Saturday, 26 October 2013

We woke to the sound of GUNFIRE!

"Rally Fleet, Rally Fleet.  There are men on the shore with shotguns and balaclavas.  Do NOT go ashore.  Repeat, Do NOT go ashore."

Those were the words coming from our VHF radio as we woke on Saturday morning October 5. 

The entire rally fleet was anchored in the very small harbour on the island of Misima the Louisiade archipelago's "Big Smoke" .. so to speak.  The town offered several stores where we could get some limited supplies and - hooray! - they had a laundry where we could have clothes washed in fresh water.  But, unlike the peaceful villages we had been visiting, it was a town with many more people and a busy waterfront supporting the area's commerce and connection with the PNG mainland.

The main street of Misima... the harbour is off to the right of the photo and the white building is the store that was robbed and the owner and his family kidnapped.
We were in Misima to do a number of things.  First and foremost to collect the fuel we had pre-ordered before leaving Australia.  Secondly we were all looking forward to the festivities planned for the rally in the town and at the local guesthouse.  Thirdly we were hoping for some ability to connect with the phone or internet here - which, unfortunately, didn't happen.

The harbour is U-shaped with one opening out into the ocean at one end and very small.  Our yachts were jammed in from the very back where the shallow draft catamarans would fit to very nearly the mouth of the bay.  There was no swinging room so each boat had to raft up with 3-4 others using fore and aft anchors to fit.

Some of the fleet in their raft up positions.  Each of us rafted up as we arrived at the harbour .. which meant the exit would have to be orderly with the ones ahead moving on first to free up the way ahead.

So that's the situation we were in that morning....all of us and our boats well locked in - to a certain extent - to the harbour and very near the town.  Guy came over the radio and told us all to be calm and to keep our heads down.  And just as we were doing our best to stay cool there was the sound of gunfire once more!  POP, POP.  It was for real!  They were shooting at something! 

On one of our rally boats there were a couple of Australian Police - off for a nice calming sailing holiday!  It was so good to have them there.  They advised Guy on how we should behave  - which was keep down, don't let the bad guys see you looking at them through binoculars or take pictures - stay inside your boat. We were too happy to do that I can assure you.  The other most important thing is we all decided we were in this as one and we were sticking together as a group.

The most troubling part of being in the middle of something like this is not knowing what the hell is going on.  How many are they?  What are they doing?  What are they after?  Catherine was really shook up and believed they were there for the yachts because we had brought money into the area.  George and I thought that they wouldn't be there for the yachts or they would have attacked us well before running around on the shore shooting.  Then - while the radio warnings, and concerns spread through each boat - we saw a very worrying sight.  A boat was rowing across the mouth of the harbour with a rope!  It looked like the harbour was being closed - no way out even if we could move the boats.  Shit.

More gunshots.  Next the masked men jumped into a fast banana boat with what looked like locals and took off towards the harbour opening.  They hit the rope but managed to not foul their prop, fixed it and away they went out of the harbour and out of sight.  The rope was actually dragged across the harbour by a very brave local man who was trying his best to stop the robbers!

It took awhile to find out what really happened.  Turns out one of the stores was robbed and the owner, his wife, 2 children and 2 housekeepers had been taken hostage.  Then they were gone leaving everyone on shore and on our rally boats stunned and staring out to sea..

Skippers meeting on Clear Horizons to fill all the boats in on what happened and determine what we were going to do as a group next.  Everyone voted unanimously to stick together and go ashore for our planned festivities - which would be cut back a bit.

We watched from our decks as the locals boarded boats and went in pursuit.  The waiting was awful with all of us hoping the family was OK.  Happily a big boat returned within the hour with the housekeepers, children and wife - they had been dumped at sea not far down the coast.  But the shop owner was still held hostage.

The local people were so shocked that this had occurred -  they want and need tourism in this part of the world to help all the people so something like this was so awful.  And, as we had experienced on other islands and villages the people of Misima gave us a great day.  Every person was attentive - and apologetic - saying something like this had never happened in their town before.  We received good news later that evening that the shopkeeper had been released.  As far as I know the bad guys have never been caught to date.

Everyone got over it by the end of the day.  Unsurprisingly, I was less stressed by the robbery than about sailing into 30 knots of wind!  Odd, I know but sailing does scare me a lot sometimes!

Practically the whole town turned out for our reception festivities at the local guesthouse!

We had a Pem-Pawa - which is an exchange of gifts.  The ladies of the town line up with baskets they've made, fruits and other things like mats or woven handbags and we yachties line up on the other with our offering.  Our gifts included an enviro bag with things like clothes, ropes, clothes pins, school books, crayons, ball point pens, etc.

The lady I exchanged gifts with in the Pem-Pawa.

As usual we had a wonderful time.  And ended up staying in Misima for another day because the weather turned nasty.

More to come.

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