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The view from Danny and Kerrie Kennedy's place atop the hill behind Gizo, looking south-west. This is the direction from which the tsunami approached Gizo and, whilst there are myriad reefs out there - a nightmare for seafarers - it's open and wild. No protection there. Top – Our course, around the lagoon.

From August 2003

Not a game in these here parts

pt109 03 05 400Six Degrees of Separation is a game played by people with too much time on their hands. After reading this, people may think this includes us. In this game, you sit around the table, such as at a dinner party, and connect two given people who may otherwise have no obvious link. The theory goes that everyone is connected to everyone else by a maximum six degrees of separation of physical proximity. Thus, you should be able to connect yourself with Bruce Springsteen, say, in six easy, if tenuous steps. For example, given that we once drank in a bar at the same time as Springsteen (someone who knew him offered to introduce us, but we demurred, figuring the last thing The Boss wanted was another dribbling fan in his mug), so we have one degree of separation from Bruce Springsteen.

Right: Central to our story, Eroni Kumana (l) and Niuku Gasa.

Some years ago, when he was unemployed with meaningful work (we still are), we worked on a security detail for Frank Sinatra on his last visit to Australia. Our job was to stand by the door to the Sydney International Airport Terminal and, as Sinatra walked through the door, we and a comrade on the other side of the door were to fall in behind as a buffer between Sinatra and his many fans. The only problem was that we didn't recognise Sinatra. We saw a little, fat bloke walk past and, only after a few moments, when we saw some of our colleagues reacting, did we realise this was Ol' Blue Eyes himself. More like, L'il Tubby Belly. But this gave us, too, one degree of separation from Frank Sinatra.

We once shared a urinal with Rajiv Gandhi, Brian Mulroney, and Bob Hawke, and on another occasion with Willy Brandt, at the time prime ministers of India, Canada, and Australia and former chancellor of West Germany. One degree of separation from each. Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia) and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe) were in the same loo, although Kaunda was in a cubicle and Mugabe just came in looking for him. They were attending a meeting with Margaret Thatcher in London at the time. They'd had a torrid meeting, and Gandhi remarked to his fellow wee-ers, 'Oh, well. At least she can't overhear us in here'. We bet she could.

We also once had our picture taken with Nelson Mandela so, whilst he wouldn't remember us from Adam, we can claim him.

Now we can claim John F Kennedy. Say what! He's been dead 40 years (this November)! True. Everyone knows (of our vintage, or should know) that, during World War 11, Kennedy was based in the Solomon Islands commanding a patrol boat, PT 109. On August 2, 1943, at 2.30 am, PT 109 was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. The 11 survivors – two of the crew went missing – washed up on Plum Pudding Island, on the reef abutting Blackett Strait, which sits between the islands of Kolombangara and Ghizo in the Solomons' Western Province.

Plum Pudding Island is one of those rare blobs of land in the tropics on which there is no fresh water and no coconut palms. That means there's nothing to drink or eat. To find a better place to be shipwrecked, a place at least with coconuts and water, and a better place from which to launch attempts to be rescued, Kennedy swam from Plum Pudding Island about 2.5 kilometres south-south-east to Naru island, also sitting on the reef, but this time abutting Ferguson Passage. On Naru, Kennedy encountered two Solomon Islanders who were engaged by the allies as scouts. The islanders thought Kennedy was Japanese – maybe we all look the same to them – and their first reaction was to try to shoot him. They had bullets and a gun which they'd found on a wrecked Japanese trawler on the nearby reef. As it happened, the bullets didn't fit the gun, so they couldn't. They ran off instead. The scouts later ran across the rest of the PT 109 crew, who'd moved to a third island, Olasana, which sits about half a kilometre to the north-west of Naru and about 2 km south of Plum Pudding. They convinced them they were Americans and the scouts set about organising the rescue. A week after the sinking of the PT 109, PT 157, with the scouts aboard – apparently, as history dragged on, lots of people claimed to have been aboard that night, as they would – picked up the shipwrecked crew from a sandy beach on the north shore of Olasana. Kennedy had swum, during that time, from Plum Pudding to Naru to Olasana to Naru and back to Plum Pudding, and on several occasions out into the open sea of Ferguson Passage, AT NIGHT, hoping to flag down a passing PT boat.

In the Solomon Islands on the afternoon of August 4, 2003, on pretty well the exact spot on the north shore of Olasana from where Kennedy and his crew had been rescued by PT 157, two Solomon Islanders, Biuku Gasa, 80, and Eroni Kumana, who says he is 78 but whom his family say is 83, posed for a group photo with half a dozen mug swimmers who had just retraced Kennedy's strokes. Biuku and Eroni had been there before. On August 8, 1943, Biuku and Eroni had been on the same beach, in much the same location, on Olasana island, supervising the rescue of the men they had discovered almost a week earlier. They were the two scouts who had tried to shoot Kennedy. At our re-enactment swim, they were the guests of honour. We couldn't have JFK, but we had the next best thing: Biuku and Eroni, the two men who found him and initiated the rescue of the PT 109 crew. Two degrees of separation.

The adventurers

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From left, Eddy Malphus, oss.c, Mrs Sparkle, Eroni Kumana (front), Idris Lane, Dr Dream (Ngaire Millener), Biuku Gasa (front), Danny Kennedy, and Mary Lou Malphus. Eroni and Biuku were the two Solomon Islanders who, firstly, tried to shoot JFK, then were responsible for the rescue of Kennedy and his crew after they were shipwrecked behind enemy lines.

Of us mugs, there was Eddy and Mary Lou Malphus, who live in Santa Monica in California but love to be at their beach house at La Jolla; there was Idris Lane, a sultry Taffy who runs the fish research station on the island of Nusatupe, about 5 kilometres west of Plum Pudding Island, where he conducts a research program into giant clams, and where he is the loneliest swimmer in the world. There was Dr Dream, Ngaire (Nyree) Millener, a New Zealander who, like all New Zealand talent – apart from the All Blacks – now lives in Sydney. (Dr Dream’s is a story in itself.) There was Mme Sparkle, too, whom we regard as the most wonderful swimmer in the world. And, inevitably, there was us ourselves. Another, local chap named Nelson also started this swim but he climbed out soon after the start. There's not a lot of swimming in the Solomons, still fewer pairs of goggles. And whilst Nelson is a renowned local runner and he could swim, he had no goggles and started out swimming head-up. There's only so far one can swim head-up without questioning the point of it all.

Guiding us was Danny Kennedy, a Yosemite Sam look-alike, who runs a dive operation (underwater, not sly grog) in Gizo, the provincial capital in the Western Province. Danny used to be an American and, while he still sounds like one, he's now Solomonian and spends some of his time running for parliament. He's a terrier on local issues. You can see Danny, in your mind's eye, chairing the local precinct committee and doing all its work. Danny also is immediate past president of Gizo Rotary, in whose name this swim was run. There was Danny's partner, Kerrie, an Australian nurse who, it turned out, trained as a nurse in Sydney with Mme Sparkle when they were youngsters. And there was Biuku and Eroni, watching from the escort boats and cheering at the turning buoys. They posed with us for phographs, sitting on a driftwood log on the beach on Olasana. And, at the PT109 bar in Gizo the night of the swim, they presented us with our carved wooden plaques commemorating our swim.

Biuku and Eroni have shirts, worn on special occasions, with the message, 'I rescued JFK'. Lots of us used to have t-shirts claiming, 'I shot JR'. None of us did, of course. Our shirts have nothing on, 'I rescued JFK'. Hanging out with Biuku and Eroni gave us two degrees of separation from John F Kennedy, and a lesson in humility about how even the 'most inconsequential' people in the world's 'least significant' nation can play a part in shaping world history. As Mary Lou later pointed out in a report she wrote for the La Jolla Swim Club, you have to squint to spot the Solomon Islands on a map of the world, so small are they. Their physical size is a motif for their political and economic influence. In the war, they were the frontline. The scouts, like Biuku and Eroni, played roles akin to the celebrated Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels on the Kododa Track in New Guinea.

Romance

pt109 03 jfk 21 600Political wankers and bar flies will argue well past closing time on the significance of John F Kennedy. The daylight on Camelot in Washington was the shortest day of the year. It dawned in 1952, when Kennedy was elected to the US Senate, reaching high noon in November, 1960, when he won his only Presidential election. It set, some would argue, in July, 1969, when youngest brother Ted ran off the bridge at Chappaquiddick and off the rails politically. What cannot be disputed is that Jack Kennedy captured the imagination of the world and ran the world's most influential economy at one of the most sensitive times in world history. In his very short time, he became one of the most romantic figures of modern history. One can argue over his achievements; over how the world might have been different had he not been president, even for the very short time that he was. Many movies have been made and many books written about this era, such was the imagination Kennedy and his administration captured around the world.

It's hard not to wonder about all these coincidences. What might have been different in world history had those bullets fitted that gun? What might have been different had Biuku and Eroni not found Kennedy and his crew and initiated their rescue? At the PT 109 bar on the waterfront, on the main street of Gizo, during presentations on the night of the swim, it's hard not to marvel at how two ordinary characters, from one of the poorest locations on earth, with virtually no education, were placed in a position to influence the course of history, and did. This is not to get dewy-eyed, but it's true. It's probably also true that they simply followed orders and their instincts in how they reacted to the situation that rolled out before them at the time. But the story of history is the story of how people react to unforeseen events, and how their reactions to events shape the lives of others. Biuku and Eroni showed that their reactions and their instincts are every bit as valid and as sound as anyone else's, and particularly every bit as valid and sound as those more 'sophisticated' types from 'First World' states with tertiary education. Biuku and Eroni are a motif for humanity.

As we stood there, after the swim, with Biuku and Eroni sitting on a driftwood log, the rest of us crowding behind for the group photo, we were conscious that we were at the very spot from where Kennedy and his crew were rescued 60 years before. There is every chance that weather conditions were exactly as they were this day. That the currents were running as they were. That the sea life was the same. That the volcanic peak of Kolombangara, in the distant north-east, was hiding then peeking out from behind swirling clouds in exactly the same way that it was today. That the water temp - 29 degrees C - was the same. That the currents in the lagoon and the nearby sea were up to the same tricks they were up to during the week of the PT 109 shipwreck. That the reef sharks we spotted a day or two earlier whilst we were snorkelling on a nearby reef, were direct descendants of reef sharks that snooped around Kennedy as he swam from island to island. It was not difficult, as Tony Blair said of the Easter Peace Accords (when he also said, 'This is not a time for one-liners', or words to that effect - politicians just can't help themselves), 'to feel the hand of history on our shoulders'. Blair was a long way out, as it turned out. But we were right by our bit of history. Separated from it by just two degrees. As we clustered behind that log, behind Biuku and Eroni on that beach, the hand of history sat firmly on our shoulders.

It was appropriate, then, that the first annual PT109 swim, was the hardest swim that we has ever done. Bar none. At Terrigal last November, we - as mug a swimmer as ever they come - swam 6 kilometres in 1 hour 38 minutes. From Plum Pudding Island - now known as Kennedy Island - to Naru, to Olasana and back to Kennedy, he swam 4.9 kilometres in 2 hours 30 minutes. Mme Sparkle, an infinitely superior swimmer to us, clocked 2 hours 10 minutes. Then the mob schlepped in. Ultimate swimmer home was Dr Dream in 3 hours 17 minutes. But, as Eddy Malphus pointed out, Dr Dream's effort was the most magnificent of all: for she had never before done an ocean swim. How brobdingnagian was her effort?

The scene

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Plum Pudding Island, also known as Kennedy Island.

The edge of the lagoon fronting Ferguson Passage is 7 kilometres from the muddy little town of Gizo. This is not to decry Gizo; just to state a fact. We're high in the tropics here, inside 8 degrees south of the equator. We're near the edge of a lagoon 7 kilometres wide, as far from the nearest significant land as we can get. That's Ghizo island, nestled on the south-eastern tip of which, just visible in the distance across the whitecaps to the west, is the currently very muddy Gizo town. There's a lot of significant land about, all of them islands, hugging the horizon and rising above it to one extent or another. Ghizo (the island, with the h) is long and low, but nowhere near as long as it looks. To the north-east, the volcano of Kolombangara rears up from the sea, lording it over the Western Province, so sharply that you wonder whether there is any flat land between its coast and its summit, which is perpetually hidden in clouds. In a week in this remote part of the world, only once do we catch a glimpse of Kolombangara's peak, and only fleetingly. It's the perfect location for a coastwatcher.

To the east, across the passage, is another broad lagoon dotted by islands, and it's through them that you head torwards New Georgia. It's very warm, languid, and the water is 29 degrees. We know because we now have a watch that tells water temperatures. We were very excited about the prospect of acquiring this watch, particularly with the way Whale Beach's Richie Stewart went on in Vanuatu about his new digital watch with big numbers and tenths of seconds. But when we finally took possession, via a circumlocuitous route that involved Gary Emich in San Francisco ordering it from the Timex website then mailing it out to us in Australia, we found that we couldn't read it in the water, because that's where we don't wear our glasses. Note to self: always swim with cobbers who don't need glasses.

There are trees waving in the sea breeze, which tempers the tropical sun, and islanders in dugout canoes paddling about the place, fishing for their families and to flog sea creatures on the streets of Gizo. Contrary to everything we saw and learned on TV as a kid, however, there is no constant background ambient lilt of acoustic guitar, no square riggers anchored off-shore, no tall, bronzed Americans with white shirts with their long sleeves rolled up to the biceps, baggy long garberdine trousers and broad leather belts hugging the body and squeezing the loopless wastes into their six-packed pelvises, peaked captains' hats like those now worn only in certain bars on Oxford and Christopher and Castro streets, tilted nonchalantly, evoking brashly the devil-may-care 'tude of the happy-go-lucky heroes of the old South Seas, running from College-day phobias involving mixed-up women or bullying fathers.

Third World instability

Not like in Vanuatu, where they have a tourist industry. The Solomon Islands really is a Third World nation with hardly a tourist infrastructure at all. When we westerners travel to developing countries, we expect spartan places with all the comforts of home, but in luxury. Think Fiji, Vanuatu, New Zealand. We see locals in underprivileged conditons, but it's like we're watching them through a window: they're on the other side, standing in the street, smiling broadly, in mud, drizzle, 100 per cent humidity, barefoot, ragged shirts, dirty shorts, trudging home with a fish over the shoulder for the kids dinner; we're on this side of the window, clean, comfortable, cool in our air-conditioned bungalows, pressed Hawaiian shirts, fresh shorts, sandals and camera slung around the neck. It's as if you know you're in a poor country, but the poverty doesn't really affect you. You're isolated from it. It's like that a bit in the Solomons, but it's much more confronting. You have clean rooms and plentiful meals at the Gizo Hotel, but there's no glass in the window; you're much more amongst it. You walk down the street and you have to trudge through mud, just like the locals; you have to ford storm-swollen streams, just like the locals; you squat by the side of fetid creeks, with the local kids; you take malaria preventative medication, although the locals probably don't have access to that. They don't have access to any medication to speak of. It's much harder to avoid the realities of third world poverty in the Solomons because, when you visit the Solomons, you must experience what the locals experience, save for the bed in which you sleep at night and the meals you're served to eat. It's a major difference, and an important one. In the Solomons, you can relax in relative luxury. But when you head back to your hotel, you traverse the same mud as the locals.

A picture emerges from between the clinical lines of the CIA's World Fact Book. The Solomons are about 1,000 islands with a land area of 27,540 sqkm. Just 1.5 per cent of land is arable and only 0.64 per cent is under permanent crops. They have 509,190 people but a labour force of only 27,000. That means just 27,000 people in jobs. Most people seem to spend their time just walking around the place. Who feeds everyone? Most Solomon Islanders seem to feed themselves: the kind of people who line Middenway Road, the main street in Gizo, every afternoon flogging fish caught that morning from the lagoon. Fish of all shapes, sizes and species. Some of them very ugly indeed (the fish, not the people). Some of them more at home, to our western sensibilities, in aquaria rather than a fishmonger's. Some of them looking even like ripe candidates for ads for dentists and toothpaste. But never mind. Of the Solomons population, 43 per cent are aged 14 or under and another 3 per cent are 65 or over. Population is growing at 2.83 per cent a year. Imagine the issues emerging as all those kids grow to be adults: the unemployment and the feeding problems. The Solomon Islands has a budget of $US38 million. Overseas debt is $US137 million – 3.6 times the budget! They export $US47 million in goods, but they import $US82 million.

It's no wonder they have problems funding schools and hospitals. Lonely Planet describes Gizo hospital as 'a large hospital', probably the key medical facility of Western Province. Gizo is, after all, its capital. Yet Danny Kennedy reports: 'Whilst building projects of great cost are needed, the daily need for medicines, test sticks for diabetes, etc, are high priority. Currently, they're unable to test sugar levels for diabetic patients. Virtually all are managed on diet as insulin is impossible to dispense to the patient at home with no refrigeration'. This is why Kennedy identified Gizo Hospital and Gizo School as the beneficiaries of the PT 109 swim. Kennedy and Gizo Rotary brought in pre-loved text books for the school, but the building in which the school stored the books collapsed. Gizo Rotary is aiming to raise around $US20,000 from the PT 109 swims.

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Local lads knock off pvc pipes from development projects and assemble them in different gauges and lengths, then hit them over the end with thongs to make music. This band, in a gig for the Melanesian Spearhead Group at the Gizo Hotel. (This was the only occasion on which we were allowed in the hotel's main dining room.)

Early days

It's no secret that the Solomons have suffered in recent years from instability in government. That's why Australia led a force from South Pacific states into the country in late July in an attempt to restore order and to foster administrative competence and honesty. The whole country is not falling apart, but there has been a canker at its core that has undermined stability and public confidence in the rule of law. Corruption; mischief; bullying; raskolism at its worst. As we recall, even the Prime Minister was shot and killed by some thug just a few years ago. At one of the prominent pubs in Honiara, it was said that a local bully boy had intimidated the management into providing free accommodation as his home in the capital. It was said to be routine that government officials would cream off the foreign aid. Bullies would intimidate government officials with guns. The perception abroad is that the Solomons is a basket case – a perception encouraged, perhaps unwittingly, by a nervous nellie Australian Government through their travel advisories, which have urged strongly against travelling to the Solomons. The Australian advisory is an enormous over-reaction. The problem in the Solomons is largely a problem of administration, not of public safety.

There are pockets where public safety is an issue, but these are small and localised on what the meeja refers to, in one of the great meeja cliches of our time, as 'the remote Weather Coast'. Sure, a missionary lost his head and Solomonians have been bullied. But outside of corruption in Honiara and a few other places, including Gizo, we were told, and the isolated incidents mentioned above, the Solomons seems a beautifully peaceful place with very friendly people. Life goes on. So much so that, when we and his retinue arrived in Gizo, locals had just chipped the Australian army, which had just moved in for the Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting the following week, for scaring the locals by wandering around with guns. One of the first sites we saw on alightment from the Solomon Airlines Twin Otter on Nusatupe, Gizo's airport island, was an Australian Caribou transport aircraft and a posse of armed Australian soldiers. This didn't alarm us, since we used to write about Defence for a newspaper and we've seen lots of soldiers, not to mention we'd just passed through Honiara's Henderson Airfield, which resembled a military base. But the locals in Gizo aren't used to this behaviour. The soldiers were overkill. Kennedy says local authorities chipped them and the army and their guns disappeared from the streets. There were plenty of spooks and coppers in Gizo, though, most of them very pleasant chaps and it was nice having that level of security just for us. There was one exception, however: a grim faced, humourless, crew-cutted character whom we took to be a spook. Didn't laugh or even smile the entire week we were there, as far as we saw. Took himself very seriously, indeed. Told some locals he worked on secondment with 'law and justice' in Honiara. That was always a euphemism for spook, for our money.

This is not to say that there aren't issues, of course. During the Spearhead Group meeting, for example, there was an Australian patrol boat moored in Gizo harbour and, we were told, another patrolling the strait between the Shortland Islands and Bougainville. Their concern, a foreign aid worker told us, was the possibility that Bougainvillean separatists might cross into the Solomons and threaten PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare during the Spearhead Group meeting. As it happened, Mme Sparkle and we had a vested interest in Sir Michael's safety. In his 60s now, Sir Michael walks with a cane. His room was directly above the Mme Sparkle/us PT109 Nerve Centre at the Gizo Hotel, and Sir Michael asked, through his staff, to swap rooms with us so he wouldn't have to tackle the stairs. We obliged. We slept in Sir Michael's Prime Ministerial sheets, although he hadn't slept in them himself at that stage. We trust the housekeeping staff changed ours before he moved in.

Certainly, the Australian advisory was alarmist and an enormous over-reaction. We have suspected for a long time that the Australian government is smarting from criticism over its laxness in travel warnings about Bali in the period leading up to the bombing there a year ago. Now they're over-compensating. And we're not the only ones who think so. Danny Kennedy wrote to the Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, and the High Commissioner in Honiara providing a free character analysis of the Australian travel warning, pointing out, inter alia, that it was far more severe and alarmist than that for Papua New Guinea, yet travel in Papua New Guinea is far more dangerous than in the Solomons. Pointing out, as well, that the Australian travel warning was crippling the Solomonian tourism industry, including organisations such as his. It's not just Kennedy and his family who lose out of this. It's all the Solomonian people who work for them, and for all the other tourism based operations around the country. Not quite achieving the aims that Operation Helpem Fren professes.

Having said that, and having just checked the latest warning, the Australians have now toned it down considerably. Perhaps they read Danny's letter.

Mud, mud, glorious mud

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Medean Highway, the main street of Gizo.

Gizo has about 100 metres of sealed road - just the main street through the 'CBD'. The rest of its roads are generally muddy, because it's raining much of the time we are in town. Memo to self: don't take thongs (flip-flops) to Gizo next time: walking down muddy streets in thongs is a recipe for staying in one place for a week. Thongs stick to the mud. When you lift your feet to walk, you lift your heel, but the thong stays firmly in the mud, the suction effect threatening both the thong and our appearance as upstanding members of the community. The technique for thongs in mud is either not to wear them, as in not wearing anything on the feet, or to slide your feet, gradually and incrementally lifting them from the muddy surface, much as a plane takes off. This plays a trick on the suction effect: the thongs think they're staying in the mud, not being lifted to walk. Barring this tactic, many a thong will be ripped asunder walking along the streets of Gizo. They're sneaky buggers, thongs. But even given that, they can be very useful in the Solomons. See the pic of the pipe band to find out why.

Mud could be Gizo's emblem. There's mud everywhere. Mud here, mud there, mud up hills, running down hills, filling drains, lying in wait on otherwise grassed sporting fields. We achieved a record for stupidity on the day the Spearheads opened, the Wednesday, when we solicited Mme Sparkle to walk across the sporting field after the pig-dumping ceremony, rather than around it. It looked to us like nice, green, lush grass, from our vantage point under shelter from the rain. The reality was that the grass with a thin veil over more mud, deep mud. And when we reached the other side of the field, we found only one hole in the fence allowing us to climb through to a large, wide drain full of mud. That hole was at crutch height, which meant that, as we stepped through, we got everyone else's mud all over our lower bits. Then we had to grip the wire fence for grim death, for the steep side of the drain threatened to deposit us in the middle of knee deep mud, which way up was uncertain. The relief when we got through the muddy drain was that there was more mud waiting for us on the other side, but it was relatively shallow mud. All things are relative.

South Seas rig

We know we're in the tropics because, on the first day of August, barely half-way through our southern winter, we're warm and comfy in our South Seas rig in the wafting trade winds.

Back out in the lagoon, the reef is dotted with islands, tiny by comparison with Ghizo and Kolombangara. Inside the reef, the water is deep and blue and seems still and nurturing. It fools you. On the eastern edge of the lagoon, and just north of one of three islands, there is a narrow gap in the reef. There's a spit that juts out from this island towards the gap, then there's the gap, about 20 metres across, then there's the reef again, streaking north-west towards another of the islands, a cute little one with tall trees but narrow girth. It looks like a chubby-cheeked kid, this island, like Gary Coleman in the days well before he ran for governor of California, like a Christmas pudding. About as wide as it is tall, onomatapaeically named, Plum Pudding Island. There's a large, old log that's fallen across its southern beach, potential driftwood, or one-time driftwood, beautiful and eerie in its smooth, grey trunk, just crying out to be broken up for someone's wall or coffee table. Strangely, there are no coconut palms on Plum Pudding Island, although there are plenty of coconut leaves and the odd coconut itself washed up on the beach, at journey's end from a sail across the warm Pacific. The coconut leaves, or fronds, were brought in by humans. In a week's time, Plum Pudding Island will be the venue for a very important meeting, and there will be lots of food and drink there. The organisers of the meeting have built a leaf house to shelter the very important men who will meet there for three hours for lunch. These very important men are the MSG – the Melanesian Spearhead Group. They are the prime ministers of the Melanesian states – Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji, and the leader of FLNKS, the Kanak liberation party in New Caledonia. Their vassals in the organising committee have even built a toilet for them, which is locked when we visit, still virginal, if isolated, on a tiny desert (maybe Plum Pudding Island should be a dessert island) and awaiting their prime ministerly botties. Can't have punter botties grinning down this very important bowl.

The reef between the gap and Plum Pudding Island also looks like a spit, although it really is a reef that juts above the surface of the lagoon on one side and the passage on its seaward side. It's a reef that poses very real issues for vessels, narrow with a fast-flowing current. It runs for two kilometres back towards the gap, sheltering the lagoon from the worst of the weather and dragging back the south-bound current to eddy in its shoals.

The gap is the exit from the lagoon into the sea. Or the entrance from the sea into the lagoon. There are more entry points farther north of Plum Pudding Island, but well to the north. This gap is too narrow for larger shipping heading into Gizo. They take the northerly route and swing in north of yet another island, Nusatupe, sitting a kilometre or so offshore from the town. This is where Gizo's airport sits, and the World Fish Centre, where Taffy Idris grows his giant clams and trains in isolation from the rest of the world. We hope that Idris is putting his isolation to good use, making use of the squad session we put him through one lazy afternoon after the PT109 swim. Mme Sparkle demonstrated techniques and drills in the water of the lagoon, whilst we barked instructions from the jetty. Idris's dogs, very healthy ones with shining coats, yelp and prance around our feet. They know something's going on, if only they could work out what it is.

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Mrs Sparkle ran a coaching session for the extremely isolated Dr Idris Lane. Here, she introduces him to View gogs.

Playtime

The gap in the reef is what's important to us, though. We've come across the lagoon from the town, we've inspected Plum Pudding Island, we've learnt why they changed its name to Kennedy Island, and we've inspected the tips of the other two islands, Naru and Olasana, which lies about half a kilometre inside the reef. These islands are largely deserted. No-one seems to live on them, apart from security people stationed for the time being on Plum Pudding Island to protect the leaf house and the loo from foreign buttocks. They are desert islands. There's no water on Plum Pudding Island, and no food and just a bit of shelter. We've learnt much about the three islands and the lagoon, but there's one important secret that we won't learn until later.

We dive and we snorkel around Plum Pudding Island and, later, we dive around Naru, off its northern tip, along the reef and across the gap to the longer reef running back towards Plum Pudding. We snorkel from Naru at varying rates ranging from the near outboard speed of James, the retired nuclear physicist from Los Alamos, who may well have a nuclear powered motor attached to his rear, down to Mary Lou and Eddy and Mme Sparkle, who meanders appreciatively along the brightly coloured corals, teasing the fish and taunting the clams by poking and wafting waves of undersea water at them so they'll close in fright. Eddy and Mary Lou give new meaning to the term, dawdling, at least as far as snorkelling is concerned. But it pays off, for it's Mary Lou who spots the Lion Fish on the second day, after we've ventured through the gap.

The gap is symbolic, for it lets us out from the lagoon into the ocean. It's also the gap through which PT 157 entered Gizo Lagoon to rescue the PT 109 crew from the beach on Olasana island.

Ferguson Passage is not a wide stretch of water, but it is bumpy, like the open ocean, and, as we bounce across it in our fibreglass outboard canoe, long and skinny like a cigar, Danny Kennedy, Yosemite Sam commanding an outboard rather than a square-rigger, remarks, 'There's nothing now between us and Australia... that way' (he says, pointing just west of south), 'and New Zealand... that way' (he points east of south). Ferguson Passage runs from Blackett Strait, which separates the vulcanous island of Kolombangara from the lagoon that protects Ghizo, to the open sea to the south. We cross it in order to reach the next lagoon, Vonavona, and points beyond.

We lunge across the swells and we are conscious of the ghosts of history. The Solomon Islands recorded some of the most ferocious engagements of World War 2. Everywhere we go and everywhere we look, there is something significant about what happened there during the war, from the overall location to points of particular interest. Such as the wreck of the Hellcat fighter lying in 20 feet of water. The wreck of the Japanese Zero, which we didn't see but which sits about 20 metres offshore from the Gizo markets, also in about 20 feet. Such as the shipwrecks off points to where divers make their pilgrimages. The Hellcat wreck is preserved almost immaculately from the day in 1943 when it crash-landed. The metal cladding shines in the light through the water, almost as good as new. The only bits missing are the cloth covers of the wing flaps. When it crashed, there was an islander nearby in a dugout and a coastwatcher pretty well on hand. We believe it was Lt A R Evans, the same Australian coastwatcher who, alerted by Eroni and Biuku, helped to organise the rescue of Kennedy and the crew of PT 109. Evans had a base on Quomu, about 50 metres away. The Hellcat stayed afloat for a while, so the American pilot was able to walk along the wing and into the canoe. Within the hour, we're told, he was enjoying a cup of tea with Evans. Only his feet and shoes got wet.

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The airstrip on Nusatupe. Listen carefully... you can just about hear Washing Machine Charlie launching his dive into a machine gun run.

Where are we

We don't wish to take too myopically western a view here, for this area reeks of more history than the western-oriental war. It also reeks of Melanesian history. This is where headhunters plied their trade until the 1930s, and we'll see evidence of this before we know it. It's where national loyalty is based on language groups: on Wontok – pidgin for one talk, one language. Cultural identity is defined by the bounds of a language: all those who speak a language are like-people; those who don't are foreign. It's one of the causes of problems in the Solomons, a nation which, like so many newly independent nations, is based on the boundaries of convenience of the colonial powers, not on ethnic or cultural heritage. Thus, you can understand why Solomonians in the far south east of the nation, in Temotu province, have difficulty coming to terms with why they should be loyal to Honiara. Temotu is closer to Vanuatu than to the rest of the Solomons. And Solomonians in the Shortland Islands are literally hundreds of metres from Papua New Guinea. Likewise, Papua New Guineans in Bougainville, across the channel border from the Shortlands, are literally hundreds of metres from the Solomons, certainly much closer to the Shortlands than to Port Moresby. So why are they Papua New Guineans? The answer is to do with the boundaries drawn by colonial powers, not necessarily anything to do with Wontok borders or loyalties. Think about it for a bit and you start to see why Westminster government has taken time to catch on in these places.

Until independence in 1978, the Solomons were controlled by British administrators, but socially and culturally they were based on village hierarchies headed by chiefs. Independence brought MPs – members of parliament, 'congressmen' – whose presence challenged the authority of the chiefs. Where should loyalties lie? With the chiefs or with the MPs? In our minds, there's no issue. No self-respecting Libran should be loyal to a politician. You can start to understand why there are constitutional issues in places like this.

All of this is to skim across the surface of what are very important issues. We cannot pretend to be experts, although, as we noted in our Vanuatu report, as an old hack, we embrace the grand tradition of journalism: within minutes of arriving in a strange country, we are an expert on it. Or so we make out to our readers. Hey! How hard is it to absorb Solomon Islands culture? We were there for a week! Maybe we thought that until we saw the village band playing on PVC pipes with thongs. 'No wonder the regional water projects are held up!' remarked a Solomonian at reception at the Gizo Hotel, our home in the Solomons.

Past Vonavona lagoon, through a muddy estuary packed, Danny tells us, with crocadollars, we visit Lola island, where there is a no-frills but idyllic resort. Reef sharks frolic on the water's edge... amongst swimmers. Much to the ignorance of Dr Dream, who swam out a kilometre into the middle of the lagoon and back again, on a training mission, alone and topless, and before we found out about the three reef sharks who hang off the wharf. Never mind. We told her when she got back.

Skulls alive

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The appositely named Skull Island.

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Behind Lola is Skull Island. We'd read about Skull Island in the Lonely Planet guide to the Solomons (p160). But we never dreamed we'd go there, since it's 30 miles east of Gizo. But in Danny Kennedy's twin outboard canoe, it's an hour's journey at 30 knots.

After lunch at Lola, we're herded into the boats and driven around the back to the edge of the lagoon. There's a tiny dot of an island, even smaller than Plum Pudding, right on the edge of the reef. It's densely jungled. Up a path, in the middle of the island, there's a strip of bright sheeting. It looks like plastic. Someone says it's a hang-over from the war, when stranded airmen and sailors used it to attract the attention of searching aircraft and vessels. Might be a furphy. What's not a furphy is why Skull Island is so named. In the middle of the island, which is barely more than 25 metres across, there's a long, chest-high midden of rough, igneous stones. One end of this 8 metre midden is flattened into an altar atop which sit three stone effigies. Two sea birds and another figure. So weathered that you can't quite tell what they are. Islanders would come here to pray before setting out on their missions, which often involved head-hunting.

At the other end of the midden, stored neatly and precisely in recesses amongst the rocks, are the product of those missions - scores of skulls, some with holes whacked in their tops, some missing teeth, some positioned so whimsically that when they catch the light you would swear they're still looking at you. Scores of them. In countless recesses in the rocks. You walk along the midden, and more and more hove into view. Along one side, around the end, back along the other side. More and more. No end to the skulls. Up and down the midden, across and along. Skulls everywhere. Head-hunted Melanesians. At least, we assume they're all Melanesians. We don't recognise any so they can't be Westerners. Not like our experience in Kashmir in 1983, when we recognised many people from Australia, except they were all Indians or Kashmiris.

pt109 03 06 400Atop the midden, there's a triangular prismic wooden cabinet, about two and a half feet high. Inside, there are more skulls, and on a lower shelf, there's clam money - clam shell rings that the chiefs used as money. The skulls inside the cabinet were chiefs. The skulls date from 300 years back right up until head-hunting 'died out' in the 1930s. While it's barbaric to our western sensibilities, there was reason in head-hunting that was based on the Melanesian belief that one could acquire the power of one's enemies by taking their heads. So they did. Then they stored them very neatly indeed and looked after them. For the fact is that Skull Island and all its skulls stand out on the edge of the reef, on the edge of the Pacific, sourrounded by reef, lagoon, ocean and other tropical islands, but completely unprotected from natural predators such as western tourists. It's a mark of where we are, and the kind of nation that the Solomon Islands is, that they remain there unplundered, or relatively unplundered. We can tell from the picture in the Lonely Planet guide that there used to be more chiefs and more clam money in the cabinet. Someone's nicked them. We hear that some local lads had the bright idea a few years back of flogging stuff to tourists, but when the local hierarchy found out, they disciplined them and it stopped.

Anyway, one can't help wondering how barbaric and weird head-hunting was as a religious ritual, against some of the rubbish in the judeo-christian tendencies. There's a sect in the southern USA, for example, that celebrates the Lord by chanting and prancing with rattlesnakes, daring them to bite the worshippers. We know this because we've seen it on the telly. No-one will be able to tell us that head-hunting is sillier than that. Or the practice that used to exist amongst Mormons of bigamy, or even polygamy, by which men married more than one wife. That's not just weird or silly. It's certainly not indulgent. It's stupid.

Solomons Crawl

Vonavona lagoon runs up to New Georgia island and the town of Munda. Past Munda, you run into Roviana lagoon. We didn't go there. No-one said, Don't go there! We just didn't. Danny's outboards could take us only so far in a day without having to check into a pub, and there aren't many pubs in that part of the world. Certainly, few that took Visa.

We mention Roviana for a very specific reason, however, and that is to do, again, with the influence that places as insignificant as the Solomons can have on the broader world. This is particularly relevant to the caper up to which we currently are. We all know, or should know, that the way most of us swim, most of us who are sane, in any case, is an overarm style known as The Australian Crawl. Many of us think it's called Freestyle, but it's not. Freestyle merely indicates that, under swimming rules, one can employ any stroke one wishes. The name of the stroke that most of us use in Freestyle events is The Australian Crawl. Historical documents argue that The Australian Crawl was introduced to Australia towards the end of the 19th century by a visiting Solomon Islander, Alick Wickham. Alick was Melanesian descended from a British trader, hence his name. In Australia, according to legend, he took part in events in Sydney and Melbourne using the overarm crawl stroke used by islanders in the Roviana area. He knew it as The Roviana Crawl, or so his great nephew, Lawrie, told us in Gizo. Lawrie says Alick set a record for swimming underwater in the Yarra. Someone else told us he'd bobbed up at a surf carnival at Bronte in Sydney and used the Roviana Crawl in a surf race, and the rest was history. There were no surf carnivals at Bronte in the 1890s when Alick was thought to have been in Australia, although surf life saving activities certainly were under way there. Bronte historian Stanislaus Vesper has documentary evidence of life saving at Bronte in the early 1890s. When neighbouring Bondi set up in 1906, Bronte sent them an instructor to train their first bronze medallion squad. But we digress. Just can't resist a little dig. Lawrie Wickham tells us Alick's story, sitting on the deck of the PT 109 bar, which he owns.

Leg 1 - Kennedy- Naru

We cannot land on Kennedy Island because it's just two days out from the Spearheads who are heading out here for lunch. There are coppers, of sorts, lingering on the beach, guarding the leaf hut and the locked loo from foreign bottoms. Luckily, in the tropics, islands have reefs around them, so we can tumble out of Danny's motorised canoes and start from the edge where the reef drops away into an abyss. At least that gives us a deep water start. Danny introduces us to our paddlers. Mine is John. Only later do I discover his full name: John Kennedy Kumana. He is Eroni's son. Mme Sparkle's paddler is Aaron. Aaron is the Anglicised version of Eroni. He, too, is Eroni's son.
We all have paddlers, most of them in dugout canoes. The question crosses our mind - if, by some chance, something happens and we have to try to clamber into John's dugout canoe, can we be sure that no-one will be around to take pictures? This would not be a pretty sight. It could also be life-threatening. For John. We just have to be careful about our bananas and our water stored in the bottom of the canoe.

We have scouted the course a couple of times in the past few days. We know that the first leg, from Kennedy down to Naru, past the gap, could be difficult if the breeze is up, which it's likely to be at the time of day that Danny wants to start, which is just before midday. That's when the currents are quietest, he says, and we trust him. We know, however, that this first leg is going to be 2.5 kilometres into the breeze and the chop that it whups up. The consolation is that we'll be fresh and we'll get the hard bit over first and the rest, we figure, should be a breeze in itself.

We lather up. Can't have too much sunscreen in this part of the world. But it makes our head slippery. As the swim wears on, we feels our yellow, silicon swim cap slipping inexorably up our chromed dome. It's uncomfortable and distracting, but not enough to make us stop. At the start, this is what we anticipate. Danny stands in waist-deep water, counting down on his watch for the start. He blows a whistle. We wet our whistles.

We have gone over this first leg in our mind several times on the way out to Kennedy Island. It's about 7 kilometres from Gizo and a 10-15-minute boat ride. And it's remarkable how quickly one swims in one's imagination. We do this leg three or four times, whilst Ed and Mary Lou relax, Dr Dream goes silent, and Mme Sparkle writhes in agony. Mme Sparkle's inner workings have this terrible knack of knotting completely up before a race. It's hell driving up to the northern beaches with her on a Sunday morning in summer. We've gone over the course and we know how we'll swim it, at least to the first buoy off the northern tip of Naru.

We set off on Danny's whistle, and we draw from the experience both of our days rowing surfboats and of Mme Sparkle heading in past Lady Bay and Camp Cove nearing the end of last season's South Head Roughwater. This was experience in heading into wind and chop. Mme Sparkle waxed philosophical after South Head about the importance of lying low in the water but flat, thus minimising resistance from the wind and the chop as you cut through it, your leading hands slicing into the water ahead and forward beneath the surface for that extra grab. In our surf boat days, heading into a chop - which was virtually every time we headed out through the break towards the buoys - meant leaning back more, lengthening the stroke, and finishing with a more exaggerated flourish off the end of the blades to produce the oomph the boat needs to glide through the recovery phase of the stroke, head first into the chop and slightly across what was almost inevitably a stiff nor' easter. Most importantly, we must keep our heads: don't let a bit of chop breaking into the gob or up one's conk throw one from one's game plan.

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Eddy and Mary Lou Malphus, from California. Eddy (now the late Eddy, sadly) was a medico who brought a suitcase full of medications for the community of Gizo. The next problem, of course, was that the Gizo hospital at that time did not have a fridge to store them. Here they are at the thong-slapping night at the Gizo Hotel.

This is how we set out. And we are pleased to say that, for once in our lives, we stuck to our game plan.

Up the first leg, we and Mme Sparkle swam neck and neck. We would inch in front, then she would come back to us and inch ahead of us. Then we'd do the same. And so on... Ever noticed how one's position in the field can be affected by one's direction in relation to the rest of the field, the peloton? Which means, the more you head into the field, the more behind you'll feel you are. The more you head away from the field, the more you'll be ahead of them. This can have a terrific impact on your psyche. Feeling as though you're in front can be enormously energising. Trailing can be self-perpetuating. The issue, of course, is whose direction is more correct. There's no point deriving a feel-good feeling from leading if one is leading in the wrong direction. That's what was happening between us and Mme Sparkle. As we'd change direction, our positions in relation to each other would change. Unfortunately, Mme Sparkle is tops at direction and she was usually the one who was right. Relatively speaking, however – and all things are relative, after all – we paced each other. We can speak only for ourselves, but our stroke felt as it should, ie long, controlled, with grab, a nice S described beneath our body, and a flourish at the finish. But that word, 'controlled', is important. It was controlled. Mme Sparkle said to us later she'd wondered about us: we'd seemed to go out too hard for a sustained swim over the distance, and she may have been right, given what happened later in the swim. But for now, we felt good.

It's a funny thing about swimming in a lagoon. You'd think you'd be watching the bottom all the way: sandy, rippled, with whiting darting about. We weren't, for the reality of lagoons is that they can be small and shallow, or small and deep, or big and shallow, or big and deep. We got the last. As we left the reef around Kennedy, that's the last we saw of the bottom until we got to Naru. The water was deep and blue and clear, but it dropped away into an inky nothing, testimony to its depth. We had a similar sensation on the way from Bondi to South Head in March, and it was eerie in the extreme. We were used to it a bit more this time, though, and perhaps the awareness of the reef that almost linked Kennedy with Naru, a hundred metres or so to the east, kept the depth of the water in perspective for us.

Pacing Mme Sparkle all the way down the 2.5 km first leg, stroke for stroke and rarely more than a metre or two apart, gives rise to another unusual experience that we've commented on in the past: the effect on one's pace and endurance of having a pacing partner. We discussed it after the inaugural Sydney Harbour Swim, although that event was 1.7 km in all. Nothing like the first leg of the inaugural PT 109. Maybe it's because the pacing and the competitive nature of swimming in this way takes one's mind off one's own state, eg how tired one is, how difficult is the swim, the problem of chop and breeze, etc, etc. It's certainly true that a competitive spirit can swim faster for longer in a competition than they can whilst just training. It's the adrenalin. Pacing, too, was an incentive to maintain technique. Knowing Mme Sparkle as we do, we knew that she wasn't going to try at this early part of the swim to race us to the first buoy. We knew she would maintain a pace with us, then crush us towards the end. She's a nasty piece of work in a close finish! But this knowledge allowed us to settle into a sustainable pace, secure in the knowledge that we could swim abreast, pretty well as long as one of us or the other could maintain the pace. That instils a confidence and a security that allows us to focus on our technique rather than imminent defeat.

We are proud to announce at this point that this report of the PT 109 swim also carries our first video report of a swim (no longer available). Click the appropriate link above right to access it. You will see from this video just what we mean by our description of swimming down the first leg.

pt109 03 14 600Random punters at the Gizo Hotel thong-slapping night.

We knew we'd reached out target, that being the first turning buoy off the northern tip of Naru, because the bottom hove into view once more. There are few sights in swimming more glorious than a tropical coral bottom. Mind you, a few bottoms in the peloton in any swim around Sydney weren't bad, come to think of it. But never mind. The bottom rising from the bottom heralds the edge of the reef. All of a sudden, there are fish and coral and clams, etc, etc, to watch, as well as one's rivals. The red buoy marks not just the first turn, but also the first stop. Approaching this first buoy, Mme Sparkle stops just shy. Us, reflecting our yearning for completeness and symmetry, are compelled to swim around it before stopping. Others would call it our anal tendency. We stop and we don't feel too bad. Mme Sparkle is her vivacious self. In his canoe, John carries our water bottle and a banana and our remaining tube of PowerGel. This is a revolting substance which, consumed during an effort, imbues the consumer with new reserves of energy. So they say. It tastes off, but then anything good must have a downside.

There is another issue with PowerGel, unfortunately, and that is the plastic wrapping of the tube in which it comes. It's waterproof, of course, which is just as well in the ocean. But it's such a strong wrapping that our mitts slip off it when we try to open it whilst wet. Most packs such as these come with a nick in the plastic wrap that serves as a starter for tearing open. The nick doesn't work with PowerGel. We're no Arnold Schwarzenegger, to be sure, but neither are we any wussy weakling. But these things should be designed so that ordinary mug punters should be able to open them at will, wet or dry. They're hard enough to open whilst dry, but they're damn impossible to open whilst wet. The PowerGel people ought to take a good, hard look at this issue, because it could inhibit their market growth. Anyway, in the bottom of John's dugout was also a tube of PowerGel, but when we cast through our minds our options for eating at the first buoy, we dismiss the PowerGel immediately as being all too hard. It remains unopened. Bananas, on the other hand, are easy. We eat our banana and swig some water.

Swimming with sharks

In water where you can't see the bottom, you can't help but wonder what's down there. Sometimes you see a flash of movement, sometimes you feel something slide past as your hand describes its course through the water. Sometimes, you just think you do. You wonder about the sea life, especially its larger examples. Ones with sharpish snouts and vertical stabilisers on their backs, and chilling smiles. The remarkable thing about experience, however, is that, the more you swim, and the more you swim in the tropics, we've found the less you dwell on these potentially difficult issues. A sense of fatality creeps in. If something's going to happen, if you're going to be joined by something, then there's not much you can do about it. So get over it.

This sense of fatality, of resignation, but also of relative inner calm, was facilitated by the experience of two days before, when both we and Mme Sparkle found ourselves sharing the lagoon with sharks. It was cathartic for both of us. For our part, we were idling along just over the edge of the reef off the island of Nusa Aghana, just inside Vonavona lagoon. It was a long skinny island, and we were snorkelling from one mooring buoy to the next, about 400 metres along the beach. Dive operators like Danny Kennedy have mooring buoys all over the South Pacific, marking their favourite spots. We edged over the reef with our fins and our swimming goggles – no full face mask or snorkel for us! – and we looked deep as Dr Dream, on her first scuba dive in years, inched slowly downwards, her hand held by Danny himself. They were about 30 feet down, we figured, their bubbles streaming up in staccato dashes, like Mike Nelson doing voice-over. She was a very deep dream. As we turned back towards our own course, we saw, another 30 feet ahead of them, also about 30 feet down, an unmistakeable profile. Not a big shark, but a shark nonetheless. About two metres long. We'd wondered often how we would react in such a situation. This being our initial practical experience, we were overwhelmed at one thing: how unalarmed we were. Why? We figure it was because the overwhelming impression that we derived, instantly, was that this character was not interested in us. It seemed to be chasing fish. It was much lower down, heading towards Dr Dream and Danny, admittedly, but apparently unconcerned about them, as well. It was monumentally pre-occupied, sending the message that it just wasn't interested in us. In extremis, you invoke the Almighty . . . There was no extremis here, so we kept going.

Shortly after, we were scooting across the lagoon towards Quomu island, off which, in 30 feet of water, is the Hellcat wreck. About 300 metres from the island, Mme Sparkle had the bright idea that we should swim the rest of the way. So she and we dived into the lagoon. As we took off, Mme Sparkle realised that Mary Lou was diving in, too. So she waited for her. Us, as a boy, took off. The water here was more turquoise than it had been in the earlier location, but it was still clear and clean. There was a gap of 50 metres between us, so what happened to Mme Sparkle took place in our ignorance, until later. On her way across, Mme Sparkle, too, saw a shark swim beneath and across her path. It, too, was about 2 metres long. Just a few feet below her, she said. Now, Mme Sparkle has often mused on her likely reaction should she find herself sharing the ocean with a shark. Ever since the South Head Roughwater, she hasn't shut up about it. So much has she gone on about it that it's hard not to turn off when she turns up. But hers, too, was a cathartic experience. She reacted in much the same way as us. Hey! It's there! Get over it!

At Lola island, they have a huge triangular frame standing in the water about 10 metres from the beach. The bottom drops away, and the kids climb up the frame, from level to level, like an exaggerated ladder, and they jump off the frame into the lagoon. Mostly, they jump on the lagoon side where the water is deep. On the island side, it's gets shallow quickly. The second time we climbed this frame, one of the islander kids suddenly yelled, 'Shark!' and he pointed. About 2 metres from the beach, in about 18 inches of water, there was a shark, just cruising. A little reef shark with a stark black tip on his/her fin. Only about 4 feet. But a shark, nonetheless. Normally, one wouldn't be concerned, or so we learned later. But in the water, wading out from the beach, and about 10 metres ahead of the shark, was little Josh, 6, from Melbourne, who'd had his own cathartic experiences in the previous few hours. We yelled a warning to Josh (we're a lifesaver, after all, although we haven't done our annual proficiency test for a few years) to climb onto the frame, and he hurried. One of the islander kids thought he'd give the shark a hurry along anyway, so he leapt from the upper frame into a couple of feet of water, landing right next to the shark, which took off with a terrified whip of its tail. Just afore this, Dr Dream, hungry for some training, had set off, topless, in a G-string, to swim out into the lagoon. About a kilometre out, she went, back towards the crocadollarish creek way in the distance. She'd gone, so we couldn't tell her about the shark, or about the two others we spotted cruising off the end of the wharf in the heavy rain just before lunch.They looked right at home. We figured this was their practice, hanging out waiting to be fed. Dr Dream was well out and away from harm, we hoped. We'd tell her when she got back.

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Also in town during our stay was an Australian scientific researcher, who fed bats to snakes.

Kennedy 2

Jack Kennedy was in the Solomons barely seven months, but he packed an awful lot into his time there. He commanded PT 109; he got up to mischief and quite literally cut a swathe through his PT boat base; he was shipwrecked and turned himself into a genuine hero; he was in the vanguard of innovation in attempting to turn the discredited PT boats into gunboats (by the time Kennedy was rescued from Olasana, PT boats had been found so wanting in the Pacific war that allied commanders banned them from further missions; the shipwreck mission was simply the last straw in their demise); and, irreverent and frivolous as it sounds, the more we hear about Kennedy's experiences in the Solomons, the more we see him as the model not just for the movie, PT 109, but also for the TV series, McHale's Navy. His base commander, for example, one Lt Commander Thomas G. Warfield, seemed like the prototype for Captain Wallace B. Binghampton (the B stood for Burton, we've just discovered). There was really a Washing Machine Charlie who used to strafe allied bases. Between the Russell Islands and Guadalcanal, there is Iron Bottom Sound. Binghampton's nickname was Lead Bottom. Warfield ('Binghampton') was described as 'a highly strung martinet, who refused to ride the PT boats, preferring to exercise command from the bunker that... he had specially constructed on Lumbari, the small island base for PTs...'.

Kennedy was known as a bit of a lad, and his time in the Solomons did nothing to diminish this.

We recognise that there are plenty of Kennedy knockers about, but it's interesting to read the account of Nancy Gager Clinch, in her 1973 book, 'The Kennedy Neurosis': 'As the skipper of PT 109, Kennedy's lack of organisation and personal recklessness involved the lives of other men. According to one of his friendliest biographers, Jack 'once received a low rating in military bearing and neatness; and when he took off for his most memorable sea action, the PT base lacked a record of the men aboard because he had neglected to see to it that a muster sheet was turned in to headquarters'.

Clinch goes on, 'Kennedy's chequered seagoing career included a little-known escapade in which, trying to beat another boat home at all costs, he failed to reverse engines in time and rammed the pier...' Robert J Donovan, the careful although un-analytical author of PT 109, related the dock incident in vivid detail that implied Kennedy was lucky not to have killed anyone.

'At their South Pacific base, the PT crews raced to refuel because only then were they allowed breakfast and rest... (Donovan reports:) From the time he had taken command nearly two months before, Kennedy was possessed with the desire to make the boat go faster. He was forever instructing the motormacs, 'Let's get more speed'. He loved to be at the wheel, and he loved speed. On these sprints to the fuel dock, he would roar into the cover with a rooster tail arching in his wake and throttles wide open. He would hold his speed to the last second, then order the engines into reverse just in time to brake his momentum in front of the dock. The hairdbreadth finishes began to worry the motormacs. The braking at such speed put a heavy strain on the engines. Drawdy cautioned Kennedy that the engines might not always reverse under such pressure. However, they always had, and Kennedy liked to win.

'One morning... he found imself in a furious race with another boat... gradually, he crept up even with the other PT, and as they raced prow to prow the issue resolved itself into the simple matter of which skipper would have the nerve to hold his speed the longer with the dock rushing in on both of them. In the end, Kennedy held just long enough to go in front. Immediately, he ordered the engines into reverse. All three conked out, and PT 109 went streaking at the dock, like an eighty-foot missile on the loose.

'On the dock, the fueling crew had reported and a work party under a warrant officer had entered the shed to get out the tools when the whole world came crashing down on them. Tools flew in all directions. Wrenches, jacks, screwdrivers and hammers plopped into the water. Some of the men who were still outside toppled into the dock. Those on the inside who weren't too terrified to move clawed their way out. When they burst through the door, however, they beheld not the expected formation of Japanese diver bombers overhead, but a single PT boat sliced into a corner of the dock, her skinny bronzed skipper standing in his motionless cockpit, ruefully surveying the scene. Some of his crew were motionless, too, having been knocked flat by the crash.'

In his exhaustive biography, 'JFK - The Life and Death of an American President' (BCA, 1993), Nigel Hamilton provides another account: 'Having ridden the wake of another vessel until the final stretch home, he had pulled abreast and then played dare. As the two boats raced into harbor, it became a question of which skipper would first throttle down. In the end, Jack won, but when he then telegraphed down to the engineer to reverse the engines, all three Packard 1,350-horsepower motors died'. Hamilton then quotes the report referred to above by Bob Donovan in PT 109, and says, 'One of the crew, Bucky Harris, recalled how thereafter, 'everybody used to run for the beach when they saw our boat coming. That's when they started calling him Crash Kennedy'. Donovan recounted (reports Hamilton) that Jack was saved from court-martial only by slipping away from the scene of the misdemeanor when attention was distracted by another boat slipping its moorings'. Clinch says, '...in the diversion, Jack idled his boat away and hid up a small stream until the trouble blew over'. Others remember the ending differently. Another PT commander, Barney Ross, whose own boat had been sunk and was aboard PT 109 on the night it was rammed, recalled Kennedy dismissed it to a flustered 'Capt. Binghampton': 'Well, you can't stop that PT 109!'. Ross said, 'There were a lot of laughs'. Sounds like it, particularly from the refuelling crew.

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Fish markets on the main street of Gizo.

Reckless?

We recount this incident not through any attempt to discredit Kennedy, as many have done over the years. But it presents a different aspect to that conventionally presented of a character who's had more words written about him than most others. There was an interesting post-script, according to Clinch, whose task in her book was to analyse what drove the Kennedy clan psychologically (essentially negative reactions to an up-bringing by a bullying father). Clinch argues that these incidents, and others around the same time, placed a question mark over Kennedy's leadership, particularly under stress. She goes on, 'A further shadow falls over the question of Jack's leadership competence in a seemingly innocent passage in a book by Paul Fay, Jr, the light-hearted Navy friend whom Jack later appointed as Under Secretary of the Navy.

In 'The Pleasure of his Company', Fay quoted Kennedy's political pep talk to the old PT 109 shipmates he gathered in 1960 to help him win the Wisconsin primary. In outlining their television program, the ex-skipper urged each man to introduce himself briefly and to emphasize their common effort in the war. Then Kennedy would carry on. However, he did caution them not to allow Bill Johnston, a motor mechanic on the ill-fated vessel, to say too much – perhaps, Kennedy quipped, he should only be permitted to give his name – for if Johnston were given the chance, he could destroy the senator's heroic war image... When Johnston did arise (sic) to speak, he managed no more than two words vefore he was cut short and his presentation ended. Thus any potentially damaging remarks were averted.

Since the motormacs were precisely those crewmen who knew the truth about the condition of Kennedy's engines, which had been strained in his dock races and failed at least once, we must again wonder what Jack was trying to suppress, under the guise of humour, in the memory of Bill Johnston. The relevance of this is that, when PT 109 was struck by the Japanese destroyer, Amagiri, the boat had been idling on one engine. Clinch wrote, 'It is surprising to learn that that, until the ramming, his crew was not at general quarters, a standard procedure on a combat operation. We are also left to wonder why Kennedy did not immediately start his other two engines during the thirty to sixty seconds left him after the destroyer was sighted... As one critical writer commented (said Clinch), 'There were those Navy sceptics who wondered how it was possible for Jack, as the skipper of PT 109, to have gotten such a small, maneuvrable craft into position to be slashed in two by the bow of a Japanese destroyer... No other motor torpedo boat was reported to have suffered such a singular misfortune in any of the oceans in World War II'.

A declassified US Navy report of the incident, based on accounts from survivors, says PT 109 spotted the Japanese destroyer at 200-300 yards: 'The PT 109 had started to turn to starboard preparatory to firing torpedoes. However, when the PT 109 had scarsely (sic) turned 30 (deg), the destroyer rammed the PT, striking it forward of the forward starboard tube and shearing off the starboard side of the boat aft, including the starboard engine ... Scarcely 10 seconds elapsed between time of sighting and the crash'.

Shipwrecked

All assumed the crew of PT 109 had been lost. The PT nearest 109 at the time of the ramming reported no survivors and no wreckage. Despite this, the survivors clung to half the hull until 2pm the following day. The Navy report of the time said, 'When daylight of August 2 arrived [around four hours after the ramming], the eleven survivors were still aboard PT 109'. Indeed, the hull was tracked on its float across Blackett Strait towards Gizo by the coastwatcher on Kolombangara who later contributed to the crew's rescue.

'Binghampton' and his successor, Gibson, laid off on Kennedy as the architect of his own demise through slippiness and incompetence as a leader. Few question Kennedy's heroism and leadership during the week of the shipwreck, however. Accounts list his serial attempts to flag down 'passing' PT boats by swimming out from the islands, over the reef, into Blackett Strait DURING THE NIGHT (our emphasis) in the hope one would come by. According to the US Navy report, 'That evening (Aug 2), Kennedy decided to swim into Ferguson Pasage in an attempt to intercept PT boats proceeding to their patrol areas. He left about 1830, swam to a small island 1/2 mile to the southeast, proceeded along a reef which stretched out into Ferguson Passage, arriving there about 2000'.

Kennedy encountered no boats. He had no way of knowing, of course, that after PT 109's demise, Naval command forbade any more PT boat missions into Blackett Strait. None came past. And none came back to look for him. The Navy report says 'Kennedy began his return (to Plum Pudding Island) over the same route he had previously used. While swimming the final lay to the island on which the other survivors were, he was caught in a current which swept him in a circle about 2 miles into Blackett Strait and back to the middle of Ferguson Passage, where he had to start his homeward trip all over again.

'On this trip, he stopped on the small island just southeast of 'home' where he slept until dawn before covering the last 1/2 mile lap to join the rest of his group. He was completely exhausted, slightly feverish and slept most of the day'.

On the night of August 3, Ross made a similar attempt: 'Using the same route as Kennedy had used and leaving about 1800,' the Navy report said, 'Ross 'patrolled' off the reefs on the west side of the Passage with negative results. In returning, he wisely stopped on the islet south-east of 'home', slept and thereby avoided the experience with the current which had swept Kennedy out to sea.'

'Binghampton' never ordered his other boats to go look for Kennedy and his crew. Another commander, Bill Battle, began to fuel up for a search, according to Hamilton, 'but was ordered to stop'. Hamilton quotes another commander, Johnny Isles, 'Bill Battle told me (Binghampton) would not permit anybody to go up there... Battle was over there tanking up and he was told to get away, come on back and berth up, mind his own business... (Binghampton) wanted no more disasters'. No-one went to look; they'd been ordered not to. Even before they were picked up, Eroni and Biuku took Kennedy to meet coastwatcher Evans on Quomu island, near where the Hellcat wreckage now lies. There'd been plenty of evidence of survival, including eyewitnesses. But no-one looked.

Hamilton writes, '(Binghampton's) communications officer, Lieutenant Woods, even confided that they had frankly given up the search when a dispatch came from Admiral Halsey himself... to keep looking. Despite Halsey's order, however, no further sea or air searches had been conducted. Thus even when Evans reported further sightings of the wreck of a PT boat floating south of Gizo near the area where PT 109 had gone down, (Binghampton) had still declined to send a PT boat patrol, so convinced was he that the crew had died. He simply requested that Allied fighter planes destroy the remains of the boat lest its codebooks be found by the Japanese'.

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Our course. After getting this far, this will mean more to you.

Today 2

C'mon, Fatty!

'C'mon, Fatty!' Mme Sparkle's lilting call is her way of affectionately urging us to higher achievement. 'C'mon, Fatty!' Lilting call? More an up-brading, admonishing imperative! It's a common sound around the swims of the NSW coast. As he emerged from the water at Sydney Harbour, for example, hundreds crowded the finish as hordes of swimmers climbed the stairs out of the water and sprinted up the narrow race to the finishing pad. So frenetic was his finish, at full sprint trying to knock over some 95 year old who'd passed us on the first leg, us sprawled headlong into crowd packed up against the finish line. In the melee, all we could hear was, 'C'mon, Fatty!' We knew we were home.

Near the first buoy off Naru, there it was again. 'C'mon, Fatty!' Mme Sparkle took off, expecting us to follow. We turned around, the final remnants of our banana sliding gravitously down our gullet, looking for John, our paddler. He was nowhere to be seen. We looked for him harder. Called out. Mme Sparkle, meanwhile, was gone, heading for Olasana. By the time John emerged from the other side of the spectator fleet (Danny's canoe), where he'd been chatting with his brother, she was 25 metres ahead. We set off. The strait between Naru and Olasana looked benign enough. Just about 500 metres, relatively smooth, calm water. Deep, blue. Unruffled. Swimming slightly with the chop and breeze this time. Easy peasy.

About half way across, however, we realised something was wrong. Wrong? If we were heading on a bearing something north of west, we should have been heading towards Olasana. Had we followed that bearing, however, we'd have ended up somewhere south of Townsville. The farther into the strait we went, the more we felt the force of our strokes was not the only force with a bearing on our progress. There was a current, too. When we arrived in Gizo four days before, Danny Kennedy had warned us about currents. The reason the swim was timed for when it was (11 am) was because, Danny said, that's when the currents seemed to be at their most benign. We thought he'd been taking a lend of himself, in fact, since there'd been no sign of currents that we could see and certainly none we could feel. Truth be told, we had felt a current whilst snorkelling off Naru on our first day in the water, but we'd thought little of it since it was off course and near the opening into Ferguson Passage. We thought it was to do with that.

As we crossed the Olasana strait, however, the current pressed itself upon us more and more. No problem. Bit of a current. All you do is head into it a bit and, by the time you reach your destination, which was the second turning buoy, off the beach from which the crew of PT 109 were rescued 60 years earlier, you should be spot on. That's the theory. So we did. We changed direction to head farther north. But we still had this feeling that we were being sucked south through he strait. Funny how these things hit home. It probably was as we saw the southern point of Olasana hoving into view, then slipping by us to our north. If that was north, we were south. So we sharpened our angle of attack. Farther north still. But still slipping south. So we sharpened it again. By this time, we were virtually swimming towards Kennedy Island, heading just slightly west of north but still battling to avoid being sucked out to sea. Well, into the outer lagoon, anyway. There was a long way to go before we were deposited in the open sea, but being caught in a current like this can have a remarkable effect on one's perception of one's safety. It reminded us of our Aunty Doy, our favourite aunty, who was the first to tell us about the perils of being caught in a rip. Sitting on the water's edge at Caves Beach, when we were probably about 5, Aunty pointed out how the waves, when they washed around us, exerted this pulling action on us and sucked the sand away from beneath us where we were sitting. 'That's how you can be dragged out to sea,' said Aunty. And we marvelled at her command of physics. Aunty was just our aunty, after all.

It seemed, too, that the harder we swam and the sharper the angle we approached Olasana, the harder the current became. And it did. The reason was that it was coming down by Olasana on an angle from above, so it dragged harder along the island the closer we came to it. Check out the video to get an idea of how strong was that current. Watch the water's surface as we round the second buoy. The video lacks captions, however, so you'll just have to pick us. We're the ones whose strokes don't seem to be pulling us through the water, who misses the buoy and is forced to double back to go around it. Never let it be said that we cut buoys!

It was an agonising swim across that narrow strait and, for the first time in the swim, it began to tax our mind as well as our body.

Not for us the jubilation of being the first to round that second buoy. By the time we got there, Mme Sparkle was well and truly on her way back to Kennedy. She told the story later of her experience getting around. As she'd turned, the buoy to her right, the crowd in the spectator fleet (another of Danny's canoes) shouted and cheered. Most impressed, she reported, was Eroni, who jumped up in joy, yelled 'Number 1!' gave her the thumbs up and finished off with a motion in which his hands described a semi-circular arc outwards through the air in front of his chest. Mme Sparkle got the impression he was expressing delight that the first person around was a woman. 'He was very excited,' Mme Sparkle reported, whose capacity to observe the world around her whilst swimming are remarkable. See the video, again, for Mme Sparkle coming into the finish back at Kennedy. Just before she gets there, she looks for all the world as if she's sharing a laugh with the cameraperson.

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Waiting to be eaten. They'd need a bit of work on them first.

Kennedy 3

The US Navy report says Kennedy and Ross first sighted Eroni and Biuku in the late afternoon of August 5: 'About this time a canoe containing two persons was sighted. Light showing between their legs revelealed that they did not wear trousers and, therefore, must be natives. Despite all efforts by Kennedy and Ross to attrract their attention, they paddled swiftly off to the northwest'. We know now this was because Eroni and Biuku had thought them to be Japanese. Kennedy went back out into Ferguson Passage that night, this time in a one-man canoe he and Ross had found on Naru. 'When Kennedy arrived at base (later) he found that the two natives which he and Ross had sighted... had circled around and landed on the island where the rest of the group were (Olasana). Ensign Thom, after tellling the natives in as many ways as possible that he was an American and not a Jap, finally convinced them whereupon they landed and performed every service possible for the survivors.'

Kennedy sent Eroni and Biuku off with messages to the Australian coastwatcher, Evans, based near Kolombangara: 'One was a pencilled note written the day before by Ensign Thom; the other was a message written on a green coconut husk by Kennedy, informing the coastwatcher that he and Ross were on (Naru)'. This coconut husk became legendary, and Kennedy later retrieved it and kept it as a treasured memento. Hamilton says, 'It was the coconut message that did the trick,' according to Lt Commander Cluster, who was part of the PT squadron at Rendova. 'It wasn't till the coconut message came in that we realized there was a possibility that they were alive'. The coconut had been Biuku's idea, as recounted by Hamilton: 'I said to Kennedy, We natives have lots of papers. You can write a message inside this husk of coconut. So he scratched the message on with his pocket knife. He couldn't even rub it out with his hand. He looked at me and said, 'Jesus Christ, Biuku, how did you think of this?' He came over and took my head with both hands, twisting it slowly and studying it'. The coconut note read, 'NAURO ISL NATIVE KNOWS POSIT HE CAN PILOT 11 ALIVE NEED SMALL BOAT KENNEDY'.

Biuku and Eroni set off to find Evans.

The Navy report records, 'On Saturday, August 7, eight natives arrived, bringing a message from the coastwatcher instructing the senior officer to go with the natives to Wana Wana. ...That afternoon, Kennedy, hidden under ferns in the native boat, was taken to the coastwatcher, arriving about 1600'. By that time, Evans had relocated to Quomu. Hamilton writes, 'In retrospect, the whole drama would seem surreal. They were still forty miles behind enemy lines. Jack's hair was matted, six days' growth of beard covered his wide jaw, he walked barefooted and his feet and legs were blotched with coral wounds. Taking the proffered hand, Evans proposed that they go to his tent 'and have a cup of tea'.'

The rescue happened from there. Evans informed the command. 'Binghampton' organised the rescue party, two PT boats with Eroni and Biuku aboard, to go directly to Olasana. Kennedy insisted on changing the plan, however, to collect him from Quomu first so he could direct the operation himself. PT 157, with PT 171 riding shotgun, collected the survivors from Olasana. By 7am, the party was back in Rendova.

Today 3

Olasana to Kennedy

We set out on the final leg of this swim full of optimism. Nothing could have been harder than crossing the Strait of Olasana, we figured. What slipped our mind, already on the verge of delirium, was that, if the way to combat the current was to swim towards Kennedy Island, then swimming to Kennedy Island meant swimming directly into the current. Currents are sneaky things. Also forgetting for a moment the proverb, still waters run deep, it also slipped our mind that not being able to see the current didn't mean it wasn't there. Indeed, currents are the sort of thing that might be there, but are best seen when forced through a narrowing of the waterway. Conversely, they might be there, but a broader waterway means it's harder to see.

We struck out for Kennedy. Already tired (our lack of training over the Australian winter was telling on us), our arms started very soon to feel more like concrete than willing flesh. The flesh was willing, indeed, but the heart was feeling the pressure, and that placed pressure on the mind.

We have wondered often how we would react to real pressure in a swim. To this point, we had been babied in our swimming, never really feeling the burden of challenge. The myriad dinky swims of 1.5 km up to 6 km around Sydney have never been much of a challenge, no matter the hysterical pleading of our reports at the time. We have never really been faced with the big question. We've socialised in our swimming, not challenged and conquered. Even our hitherto most astounding feat, which was swimming from Bondi to Watsons Bay in the South Head Rough Water, was not that much of a feat, on the grounds that we were part of a relay and could climb out to rest for 3 km in 4. Even when we saw the shark on that swim, we were in the water whilst our cobber, Pete, was in the water being circled. Not really a challenge for us.

This was different, but. Kennedy was but a blur on the horizon when we set out from the second buoy at Olasana. An hour later, it was still a blur, and getting blurrier all the time. The PT 109 swim was the first occasion on which the target seemed, to us, to get farther away each time we raised our heads to check. This was no laughing matter. If our time for the swim overall was 2 hours 30 minutes, which it was, and if we swam for 4.9 km, then, given our usual kilometre rate, this puts the current at about 1.5 km/hour. Even starker, if we swam with the current for the first 2.25 km... we are not a mathematician. Not for nothing we did 2S maths in 5th-6th forms. Indeed, after struggling with Advanced maths up to the School Certificate at the end of 4th form (now Year 10), we found that 2S for the next two years was basically a repeat of Advanced... See what we mean by the delirium setting in?

Questions

Let's confine ourselves to physical challenges. The current challenged our head as well as our heart. It was so hard that, for the first time in an ocean swim, we started to wonder whether we were capable of completing the distance. The farther we swam, the more strokes the arms rolled over, the harder it became, the heavier the arms felt, the less power we felt we were pulling through the water. We'd always fancied ourselves, since our days under the tutelage of Coach Sandra, as being reasonably mentally tough and confident in our capacity to handle a distance, but this was different. The first time we lifted our head only to find Kennedy Island farther away than we thought it had been last time we checked, we thought we'd imagined it. The second, third and fourth times, we weren't so sure. Each time, too, our arms were weaker, our stroke was rattier, the kick less apparent and our legs felt as if they'd sunk deeper into the sea.

John Kennedy, our dependable paddler in the dugout, was close by. Even weirder, though, was the time we rolled our head to breathe, and John wasn't there. He'd been there last time. Now you see him, now you don't. Delirium again? He was really gone. But where could he go. We called out, 'Hey, John!... Are you alright?' As if he needed our help! Still nothing. We rolled our head again. Breathed to the left next time, then back to the right again. He wasn't in the dugout again, but there was a blob next to the canoe, and there he was, bobbing around in the water. Mme Sparkle recounted a similar experience with Aaron, he paddler and another son of Eroni. Our guess is that 2 1/2 hours is a long time in anyone's language, and a man can hold on only for so long... The worry then was all those stories we'd heard about how one attracts sharks (not that we'd want to, but some people do). One of the ways, as we recalled, was weeing in the water. Another way, incidentally, and a way we'd heard only that morning, on the way out to Kennedy Island, was to crackle or crumple a soft plastic water bottle in the sea. The crackling sound imitated some fish in distress, or something like that, and the Noahs come around for a look. It was at that point that Mme Sparkle and we had resolved to ensure that, when we drank en route, we did so over the dugout with the water bottle well out of the water.

Something else that contributed to the feeling of delirious surrealism was the fact that our cap, our silicon yellow number from the Steyne Swim at Manly last southern season, had slipped farther and farther up over our shining dome as the swim went on. By the third leg, it felt like a yamulkah without the bobby pin, so unstable it was, as if it were held on our head only by the goggle strap. This was quite unsettling. We'd first felt it on the first leg, but we kept going then because we were locked in battle with Mme Sparkle to our port side. On the Strait of Olasana leg, she'd gotten away from us and we had to try to peg her back, so we couldn't attend to it then, either. In the final leg, nothing seemed to matter apart from getting the distance. It's remarkable the options one comes up with when one is tested and tiring. What do you do to fix your stroke? You can change your breathing pattern: all right or all left, perhaps for 100 strokes each side, or 6 strokes left, 6 strokes right, and so so. Any combination can serve to vary the pattern and break the tedium of what seems like endless repetition.

It occurred to us that what we should have done was to stick to the reef to the east. It was a fair way to the east – how far was impossible to tell in this mind's state – and would take a bit of time to get there. But it occurred that, with a current this strong in the middle of the lagoon, there was probably an eddy along the reef. We veered to the east. But we quickly found John urging us back to our original course, which was aiming straight for Kennedy. We didn't want that. But he was insistent and we lacked the strength to argue. If he was pushing us back – he knew this water, after all – then it ill behove us to defy him.

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Swimmer arrives back at Plum Pudding (Kennedy) Island.

Irritations

Amidst the burden of our concrete arms, we found another distraction. This was a distraction we'd found almost from the start of the PT 109 swim. We knew this distraction well. It was familiar to us and, whilst not unknown, it was unwelcome. This was the distraction of stingers. All the way around this course, we'd enjoyed the water. But every half a kilometre or so, we'd run through a patch of stingers. We wouldn't see them coming, of course. Stingers are sneaky little characters that just creep up on you. But one moment we'd be cruising along, the next we'd be wrapped up by tiny gossamer threads around our neck and shoulders. They were like blueys in the way they operated, with long tentacles albeit, with this variety, without the bubbled bottle heads. They were less severe, too. Long, clear threads, like random off cuts of cotton, with little blobs spaced every few centimetres along the threads. These were the stinging bits. They weren't life threatening stingers, and they weren't as bad as blueys, not enough to make you want to jump out of the water. But they were sharp enough to make the experience unpleasant and to thank your lucky stars for goggles and cap, no matter how yamulkah-ish our cap was by this point of the swim. The stings wouldn't last in their severity for more than 30 seconds, it seemed. Or maybe that was just the fact that, like life, we moved on to the next challenge. There were wounds all around our upper torsos when we finished, although by this time the sharp edges had gone.

We hadn't realised how tired we'd become on that final leg of the swim, until we saw ourselves on the video, so expertly and generously put together by Adam Walker (and downloadable from this page). We were conscious of the fact that, when we finally arrived back at Kennedy Island, we'd swum past it towards the north for some reason. We're not sure why. It may have been to do with wanting to find a nice, deep and clear channel back onto the reef. Maybe it was delirium. But we'd passed the spectator fleet (two canoes by this time), and we well along the island when the shouting of the crowd made us look up and turn around. So when we finished this swim, we actually finished to the south, as if we'd arrived from the opposite direction. We shuddered later when we saw the vision of ourselves arriving back onto the reef. We trudged by the second spectator canoe, pierced the gap between the two of them, then eased onto the reef. We adopted an absurd breast-stroke at this point, a stroke designed to pull us onto the reef but without using our legs, for the last thing we wanted at this late stage was to scratch ourselves on coral beneath the water. But this bizarre stroke, like a wooden gait, made us look incapacitated. And when we arrived over the reef, we then had to ease in towards the shore, our head down peering around the coral for a break where we judged we could safely plant out feet. We did. On the video, we are seen wallowing like a soon-to-be-beached whale. Then our feet plant, and our head rises slowly. Mme Sparkle wafts over, elegant as if she'd long recovered from an easy 1 km, and puts her arms around us. Our head rises slowly, as if we're drunk or not sure where we are. Or both. We weren't. We were unsteady on our feet. We were tired. Exhausted. Not fully in control of our limbs. We stood up very slowly and gingerly. Danny yelled to us our time. 2 hours 30 minutes. Almost an hour longer than we'd ever swum before in one effort. Mme Sparkle had been back for 20 minutes by the time we arrived. But she is a marvellous swimmer.

Danny's daughter, Sheminka, cut open a coconut and handed it to us. Nothing ever tasted as good. We stood with Mme Sparkle, and looked towards the south where the bulk of the peloton – Idris, Eddy and Mary Lou – had been bearing down on us. Idris came in next, about 12 minutes later. Mary Lou just behind him and Eddy just behind her. Eddy's wide, eagle like stroke seemed as easy as it did at the start. Mary Lou, with her fins and snorkel, seemed hardly out of breath. Idris, whom, when he is old, will be, we're confident, a stubborn old coot, rolled in with the lumbering stroke that got him 15 kilometres across Blackett Strait last December, from Kolombangara to Gizo.

But the greatest effort of this entire swim was by Dr Dream. Dr Dream was another half hour behind Eddy, so far back that, when we were all standing there on the reef, coconuts in hand, Dr Dream was but a speck in the distance, her paddler the most visible boy on his bright yellow ski, marking her progress against the current. When she finally arrived, Dr Dream had been swimming 3 hours and 17 minutes. Her stroke at the end, like Eddy's, looked the same as when she'd started. A long and graceful stroke, her hands resting almost gently on the surface of the water before they cut in and pull beneath her. Dr Dream stood up and looked grateful to be able to hold onto Danny's boat. She wobbled in the sea, faint and exhausted. She looked as if she was about to pass out. And the enormity of her achievement was marked by Eddy both then and several times later during that day, and again that night at the PT 109 bar during the presentations. Why was it such a magnificent achievement? Because Dr Dream had never before done an ocean swim. She'd done triathlons and running, and lots of windsurfing. But she'd never before done an ocean swim.

At the PT 109 bar that night, Dr Dream reckoned it wasn't the hardest thing she'd ever done. Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro last year was harder, she said.

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Compare the two images here, taken during the presentation at the PT 109 bar. Strange how Danny Kennedy, Biuku and Eroni appear almost comatose during oceanswims.com's speech. But look how animated they are during the contribution by Mrs Sparkle... Why is that?

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Kennedy 5

National Geographic mounted an expedition in 2002 to find the wreckage of PT 109. As they do, they made a documentary about the expedition and we, accompanied by Mme Sparkle, saw it on TV shortly after returning from the Solomons. Danny Kennedy helped them on location and makes brief appearances. They threw enormous resources into it, judging by the film, and it ended with an expert on naval warfare looking at an image on a tv screen sent from the bottom of Blackett Strait by a robot submarine. He identified this tiny piece of wreckage, sticking out of the bottom, as a torpedo tube of the type carried by PT 109 with a torpedo inside. Therefore, they'd found the PT 109. To our mind, he was badgered into it by the bloke sitting beside him. He may have been right, but it was as if there was just a little bit of video tape left and they had to get a confirmation before it ran out. We couldn't escape the conclusion that the expedition was determined to find the wreck and, if the tiniest scintilla of evidence they found could be turned to good use, then that would be good enough for them. We may be wrong, of course, but we try only to be a reasonable person. National Geographic also consulted the U.S. Naval Historical Center, a curator at which, Mark Wertheimer, concluded, 'Given all the evidence presented, it appears to be the PT-109.' That evidence includes the find's location, the types of torpedo and torpedo tube, and a cranking mechanism.

According to National Geographic, Wertheimer said no other PT boat was lost in the search area; the types of torpedo and tube found – Mark 8 and Mark 18, respectively – were used mainly on PT boats during World War II; and a PT-boat training gear – a cranking mechanism used to position a torpedo tube for firing – was identified next to the tube at the wreck site.

'The gear is positioned as it would have been on an intact boat,' reported the magazine. 'And the search team tried to nudge the gear with an ROV attachment. 'It didn't budge,' said (Robert) Ballard (who led) the expedition. 'That says it's intact.'

As well, 'Our sonar record is seeing much more than our eye is seeing,' said Ballard. Sonar showed a target some 7 meters (23 feet) wide, roughly the width of a PT boat. If buried, most of the largely wooden hull would likely have disintegrated or been eaten by woodborers in these sand-scoured, oxygen-rich waters. For the most part, only metal would remain: engines, gas tanks, torpedo tubes.'

The published report of the mission was published in National Geographic and this was laminated and posted on a signboard on Kennedy Island prior to the Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting there on August 6, 2003.

Also in the documentary was Max Kennedy, one of Bobby's kids, who took part in the expedition. The most touching moment occurred when Max met Eroni. Eroni cried on his shoulder. This was 59 years after the drama took place, and here was this Melanesian islander, still living basically as he'd been when he saved Max's famous uncle, with barely more access to information about events in the rest of the world than he had in 1943, and he cried on Max's shoulder. Nigel Hamilton writes, 'When Eroni married after the war, he named one of his children John Kennedy'. This was John, our paddler in the recreation of the Kennedy swim.

Hamilton also writes, 'Distressed at not knowing Biuku and Eroni's full names, Jack meanwhile put out an appeal to find them through the Australian administration, and when Biuku and Eroni were found, they were both invited to stay at the White House. At the last moment, however, when they were at the airport ready to fly to Washington, the plan fell through'.

Danny Kennedy (we repeat, no relation to the clan), says Biuku and Eroni were actually invited to attend Kennedy's inauguration in January, 1961. They got to Honiara, where a British official decided they couldn't go to Washington because their English was so poor. He sent someone else in their place. Danny says Kennedy was mightily annoyed when, in Washington at his inauguration, he looked to meet the two men who'd been instrumental in saving him and his crew, only to be approached by a complete stranger.

Biuku and Eroni were distraught when Kennedy was assassinated. Hamilton quotes Eroni: 'Some time after we came back (from Honiara), we heard that Kennedy died. I was in the garden when the family heard the news on the radio. I came back inside the house and found the photo of him and I cried. I sat down with the picture and cried. The way they called us back after saying that we would go and see him, and now knowing that we was dead, my sadness was great. I knew I would never meet him. And his promise didn't come out. I wondered what he must have thought. I was sorry and still am. I still think of Kennedy'.

We all know – those of us old enough – where we were and what we were doing when we heard of Kennedy's assassination. We were woken in the early morning by the sound of our Nan, rushing down the corridor at 80 Maitland Street, Stockton, crying out to her husband, the floorboards creaking under her weight where they always creak, 'Jim, Jim, President Kennedy's been assassinated'. Eroni Kumana, hidden away on Ranongga island, in the remote Western Province of the Solomon Islands, also remembers where he was and what he was doing. He had more reason that most. And he's grieved ever since.

Biuku is a different personality to Eroni. Colonel George Hill, the army officer who commanded the 192nd Field Artillery on Roviana Island, to whom Biuku and Eroni went after leaving Evans, dubbed Biuku 'Chief'. After Biuku went to Hill and told him that Kennedy needed help, writes Hamilton, 'he sat on the ground in (Hill's) tent and just watched my every movement... At one point,' Hill later wrote, to Kennedy, apparently, judging by his phraseology, 'the Chief started swinging his machete in my direction indicating I was not acting fast enough to save your party'. Biuku also is quoted in Hamilton's book: 'All the Americans in Roviana were marines and they didn't know anything about any Captain Kennedy'. Hill wrote, 'Late that afternoon, I had to cross to Division Artillery Headquarters on New Georgia when I spotted the Chief in the stern of one of your boats. He recognised me and I could see a happy smile on his face as he responded to my wave to him. At that time, he still held the copra with your message in his hand'. Biuku is a short bloke, as is Eroni, but he's of chiefly bearing. You can see, in observing him, how some people in societies such as Melanesia's, rise naturally to leadership. He was bossy, but bossy in natural authority, not bossy in gratuitous arrogance. He would get impatient with Eroni, whose hearing is not what it was, directing him even now, Eroni still three years his senior.

Eroni built a memorial to Jack near his home, on Ranongga Island, out from Gizo. Danny says National Geographic and the John F Kennedy Library Foundation promised Eroni and Biuku money to build new homes for their co-operation during the search for PT 109 and the making of the documentary. Biuku got his money, he says, but so far not Eroni.

pt109 03 18 600
The gang, again, missing a central player.

Today 5

It rained during most of our stay in Gizo, but during the swim, the sun came out. It was a fierce sun, but we didn't notice it so much while we swam. Only afterwards, particularly when we looked at pictures taken on the day, did we realise how fierce it had been, judging by the shade of red we'd turned.

Back in Gizo, where the roads were slushy mud most of the time, it doesn't take much sunshine to dry things out. At least we could wear our thongs. Walking up and down Middenway Road after the swim, we were in a surreal state. Not exhausted, but numb, so tired we were too tired to rest. The presentation was held that night in the PT 109 bar and restaurant, which is opposite Dive Gizo, Danny's establishment. It's down the other end of Gizo township from the Gizo Hotel, where we were staying, the prime ministers with us. Danny put on a good night for the presentations. Each of the swimmers received a hand-carved wooden plaque, presented to us by Eroni and Biuku.

We knew a bit about the PT 109 experience before we went to the Solomons; we learnt a lot about it whilst there; but we learnt a lot more after we came back to Sydney. We wish we'd known, for example, what had happened in the various locations. We knew about Kennedy (Plum Pudding) Island and Naru and Olasana, but we hadn't known about Quomu and Vonavona until afterwards. We'd dived on the Hellcat wreck just metres from Quomu, but hadn't realised that the little island next to us was where Kennedy emerged from under the palm fronds to greet Evans, the Australian coastwatcher. His response to Kennedy – taking him into his tent for a cup of tea – was exactly what he'd done for the Hellcat pilot who'd crash-landed just off Quomu.

Danny Kennedy says the PT 109 swim will be run annually. Just six swimmers completed the swim in 2003. Get into it yourself next year. The cause and the Solomon Islands deserve your support. You might get to hang out with Eroni and Biuku, too, and yourself become just two degrees separated from Jack Kennedy.

Bibliography

JFK - Life and Death of an American President - Vol. 1 - Reckless Youth - Nigel Hamilton, BCA with Random House, 1993
Solomon Islands - Lonely Planet, 1997
The Kennedy Neurosis - A Psychological Portrait of an American Dynasty - Nancy Gager Clinch, Grosset & Dunlap, 1973
Sinking of PT 109 and subsequent rescue of survivors - Report by B R White (Lt), J C McClure (Lt), USN, Aug 22, 1943 (declassified September 8, 1959)
The World Fact Book - CIA

Thanks

We and Mme Sparkle flew to Gizo courtesy of Solomon Airlines and stayed in Gizo by courtesy of Gizo Hotel. Many thanks and congratulations to Danny and Kerrie Kennedy, Dive Gizo, and immediate past president, Gizo Rotary, for his help and work on this swim.

pt109 03 21 450How our report looked on our original website, in 2003.

2024

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