A Bishop in deep water – 3.

The final part of a story based on a fictional character Steve Wallace who in the late 1970s works in the Solomon Islands. The character and his further adventurers may appear again.

Maringe Lagoon at Buala

On the bright white sandy beach wearing a T-shirt and shorts, the Bishop is a big imposing man. Middle aged, thinning hair atop a broad smile, he vigorously shakes Steve’s hand and in prefect English says,

“Good to meet you again Steve. You were at my inauguration at Sepi last year. We’ll fit you in for sure.“

“That’s super, thanks. Yes, Sepi, what a special event that was. I stayed for the full two days.”

“The most white men I’ve ever seen on Santa Isabel!” he laughs.

His T-shirt has the logo “South Pacific Games 1975, Guam”. Behind him at the top of the beach Steve spots a stack of baskets, mostly potatoes and garden produce, gifts, beside big bundles of their personal baggage.

Silas sees Steve taking in the pile and says to him,

“Don’t worry. It’s a big load, but we’ll be ok.”

While the Bishop and his family say their “goodbyes” to a crowd of villagers, the long dugout canoe is loaded in the shallow water leaving just enough space for the Bishop at the prow, his wife, daughter and Steve, separated by the baskets of food and their belongings.

On the shore the villagers sing in multi-part harmony as Silas cranks the outboard motor to life and steers the laden canoe away from the shore, waving.

In open water the canoe cuts cleanly through the swell, the outboard settling into a steady drone. With a balmy wind and occasional sea spray there is little chance for conversation.  Silas puts out a trawl line hoping to catch a bonito or sword fish.

Once they are out of the bay and past the Fulakora Point, it is a straight 25 mile run up to sheltered lagoon at Buala.  Silas sets a course close to the headland where he believes the swell is big but not choppy. Seeing where he is going, the Bishop in the prow calls to him, indicating with a sweep of his right arm to go much further outside, to the open sea beyond the choppy waters.  Silas looks to rougher water, hesitates, shaking his head slightly. Again, the Bishop waves his arm, Silas swings the loaded canoe around seaward.

Suddenly it gets very choppy, Steve thinks the wind may have picked up, the canoe is rocking, he feels more spray in his face, water comes in over the side and he starts to bail with a wooden cup. The Bishop waves his arm again, more urgently this time and looks back at Silas, who nods.

The wave comes at the canoe slightly to port, there’s no time to react. Steve sees the wall of water block the horizon before it hits him, his cup and cap swept from him.  It washes over them in turn from the Bishop in the prow to Silas on the outboard. The engine coughs and splutters. Water fills the canoe. Steve has images of being thrown into the deep among baskets of potatoes and baggage. But they are still upright. Only a few inches of free board. The outboard continues to splutter. He bails water frantically with his hands. Sees nothing but water, tastes the salt. Bail. Bail. Bail.

The canoe continues to lurch through the confused sea, spray coming from every side. He bails and bails. Eventually the outboard settles to steadier drone. He doesn’t see the others, but knows they too are bailing water.

In the confusion Silas has changed course to stay close to the headland. He’s gunning engine in the troughs, turning to meet the bigger waves, all the while bailing when he can with one hand, his eyes searching for calmer water.

By the time Steve takes in his surroundings the canoe is in a heavy swell, waves breaking on the headland’s reef close by, ahead open sea.  The water is well below his seat now, there is little coming in, his heart eases.

Soon the headland is behind them, the swell lighter, their wide vista of sea and sky bristling with light; the tree-lined shore with thick bush and distant mountain peaks, a constant companion.

In about two hours they will be in the Maringe Lagoon, Fulakora Point almost forgotten. The Bishop, framed in glistened sea spray, turns to Silas and raises a hand. Silas nods in return, keeping a steady course.


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