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Escape from Hermit Island: Two Women Struggle to Save Their Sunken Sailboat in Remote Papua New Guinea

By Sue Richards last modified Jun 03, 2010 09:41 AM

Published: 2010-06-03 09:41:18
Countries: Papua New Guinea

Escape from Hermit Island: Two Women Struggle to Save Their Sunken Sailboat in Remote Papua New Guinea
Written by Joy Smith in Collaboration with Leslie Brown
Published by Seaworthy Publications, Port Washington, WI. ISBN 978-1-892399-27-4.

Review submitted to noonsite by Karen Earnshaw, Yacht Seal, Majuro, Marshall Islands

Life in a remote village on a small Pacific island mirrors the structure of life in any city of the globe, with one significant exception: Every nuance of officialdom; every link in the hierarchy; every resident’s personality trait is amplified to a deafening level.

It’s one thing to have your cruising yacht anchored off a village, visiting people of a very different culture in the day but snug in your own world at night … It’s quite another to live ashore in a primitive microcosm and have the complication of raising your yacht that has sunk on a nearby reef.

Some people may add that for two women to conquer these enormous hurdles and end up with smiles on their faces would be an impossible feat. But that’s just what Joy Smith and Leslie Brown did indeed achieve after their 34-foot yacht Banshee hit a reef in the lagoon of Hermit Island in northern Papua New Guinea on October 21, 2002. Joy Smith tells their tale in the book Escape from Hermit Island.

The couple were returning to Luf village from a few days diving within Hermit’s lagoon when they clipped a coral head and their huge depth sounder’s external transducer imploded into the hull, creating a large hole and a six foot crack in the hull. Banshee sank within three minutes. Worse, Joy was trapped in the flooded cabin: “I was in the forepeak at that point, and looked back into the main cabin and saw the water rising quickly,” she wrote. “Got to get out of here!” she thought, but on her way out the water’s rapid inflow slammed the cabin door shut catching her fingertip in its hinge slicing it off. She then realized that her way out was blocked by the now floating companionway ladder. Leslie was unable to move the obstacle, but luckily their friend Ben was nearby. “Ben leaped out of his dugout canoe and into the cockpit, shoved the ladder down, and grabbed for Joy.”

Along with their cat Booby, the Banshee family was given sanctuary in Ben’s house with his wife Lynnah, who was to become their friend, confidante and translator of language and Hermit Island custom.

Reading the first chapters, readers may not yet grasp the enormous difficulty that Joy and Leslie were in and her early comments in Escape from Hermit may appear surprising. Later, it becomes apparent that Joy wanted to convey every feeling and event in complete honesty and, when looked at in this light, thoughts such as “They haven’t been bleeding it (the compressor) like I told them. Damn, I can’t leave them for a moment” or “Shit, it doesn’t even occur to them to look in the hatch on the other side” become understandable.

Two women, one with a severely injured finger, had just lost their home and they were on a remote island hundreds of miles away from anything they could call civilization. Communication was difficult; many of the islanders took vital gear or items from the boat; and as women there were many jobs they needed to do that are taboo for the often downtrodden women in PNG culture.

When the yacht sank up to the cabin top, it came to rest sitting close to the edge of the underwater coral shelf and was at risk of sliding into the depths. To avoid this, the first job was to stabilize the boat using anchors. Next came the plugging up of the hole and crack and then the building of an underwater “cradle” to bring the boat upright. After five days of back-breaking work in difficult conditions, the boat was finally floated off the reef. Each step required much discussion and debate with the villagers, who often had very different ideas from Leslie and Joy on how to proceed. This negotiation process was almost as tiring as the work itself.

Through all of this, Joy and Leslie’s descriptions of life with the villagers and the help they provided in saving Banshee provides the reader with a rich picture of what it would be like if he or she were to end up in a similar situation. “Our new shared home was a pandanus and sago palm thatched house built on axe-hewn posts,” Joy wrote. “We would share this small, three-room village house with our newly acquired four-member family … I stepped down from the veranda, cross the tree-lined foreshore in front of our house to the beach, and walked into a chaotic scene. Men, women and ‘pikinini’ were everywhere, swarming over our soggy belongings that were strewn along the beach…”

Some of the villagers were happy to help, but some were hostile, and hampered the couple’s efforts, stealing many of their possessions. Added to all this, Joy was forced to travel to the larger island of Manus to seek medical attention for her finger and buy the necessary gear to get Banshee habitable and moving again, leaving Leslie behind to navigate her way through the villagers’ politics.

As you turn the pages of Escape, you begin to cheer Joy and Leslie on as they become more used to the ways of Luf village and surmount one problem after another. By the end of the week of the sinking at last Banshee was afloat, but early Friday morning, to Joy’s and Leslie’s horror, some of the villagers decided they had the “right” to sail her off her underwater cradle on their own. They were understandably worried, especially as no one else on the beach knew where the men may be taking her. “Banshee’s large genoa slowly unfurled and caught the light breeze. Doing what she was designed to do so well, she effortlessly followed her helm and sailed away from her gravesite and into the wind… The Ninigo Boys (Ninigo is an atoll to the west of Hermit) were on stage and they knew it. Their tacking maneuvers upwind with only a foresail were flawless… Banshee swung to her anchor in front of the village. Oh those Ninigo Boys.”

In late January, 2003, Joy and Leslie got the boat seaworthy enough to sail the 300 miles to Madang on the PNG mainland, where they spent two years doing repairs on the boat. From PNG, the couple sailed to Chuuk, in the Federated States of Micronesia, on to Palau and then to the Philippines, where they again spent a lot of time working on Banshee. They are currently in Subic, the Philippines. “Now that the typhoon season is over, we plan to go south to Palawan, heading for El Nido for clean water and diving,” Joy wrote in an email. “From Palawan then there’s Malaysia and Thailand…”