?
We only had limited engine power, and it was too dangerous to continue on our way to Bali, as the currents and winds are notoriously fierce and could push us backwards. So we managed to get the boat repaired in a shipyard that had never worked on a yacht before and without a staff member who spoke English.
Thankfully, we befriended a local Chinese businessman and his family, who acted as our translator and host over the Christmas period while the boat was fixed. Christmas was a very low key event in Sorong, as there is a high Muslim population. This town was a great example of Muslims and Christians living peacefully together with respect and tolerance for each other.
Did you face any other challenges during your trip?
Yes. Major storms, rough seas, ripping currents, shallow reefs, uncharted waters, inaccurate marine charts, unlit fish attracting devices, large cargo ships, tropical ulcers, government bureaucracy, extreme pollution and a 5 foot brown snake at my feet when I was changing sails! Just another day in paradise!
Being at sea for such a long time can be quite demanding, and long extended overnight passages test your stamina and alertness, but there is nothing like sailing through calm waters under a full moon.
What have been some of the highlights of sailing through remote areas of Indonesia?
Many of the islands are picturesque, with untouched coral reefs and a myriad of sea life, including lots of dolphins. Unfortunately, we did not see any sharks, as they have been decimated for their fins (that fetch high prices in Asia).
Again, the people we encountered were wonderful – very hospitable and curious. We would follow the unwritten rules of visiting the village chief with a gift and requesting that we anchor for the night. Thankfully, we did not encounter any dangerous situations or theft during our time away. It has also been interesting to learn about the different cultures, histories and religions. A lowlight of Indonesia is the amount of pollution in the oceans, marine parks and ports.
In Ambon, this was so extreme that we couldn’t securely anchor the boat because of the amount of rubbish and plastic. In one section of the harbour 15 years ago it was 300 metres deep, and today it is only 30 metres deep due to the rubbish build up. We are fortunate to have such pristine waterways in Australia and Port Macquarie!
What did you miss about Port Macquarie while you were away?
Friends, family, fresh air and food, walking along the waterfront, exercise, chai tea from The Corner, fast internet and local news!
Photo Gallery from Alison Innes’s Trip
This story was published in issue 77 of Port Macquarie Focus