A close call.....

Olovaha sailed from Tongatapu ( largest of the Tonga Islands ) heading for the Ha’pai group, a distance of 100 km, an 8 hour voyage. Leaving port, she was listing alarmingly.

After a few hours, the engines stopped, she was taking in water, baling operations were undertaken, as she was taking in water badly, and the bilge pump was not working. One of the engines was re-started and the voyage continued to Vava’u. Reaching Tofua, the engine shuddered to a halt and the ship drifted. The radio was not working, there were only two lifeboats. The ship listed even more, the wind and waves were rising.

The Tongan Navy at Pangai had recorded her as missing and so had sent a ship to find the OLOVAHA, but with no radio communication this would have been difficult to say the least. A Tongan freighter came upon them by chance, and the 300 passengers were rescued in very high seas, several metres high. The OLOVAHA sank in shallow waters and was later salvaged

(This account was taken straight from the Internet - credit to author)

InThe Kingdom of Tonga lies just to the South of Samoa and South East of Fiji.Most people will be familiar with the ancient kingdom which was ruled for many years by Queen Salote. It is likely that Tonga has been inhabited since the 5th century BC and the present monarchy can trace its origins back more than a thousand years.Europeans first visited these islands in 1610 when they were discovered by two Dutch navigators, other notable explorers who visited Tonga and the surrounding Islands were Tasman, Wallis, Cook and , perhaps the most notorious of all, Bligh. The Mutiny on the Bounty occurred in Tongan waters near a small Island called Tofua.

The Kingdom of Tonga consists of 169 islands ( although the number tends to vary slightly depending on which book you happen to be reading!). The capital is Nuku’alofa which is on the island of Tongatapu. Tongatapu is an extremely flat island covered mainly with palm trees.

I first visited Nuku’alofa, travelling from Western Somoa in a small, rather ancient plane in 1977. My husband and I soon found somewhere to stay, a hospitable Tongan guest house. Meals were a delightful mixture of European and Tongan dishes. At our first meal the soup, lobster, raw clams, squid, and some alarmingly coloured ice-creams all arrived together.

We stayed on for a few days and cycled around most of the island, we decided it was time to move to another island in the group. We chose the Ha’pai group of islands which are more than a 100 kilometres north of Tongatapu- an estimated sailing time of 8 hours.We purchased tickets on a locally- owned vessel called the Olovaha which was due out of port on the following Monday morning (and eventually departed on Tuesday afternoon). The 550 tonne Olovaha had been donated by the British Government to the Tongan people some ten years earlier and was now showing signs of neglect.

We squeezed ourselves up the gangway along with some 300 rather well-endowed Tongans and half a dozen tourists. We managed to find ourselves an area on the upper deck and settled in with the other passengers. We all assured ourselves that the rather alarming list of the ship was due to some kind of special cargo stowage which, with the right tides and favourable winds, would assist us to reach our destination.

In Tonga, probably the most religious kingdom in world, it is a tradition to return the dead to the island on which they were born and so one of our travelling companions was a corpse.

We steamed steadily out into the ocean. I slept for some hours and when I woke the engines had stopped. I asked one of the crew members how long it would be before we reached Ha’apai, and he told me that the engines had broken down but were being worked on.

It was not until first light that it was obvious that something more than a minor breakdown had occurred in the engine room. Some of the younger crew members were frantically passing buckets, filled with oily looking water, out of the hatchway and across the deck. Shortly afterwards one of the two engines was re-started and we chugged slowly onward again; the captain at this stage had changed the destination to Vava’u, the northernmost group of islands in Tonga. We passed the island of Tofua, the exact spot where the Mutiny of the Bounty took place in 1789. At this point the only working engine ground to an ominous halt and we drifted back on the current to the place we had started from a few hours earlier.

We started to worry as anxiety amongst the crew increased.Not only did the radio not work but we discovered that we only had two life boats for about three hundred passengers.

The crew continued to bail but the boat began to list at a more alarming angle than before and the deck became even more slippery as the oil spread across its surface.

One of the lifeboats then splashed into the sea along with half a dozen or so of the ship’s crew.The lifeboat and crew headed towards one of the islands on the horizon to radio for help.

Night fell. The ship was now listing so badly that it was almost impossible to walk on the deck.The generator which lit only the Captain’s cabin and the engine room started to splutter, and to add to our problems the wind began to blow.

Shortly afterwards my husband Peter found himself sloshing about in the bottom of the ship holding one of the 6 buckets that by some luck, rather than foresight, had found their way on to the ship. There was no bilge pump working as this had been blocked some time earlier by flotsam and jetsam in the bilge.Six of the remaining crew and passengers (the rest of the passengers had resigned themselves to drowning)) baled for much of that night.

One of the crew had a pocket transistor radio on which he picked up a message from the Tongan Government that we had been reported missing and a boat from the Tongan Navy based at Pangai was being sent to help.

The wind blew and the waves, now several metres high rolled over our listing and now fast sinking ship. It was impossible to believe that we could survive this situation in a fierce storm in shark waters in a sinking ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I held onto my necklace, a beautifully crafted silver Persian camel on a silver chain. I grew up in Iran and was given the charm by a very old man who sold wonderful things in our local market. He told me to look after the wonderful object he had given me as one day I would need its luck. I always carried his charm with me.

Early on Thursday morning a large Tongan freighter arrived and was skilfully manoeuvred alongside so that a line could be shot across to the Olovaha which was now rapidly sinking. The freighter towered above us and then on a crest of an enormous wave we found ourselves looking down on the deck of the freighter in a giant game of sea-saw The captain of the freighter negotiated the enormously high waves with incredible skill and after many attempts we secured a line to the Olovaha. Soon we were being towed toward the island of Pangai. We spent the rest of the night on the deck with our fingers crossed too exhausted to bail anymore.

Once inside the reef and in calmer water we haphazardly disembarked and swam ashore. The corpse which had been blamed for this unfortunate mishap and which contributed greatly to the air of doom, which had prevailed for most of the voyage was removed. The Olovaha was brought into shallow water where shortly afterwards she slowly and gently settled to the bottom.

The next morning we walked along the beach at Pangai and I went to check my camel necklace and it was gone, my treasured object had done its work!

Andrea Hylands©1998

1977 and a brush with disaster
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