Sepik Day 14 – The Rush for the Mouth

alex rust

14 December 2010 | sepik river, papua new guinea

A couple hours after Reed left it started to get light and it was time to get moving. Even with the current in our favor we would be lucky to be out of the river before sundown. With Angoram being the last place to buy fuel before our 1000+ mile journey to Palau, Ben and I began filtering diesel and topping the boat off so we could have aboard every last drop possible. We filled the dingy with yellow jugs for deisel, red for gasoline, and blue for water. At shore a group of people had already gathered to come see us and the boat, leaving us no shortage of help to fill the containers.

The owner of the local fuel depot was also there to help and told me he would only fill me up if I came with him to tell a story to some of his friends. He lead me behind the depot to what could be called the local mini spirit house where men were gathered chewing their morning beetlenut. The night before while waiting on Reed and Ben I had told him some stories about our journey and he wanted me to retell the crossing of the Panama Canal. The early morning audience was captivated by the fact that not only sailboats but huge container ships could be moved up 100 feet at a time through massive concrete locks that allowed them to transverse the isthmus of Panama and by doing so shortcut the long passage around South America. But enough with the storytelling we had to get moving.

Back on the boat and with all out tanks full we now turned our attention to ridding the anchor chain of all the debris and logs that had gathered at the bow overnight. Once this was done Ben set the engine in forward drive before rushing to the front to help me pull up the heavy chain and anchor against the swift current. Once the anchor was up I rushed back to the helm to regain control of the boat in the current before grabbing our foghorn and blowing it loudly three times. At the sound of the horn the crowd of onlookers who had gathered on the river bank to see us off errupted in cheering with the children going especially wild. I wondered when the next time these people would see another sailboat come up their river.

Back on the move it was now time to ready the boat for the sea and the waves we would surely encounter at the mouth of the river on our way out. Weighing on my mind was the conversation I had with the owner of Infinity, the worlds largest concrete sailboat, and the trouble they had at the mouth of the Sepik a few years back. He warned me of the huge standing waves they encountered caused by wind opposing the strong outgoing current and how they almost lost the 150 ton vessel. I tried to imagine how Bubbles, weighing in at 8 ton dripping wet would be tossed around in such conditions.

Making between 7 and 8 knots we looked to make the mouth by sunset if we didn’t stop and had no hangups. I set the autopilot and Ben and I got to work taking down the rain catcher, tying down the jerry cans, and securing all the scattered items we had been using in the past two weeks while on the river. We cruised past the conspicuous island of logs we had got stuck in the first night and laughed. We were going to miss the Sepik and the fun we had here.

As we passed the many villages and camps on the way out everyone beckoned for us to stop but we motioned we had to press on so they waved and saluted us farewell. Early in the afternoon a couple of canoes started to paddle out when they saw us come around the bend but we were going so fast and with the river so wide they weren’t going to catch us. They were paddling with all their might and one woman in the canoe was throwing up here arms and yelling for us to stop. I gave in wanting to talk one last time with some sepiks. They cheered as I turned the boat around. Like everywhere else on the Sepik once I stopped for this one canoe everyone else within sight was sure to follow and before long Bubbles was once again surrounded by half a dozen canoes. The woman waving her arms was overjoyed at the fact that we stopped and asked us for some salt. She saw me eyeing her paddle and its intricately carved handle and immediately offered it to me. I went below and found a large container of salt (for some reason we have a lot of salt on board) and threw in a small bag of rice for the paddle. I’ve never seen someone so excited over rice and salt for when I handed it to her she began jumping up and down with yells of jubilation. She explained that they were all working to harvest sego at the camps and there was no permenent settlement here and they had no supply of anything. Sego is a palm plant (here along the sepik they grow to a massive 30 feet) that the natives grind the heart out of to make a flour like substance that can then be fried or boiled (with no wheat or grain around it is used is place of bread). I noticed an older man in a canoe with a second toe missing on each foot and having heard stories about such things I asked him about it. He confirmed that one was cut off in memory of his mother and the other in memory of his father. This is a common practice here in the Sepik although the missionaries were trying to stop it. Alas we had to push forward so we said our goodbyes to our last Sepik friends and away we went.

As we snaked our way to the mouth we rouned a bend that was still 8 miles from the sea but already we could feel and see the waves coming from the ocean. We had a sail up as the ocean breeze could now be felt. The waves got bigger and their short choppy nature wouldn’t allow the autopilot to drive the boat which was a problem because we still had to put the dingy on deck and that was a two man job. I locked the wheel and ran up to where the dingy and Ben were to wrestle it onboard and just as we got it up I had to run back to grab the wheel for the current was taking us a straight for a mud bank where we would have been pinned with no way out. Another close call on the mighty Sepik.

Another hour and we neared the mouth. The sun had not yet set leaving us with plenty of light as the river spit us out into vast ocean now opening before us. The waves werent as bad as I feared but were still enough to for the bow and anchor to occasionally get a good washing. On one side of the mouth is a village that has probably looked the same for the past several hundred years and on the other the jungle gives way to Pacific ocean swell pounding on the rocks. Out to sea and evenly spaced on the horizon looms three separate perfectly shaped volcanic islands, two of which are errupting with ash plumes to show it. I can’t imagine there is another river in the world with such a dramatic entrance to the sea.

As the sun set behind us we raised full sail and pointed towards open water. With 14 knots of wind on a close reach Bubbles heeled beautifully. She was happy to be back at sea and so was I.

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