Tragedy at sea: eight dead and four rescued after 32 days adrift in South Pacific

Group left Papua New Guinea in canoe before Christmas and survivors were rescued almost 2,000km away a month later

Four people have been rescued after spending 32 days adrift in the South Pacific, after a tragic voyage that resulted in the deaths of eight of their fellow travellers, including a baby.

The group left Bougainville island, east of the mainland of Papua New Guinea, on 22 December to travel the Carteret Islands 100km away for Christmas celebrations.

However their canoe, which was powered by an outboard motor, capsized en route. Some members of the group drowned, others were able to right the boat and bail water out of it.

A total of eight passengers died, either at the time of the boat capsizing, or later from dehydration, including a baby who died later as the group drifted.

Dominic Stally, one of the survivors, told the Guardian from the hospital in the Solomon Islands where he is being treated that it was “still very difficult to talk about and recall what we went through on that ill-fated trip”.

“We all left so happy and excited to be traveling to Carteret Island for the holidays and never thought we would end up where we are today.”

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The four survivors were picked up by a fishing boat on 23 January in New Caledonian waters, almost 2,000km from where they set off. The group were looked after on the fishing vessel for about a week before being brought to the Solomon Islands, near Bougainville, for medical treatment. Stally was unable to verify the ages of those who died.

Stally said their group saw other vessels during their month at sea, but were unable to signal them for help. “Fishing boats passed us but were too far for them to notice us, we watched helplessly as they went past,” he said.

The group used a container in the canoe that was used to bail water to capture rain water and ate coconuts that were floating on the sea.

“The thirst was the most difficult thing to overcome but we were lucky because of the rains, imagine if there was no rain,” Stally said.

The Solomon Star reported that survivors included a woman, her 12-year-old daughter, and a man in his 20s, as well as Stally. They are all being treated at the National Referral Hospital in Honiara, the capital of Solomon Islands.

The nurse on duty at the hospital said the group were all badly dehydrated and traumatised.

Preparations for the group to return to Bougainville were being discussed and the Papua New Guinea (PNG) high commission in Honiara was attempting to make contact with the relatives of those who survived.

Bougainville is still part of Papua New Guinea, despite voting overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum late last year.

Officials in the search and rescue division of the Solomon Islands Maritime Authority said incidents like this one were unfortunately common, particularly around the Christmas holidays as people travelled between islands. They said weather patterns and failure to properly check fuel supplies contributed to such tragedies.

Dorothy Wickham in Honiara

The GuardianTramp

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