Bottled Message Leads To Unexpected Visit

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It was a simple celebration. Most of the yachts crossing the equator do it. Some do the dress-up gig as King Neptune; some swim across the line; some just have a special bottle of wine. Steve and Jamie Sidells aboard Reba celebrated, too, and then tossed their wine bottle over, but inside and tightly corked was a note that read: “Note in a Bottle (US) $10.00**REWARD this bottle thrown into Pacific Ocean at Latitude 01º 05’ S, Longitude 129º 01’ W at 2000 UTC on April 18, 2000. If Found…”

Reba’s bottle drifted with the equatorial countercurrent for more than 4,200 miles. It was found 16 months and two days later, near Heranigau Village on the southwest end of the island of Makira, also known as San Cristobal, in the Solomon Islands.

Islander Mark Philip was walking along the beach beside his village, happened upon the bottle in the sand and wrote to Steve.

And so began a yearlong correspondence between Steve and Mark. Stories of each other’s lives were exchanged, and Mark invited Steve and Jamie to visit and enclosed very detailed, hand-drawn charts in three different scales. Steve and Jamie started making plans to sail to Makira and were on the lookout for another yacht to accompany them.

My wife, Judy Sandick, our four children, David, Sarah, Jasper and Charlotte, and I had been making plans all season to sail on Danza to the Solomon Islands. It was a big decision. There were reports of unrest in the Solomons; malaria is endemic; very few yachts go, so one is really on one’s own. One of the guidebooks says of Makira: “Mosquitoes and crocodiles. If you cruise there, please let us know what it is like.” But there is always that lure of the unknown.

But at the last minute, Steve and Jamie decided not to head north, which meant that we now had the hand-drawn charts. They proved perfectly accurate and enabled us to find our way through the reefs to a sheltered anchorage after a three-day trip of trade-wind sailing.

We were greeted by Mark and another 15 to 20 outrigger canoes filled with native men, women and children. Many held a little distance and just watched; a few came up and spoke to us, telling us bits and pieces of their life in the villages.

Although very shy, Mark agreed to come aboard. His outrigger canoe drifted astern, tied with the end of our jib sheet, as he had no lines. He described himself as a jungle master and had worked for an Asian logging company, which had since departed, driving heavy equipment and operating a chainsaw. Although local landowners succeeded in limiting the amount of timber cut, ugly scars remain where the logs were skidded with bulldozers to the harbor; the river water is still so polluted that it has to be boiled before it can be drunk; and the harbor remains silty from the runoff. A group of whites from California had been through here in July 2002, but it had been three or four years before then that the last white people had been here.

A dozen or so canoes were all hovering around the boat, with the braver ones hanging onto the side and peering over the edge as we spoke with Mark. One boy had a bloody bandage on his finger. Judy, an emergency-room physician, asked him if she could take a look, and she saw a deep knife cut that was still pulsing blood. Turning the cockpit into the emergency room, as she has done so often in our travels, she stitched it up for him while several people leaned over the rail to watch and ooh and laugh.

Before the missionaries came, the Makira people were cannibals, Mark told us, worshipped pigs and sharks, and were warlike, going out at night to attack other villages. Mark later showed us the point of land, a sacred spot in the old days, where they sacrificed people and called to the sharks. From the 1870s and early 1900s, the Blackbirders came and kidnapped people from Makira as well as the other islands to use as virtual slaves in the Queensland, Australia, and Fiji sugar industry. Very few of these people survived, but some of those who did became missionaries after converting to Christianity and in turn converted the Makirans.

On our last day, we watched a group of villagers go fishing. Hundreds of feet of vine had been prepared and lay along the beach. When the time was right and prayers were said, the vine was taken from the beach and one end dragged through the water out to a break in the reef. With the aid of their outrigger canoes, the vine was then taken across the break and back to shore, 200 hundred feet up the beach. This formed a half circle with the vine held mid-water by more than 50 people. The fish were driven toward shore as the people slowly moved toward the beach, all the while, the radius of the half circle getting smaller and smaller. When only 20 feet across, palm fronds were passed to waiting hands and pushed into the water, forming a dam through which few fish would escape. Shouting and wild laughter filled the air. A command was given and fish were speared and thrown onto the beach. Often the smaller fish were given a quick bite behind the head, severing the spinal cord before being added to the pile. It looked like someone had emptied a tropical aquarium on the white sand. No doubt many more fish swam through their legs and headed back out on the reef than were pooled in the final corral.

The problems in this country are immense. As the teachers have been on strike since June 2002 for back wages, school in many areas does not exist today. Timber harvesting grossly exceeds timber growth rates. Gold mines are causing pollution. Commercial fishing by foreign companies yields less and less fish.

The end of the cruising season, the beginning of the South Pacific cyclone season loomed. We gave Mark the gifts from Steve and Jamie (In case you’re wondering, they happily paid Mark the $10 reward.) and a few of our own. They gave us vegetables from their gardens and a few small gifts in return.

We set sail, leaving behind unforgettable memories and new friends — all thanks to a bottle with a message tossed into the ocean 2 1/2 years ago.

By Ocean Navigator