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Frightening Attack in Kokopo, Papua New Guinea

By Val Ellis last modified Mar 16, 2011 12:01 PM

Published: 2011-03-16 12:01:42
Topics: Piracy Reports 2011
Countries: Papua New Guinea

With regret, we report that what we thought was a safe, friendly town and anchorage in PNG turned out to be not so. We arrived in Kokopo on Monday, 7 March 2011, from the Solomons.

On Thursday night, 10 March, we were awakened at about 11:30 p.m. by 2 men wielding bush knives coming down through our V-berth hatch screen landing quite literally on top of us. They woke us from a sound sleep and were there before we had a chance to reach for the large can of Bear Pepper Mace that sits beside the bed. While one held us in bed at knife-point, constantly shushing us telling his partner to "go fast," the other ranted about wanting laptops and guns, and rifled through various areas of the boat looking for things, asking in particular for mobile phones as well. We do not carry weapons, and finally convinced them of that.

We managed to talk them out of taking our main laptop with email, navigation programs, etc., on it, and instead offered an old, back-up laptop, in a case. They also took cash (leaving everything else in Jim's wallet), our 2 cell phones, a Palm Pilot, flash drives, a dive watch, and a few other small things before tying us up with clothes and wires and making their escape.

Jim was bound firmly, hands and feet, with hands tied behind. Katie was bound hands and feet as well, but with her hands tied in front. They left saying they would send "rescuers" in 10 minutes (which of course they didn't), but as soon as they had gone, Katie managed to untie Jim's hands and he was then able to release the other bonds. Fortunately, they did not take our Iridium phone, and we used that to call the local police, who promptly came out to the boat and took the report.

The robbers were extremely quiet; we never heard any engine noise and assume they paddled out in a canoe. Katie said in hindsight that earlier, while reading in bed and just before turning off the light, she had strong sense of body odor and actually wondered if someone might be near the boat, but dismissed the idea and assumed it was just a wind shift carrying new smells from land. It turned out that she had, indeed, been smelling their body odor.

We are very security conscious and had the dinghy raised, the main companionway locked, and other hatches dogged. Only the V-berth hatch was open for ventilation--our weak link -- though covered with a low awning. The stolen items are replaceable--we are thankful not to have been injured during the robbery. The local police were extremely responsive and we even met with the Provincial Police Commander the next morning. We also reported the theft to the Customs office. Everyone, including a few people we'd gotten to know even in our short time in Kokopo (e.g., the owner and his son at the mobile phone store, the ladies and an AusAID volunteer at the tourist office), expressed surprise that this had happened ("Never before in Kokopo!"), was extremely apologetic, and made offers of help to try to find the thieves and recover the items.

To add one other bit of context: On Tuesday night (our second there) we were visited by the police in the middle of the night (no less unsettling at the time), who reported that someone had phoned them to say "the yacht was being robbed." At the time, that wasn't true, though in retrospect the person who called (we understand it was the manager of a restaurant that overlooks the harbor) may have seen something. As a result of that visit, we already had some rapport with the local police, including names and their phone number at hand. They had had to "hire" a local boat to bring them out to Asylum to respond to that call and we found the 3 guys from the panga actually walking around on board, while we were talking to the police. We raised this issue with police commander when we met with him: that perhaps THOSE guys were also casing the boat at the time, a fact the police officers may or may not have been aware of. He promised to follow up on it.

We try not to condemn an entire country or cruising area because of a couple of opportunistic thugs. Robberies can happen anywhere, but the incident has left us somewhat shaken and debating our original intention to spend more time exploring PNG.

We're now on a mooring at Ropopo Plantation Resort, near Kokopo, where owners Brian and Bev are welcome hosts to visiting cruisers. The resort is about 2 miles east of the Kokopo anchorage and provides moorings when possible. They monitor VHF 84. Bar and restaurant are excellent. They, too, were very surprised at what happened to us.

Jim & Katie Coolbaugh
s/v Asylum