Posts Tagged ‘Lapita Tikopia’

Tikopia On The Move

December 15, 2016

Tikopia might seem paradise to the fleeting glimpse of an outside visitor. While its over one thousand inhabitants are living a carefully and smartly controlled life in intimate embrace with nature, modernity has carved a solid foothold right through the middle of it, and the deadly diseases of the consumer society driven by greed and systemic exploitation have grown like cancerous tumours, eating away with lightning speed at its very core. However, as in any other human society, these unfortunate inflictions are diligently hidden away, its weaknesses pushed aside by potent bragging with crippled testosterone, its dark sides kept carefully veiled by well-guarded secrets.

I had contacted Norwegian Thomas Lien by email while still in Luganville, Vanuatu, to get details about the present state of the Lapita canoe. A little over two years ago he had lived for six months on Tikopia with his family of four, hoping to get away from the perils of civilization for a time while producing a television series for kids starring his charming six-year-old daughter. His answers to my persistent questions provided some very helpful information about the technical state of Lapita Tikopia, but once I enquired about the social context and the possible reasons behind the boat’s abandonment, the conversation abruptly stopped.

The two Lapita canoes had been delivered to Anuta and Tikopia in March of 2009. From my detective work on piecing together a history of Lapita Tikopia since then, it seems that for the first three years it was managed by Ariki Tafua’s inner circle, his younger brother Pa Tilo taking on the role of skipper. Four or five trips were made to Lata and back, providing transportation for government officials amongst other lucrative ventures. Pa Tilo is an open hearted guy, with a modern mind tempered by years of working with Solomon Islands fisheries, but leadership is not very high up on his personal skill sheet. Taking advantage of a break during our first week of work on Lapita Tikopia I sat down with him overlooking the bright white sandy beach, which would be an absolutely picturesque scene were it not for the strange fact that this happens to be the Tikopia’s toilet with the dizzying amount of flies that goes along this persistent habit. His account of one of these journeys must stand for most of the others.

‘There were these government officials from Fisheries visiting our island,’ he said in his rather charming intermittently broken English. ‘They needed to return to Lata and suggested why don’t we bring them there with Lapita. They offered a good bit of money. So we went, stopping at the Reef Islands on the way there. Then coming back, I knew we had to go way out to go up into the wind, so I went almost down to the Torres Islands. That’s when my crew started to complain, asking why we go that far and why don’t we head for Tikopia. After four days we finally sighted Tikopia, but they said it was a different island. Then I was sleeping down in the cabin when I heard the sails bang about on top. I went up and nobody was looking after things. Everybody wanted to know better than me, but when it came to doing things they were hopeless. We finally made it back but then they didn’t want to sail with me anymore.’

By 2012 it appears that accusations started to rummage about in the island. That the Tafua clan was making a lot of money with the canoe, that it should be the property of all the island folks, why don’t they share the profits and other similar things. After a while Ariki Tafua, at the time the present chief’s father Edward, gave in and transferred ownership to a steering committee in the neighboring village of Saint Michael. More trips were made but the moneys earned ended up carelessly in private pockets instead of being reinvested in the maintenance of the boat. It looks as the Solomon Island disease of corruption and misuse of public funds and property has made great inroads in Tikopia as well. On one of the last trips in 2014 the foot of the main mast broke and repairing that proved to be too great a feat for the designated captain and crew. No more use was made of the sailing canoe and not only was there nobody looking after it anymore, but things started to disappear from it, probably to mend more urgent personal needs somewhere else on the island.

These two years of abandonment were now at our hands and I was doing my best to explain again and again that I had not come to do the work myself. From our first meeting with the three chiefs I had demanded working hands, skilled and unskilled, ideally from the different villages on the island, to come and help with the restoration of the canoe, so that a sense of communal ownership could be reestablished. This took a good week and a further visit to Ariki Kafika in Ravenga on a rainy Sunday to sink in to the realm of reality. By week two a small team of four of five constant helpers and a short list of intermittent appearances had materialized. The rotten wood was being scraped out from underneath the fiberglass of the decks and pieces of the miserable plywood we found at the local school were cut to be fitted back in.

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As was to be expected progress was terribly slow and the original optimistic goal of sailing to Vanikoro together with us on Aluna at our return to Lata by the end of the month soon had vanished into very thin air. But soon our new island friends were mixing epoxy with cheap Latex gloves on their big hands. Their work was far from a pretty sight with blobs of hardened glue all over the place. Pretty was not what we were after however, and at the start of our third week on Tikopia, the coaming of the worst affected hatch was being reinstalled. Locally cut timber started to appear at the sight to be transformed into new bearers for the deck platform. Ariki Tafua had generously donated a sturdy bed frame from one of his guest houses. This provided good quality timber for replacing the rotten parts in the hull sides. New pieces for the hinges were being cut out and shaped by a very tall and viscously skilled wood worker. On good days food was being prepared by nearby families for the work crew and the constant supply of beetlenut and tobacco kept things moving along.

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It was now the last week of our stay, the end of October was approaching and with that the onset of the cyclone season. The repair of the worst section of the hull decks was almost completed and I designed a new motor bracket to mount the 15hp engine that had been donated by the Tikopia member of parliament. This in fact was a bit of an engineering challenge of its own, as it had to be done crudely without any fancy blocks and tackle. I keep my fingers crossed that it will work in the harsh reality of maritime abuse. While there was still a good amount of work to be done, a solid beginning had been made.

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Figuring out what had gone wrong in the past beyond the general notion of money and accessories of the canoe mysteriously disappearing, proved to be an impossible task. The present Tikopia society is one in disarray. Modernity is overrunning the island at a time when three of the four chiefs had to fill the shoes of their fathers at a very young age, while the fourth is clearly losing his wits to old age. With the money economy infiltrating the island’s social fabric at breakneck speed, the power of decision making is sifting through the stunned fingers of the immature chiefs towards the more astute, and discontent and distrust is growing along the fuzzy lines of clanships like mold and moss in the tropical heat. Nobody I managed to talk to had the courage to speak out against the chief’s clan or give clear cut information about the whos and the hows of the managerial catastrophe that had stifled the sound development of Lapita Tikopia.

Against all odds Ariki Tafua seems determined to give Lapita Tikopia a second life. That there may be a good deal of self-interest fueling his resolve does not matter all that much in the destined evolution of things. Given the lack of interest demonstrated by his fellow Tikopia citizen, it might in fact be the canoe’s only chance of survival. The very visible truth is that the Tikopia have made a firm step into the modern day consumer society. Money and its distorted evaluation of reality is infiltrating the merry minds of these charming island folks like a viral outbreak of contagious disease under the burning tropical sun. Maybe the burgeoning middle class haunted by their very recent stone age past will sooner or later claim some or all of the properties of the flailing chiefly clans and in a neo-liberal take-over Tikopia style realize, in appearance at least, the communal intentions of the original donors of the canoe. That can and will of course happen only once the hard work of restauration from the past neglect has been accomplished, once the profits promise to be smooth and fat and sufficiently effortless…


In The Thick Of It

December 8, 2016

A week had gone by and we were in this adventure well over and above our ears. The work on Lapita Tikopia had started with the help of some youngsters, but soon a sizeable group of workers was assembling on a daily basis. A giant green tent top was strung over the canoe to shelter it from the rain that threatened to fall any day and time. The platform slats were removed and submerged in the sea under a pile of coral rocks to soak them in salt water and rescue of them whatever possible. The rotten wood around the hatch coaming was being carefully scraped out trying to leave the outer layer of fibreglass in place.

lapitaprogress-6Plywood however was nowhere to be found on the island. The best we could get our hands on was a pile of thin wall board, a low grade plywood with one side covered with a plastic coating that looks like wall paper. I decided that three layers of it with the plastic coating rough sanded and glued in with plenty of epoxy glue would have to do. Soon pieces were being cut to refill the hollowed out parts. I then gave our Tikopia friends a crash course in working with epoxy. We set up a station in one of the hull compartments with the resin and hardener jar and their calibrated pumps and a bucket with the glue mix. The latex gloves I had brought proved to be too small for the big hands of these island people. They provided much food for jokes and laughter and some ended up as udder-shaped balloons for the school kids passing by the work site daily on their way home.




From the very beginning of our stay on the island the idea had been floated to pull Aluna up on the beach next to Lapita Tikopia. The anchorage just outside of the fringing reef, while protected from the trades that howl out of the Southeast most of the time, promised to be marginal to dangerous should bad weather hit with a passing front that could bring nasty westerlies and corresponding onshore waves and swells. The offer of having plenty strong men available and an assortment of logs of the magic ‘slippery wood’ was too tempting to let go by and without thinking it through too much the day of the highest spring tides just after new moon Aluna slid across the reef and I rammed her into the sandy beach within a stone throw of the maritime patient we were diligently working on.

Unfortunately the promises made by Ariki Tafua and his younger brother, ‘engineer’ Dani, had trouble materializing. While a good crowd had assembled on the beach to watch the spectacle unfold, only a handful of them were able men and after much puffing and pulling the sun threatened to set and we called it a day, once the tide had retreated. Other intents were made the high tides of the following days, but Aluna proved too heavy to be pulled up the incline of the sand beach. The round underwater shape of her keels did not help either. As it turned out, we were now confined to a miserable existence with Aluna lapped on by the surf at high tides, with a slurry of coral fragments rubbing off her precious antifouling paint. To the discomfort of our vessel our own was added. As already mentioned, for the Tikopia the beach is far from a picturesque place to go for a pleasant evening stroll. Their well-encrusted habit of using it as a toilet had hordes of flies descend on our living quarters from sunrise to sunset.



No doubt practical it was to have Aluna and my workshop right there, to be able to run back and forth for tools and pieces, but the price was a too high one to pay. We stayed there in the surf and the smell for two weeks until the full moon tides came along and threatened to dislodge our eroding comfort for good.  With a push and a shove from an at this time reasonably testosterone infused crowd, Aluna returned to her element after her interlude in the surf. It took another week to have a half way decent mooring installed on two prominent coral heads inside the protected inlet and once again we could feel reasonably safe and concentrate on the work at hand.

By the end of week two new antifouling had been applied to both hulls and able woodworkers were busy carving replacement parts for the hatch hinges and the coamings. The goal was to restore the most deteriorated hull compartment before our departure and leave a model the Tikopia could reference to while finishing up the other three on their own. Some of the workers had had employment with the Solomon Island fishing fleet and with that experience with basic maintenance tasks like scrubbing off old paint and applying new one. The work with the epoxy didn’t come across as too difficult for them and while the cleanliness of their work left much to be desired, little by little the repairs progressed.

A pleasant interruption arrived on October 14. I had just crept out of the main hatch in the wee hours of morning, shaking off the grogginess of sleep and ready to face the notorious flies, when I hear a schoolboy calling me from the beach. He points out to the horizon and only says two words: ‘Lapita Anuta’. There she was, bobbing gently up and down on anchor just off the reef. Sam, the captain, came by later for quick chat. Of short stature and with an honest face framed by a round beard he sounded a story of confidence, counting over 20 separate trips done with Lapita Anuta, most of them working for pay, like this time for instance, as they were bringing the teachers of Anuta and Tikopia to Lata, the capital of the Temotu Province, for professional workshops offered by the Education Department.




Once again I pushed for closer collaboration between the two islands, to share maintenance chores and other know navigational knowhow. While there on Tikopian territory I received a shy affirmation from Sam, later when I ran into him again while back in Lata, the sad reality came to light instantly. ‘We have tried to work with the man (Ariki Tafua),’ he said, ‘The man cannot be trusted!’ There once again you have the human condition in all its splendor, throwing a wrench in the transmission. So close the two intimately related people live next to each other, so far they are apart when it comes to opening up their hearts!

Surveying The Sad State of Neglect

December 2, 2016

It had been clear to me that what we were going to see once finally close up to Lapita Tikopia was not going to be pretty. I had agreed with Ariki Tafua that work on the ship should start on the coming Monday and that on Friday and Saturday I was going to inspect the boat to get an idea of the scope of the work ahead.

We found Lapita Tikopia resting on round logs we would later learn are of the local ‘slippery wood’, ideal for dragging heavy boats over them. Her two hulls were each covered with a long strip of green tarp while a wider one loosely covered the center deck. Removing that one first we found a dilapidated cooking box resting on the platform timbers, a pile of inflated life vests with corroded cartridges and a heavy blue bag containing a life raft sitting next to it. The platform timbers flexed precariously when I tried to walk across them. Some pieces of it had broken off and rot hat gotten the best of others. Examining the hulls from the outside showed no major damage. The antifouling paint had worn off and two small cracks revealed a tiny bit of rot along the drain holes of the cockpit.

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After gingerly removing the long tarps covering the hulls we encountered the first serious trouble. The hinges of the enormous hatches of James Wharram’s Tama Moana design were badly worn, their ropes lose and whole pieces of the hinge mounts on the decks of the hulls were missing. The latter had resulted in cracked and holed areas where rainwater had entered. Rot had progressed from there underneath the fiberglass to the point making the deck areas feel mushy. Beatriz’ not very careful step on one area had her foot going straight through leaving a gaping hole. Fortunately, no serious injury resulted.

Once inside the hulls the extent of the damage became hauntingly clear. The plywood of the decks was reduced to a spongy mess in those places, rot extending as far as the top strips of the side planking and into the hatch coamings. White ants and wood rot go together in the tropics, and in addition there were dark brown knobs of as spongy fungus happily at home on the teak. There was water in almost all the bilges, fresh water, as the famous lick test soon revealed. About half of the removable floor boards that give access to the bilges were rotten to the point of no longer bearing the weight of a person standing on them. The floor of the starboard cockpit and the bulkhead around the entrance to the hull were also soft to the touch.

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Three of the beams were of a little smaller diameter. They had obviously been replaced, while the one that supports the mizzen mast showed small pockets of rot close to the port inboard lashing. The two masts had been leaned against a corrugated iron shed next to the boat, their wood severely weathered. The foot of the main mast had been crudely repaired with a string wrapped around it. While the two smaller sails looked decent, the big main sail’s vertical spar was reduced to a bare bamboo pole, weathered and split. Most of the rigging rope was missing. A crudely assembled motor bracket hung precariously from the aft beam.

The general impression was one of neglect. There’s a certain aspect emanating from a boat that has not properly been looked after, and Lapita Tikopia’s aura was impregnated with it from nose to tail. I began to wonder if anybody had even seriously looked at the boat prior to our arrival. All the descriptions of the damages I had heard prior to our arrival had been misleading, and I wondered if with the materials I had brought with us on Aluna we would be able to mend the worst of it and restore functionality to the boat. Most importantly there was going to be a great need of plywood to replace the rotten decks, and I had brought none. It could easily have been arranged with time, had there been a clear reporting of the facts.

But my task here on Tikopia is not only a technical and engineering one. Many people have invested their energy in the two Lapita canoes and a great deal of money has been spent. In order not to end up trying to refill a bucket with a giant hole in its bottom, I had to find out why it had come to all this. What went wrong on Tikopia? What is the social background that allowed such a precious and well-intended gift to waste under the sun? What kind of politics derailed the clear purpose of the donors and the original sound desire of the recipients?

Of course not all was work and despair. We did some exploring with our young friends. A terribly steep footpath leads up from Saint Michael’s village to a small gap in the mountain range visible from our anchorage. Descending on the other side our expert guides led us along the peaceful shores of Rongo Lake, the brackish body of water that fills the crater of the ancient volcano that created the island in the first place. Of its southern rim only two pinnacles are left standing. We learned that in 2013 cyclone Zoe had breached the sand spit that separates the lake from the sea and flooded the lake with salt water. Apparently Tikopia gets hit by cyclones almost every year. Our excursion then led us behind the village of Ravenga to a point where the footpath rounds a rocky promontory where the main crater rim descends down into the sea. From there we returned to the western side of the tiny island that for a couple weeks was our fragile home.

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